Making It On The Victorian Stage – Do You Have What It Takes? And The Right Clothes?

Dear Reader,

I’m very sorry. I didn’t mean to abandon you, but life was kinda kicking my backside these last months. I am continuing my posts on Victorian theatre. If you recall in the first post, we learned about the various type of productions, the different theatres, rules concerning the theatres, and the agents. Now let’s look at some of the accomplishments recommended in Leman Thomas Rede’s book The Road To The Stage, Or, The Performer’s Preceptor for an actress or actor entering the profession.

Dance

Many of those who will honour me by perusing these pages, may remember an actor, in the character of Corinthian Tom, dancing in the Almack scene; although the gentleman’s  performance  of that character was very excellent, yet, from not having cultivated an acquaintance with Terpsichore, he in this one scene destroyed all our prepossessions of the all-accomplished Tom; whereas Connor, if he did not, by his admirable Hibernian jig, completely make the character of Dr. O’Tool, at least considerably heightened the effect of it.

Elliston was the only Doricourt upon the stage who danced the Minuet de la Gour, and this he made a great feature of his performance; while Egerton, though he opened in the Duke Aranza, at the Hay­market, did not dance at all, thus marring the whole effect of the scene, as the duke pointedly insists on Juliana dancing, and declares his intention of joining the merry circle himself.

Opera

There is one theatre in London for which no actor will be engaged unless he has some knowledge of music, viz.-the Theatre Royal, English Opera House. Although the season is a short one, yet this theatre, under the able management of Mr. Arnold, has been the stepping-stone to some of our leading actors. Harley, Wilkinson, and J. Russell, all made their first metropolitan bows in one season here; poor Chatterley also appeared the same year. Miss Love’s first introduction to the stage was on these boards; here it was that Miss Kelly developed her splendid endowments; and it has been the arena where Mathews has displayed all his versatility.

There is no line of the drama in which it may not be requisite to sing. Iago, Falkland, Edgar, (” King Lear,”) and include all vocalize, and it cannot be very agreeable to the feelings of any tragedian, after being highly applauded for his exertions in the course of the character, to be laughed at for his attempt to sing. In light comedy, it is continually requisite to execute music, and sometimes of no very easy character, as Baron Willinghurst, Captain Beldare, and Delaval (as originally written), Sparkish, The Singles, &c. &c. Old Men and Low Comedians must sing.

In melodrama, and serious pantomime, a slight knowledge of music is indispensable, where a certain number of things are to be done upon the stage during the execution of so many bars of music; the cues too for entrances and exits are frequently only cue changes of the air, and unless the ear is cultivated (if naturally bad) the performer will  be led into error. At the time I was myself in the habit of perpetrating divers melodramatic characters in the provinces, I was obliged to get my brother to attend me behind the scenes to tell me when my music was on.

Fencing

Fencing on the stage is more cultivated for effect than anything else, and a very slender knowledge of the art is sufficient; grace goes further than skill; a few lessons, if the pupil is not uncommonly dull, will be sufficient; it is not essential to rival Kean, or the late Bengough, in the use of the sword, but utter ignorance of the art is destructive to anyone, Edwards’ failure in Richard, at Covent Garden, was decided by his wretched combat–I need  not  add how Kean’s success was enhanced by his excellent one.

French

A knowledge of this language is a component part of that education every actor should have received; to a light comedian, and the performer of eccentrics, it is indispensable. Crackley, in “Green Man,” and a multitude of other parts, cannot be personated by a man ignorant of the Gallic tongue.

The 1872 Americanized edition of Rede’s book also includes the plays that all actors and actresses should know.

There is a vast amount of study required before the novice applies to a manager to become one of his company He must possess a thorough knowledge of the old standard dramas, for their characters are the standpoint from which all others are determined. The manager, for instance, in describing different parts uses the following phrases:

It is a kind of Bob Acres part, or that it is somewhat similar to Martin Haywood, or that still another part resembles Mrs. Haller; consequently you must judge what these characters are like and as Bob Acres is from “Rivals,” Martin Heywood from the “Rent Day” and Mrs. Haller from the “Stranger,” a knowledge of these plays and many others is most essential; besides, there are very few, if any, theatres in the United States which do not, in the course of a year, play one of the following pieces.

The following plays should, without no exception, be read. Nearly all of Shakspeare’s particularly:


And here’s a funny prerequisite to the modern reader: the would-be actress or actor must possess her or his own costumes! Here is an excerpt from the 1836 version of Rede’s book regarding costuming.

The number of actors that of late years have been in the habit of furnishing their own wardrobe has given the managers a hint which they have pretty generally taken. Every man likes to appear to ad­vantage, and many therefore find their own dresses, if they do not approve of the old suits in the stock ; but as our best actors have generally been the poorest men, it is necessary for me to state the things it is absolutely expected that an actor is to find himself in.

Never build while you can buy, is a rule with regard to tenements–never make dresses while you can purchase them, is a dramatic maxim. Theatrical things made at home always cost treble what they could be purchased for [on the street].

Rede includes extensive costume and property lists for various stock characters. These are page images from the 1836 edition. Enjoy!

2 Replies to “Making It On The Victorian Stage – Do You Have What It Takes? And The Right Clothes?”

  1. I really enjoyed the article. It’s interesting to see the emphasis on Shakespeare and French. I did not realized that many actors supplied their own costumes too.

  2. I learned that when I was watching Stitch In Time, a British costuming show. Actors/actresses bought old clothes off the street, unwittily preserving them for future textile researchers.

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