25 August 2010

Letters of Jonathan Oldstyle (Letter VII)

By Washington Irving

[Continuing with his tactic of responding to Oldstyle’s friend Andrew Quoz, Irving’s alter ego returns to the theater for more experiences on which to comment. This time, Quoz is in attendance, too.]

(published 22 January 1803)


I mentioned in my last my intention of visiting the theatre on Monday night. I accordingly reached there, with the assistance of Jack Stylish, who procured for me in one of the boxes an uncomfortable and dirty seat, which, however, I found as good as any of my neighbours. In the pit I was determined never again to venture. The little Frenchman mentioned in my former remarks had adopted the same resolution; for on casting my eyes around the theatre, I recognised his sharp phiz, and pinched up cocked hat, peering over the ledge of the Shakspeare. The poor little fellow had not changed his place for the better; a brawny Irishman was leaning with arms akimbo on his shoulders, and coolly surveying the audience, unmindful of the writhings and expostulations of the irritated little Gaul, whose chin was pressed hard upon the front of the box, and his small black eyes twinkling with fury and suffocation. How he disengaged himself I don’t know, for my attention was just then called away by a different object, and on turning round some time afterwards, little Monsieur had disappeared.

I found every thing wore its old appearance. The same silence, order, and regularity prevailed as on my former visit. The central chandelier hung unmolested in the heavens, setting off to advantage the picture of Mr. Anybody, with which it is adorned, and shedding a melancholy ray into that den in which (if we may judge from the sounds that issue thence) so many troubled spirits are confined.

I had marched into the theatre through rows of tables heaped up with delicacies of every kind—here a pyramid of apples or oranges invited the playful palate of the dainty; while there a regiment of mince pies and custards promised a more substantial regale to the hungry. I entered the box, and looked round with astonishment—not a grinder but had its employment. The crackling of nuts and the craunching of apples saluted my ears on every side. Surely, thought I, never was an employment followed up with more assiduity than that of gormandizing; already it pervades every public place of amusement; nay, it even begins to steal into our churches, where many a mouthful is munched in private; and few have any more objection to eat than laugh in their sleeves.

The eating mania prevails through every class of society; not a soul but has caught the infection. Eating clubs are established in every street and alley, and it is impossible to turn a corner without hearing the hissing of frying pans, winding the savoury steams of roast and boiled, or seeing some hungry genius bolting raw oysters in the middle of the street. I expect we shall shortly carry our knives and forks, like the Chinese do their chop sticks, in our pockets.

I was interrupted in my meditations by Jack Stylish, who proposed that we might take a peep into the lounging room, the dashing appearance of which Jack described in high terms; I willingly agreed to his proposal.

The room perfectly answered my expectations, and was a piece with the rest of the theatre: the high finish of the walls, the windows fancifully decorated with red baize and painted canvass, and the sumptuous wooden benches placed around it, had a most inviting appearance.

I drew the end of one of them near to an elegant stove that stood in the centre of the room, and seating myself on it, stretched my lame leg over a chair; placing my hands on the head of my cane, and resting my chin upon them, I began to amuse myself by reconnoitering the company, and snuffing up the delightful perfume of French brandy, Holland gin, and Spanish segars.

I found myself in a circle of young gentry, who appeared to have something in agitation, by their winking and nodding: at the same time I heard a confused whispering around me, and could distinguish the words smoke his wig—twig his silver buckles—old quiz—cane—cock'd hat—queer phiz —and a variety of others, by which I soon found I was in bad quarters. Jack Stylish seemed equally uneasy as myself, for though he is fond of fun himself, yet I believe the young dog has too much love for his old relation, to make him the object of his mirth. To get me away, he told me my friend Quoz was at the lower end of the room, and seemed by his looks anxious to speak with me, we accordingly joined him, and finding that the curtain was about rising, we adjourned to the box together.

In our way I exclaimed against the indecorous manner of the young men of the present day; the impertinent remarks on the company in which they continually indulge; and the cant phrases with which their shallow conversation is generally interlarded. Jack observed that I had popp'd among a set of hard boys; yes, master Stylish said I, turning round to him abruptly, and I observed by your winks and grins that you are better acquainted with them than I could wish. Let me tell you honest friend, if ever I catch you indulging in such despicable fopperies, and hankering after the company of these disrespectful youngsters, be assured that I will discard you from my affections entirely. By this time we had reached our box: so I left my cousin Jack to digest what I had just said; and I hope it may have weight with him; though I fear, from the thoughtless gaiety of his disposition, and his knowledge of the strong hold he has in my foolish old heart, my menaces will make but little impression.

We found the play already commenced. I was particularly delighted with the appearance and manners of one of the female performers. What ease, what grace, what elegance of deportment—this is not acting, cousin Jack, said I—this is reality.

After the play, this lady again came forward and delivered a ludicrous epilogue. I was extremely sorry to find her step so far out of that graceful line of character in which she is calculated to shine; and I perceived by the countenances around me that the sentiment was universal.

