The Life of an Actor
by H. F. Lloyd, Comedian
Late of the Theatre Royal Edinburgh and Glasgow
To Mr Bunn's story I append a few particulars of what immediately followed. Kean had repeatedly made his medical attendant, Dr Douchey, promise to make a post-mortem examination of his body and, with the sanction of his son, Mr C. Kean, this was done. The result was that the doctor pronounced that the vital organs were as healthy as those of an infant. The direct cause of death was inability to partake of the smallest particle of food, without its being at once ejected. The sight of it was quite enough. Scorched up by the long and excessive use of brandy, the lining of the intestines resembled brown paper, and had lost all power of its functions in the process of assimilation. Dr Doran mentions 'that very brown, very hot, and very strong brandy-and-water alone kept alive the once noble 'Moor'. But just as surely it killed the noble 'Moor', at the untimely age of forty-six years. According to the medical testimony, he should have lived to a good old age. The day of his funeral was a memorable one in Richmond.
A gentleman told me that, unaware of the circumstances, he had occasion to visit the little town that morning, and that, as he drove along, he could not make out why everything was so painfully quiet and depressed about the place. So much was this the case, that he unconsciously pulled up his horse to a walking pace, as it seemed that the noise made by the trap, was a sort of unhallowed disturbance.
Getting up to the "Star and Garter," he found the door shut and the blinds all down. Having obtained admission, he asked the waiter if anything was wrong in the house. He made answer; "No, sir. But poor Mr Kean is to be buried this morning, and everyone is going to the funeral."
My informant immediately put his horse and gig in charge of the hostler, and made for the late great actor's dwelling, arriving just in time to see the coffin brought out. Nearly every shop in the town was closed, he said, and the window-blinds of all private houses drawn down.
The service in the church, which was a most impressive one, was listened to with profound attention and much emotion by an assemblage which completely filled the building.
A few words about the son of a sire so gifted, and of how he had to fight his way onward. Before Edmund Kean was separated from his wife, he had sworn to cut the throat of his son if he turned actor - the name of Kean, he vowed, should be buried in his coffin. He got reconciled to the notion latterly, however, and he and Charles played together for the first time in the Queen Street Theatre, Glasgow, in Howard Payne's tragedy of "Brutus."
The last time they did so, I have already referred to. It was on 23rd March, 1833, when the elder essayed to play Othello to the Iago of Charles, and the Desdemona of Ellen Tree (afterwards Mrs Charles Kean). Soon after the play began he observed, "Charles is getting on; he's acting very well; I suppose that's because he's acting with me;" and, after delivering with all his wonted pathos the famous "Farewell !" in the third act, it was into Charles's arms that he staggered and sank, ere being borne in a fainting state for ever from the boards.
With regard to Charles himself, it has to be recorded that he had taken to the boards from the most honourable motives. Not to gratify mere vanity, or to trade upon a famous name did he first adopt the stage as a profession. His father having, to his credit, given him a good education, thus equipped Charles had had thoughts, at different times, of the Church, the Army, or a position in the East India Company's service as a career; but for any of these the excesses of his father had utterly destroyed his prospects. For the sake of his mother and himself, something to bring in an immediate return had to be looked for at once.
Such was the situation when Mr Price, an American, then Lessee of Drury Lane Theatre, offered him an engagement at £10 per week. Only too glad of the salary, but with no confidence in his own untried powers, the lad accepted the offer, and appeared at Drury Lane, 1st October 1827, as Norval, in the tragedy of "Douglas."
So youthful did he look that it took some time to decide whether to put his name of the bills as Master Kean, or Mr Kean, Junior. The press were very unfeeling to the young actor. No allowance was made for circumstances in which his effort was made, for his youth and inexperience. No word of encouragement was offered him, nor was there admission of the possibility of undeveloped faculties.
Years afterwards, at a public dinner given to him after he had eventually compelled the public to admit his claims as an actor, Mr Kean thus referred to those days of discouragement:-
"Thrown before the public by untoward circumstances at the early age of sixteen and a half, encompassed by many difficulties, friendless and untutored, the efforts of my boyhood were criticised in so severe and spirit-crushing a strain as almost to unnerve my energies and drive me despairingly from the stage. The indulgence usually extended to novices was denied to me. I was not permitted to cherish the hope that time and study could ever enable me to correct the faults of youthful inexperience. The very resemblance I bore to my late father was urged against me as an offence, and condemned as being 'strange and unnatural.' Sick at heart, I left my home and sought the shores of America. To the generous inhabitants of that far land I am indebted for the first ray of success that illumined my clouded path."
