The realities of running a theatre and putting up productions achieve imaginative form in Michael Kelly's Reminiscences (1826) and in Thomas Diblin's Reminiscences (1827). These personal histories detail the history and spectacle of Georgian and Regency London Theatre. The authors also show themselves in situations such as traveling and performing in Europe, witnessing events of the French Revolution, entering the business of music publishing, going through bankruptcy and disgrace, and engaging the foibles of George III and his family. Of interest as exercises in the purpose and art of memoir writing, these texts illustrate the construction, presentation, and valuation of art, the making of theatrical culture in the early nineteenth century.
The abandoned son seeking the name of the father, bankruptcy and betrayal, regicide and revolution: reminiscing, Thomas Dibdin and Michael Kelly shape this stuff of spectacle into the drama of their lives. Members of the theatrical and musical communities in Georgian and Regency England involved themselves not only in the creation of plays, operas, and concerts but also in the production of written accounts of their lives that detail the process of making theatre and music. In his Reminiscences, which appeared in 1826, Michael Kelly, who lived from 1762 to 1826 describes his life as tenor, composer, theatre manager, music publisher. "Between the years 1797 and 1821, I produced, at different theatres, sixty-two pieces, by far the greatest number produced by any one English composer, Bishop excepted" (II.323). In his Reminiscences, which appeared in 1827, Thomas Dibdin, who lived from 1771 to 1841, describes his life as "painter, prompter, poet, performer" (II. 169).
Given the careers of these two men, it is not surprising that their prose accounts of their lives include devices characteristic of fictive or imaginative work. Dibdin at times wrote a play a week and tells of completing a two-act burlesque in two days and a one-act play overnight on Nelson's victory in Egypt. Kelly was helped in writing the story of his life--probably more than a little--by Theodore Hook, who also wrote plays, novels, poems, and essays and who shapes what he calls "rough, illiterate materials" into the Reminiscences (I.vi). Of interest as personal histories and as exercises in the purpose and art of memoir writing, these works may also be considered for what they tell us about how art is constructed and presented in the early nineteenth century, about what is valued and why, about how the culture of theatre is made.
Thomas Dibdin writes, he asserts, not an "apology" for his life, however necessary that may be, but his "life itself' (II.285). While the truth of his life might be a "plodding progressive history," the "scene" and "personages" involved can be depended upon to be of interest (I.446). In an age that debated and finally privileged the validity of taking the self as a literary subject, Dibdin begins by worrying about the pronoun "I," possibly in its seductive egotism, a writer's "greatest enemy," an "eye-sore (no pun, upon my honour!) to the reader," "a tiresome recurrence." Rejecting the alternative of emulating Caesar and writing in the third person, he establishes the work as a literate discussion of theatre in Britain (I.3).
His method is to present his own life as intertwined with the life of London theatre. The way he orders the account of his lineage emphasizes this connection. First comes the father, "the celebrated and undervalued" Charles Dibdin. A composer of over 100 operettas and 1400 songs and an actor who did one-man shows, Charles Dibdin also worked as a theatre manager of such venues as Sadler's Wells and the Royal Circus--renamed the Surrey. In the Reminiscences, Dibdin describes his own eventual control of the Surrey in terms of this family connection. The owner insists, "I was the only man to whom he should like to let the theatre, because his father had built it that my father should manage it; that I should have it on liberal terms" (II. 109).
Following the name of the father are those of the godfathers: David Garrick, the greatest actor of the age, and "Mr. Frank Aiken, of Covent-Garden Theatre." Only after telling how at the age of four he "was led before the audience of the Theatre-Royal Drury Lane by Mrs. Siddons," does he mention his mother: "daughter of Mrs. Pitt, who for nearly fifty years was a highly respectable actress at Covent-Garden Theatre" (I. 10). His grandmother's theatrical resume occupies the next part of the narrative.
When, in 1775, Drury Lane needed a beautiful boy to play Cupid, four-year-old Thomas "was, (of course), selected" (I.12). He goes for training in the choir of St. Paul's, but asks to be sent to a "real school." After four years at boarding school, he is apprenticed to his uncle, a rich upholsterer, but runs away to be in theatre. As he begins the audition circuit, the Garrick connection remains important. He tells of singing for a man "whose greatest professional importance arose from the inspiring circumstance of his being possessed of 'a real pair of the great Mr. Garrick's own shoes.'" His son, an actor, plays all his roles in them, and the father cannot get over meeting "a genuine godson of the immortal G" (I.68).
Perhaps of more significance to the understanding of the presentation made in the Reminiscences is Dibdin's choice of material for this audition. Having walked eighteen miles to catch up with the touring theatre group, he arrives dusty and exhausted, but is immediately taken to the manager and commanded to sing. He launches into "Poor Jack," one of his father's most notorious compositions, and is hired to perform it. (1)
Choosing this song as his signature piece, Dibdin demonstrates one part of the complicated relationship with his father that Reminiscences suggests but assiduously refuses to detail. When Charles Dibdin abandoned his mistress and young sons, David Garrick was so disgusted that he fired him and helped support the family. As an illegitimate, rejected son, Thomas at first used his mother's name, but in 1794 became "Dibdin," over his father's objections. This information does not appear in Reminiscences.