Ah, said I, how much she forgets what is due to her dignity. That charming countenance was never made to be so unworthily distorted: nor that graceful person and carriage to represent the awkward movements of hobbling decrepitude—take this word of advice fair lady, from an old man and a friend: Never, if you wish to retain that character for elegance you so deservedly possess—never degrade yourself by assuming the part of a mimic.

The curtain rose for the after-piece. Out skipped a jolly Merry Andrew. Aha! said I, here is the Jack-pudding. I see he has forgot his broomstick and grid-iron; he'll compensate for these wants, I suppose, by his wit and humour. But where is his master, the Quack? He'll be here presently, said Jack Stylish; he's a queer old codger; his name's Puffaway; here's to be a rare roasting match, and this quizzical looking fellow turns the spit. The Merry Andrew now began to deal out his speeches with great rapidity; but, on a sudden, pulling off a black hood that covered his face, who should I recognise but my old acquaintance, the portly gentleman.

I started back with astonishment. Sic transit gloria mundi! exclaimed I, with a melancholy shake of the head. Here is a dreary, but true picture, of the vicissitudes of life—one night paraded in regal robes, surrounded with a splendid train of nobility; the next, degraded to a poor Jack-pudding, and without even a grid-iron to help himself. What think you of this, my friend Quoz? said I; think you an actor has any right to sport with the feelings of his audience, by presenting them with such distressing contrasts. Honest Quoz, who is of the melting mood, shook his head ruefully, and said nothing. I, however, saw the tear of sympathy tremble in his eye, and honored him for his sensibility.

The Merry Andrew went on with his part, and my pity encreased as he progressed; when all of a sudden he exclaimed, “And as to Oldstyle, I wish him to old nick.” My blood mounted into my cheeks at this insolent mention of my name. And what think you of this, friend Quoz? exclaimed I, vehemently; I presume this is one of your “rights of actors.” I suppose we are now to have the stage a vehicle for lampoons and slanders; on which, our fellow citizens are to be caricatured by the clumsy hand of every dauber who can hold a brush!

Let me tell you, Mr. Andrew Quoz, I have known the time when such insolence would have been hooted from the stage.

After some persuasion I resumed my seat, and attempted to listen patiently to the rest of the afterpiece; but I was so disgusted with the Merry Andrew, that in spite of all his skipping, and jumping, and turning on his heel, I could not yield him a smile.

Among the other original characters of the dramatis personæ, we were presented with an ancient maiden; and entertained with jests and remarks from the buffoon and his associates, containing equal wit and novelty. But jesting apart, I think these attempts to injure female happiness, at once cruel and unmanly. I have ever been an enthusiast in my attachment to the fair sex. I have ever thought them possessed of the strongest claims on our admiration, our tenderness and our protection. But when to these are added still stronger claims—when we see them aged and infirm, solitary and neglected, without a partner to support them down the descent of life—cold indeed must be that heart, and unmanly that spirit, that can point the shafts of ridicule at their defenceless bosoms—that can poison the few drops of comfort heaven has poured into their cup.

The form of my sister Dorothy presented itself to my imagination; her hair silvered by time; but her face unwrinkled by sorrow or care.

She “hath borne her faculties so meekly,” that age has marked no traces on her forehead: amiable sister of my heart! cried I, who hast jogged with me through so many years of existence, is this to be the recompense of all thy virtues; art thou who never, in thought or deed, injured the feelings of another, to have thy own massacred, by the jeering insults of those to whom thou shouldst look for honour and protection?

Away with such despicable trumpery—such shallow, worn-out attempts to obtain applause from the unfeeling. I'll no more of it; come along friend Quoz, if we stay much longer, I suppose we shall find our courts of justice insulted, and attempts to ridicule the characters of private persons. Jack Stylish entreated me to stay and see the addition the manager had made to his live stock, of an ass, a goose, and a monkey. Not I, said I, I'll see no more. I accordingly hobbled off with my friend Mr. Andrew Quoz, Jack declaring he would stay behind and see the end of the joke. On our way home, I asked friend Quoz, how he could justify such clumsy attempts at personal satire. He seemed, however, rather reserved in his answers, and informed me he would write his sentiments on the subject.

The next morning Jack Stylish related to me the conclusion of the piece. How several actors went into a wheel one after another, and after a little grinding, were converted into asses, geese and monkeys, except the Merry Andrew, who was found such a tough jockey, that the wheel could not digest him, so he came out as much a Jack-pudding as ever.


* * * *

[A further set of explanatory notes: the Shakspeare – The Shakespeare box, located at the front of the second tier in the Park Theatre; quiz – An odd or eccentric person, in character or appearance; the play already commencedThe Provoked Husband (1728) by John Vanbrugh (1664-1726), performed at the Park Theatre on 14 January 1803; grid-iron – A flat framework of parallel metal bars used for broiling meat or fish; old nick – the devil.

[The last letter in this series will appear on ROT in a few days.]

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