A couple of anecdotes of Mr John Henry Alexander, the incidents dealt with in which occurred during my engagement with him, will form an agreeable diversion from the rather sombre story of the later days of the senior and the earlier days of the junior, Kean.
It was a fixed principle of Mr Alexander's, never to keep the stage "waiting," as it is called. There must be some one on it, or some business going on. I have seen him, when a scene was not ready to be discovered in time, catch up a halfpenny bread roll and a knife, with which he would go on the stage and extemporise a speech totally unconnected with the piece; and in the middle of which, he would pretend to be choking with the roll, patting his own back and making the most frightful faces and contortions of limbs, expressive of the agonies, mental and physical, of a man in course of suffocation. Meanwhile he would take occasion to call aside to the prompter;
"Are you ready?"- the answer, 'yes.' - "Then turn up the footlights higher, sir! Let us have something to cheer us if the audience won't condescend to do so."
Then suddenly casting his eyes up to the almost empty gallery, he would address one of the "gods" who might be sitting on the front, with his legs hanging over; "Get down, you dirty-looking sweep. Gracious G...., is there no room to sit down like a Christian, but you must squat your greasy posteriors on my beautiful red-cloth cushions, and, beat the Devil's tattoo with your unwashed, offensive trotters against my newly-polished, ornamental panelling. Lawrence," to his man, "remove that dirty varmint!"
But to my little story, which I call the "Tautology" one.
There was a little man then, and for years, in the theatre known as Dicky Watt. He was the most general of general utility men, I ever encountered. If Alexander asked him to do so, he would just as soon go on for Macbeth as for the First Murderer; and, without knowing a line of either, he would get through whichever of them it was, somehow.
We were playing "The School for Scandal" one night, and I
was standing in the prompt entrance,
dressed for the part of Moses, and waiting for the scene to change to
Charles Surface's apartment. The change not being ready, Alexander,
who himself was playing Charles, said to Dicky Watt, "Go on and
say something - go on!"
"Weel, ay! I'm in a rale predekamint, ye ken. I've a dale to say, nae doot - ay, if I only kent whit it wis a' aboot. But I've nae doot ye ken, that Chairles is a ne'er-do-weel - an' - an' I canna say ony mair, so I'll cut him oaff, an' if I cut him oaff, I wull cut him off."
Alexander, from behind the scenes, "Tautology, sir, tautology."
To Dick's dismay, he was seized by the throat and dragged back to the centre of the stage, whilst his assailant, Alexander, exclaimed, "You ......villain! Be sure you prove Sir Peter what you called him. Be sure on't, or thou hadst better have been born a dog, old Rowley; yes, a dog." - pushing Dicky to the wing and giving him a parting kick that sent him flying out of sight.
Alexander then returned to the centre of the stage, whistled a lively air, accompanying it with that unique salutatory performance, the fame of which is traditional and world-wide - known as "Allak's step" - and calling through it, aside, to the prompter; "Are you ready?"
Dancing off thus, he was encored, and repeated it, when the prompter's
voice was now heard announcing,
He then danced off again, but another encore was demanded. On this, he put out his head only, round the proscenium, and shouted, "Oh! d...n it! This is too much. I'm out of puff - bellows to mend. Be satisfied, do; you've got more than's in the bond."
And all this portion of the performance, be it remembered, not suggested in Sheridan's work, was gone through by Alexander, in his full dress suit of Charles Surface.
The other story is a cat's tale - a short one.
I was on the stage one evening with Alexander, when the gallery boys suddenly commenced caterwauling, mingled with cries of, "Puss! Puss! Puss!"
Their attention seemed to be directed to a certain part of the house, and on looking up to Alexander's private box; which entered from the parlour of his own house adjoining the theatre; I saw a big, black tom cat, which he owned, sitting on the cushion, very quietly looking round the house and witnessing the performance.
Upon Alexander's seeing it too, he took off his hat, made a low bow to the animal, and said, "Good evening, sir! I hope the performance meets with your approbation."
