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PERSONAL REMINISCENCES OF CHARLES READE, EXTENDING OVER TWENTY YEARS.
PART I. INTRODUCTION. NOTHING in the following pages can be half so remarkable as the source to which these reminiscences owe their origin, and the circumstances under which they came to be written.
My career has probably been more varied, and associated with more remarkable incidents, than most men of my age and profession. In years gone by, I have often beguiled the time by relating my adventures to Mr. Reade, and he has over and over again urged me to commit them to paper. The cares, the drudgery, and the ever recurring vicissitudes of fortune incidental to my position as actor, occasional dramatist, and manager of a number of theatres, left me, however, little leisure, and less inclination, to follow his ad
Almost the last time I saw him, he returned to the charge more earnestly than ever, and finally offered in the most generous spirit-if I would avail myself of his suggestion-to launch my first book with the support of his name attached to it as Editor; and now, by the irony of fate, these mementoes of my relations with him are published as the first in
stalment of the work he himself so often suggested.
May 23d, 1884.
MANY years ago (I forgot the precise date), when, in my teens," I was principal tragedian in Bath and Bristol, Mr. E. T. Smith offered me an engagement to make my début in London, in a piece written by Charles Reade, called Gold." At that time I was successful beyond my deserts, nothing less than Hamlet would have suited my modest aspirations; and the offer was declined I fear with more curtness than courtesy. 66 Gold" was subsequently acted at Drury Lane for five or six weeks, and, it was alleged, enabled Mr. Smith to clear upwards of £1800. The author's honorarium amounted to £20 a week,
has never been
and the use of a private box. Even that sum the manager thought too much, and after the thirtieth night he proposed to reduce it to £12 a week. Mr. Reade declined to assent to this proposal, and he withdrew the piece altogether. From that day to this, "Gold acted in town, and it was never acted in both of which it was a dead failure; yet the country except at two theatres, in this unfortunate play, which had disappeared altogether from the living drama, and which, in my boyish arrogance, I had disdained to act in, was not only destined to become the medium of my acquaintance with my dearest friend, but also to become a landmark in the history of dramatic literature.
Everybody knows that Mr. Reade was a fellow of Magdalen College, and took his degree of Doctor of Laws at that his original bent was toward the Oxford, yet he has often assured me drama, and the drama alone!
For fifteen or sixteen years after attaining his fellowship, and being called
to the Bar, he oscillated 'twixt Oxford, London, Edinburgh, and Paris, and once, in conjunction with his friend young Morris, son of the Haymarket manager, he took a pedestrian tour half over Europe. During this period he wrote for the magazines much, studied more, and acquired his intimate acquaintance with the French Theatre, although he frankly admitted that, much as he desired to do so, he never could emancipate himself entirely from the "fetters" of that which he usually designated "our cumbrous, sprawling, Anglo-Saxon drama.'
He had fondly hoped that the production of Gold at Drury Lane would have opened all the theatres to him, but to the end of his life he alleged that he was perpetually baffled by the caprice and stupidity of the public, and the perversity and obtuseness of the managers. Barely twelve months ago, he told me that he had made an appointment only a short time previous, to read a play of his in a certain fashion
able theatre. He was kept waiting for more than an hour, and the manager did not deign to put in an appearance, nor did he afterward condescend to explain or apologize for this impertinence. Still more recently, Mr. Reade wrote to the management of another fashionable theatre, offering to send a printed copy of a new comedy for approval, and he never even received an answer to his proposal.
At the commencement of his career the Haymarket was under the manage-, ment of Mr. Morris. Mrs. Seymour, a charming and accomplished actress, then in the very flower of her beauty, was one of the principal attractions of the company, and Mr. Reade was as much impressed with her ability as by her personal charms. He frequented the theatre nightly, studied the actress's method, and composed a comedy, of which he intended her to be the heroine. Obtaining an introduction from his friend young Morris, he carried his play under his arm, and presented himself in Jermyn Street, where he found the pretty actress at tea, or to be more precise, at the actors' popular teadinner," with her husband, and Captain Curling, who divided the expenses of the household with the Seymours. Mr. Reade impressed the little family party so favorably that they invited him to join them. During his first visit, he was shy, nervous, and embarrassed. A few days later, on returning from the theatre, Mrs. Seymour found that the servant, after having helped herself to her mistress's wardrobe, had taken her departure, without preparing the teadinner. At the very moment when Reade called to pay his second visit, the fair Laura was vainly endeavoring to light a fire to set the kettle boiling, and the young author volunteered to assist her. This incident he afterward utilized, and elaborately developed in the highly humorous dramatic situation between Charles and Nell Gwynne, in the last act of The King's Rival.