Rather, the name change is mentioned incidentally in the context of an exchange with Philip Astley, the producer and builder of Astley's Circus. Dibdin uses the form of the dialogue to tell the story, an arch, comical conversation, that refuses painful associations. The characters are Burlettaman (Dibdin) and Philip the Great (Astley). Having sold four pieces to him in one day, Dibdin describes Astley's "declaration of his right, to name himself in his playbills the author of my productions." The owner of a shoe store, Philip the Great argues, has his name displayed on the front of his shop in the same way a theatre owner has his name displayed on a playbill. The shoe man may never have made a shoe in his life, but they are still his shoes, since he bought them. In the same way, the Burlettaman is told, "I buy these here things of you." What bitterness there is in the dialogue focuses on the abusive, sometimes degrading relationships into which writers for the theatre were forced, not on a man's deprivation of his father's name.
In designating his character "burletta man," Dibdin allies himself with a form used by theatre managers to deal with the exigencies and politics of theatrical production. The term "burletta" described a short, light, Italian comic opera, such as Pergolesi's "La Serva Padrona," first performed in London in 1750. English burlettas--verse texts that were completely sung--soon became very popular. In 1780, a burlesque tragedy "Tom Thumb" that was a spoken play with songs added was mistakenly advertised as a burletta by Covent Garden's management. Under provisions of the 1737 Theatre Licensing Act, Drury Lane and Covent Garden were the only two theatres allowed to present such burlesque tragedies, but many theatres could present burlettas. Since "Tom Thumb" had been so designated, theatres began presenting plays combining the sung and spoken word as burlettas. The elements of form were much discussed, since the form determined who was authorized to present the piece. In his Reminiscences, Dibdin participates in this debate, discussing classification of theatrical material at some length. (2) He lists his works by form. Numbers 111-134 are "Farces, miscalled Burlettas." The subtitle of the list of works presented at the Surrey Theatre is "Three-act Plays and Operas, misnamed Burlettas, according to Act of Parliament." Being a "burletta man" involved helping theatre managers find allowable material. Astley finally does permit Dibdin to take authorial credit for his burletta, partly because so doing may attract audiences. "People may think it's your father." Only after this incident does Dibdin mention that he had "dropped my nom de guerre of Merchant, and re-assumed my own" (I.193-96).
Dibdin does write about his family in Reminiscences: his brother, his courtship of and marriage to Anne Hilliar, an actress, and his mother's reactions to the marriage, the births and deaths of his children. In the context of family issues, however, he does not mention his father. He talks about him only when he addresses the vicissitudes of theatre, thus seeming to give an account of his own problems as much as describing his father. Although his father was "clever" and "capable," "ably sustaining a role for more than 100 nights," he is "undervalued." That is how Dibdin introduces him; he concludes the book with an ode to the memory of his father, "The Bard of Poor Jack." To the critic who called his father's work "vulgar," Dibdin replies: "But grumblers can seldom achieve aught beyond/The false taste which directs their attack" (II.408).
Despite writing over 250 theatrical works and fulfilling positions at virtually all the important London theatres, Thomas Dibdin faced bankruptcy and disgrace. "Undervalued" in the extreme, Dibdin outdoes his father in many ways. The perspective offered in Reminiscences is of a man attacked by those he finds both jealous and unsympathetic to the exigencies of theatrical production. Managing both the Surrey and Drury Lane simultaneously, he is seen as being overwhelmed by work and is discharged from Drury Lane, despite the efforts of Lord Byron, whom Dibdin portrays as his great friend and defender. What he sees as necessary at the Surrey, others see as extravagant, and when he cannot recoup expenses, the theatre is closed. Dibdin spends time in debtor's prison.
Telling this story, writing his professional memoirs, Dibdin asserts is the most "painful task I ever submitted to" (11.280). So why do it? As he proceeds, Dibdin talks about the impetus to write, about the possibility of this record's explaining to himself and the world how a man who portrays himself as working so hard and who "while in power, made conciliation and indulgence my chief engines of government" ended up publicly vilified and humiliated (II.281). Some of what Dibdin reveals are petty politics that he sees as characterizing any organization. "In the next place, and finally, no one will disbelieve that in all large establishments, from the administration of an empire down to the petty government of a ladies' day-school, there are always 'souls of dough,'" those who gossip and who disparage colleagues (II.282). Dibdin wants to show us what was really going on, to write "truly," rather than being mainly concerned with giving "the best account" of himself (II.408). Some events seem so extraordinary to him that they would be out of place in a novel, but must be included to give an accurate portrayal. Under the pledge of truth, he presents the portrait of a man who can provide a picture of what it was to live and work at the center of early nineteenth-century theatre. Furthermore, the phrasing that places two extremes of power as an empire and ladies' day school, reveals one particular tension of the time: the struggles that ensued as women became more important to theatrical production and wanted to graduate from "a ladies' day school" and take up positions in the world of the larger empire. (3)
In an emotional outpouring, Dibdin as "an insolvent" seeks self-justification, attempting to explain how the author of so many popular plays was unable to save a penny. He had to make his own monetary way, never "assisted, in however trifling a way, by friends or relatives"; he had to repay the debt of his failed apprenticeship; "my next care was to assist all my relatives, as far as was in my power," support his wife and "some seven daughters, and two sons." A "most painful, but necessary parenthesis" takes up his father's complete lack of support. Apologizing that he tells the story "vilely and irregularly," Dibdin allows his sense of pain and betrayal to dominate his account of "an insolvent's schedule." The particulars presented are convoluted and extensive; use of the term "schedule" turns the man into an inventory of financial details (II.223-32).
