Once a Week (magazine)/Series 1/Volume 5/"Cato" on the boards
“CATO” ON THE BOARDS.
Was Mr. Addison laying to heart Horatian counsel when he retained his tragedy in his writing-desk for nine years? Not that he denied it an airing now and then. It was in 1703 that Captain Richard Steele, at a tavern, read privately to Mr. Cibber, afterwards manager of Drury Lane theatre, a manuscript, unfinished, being four acts of a play upon the death of Cato, which Mr. Addison had planned and commenced during his travels. Of course there was a bottle upon the table, and of course the Captain sipped his wine pretty freely during the pauses of the play, resting his voice, which had been rolling and swelling and storming enough in the sounding speeches and pompous music of his friend’s work, and commenting upon its glories and merits and marvels. Perhaps now and then Mr. Cibber took up the wondrous tale, and rendered a scene or two with more elegant elocution, and with more of a player’s propriety of action, if without the excessive passion and exuberant enthusiasm of his comrade the author’s friend. Doubtless the drawer was rather astonished at the stir the two gentlemen in the private room were making, if indeed he was not accustomed to boisterous eccentricity on the part of the captain, who was always noisy over his bottle or his glass of strong waters, laughing, crying, speech-making, clamorous and troublesome, and rather a bore it may be, with his ceaseless trumpeting of Joe Addison and his doings and his genius. However, about that time he had cause to be loud in his friend’s praise. Many applauded strokes in his second comedy, “The Tender Husband,” as Sir Richard afterwards confessed, had been supplied by Addison’s kindly hand. The play had been acted with great success, and is indeed full of humorous writing. In his next essay Sir Richard, running alone, was very sober and dull, perhaps a little too moral for his audience, and the “Lying Lover” was damned straightway.
Captain Steele was delighted at the warm approval the incomplete “Cato” received at the hands of Mr. Colley. Perhaps they both then grew rather melancholy over their cups, as the merriest topers will sometimes grow. The player was greatly disappointed to learn from Captain Steele that “whatever spirit Mr. Addison had shown in his writing it, he doubted he would never have courage enough to let his ‘Cato’ stand the censure of an English audience: that it had only been the amusement of his leisure hours in Italy, and was never intended for the stage.” Men who write plays persist that they never intended them to be played, just as men who write poems will have it that they never purposed to print until “obliged by hunger and request of friends.” Sir Richard spoke with much concern of his friend’s unfortunate diffidence, and in the transport of his imagination could not help saying, “Good God! what a part would Betterton make of Cato!” But on the 28th of April, 1710, poor Mr. Betterton died: and he had been three years in his grave in Westminster Abbey when Cato came upon the stage.
It could have been no secret, however, that Mr. Addison had written a play. Captain Steele knew of it, and talked about it frankly and noisily after his wont. Pope, too, had seen and read it. Still the author shrank from completing his work; would have it that it was unfit for, and that he had never contemplated its production on, the stage. He was always shy and bashful, keenly sensitive like all men with delicately acute powers of observation—he held back with a child’s timidity from the idea of failure—and perhaps the coarse, stormy applause of a theatrical success seemed almost as repellent to him as the dreadful violence of failure. The rude cheers and vulgar clapping of hands had little attraction for him; but how much more terrible the hisses and catcalls and groans! He wore his nerves very much on the surface, and he started at thoughts: his quick fancy gave such vivid vitality even to his dreams. “Still,” as Dr. Johnson writes, “the time was now come when those who affected to think liberty in danger, affected likewise to think that a stage-play might preserve it: and Addison was importuned in the names of the tutelary deities of Britain to show his courage and his zeal by finishing his design.” Yet he deliberated and vacillated, and at last announcing his inability to complete the play, applied to his friend Mr. John Hughes to write a fifth act for him. Hughes had published poems on the “Peace of Ryswick” and the “Court of Neptune,” on the return of King William, and a Pindaric ode on the death of the king, called the “House of Nassau.” How little Hughes must have known Addison! He thought his request quite serious, and in a few days had written several supplementary scenes, and submitted them for the play-writer’s examination. Meanwhile, of course, Addison had gone to work and produced half an act. So there was an end to Mr. Hughes’s labours. In due course Mr. Addison finished his play, “but,” says his biographer, “with brevity irregularly disproportionate to the foregoing parts, like a task performed with reluctance and hurried to its conclusion.” Many of his literary friends, Pope