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William Godwin: his Friends and Contemporaries
Ch. III. 1800

Contents Vol. I
Ch. I. 1756-1785
Ch. II. 1785-1788
Ch. III. 1788-1792
Ch. IV. 1793
Ch. V. 1783-1794
Ch. VI. 1794-1796
Ch. VII. 1759-1791
Ch. VII. 1791-1796
Ch. IX. 1797
Ch. X. 1797
Ch. XI. 1798
Ch. XII. 1799
Ch. XIII. 1800
Contents Vol. II
Ch. I. 1800
Ch. II. 1800
‣ Ch. III. 1800
Ch. IV. 1801-1803
Ch. V. 1802-1803
Ch. VI. 1804-1806
Ch. VII. 1806-1811
Ch. VIII. 1811-1814
Ch. IX. 1812-1819
Ch. X. 1819-1824
Ch. XI. 1824-1832
Ch. XII. 1832-1836
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The letters from Charles Lamb which belong to this year are, as well as the criticism which follows the earliest which are found among the Godwin papers. The acquaintance between them had been one of some standing, which had now ripened into great intimacy. “Cooper,” named in this and some other letters, is not our friend “Tom,” who was still in America, but Godwin’s maid-servant.

The object of the meeting on the Sunday evening of which the letter speaks was to re-read the play of “Antonio” before its representation, and may therefore fitly introduce the whole subject of that drama.

C. Lamb to William Godwin.
[Dec. 4.]

“Dear Sir,—I send this speedily after the heels of Cooper (O! the dainty expression) to say that Mary is obliged to stay at home on Sunday to receive a female friend, from whom I am equally glad to escape. So that we shall be by ourselves. I write, because it may make some difference in your marketting, &c.

“C. L.”
“Thursday morning.

“I am sorry to put you to the expense of twopence postage. But I calculate thus: if Mary comes she will

eat Beef 2 plates, 4d.    
Batter Pudding 1 do. 2d.    
Beer, a pint, 2d.    
Wine, 3 glasses, 11d.   I drink no wine!
Chesnuts, after dinner, 2d.    
Tea and supper at moderate calculation, 9d.    
  2s. 6d.    
From which deduct 2d.   postage
  2s. 4d.    

You are a clear gainer by her not coming.

The chief literary work of the year 1800 was the “Tragedy of Antonio,” and so little do authors know their own powers, that to the latest day of his life Godwin considered it his best work. To us, looking at it with calmer minds, it seems an extremely poor production.

The plot is of the simplest. Helena was betrothed, with her father’s consent, to her brother Antonio’s friend, Roderigo. While Antonio and Roderigo were at the wars, Helena fell in love with, and married, Don Gusman. She was the king’s ward, who set aside the pre-contract. Antonio, returning, leaves his friend behind; he has had great sorrows, but all will be well when he comes to claim his bride. When Antonio finds his sister is married, the rage he exhibits is ferocious. He carries his sister off from her husband’s house, and demands that the king shall annul the marriage with Gusman. There is then talk of Helena’s entrance into a convent. At last the king, losing patience, gives judgment, as he had done before,
that the pre-contract with Roderigo was invalid, and the marriage to Gusman valid. Whereupon Antonio bursts through the guards, and kills his sister.

It will be seen that here is no human interest. We cannot at all sympathize with Antonio, or with the neglected lover, for whom we have only Antonio’s word that he was an excellent man; and since there is no poetry whatever in the blank verse, the effect of the whole is dull beyond measure or belief.

Yet Godwin had taken more pains with this drama than with perhaps any other work which had ever proceeded from his pen. The diary records constant and laborious work on it, continual revisions and polishings. Poetry, it will be remembered, had been the delight of his early years, and with that blindness to the true nature of his powers, which is the characteristic of many another writer, he considered poetry the pursuit in which his maturer manhood was destined to excel. Such was not altogether the opinion of his friends. Lamb sent him an elaborate criticism, which should have made him suspect that all was not as it should be in his great work, and Colman’s rejection of it should have satisfied him that it was not a play which would be acceptable to the public. But Lamb was so genuinely kind, and even affectionate in his criticism, so anxious to see all the beauty that he could, that Godwin did not perceive the real disapproval of which Lamb himself was scarce aware.

So much of this critique as is not simply verbal may here be given:—

Minute sent by C. Lamb to William Godwin.

