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Posted in Actors, English Literature, Historical articles, History, Shakespeare, Theatre on Monday, 20 May 2013
This edited article about the English Theatre originally appeared in Look and Learn issue number 259 published on 31 December 1966.
Sarah Kemble was born in 1755 into a family of travelling actors. Her father, John Kemble, was manager of the company, and from childhood Sarah was often on the stage.
As she grew older, it was obvious that she possessed unusual natural talents. She could sing as well as act, and her taste in literature was of the highest. Besides all this, she was beautiful. She had large, expressive eyes and dark hair; she was tall and altogether very striking in appearance.
When she was 18, Sarah married William Siddons, a member of her father’s company, and it is as Mrs. Siddons, the tragic actress, that she is remembered.
Sarah Siddons and her husband continued their round of the provincial theatres, at which Sarah’s ability made its mark. She created a sensation at Cheltenham in 1774, and the great actor David Garrick heard of her and sent an observer of his own to assess her merits.
Garrick was impressed by what he heard, but a year passed before his need of new blood at the Drury Lane Theatre revived his interest in Sarah, and he sent another observer to search her out. She was found acting the part of Rosalind in Shakespeare’s As You Like It, and again she made a great impression. Arrangements were made for her and her husband to be engaged at Drury Lane for the joint wage of £5 a week.
Sarah was to make her first appearance on the illustrious stage at Drury Lane as Portia in Shakepeare’s Merchant of Venice. On 29th December, 1775, she made her debut before an audience who, it was hoped, would be good-humoured from the Christmas festivities.
Poor Sarah Siddons! She was beset by nerves; she trembled on to the stage; her voice stuck in her throat so that it could scarcely be heard; and although she recovered a little before the end of the play, the critics, reviewing her efforts in the Press next day, poured scorn on her performance.
Sarah’s confidence was shaken, and she also fell prey to the jealousies of the three principal actresses at Drury Lane, for Garrick apparently singled her out for particular attention. In spite of her initial failure, she was still given important roles, which she continued to play in an undistinguished manner. She played opposite Garrick himself in The Suspicious Husband, and was Lady Anne to his Richard III, all without recognition.
When Garrick retired as leading actor and manager at Drury Lane he was succeeded by a management of three, the most famous of these being Richard Sheridan. Mrs. Siddons was not re-engaged by the new management.
Sarah returned to the provincial theatres and once more began to shine. At Cheltenham, Liverpool, York, Manchester, Birmingham, and finally at Bath, she came into her own.
In those days Bath was second only to London in its theatrical reputation. In 1778, Sarah Siddons was engaged to play for a season there. She attracted notice quickly and praise for her performances mounted.
Audiences flocked to see her play in tragedy, and many were moved to tears. She played an astonishing range of characters with equal success, both tragic and comic.
She studied each character she had to play in great detail, shutting herself away for long hours until she had created an original interpretation. Her ability to act was entirely natural, and her sensitive and moving characterisations, combined with her beauty and poise, were continually effective.
She stayed at Bath for four seasons in which her confidence and reputation were re-established. Secure at Bath, she was not easily lured to London again, and it was not until October, 1782, that she appeared there again, in The Fatal Marriage.
This time she survived the panic of rehearsals, fears that she would repeat her previous failure in London, and a near loss of voice, and took Drury Lane by storm. Tears and hysterics accompanied her performance, along with wild acclamation. Notices in the Press the next day completed her triumph and established her for the next 30 years as the queen of tragedy.
Posted in Castles, English Literature, Historical articles, History, Shakespeare, Theatre on Thursday, 9 May 2013
This edited article about Shakespeare originally appeared in Look and Learn issue number 248 published on 15 October 1966.
An early performance of ‘Hamlet’
The Danish seaport of Elsinore looks across just three miles of water to the Swedish town of Helsinborg. The solid red brick and sandstone fortress of Kronborg at Elsinore is often called ‘Hamlet’s castle’ because Shakespeare made it the setting for his great tragedy. But the fact is that the real Hamlet probably never knew Elsinore at all, and certainly not the castle, which was not built until 1580, five hundred years and more after his death.