amongst them, still counselled him to be content with printing the play, and not run the risk of a stage representation; it was hinted to him that the audience might grow tired even of the very best rhetoric; that he had written a poem, not a play; a book for students, not groundlings, and so on; while his political associates were urging the importance of his work as a party manifesto. The audience, he was assured, would recognise a Tory in Cæsar, an apostate Whig in Sempronius, and an analogy between Cato struggling to the death for Roman liberties and the patriotic Whigs rallying round Halifax and Wharton. Addison yielded to the wishes of his party with an apparent reluctance. He was charged, however, with having only affected coyness, while his mind was thoroughly made up to give his play to the actors. It is noteworthy that the most savage attack upon him came from his own side. Dennis, a zealous Whig, in his “Remarks on Cato,” written with a cleverness only equalled by its coarseness, charged him with “raising prejudices in his own favour by false positions of preparatory criticism, and with poisoning the town by contradicting in the ‘Spectator’ the established rule of poetical justice, because his own hero, with all his virtues, was to fall before a tyrant.”
“Cato” came upon the boards in April; a time of the year when it had been usual to devote three nights a week for the benefit plays of particular actors. However, it was decided that the benefits should be postponed to make way for Mr. Addison’s great tragedy. Wilks, Dogget, and Cibber were the managers. Addison read his play to the actors in the green-room. Perhaps his bashfulness marred his eloquence. On the occasion of the second reading he begged Mr. Cibber to take his place, and was so delighted with his intelligent elocution, that he requested him to undertake the part of Cato. Probably Addison was carried away by the excitement of the scene, or he would have been less pressing that a comic actor should represent the chief character in a tragedy. Cibber was vain enough, but he was shrewd also. He knew his own forte. He did not care to risk his comedy laurels, the triumphs of Lord Foppington, Fondlewife, and Sir Novelty Fashion, for any philosophic glories to be gained in the toga of Cato. He preferred the part of Syphax; Wilks chose that of Juba. There must have been a sort of notion that Cato was what actors call an “uphill” part. They both agreed that Booth was the best representative of Cato that could be secured, while yet there was a fear that Booth, being quite a young man, might decline to appear in so solemn and severe, and—to use the professional term—“heavy” a character. So Wilks took the part to Booth’s lodgings, pressed upon him its importance, and persuaded him to accept it. Booth waived all discussion as to the importance of the character, and admitted his willingness to play it, if the managers so desired, reserving entirely his own opinion in regard to it. “This condescending behaviour,” we are told, “together with his performance of the part so much to the delight and admiration of the audience, gave both Wilks and Cibber the greatest pleasure.”
All hands at the theatre were busied in the production of Mr. Addison’s play. “As the author had made us a present of whatever profits he might have claimed from it, we thought ourselves obliged to spare no cost in the proper decoration of it.” This must be understood with limitations. Mise en scène was in an early state of existence. The scenery, dresses, and decorations were rather more splendid than appropriate. There were strange conventions then insisted on in regard to stage costume. Addison, writing in the “Spectator,” gives us frequent glimpses of the dresses and decorations of the drama of his day. “The ordinary method of making an hero is to clap a huge plume of feathers upon his head, which rises so very high that there is often a greater length from his chin to the top of his head than to the sole of his feet. This very much embarrasses the actor, who is forced to hold his neck extremely stiff and steady all the while he speaks, and notwithstanding any anxieties which he pretends for his mistress, his country, or his friends, one may see by his action that his greatest care and concern is to keep the plume of feathers from falling off his head.” Whether Mr. Booth, as Cato, wore a plume is not ascertained, but it is highly probable that he did. Certainly he wore a full-bottomed wig, value fifty guineas; certainly Marcia appeared in a hoop and brocaded satin, and others of the performers were loudly applauded for their magnificent gold-laced waistcoats. Mrs. Betty Lizard, in the “Guardian,” we find, “overlooked the whole drama, but acknowledged the dresses of Syphax and Juba were very prettily imagined.” Her sister, Mary Lizard, writes, “My brother Tom waited upon us all last night to Cato; we sat in the first seats of the box of the eighteen-penny gallery. You must come hither this morning, for we shall be full of debates about the characters. I was for Marcia last night, but find that partiality was owing to the awe I was under in her father’s presence; but this morning Lucia is my woman,” &c.
