You wil recall that last year we learnt a little about the actors that Jane Austen admired: Miss O’ Neil and Mr Young. As I have not written about Jane Austen and the Theatre for some time I thought today might be the day to resume our interest in matters theatrical. Writing to her niece, Anna Austen, Jane Austen thougth that Miss O’ Neil was most elegant- one of her highest terms of praise for a female- but was not as good an actress as she had been led to believe:
We were all at the Play last night, to see Miss o’Neal (sic) in” Isabella”. I do not think she was quite equal to my expectation. I fancy I want something more than can be. Acting seldom satisfies me. I took two Pocket handkerchiefs but had very little occasion for either. She is an elegant creature however and hugs Mr Younge delightfully.
( Letter to Anna Austen, dated 29th November 1814, written from 23 Hans Place, London)
I have found another admirer of Miss O’ Neil, a contemporary of Jane Austen, and thoguht you might like to share his impressions of her acting ability, to compare and contrast it with Jane Austen’s acute preception and theatrical criticism ;)
The person in question is one of my favouite diarists of the era, Joseph Ballard
Joseph Ballard was a Bostonian, born in 1789 in Bromfield’s Lane, Boston, Massachusetts, where his father had a livery and hack business. In fact his father established the first hackney carriage business in Boston. Jospeh Ballard was mostly aself-educated man, but on his journey to England and Wales in 1815 he kept what is now a fascinating journal, full of delicous detial of all he did and experienced, contrasting Amercian habits and customs with those he observed in England.
From his observations made in London, he was obviously a fan of theatre in America. So it is interesting to note his reaction to Miss O’Neil, with whom Jane Austen was ever-so-slighlty disappointed. And it is also interesting to note the tiny details he noticed and recorded, some that Jane Austen ignored, or just didn’t think necessary to note.
He first went to see Miss O’Neil on the 20th April 1815, when she was appearing in one of her most famous roles,Shakespeare’s Juliet. Here is his dairy entry for that night:
This evening attended Covent Garden Theatre. The outside as well as that of Dury Lane and the Opera is guarded by soldiers to keep proper order. The play was Shakespeare’s ‘Romeo and Juliet’. Miss O ‘Neil sustained the character of Juliet in a style which far surpasses our actresses as the celebrated Cooke did our actors.The funeral scene was extremely solemn; the friars and attendants were over sixty persons who chanted the service in the manner of the Romish church. The music and singing was very fine. The after-piece was ‘Lembucca’ a modern melodrama resembling ‘Tekeli’. The scenery and dresses to this were very handsome. There were frequently one hundred performers on the stage at once. The decorations of this house on the audiots parts ( in the auditorium-jfw) are not so elegant as those of Drury Lane yet I think the scenery more elegant.
There is always attending these theatres an immense number of women of the town( prostitutes-jfw). With the exception of the first boxes which are designated as dress boxes they go into all parts of the house and seat themselves as they please. I have often seen many of them in boxes with ladies and gentlemen apparently respectable. The streets are thronged with these miserable wretches who acost every person who passes along. Many of them have no where to lay their heads and pass the night in the street in any corner which will afford them shelter.
At Covent Garden Theatre, Liston,( John Liston a noted comedian-jfw) one of the performers, is enuded with such comical powers of countanance that one must have a perfect command of the risible powers to prevent himself from laughing before he utters a word.
(John Liston in 1817 by George Clint)
There are also some fine dancers at this house but these ladies are so thinly clad and throw themselves into such indecent postures that I think a New England audience would not have tolerated them.
This is a much fuller and very different account of a night at Covent Garden that Jane Austen ever gives us, I am sure you will agree.
Then on 4th May, after having watched the procession of grandees arrive at St James Palace for a levee held by the Queen, Mr Ballard again went to Covent Garden to see Miss O’ Neil.
At night attended Covent Garden theatre to see Mr Kemble and Miss O ‘Neil in the play of ‘The Stranger’. The performances in this play were never in my opinion surpassesd for excellence. Kemble has a singular voice and I think is a little too formal and precise yet his acting is elegant. When I speak of Miss O ‘Neil I cannot find words to express sufficiently my admiration of her acting. It is said she excels Mrs Siddons when she first appeared opon the London boards. Her person is most beautiful. She posesses a fine tonic voice and a very expressive countnance.
I think we can clearly discern that Mr Ballard was rather taken with the elegant Miss O’Neil. Rather more so than Jane Austen,who was rather cool about her acting ability. But interestingly, he gives us far more detail of the evenings entertainment than Jane Austen ever did: a forgeiners eye picks up on details that Jane Austen most probably noticed but took as normal- the prostitutes-women of the town- sitting all around the theatres, the same poor wretches lying in squalor on the streets.
Mr Ballard has a lot more to say about Jane Austen’s England and so I think we can all profit by following him about. There will be more posts about his travels soon.Do join me, won’t you?