Dibdin observes that the pressures and procedures of bankruptcy and insolvency are so much a part of London theatrical life that much of his account may already be generally known. Indeed, the enterprise of being a playwright meant struggling for and juggling money. Michael Kelly, Dibdin's colleague and friend, also faced monetary ruin, but he Writes of the situation quite differently in his Reminiscences. Dibdin's account of himself is also an account of his contemporaries, and his memoirs include an epitaph in couplets for "good-natured Mike": "His rich native humour, his purse, heart, and table,/With genuine welcome, he gave you while able" (II.381).
Able to render even a tax audit funny, Kelly's Reminiscences are characterized by the comic sense and good humor that Dibdin describes. Reproducing a conversation between himself and the tax Commissioners, Kelly admits to the "men of authority,'.... I have erred in my return; but vanity was the cause, and vanity is the badge of all my tribe. I have returned myself as having 500l. per annum, when, in fact, I have not five hundred pence of certain income.'" As he describes taking them on, Kelly individualizes his "antagonists." One asserts himself with sarcasm and some bluster; one remains thoughtfully silent until he pops a question; a third "seemed to know something of theatricals." Kelly is put upon, but completely in control. The officials--insisting he must be making more money than he admits--go through his various professional functions: stage-manager of the Opera House, teacher, oratorio and concert singer, Drury Lane performer. But, points out Kelly, as stage manager he receives "not even a nominal salary"; as a teacher he has no pupils; he is an oratorio singer without engagements, and his salary at Drury Lane is never paid; his benefits cost more than they bring in. "The fact is, Sir," he triumphantly concludes, "I am at present very like St. George's Hospital, supported by voluntary contributions; and have even less certain income, that I felt sufficiently vain to return" (II.189-91). The Commissioners are so amused that they accept the tax return.
Having dramatized his own encounter, Kelly amplifies the story of the citizen and the taxman by including an account of Home Tooke's appearance before the Commission. The examiners have investigated the way he lives and are sure he must have more money than he claims. '"Sir,' said Home Tooke, 'I have, as I have said, only two hundred pounds a year; whatever else I get, I beg, borrow, or steal; and it is a perfect matter of indifference to me to which of those three sources you attribute my surplus income.' And thus ended the examination" (II. 189-91).
Kelly presents himself as a man with the ability to turn most situations to his enjoyment and satisfaction--even a tax audit. After a brief description of growing up in a music-loving household with thirteen brothers and sisters, the Reminiscences narrates his going to study in Italy where he is given royal treatment by various wealthy expatriates, tourists, and diplomats.
His Italian travelogue presents the perceptions of a young man of seventeen involved with wine, women, and song. Detailed descriptions of scrumptious menus are the focus of most scenes. Taken to the excavated theatre at Herculaneum, he fulfills what he sees as an obligation "to express surprise and pleasure; but in truth I wished myself away, for there were neither singers nor dancers, nor pretty women there, and I never had any taste for antiques" (I.32). He finds the ascent of Mt. Vesuvius worthwhile because the guide points out Pergolesi's favorite spot to compose and "to indulge his favorite melancholy." Here Kelly's notion of "indulging" melancholy connects depression with writing great music, for he sees Pergolesi's particular temperament generating the compositions Kelly finds most striking. Pergolesi's death at twenty-seven, perhaps of poisoning by a jealous rival, also becomes a part of the scene. A note moves the description to the context of London theatre. Kelly includes verses of a poem by Rogers, "set to music and sung with exquisite pathos by my ever-lamented friend Mrs. Crouch" that he can never hear "without thinking of poor Pergolesi's untimely death." This pattern of associations typifies Kelly's method of structuring past events to reflect his more recent theatrical life. The hermit of the mountain is rumored to have been a London hairdresser, a background of interest but "too delicate to touch upon." Anyhow, Kelly is not taken with the mountain's gloom and glory, but rather sees it as being "in a most villainous humour, emitting flame and large bodies of lava." He is happy to leave, "right glad to find myself once more at Portici, with a supper of red mullet &c. before me" (I.34).
Kelly's account of Baja also demonstrates his perspective, forming a contrast to more familiar travel accounts of the same scenery presented by such writers as Byron, the Wordsworths, and the Shelleys.
The two following days we dedicated to Baja, and its burning sands. The view of Naples, and indeed everything except the people, was luxurious and beautiful--they were wretched. One miserable object pointed out the different situations of the villas of Caesar, Mark Anthony, and Cicero. All this was, I knew, very fine, and very classical; but to me, at that period, a complete bore: it was not my gusto to "shun the busy haunts of men," nor of women; and a pettycoat in a populous street in Naples, was to me the finest sight in the world. (I.34)
Versions of vaguely familiar poetic phrases and lines such as "shun the busy haunts of men" appear frequently in the Reminiscences of both Kelly and Dibdin; Shakespeare, Milton, and the romantic poets with whom they worked and socialized are directly quoted and paraphrased. Scenes that become objects of historical meditation for Byron and Shelley or people who evoke social commentary from William and Dorothy Wordsworth also figure in Kelly's travelogues. Kelly, however, refuses loco-descriptive meditation and remains essentially disconnected from both scenery and human misery, going so far as to make one person an "object." The older writer depicts a young man bored at Baja by what Shelley, for instance, sees in "Ode to the West Wind": "old palaces and towers/ Quivering within the wave's intenser day" (ll. 33-34). Kelly fastens on the erotic life of his younger self. But even here, a certain lack of affect occurs as he visualizes not a particular woman but "women" and their metonymy, a "pettycoat."