The narrow waterway separating Denmark from Sweden made Elsinore a key port for trading countries for four centuries. Between 1429 and 1857, every ship sailing through the Sound had to stop at Elsinore to pay dues. The traffic was so great that this source of revenue accounted for two-thirds of Denmark’s annual income and made Elsinore famous whereever sailors put into port and found time to spin a tale of the places they had been.
England had close associations with Denmark during the years when Shakespeare was writing his plays, and he may have been attracted to an old folk story about a 10th century prince of Jutland named Amleth. Shakespeare’s tragedy is one among several influenced by the ancient saga.
Amleth (or Hamlet as we now call him) was an impressive figure in the Icelandic Sagas of the Danish kings. In the days when Rorik was King of Denmark, Horvendill, a prince of the northern province of Jutland, married his daughter, Gerutha, and they had a son – Amleth. But Horvendill had a jealous brother, Feng, who murdered him and married Gerutha. Amleth realised the danger he was in, and tried to avert a fate similar to his father’s by pretending to be demented. Feng’s suspicion was roused and when Amleth killed a spy, he was sent to England with two attendants who carried a letter asking the King of England to put him to death. Amleth cunningly altered the message to a request that he be given the King’s daughter in marriage – and that the attendants be executed!
After his marriage with the princess, Amleth went back to Denmark in time to attend the festivities being held to celebrate his death. During the feast, he took advantage of the drunkeness of the courtiers to set fire to the palace. Feng was slain, and Amleth made for England only to find that previously his father-in-law had made a pact with Feng, that each should avenge the other’s death. Amleth outwitted him and, after defeating him in battle, returned to Jutland to be slain in battle himself by King Rorik’s successor.
Around this ancient tale, Shakespeare wove a tragedy hailed by many as the greatest of all his plays. It was first performed at The Globe Theatre in 1602.
Posted in Historical articles, History, Scotland, Shakespeare on Wednesday, 1 May 2013
This edited article about Macbeth originally appeared in Look and Learn issue number 237 published on 30 July 1966.
Early Scottish history is obscure, but it is known that on July 27, 1054, Macbeth, King of the Scots, was defeated in battle by Earl Siward of Northumbria and his grandson Malcolm, contender for the Scottish throne.
Macbeth’s story is familiar to many people even today, for Shakespeare made him the central figure of one of his great tragedies. Shakespeare tells of an ambitious man spurred on by his power-hungry wife to commit murder and win the crown of Scotland.
Shakespeare’s play is only loosely based on fact. Dissension in Scotland stemmed from conflicting ideas about the laws of Succession. Trouble began because King Malcolm II wanted his grandson, Duncan, already king in Strathclyde, to succeed him as King of Scotland, but according to old Scottish custom, Duncan was ineligible to succeed, and the rightful heir was the infant stepchild of Macbeth.
In the interests of his wife’s child, Macbeth opposed Duncan’s right to succeed, and killed him, quite probably in a fair fight. Macbeth held the throne on behalf of his stepchild, and Duncan’s young sons, Malcolm and Donalbain, were hurried out of the country into the care of their grandfather, Earl Siward of Northumbria. Malcolm stayed with his grandfather for 14 years, during which time Macbeth ruled Scotland and she prospered. Then they marched into Scotland, to Dunsinane, Macbeth’s castle.
Shakespeare makes the battle at Dunsinane a highly dramatic finale to his play: Macbeth is slain in single combat, and Malcolm joyously proclaimed King of Scotland. In fact, Macbeth lived three more years before Malcolm killed him in battle at Lumphanan.
Posted in Famous battles, Historical articles, History, Shakespeare, War on Wednesday, 27 March 2013
This edited article about the Hundred Years War originally appeared in Look and Learn issue number 213 published on 12 February 1966.
The Hundred Years War between England and France was raging and since the summer of 1428 an English army under the Earl of Suffolk had been besieging Orleans, which was holding out for the King of France. Month after month, the siege dragged on, and as the surrounding countryside was hostile to the English and refused them supplies, Suffolk’s troops were becoming worse off for food than the French locked up in Orleans.
Early in February, a convoy of five hundred wagons loaded with food and military stores and escorted by a force of three thousand troops was sent from Paris to the besieging English army. The expedition was commanded by Sir John Fastolfe, one of the bravest and most experienced English generals. He was later created a Knight of the Garter by Henry VI, but he is better known as the original Falstaff in Shakespeare’s Merry Wives of Windsor.