Queries. Whether the best conclusion would not be a solemn judicial pleading, appointed by the king, before himself in person
of Antonio as proxy for Roderigo, and Guzman for himself—the forms and ordering of it to be highly solemn and grand. For this purpose, (allowing it,) the king must be reserved, and not have committed his royal dignity by descending to previous conference with Antonio, but must refer from the beginning to this settlement. He must sit in dignity as a high royal arbiter. Whether this would admit of spiritual interpositions, cardinals, &c.—appeals to the Pope, and haughty rejection of his interposition by Antonio—(this merely by the way).

“The pleadings must be conducted by short speeches—replies, taunts, and bitter recriminations by Antonio, in his rough style. In the midst of the undecided cause, may not a messenger break up the proceedings by an account of Roderigo’s death (no improbable or far-fetch’d event), and the whole conclude with an affecting and awful invocation of Antonio upon Roderigo’s spirit, now no longer dependent upon earthly tribunals or a froward woman’s will, &c., &c.

“‘Almanza’s daughter is now free,’ &c.

“This might be made very affecting. Better nothing follow after; if anything, she must step forward and resolve to take the veil. In this case, the whole story of the former nunnery must be omitted. But, I think, better leave the final conclusion to the imagination of the spectator. Probably the violence of confining her in a convent is not necessary; Antonio’s own castle would be sufficient.

“To relieve the former part of the Play, could not some sensible images, some work for the Eye, be introduced? A gallery of Pictures, Almanza’s ancestors, to which Antonio might affectingly point his sister, one by one, with anecdote, &c.

“At all events, with the present want of action, the Play must not extend above four Acts, unless it is quite new modell’d. The proposed alterations might all be effected in a few weeks.

“Solemn judicial pleadings always go off well, as in Henry the 8th, Merchant of Venice, and perhaps Othello.”

Of other friends Holcroft was, as has been seen, in Germany.
Marshal regarded the productions of which he had witnessed the begetting and watched the gestation with a feeling amounting to veneration. Godwin had, moreover, made up his mind that the play, if damned at all—a possibility he could hardly contemplate—would be so only because the public knew that he was the author, and would be venting their scorn on him through his play. Hence the authorship was to be kept profoundly secret, and in all those who were in the secret, there grew up a certain feeling as of conspirators bound to carry through their undertaking, which by that very fact appeared nobler in their esteem.

Though constantly afterwards retouched, the play was yet sufficiently finished in June to be submitted to Colman, then Manager of the Haymarket, not as Godwin’s own, but as a composition of which he approved, and which he highly recommended. Colman replied that—

“On perusal of the MS. which you have done me the favour to send for my inspection, I do not think its representation would serve the interests of my Theatre. I return it, therefore, with this letter, and with many thanks for the offer.—I am, Sir, your obedient very humble servant,

G. Colman.”

It is not unlikely that the refusal was peculiarly mortifying from Colman, who had given evidence already that he recognized a certain dramatic, if not poetical, power in his correspondent; Colman’s play of “The Iron Chest” being adapted from the novel of “Caleb Williams.”

The play was again carefully revised, and was submitted to Curran and Sheridan, the latter of whom—whose taste may well be thought less unquestionable in tragedy than in comedy—mentioned it to Kemble, on whom, at his request, Godwin called with a portion of the MS, urging that the earlier acts should at once be put in rehearsal, and pro-
mising to send the rest—still in want of revision—within a month. To this somewhat strange demand Kemble at first consented, and promised suggestions, but soon after wrote as follows:—

J. P. Kemble to William Godwin.
T[heatre] R[oyal], D[rury] L[ane], Sept. 24, 1800.

My dear Sir,—Any hints that my professional experience enables me to offer, you shall command. I find, however, that, till I see the Catastrophe, I can be of no service. I overrated my sagacity.—Yours,

J. P. Kemble.”

When the play was completed and in Kemble’s hands, he did not think it would succeed, but Godwin claimed a promise made to him by Sheridan that it should be represented, and that he was himself “prepared cheerfully to encounter any theatrical gauntlet which the rules of your play-house may be thought to prescribe.”

The Same to the Same.
[Drury Lane, Oct. 30, 1800.]

My dear Sir,—I shall give your Play to the Copyist this very day; and I believe that is the only answer that can be made to so plain a statement as you have just sent me.—Yours truely,

J. P. Kemble.”

Godwin, however, again reclaimed the MS. for further revision.

