The second of the Sketches written by Charles Dickens for The Monthly Magazine describes a wonderful amateur theatrical, and was quite prophetic, for over twenty years later Dickens himself would convert his London house into a theatre to stage a grand production of ‘The Frozen Deep. The description of the dining room being ‘…dismantled of its furniture, and ornaments’ could just as easily applied to the reality of Tavistock House as to the fictitious Rose Villa. Dickens, or Boz, was in his element!
Mrs Joseph Porter
Most extensive were the preparations at Rose Villa, Clapham Rise, in the occupation of Mr. Gattleton (a stock-broker in especially comfortable circumstances), and great was the anxiety of Mr. Gattleton’s interesting family, as the day fixed for the representation of the Private Play which had been ‘many months in preparation,’ approached. The whole family was infected with the mania for Private Theatricals; the house, usually so clean and tidy, was, to use Mr. Gattleton’s expressive description, ‘regularly turned out o’ windows;’ the large dining-room, dismantled of its furniture, and ornaments, presented a strange jumble of flats, flies, wings, lamps, bridges, clouds, thunder and lightning, festoons and flowers, daggers and foil, and various other messes in theatrical slang included under the comprehensive name of ‘properties.’ The bedrooms were crowded with scenery, the kitchen was occupied by carpenters. Rehearsals took place every other night in the drawing-room, and every sofa in the house was more or less damaged by the perseverance and spirit with which Mr. Sempronius Gattleton, and Miss Lucina, rehearsed the smothering scene in ‘Othello’—it having been determined that that tragedy should form the first portion of the evening’s entertainments.
‘When we’re a leetle more perfect, I think it will go admirably,’ said Mr. Sempronius, addressing his corps dramatique, at the conclusion of the hundred and fiftieth rehearsal. In consideration of his sustaining the trifling inconvenience of bearing all the expenses of the play, Mr. Sempronius had been, in the most handsome manner, unanimously elected stage-manager. ‘Evans,’ continued Mr. Gattleton, the younger, addressing a tall, thin, pale young gentleman, with extensive whiskers—‘Evans, you play Roderigo beautifully.’
‘Beautifully,’ echoed the three Miss Gattletons; for Mr. Evans was pronounced by all his lady friends to be ‘quite a dear.’ He looked so interesting, and had such lovely whiskers: to say nothing of his talent for writing verses in albums and playing the flute! Roderigo simpered and bowed.
‘But I think,’ added the manager, ‘you are hardly perfect in the—fall—in the fencing-scene, where you are—you understand?’
‘It’s very difficult,’ said Mr. Evans, thoughtfully; ‘I’ve fallen about, a good deal, in our counting-house lately, for practice, only I find it hurts one so. Being obliged to fall backward you see, it bruises one’s head a good deal.’
‘But you must take care you don’t knock a wing down,’ said Mr. Gattleton, the elder, who had been appointed prompter, and who took as much interest in the play as the youngest of the company. ‘The stage is very narrow, you know.’
‘Oh! don’t be afraid,’ said Mr. Evans, with a very self-satisfied air; ‘I shall fall with my head “off,” and then I can’t do any harm.’
‘But, egad,’ said the manager, rubbing his hands, ‘we shall make a decided hit in “Masaniello.” Harleigh sings that music admirably.’
Everybody echoed the sentiment. Mr. Harleigh smiled, and looked foolish—not an unusual thing with him—hummed’ Behold how brightly breaks the morning,’ and blushed as red as the fisherman’s nightcap he was trying on.
‘Let’s see,’ resumed the manager, telling the number on his fingers, ‘we shall have three dancing female peasants, besides Fenella, and four fishermen. Then, there’s our man Tom; he can have a pair of ducks of mine, and a check shirt of Bob’s, and a red nightcap, and he’ll do for another—that’s five. In the choruses, of course, we can sing at the sides; and in the market-scene we can walk about in cloaks and things. When the revolt takes place, Tom must keep rushing in on one side and out on the other, with a pickaxe, as fast as he can. The effect will be electrical; it will look exactly as if there were an immense number of ’em. And in the eruption-scene we must burn the red fire, and upset the tea-trays, and make all sorts of noises—and it’s sure to do.’
