Academic journal article Eighteenth Century: Theory and Interpretation

The Spouters' Revenge: Apprentice Actors and the Imitation of London's Theatrical Celebrities

Academic journal article Eighteenth Century: Theory and Interpretation

The Spouters' Revenge: Apprentice Actors and the Imitation of London's Theatrical Celebrities

Article excerpt

Spouters - the iconic amateur actors of the late eighteenth century - were usually tradesmen and apprentices who met after work in public houses to act favorite dramatic speeches, scenes and, in occasional defiance of the Licensing Act, whole plays.' Spouters were not only interested in producing dramatic speeches, but often, in reproducing their original manner of performance by famous actors: playing not Richard III, but David Garrick's Richard III, for instance.2 The spouters' presence in popular culture is signalled through acting manuals and collections intended for their use; announcements of their meetings; occasional verse; and, in what might be termed the spouters' revenge, in plays in which spouters appear as characters, portrayed by the very actors they enjoyed imitating.

Arthur Murphy's play The Apprentice (1756) is the best-known of these plays. In Murphy's highly successful afterpiece, Dick Wingate, apprentice to the apothecary Gargle, is so beset by spouting mania that he neglects his trade, speaks constantly in dramatic pastiche, and seeks acting opportunities everywhere.3 Dick even prefers to perform Romeo and Juliet's balcony scene by laboriously scaling Charlotte Gargle's house, than to effect an easy elopement with her through an open door, exclaiming, "I would not give a Farthing for it without the Ladder."4 The Apprentice portrays spouters like Dick and his friends as at once excessively sentimental, and as lacking the spontaneity and decorum that would signal sentimental authenticity. The play's spouting club scene (II, i) shows Dick's fellow apprentices spouting speeches from Venice Present 'd, Othello, and Macbeth with genuine passion, but with uncouth accents, and amidst constant disturbance from their companions' pretentious amateur dramatic criticism and squabbling over parts.

Murphy claimed that his play chronicled the "real Existence"5 of spouting, and there is little doubt that he was, as his biographer Jessé Foot put it, "a frequent spectator" of spouters' "curious meetings."6 John O'Keeffe affirmed that Murphy sketched from the life: "We . . . went to the spouting club, in Woodstreet, Cheapside; but Murphy has given a very good picture of that in his farce of 'The Apprentice."'7 O'Keeffe is one of many writers who represented The Apprentice as both the epitome of spouting practices and as a salutary satiric check to apprentices' dramatic ambitions.8 It was neither. Spouting not only continued to run simultaneously with performances of The Apprentice, but the practice furnished numerous new actors for London and the provincial theatres. Spouting repertoire is largely composed of extracts from tragedy that promise a proliferation of theatrical sentiment, and its parodie reproduction draws attention to theatrical sentiment's inherent artifice. Yet if spouters' mimicry of particular actors' expressions and attitudes seems a further derogation from sentimental sincerity, charting spouting practices and the speeches reprinted in collections known as 'spouting companions' locates the moments of striking wit, characteristic gesture, and sentiment which eighteenth-century authences most valued, and most wished to reproduce.

Despite recent work on illegitimate theatre by Jane Moody, Gillian Russell, and David Worrall, foundational research in amateur theatricality by Sybil Rosenfeld, and work on such theatrical paratexts as prologues and epilogues by Mary Knapp, Pierre Danchin, Judith Slagle, and Daniel Ennis, little has been written on spouting, a practice located at the nexus of these genres.9 Most theatre historians mention spouting only incidentally, in connection with The Apprentice, thereby continuing the tradition of allowing Murphy's theatrical representation of spouting to stand in for the practice itself. Worrall's book, The Politics of Romantic Theatricality, 1787-1832: The Road to the Stage (2007), for instance, contains an insightful analysis of The Apprentice as a farcical disruption of the kind of "theatrical scheme for the social containment of youthful and plebeian excess" offered up by George Lillo's play The London Merchant: or, the History of George Barnwell, but Worrall takes an entrepreneurial view of spouting clubs, calling them "taverns which encouraged drinkers to attend public houses by providing a regular venue for amateur actors to perform in front of each other. …

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