The Same to the Same.
No. 89 Great Russel Street, Bloomsbury Square,
Nov. 3, 1800.

My dear Sir,—All I can say in answer to your letter of yesterday is, that you asked me my sincere opinion of your Tragedy,
and I sincerely told you that I thought it would not succeed. I am of that opinion still. I wish I had known that you were from the Beginning decided to have it acted, because I would have spared myself the ungracious task of giving any Opinion at all. As Matters stand, I have only to beg that you will let me have the Manuscript, at least two or three acts of it, by the end of this week, otherwise I will not answer that the engagements the theatre is under may not oblige me to defer your Play till next year, which I should be very sorry for, believe me.

“I mention this circumstance of Despatch again and again to you, because you seem to think that your Piece cannot be acted as long as any other new Play is in preparation. This is a Mistake. Your Tragedy will be the next novelty in representation, as it is the next in Promise. There is another Mistake of no great moment, indeed, yet it is one. I never ventured to say that Antonio would be acted only one Night—very possibly it may be acted five or six or seven nights, but that kind of success would at once be a great loss to the theatre, and I daresay a great disappointment to your expectations. In all events, you may rely on my doing everything a Manager can do towards the Furthering of your Success.—I am, my dear Sir, truely yours,

J. P. Kemble.”
The Same to the Same.
“T. R., D. L., Nov. 11, 1800.

My dear Sir,—Depend on my observing all your Instructions. I don’t know how to advise you respecting the Papers. I have no confidential Intercourse there. Perhaps the best way will be to trust entirely to another Person’s being ostensibly the Authour. Nobody will suspect otherwise unless Doubts are excited by over caution.—Yours truely,

J. P. Kemble.”
The Same to the Same.
No. 89 Great Russel Street, Bloomsbury Square,
Nov. 15, 1800.

My dear Sir,—I shall be glad to see you about four o’clock to-day, if not inconvenient to you, to settle all the Parts in Antonio
for the Reading on Monday. I wish you success with all my heart, and I will undertake Antonio. I fear the event, but you shall not want the Assistance you are so good as. to say I might render you.—Yours truely,

J. P. Kemble.”
The Same to the Same.
No. 89 Great Russel Street, Bloomsbury Square,
Thursday, November 27th, 1800.

My dear Sir,—An accident I met with on the stage on Monday evening, and which has confined me to my bed till this Morning, must be my Apology for not answering your note sooner. You may rely on my taking care that the Parts shall be faithful to your Copy; and the Copy shall be returned to you as soon as a Transcript can be made for the Prompter. I really don’t know how to set about such an affair as sending word to any newspaper that Mr Tobin is the Authour of Antonio while I know the contrary, but it will glide into a Paragraph, of course, as other undesigned mistakes do, after he has been seen at a Rehearsal or two, that you may be sure of. I will only add, that if I don’t answer every line you send me, it is because I think it unnecessary to assure you, over and over again, that I shall punctually observe all your wishes.—I am, my dear sir, yours,

J. P. Kemble.”

Some unfinished drafts of letters from Godwin to Kemble remain, which it is not always easy to date, but it would seem that quite late in the correspondence, apparently towards the end of November, Kemble again expressed his dislike to undertake the character of Antonio, which had been from the first almost forced upon him by the author’s importunity. He placed his objection on the somewhat strange ground of the villainy of the character he had to represent, as though he had played none but model heroes, but his object was no doubt to save the author and himself also the humiliation of failure, by inducing him to
withdraw the play. The following extracts from a draft of one of Godwin’s voluminous letters, in so great contrast to Kemble’s notes, are curious as showing Godwin’s own estimate of his tragedy, of Kemble’s acting, and of some favourite plays.

William Godwin to J. P. Kemble.

“. . . .—And now, sir, for the essential point, the character of Antonio. Your objection turns upon this assertion that his conduct admits of no justification, and that the audience will not feel with him. Surely this objection requires to be reconsidered. Instantly on your mentioning it, it occurred to me that there was a host of the most popular tragedies to which that objection would completely lie. The one I immediately recollected was the Grecian Daughter, and you willingly admitted that the ferocious and inhuman character of the tyrant, who produces all the distress, did not prevent the piece from being on the whole a very interesting exhibition. But, who, I beseech you, sir, sympathises with Richard? Who feels for him when he is stabbing King Henry, murdering the young Princes, and poisoning his wife? Who sympathises with Macbeth? I hope no one when he assassinates his benefactor and his guest; I am sure no one, when he murders the infant family of Macduff, ‘all the pretty chickens and their dam, at one fell swoop.’ Who feels with the delectable Iago? Who feels for the vile and slave-hearted hypocrisy of Zanga? Yet these are among the most inestimable treasures of the British Theatre.