King Charles of France discovered that the relief convoy was on its way to Orleans and sent a force of four thousand men under the Count of Claremont to cut it off.
The French came up with the English convoy at Roverai, a few miles from Orleans. The English commander ordered his men to make a barricade of the wagons, behind which he waited for the attack.
When the French arrived, they made a mass charge against the barricade, but were received with such a deadly hail of arrows from the English archers’ long-bows that they were thrown into complete confusion. Fastolfe then ordered some of the wagons to be drawn aside and sword in hand swept through the gap with his cavalry to annihilate the French. Only a small remnant of the French troops escaped and these fled back the way they had come.
Although this English victory was fought and won at Roverai, it is more often called the Battle of the Herrings from the fact that a large part of the provisions comprised barrels of salted herrings.
Posted in Actors, English Literature, Historical articles, History, London, Music, Shakespeare, Theatre on Tuesday, 26 March 2013
This edited article about the English theatre originally appeared in Look and Learn issue number 210 published on 22 January 1966.
Lilian Baylis ejecting a drunk from the gallery of her beloved Old Vic
She was not good-looking, not very tidily dressed, and she had a will of iron. Loved – even worshipped – by some, she was disliked and laughed at by others.
She was not well educated, though she had taught music and dancing in South Africa in the 1890s, when that part of the world was very like America’s Wild West.
Her name was Lilian Baylis and, though she was not an actress, she was the most important woman in the whole history of the English Theatre, because it is to her we owe the Old Vic Company (now the National Theatre) the Sadler’s Wells Opera Company, and the Royal Ballet.
The Old Vic, then called the Royal Coburg Theatre, was built in the Waterloo Road in 1818: by the middle of the same century it was one of the roughest, most disreputable theatres in London, playing the most lurid “blood and thunder” melodramas to very rowdy audiences.
Then a charitable reformer called Emma Cons took the theatre over – by this time it was called the Royal Victoria Hall – and converted it into a place where respectable working people and reformed drunkards could come for wholesome entertainment. There were lectures, concerts, readings – and coffee and buns.
For a time the building was called the Royal Victoria Coffee Music Hall, but it soon became popularly known as the “Old Vic.”
Miss Cons was a worthy woman, but she never made theatre history. It was her niece, Lilian Baylis, who did this. Miss Baylis joined her aunt in 1898, when she was twenty-four, and became the Old Vic’s manager.
When the first World War broke out in 1914, two years after Emma Cons had died, the Old Vic was flourishing, but desperately short of money. There was already an opera company there, run on very simple lines, with the operas sung in English; there were film shows – and the very beginnings of a Shakespeare company.
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Posted in Actors, English Literature, Historical articles, History, London, Music, Shakespeare, Theatre on Monday, 25 March 2013
This edited article about the English theatre originally appeared in Look and Learn issue number 209 published on 15 January 1966.
A London omnibus advertises the runaway West End hit show, Chu Chin Chow
On November 11, 1918, the First World War came to an end after four terrible years. These years had been a boom time in the theatre, with the troops home on leave quite naturally wanting to be entertained.
Not that any very memorable plays were staged – only lighthearted or patriotic pieces were put on. The two most famous shows of this period were the tuneful Maid Of The Mountains, and a gigantic, colourful mixture of play, pantomime and musical, called Chu Chin Chow, which opened in 1916 and ran for 2,238 performances.
The theatre in England now underwent far-reaching changes. The day of the great actor-managers, which had started with Sir Henry Irving forty years before, was almost over; and the last of them, Sir Gerald du Maurier, was, as we shall see, the very opposite of the first. The “well-made” plays of Sir Arthur Pinero were no longer in fashion. New playwrights writing more modern though equally well-constructed plays appeared, the most famous of them – who is still delighting us today – being Noel Coward, who combines the talents of author, actor, composer and entertainer. One of his best plays, Hay Fever, which he wrote in three days in 1925, has recently been revived with enormous success at the National Theatre.
The great days of the touring theatre companies were nearly over, as, first, the silent films, and then the “talking pictures,” took their audiences away from them. But fortunately this blow was softened by the start of the Repertory movement. The first “Rep” was started by a Miss Horniman in Manchester in 1908.
A repertory company does not try for long runs, but puts on a new play every month, or every fortnight, or, perhaps every week.