Kelly's account of this tour also emphasizes the importance of his rich and important connections in shaping his persona as a musician. Having taken a "full swing of sight-seeing, and having spent Sir William's money," he is taken to meet Finaroli, head of the major conservatory in Naples (I.41). He offers a first horrified impression, describing approximately 350 boys crammed into a large school room where some were singing, some playing various instruments, some trying to compose. "The noise was horrible.... I left the place in disgust, and swore to myself never to become an inmate of it" (I.42). Students at this conservatory were also required to serve as acolytes in religious processions, a task Kelly finds odious. He refuses to become a part of the scene. The director's reply, which Kelly presents as a direct quotation, is the dream of every applicant. Finaroli says, "'I have taken a liking to the boy, and will receive him as an inmate: he shall have a small apartment on the ground-floor of the house where I live, and eat at my table. In addition to this, he will have the benefit of visiting the Conservatorio daily, and receive all the advantages of a scholar, without being obliged to put on the dress or perform the duties" (I.43). The self-portrait Kelly constructs in his memoirs is one of a young man whom people help out, partly because of his talent but also because of his personality, his likeableness.
Because Joseph I was making Vienna into a center for operatic composition and performance, Kelly was hired. He stayed there for four years and worked with Mozart to create Basilio and Don Curzio in "The Marriage of Figaro." The history of "Figaro" presented in the Reminiscences is dramatically done from his unique perspective as Mozart's friend and performer. Kelly describes the machinations of Salieri, Regini, and Mozart, each of whom has an opera, to get his work produced first. Of all the performers, Kelly writes, "I alone was a stickler for Mozart." Elaborating on his presentation of Mozart as a "little great man," Kelly constructs both a portrait of physical appearance and character. He sets a scene in Mozart's apartment in which the composer tells him '"I have just finished a little duet for my opera, you shall hear it.'" They read through the Count-Susannah duet. And, it is Kelly, over Mozart's initial objections, who convinces the composer that Don Curzio should stutter. His stance beside Mozart himself during the first actual performance reinforces the particular point of view of his account (I.253-58).
A letter informing him that his mother is gravely ill dims the "gaiety and splendour" of Vienna. She desperately wants to see him, and he would like to return home, "but for the present it was out of the question, as it was the very height of the season" (I.259). The attitude reflected in this response to his mother's illness is typical of Kelly. Dibdin writes of how Kelly passed his life "without his scarcely ever having felt a sentiment of ill-will towards an individual of his species, or having experienced a token of dislike" (II.371). Within this general geniality lies a curious detachment. In personal relationships Kelly presents a general sense of warm fellowship rather than passionate, individual attachment. When he does receive news of his mother's death, it is some weeks after the fact. Her death and his subsequent trip to Dublin to see his family are noted as an interjection in a description of singing engagements. He was, Kelly writes, "most happy to see my sister, and my brothers, Joe and Mark; and on the 22nd made my first appearance in Lionel, to a crowded house" (I.301).
Kelly journeys to Dublin with Anna Maria Crouch and her husband. The use of words like "warm-heated," "congenial," and "most pleasant" defines this trip and--when it is mentioned at all--his relationship to this couple with whom he lived and worked for many years. Kelly never married. After her husband's death, he lived with Mrs. Crouch, but does not disclose the nature of their relationship, calling her his "dearest friend." It is he who arranges for her care as her health declines and he who arranges for her burial and monument, which he inscribes "him whom she esteemed the most faithful of her Friends." Asserting that deep feelings "prompt me to draw a veil" over deep memories, Kelly records warmth and compatibility rather than heat and passion.
In so proceeding, Kelly may be responding in part to nineteenth-century concerns about the propriety of memoir writing. The issues of what can and should be told were, of course, much discussed after Rousseau, Wordsworth, and De Quincey, among others, raised their individual selves to epic subjects. In an anonymous review of Coleridge's Biographia Literaria, John Wilson writes in Blackwood's of the "nugatory" effects of published autobiography. "What good to mankind has ever flowed from the confessions of Rousseau?" the reviewer asks. "No such confessions could, we humbly conceive, be of use either to ourselves or to the world" (October 1817). (4) A review of Kelly's book, probably by Scott, which appeared in The Quarterly Review of June 1826, takes up the subject, specifically in reference to Mrs. Crouch. "Mr. Kelly's style of story-telling is smart and lively, a little protracted now and then, as will happen to a professed narrator. In point of propriety we have only one stricture to make: the author ought to have spared us his sentimental lamentation over poor Mrs. Crouch; it is too much in the line of Kotzebue morality. We never wish to press ourselves into the private intrigues and arrangements of public performers, but the joys or sorrows which attend such connections must not be blazoned as matters of public sympathy. There is bad taste in doing so" (247). By today's standards, Kelly's presentation is more than restrained, but his genial account does seem to be shaped as much by his own character as by contemporary conventions.
