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Wimble? The drama should be supported by a positive tax on literary exertion : it is of such great and national importance, I would condemn every penman to write either a tragedy or a comedy, The other departments of literature may be left to the support of voluntary contributions.
The parties here became taciturn, and commenced fiddling with leaves and turning over volumes. I fear, we must wait (till our next number) for a renewal of the conversation.
LETTERS ON ENGLAND.
BY M. DE ST. Foix.*
I SHALL write you, my dear S, two or three long letters on your favourite subject; and I shall begin by confessing to you that, since I have been here, it has become a favourite subject with me; though, as you know, (and you used to be very angry with me for it) I did not pay much attention to it when I was in Paris with you the last time, whatever I might do the first. I have, it is true, not been here long enough to enable me to form a very correct estimate of the state of dramatic amusements in this country; but, if I am very scrupulous on this point, I shall never fulfil half the promises I made on leaving home; so I must e'en venture to send you my remarks just as they arise, leaving for future opportunities any corrections and qualifications that it may be necessary to make in them.
The comparative state of general refinement to which the Fine Arts of different nations have arrived, may be pretty correctly reckoned by the comparative conditions of their acted drama. Perhaps there is no other criterion of the kind so good as this. Applying this, then, to England and France, I think they may be considered as nearly on a level with each other. England is infinitely below France in many respects; but it cannot be denied that France must yield to England in many others. Of the true nature of comedy, properly so called, and of actors and authors of this class, England seems to have very little notion in the present day; and to possess no living examples at all. I speak of that gay, graceful, spirited, airy, and piquant comedy which is, or ought to be, nothing more than a refined and heightened image of polished society. M--- tells me that they possess some admirable and indeed perfect examples of this kind of writing, which were produced in the witty and licentious reign of Charles II. ; but that they are seldoin acted now—partly from the want of an existing taste for this kind of drama ; but chiefly on account of their deficiency in living actors to embody the principal characters. M- goes so far as to assure me that several of these comedies are greatly superior to any thing of the kind possessed by us in the same department of dramatic literature: but he has not yet persuaded me of the correctness of this opinion; and I am afraid I shall not (while I am here at least) have time to judge for myself, if indeed the nature of this kind of writing will admit of a foreigner doing so at all. But this objection would apply to his opinion of the French writers, as well as to mine of the
* Continued from yol. iv. pnge 576. VOL. 1. NO. XX.
English ; so that I dare say we shall each keep our own opinion after all. We both of us agree, however, that at present the English can make no pretensions whatever to the possession of that particular kind of talent here referred to, either in authors or actors; and that the French have a considerable advantage over them in this respect. Under the head of correctness of costume too, he admits, though somewhat reluctantly, that the great national theatres of England are not equal to our's. On the other hand, I am compelled to admit—what I never thought of being even called upon to do—that in real tragic talent, as it respects actors, with one splendid exception, we cannot pretend to institute a comparison between our's and those of England in the present day. Indeed on this subject an entirely new light has broken in upon me since I have been here ;-exactly such a one as burst upon Rousseau when he first became acquainted with Italian music, and was led to compare it with that of France. But I shall speak of this part of the subject hereafter.
In mere farce I believe neither France nor England can claim any very decided superiority over the other ; for if our petites pièces surpass those of the English in spirit and light-heartedness, their's surpass our's in an equal degree in broad humour and comic exaggeration. Something of the same kind may, perhaps, be said of the actors of each country, in this department of the art: though I should be loath to admit that anything can surpass, in their various styles, Brunet, Potier, Joly, &c. &c. ; and in fact nothing that they have in England does surpass these, or at all equals the two first. But they have a species of actor, who is qualified to embody and express a kind of humour, that we do not exactly possess, and should probably not much relish if we did.
