22 August 2010

Letters of Jonathan Oldstyle (Letter VI)

By Washington Irving

[Beginning with Letter VI, Irving begins the conceit of Jonathan Oldstyle’s replying to the responses of a friend, Andrew Quoz. Quoz takes exception to some of Oldstyle’s remarks and writes his own letters to the editors of the Morning Chronicle which Oldstyle answers in turn. This allows Irving the opportunity of defending his own opinions at the same time that he continues his good-natured criticism of the theater scene in New York. As we’ll see, Iriving especially expands his remarks about the reviewers—a topic to which he will return in Letter VIII.]

(published 17 January 1803)

[The following communication from our correspondent, OLDSTYLE, and his friend, will, we hope, induce a number to attend the benefit performance this evening, and see the diverting farce alluded to in the latter part of Mr. Quoz’s letter]



As I was sitting quietly by my fireside the other morning, nursing my wounded shin, and reading to my cousin, Jack Stylish, a chapter or two from Chesterfield's Letters, I received the following epistle from my friend Andrew Quoz: who, hearing that I talked of paying the actors a visit, and shaking my cane over their heads, has written the following letter, part of which is strongly in their defence.



My Dear Friend,

I perceive by the late papers you have been entertaining the town with remarks on the Theatre. As you do not seem from your writings to be much of an adept in the Thespian arcana, permit me to give you a few hints for your information.

The theatre, you observe, begins to answer all the purposes of a coffee-house. Here you are right: it is the polite lounge, where the idle and curious resort, to pick up the news of the fashionable world; to meet their acquaintances, and to shew themselves off to advantage. As to the dull souls who go for the sake of the play, why if their attention is interrupted by the conversation of their neighbors, they must bear it with patience—it is a custom authorized by fashion. Persons who go for the purpose of chatting with their friends are not to be deprived of their amusement; they have paid their dollar, and have a right to entertain themselves as well as they can. As to those who are annoyed by their talking, why they need not listen to it—let them mind their own business.

You were surprized at so many persons using opera glasses; & wished to know whether they were all near sighted. Your cousin, Jack Stylish, has not explained that matter sufficiently—for though many mount glasses because it is the go, yet I am told that several do it to enable them to distinguish the countenances of their friends across our scantily illumined theatre. I was considerably amused the other evening with an honest tar, who had stationed himself in front of the gallery, with an air of affected foppishness, & was reconnoitering the house thro’ a pocket telescope. I could not but like his notion, for really the gods are so elevated among the clouds, that unless they are unusually strong of vision, I can't tell how they manage to discern with the naked eye what is passing in the little painted world below them.

I think you complain of the deficiency of the music; and say that we want a greater variety and more of it. But you must know that, though this might have been a grievance in old times, when people attended to the musicians, it is a thing of but little moment at present.—Our orchestra is kept principally for form sake. There is such a continual noise and bustle between the acts that it is difficult to hear a note; and if the musicians were to get up a new piece of the finest melody, so nicely tuned are the ears of their auditors, that I doubt whether nine hearers out of ten would not complain, on leaving the house, that they had been bored with the same old pieces they have heard these two or three years back. Indeed, many who go to the theatre carry their own music with them; and we are so often delighted with the crying of children by way of glee, and such coughing and sneezing from various parts of the house, by way of chorus—not to mention the regale of a sweet symphony from a sweep or two in the gallery—and occasionally a full piece, in which nasal, vocal, whistling and thumping powers are admirably exerted and blended, that what want we of an orchestra?