‘Sure! sure!’ cried all the performers unâ voce—and away hurried Mr. Sempronius Gattleton to wash the burnt cork off his face, and superintend the ‘setting up’ of some of the amateur-painted, but never-sufficiently-to-be-admired, scenery.
Mrs. Gattleton was a kind, good-tempered, vulgar soul, exceedingly fond of her husband and children, and entertaining only three dislikes. In the first place, she had a natural antipathy to anybody else’s unmarried daughters; in the second, she was in bodily fear of anything in the shape of ridicule; lastly—almost a necessary consequence of this feeling—she regarded, with feelings of the utmost horror, one Mrs. Joseph Porter over the way. However, the good folks of Clapham and its vicinity stood very much in awe of scandal and sarcasm; and thus Mrs. Joseph Porter was courted, and flattered, and caressed, and invited, for much the same reason that induces a poor author, without a farthing in his pocket, to behave with extraordinary civility to a twopenny postman.
‘Never mind, ma,’ said Miss Emma Porter, in colloquy with her respected relative, and trying to look unconcerned; ‘if they had invited me, you know that neither you nor pa would have allowed me to take part in such an exhibition.’
‘Just what I should have thought from your high sense of propriety,’ returned the mother. ‘I am glad to see, Emma, you know how to designate the proceeding.’ Miss P., by-the-bye, had only the week before made ‘an exhibition’ of herself for four days, behind a counter at a fancy fair, to all and every of her Majesty’s liege subjects who were disposed to pay a shilling each for the privilege of seeing some four dozen girls flirting with strangers, and playing at shop.
‘There!’ said Mrs. Porter, looking out of window; ‘there are two rounds of beef and a ham going in—clearly for sandwiches; and Thomas, the pastry-cook, says, there have been twelve dozen tarts ordered, besides blancmange and jellies. Upon my word! think of the Miss Gattletons in fancy dresses, too!’
‘Oh, it’s too ridiculous!’ said Miss Porter, hysterically.
‘I’ll manage to put them a little out of conceit with the business, however,’ said Mrs. Porter; and out she went on her charitable errand.
‘Well, my dear Mrs. Gattleton,’ said Mrs. Joseph Porter, after they had been closeted for some time, and when, by dint of indefatigable pumping, she had managed to extract all the news about the play, ‘well, my dear, people may say what they please; indeed we know they will, for some folks are so ill-natured. Ah, my dear Miss Lucina, how d’ye do? I was just telling your mamma that I have heard it said, that—’
‘Mrs. Porter is alluding to the play, my dear,’ said Mrs. Gattleton; ‘she was, I am sorry to say, just informing me that—’
‘Oh, now pray don’t mention it,’ interrupted Mrs. Porter; ‘it’s most absurd—quite as absurd as young What’s-his-name saying he wondered how Miss Caroline, with such a foot and ankle, could have the vanity to play Fenella.’
‘Highly impertinent, whoever said it,’ said Mrs. Gattleton, bridling up.
‘Certainly, my dear,’ chimed in the delighted Mrs. Porter; ‘most undoubtedly! Because, as I said, if Miss Caroline does play Fenella, it doesn’t follow, as a matter of course, that she should think she has a pretty foot;—and then—such puppies as these young men are—he had the impudence to say, that—’
How far the amiable Mrs. Porter might have succeeded in her pleasant purpose, it is impossible to say, had not the entrance of Mr. Thomas Balderstone, Mrs. Gattleton’s brother, familiarly called in the family ‘Uncle Tom,’ changed the course of conversation, and suggested to her mind an excellent plan of operation on the evening of the play.