French travellers seem to have been mistaken in the accounts they have given of the number of English theatres. There are as many in London as there are in Paris ; with this difference, that they are never all open at the same time. Besides an Italian opera on a very grand scale, and two national theatres for the representation of the regular drama, there is an English comic opera on the plan of the Feydeau-a theatre where they usually play short light comic pieces, like those of the Vaudeville and the Variétés, and I believe six others of the same description as those on the Boulevards. All those that I shall have to tell you any thing of in detail will be the two regular theatres, as they are called; though they appear to be the least regular of all the others; for they exhibit, in turn, tragedy, comedy, farce, melo-drame, pantomime, horse-riding, rope-dancing, dogs, monkies, fire-works, &c.! Indeed I am not sure that I may not say they sometimes exhibit all these on one and the same evening! This is, to be sure, in a very barbarous taste : and I the more wonder at it because, when they do perform the regular drama, the costume is arranged with nearly as much propriety as it is in our own national theatres, and the scenery and decorations are even superior to our's.
But before proceeding to notice that department of the English theatres which appertains to the performance and the management, let me point out to you a few of the particulars connected with the public or audience-part of them :—for this part of an English theatre, or place of public entertainment, presents more peculiar and characteristic traits than any other; and for these it is my business chiefly to search.
If I were required to state under what circumstances the cold and selfish, as well as the tasteless and semi-barbarous, character of the generality of the English people, is exhibited on the largest scale, and may be studied in its most striking point of view, I should reply-at their public theatres. Let me describe to you the character and behaviour of an English audience, from the time it reaches the theatre till it quits it; at least if your patience can bear with it so long, which mine very seldom can, I assure you.
The doors of the English theatres are opened for the admission of the audience, only half an hour before the performance begins. We will suppose the occasion to be one on which there is a more than ordinary degree of attraction. In this case a large crowd will be collected at the several outer doors, long before they are opened :-I say the several doors, for you are to understand that there are separate entrances and staircases for the company going to every different part of the theatre ;-not as with us, where one entrance and one staircase serves for all, because all are quiet and well-behaved. Knowing, as you do, the nature of the crowd collected before the doors of a French theatre, and that each individual takes his place in the line, or queue, according to the time he arrives at the spot, and never thinks of quitting that place by forcing himself into a better to which he is not entitled, you will not be able to form the remotest conception of how the process is managed here; where, in cases of this kind, might is regarded as the criterion of right, and where, when a point of self-interest is in question, the relative claims which arise from sex are either entirely unknown, or entirely disregarded—which still is worse. Fancy, then, not a queue but a solid mass of persons of both sexes, to the number of five hundred or a thousand, collected before a single door five or six feet wide-fancy that door opened at a given signal, but without a moment's warning, and every individual of that number pressing with all his force to that one narrow point of entrance :--fancy this, and then conceive, if you can, the scene which ensues. cannot. It is a scene at once more characteristic and more disgraceful than any thing of the kind I have ever witnessed : the barbarous howlings and shoutings of the men, and the frightful screamings and faintings of the women, render it absolutely terrific, and such as could be looked for only in a nation of savages, and would certainly not be tolerated for any length of time even there. But here, from the halfreasoning, half-savage propensities of the great mass of the people, it is not only tolerated, bút defended, as the most eligible mode of effecting the desired purpose. If you speak to an Englishman on this subject, he asks you how you would propose to manage the matter better ; and when, in reply, you refer him to the mode adopted at our theatres (the success of which depends on the observance of a point of justice and good-manners), he
says, Oh, that would never do for us !" And he is quite right-it never would !
You are to understand that there is no one appointed to regulate or direct any thing that is going forward during this scene of riot and outrage; for though persons belonging to the police are usually on the spot, they seem to be placed there only for the purpose of in
creasing the danger and confusion, by telling you, from time to time, to "take care of your pockets !" This is, to be sure, an agreeable way of mending the matter. When you are jammed into close contact with a thief, and cannot possibly either escape or protect yourself from him, you are desired to be careful that he does not rob you! In fact, these police agentsknow and recognise every one of those in the crowd (and there are generally several on these occasions) who come there expressly, and as far as regards the police agents, avowedly for the purpose of robbing; yet these officers of justice never think of removing them, or of interfering with their objects, except by informing you, when it is too late, that such persons are present--for they never do even this till the crowd becomes so dense that all but those at the outward extremities of it cannot escape from it if they would.