The Seymours did not think much of the comedy, but they thought very highly of the author, and finding that he occupied very expensive apartments, invited him, with a view to economize his resources, to join their modest ménage as a member of the family upon
the same footing as Captain Curling. Hence commenced an intimacy which terminated only with the death of Mrs. Seymour long subsequent to the decease of her husband, and his Pylades, Bunce Curling.
It was in the year 1851 that Mr. Reade, then thirty-seven years of age. made his first dramatic experiment.* It was in an adaptation of a comedy by Scribe and Legouvé, anglicized under the name of The Ladies' Battle," and chiefly remembered for Mrs. Stirling's admirable impersonation of the Comtesse d'Autreval. After this came "Gold," with the result already stated. His next composition was a drama founded upon certain romantic incidents connected with his own history, which occurred during his sojourn in Scotland. This play he sent to the late Tom Taylor, then a rising and popular dramatist supposed to possess considerable influence with the managers of the day. Mr. Taylor himself informed me that he read the drama through one night, while swinging in his hammock at his chambers in the Temple. He was struck with the power and vigor of the diction, and the exciting nature of the incidents, but thought the plot quite unsuitable for dramatic action. Under this impression he got up in the wee small hours ayont the twelve," and wrote to Reade, urging him to convert the drama into a story, suggesting a particular mode of treatment, and concluding the letter with the famous quotation, "Yea by!' said my uncle Toby, it shall not die !'"'
Adopting Taylor's suggestion, Reade ultimately converted the drama into the delightful story of "Christie Johnstone. He, however, alleged to me, no later than last September, that he still felt that his first idea was the correct one, and in corroboration of the opinion, he quoted the fact that
Christie Johnstone" had been adapted and acted in America, with remarkable success, thousands of times.
Previous to the production of this work in narrative form, he wrote Peg Woffington." Taylor thought the subject admirably adapted for dramatic treatment, and he proposed to Reade that they should collaborate in the transmogrification of the story into the comedy of "Masks and Faces," which was produced at the Haymarket The atre, and in which Mrs. Stirling and Ben Webster distinguished themselves so highly as the large-hearted Peg, and the poor starving author, Triplet.
Although this work brought great credit, it brought little coin to the authors, who, under happier auspices, repurchased their rights, and were ultimately enabled to realize a considerable sum from royalties accruing from the performance of the play at the Prince of Wales's, the Haymarket, and elsewhere. "Christie Johnstone" immediately followed the publication of "Peg Woffington," and Charles Reade made his first mark as a novelist.
In her youth Mrs. Seymour had enjoyed the advantage of being on terms of friendly intimacy with all the distinguished actors of her time, including Macready and Charles Kean. Many a time and oft, when people used to complain of Macready's temper, have I heard her exclaim, Ah, you didn't know him! He was a darling, and the truest, noblest gentleman in the world!'' Charles Kean she also declared was a most lovable, charming fellow (and so he was). Owing to Mrs. Seymour's influence with Kean, Reade and Taylor's now almost forgotten play of "The First Printer "' was produced with questionable success at the Princess's. This was soon followed by The Courier of Lyons," in one respect a truly remarkable piece of stage craft. Most of Reade's dramas are distinguished by prolixity and redundancy, but here in adapting another man's work, he produced a masterpiece of construction. Except Palgrave Simpson's adaptation of Edmund Yates's novel, "Black Sheep,' which is a model of dramatization, there is nothing on the modern stage which for terseness, simplicity, and strength, can compare with Charles Reade's arrangement of the third and fourth acts of The Courier of Lyons." This is a mere expression of individual opinion,
but it may at least be accepted as an impartial one, since I myself had previously adapted the play, and had acted it repeatedly; but upon seeing Reade's version, I put my own behind the fire. Excellent as his manipulation of the work was, The Courier of Lyons did not at that time do much to advance Mr. Reade's reputation. Finding the majority of theatres closed against him, and determined not to be kept out, he, in conjunction with Mrs. Seymour, went into management at the St. James's on his own account, where he commenced his campaign with "The King's Rival," a strong but clumsy play, remembered principally for being the medium to introduce Mr. Toole to a London audience, and for Mrs. Seymour's inimitable performance of Nell Gwynne, and above all for the noblest epitaph on the Lord Protector (the great Oliver) the English language (no disrespect to Carlyle) has yet produced.