Kelly's good nature in part allows him to function as manager of the King's Theatre from 1793 to 1824, and he describes manipulating the difficult, self-involved divas who come to perform, as well as cajoling the actors, composers, and playwrights. The numerous and intimate details that both he and Dibdin include about members of the theatrical community make their books an extraordinary source of information about the world of eighteenth-and nineteenth-century theatre. The recorded gossip about female singers in their work and in the writing of others is particularly massive and usually focuses on the women's appearance, their behavior, with whom they are sleeping, and what kind of gifts they receive as much as on their singing. Kelly's portrayals are notable for their kindness and generosity of spirit, perhaps because he writes from the perspective of a fellow performer. Writing of the great soprano Catalini, for instance, Lord Mount-Edgcumbe focuses on her "vicious taste" as demonstrated by her choice of songs of a "bold and spirited character." Kelly, on the other hand, performing with her in Ireland, relates that she "sang divinely, both in the serious and comic operas" (II.233). To indulge her depraved waywardness, Mount-Edgucumbe writes, Catalini attempts to purchase a theatre "thereby becoming sole proprietor, sole manager, and sole actress" (107). Traveling and rehearsing with her, Kelly observes, "No woman was ever more charitable or kind-hearted" (II.230).
Kelly's tendency to accept people and their ideas was perhaps in part responsible for his grand business failure. In 1801 Kelly leased a decrepit house on the advice of friends who convinced him he could make a fortune. After renovating the place, he opened a shop to sell his music. The house came with a door that led into the opera house. For a fee, opera patrons could have direct access to their carriages and maybe purchase some music along the way. Furthermore, in exchange for paying part of the salaries of foreign composers, Kelly was given the rights to publish and sell their operas and ballets. He describes the scheme to the Prince of Wales, who fully approves and states: "In a commercial country like ours, nothing can be more creditable than for a man to sell the produce of his own abilities, or, indeed, of any other person's" (II.165). Bolstered by George's approval, Kelly forges ahead, but of course expenses far exceed his expectations. His description of the shop's opening on January 1, 1802, and of the subsequent failure of the business, demonstrates the foibles of high society and his own self doubt--laced with almost affable resignation.
The crowds of people who came to purchase music, by way of bringing me (as they said) good luck, were immense. The subscription was opened, for the opera visitors to get an easy access to their carriages. The ladies subscribers said, it was delightful to have such an accommodation. Most of them immediately put down their names, but very few of them ever put down their money, although there was a considerable current expense attending it, for fires, lighting, and extra servants. I began to think I was not fitted for what I had undertaken, and reflected on the proverb, 'the eye of the master fattens the horse.' Indeed, my occupations at Drury Lane, Covent Garden, and Haymarket, both as performer and composer, besides being manager of the Italian Opera, and musical director at Drury Lane and the Little Theatre in the Haymarket, were quite enough to engage any man's mind, without entering into a business which required every attention be paid to it, from morning till night. Too late, alas ! was I convinced of my error; but I was in for it, too deep to retract. (II.165)
The passage records several disjunctions. People put down names but no money; they produce very little. The master thinks the horse is splendid, but it's really a nag. These misrepresentations are not good for business, and the business that was supposed to make a fortune fails to deliver.
Taking business advice from this particular Prince of Wales, whose debts were legion, does not seem too prudent. But Kelly, like many writers of nineteenth-century theatrical memoirs, reveres the royals. (5) Neither Kelly nor Dibdin says anything about the battles going on among the generations of the royal family, rather both show their advocacy for the arts. While these authors may construct their accounts precisely to gain the kind of support extreme flattery can engender, the way that the royal family occupies these Reminiscences suggests their genuine love of music and drama.
Like other members of the theatrical and musical communities, Dibdin and Kelly paint pictures of George III and his family very unlike Shelley's in "England in 1819"--"An old, mad blind, despised, and dying King/ Princes, the dregs of their dull race;" (II.1-2) or Byron's George in "The Vision of Judgment: "old, blind, mad, helpless, weak, poor worm" (I.330). Reading theatrical memoirs of the period gives one a different perspective on royal families from the one common to many poetical and political writings of the period.
Dibdin laments the "demise of that patron of all theatres, and friend of all actors, His Late Majesty George the Third !!" (II.180). In the last chapter of his Reminiscences, he mourns the death of the Duke of York, "one of the most generous, liberal, and fostering patrons our stage was ever honoured with." He tells how "His Royal Highness" and "His Gracious Majesty" saved Drury Lane, thereby gaining "the heart-felt and respectful gratitude of the whole dramatic profession" (II.401).
Writing from the viewpoint of a royalist insider, Kelly includes narratives about the glories of kings, queens, and princes appropriate to each stage of his life story: as a young man he witnesses revolutionary events in France; as an experienced theatre administrator he deals with an attempted assassination of George III; as an elderly eminence, he enjoys a moment of familiarity with George IV and with a poem of commemoration and salute to the King concludes his Reminiscences.
