19 August 2010

Letters of Jonathan Oldstyle (Letter V)

By Washington Irving

[Letter V, the final one in Oldstyle’s series which Irving intended to address New York theater directly, continues to poke fun at several aspects of New York theater. Readers, however, were delighted and Charles Brockden Brown, a novelist and editor, even sought out Oldstyle to ask his help in starting a literary journal which Brown was planning to publish in Philadelphia. Oldstyle’s letters were Irving’s début in print and brought the 19-year-old his first recognition as a writer. All but the first of the Oldstyle letters were immediately republished, slightly revised and corrected, in the Chronicle Express, the paper’s country edition.]

(published 11 December 1802)

Mr. Editor,

I shall now conclude my remarks on the theatre, which I am afraid you will think are spun out to an unreasonable length; for this I can give no other excuse, than that it is the privilege of old folks to be tiresome, and so I shall proceed.

I had chosen a seat in the pit, as least subject to annoyance from a habit of talking loud that has lately crept into our theatres, and which particularly prevails in the boxes. In old times people went to the theatre for the sake of the play and acting; but I now find it begins to answer the purpose of a coffee-house, or fashionable lounge, where many indulge in loud conversation, without any regard to the pain it inflicts on their more attentive neighbors. As this conversation is generally of the most trifling kind, it seldom repays the latter for the inconvenience they suffer, of not hearing one half of the play.

I found, however, that I had not much bettered my situation; but that every part of the house has its share of evils. Besides those I had already suffered, I was yet to undergo a new kind of torment. I had got in the neighborhood of a very obliging personage, who had seen the play before, and was kindly anticipating every scene, and informing those about him what was to take place; to prevent, I suppose, any disagreeable surprise to which they would otherwise have been liable. Had there been any thing of a plot to the play, this might have been a serious inconvenience; but as the piece was entirely innocent of every thing of the kind, it was not of so much importance. As I generally contrive to extract amusement from every incident that happens, I now entertained myself with remarks on the self-important air with which he delivered his information, and the distressed and impatient looks of his unwilling auditors. I also observed that he made several mistakes in the course of his communications: “Now you’ll see,” said he, “the queen, in all her glory, surrounded with her courtiers, fine as fiddles, and ranged on each side of the stage, like rows of pewter dishes.” On the contrary, we were presented with the portly gentleman and his ragged regiment of banditti. Another time he promised us a regale from the fool; but we were presented with a very fine speech from the queen’s grinning counsellor.

My country neighbor was exceedingly delighted with the performance, though he did not half the time understand what was going forward. He sat staring with open mouth at the portly gentleman, as he strode across the stage, and in furious rage drew his sword on the white lion. “By George but that’s a brave fellow,” said he when the act was over, “that’s what you call first rate acting, I suppose.”

Yes, said I, it is what the critics of the present day admire, but it is not altogether what I like; you should have seen an actor of the old school do this part; he would have given it to some purpose; you’d have had such ranting and roaring, and stamping and storming; to be sure this honest man gives us a bounce now and then in the true old style, but in the main he seems to prefer walking on plain ground to strutting on the stilts used by the tragic heroes of my day.

This is the chief of what passed between me and my companion during the play and entertainment, except an observation of his, that it would be well if the manager was to drill his nobility and gentry now and then, to enable them to go through their evolution with more grace and spirit. This put me in mind of something my cousin Jack said to the same purpose, though he went too far in his zeal for reformation. He declared, “he wished sincerely, one of the critics of the day would take all the slab shabs of the theatre in a body (like cats in a bag) and twig the whole bunch.” I can’t say but I like Jack’s idea well enough, though it is rather a severe one.

He might have remarked another fault that prevails among our performers (though I don’t know whether it occurred this evening) of dressing for the same piece in the fashions of different ages and countries, so that while one actor is strutting about the stage in the cuirass and helmet of Alexander, another dressed up in a gold-laced coat and a bag-wig, with chapeau de bras under his arm, is taking snuff in the fashion of one or two centuries back, and perhaps a third figuring with Suwarrow boots, in the true style of modem buckism.

But what, pray, has become of the noble marquis of Montague, and earl of Warwick? (said the countryman, after the entertainments were concluded). Their names make a great appearance on the bill, but I do not recollect having seen them in the course of the evening.

Very true—I had quite forgot those worthy personages but I suspect they have been behind the scene, smoaking pipe with our other friends, incog. the Tripolitans. We must not be particular now-a-days, my friend. When we are presented with a Battle of Hexham without fighting, and a Tripolitan after-piece without even a Mahometan whisker, we need not be surprised at having an invisible marquis or two thrown into the bargain.

“But what is your opinion of the house,” said I, “don’t you think it a very substantial, solid-looking building, both inside and out? Observe what a fine effect the dark colouring of the wall has upon the white faces of the audience, which glare like the stars in a dark night. And then what can be more pretty than the paintings on the front of the boxes; those little masters and misses sucking their thumbs and making mouths at the audience?”

Very fine, upon my word—and what, pray, is the use of that chandelier, as you call it, that is hung up among the clouds, and has showered down its favors on my coat?

Oh, that is to illumine the heavens and to set off, to advantage, the little perriwig’d cupids, tumbling head over heels, with which the painter has decorated the dome. You see we have no need of the chandelier below, as here, the house is perfectly well illuminated: but I think it would have been a great saving of candle-light, if the manager had ordered the painter, among his other pretty designs, to paint a moon up there, or if he was to hang up that sun with whose intense light our eyes were greatly annoyed in the beginning of the after-piece.

But don’t you think, after all, there is rather a—sort of a—kind of a heavyishness about the house; don’t you think it has a little of an under groundish appearance.

To this I could make no answer: I must confess I have often thought myself the house had a dungeon-like look; so I proposed to him to make our exit, as the candles were putting out, and we should be left in the dark. Accordingly, groping our way through the dismal subterraneous passage that leads from the pit, and passing through the ragged bridewell looking anti-chamber, we once more emerged into the purer air of the park, when bidding my honest countryman good night, I repaired home considerably pleased with the amusements of the evening.

Thus, Mr. Editor, have I given you an account of the chief incidents that occurred in my visit to the theatre. I have shewn you a few of its accommodations and its imperfections. Those who visit it more frequently may be able to give you a better statement.

I shall conclude with a few words of advice for the benefit of every department of it.

I would recommend,

To the actors—less etiquette—less fustian—less buckram.
To the orchestra—new music and more of it.
To the pit—patience—clean benches and umbrellas.
To the boxes—less affectation—less noise—less coxcombs.
To the gallery—less grog and better constables—and,
To the whole house—inside and out, a total reformation.—-And so much for the theatre.


* * * *

[A further set of explanatory notes: the white lion – The Earl of Warwick in The Battle of Hexham; slab shabs – A glutton or foulmouthed person; possibly from the Dutch slabbaerd (one who cannot hold his spittle, a driveller, an idiot); plus the slang shab, a low fellow or mean trickster; twig – to beat with or as with a twig; Suwarrow boots – Cavalry boots named for the Russian field marshal Alexander Vasilyevich Suvarov (1720-1800; buckism – the practice of a ‘buck’ or dandy); making mouths – making scornful faces, being contemptuous.

[The sixth through eighth letters of Jonathan Oldstyle also deal with theater, though Irving’s tack is different. I’ll be posting the next three Oldstyle letters on ROT over the next several days.]

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