Miss Horniman’s fine venture did not survive the War, but one in Birmingham did, and under Sir Barry Jackson it became the most important of all Repertory theatres. It was here in the 1920s that Sir Laurence Olivier, Sir Ralph Richardson and a host of other actors learned their “trade.”
Sir Barry, who spent thousands of pounds of his own money on his theatre, also founded the Malvern Festival, which was mainly devoted to Bernard Shaw’s plays, and in 1946 took over the Stratford-upon-Avon Festival for a few years. In the whole history of the theatre no-one better deserved a knighthood.
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Posted in Actors, English Literature, Historical articles, History, London, Railways, Shakespeare, Theatre on Thursday, 21 March 2013
This edited article about the English theatre originally appeared in Look and Learn issue number 207 published on 1 January 1966.
The Sunday “train-call” was a theatrical institution, when the railways carried hundreds of actors all over the country – previously they had travelled by stage coach or or foot
Twice in its long and stormy history, the English Theatre has enjoyed a Golden Age. The first and greatest was in Shakespeare’s day. The second began in 1871, when Henry Irving, later to become the first theatrical knight, triumphed in The Bells, and it continued until the outbreak of the first World War in 1914.
Though a second Shakespeare did not appear during this period, Bernard Shaw established himself as a major playwright; his fellow Irishman, Oscar Wilde, wrote his masterpiece, The Importance of Being Earnest; and a number of authors, headed by Sir Arthur Pinero, wrote well-made plays which kept audiences entertained and amused.
But the Theatre at this time was dominated by a group of actor-managers who, inspired by the example of Irving, formed their own companies and brought glory to their profession, as well as fame and fortune to themselves.
The very word “Theatre” had a glamour about it, and an excitement that it has never had since. As in Shakespeare’s day, every class of society flocked to the theatres. All too often, in the centuries between Shakespeare and Irving, the Theatre had been an upper or a lower class entertainment, with the middle classes staying away.
The Music Halls flourished, and their greatest stars – Dan Leno, Marie Lloyd and a host of others – were national figures. It was also the age of Gilbert and Sullivan; of Melba and Caruso, the famous opera singers; of the Gaiety Girls; of “The Merry Widow” and tuneful musical comedies. Add the sound of hansom cabs, the flicker of gaslight and the swirl of the waltz, and it is hardly surprising that the Theatre of those days seems touched with magic.
Nor was it only the London Stage which prospered. The railways carried companies of travelling actors to play in the hundreds of theatres which then existed all over Britain. The cinema was in its infancy and, with no radio or television, the Theatre had no rivals.
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Posted in Actors, Historical articles, History, Music, Shakespeare, Theatre on Wednesday, 20 March 2013
This edited article about the English theatre originally appeared in Look and Learn issue number 204 published on 11 December 1965.
The first half of the nineteenth century was a time of great novelists and poets – and third-rate playwrights. Wordsworth, Keats, Shelley, Lord Byron and, later, Robert Browning and Tennyson were the leading poets, and Charles Dickens, Sir Walter Scott, the Bronte Sisters and Thackeray the finest novelists; but during this time the theatre produced only bad or dull “serious” plays – and a long line of splendidly sensational melodramas like Maria Marten, or the Murder in the Red Barn and Sweeney Todd, or the Demon Barber of Fleet Street.
Before looking at these melodramas, we must try and discover where the Theatre went wrong.
Firstly, the actual playhouses had become too large. Covent Garden and Drury Lane had been rebuilt to accommodate more and more people, and were too big for ordinary plays. Consequently, “natural” acting was becoming almost impossible and, except for a rare genius like Edmund Kean, the standard dropped generally as players strained to be heard and seen.
Drury Lane went over to gas lighting from candles and chandeliers in 1817, but it was some time before the new system was used effectively, and the audience was still fully visible, and therefore liable to distract attention from the actors.
And what an audience! They were no longer the theatre-lovers who had supported David Garrick in the previous century, or the wonderful playgoers of every class who had thronged the Globe Theatre in Shakespeare’s day. The upper classes had deserted the Theatre for Italian opera, and the lower classes wanted only melodramas and low comedies, while most of the middle classes gave up going to the theatres altogether because it was not “respectable.”