At this moment, the cat drew itself upwards, rounded its back, and gave a loud mew. Without ceremony, Mr Alexander turned round to me and 'bonneted' me, saying, "He don't like your acting, sir. You had better retire." Then turning to the cat again, he said, "Have you secured that private box nightly - and have you paid for it?" Then, throwing his hat at it, he exclaimed, "D....n your impudence! You take no more notice of me than if I was a nonentity, in place of being the king of this beautiful palace.
Here, Lawrence, remove that black-guard, I'll send him his notice in the morning." So Lawrence saw to his removal.
To playgoers of the present generation, who never, of course, had the felicity of hearing Alexander make a speech, I can commend the following as a very good sample of his peculiar style. With regard to what he mentioned as to that being probably the last time he would have the honour of appearing before them, I have only to say that it was not the last by a good many.
"Ladies and Gentlemen, - I had no intention of obtruding myself upon this audience this evening"; ('Hear, Hear,' and cries of 'Oh! Oh!') - "and if you are to hear me"; (Cheers and cries of 'Go on Alick') - "if you are to hear me, I hope you will be quiet in the gallery, and offer no interruption". (Cheers.) "I consider that managers' speeches have now become so common that the best way is to say nothing at all. This has been my plan for the last few year.". (Shouts of laughter, and a voice in the gallery, 'It's a lie, Alick! You make speeches every night.) -"now you know, if you offer any interruption, which is very ill-mannered, I shall have done." ('Hear, hear,' and cheers!) "that's the great fault, that you'll not be quiet to hear me." (Cries of 'We'll hear you,' - 'Go on,' &C). As Caleb Balderston says - (excuse me saying a few words in Scotch - it is our native language). As auld Caleb says, "A word or two as to our ain matters. Mony a sair day I hae had to keep up the credit o' the house. (Cheers of laughter).
"I have laboured late and early, 'for sufferance', as Shylock says is the badge of all our tribe. I have toiled at rehearsals 13 hours a day. From month of November last until the present time, I have never been out of Dunlop Street but once. Success in these days is not to be obtained without exertion. You will not pay your money for nothing, you must be satisfied. I regularly tell that to my people, and by some of the disaffected I have been called a tyrant, and, no doubt, I have my enemies - for every man has his enemies and I have mine. But I have also the philosophy to despise them." (Cheers). "For what have I struggled but for you and in that cause, I have been strict in seeing that all my people did their duty." (Cheers).
"Many of them think that they ought to have nothing to do but to come here on Saturday and get their money, and do no work for it," (Laughter and applause). "but the system would not do for me. Under these circumstances, I have become tired, and, as a great actor once said, I want to adjust my mantle before I fall."
"This is probably the last time I shall have the honour of appearing before you." (Here Mr Alexander seemed somewhat affected.) "Ladies and Gentlemen, it is not a matter of choice with me, for I still love my art; but I have gone through one of the most tremendous seasons of fatigue I ever encountered, and I feel my lungs going." (Laughter). "Independent of this, I am somewhat disgusted, sunk, and grieved. I built this theatre for you, and according to my own taste. I sunk an immense amount of money in it - that was at a time when I had the exclusive privilege and no opposition - and I expected to reap the advantage. But Glasgow, you know, will not support more than one theatre." (Hisses, and cries of 'it will,' and 'it's a lie. It will support three or four.') - "But I know it will not, and surely I ought to know best," - (Laughter) - "and I intend to prove it by depriving you of this one." (Hissing and disapprobation.) "I think it very possible I may never appear before you again. During the last season, I have played 120 nights on my own resources, without a single star, and, like a skilful pilot, I have brought my vessel into port.
This is the year 1845, a great year, as most people say, and if I do retire, I retire in the very zenith of my triumphs, - not with a discomfited countenance. I have only one regret - I cannot leave you the theatre behind. It is dangerous property. It may do very well when I am in it to look after it, but if a few bad farmers got in, they might spoil all my crops." (Laughter!) "I don't choose to do that! I built the theatre to suit my own taste, and I must have a heavy rent out of it to remunerate me for my outlay. I have an idea of carrying an arcade through it, from Stockwell Street" .... (Great laughter). ... ! if I can get the neighbouring proprietors to agree. I don't know that anything as yet is positively fixed upon; but in case I do not see you again, I shall beg to assure you that I will always think of you, and must now respectfully bid you, Farewell." (Loud cheering).