In the summer of 1792, Kelly goes to Paris to find material for Drury Lane. As an "eye-witness to the horrors of a revolution," he feels compelled to give his own account, to write from a perspective that counters "the horrid invectives against the King and Queen," the words of such "caitiffs" as "the notorious Tom Paine." "My blood boiled to hear the miscreants vomit forth their infernal doctrines, and revolutionary principles." Awakened one morning by "an uproar in the streets," he hears that the King and Queen have escaped from Paris. His story places him at a cafe in the company of Tom Paine himself, who is "harangu[ing]" the crowd when "a courier entered the coffee-room with intelligence, that the King, Queen, and family had been taken prisoners at Varennes." Kelly describes how Paine's "Bardolph faced blazed with delight," a tire picked up in the "general illumination," the revolutionary fireworks, that took place in Paris that evening. Kelly's vocabulary--"blood boiling," "vomit forth," "harangue," "most horrid invectives,"--focuses the chaos and disorder revolution brings, a disorder of language imaged in the features of Shakespeare's Bardolph, a conniving, treacherous thief whom Henry V executes for robbing churches.
The murderous revolutionaries deserve execution, not the royal family whom Kelly portrays in all their dignity. In Kelly's description, the noise of the revolutionary mob and cafe idlers contrasts with the silent sorrow of the people at the "heartbreaking sight to see them brought prisoners into their own palace." Watching the King and Queen return to the Thuilleries [sic], Kelly climbs a tree "quite close to the palace" from whence he literally has a bird's eye view of throngs of people who do not utter a word, who stand silent, exhibiting "nothing but depression and sorrow." He focuses on the moment of the Queen's descending from the carriage: "nothing could be more majestic." Her gesture waving aside proffered help and the description of her plain costume create a scene of a poised woman in complete control. "She waved her hand, and walked with a firm step into the palace" (II.22-25).
Depending on how one views the influence involved, Kelly's narration either directly invokes or uncannily repeats one of the great rhetorical displays of the period, a section of Edmund Burke's Reflections on the Revolution in France (1790). In his famous (to Tom Paine infamous) narration of what members of the National Assembly called "'un beau jour'" (381) and he called "the atrocious spectacle of the 6th of October, 1789" (391), Burke reproduces the routing of Marie Antoinette from her bed chamber, "from whence this persecuted woman had but just time to fly almost naked" (383). Shared disgust and outrage at assaults on royal persons focus particularly on specular representations of Marie Antoinette from the viewer's perspective, Kelly up in a tree viewing the Queen's "majestic" descent from her carriage, Burke seeing her at Versailles and feeling that "surely never lighted on this orb, which she hardly seemed to touch, a more delightful vision" (386). Both writers cast these moments as scenes, visions, sightings, spectacles, views of royal self-presence that at all times acts its proper part in the political tableaux of revolution.
Such respect for the inherent theatricality of moments of historical rupture has no better example in Kelly than his detailed description of the attempted assassination of George III in May of 1800. Here, in the theatre, theatre takes over, displaces the regicide intent with the reproduction or representation of the king by the king. George plays himself magnificently, reproducing the audience's specular image of him looking at them in the regal gaze of stable power, recomposing that image in a great moment of acting without the "smallest appearance" of discomposure. Kelly's awareness of what a current reader could call the meta-theatre of the moment seems complete in the king's becoming the focus of the audience, in the musical score for the play immediately improvised to repeat the salvation of the king, and in the final rejection of the event itself by Kelly's dinner companions, for whom it is an impossible script.
Written from the vantage point of the theatre manager who explains what has happened to the crowd, the story is offered in part to convince people incredulous that "so good and gracious a monarch should be exposed to such peril" (I.158). He narrates the scene at the theatre as an interruption of a dinner party, which he must leave to do a show. His position places him opposite the royal box, where he sees and hears a man shoot at the king. The description of the ensuing uproar emphasizes how only the king remains calm, how the king "came forward to the very front of the box, put his opera-glass to his eye, and looked round the house, without the smallest appearance of alarm or discomposure." Because he is on stage to sing "God Save the King," Kelly has the task of calming the audience enough to get the show started. The play, Cibber's "She would, and she would not," does proceed, but the attention of both actors and audience lies elsewhere, and "During the whole of the play, the Queen and Princesses were absorbed in tears." At the end of the performance, the audience again demands the singing of "God Save the King," and as Kelly complies, he is handed a new stanza written by Sheridan "on the spur of the moment." The verse, included in the Reminiscences, describe the king as "our father, prince, and friend," a trinity that elevates the king to one who is worshipped and adored, and surely not the object of assassination.
Kelly describes returning to the dinner he had left and having his story dismissed as a tall talc. The scene is a parlor filled with gentlemen drinking companionably. "Mr Taylor burst into a roar of laughter, saying, 'Did not I tell you that he would come back with some quiz in his mouth?' Nor could I for a long time convince them that what I had said was truth; so naturally improbable did it appear, that so good and gracious a monarch should have been exposed to the perils of assassination" (II. 156-59).