“And now, sir, to conclude this appeal to your candour, and your justice. The decision you have to make in the present instance is not a decision of an every-day magnitude. Upon an occasion like this, to speak of myself ceases to be justly liable to the imputation of egotism. I am neither a young man nor a young author. I am now in the full maturity of my age, and vigour of my mind. Persons of various descriptions have repeatedly solicited me to turn my mind to dramatical composition. It was,
indeed, the first amusement of my thoughts in my school-boy cell.

“But I did not easily yield to their representations. Among various considerations that deterred me, none of the least was the fewness of our London Theatres, and what I esteem to be the consequence, the paucity of good actors, a circumstance that places every dramatic writer, particularly every writer of tragedy, at the foot, and dependent on the fallible judgment of a few persons, probably of a single individual. When I wrote works of a different value from this, I encountered criticism, censure, political and party hostility in their bitterest style. But it was in the power of none of these to stifle me in the bud. In the two novels I have published, it was my fortune at different times, and from different persons, to hear the most unqualified censure, long before it was possible for me to hear the voice of the public. But my temper was not altered, nor my courage subdued. I went on, and you are acquainted with the result. It is not in all the power of individual criticism, censure, or even party hostility (which has nothing to do in the present case) to stop an author in his progress to the public. If he will be content to incur the risque, the literary condemnation, or political prosecution, the press is always accessible to him.

“But so is not the stage. You have in your single breast to decide upon the fate of what Milton calls ‘the most consummate act of an author’s fidelity and ripeness.’

“You, sir, stand upon the present occasion in the situation of a licencer of the press, and will you not allow me to say that, in a man exercising so awful a responsibility, it is necessary to the most perfect integrity, to add great candour, great forbearance, and a consummate spirit of toleration?

“Tragic writers are not the growth of every summer. It depends upon you, sir, more than upon any man in this country, to decide whether, if talents for that species of writing arise among us, they shall be permitted to be exercised. If Racine had not been allowed to exhibit his ‘Thebaide,’ he would probably never have produced his ‘Iphigenia’ and his ‘Phœdra.’ This is not a
species of manufacture in which the artist can take down different commodities from his shelf, till he has suited the partialities of his customer. For myself, if I have any propensity to this species of composition, I cannot look at the prospect now opened before me without shuddering.

“You anticipate, sir, the application of all this eager, but I hope not ungentlemanlike, expostulation. The truth must be spoken, though with modesty, yet firmness. The play can have no justice done it, unless the character of Antonio be in your hands. By how much the bolder is the pencil with which I have pourtrayed him, by how much the nearer I have suffered his character to border upon what has scarcely a precedent, by so much the more does he require the support of an eminent performer. Conceive what the tragedy of the ‘Revenge’ would be, with Mr Barrymore in the character of Zanga!

“You have often made sacrifices to the arrangements and conduct of the Theatre. You have often made sacrifices to the claims, perhaps the just claims of authors, living and dead. You will do this again and again. Good God! if you were to personate no characters, but such as were precisely and eminently the favourites of your choice, what havoc would you make in the list of acting plays hung up at your theatre! It is not much that I ask from you. It is little to you, it is everything to me. If I am right in my conception of ‘Antonio,’ it will add to your reputation. If you are right, the appearing for a single night in a character that does no honour to your abilities will certainly, at the same time, inflict no lasting injury on your professional fame.

“Excuse the earnestness and freedom of this address. My solicitude to secure your performance of my character, is the highest compliment I can pay to your dramatic excellence. The sanguine temper with which I have enforced my appeal, is the strongest proof I can give of the high opinion I entertain of your manliness and candour.”

Kemble’s objections, though not removed, were over-
ruled, the play was put in rehearsal, and the rehearsals were attended by
Godwin’s friend, Mr Tobin, in the hope that he might be supposed the author of the piece. The following letter shows that Godwin was not without his grave anxieties, although ‘Antonio’ was cast as he had desired.

