28 August 2010

Letters of Jonathan Oldstyle (Letter VIII)

By Washington Irving

[Once again, Oldstyle replies to his friend Andrew Quoz. Both men find additional things to say about New York’s drama reviewers. Is it any wonder that some of the theater journalists took exception to Irving’s statements?]

(published 8 February 1803)

[The following communication was received someone since, but accidently mislaid.]



I had just put on my spectacles and mended my pen, to give you an account of a visit I made some time since, with friend Quoz and my sister Dorothy, to a ball, when I was interrupted by the following letter from the former.

My friend Quoz, who is what the world calls a knowing man, is extremely fond of giving his opinion in every affair. He displays in this epistle more than usual knowledge of his subject, and seems to exert all his argumentative talents to enforce the importance of his advice. I give you his letter without further comment, and shall postpone my description of the ball to another opportunity.


My Dear Friend,

I once more address you on a subject that I fear will be found irksome, and may chafe that testy disposition (forgive my freedom) with which you are afflicted. Exert, however, the good humor of which at bottom I know you to have a plentiful stock, and hear me patiently through: It is the anxious fear I entertain of your sinking into the gloomy abyss of criticism, on the brink of which you are at present tottering, that urges me to write.

I would set before you the rights and wrongs of an actor, and by painting, in strong colors, the peculiarity of his situation, call your good sense into action.

The world, my friend Oldstyle, has ever been prone to consider the theatrical profession in a degraded point of view. What first gave rise to this opinion, I am at loss to conceive; but I consider it as the reliques of one of those ancient prejudices which the good sense of the world is daily discarding; and I flatter myself it will in a little time be totally exploded. Why the actor should be considered inferior in point of respectability to the poet, the painter, or any other person who exerts his talents in delineating character, or in exhibiting the various operations of the human mind, I cannot imagine. I know you, friend Oldstyle, to be a man of too liberal sentiments not to be superior to these little prejudices; and also one who regards an actor, provided his private character be good, with equal respect as the member of any other profession. Yet you are not quite aware of the important privileges solely attached to the dramatic performer. These I will endeavor to point out.

The works of a poet or painter you may freely criticise—nay, they offer them for that purpose—they listen attentively to your observations, and profit by your censures. But beware how you exercise such conduct towards an actor—he needs no instruction—his own impartial judgment is sufficient to detect and amend all his imperfections. Attempt to correct his errors and you ruin him at once—he'll starve to spite you—he is like a decayed substance, that crumbles at the touch.

No, sir—when an actor is on the stage he is in his own house—it is his castle—he then has you in his power—he may there bore you with his buffoonery, or insult you with his pointed remarks, with perfect impunity. You, my friend, who are rather apt to be dissatisfied, may call it hard treatment to be thus annoyed, and yet compensate the annoyer for his trouble. You may say, that as you pay an equivalent for your amusement, you should have the liberty of directing the actor in his attempts; and, as the Chinese does his ear-tickler, tell him when his instrument offends, and how he over-does himself in the operation. This is an egregious mistake: you are obliged to him for his condescension in exerting his talents for your instruction; and as to your money, why he only takes it to lessen in part the weight of your obligation.

An actor is, as I before observed, competent to judge of his own abilities—he may undertake whatever character he pleases—tragedy—comedy—or pantomime—however ill adapted his audience may think him to sustain it. He may rant and roar, and wink and grin, and fret and fume his hour upon the stage, and “who shall say nay?” He is paid by the manager for using his lungs and limbs, and the more he exerts them the better does he fulfil the engagement, and the harder does he work for his living—and who shall deprive him of his “hard-earned bread?”

How many an honest, lazy genius has been flogged by these unfeeling critics into a cultivation of his talents and attention to his profession!—how have they doomed him to hard study and unremitting exertion!—how have they prejudiced the public mind, so that what might once have put an audience in convulsions of laughter, now excites nothing but a slight pattering from the hands of the little shavers who are rewarded with seats in the gallery for their trouble in keeping the boxes. Oh! Mr. Oldstyle, it cuts me to the soul to see a poor actor stamp and storm, and slap his forehead, his breast, his pocket holes, all in vain: to see him throw himself in some attitude of distraction or despair, and there wait in fruitless expectation the applauses of his friends in the gallery. In such cases I always take care and clap him myself, to enable him to quit his posture, and resume his part with credit.

You was much irritated the other evening, at what you termed an ungenerous and unmanly attempt to bring forward an ancient maiden in a ridiculous point of view. But I don't see why that should be made a matter of complaint. Has it not been done time out of mind? Is it not sanctioned by daily custom in private life? Is not the character of aunt Tabitha, in the farce, the same we have laughed at in hundreds of dramatic pieces? Since, then, the author has but travelled in the same beaten track of character so many have trod before him, I see not why he should be blamed as severely as if he had all the guilt of originality upon his shoulders.

You may say that it is cruel to sport with the feelings of any class of society: that folly affords sufficient field for wit and satire to work upon, without resorting to misfortune for matter of ridicule: that female sensibility should ever be sacred from the lash of sarcasm, &c. But this is all stuff, all cant.

If an author is too indolent or too stupid, to seek new sources for remark, he is surely excuseable in employing the ideas of others, for his own use and benefit. But I find I have digressed, imperceptibly, into the “rights of authors,” so let us return to our subject.