For Kelly, the kingly father is succeeded by his equally magnificent son. He ends his Reminiscences with an extended encomium to his "beloved monarch" and an anecdote of a concert given by the King's band. Again, a scene is set up, complete with scenery and dialogue to tell the story. Invited to attend this event at Brighton, Kelly brings along his goddaughter, Julia Walters, and stashes her behind the organ. During the first part of the concert, the King settles down beside Kelly to discuss music. At intermission, the little girl moves out to between the kettle drums, where the King, sitting on a sofa between a princess and a countess, spots her. "'Who is that beautiful little child?' said the King. 'Who brought her here?' and immediately walked to poor Julia, and asked her who she was. "I belong to K,' said Julia. 'And who the deuce is K?' said His Majesty." Learning who she is, the King kisses her, takes her in his arms, "threw her over his shoulder, and carried her across the room to me, and placed her in a chair by my side, saying, with the greatest condescension, 'Why did you leave the child in the cold? Why not bring her into the room? If she be fond of music, bring her here whenever you like'" (II, 329-31). The incident generates a poem, "On Julia, Peeping," which Kelly includes as he brings the body of his Reminiscences to an end with a final "God Save the King."
Kelly's theatrical reminiscences, however, are not quite finished. An appendix gives the history of The King's Theatre or The Royal Italian Opera House, Haymarket. The account is of value, he claims, because once again he can offer the perspective of an insider, "having been for so many years connected with the Opera House, and having had the most authentic information upon all matters connected with it" (II.335). Kelly tells how actors, nobility, and members of the Kit-Cat Club work to build a magnificent theatre only to discover on opening night "that almost every quality and convenience of a good theatre had been sacrificed and neglected, to shew the spectator a vast triumphal piece of architecture" (II.337). Here, theatre and spectacle conflict.
With columns, cornices, and balconies the place does suggest something of a modern opera house, the acoustics of which are fine for instrumental and vocal music but which destroy the spoken word: "the articulate sounds of a speaking voice were drowned by the hollow reverberations of one word upon another" (II.338). Renovations further improve the sound, and Kelly's description expands to an account of the development of opera in England with particular attention to the rivalry between English and Italian opera and the women who sang the leading roles.
British theatre history becomes particularly immediate in his narrative as Kelly details performances at various theatres, providing such information as cast lists, descriptions of audience behavior, and backstage practices, glossing his account with contemporary advertisements, public announcements, and essays from periodicals. An advertisement from The Female Tatler of 1709 seeks to recover a bundle of horse whips "designed to belabour the footmen in the upper gallery, who almost every night this winter have made such an intolerable disturbance, that the players could not be heard, and their masters were forced to hiss 'em into silence" (II.342). An announcement for "the opera of Arminius [sic]" states the performance will begin at rive o'clock but that since the practice of encoring arias has made operas "tedious," the singers may only do an aria one time, "and it is hoped nobody will call for 'em, or take it iii when not obeyed" (II.346). Important for the development of London theatre is that "a strong effort was made this season at Lincoln's Inn Fields Theatre to establish English operas." To detail "a subscription masquerade at the Opera House, allowed to be more magnificent than has been known in Italy, Venice, or any other countries," Kelly includes an extended description from Mist's Weekly Journal, of February 15, 1718 (II.348).
Issues relating to the history of theatre also conclude Dibdin's Reminiscences. Having presented his life story as intertwined with the practices and politics of the theatrical community, he provides a catalogue of "what I have actually brought before the town, on the stages of nearly all its theatres, though there may be found pieces containing an infinity of nonsense" (II.338). The impetus to be complete overrides possible criticism for frivolity. He creates a mythic meeting in the Elysian Fields with "old Tommy Harris," who complains "that among other changes in London, the classical ground of the Theatre Royal in the Haymarket had, by some pantomimic metamorphosis of fortune, been changed into the site of a chandler's shop" (II.327). As the director of Covent Garden, Harris guided much of Dibdin's career and was his friend as well as his patron. Mentioned many times in the narrative, he is always "Mr. Harris." In concluding his account, Dibdin writes of "Tommy," a change in keeping with the way he finishes his story.
Invoking the model of Fielding, Dibdin takes "a long and affectionate farewell of his readers," and provides several "final" chapters that contain poems, dialogues, and obituaries (II.370). The deaths of colleagues and friends occasion sometimes tender, sometimes humorous descriptions of their lives and work. Mr. Connor, a comedian at Covent Garden, "dropped suddenly dead in Hyde Park" (II.371). Michael Kelly's death evokes a number of memories. "Innumberable are the stories told of poor Mick," several of which Dibdin relates, among them a hilarious story involving turkey carcasses that Kelly is tricked into thinking are human cadavers (II.371-82). The death of the French actor Talma means Dibdin will not be able to accept his invitation to visit Paris "nor (which is of immense importance) to see the portrait of myself, which he assured me he had placed in his picture-room" (II.387). An anecdote about Talma's father, a dentist, includes a humorous account of a rehearsal for Dudley Bates' opera "The Woodman" (II.387-89).
Kelly's title page promises the reader "original anecdotes of many distinguished persons, political, literary, and musical." In working with the novel form of the novel, Fielding speculates about forms of history and biography, about what makes a life story and about how it should be told, about what should be included. Echoing Fielding, Dibdin addresses the reader on the subject of reminiscencing. "If I have fatigued you, reader! I am very sorry; should I have, in any page, entertained you, I shall rejoice. Mine, in spite of good intention, has been a very chequered, and not a very fortunate life" (II.405). The Reminiscences of Thomas Dibdin and Michael Kelly raise some of the same questions for both authors and readers. In constructing their first-person prose narratives, Dibdin and Kelly draw together a variety of devices and forms: dialogues, original and quoted poetry, epigraphs, lists, letters, journal entries, textual self-reflexivity, tropes of political philosophy. They create a mixture in the sense of the word "satura." It is tempting to link their works to this most classical drawing together, and to view their Reminiscences as Menippean Satire, a form defined in part by the placement of the imaginative within the narration of a life story.