I have never heard an Englishman even attempt to account for or defend this strange mode of furthering the ends of justice on the part of his rulers; so I shall do so for them, by saying that I suppose it is to be regarded as one of the results of a Briton's boasted liberty. The argument probably is this : that a professed pickpocket possesses as unquestionable a right to go to the theatre for his amusement as a man of any other profession; and that to stop him on his way thither would be to infringe on his birthright as a free-born Englishman. If, indeed, in the course of your joint progress thither, you are lucky enough to detect him in exercising his profession to your cost, you may, if you can, hand him over to the police agent who is in attendance, and who will in that case readily take charge of the culprit, and he will inevitably be punished. But otherwise, I suppose you are bound, though you know him to be a robber, to follow the police agent's example, and treat him as a gentleman :- for so the said agent evidently does, and this at the expense, in two different ways, of all the honest people present. For though he warns you of the necessity of guarding your property against somebody, and though he knows to a certainty who that somebody is, yet he never gives you the slightest hint by which you can fix your suspicions on any particular person ; so that every individual in the crowd, ercept the pickpocket himself, is obliged, in his own defence, to suspect every other with whom he may come in contact. The truth is, that the police agents here are paid, not to prevent crime, but only to detect it when committed ; and if you were to apply to them for an explanation of their conduct on these occasions, they would, I dare say, be candid enough to give you this, as the only true and intelligible one.
Let us now accompany the audience to the interior of the theatre, previously mentioning that the price of admission to the whole of the boxes is the same--about nine francs ; that to the pit about half; and that to the two galleries about fifty sous, and twenty-five. In the pit (that part which answers to our parterre) we shall find a tolerably welldressed and reputable looking company, of both sexes ; forming what usually appears to me to be the most respectable, as well as the most enlightened and attentive, part of an English audience. It consists of persons from the middle classes of society, who really pay their money to see the performance; which can rarely be said of the persons frequenting any other part of the house. In fact, this is the only portion of the audience which can in any degree be compared to the audience of a French theatre, either in regard to their object in attending, or the decency and decorum of their behaviour while there. The females in' the pit are always dressed in a walking costume.
In that part which is called the dress boxes, which consists of a circle of boxes immediately above the pit, are usually seated a motley group
appearance it would be as difficult to describe as it would be to ascertain to what particular classes of society they severally belong. But it may be safely stated, that they usually comprise a mixture of all classes, except the very highest and the very lowest ; for, unless the places in a box have been previously retained by any particular party, no one can be refused admittance into them who has, by whatever means, gained admittance into the box part of the theatre at all : and I believe it may be considered, that on ordinary nights at least one-third of the persons in the boxes have gained admission gratuitously, by means of what are called free orders, which are not, as with us, chiefly confined to particular persons, but are allowed to be given to their friends by the performers and others connected with the theatre, in order that this part of the house may not have that wretched appearance of emptiness; which, from its enormous size, it inevitably would, nine nights out of ten but for this plan. From this preposterous arrangement, as to the right of admission to the boxes generally, it results, that a lady, may, and in fact actually does, sometimes find herself seated in the same box side by side with the person who fitted on her shoes in the morning, or dressed her hair an hour ago. There can be no doubt that it is this ridiculously defective arrangement as to the right of admission to particular places which has induced persons of family and fashion almost entirely to withdraw their patronage from the national theatres. In fact, they scarcely ever attend them now, except on very particular occasions ; and even then, if they do not possess a private box (of which there are very few), they always contrive to go in a party sufficient to fill a box of themselves : for, if they did not adopt this plan, at the end of the first act of the play any one outside the box might demand the vacant places. But on ordinary nights the company in the dress boxes may certainly be regarded as the least respectable part of the audience, with the exception of the mere cunaille who occupy what are called the galleries - the price of admission to all the boxes being alike, and there being no exclusion on account of dress, except that the females must be without bonnets.
Proceeding upwards, we reach the three other tiers of boxes, which are occupied by a class of persons, nearly similar in appearance to those in the pit, but generally speaking not so respectable in station. Immediately above and in contact with these are the galleries ; wbich are frequented by almost the lowest classes of the people. We have now the whole of the audience before us. Let us take a slight glance at the behaviour of each several portion of it, and then leave them to themselves; for I have never yet formed a part of one of them, and cannot do so now even in imagination, without being heartily sick and tired of my company, as I dare say you are already with the description of them.
Each of the two national theatres in London is much larger than any theatre in Paris; and from some defect in the construction of them, it