Every care was taken to secure a success. As in the case of Ambrose Philips’s “Distressed Mother” (Racine’s “Andromaque”), the house was filled with the author’s friends, determined upon the triumph of “Cato,” so far as lusty applause could bring about that result. Captain Steele undertook the packing of the house, and accomplished his task thoroughly. Fancy the gallant officer, his hat cocked jauntily, clothed in his best scarlet coat, rather soiled about the gold-lace edgings, assembling a select party at the Devil, or the Gray’s Inn, or the Fountain, or the Tennis Court Tavern or Coffee-house. Bumpers round to the success of Joe’s tragedy! He never wanted an excuse for a glass, but this was really a prime one, and then a rather unsteady march of the chosen band to the theatre.
Addison was very nervous about the whole business. Suppose that political zeal should carry the house too far? It was a time of extraordinary excitement. Mr. Pope’s line in the prologue, “Britons, arise, be worth like this approved!” might stir up the audience to some treasonable act. The author of the play might be charged with promoting insurrection. “The line was liquidated,” says Johnson, “to Britons, attend!” The opposition peers crowded the boxes. The pit was full of zealous partisans, frequenters of the Whig coffee-houses, and students from the Inns of Court. To make assurance doubly sure, Sir Gilbert Heathcote, Governor of the Bank of England, “Sir Gibby,” as he was popularly called, came from the city, bringing with him a host of fellow citizens, “warm men and true Whigs, but better known at Jonathan’s and Garraway’s than in the haunts of wits and critics,” as Lord Macaulay says. These were instructed to cheer to the utmost whenever a Tory hiss was heard. But, in truth, these tremendous preparations for defence were entirely unnecessary.
The Tories had never contemplated the slightest opposition to the play. The gentle, courtly, and kind-hearted Addison was the last man whose opinions they would have dreamt of attacking through his literature, much less whom they would have planned to crush by an acrimonious antagonism. The severest Tory-writers paid homage to him as a scholar and a gentleman of wit and virtue, in whose friendship many of both parties were happy, and whose name they heard, with regret, banded about in the brawls of factions. Certainly the conduct of Captain Steele and his civic auxiliaries was irritating enough to provoke opposition. But the ministerialists only laughed good-naturedly when Sir Gibby and his friends made the mistake of applauding the sham patriotism of the hypocritical Sempronius with greater enthusiasm than they could be induced to bestow on the calmer eloquence of Cato. Pope, in his letter to Sir William Trumbull, gives a vivid description of the first night. “Cato was not so much the wonder of Rome in his days, as he is of Britain in ours: and though all the foolish industry possible has been used to make it thought a party-play, yet what the author once said of another may the most properly in the world be applied to him, on this occasion:
“‘Envy itself is dumb in wonder lost,
And factions strive who shall applaud him most!’