That was forty years ago. Could Alexander revisit the site of the theatre
of which he was so proud, he would be strangely bewildered. Neither
theatre nor Arcade is there. Dunlop
Street is, for the chief part of it, now but a tunnel over which
the trains of the Glasgow and South-Western
Railway run into the
A Story of G. V. Brooke
The following story concerning two well-known members of the theatrical profession, was related to me by Mr Morris, the gentleman who was so dirtily 'done' by Frank Seymour, as recorded in the preceding chapter. As there stated, Mr M. was proprietor of both the Ayr and Kilmarnock theatres, and, between 40 and 50 years ago, he had, for temporary tenant of the former, poor Gustavus V. Brooke. He was then head of a company strolling about Scotland and, for the Kilmarnock house, he had Copeland, afterwards the well-known Liverpool lessee, who was at the same time similarly engaged. By the way, Morris told me that he never got ay rent from either; no matter, on with the story. On a certain Sunday, the two strolling managers met by appointment, at the half-way house between the two towns, to spend an hour or two in a social manner, and talk over topics interesting to both.
After a good dinner, with the aid of toddy and tobacco, they had a good time of it, until the hour for parting arrived. Brooke then rang for the bill, which was presently brought them by a little girl. When she had retired, Brooke said, "Copeland, old fellow, you pay my share just now. I've got no change."
""My dear boy," replied Copeland, alarmed, "I haven't a penny! I depended entirely upon you."
Brooke burst out laughing, and, giving Copeland a shake, said, "Don't look so miserable, old boy, I'll manage it. You sit down, and mind you take up the cues." He then rang the bell again, ordered some more toddy, and when it had been brought in, sent for the landlord. When the latter (whose name was Wilson) appeared, Brooke, addressing him in a jocular manner, said, "Look here, landlord, we haven't enough to settle this little account o' yours, but I'll let you have it tomorrow morning. There is my card, everybody knowing me; I'm Mr Brooke, G. V. of the Theatre Royal, Ayr. I'm a friend of Mr Morris."
"Oh!" said the landlord, with a far-from-satisfied look, "Mr Brooke! - why you never pay anybody."
"What, sir!" exclaimed Brooke, with well-simulated indignation.
"How dare you assert such a vile falsehood! You will be made to prove your words, before the week is out. Copeland, I take you to witness this foul-tongued fellow's insinuations."
"Well," said the landlord, somewhat scared, "it's either you or Copeland."
"Mister Copeland, when you address me, sir," said the injured owner of the name, "and have you the audacity to even hint at such dishonourable conduct in reference to me? I have a great mind to pitch you out of the window. Brooke, my friend, partner of my early youth, pardon this warmth. I'm glad you've heard these remarks. I'll make him pay for this - ay, ten times more than his paltry bill. Why, here are two gentlemen come for the express purpose of supporting his dirty inn, at the request of Mr Morris, and they are to be grossly insulted! Nay, by my troth - actually called swindlers! For a man that will not pay deserves, no better title. I feel so indignant that - let me at him!"
Here, Copeland made to rush for the landlord, while Brooke, stopping
him, exclaimed in melodramatic manner;
"Mr Brooke," said Copeland, assuming an air of injured innocence, "I am surprised at your taking this matter so coolly. We have been, both deliberately accused of obtaining dinners under false pretences and - but stop," taking out an empty purse, " let us give the fellow what we have towards his paltry bill, and there will be only two or three shillings left to send him over in the morning."
"No," said Brooke, "not one penny!"
"At any rate," continued Copeland, "we can leave five shillings for the female attendant, can't we?"
"Nothing of the sort," replied Brooke, sternly - "no compromise. Defamation of character, you understand? - the law, sir, the law!"
By this time, the landlord had become so alarmed at the threats of the law, and the bullying he had received, that he took advantage of a momentary pause to state that, he humbly thought that they had made too much of what he had said; hoped they'd think no more about it; prayed they wouldn't mention it to Mr Morris, and, begged they'd accept his apology. Copeland pretended to be too indignant over the matter to be thus satisfied but, after a deal of persuasion from his friend Brooke, he consented to be so.