Uncle Tom was very rich, and exceedingly fond of his nephews and nieces: as a matter of course, therefore, he was an object of great importance in his own family. He was one of the best-hearted men in existence: always in a good temper, and always talking. It was his boast that he wore top-boots on all occasions, and had never worn a black silk neckerchief; and it was his pride that he remembered all the principal plays of Shakspeare from beginning to end—and so he did. The result of this parrot-like accomplishment was, that he was not only perpetually quoting himself, but that he could never sit by, and hear a misquotation from the ‘Swan of Avon’ without setting the unfortunate delinquent right. He was also something of a wag; never missed an opportunity of saying what he considered a good thing, and invariably laughed until he cried at anything that appeared to him mirth-moving or ridiculous.
‘Well, girls!’ said Uncle Tom, after the preparatory ceremony of kissing and how-d’ye-do-ing had been gone through—‘how d’ye get on? Know your parts, eh?—Lucina, my dear, act II., scene I—place, left-cue—“Unknown fate,”—What’s next, eh?—Go on—“The Heavens—”’
‘Oh, yes,’ said Miss Lucina, ‘I recollect – “The heavens forbid But that our loves and comforts should increase Even as our days do grow!”’
‘Make a pause here and there,’ said the old gentleman, who was a great critic. ‘“But that our loves and comforts should increase”—emphasis on the last syllable, “crease,”—loud “even,”—one, two, three, four; then loud again, “as our days do grow;” emphasis on days. That’s the way, my dear; trust to your uncle for emphasis. Ah! Sem, my boy, how are you?’
‘Very well, thankee, uncle,’ returned Mr. Sempronius, who had just appeared, looking something like a ringdove, with a small circle round each eye: the result of his constant corking. ‘Of course we see you on Thursday.’
‘Of course, of course, my dear boy.’
‘What a pity it is your nephew didn’t think of making you prompter, Mr. Balderstone!’ whispered Mrs. Joseph Porter; ‘you would have been invaluable.’
‘Well, I flatter myself, I should have been tolerably up to the thing,’ responded Uncle Tom.
‘I must bespeak sitting next you on the night,’ resumed Mrs. Porter; ‘and then, if our dear young friends here, should be at all wrong, you will be able to enlighten me. I shall be so interested.’
‘I am sure I shall be most happy to give you any assistance in my power’
‘Mind, it’s a bargain.’
‘I don’t know how it is,’ said Mrs. Gattleton to her daughters, as they were sitting round the fire in the evening, looking over their parts, ‘but I really very much wish Mrs. Joseph Porter wasn’t coming on Thursday. I am sure she’s scheming something.’
‘She can’t make us ridiculous, however,’ observed Mr. Sempronius Gattleton, haughtily.
The long-looked-for Thursday arrived in due course, and brought with it, as Mr. Gattleton, senior, philosophically observed, ‘no disappointments, to speak of.’ True, it was yet a matter of doubt whether Cassio would be enabled to get into the dress which had been sent for him from the masquerade warehouse. It was equally uncertain whether the principal female singer would be sufficiently recovered from the influenza to make her appearance; Mr. Harleigh, the Masaniello of the night, was hoarse, and rather unwell, in consequence of the great quantity of lemon and sugar-candy he had eaten to improve his voice; and two flutes and a violoncello had pleaded severe colds.
What of that? the audience were all coming. Everybody knew his part: the dresses were covered with tinsel and spangles; the white plumes looked beautiful; Mr. Evans had practised falling until he was bruised from head to foot and quite perfect; Iago was sure that, in the stabbing-scene, he should make ‘a decided hit.’ A self-taught deaf gentleman, who had kindly offered to bring his flute, would be a most valuable addition to the orchestra; Miss Jenkins’s talent for the piano was too well known to be doubted for an instant; Mr. Cape had practised the violin accompaniment with her frequently; and Mr. Brown, who had kindly undertaken, at a few hours’ notice, to bring his violoncello, would, no doubt, manage extremely well.
Seven o’clock came, and so did the audience; all the rank and fashion of Clapham and its vicinity was fast filling the theatre. There were the Smiths, the Gubbinses, the Nixons, the Dixons, the Hicksons, people with all sorts of names, two aldermen, a sheriff in perspective, Sir Thomas Glumper (who had been knighted in the last reign for carrying up an address on somebody’s escaping from nothing); and last, not least, there were Mrs. Joseph Porter and Uncle Tom, seated in the centre of the third row from the stage; Mrs. P. amusing Uncle Tom with all sorts of stories, and Uncle Tom amusing every one else by laughing most immoderately.
