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PURITANS AND PLAY-ACTORS.
A Sa nation we have been accused by our French neighbours of A taking our pleasures sadly ; had our French neighbours known our grandmothers' great-grandmothers they never would have made such a silly remark. As a provincial people we may accuse our Georgian ancestors of taking their pleasures surreptitiously. The difference enunciated by the lively Gaul-if it ever existed-may be morally in our favour ; but it is not so certain that the enjoyment was in favour of the Georgians. If it be really true that stolen kisses are the sweetest, it only remains for us to abandon the claim. The young men and maidens of the era of the first George were yery artful and determined felons in the matter of their social amusements, whatever they may have been in the matter of their kisses.
They stole their pleasures with a deftness that at once elevated their methods into the domain of high art, and in their efforts showed a rapture which could consecrate even their wickedness.
As to public entertainments, provincial England in the early Georgian days was halting, not between two opinions, but between the expression or suppression of one opinion. That opinion was decidedly Thespian. The husk of Puritanism alone remained. The vitalising energy of persecution had, in its death, slain sermons and “holdings-forth.” There was a craving among young people for the exhibition of scenes of gaiety, and such scenes were most expected in, as they could be best represented by, stage plays. The modes of thought then beginning to obtain, not having been formed on the severe doctrines of struggling Nonconformity, sought for excitement. The elders, cradled in the lap of Puritanism, could not countenance any such fatal levity. The abhorrence of long sermons was rightly suspected to mark a decay of public morality. In the way of mundane enjoyments, the patriarchs declared it to be enough for the young people, if they would not listen to the sweet tones of the preacher for more than twenty minutes at a time, to learn the spinnet and the harpsichord, if needs be that they must have music. Even this was possibly too great a concession, when the standard of their own youth clairned consideration and the psalın tunes of Tate and Brady were in their memory ; for the frivolous worldly instruments had a proved tendency of promoting an enjoyment of hilarious gatherings, which in many known instances had already developed into backslidings, as the prim ones called the dancing parties which had already become fashionable, where intercourse was dangerously promiscuous, even under the most rigid supervision. When, therefore, the still further development, the Thespian backsliding, began to show its existence and plead for recognition by substantial worth and admitted respectability, that branch of sub-aristocratic society which counted some fifty or sixty years of age was unpleasantly excited. Grandames were shocked, well nigh beyond utterance, as was to be expected of women who were called Tabitha and Keziah; mammas were perplexed, as women who had reverted to the good old names of Jane and Mary, and were still comely, would naturally be; sor, in spite of reminiscences, their superior vitality forbade them to be ruthless ; Sylvia and Phyllis, deliberately given over by their godfathers and godmothers to the new cult, were disgusted, while their counterparts, Damon and Strephon, were on the verge of reckless despair. According to their views, changed opinions had admitted the nomenclature, hence the demand. Their logic might be good, . but good logic is not always the successful opponent of stout prejudice. So, in spite of the logic, it remained a fact that respectable provincial society declined to recognise the stage for some decades after the German Georges had slain Jacobinism and the apparition of the scarlet-woman, thereby restoring security to the throne.
York, the capital of the north of England, offered a disreputable example to the sober provincial towns hitherto under its social guidance. As a leader it had failed in the best phases of public amusement. The Bacchanalian fame of the ancient metropolis, finding its imperishable record in George Meriton's song of 1584 :
Yorke, Yorke, for my monie
Except the Cittie of Londonhad been content to wallow in the prominence it had then achieved. It was too slow to learn that such phases were not public amusement. Strong ale and stereotyped piety were no longer the natural panacea. A dash of the nice-and-naughty, effervescing with the vigour of combining opposites, was the tonic most approved by the cloyed stomachs of the people, drenched either by ale or sermons. Rustic Englishmen of that era knew not how to cry“Vive la bagatelle !” but they had
sufficient vitality, if long suppressed, to appreciate the influences which caused another people to raise that cry.
The Cathedral City laid the foundation of its theatre in 1731, having obtained from Leeds a score years before due notice that in order to retain its social supremacy its methods if not its manners must be improved. There was a necessity for a higher enjoyment than that afforded by beer and skittles. York had danced and jigged and held its cock-fighting matches during the race week since the days of the Merrie Monarch ; but these amusements were bucolic, coarse, and established. Something more sprightly and less tinged with the coarseness of rusticity must be introduced, for society was no longer composed of Squire Toms and Lady Bettys, with their followings of gamekeepers and grooms. As long as Puritanism was triumphant, York had stumbled at the provision of a theatre—not in any modesty, let it be assured, but by incompleteness of comprehension. Its bucolic instincts had not risen with the development of the times. Had the Cathedral City been as tuneful as it was gay, it would have been the birth-place and home of the grand Musical Festivals of our day, and the advent of the Thespians might have been delayed a full score years. But it was not; so the Thespians had to come. Their coming was a distinct admission of the inferior refinement of their patrons.