The numerous and violent claps of the Whig party on the one side of the theatre were echoed back by the Tories on the other; while the author sweated behind the scenes with concern to find their applause proceeding more from the hand than the head. This was the case, too, of the prologue-writer” (Pope, himself), “who was clapped into a staunch Whig at almost every two lines.” Imagine Addison (“he had light-blue eyes, extraordinary bright, and face perfectly regular and handsome, like a tinted statue,” says Colonel Henry Esmond), imagine Addison standing in the wings, or, as Mrs. Porter related, wandering through the whole exhibition behind the scenes with restless and unappeasable solicitude, shrinking rather as Booth rolled out his lines at the footlights, and the audience shouted plaudits not to the poet but to the politician—approved not the polish and music, and even beauty of his verses, but the inuendoes of party supposed to lurk in them. Was he satisfied, do you think? Was his muse not rather ashamed and affronted? Still the loud roar of applause, Captain Steele playing the part of fugleman, must have had a pleasant ring in it. And it would have been hard at that moment to pause and analyse it, to see how far it was adulterated with the spirit of faction.
The sons of Cato enter, and the play begins:
“The dawn is overcast: the morning lours,
And heavily in clouds brings on the day,
The great, the important day, big with the fate
Of Cato and of Rome,” &c.
Some of the critics (they must have been of the Tory camp) thought they discovered here a plagiarism from Nat Lee’s “Alexander”:
“The morning rises black: the louring sun,
As if the dreadful business he foreknew
Drives heavily his sable chariot on,” &c.
The actors were very perfect; indeed there had been most careful drilling and rehearsing. To many of them the author or his friend the captain had been at pains to give personal direction and instruction how they should enact their parts. Lacy Ryan, a young man of eighteen who acquired a considerable fame by his performance of Marcus, one of the sons of Cato, had been expressly selected for the part by Addison, who, with Steele, invited the player to a tavern to explain to him the character and instruct him in its rendering. He was famous afterwards for his representations of the lovers of tragedy and the fine gentlemen of comedy, though a wound he received in the mouth from the pistol of a footpad was said to have occasioned an unpleasant alteration of his voice. Cibber as Syphax endevoured to follow the style of Kynaston, who had imported into tragedy an ease and freedom approaching the colloquial. The sticklers for the dignity of the tragic music had always deprecated this innovation, and Addison, at the rehearsals, had expressed a fear that the audience might take too familiar a notice of the sentiments of Syphax delivered by Mr. Cibber. After the performance, however, the author came round to the actor’s opinion, and admitted that “even tragedy, on particular occasions, might admit of a laugh of approbation.” The fact was the tragedians, accounting themselves as of the highest caste of players, had been always angry and jealous at the progress of comedians. Powell had once been in a great rage because he had been obliged to appear as Cæsar Borgia, in a much less splendid coat than Cibber wore as Lord Foppington.
Wilks was greatly admired as Juba. He played with much animation and feeling; was very graceful in his attitudes and actions. Comparing him with Booth, Cibber says: “In sorrow, tenderness, or resignation, Wilks plainly had the advantage, and seemed more pathetically to look, feel, and express his calamity.” He was noted for his perfectness in his parts: it was said “that in forty years he never five times changed or misplaced an article in one of them.” Mrs. Porter appeared as Lucia. Speaking of a later period of her career, Horace Walpole declared that, in passionate tragedy, she surpassed even Garrick. She was entrusted with the epilogue—a frivolous composition by Dr. Garth, and quite unworthy of the occasion.