Forget and forgive was the order of the day, or night rather. So, there was an effusive shaking of hands, after which, the landlord insisted on standing glasses round. To this end, he ordered in a bottle of whisky and the kettle to be put on the hob, and sent the rest of the household to bed. The three merry boys then commenced to make a night of it, the which they did, with a fair measure or success. Each had considerably more than a drappie in his e'e before breaking up. The landlord fell fast asleep in his chair and, whilst in this state of blissful ignorance, had his face curiously ornamented by Brooke - aided by a burnt cork.
The two then rose to go, and, when at the door, Brooke turned round and thus addressed their somnolent entertainer; "Farewell, my trusty friend, my good Samaritan. You have given us a good dinner, but you'll never miss it, because you didn't want it - as we did. And, though we have, figuratively speaking, robbed you of a leg of mutton, with et ceteras, - you, being ignorant of the result, may truly exclaim - He that is robbed, - not wanting what is stolen, - let him not know it, and he's not robbed at all. Adieu! Adieu! Adieu! -Remember, Brooke."
The pair then staggered out, and, after taking a formal adieu of each other, took the road; Brooke for Ayr and Copeland for Kilmarnock. At least that was the idea! But there is a sequel to the story; the "Mistakes of a Night" were not yet concluded.
At 3 o'clock in the morning (Monday), when a carrier at Prestwick was proceeding to put his horse into the ready-laden cart for the journey to Glasgow, he discovered a man fast asleep under the vehicle. It was the gay and festive Copeland, who, on bidding Brooke good-bye, had taken the road to Ayr instead of that to Kilmarnock, and was now aroused from the deep slumber of the inebriate in the village of Prestwick. Having shaken his feathers, and been put on the right track by the carrier, the Kilmarnock manager forthwith proceeded to retrace his steps. And how about Brooke all this time?
Well, it appeared that, as he knew on leaving Copeland, that their roads lay exactly in the opposite directions, when his co-mate, by mistake as we have seen, took that leading southwards, he naturally enough (under the alcoholic conditions of the case), took the other, leading northwards. It further appeared that, when a couple of miles or so on the road to Kilmarnock, he must have sat down on the door-step of a collier's cottage by the way-side and there fallen asleep, in a sitting posture. Because, when the collier opened the door in the dark of early morning to go to his work, he stumbled over the body of a man, and fell, outwards; whilst, on the other hand, the man fell back, inwards, shouting out at the same time, "What, ho! - within there - more lights, ye knaves!"
A light having been procured, and the collier having got him on his legs, Brooke said it was, "All right," then asked for his friend Copeland, and vowed it was much too bad of the latter to have left him there alone. He then asked the collier if it was much farther to Ayr, and was no little surprised, and disgusted as well, to learn that it was much nearer to Kilmarnock. So he also had to hark back on the way he came.
He had just about got up to the scene of their revelry on the previous night, the "Half-way House", when he observed, through the still dark morning, a man approaching from the opposite direction. On the latter coming up, his hat being drawn down as much as possible to conceal his face, he seized Brooke by the collar, and, in a gruff voice, demanded his money. Brooke, who was then a powerful young man, immediately knocked the fellow down, telling him to take his money if he could.
"Murder!" shouted the prostrate one, and then, in a well-known voice, added, "D...n it, Brooke, you've killed me." It was the unfortunate Copeland, who, having recognised that it was Brooke, just before they came up to each other, resolved to play a joke upon him, with the result of its recoiling on himself.
However, as it turned out, there were no bones broken, and, being within two or three minutes' walk of the "Half-way House" they resolved to go back to it and get, if procurable, a morning dram. They found the street door still open, as they had left it, and on going in to the scene of the last nights' symposium, they found the candles burning away down in their sockets, and the landlord, who had tumbled off his chair, snoring loudly under the table. The whisky bottle was just as they had left it - nearly empty. Deeming that it would be the correct thing to leave it completely so, they divided the remainder contents and, with the water in the kettle now cold, made grog of it, which they drank to their own and the liberal host's, 'good health'. They then came away, without formality of waking up the latter to wish him, 'goodbye'. Outside, they once more shook hands and parted - on their right roads this time.
That same night, Brooke told the whole story to Mr Morris, in Ayr; and I "tell the tale as 'twas told me" by him.