J. P. Kemble to William Godwin.
No. 89 Great Russell Street, Bloomsbury Square.
December 9th, 1800.

My dear Sir,—I will not advertize any Play beyond Monday, depend on it, since you wish I should not. As to next week’s being eminently unfavourable to the Theatre, whoever told you so was eminently ignorant of what he pretended to know. The week in which I acted the ‘Haunted Tower,’ was said to be eminently unfavourable to the Theatre, so was the week in which I acted the ‘Siege of Belgrade,’ and the ‘School for Scandal,’ and ‘Pizarro.’ The two most successful pieces that ever were acted were both presented to the Public in the End of May, a time of all others the most eminently unfavourable to the Theatre. There is no time unfavourable to a work of real merit, with Judges so good, so unbiassed, and considerately kind, as generally compose the Audiences in London.

“As to Orders, pray use your own Discretion about the number of Friends you wish to send into the Boxes or Gallery for your Support, but into the Pit no Orders are ever admitted from any person whatsoever. I never wrote an Order for the Pit in my life. Having told you this, now let me tell you, that, if you take my Advice, you will not send an Order at all into the theatre on the first night. I am perfectly convinced that I have seen many a piece expire at its first Appearance, that might have lived to a good old age, if it had not been smothered in the Birth by the over-officiousness of injudicious Friends,—Yours truly,

J. P. Kemble.”

The epilogue was written by C. Lamb, and is printed among his collected works.

C. Lamb to William Godwin.
Wednesday morning [Dec. 11.]

Dear Sir,—I expected a good deal of pleasure from your company to-morrow, but I am sorry I must beg of you to excuse me. I have been confined ever since I saw you with one of the severest colds I ever experienced, occasioned by being in the night air on Sunday, and on the following day, very foolishly. I am neither in health nor spirits to meet company. I hope and trust I shall get out on Saturday night. You will add to your many favours, by transmitting to me as early as possible as many tickets as conveniently you can spare,—Yours truly,

C. L.

“I have been plotting how to abridge the Epilogue. But I cannot see that any lines can be spared, retaining the connection, except these two, which are better out.
‘Why should I instance, &c.,
The sick man’s purpose, &c.,’
and then the following line must run thus,
‘The truth by an example best is shown.’

Excuse this important postscript.”

The play was presented on Saturday, December 13th, and damned finally and hopelessly. Godwin’s Diary was as usual almost passionless, though the rare underlining represents that he was more moved than was his wont. The entry for the day runs thus:—

“13. Sa. Captain Acts 3, 4, 5: Heptameron, p. 227. Call on Tobin M[arshall] dines. Theatre w. M. Antonio. Meet Reynolds: sup at Lamb’s w. M.”


The Cast was as follows: —

“Don Pedro, King of Arragon, Mr Wroughton.
Don Gusman, Duke of Zuniga, Mr Barrymore.
Don Antonio D’Almanza, Mr Kemble.
Don Henry, his brother, Mr C. Kemble.
Don Diego de Cardona, Mr Powell.
Lopez, servant to Gusman, Mr Maddocks.
Alberto, servant to Antonio, Mr Holland.
Helena, wife to Gusman, and sister to Antonio, Mrs Siddons.

“A prologue and epilogue were spoken by Mr C. Kemble and Miss Heard—both productions well suited to the piece, too bad to pass without censure except when they pass without observation.”—Morning Post, Dec. 15th, 1800.


Kemble’s final letter on the subject was written next day.

J. P. Kemble to Godwin.
No. 89 Great Russel Street Bloomsbury Square,
December 14th, 1800.

My dear Sir,—I wish with all my heart we had been more successful. I told Mrs Siddons as you desired me, that the Play was your Composition, and will do your present Commission to her. I do assure you I thought nothing of any Trouble I took on your account, for I am very much yours,—

J. P. Kemble.”

At supper at Lamb’s after the Play, it was decided to publish immediately, and Lamb took the MS. home for revision. The verbal criticism which accompanied the following letter has now no interest, unless it be these few lines—


“‘Enviable’ is a very bad word. I allude to ‘Enviable right to bless us.’ For instance, Burns, comparing the ills of manhood with the state of infancy, says, ‘Oh! enviable early days;’ here ’tis good, because the passion lay in comparison. Excuse my insulting your judgment with an illustration. I believe I only wanted
to beg in the name of a favourite Bardie, or at most to confirm my own judgment.”