But, of course, the real hero of the performance was Barton Booth. A Westminster schoolboy, under Dr. Busby, he earned his first laurels by his acting in a Latin play at the school. About to proceed to the University, he absconded and joined the company of Mr. Ashbury, the manager of the Dublin theatre. Ashbury was a good actor—was famed for his Iago. Wilks, Booth, and others gained greatly by his instructions. He had even taught Queen Anne, when she was only princess, the part of Semandra in Lee’s play of “Mithridates, King of Pontus,” performed at the banqueting-house, Whitehall, by persons of rank. For his services on this occasion he obtained the appointment of Master of the Revels in Ireland. Mr. Booth played for three seasons in Dublin with extraordinary success. He then came to England strongly recommended to Mr. Betterton. As a young man he had unfortunately fallen into habits of excess rather fashionable in his day, but warned by the example of George Powell, an actor who had ruined himself by his intemperance, “Booth” (says Cibber) “fixed a resolution which from that time to the end of his days he strictly observed, of utterly reforming: an uncommon act of philosophy in a young man of which in his fame and fortune he afterwards enjoyed the reward and benefit!” He had founded his style upon Betterton as Wilks had founded his upon Mountford and Cibber his upon Kynaston. Acting is full of traditions. Victor, in his “History of the Theatre,” thus describes Booth: “He was of a middle stature—five feet eight, his form rather inclining to the athletic though nothing clumsy or heavy: his air and deportment naturally graceful, with a marking eye, and a manly sweetness in his countenance. His voice was completely harmonious, from the softness of the flute to the extent of the trumpet. His attitudes were all picturesque: he was noble in his designs and happy in his execution.” Aaron Hill pays the actor a high compliment when he says: “The blind might have seen him in his voice, and the deaf have heard him in his visage.” The elocution of Mr. Booth’s day was very much of the ore rotundo order. Blank verse was delivered with a solemn and stately articulateness. However, the actor indulged occasionally in a whirlwind of passion. In Lear, we are told, “his fire was ardent and his feelings remarkably energetic: in uttering the imprecations in general he was more rapid than Garrick.” His principal parts besides Cato were Pyrrhus, Othello, Brutus, Lear, Marc Antony, Aurungzebe, Jaffier, the Ghost in Hamlet, &c. Macklin described the actor’s Pyrrhus “as awfully impressive,” so much so that he stood fixed with amazement at it. When he played Brutus, and delivered the sad words, “Portia is dead!” the whole audience are said to have wept with him. He was essentially a tragic actor. Once at the command of the Queen, and following the example of Betterton, he played Falstaff, but as he never repeated the part, it is probable the experiment was unsuccessful. Those who have smiled at the notion of the player appearing as Cato in a full bottomed wig, may be interested in knowing that he was considered for his time a very careful dresser. He was the first to wear a plume of feathers in the helmet of the Ghost in Hamlet, and to cover his feet with felt so as to make no noise in passing over the stage. Booth was born in 1681 in the county Palatine of Lancaster. His health failing him he retired from the stage in 1729. He died in 1733. He was twice married—first, in 1704, to the daughter of Sir William Barkham, a Norfolk baronet, and, secondly, to Miss Santlowe, an actress who had made a great reputation in the character of the Fair Quaker of Deal. Scandal whispered that she had acquired a large fortune by accompanying John Duke of Marlborough to Flanders in the campaign of 1706. She survived her husband forty years. Booth was said to have been concerned in the building of Barton and Cowley Streets, Westminster; to the former of which he gave his own Christian name, and to the latter the name of his favourite poet.
The political triumph which the Whigs were enjoying in the success of “Cato” was ingeniously countermined by Bolingbroke, who sent for Booth between the acts, and before the whole theatre presented him with a purse of fifty guineas for so well defending the cause of liberty against a perpetual dictator, and dying so bravely in the cause of liberty. This was an adroit reference to Marlborough’s attempt, not long before his fall, to obtain a patent creating him Captain-General for life. Dogget, the manager, a sturdy Whig, regarding this as leaving the victory in the hands of the Tories, proposed that a similar present should be made to Booth by the Whigs, “as he could not bear that so redoubted a champion for liberty as Cato should be bought off to the cause of a contrary party.” Booth was nothing loth to receive tribute of this kind from both sides of the house. Indeed, his reputation was so greatly enhanced by the honours paid to him, that he laid claim to a share in the management of the theatre, and in the license for the following season his name was added to the names of the existing managers. This so mortified Dogget, that he at once threw up his share in the property of the theatre, and was said to have thus abandoned an income of 1000l. per annum. However, he had already acquired a fortune by his frugality and success, and could therefore afford to indulge his spleen thus liberally.