The proof of this position lies in the comparison between music and the drama. In the cultivation of music, and the appreciation of its highest efforts, Leeds had decidedly beaten York, as it beats it to-day beyond any challenge. For a score years before York moved in that direction, Leeds had provided an Assembly Room for its stately dances and musical performances. While Leeds was holding “Consorts of Musick," York had desperately plunged into open patronage of the sock and buskin, through which example the inferior town was brought to a secret determination to do likewise. But even this audacity of the Cathedral City was only intermittently successful in the city itself. The Thespian adventurers who accepted its patronage had to select favourable moments for their invasions ; the utmost abandon of the gay old capital could only support them periodically.
The announcements and conditions of the performances are not less amusing than instructive of the shyness with which the invaders had to be countenanced. Hardy York did not, at the very outset of its adventure, dare to receive its amusers with unveiled enthusiasm. It became crafty as well as adventurous. “We hear that the company of comedians intend offering a series of plays in our splendid
New Theatre during the race week, and trust the nobility and gentry will honour them with their presence and patronage.” That, of course, is apologetic, meaning, unless the nobility and gențry would lead the way, it was hopeless to ask for the countenance of the “lower grades." If, however, such a lead were offered, the following could be counted upon. That is the intimation of the Cathedral City itself; the method of dealing with the provincial surroundings has to vary considerably. The artistes had learnt their lesson. In 1744 Mr. Henry Ward, comedian, informs the gentlemen, ladies, and others, of Leeds and Wakefield, that he is about to publish an opera, “ The Happy Lovers, or the Beau Metamorphosed.” The gentlemen and ladies of Doncaster and the neighbourhood have favoured this undertaking beyond expectation, says our author, who here uses Demos with a fine mixture of care and unction. The caution of Henry Ward actuated the managers. On June 19th of the same year, the Leeds Mercury inserts as a communiqué: “The company of Comedians from York will begin to perform on Wednesday evening, 20th instant; and during a short stay here (they being obliged to be at York Races) will exhibit the best and newest plays extant, or any others at the request of the gentlemen and ladies”—which alternative might be intended to flatter the taste of the audience, but was most likely a bid for their sufferance. The "play-actor” had not yet openly become a persona grata in the great woollen town. But he was receiving a coquettish attention he well understood. More than thirty years later than this, John Wesley, having heard that Tate Wilkinson had built the theatre at Leeds, wrote to a member of his congregation : "I am told you have a wicked playhouse in Leeds. I do not say you will be damned for going to see a play,” but he left them to believe that he thought so. His reign in that empire had, however, then passed away.
In addition to the denunciations of the great evangelist, Mr. Mazarine Blue Tammy, alderman and cloth merchant, was not enamoured of the stage by commercial influence ; or of its patrons, the leaders of whom he blamed for the bad trade under which the country suffered ; while the minor social fry had greatly offended his national pride and personal respectability, by patronising “foreign rubbish,” to the introduction of the soft Farinelli, Senesino, and the tribe of Italian songsters; and after them-much worse than alllibidinous French actresses whom he denounced at all times and in all manner of terms. He was not alone in his opposition, for the country newspapers-not biassed by the influences affecting those metropolitan-had sternly set their faces against the fair invaders from the first moments of the invasion, reprehending the patrons of these "eclectic dames” and their followers and admirers, the upperten and their followers and admirers, whom the country press spoke of n terms neither overstrained nor undeserved. A local poet crystallises the rural indignation :
To shew how much our northern tastes refine,
For generous !ords had rather give than pay! The method in which Leeds established its first Assembly Room is entirely characteristic of the social struggles of the age. The wit of the women had to take advantage of the greed of the men. The traders wanted a cloth hall in which to store their goods and expose them for sale, in competition with Wakefield, then a formidable rival. A piece of land was begged from Lord Irwin, in Kirkgateat that time the most central and fashionable part of the town-and a suitable building raised upon it by subscription, and opened 1711; the upper portion being quietly turned into an Assembly Room, and, as the old building yet shows, a very good one of its kind. With such a room provided, of course the dances must follow, à la mode, and then patriarchal Leeds, finding itself outwitted, turned up its eyes in horror and indignation. But the thing was done ; the dances followed and young Leeds rioted, while old Leeds groaned in shame and raised more difficulties than could have been thought of except by strait-laced narrowness. When, however, there came hankerings after a theatre, the truth was not forgotten ; and for a certainty the patriarchs would never allow the Assembly Rooms to be used by any itinerant Thespians.
If the “play-actor" might not gracefully assist in dispelling ama. tory dulness in provincial towns like Leeds and Wakefield, a rather full programme was offered by Terpsichore. In that region the young folk had much more of their own way, and they used it with inconsiderate energy. The decorum of the Long Room at Scarborough having been revived in the Assembly Room at York, was passed on to the former places and adopted without reluctance. The assiduities of Tristram Fish, M.C., were the pleasant reminiscences of the youth of middle-aged matrons, of whom one remembered how graciously a Duke once led her through a minuet, while another told how a Countess had envied the splendour of her shoe-buckles. “We appreciate the intermingling of the different grades, my dear! as soon as we have learnt how nice the upper circles can be when they like." Mr. Mazarine Blue Tammy came to discover that he could