Prince Pucklet-Muskau wrote: “The most striking thing to a foreigner in English theatres is the unheard-of coarseness and brutality of the audiences.” He heard “coarse expressions shouted from the galleries.” Spectators in the “pit” (our modern stalls) were liable to find orange peel, apple cores or worse raining down on them.
So it was hardly surprising that respectable people, especially women, kept away. There were plenty of genuine theatre-lovers left, but they would only visit the theatre now for something really worth-while – to see a genius like Kean in one of his great parts, for example.
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Posted in Actors, English Literature, Famous landmarks, Historical articles, History, Literature, London, Shakespeare, Theatre on Friday, 15 March 2013
This edited article about the English theatre originally appeared in Look and Learn issue number 198 published on 30 October 1965.
A morning rehearsal at the Globe Theatre, which is flying the flag to indicate that there will be a performance in the afternoon – weather permitting. Picture by Ralph Bruce
It is two o’clock in the afternoon. From the top of the Globe Theatre a trumpet sounds and a flag flies to show that the weather is good and a performance will take place. The “groundlings” stand packing the space around the stage, and the tiers of seats are filled with men and women eagerly waiting for the play to begin.
Queen Elizabeth I is dead and James I is on the throne. It is 1604.
The play is Hamlet, by the Globe Company’s resident playwright, William Shakespeare. The great Richard Burbage is playing Hamlet, and the author is taking the part of the Ghost. There is little scenery, but the costumes are very splendid and in the style of the day. Even yesterday afternoon’s performance of Julius Caesar was in “modern dress,” with just a cloak or a helmet to suggest Roman times. There are no intervals, and one scene quickly follows another.
Who were these people who spent a few enchanted hours at the Globe? The short answer is that they were everybody! In those days, for the only time in English history, all classes went to the theatre – lords and ladies, lawyers, tradesmen and their wives, labourers – and thieves and pickpockets.
Sometimes some of these people were noisy and unruly – but they cared about what was being presented to them, and that is what matters in the theatre. If they were bored, they showed it – and angry authors whose plays had failed sometimes called them “rabble” and “stinkards.” But they quickly responded with cheers and applause when they were pleased, and the popular idea that a theatre audience of the time was no more a mob busy cracking nuts and throwing half-eaten apples at an unsuccessful actor is not a fair one. In any case, Puritans and hostile mayors would have closed the theatres if there had been continual disorders.
Actors and authors have always longed for an audience which is enthralled by a play, and a friend of Shakespeare paid tribute to the play goers of his day in these words:
Oh how the Audience
Were ravished, with what wonder they went hence!
We cannot know exactly what the acting was like at the Globe, but it was certainly larger in scale than today’s, with exaggerated gestures and louder voices. It had to be, because with performances in daylight and with the audience clearly visible, any movement off the stage would distract attention from the actors. To make matters worse, privileged spectators sometimes sat on each side of the stage. It is hardly surprising, therefore, that the players acted “big” to make sure that they gripped their hearers.
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Posted in Actors, English Literature, Historical articles, History, Literature, London, Shakespeare, Theatre on Thursday, 14 March 2013
This edited article about theatre originally appeared in Look and Learn issue number 197 published on 23 October 1965.
Shakespeare watching Dr Faustus by Marlowe
The theatre at its best needs great plays, great actors, and a great audience. Luckily for the English Stage, its greatest genius, William Shakespeare, started his career less than twenty years after the first playhouse was built – in Finsbury Fields in 1576.
Since then, whenever the supply of good plays has run low, actors have never been without their most priceless possession, the wonderful range of Shakespearian parts. This has helped to ensure the existence of an audience, without which there can be no theatre, and when, occasionally, the audience has dwindled, a great actor has arisen to reclaim it.
There was Garrick in the eighteenth century. A deaf and dumb man was asked how he understood this actor’s work. He spelt out: “His face is a language.”
There was Mrs. Siddons. Even off-stage she apparently spoke in verse. When buying an umbrella, she said to the shopgirl:
“This likes me well. The cost? The cost?” and, again, when a waiter gave her the wrong drink:
“You’ve brought me water, boy. I asked for beer!”
There was Sir Henry Irving, the first theatrical knight, and Edmund Kean, who once sent Lord Byron into a convulsion by the sheer power of his acting. We shall meet all these and many more – but how and when did it all start?
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