Stevens Institute of Technology
Burke, Edmund. Selected Writings of Edmund Burke. Ed. W.J. Bate. New York: Modern Library, 1960.
Burney, Fanny. Memoirs of Doctor Burney arranged from his own manuscripts, from family papers, and from personal recollections by Madame d'Arblay. London: E. Moxon, 1832.
Christiansen, Rupert. Prima Donna, A History. New York: Penguin, 1984.
Dibdin, Thomas. The Reminiscences of Thomas Dibdin. New York: AMS, 1970.
Highfill, Philip, Kalman Burnim, and Edward Langhans. A Biographical Dictionary of Actors, Actresses, Musicians, Dancers, Managers and Other Stage Personnel in London, 1660-1800. Southern Illinois UP, 1963.
Kelly, Michael. Reminiscences of Michael Kelly. New York: Da Capo Press, 1968.
Mount-Edgcumbe, Lord Richard. Musical reminiscences of an old amateur chiefly respecting the Italian opera in England for fifty years front 1773-1823. London: W. Clarke, 1824.
Parke, William Thomas. Musical Memoirs. London: H. Colburn and R. Bentley, 1838.
(1) Highfill provides contradictory accounts of events surrounding this song. Failing to get "Poor Jack" published, Dibdin claires to have sold it with eleven other songs for sixty pounds. '"Scarcely had I parted with it a fortnight,' he laments typically, 'when it began to spread itself over the kingdom ... it may be safely averred, that it has cleared the purchaser rive hundred pounds.'" E. Beresford Chancellor tells a different story in The Annals of Covent Garden: "Charles Dibdin began his entertainment called London Amusements. One of the items was the famous song Poor Jack, and so popular was this that it was not only regularly and vociferously encored when given, but copies could hardly be printed quickly enough to meet the demand for them. This being so, Dibdin--I may as well give J.T. Smith's actual words--'Dibdin actually hired a stall, which then stood close to the Piazza in Russell Street ... being large enough for Wood, his man, to stand in to deliver out the songs. The crowd and scramble to get them, even wet from the press, was such, that I have seen persons fight for their turn'" (IV.369-70).
(2) Dibdin also considers the forms of theatrical pieces in the context of the practicalities of getting a show up. Trying to produce a pantomime, he is undermined by unfriendly carpenters and stage hands--"not one single attempt at change of machinery was properly or effectively executed." And, he cannot rehearse on-stage, "for, most unfortunately, the opera of 'A Tale of other Times,' ... kept possession of the stage every morning, while we were obliged to practise in the box-lobby saloon, without the collateral assistance of scenes or machinery." Since "The Tale" was "composed of singing and speaking, with little or no action," it certainly, he argues, could "have been rehearsed in the saloon." The complicated actions, "tricks and changes" that make up pantomime need to be rehearsed on stage. Lest his reader wonder why he attaches "so much importance to the success or failure of any thing so insignificantly inconsequential as a harlequinade," Dibdin explains that when these pieces were presented at Christmas, they had "a very serious, and almost incalculable influence, on the proceeds of the remainder of the season." Furthermore, he sees the failure of this particular pantomime as "disqualifying me from future stage management" and therefore "the most important feature in my professional life." As he describes the man brought in to do the next pantomime and the help he receives--"his own master carpenter, a new assistant, mechanists, additional pantomime actors in pantaloon and clown & c."--Dibdin reveals some distinguishing intricacies of certain theatrical forms (II.245-53).
(3) What women did and did not get to do in eighteenth- and nineteenth century theatre is a vast topic, some of which I hope to explore more fully. One of the most interesting discussions of this matter is Rupert Christiansen's book, Prima Donna. In a note he poses a question that I find crucial to this subject, "Why women in music have had so much more success as performers than as composers ..." (10).
(4) A more complete discussion of this issue may be found in my The Roman tic Art of Confession (Camden House, 1998).
(5) Among the more glowing depictions of the royal family in theatrical memoirs are those given by W.T. Parke and Fanny Burney. Parke particularly admires the cello playing of George IV, describing Sunday concerts at Lord Hampden's in which he performed. Parke extends this admiration to his behavior during his father's madness: "During these important and trying proceedings, the conduct of the Prince of Wales was marked by that filial affection, patriotism, and good sense, which claimed the admiration of the whole nation" (II.321). The twice weekly morning concerts hosted by the Duke of Cumberland provided performance opportunities for the Duke himself and his royal brothers. In fact, Parke atrtributes the "decline of music" in England partly to the death of Cumberland in 1790 (II. 189-90). In 1812, Charles Burney, the great historian of music, gave his daughter a manuscript containing parts of his memoirs. Fanny Burney worked on the material until 1832 when she published a memoir that is as much about her as it is about her father, the ostensible subject. The royal family's musical acumen is emphasized: "The Queen both loved and understood the subject" (II.71). And, Burney says, he is so grateful for the support the King and Queen have given his work that he celebrated their birthdays for as long as he lived.…