“Cato” was played every day for a month (Mondays excepted) to constantly crowded houses. It came at the close of the season, a sort of splendid aftercrop, bringing a gain to the management almost equal to two fruitful seasons in one year. In the summer, the Drury Lane actors played “Cato” at Oxford with remarkable success. The gownsmen demanded admittance in crowds at twelve o’clock at noon, and hundreds went away unable to obtain room. The Vice-chancellor publicly thanked the players “for the decency and order observed by our whole society,” says Cibber; adding, significantly, “an honour which had not been always paid upon the same occasions.” The actors received double salaries, and the managers were still enabled to pay fifty pounds as a contribution towards the repair of St. Mary’s church. Indeed the London and Oxford profits together brought to each manager the handsome sum of fifteen hundred pounds.
The most important of Booth’s successors in the rôle of “Cato” were Quin, Sheridan, and, lastly, Kemble. On the occasion of Quin’s first appearance in the character, he modestly announced in the bills that Cato would be attempted by Mr. Quin. Nevertheless, he so roused the audience by his powerful acting in the scene where Cato extols his dead son, brought in upon a bier, with the words, “Thanks to the gods, my boy has done his duty!” that the house rang with acclamations of “Booth outdone!” while the famous soliloquy, “It must be so—Plato, thou reasonest well!” was vehemently encored! Still he must have been rather pompous and blatant in his style, he was so bent on giving intense sonority to his elocution. He pronounced the letter a broad and open. Garrick sounded it more like an e. When Quin, as Coriolanus, ordered the centurions to lower their fasces as a tribute of respect to Volumnia, the actors thought he said their faces, and commenced to bow their heads, greatly to the amusement of the house. A Welsh actor, named Williams, playing a messenger, and delivering the line, “Cæsar sends health to Cato,” pronounced it “Keeto,” greatly to the wrath of Quin, who burst out with “Would he had sent a better messenger!” This led, unhappily, to serious consequences. Williams, deeply incensed, vowed vengeance, and attacked Quin under the Piazza, on his return from the tavern to his lodgings. Quin drew, and they fought desperately, Williams receiving a mortal wound. Quin was tried at the Old Bailey, and a verdict of Manslaughter was returned. Mr. Sheridan is said to have played the part “with fine classical taste; excelling in the level declamatory portions.” John Kemble was perhaps the first to represent “Cato” correctly as to costume, though it was some time before he deemed it necessary to be particular in that respect. His first appearance in London was as Hamlet, when he wore a black velvet court suit, with a star and riband, and long hair, powdered but dishevelled.
With Mr. Kemble playing “Cato” to the Portius of Mr. Young, the pronunciation difficulty was revived. The former would call Rome, Room; the latter adhered to the more ordinary pronunciation of the word. Neither would give way, and the pit laughed at and applauded each actor by turns as he came to the contested word and rendered it in his own fashion. Kemble’s manner of pronouncing, indeed, was at all times eccentric. He called “innocent,” innocint; “conscience,” conshince; “virtue,” varchue; “fierce,” furse; “beard,” bird; “thy,” the; and “odious,” “hideous,” and “perfidious,” became ojus, hijjus, and perfijjus. But Kemble was the last “Cato,”—”The last of the Romans!”
Time is a great iconoclast—reverses all sort of verdicts. What has become of “Cato”? as a poem? as a play? In his day it did much to raise Addison’s fame: it does little to support it now. Johnson calls it the noblest production of Addison’s genius. Macaulay places it long after the masterpieces of the Attic stage, after the Elizabethan dramatists, after Schiller, Alfieri, Voltaire, Corneille, Racine. In truth, Addison, in spite of his refinedly sensitive organisation and his great knowledge and appreciation of human nature, produced a play without feeling and without nature—a literary bas-relief, carven out of cold and colourless stone—its only recommendations, that it was right according to rule, and fashioned accurately after classical patterns. It gave London a month’s excitement, and has since supplied the world with some trite quotations—that is all. It is melancholy to think that Mr. John Dennis’s coarse criticisms were probably just. Addison made no reply to them. As Pope said, he was best avenged, as the sun was in the fable upon the bats and owls, by shining on. Perhaps Addison would have been thankful if Pope had been equally reticent. He published an unwise reply, called “The Frenzy of John Dennis.” Addison publicly disclaimed all share in it, and Pope, bitterly hurt, was his friend no more.