This season, I fear, involved a serious loss, to retrieve which a tour in the provinces was projected and carried out, with anything but successful financial results.
On returning to London, Mr. Reade collaborated with Mr. Tom Taylor in the composition of "Two Loves and a Life'-a noble play, but never attractive to the extent of its merits, either in town or country. As literary work, in my opinion, it is in advance of any drama of the same class in this century, yet such is the perversity of public taste, this play was only acted in one or two important country theatres, and has never been revived in London since its first production at the Adelphi. I had such faith in it, that during the first year I went into management I expended three or four hundred pounds upon its production, with most direful results. The manager, as well as the author, is unfortunate who is "before his time."
It was at this crisis in Mr. Reade's career that the sound, practical commonsense of Mrs. Seymour came to the rescue, and she incessantly urged him to quit the precarious pursuit of the drama, in which he was so often defeated, and to devote his great powers and his undivided attention to narrative literature.
Up to forty-three years of age his life had appeared almost a wasted one. Before he had reached fifty he had ac quired fame and fortune. Yet amidst his continually increasing successes as a novelist, he perpetually hungered for the glamor of the footlights, the applause of the audience, and he was never happy out of the theatre. With this feeling ever dominant, circumstances now occurred which were peculiarly aggravating. It is Never to Late to Mend' caught the public eye and heart, rushed through several editions, and became the rage of the hour. Its great and continually increasing popularity attracted the attention of the minor theatre dramatists. Various unauthorized dramatizations of the novel were produced in town and country, which crowded the theatres nightly, and replenished the managerial coffers, while not a cent ever found its way to the pocket of the original author. It must It must be confessed that to a less irascible man this would have been annoying enough, but it incensed Charles Reade almost to madness.
At this period I read the book-fortunately I had not seen any of the spurious plays on the subject and I was immediately struck with the dramatic capabilities of the story. Without delay, I ran up to town, presented myself at Bolton Row, May Fair, and introduced myself to Mr. Reade.
Thus after all these years, the obso lete drama of "Gold"-at which I had
turned up my nose in my youth-at my maturity brought me into immediate communication with the author of It is Never too Late to Mend," and led to an intimacy of twenty years' duration. CHAPTER II.
ON arriving at Bolton Row, I was shown into a large room littered over with books, MSS., agenda, newspapers of every description from the Times and the New York Herald, down to the Police News. Before me stood a stately and imposing man of fifty or fifty-one, over six feet high, a massive chest, herculean limbs, a bearded and leonine face, giving traces of a manly beauty which ripened into majesty as he grew older. Large brown eyes which could at times become exceedingly fierce, a fine head, quite bald on the top, but covered at the sides with soft brown. hair, a head strangely disproportioned to the bulk of the body; in fact I never could understand how so large a brain could be confined in so small a skull. On the desk before him lay a huge sheet of drab paper, on which he had been writing-it was about the size of two sheets of ordinary foolscap; in his hand, one of Gillott's double-barrelled pens. (Before I left the room, he told me he sent Gillott his books, and Gillott sent him his pens.)
His voice, though very pleasant, was very penetrating. He was rather deaf, but I don't think quite so deaf as he pretended to be. This deafness gave
him an advantage in conversation; it afforded him time to take stock of the situation and either to seek refuge in silence, or to request his interlocutor to propound his proposal afresh. At first he was very cold, but at last, carried away by the ardor of my admiration for his works, he thawed, and in half an hour he was eager, excited, delighted, and delightful.