Ting, ting, ting! went the prompter’s bell at eight o’clock precisely, and dash went the orchestra into the overture to ‘The Men of Prometheus.’ The pianoforte player hammered away with laudable perseverance; and the violoncello, which struck in at intervals, ‘sounded very well, considering.’ The unfortunate individual, however, who had undertaken to play the flute accompaniment ‘at sight,’ found, from fatal experience, the perfect truth of the old adage, ‘ought of sight, out of mind;’ for being very near-sighted, and being placed at a considerable distance from his music-book, all he had an opportunity of doing was to play a bar now and then in the wrong place, and put the other performers out. It is, however, but justice to Mr. Brown to say that he did this to admiration. The overture, in fact, was not unlike a race between the different instruments; the piano came in first by several bars, and the violoncello next, quite distancing the poor flute; for the deaf gentleman too-too’d away, quite unconscious that he was at all wrong, until apprised, by the applause of the audience, that the overture was concluded. A considerable bustle and shuffling of feet was then heard upon the stage, accompanied by whispers of ‘Here’s a pretty go!—what’s to be done?’ &c. The audience applauded again, by way of raising the spirits of the performers; and then Mr. Sempronius desired the prompter, in a very audible voice, to ‘clear the stage, and ring up.’
Ting, ting, ting! went the bell again. Everybody sat down; the curtain shook; rose sufficiently high to display several pair of yellow boots paddling about; and there remained.
Ting, ting, ting! went the bell again. The curtain was violently convulsed, but rose no higher; the audience tittered; Mrs. Porter looked at Uncle Tom; Uncle Tom looked at everybody, rubbing his hands, and laughing with perfect rapture. After as much ringing with the little bell as a muffin-boy would make in going down a tolerably long street, and a vast deal of whispering, hammering, and calling for nails and cord, the curtain at length rose, and discovered Mr. Sempronius Gattleton solus, and decked for Othello. After three distinct rounds of applause, during which Mr. Sempronius applied his right hand to his left breast, and bowed in the most approved manner, the manager advanced and said:
‘Ladies and Gentlemen—I assure you it is with sincere regret, that I regret to be compelled to inform you, that Iago who was to have played Mr. Wilson—I beg your pardon, Ladies and Gentlemen, but I am naturally somewhat agitated (applause)—I mean, Mr. Wilson, who was to have played Iago, is—that is, has been—or, in other words, Ladies and Gentlemen, the fact is, that I have just received a note, in which I am informed that Iago is unavoidably detained at the Post-office this evening. Under these circumstances, I trust—a—a—amateur performance—a—another gentleman undertaken to read the part—request indulgence for a short time—courtesy and kindness of a British audience.’ Overwhelming applause. Exit Mr. Sempronius Gattleton, and curtain falls.
The audience were, of course, exceedingly good-humoured; the whole business was a joke; and accordingly they waited for an hour with the utmost patience, being enlivened by an interlude of rout-cakes and lemonade. It appeared by Mr. Sempronius’s subsequent explanation, that the delay would not have been so great, had it not so happened that when the substitute Iago had finished dressing, and just as the play was on the point of commencing, the original Iago unexpectedly arrived. The former was therefore compelled to undress, and the latter to dress for his part; which, as he found some difficulty in getting into his clothes, occupied no inconsiderable time. At last, the tragedy began in real earnest. It went off well enough, until the third scene of the first act, in which Othello addresses the Senate: the only remarkable circumstance being, that as Iago could not get on any of the stage boots, in consequence of his feet being violently swelled with the heat and excitement, he was under the necessity of playing the part in a pair of Wellingtons, which contrasted rather oddly with his richly embroidered pantaloons. When Othello started with his address to the Senate (whose dignity was represented by, the Duke, a carpenter, two men engaged on the recommendation of the gardener, and a boy), Mrs. Porter found the opportunity she so anxiously sought.