C. Lamb to William Godwin.
Late o’ Sunday [Dec. 14.]

Dear Sir,—I have performed my office in a slovenly way, but judge for me. I sat down at 6 o’clock, and never left reading (and I read out to Mary) your play till 10. In this sitting I noted down lines as they occurred, exactly as you will read my rough paper. Do not be frightened at the bulk of my remarks, for they are almost all upon single lines, which, put together, do not amount to a hundred, and many of them merely verbal. I had but one object in view, abridgement for compression sake. I have used a dogmatical language (which is truly ludicrous when the trivial nature of my remarks is considered), and, remember, my office was to hunt out faults. You may fairly abridge one half of them, as a fair deduction for the infirmities of Error, and a single reading, which leaves only fifty objections, most of them merely against words, on no short play. Remember, you constituted me Executioner, and a hangman has been seldom seen to be ashamed of his profession before Master Sheriff. We’ll talk of the Beauties (of which I am more than ever sure) when we meet,—Yours truly,

C. L.

“I will barely add, as you are on the very point of printing, that in my opinion neither prologue nor epilogue should accompany the play. It can only serve to remind your readers of its fate. Both suppose an audience, and, that jest being gone, must convert into burlesque. Nor would I (but therein custom and decorum must be a law) print the actors’ names. Some things must be kept out of sight.

“I have done, and I have but a few square inches of paper to fill up. I am emboldened by a little jorum of punch (vastly good) to say that next to one man, I am the most hurt at our ill success. The breast of Hecuba, where she did suckle Hector, looked not to be more lovely than Marshal’s forehead when it
spit forth sweat, at Critic-swords contending. I remember two honest lines by
Marvel, (whose poems by the way I am just going to possess).
“‘Where every Mower’s wholesome heat
Smells like an Alexander’s sweat.’”

The catastrophe was recorded by C. Lamb many years afterwards, in the London Magazine [April 1, 1822] in a paper entitled “The Old Actors.” The portion relating to Antonio, deserves quotation here, especially since this part of the paper has rarely been re-printed in Lamb’s collected Essays. Godwin did not resent the fun which his friend made of him and of Marshal, for the pages, endorsed with the date in his own hand, were carefully preserved among his papers. Perhaps time had softened the blow, and he could afford to jest at what once he felt so keenly, or, and this is more likely, the ridicule bestowed on Kemble disguised and palliated that which was directed against himself.


John Kemble had made up his mind early, that all the good tragedies which could be written had been written; and he resented any new attempt. His shelves were full. The old standards were scope enough for his ambition. He ranged in them absolute—and ‘fair in Otway, full in Shakspeare shone.’ He succeeded to the old lawful thrones, and did not care to adventure bottomry with a Sir Edward Mortimer, or any casual speculator that offered. I remember, too acutely for my peace, the deadly extinguisher which he put upon my friend G.’sAntonio.’ G., satiate with visions of political justice (possibly not to be realized in our time), or willing to let the sceptical worldlings see, that his anticipations of the future did not preclude a warm sympathy for men as they are and have been—wrote a tragedy. He chose a story, affecting, romantic, Spanish—the plot simple, without being naked—the incidents uncommon, without being overstrained. Antonio, who gives the name to the piece, is a sensitive young
Castilian, who, in a fit of his country honour, immolates his sister—

“But I must not anticipate the catastrophe—the play, reader, is extant in choice English—and you will employ a spare half-crown not injudiciously in the quest of it.

“The conception was bold, and the denouement—the time and place in which the hero of it existed, considered—not much out of keeping; yet it must be confessed, that it required a delicacy of handling both from the author and the performer, so as not much to shock the prejudices of a modern English audience. G., in my opinion, had done his part.