When I said that I wanted to dramatize his book he told me he had dramatized it already, that he had sent printed copies to every manager in London, and they had not the decency even to acknowledge his letters on the subject. He had lost all hope and heart about it, he said, but if I liked I might take the book and read it, and form my own opinion as to its chances of suc
cess. I read the play that night, and breakfasted with him the next morning, when we arranged to produce it forthwith at my theatre in Leeds.
Mr. Reade's frank egoism is so wellknown, and he was so naïve and manly about it, that I cannot refrain from chronicling my first impressions of it. After breakfast, he asked me to read him George Fielding's farewell to the farm. There was a lady present and the tears rose in her eyes at the touching lines about church bells, and home." Seeing this, Reade rose, and paced the room in violent agitation, muttering to himself, "Beautiful beautiful-music-music!-isn't it?" He then turned upon me abruptly, and desired me to give Tom Robinson's curse in the prison scene. I did, to the best of my ability. When I had done, he became quite wild with excitement, and exclaimed, Sublime! sublime! My only fear is, if you let him have it like that they'll be sorry for that beast of a Hawes. Now-seriously, on your honor, sir, do you think that Lear's curse is in it' with this ?"
When we laughed at his almost boyish exuberance, he was not at all offended, but laughed heartily, as he said:
"No, no, it isn't exactly that-but I can't help kicking when those d-d asses, the critics, try to hang dead men's bones round living men's necks !''
That night there was a cozy little dinner-party improvised in Bolton Row in honor of the young man from the country, who had had the temerity to beard the lion in his den "-so Reade always described the process of my introducing myself to him. The only persons present besides myself were Mr. and Mrs. Dion Boucicault, Dr. Dickson, Mr. Reade and Mrs. Seymour. This charming woman had long passed her première jeunesse when I became acquainted with her. She was still beautiful, but in the heyday of her youth she must have been supremely lovely; and Mr. Reade always maintained that at her zenith she was the most delightful and ebullient comedy actress he had ever seen. And I can well believe it. first time I ever saw her was on the stage of my own theatre at Sheffield with the Haymarket company. On that occa
sion she acted as Mrs. Charles Torrens in the comedy of The Serious Family.' I can see her now as she appeared then, just in the full ripe prime of womanhood—a trifle below the middle height; a fair complexion, oval face; frank open brow; large bright hazel eyes with long dark lashes; a profusion of light brown glossy, curly hair; a delicate aquiline nose; an exquisitely cut mouth with dazzling teeth; a slender waist and a magnificent bust; bright ringing laugh; a crisp, ciear, sympathetic voice, which at times was soft, gentle and low--an excellent thing in woman.
In her Quaker dress of lavender silk she was piquantly charming, but when she appeared in ballroom costume, which revealed her majestic neck and shoulders, she was dazzlingly beautiful. I almost think I can hear her now as she exclaimed, "I have been deceived, betrayed, insulted! Take me from this house, Charles, or I shall stifle."'
Years afterward, when our friendship had ripened into intimacy, Mrs. Seymour informed me that she was the daughter of an impecunious physician who hailed from somewhere in Somersetshire. From her earliest childhood she was the Little Dorritt of the family, and had to be breadwinner for her sister and herself. As early as fifteen years of age Miss Alison made her début as Juliet at the Victoria Theatre, then under the management of Abbott and Egerton, and subsequently she transferred her services to Braham the singer, under whose management she appeared at the St. James's Theatre and at the Coliseum in Regent's Park. Thence she went to the York Circuit and subsequently to the Theatre Royal, Dublin. On her return to town, the necessities of her family urged her to a marriage with Mr. Seymour, a man much older than herself, and reported to be in affluent circumstances. It appeared that this rumor had no foundation in fact. Soon after her marriage Mrs. Seymour, accompanied by her husband, went to America, vainly hoping by the exercise of her profession to obtain the fortune which her marriage had certainly not brought her. The American tour was a disappointment, and the newly married couple returned to Eng