Mr. Sempronius proceeded:
‘“Most potent, grave, and reverend signiors, My very noble and approv’d good masters, That I have ta’en away this old man’s daughter, It is most true;—rude am I in my speech—”’
‘Is that right?’ whispered Mrs. Porter to Uncle Tom.
‘Tell him so, then.’
‘I will. Sem!’ called out Uncle Tom, ‘that’s wrong, my boy.’
‘What’s wrong, uncle?’ demanded Othello, quite forgetting the dignity of his situation.
‘You’ve left out something. “True I have married—”’
‘Oh, ah!’ said Mr. Sempronius, endeavouring to hide his confusion as much and as ineffectually as the audience attempted to conceal their half-suppressed tittering, by coughing with extraordinary violence –
– ‘“true I have married her; – The very head and front of my offending Hath this extent; no more.”
(Aside) Why don’t you prompt, father?’
‘Because I’ve mislaid my spectacles,’ said poor Mr. Gattleton, almost dead with the heat and bustle.
‘There, now it’s “rude am I,”’ said Uncle Tom.
‘Yes, I know it is,’ returned the unfortunate manager, proceeding with his part.
It would be useless and tiresome to quote the number of instances in which Uncle Tom, now completely in his element, and instigated by the mischievous Mrs. Porter, corrected the mistakes of the performers; suffice it to say, that having mounted his hobby, nothing could induce him to dismount; so, during the whole remainder of the play, he performed a kind of running accompaniment, by muttering everybody’s part as it was being delivered, in an under-tone. The audience were highly amused, Mrs. Porter delighted, the performers embarrassed; Uncle Tom never was better pleased in all his life; and Uncle Tom’s nephews and nieces had never, although the declared heirs to his large property, so heartily wished him gathered to his fathers as on that memorable occasion.
Several other minor causes, too, united to damp the ardour of the dramatis personae. None of the performers could walk in their tights, or move their arms in their jackets; the pantaloons were too small, the boots too large, and the swords of all shapes and sizes. Mr. Evans, naturally too tall for the scenery, wore a black velvet hat with immense white plumes, the glory of which was lost in ‘the flies;’ and the only other inconvenience of which was, that when it was off his head he could not put it on, and when it was on he could not take it off. Notwithstanding all his practice, too, he fell with his head and shoulders as neatly through one of the side scenes, as a harlequin would jump through a panel in a Christmas pantomime. The pianoforte player, overpowered by the extreme heat of the room, fainted away at the commencement of the entertainments, leaving the music of ‘Masaniello’ to the flute and violoncello. The orchestra complained that Mr. Harleigh put them out, and Mr. Harleigh declared that the orchestra prevented his singing a note. The fishermen, who were hired for the occasion, revolted to the very life, positively refusing to play without an increased allowance of spirits; and, their demand being complied with, getting drunk in the eruption-scene as naturally as possible. The red fire, which was burnt at the conclusion of the second act, not only nearly suffocated the audience, but nearly set the house on fire into the bargain; and, as it was, the remainder of the piece was acted in a thick fog.
In short, the whole affair was, as Mrs. Joseph Porter triumphantly told everybody, ‘a complete failure.’ The audience went home at four o’clock in the morning, exhausted with laughter, suffering from severe headaches, and smelling terribly of brimstone and gunpowder. The Messrs. Gattleton, senior and junior, retired to rest, with the vague idea of emigrating to Swan River early in the ensuing week.
Rose Villa has once again resumed its wonted appearance; the dining-room furniture has been replaced; the tables are as nicely polished as formerly; the horsehair chairs are ranged against the wall, as regularly as ever; Venetian blinds have been fitted to every window in the house to intercept the prying gaze of Mrs. Joseph Porter. The subject of theatricals is never mentioned in the Gattleton family, unless, indeed, by Uncle Tom, who cannot refrain from sometimes expressing his surprise and regret at finding that his nephews and nieces appear to have lost the relish they once possessed for the beauties of Shakspeare, and quotations from the works of that immortal bard.