In your remarks on the actors, my dear friend let me beg of you to be cautious. I would not for the world that you should degenerate into a critic. The critics, my dear Jonathan, are the very pests of society: they rob the actor of his reputation; the public of their amusement: they open the eyes of their readers to a full perception of the faults of our performers, they reduce our feelings to a state of miserable refinement, and destroy entirely all the enjoyments in which our coarser sensations delighted. I can remember the time when I could hardly keep my seat thro’ laughing at the wretched buffoonery, the merry-andrew tricks, and the unnatural grimaces played off by one of our theatric Jack Puddings: when I was struck with awful admiration at the roaring and ranting of a buskined hero, and hung with rapture on every word, while he was “tearing a passion to tatters—to very rags!” I remember the time when he who could make the queerest mouth, roll his eyes, and twist his body with the most hideous distortions, was surest to please. Alas! how changed the times, or rather how changed the tastes. I can now sit with the gravest countenance, and look without a smile on all such mimicry; their skipping, their squinting, their shrugging, their snuffling, delight not me; and as to their ranting and roaring,

“I'd rather hear a brazen candlestick turned,
Or a dry wheel grate on the axle tree,”

than any such fustian efforts to attain a shallow gallery applause.

Now, though I confess these critics have reformed the manners of the actors as well as the tastes of the audience; so that these absurdities are almost banished from the New-York stage; yet do I think they have employed a most unwarrantable liberty.

A critic, my dear sir, has no more right to expose the faults of an actor, than he has to detect the deceptions of a juggler, or the impositions of a quack. All trades must live; and, as long as the public are satisfied to admire the tricks of the juggler, to swallow the drugs of the quack, or to applaud the fustian of the actor, whoever attempts to undeceive them, does but curtail the pleasures of the latter, and deprive the former of their bread.

Ods-bud, hath not an actor eyes and shall he not wink?—hath not an actor teeth and shall he not grin?—feet and shall he not stamp?—lungs and shall he not roar?—breast and shall he not slap it?—hair and shall he not club it? Is he not fed with plaudits from the gods? delighted with thumpings from the groundlings? annoyed by hisses from the boxes?

If you censure his follies, does he not complain? If you take away his bread will he not starve? If you starve him will he not die? And if you kill him will not his wife and seven small infants, six at her back and one at her breast, rise up and cry vengeance against you? Ponder these things seriously my friend Oldstyle, and you will agree with me that, as the actor is the most meritorious and faultless, so is the critic the most cruel and sanguinary character in the world. “As I will show you more fully in my next.” Your loving friend,


From the tenor and conclusion of these remarks of my friend Mr. Andrew Quoz, they may not improperly be called the “Rights of Actors;” his arguments are, I confess, very forcible, but, as they are entirely new to me, I shall not hastily make up my mind. In the mean time, as my leg is much better, I believe I shall hobble to the theatre on Monday evening, borrow a seat in a side-box, and observe how the actors conduct themselves.


* * * *

[A further set of explanatory notes: my wounded shin – The Morning Chronicle of two days before had carried the following item: “We have received a note from our correspondent Jonathan Oldstyle. The old gentleman . . . states that he has been confined to his house since the famous Battle of Hexham, in which engagement he received a broken shin, in a skirmish with some impudent boys, who assailed him for his check of admittance during the interval between the play and the farce”; Chesterfield's Letters Letters to His Son (1774) by Philip Stanhope, 4th Earl of Chesterfield (1694-1773), written to his illegitimate son, Philip Stanhope (1732-68); tar – sailor; regale – an entertainment or fête; merry-andrew – clown or buffoon; Jack Puddings – buffoon characters appearing in stage and street performances; buskined – wearing buskins, the traditional footwear of Greek tragedians; fustian – pretentious speech or writing; pompous language; Ods-bud – a corruption of “God’s blood,” an oath; club it – make into a knot or tail, a hairstyle common for men in the late 18th century.

[New York City had only 65,000 inhabitants at the time that Irving wrote these letters. The theater district was, of course, not located uptown (which didn’t even exist yet in any case); the Park Theater, which housed the play Jonathan Oldstyle first went to see, was downtown at 23 Park Row, between Beekman and Ann Streets. (The park in the name is what’s now City Hall Park. The theater, at one time the only one in New York City, opened in 1798 and burned down in 1848.) The last two letters I’ve selected to reproduce will be published on ROT within the next week. Please return to see how Irving wraps up his critical remarks about New York theater in the earliest years of the 19th century.]

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