John, who was in familiar habits with the philosopher, had undertaken to play Antonio. Great expectations were formed. A philosopher’s first play was a new æra. The night arrived. I was favoured with a seat in an advantageous box, between the author and his friend M——. G. sate cheerful and confident. In his friend M.’s looks, who had perused the manuscript, I read some terror. Antonio, in the person of John Philip Kemble, at length appeared, starched out in a ruff which no one could dispute, and in most irreproachable mustachios. John always dressed most provokingly correct on these occasions. The first act swept by, solemn and silent. It went off, as G. assured M., exactly as the opening act of a piece—the protasis—should do. The cue of the spectators was to be mute. The characters were but in their introduction. The passions and the incidents would be developed hereafter. Applause hitherto would be impertinent. Silent attention was the effect all-desirable. Poor M. acquiesced—but in his honest friendly face I could discern a working which told how much more acceptable the plaudit of a single hand (however misplaced) would have been than all this reasoning. The second act (as in duty bound) rose a little in interest; but still John kept his forces under—in policy, as G. would have it—and the audience were most complacently attentive. The protasis, in fact, was scarcely unfolded. The interest would warm in the next act, against which a special incident was provided. M. wiped his cheek, flushed with a friendly perspiration—’tis M.’s way of show-
ing his zeal—‘from every pore of him a perfume falls—.’ I honour it above
Alexander’s. He had once or twice during this act joined his palms in a feeble endeavour to elicit a sound—they emitted a solitary noise without an echo—there was no deep to answer to his deep. G. repeatedly begged him to be quiet. The third act at length brought on the scene which was to warm the piece progressively to the final flaming forth of the catastrophe. A philosophic calm settled upon the clear brow of G. as it approached. The lips of M. quivered. A challenge was held forth upon the stage, and there was promise of a fight. The pit roused themselves on this extraordinary occasion, and, as their manner is, seemed disposed to make a ring,—when suddenly Antonio, who was the challenged, turning the tables upon the hot challenger, Don Gusman (who by the way should have had his sister) baulks his humour, and the pit’s reasonable expectation at the same time, with some speeches out of the new philosophy against duelling. The audience were here fairly caught—their courage was up, and on the alert—a few blows, ding dong, as R——s the dramatist afterwards expressed it to me, might have done the business—when their most exquisite moral sense was suddenly called in to assist in the mortifying negation of their own pleasure. They could not applaud for disappointment; they would not condemn, for morality’s sake. The interest stood stone still; and John’s manner was not at all calculated to unpetrify it. It was Christmas time, and the atmosphere furnished some pretext for asthmatic affections. One began to cough—his neighbour sympathized with him—till a cough became epidemical. But when, from being half-artificial in the pit, the cough got frightfully naturalized among the fictitious persons of the drama; and Antonio himself (albeit it was not set down in the stage directions) seemed more intent upon relieving his own lungs than the distresses of the author and his friends,—then G. ‘first knew fear’ and mildly turning to M., intimated that he had not been aware that Mr K. laboured under a cold; and that the performance might possibly have been postponed with advantage for some nights further—still keeping the same serene countenance, while M. sweat like a bull. It would
be invidious to pursue the fates of this ill-starred evening. In vain did the plot thicken in the scenes that followed, in vain the dialogue wax more passionate and stirring, and the progress of the sentiment point more and more clearly to the arduous development which impended. In vain the action was accelerated, while the acting stood still. From the beginning John had taken his stand; had wound himself up to an even tenor of stately declamation, from which no exigence of dialogue or person could make him swerve for an instant. To dream of his rising with the scene (the common trick of tragedians) was preposterous; for from the onset he had planted himself, as upon a terrace, on an eminence vastly above the audience, and he kept that sublime level to the end. He looked from his throne of elevated sentiment upon the under-world of spectators with a most sovran and becoming contempt. There was excellent pathos delivered out to them: an they would receive it, so; an they would not receive it, so. There was no offence against decorum in all this; nothing to condemn, to damn. Not an irreverent symptom of a sound was to be heard. The procession of verbiage stalked on through four and five acts, no one venturing to predict what would come of it, when towards the winding up of the latter, Antonio, with an irrelevancy that seemed to stagger Helena herself—for she had been coolly arguing the point of honour with him—suddenly whips out a poniard, and stabs his sister to the heart. The effect was, as if a murder had been committed in cold blood. The whole house rose up in clamorous indignation demanding justice. The feeling rose far above hisses. I believe at that instant, if they could have got him, they would have torn the unfortunate author to pieces. Not that the act itself was so exorbitant, or of a complexion different from what they themselves would have applauded upon another occasion in a
Brutus or an Appius—but for want of attending to Antonio’s words, which palpably led to the expectation of no less dire an event, instead of being seduced by his manner, which seemed to promise a sleep of a less alarming nature than it was his cue to inflict upon Helena, they found themselves betrayed into an accompliceship of
murder, a perfect misprision of parricide, while they dreamed of nothing less. M., I believe, was the only person who suffered acutely from the failure; for G. thenceforward, with a serenity unattainable but by the true philosophy, abandoning a precarious popularity, retired into his fasthold of speculation,—the drama in which the world was to be his tiring room, and remote posterity his applauding spectators at once, and actors.