An actor when he “holds the mirror up to nature,” may by his manœuvres, twist and turn it so, as to represent the object in any shape he pleases—nay, even give a caricature where the author intended a resemblance; he may blur it with his breath, or soil it with his dirty fingers, so that the object may have a colouring from the glass in which it is viewed, entirely different from its natural appearance. To be plain, my friend, an actor has a right whenever he thinks his author not sufficiently explicit to assist him by his own wit and abilities; and if by these means the character should become quite different from what was originally intended, and in fact belong more to the actor than the author, the actor deserves high credit for his ingenuity. And even tho’ his additions are quaint, and fulsome, yet his intention is highly praise worthy, and deserves ample encouragement.

Only think, my dear sir, how many snug little domestic arrangements are destroyed by the officious interference of these ever dissatisfied critics. The honest king of Scotland, who used to dress for market and theatre at the same time, and wear with his kelt and plaid his half boots and black breeches, looking half king, half cobbler, has been obliged totally to dismiss the former from his royal service; yet I am happy to find, so obstinate is his attachment to old habits, that all their efforts have not been sufficient to dislodge him from the strong hold he has in the latter. They may force him from the boots—but nothing shall drive him out of the breeches.

Consider, my friend, the puerile nature of such remarks. Is it not derogating from the elevated character of a Critic, to take notice of clubb’d wigs, red coats, black breeches and half boots! Fie, fie upon it! I blush for the Critics of the day, who consider it a matter of importance whether a Highlander should appear in breeches and boots, or an Otaheitan in the dress of a New-York coxcomb. Trust me, friend Oldstyle, it is to the manner, not the appearance of an actor, we are to look: and as long he performs his part well, (to use the words of my friend Sterne), “it shall not be enquired whether he did it in a black coat or a red.”

Believe me, friend Oldstyle, few of our modern critics can shew any substantial claim to the character they assume. Let me ask them one question—have they ever been in Europe? Have they ever seen a Garrick, a Kemble or a Siddons? If they have not, I can assure you (upon the words of two or three of my friends, the actors) they have no right to the title of critics.

They may talk as much as they please about judgment and taste, and feeling, but this is all nonsense. It has lately been determined, (at the theatre) that any one who attempts to decide upon such ridiculous principles, is an arrant goose, and deserves to be roasted.

Having thus, friend Oldstyle, endeavored in a feeble manner, to shew you a few of the rights of an actor, and of his wrongs; having mentioned his constant and disinterested endeavors to please the public; and how much better he knows what will please them than they do themselves; having also depicted the cruel and persecuting nature of a critic; the continual restraint he lays on the harmless irregularity of the performer, and the relentless manner in which he obliges him to attend sedulously to his professional duty, through fear of censure, let me entreat you to pause!—Open your eyes to the precipice on which you are tottering, and hearken to the earnest warning of your loving friend,


My friend Quoz certainly writes with feeling: every line evinces that acute sensibility for which he has ever been remarked.

I am, however, perfectly at a loss to conceive on what grounds he suspects me of a disposition to turn critic. My remarks hitherto have rather been the result of immediate impression than of critical examination. With my friend, Mr. Andrew Quoz, I begin to doubt the motives of our New-York Critics; especially since I have, in addition to these arguments, the assurances of two or three doubtless disinterested actors, and an editor, who, Mr. Quoz tells me is remarkable for his candor and veracity, that the Critics are the most ‘presumptuous,' ‘arrogant,' ‘malevolent,' ‘illiberal,' ‘ungentleman-like,' ‘malignant,' ‘rancorous,' ‘villainous,' ‘ungrateful,' ‘crippled,' ‘invidious,' ‘detracting,' ‘fabricating,' ‘personal,' ‘dogmatical,' ‘illegitimate,' ‘tyrannical,' ‘distorting,' ‘spindle-shanked moppets, designing villains, and upstart ignorants.'

These, I say, and many other equally high polished appellations, have awakened doubts in my mind respecting the sincerity and justice of the Critics; and lest my pen should unwittingly draw upon me the suspicion, of having a hankering after criticism, I now wipe it carefully—lock it safely up, and promise not to draw it forth again till, some new department of folly calls for my attention.


[The series was a great success for Irving, but his health was poor and his brothers financed a two-year trip to Europe from which he returned in 1806. He launched the satirical magazine Salmagundi (described as the Mad magazine of its day) in 1807. The magazine, which lasted until 1808, further established Irving as a writer of talent and appeal. (In the pages of Salmagundi, Irving coined the name Gotham—an Anglo-Saxon term that means ‘Goat’s Town’—for New York City.) He eventually followed this effort with the publication of The History of New York (1809), written under the pseudonym Diedrich Knickerbocker—another word that came to mean ‘everything New York.’ From that point on, Irving’s prominence as a writer, one of the first Americans (with James Fenimore Cooper) to become famous in Europe as a writer, was firmly established.]

[Letter VIII is Irving’s last letter in the series that commented on theater. Letter IX, published on 23 April 1803, is about dueling, which was legal in the United States until later in the 19th century. Indeed, Aaron Burr, Vice President of the United States and part-owner of the Morning Chronicle, fatally shot Alexander Hamilton, former Secretary of the Treasury under George Washington, in a duel in Weehawken, New Jersey, on 11 July 1804; Hamilton died the next day. (Letter I, published on 15 November 1802, is a commentary of clothing fashions in the city; Letter II, 20 November, is a description of New York weddings.]

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