Playgoer's Journal

Henry Morley (1822-1894) was both a writer, an apothecary and later professor of English at London University - as he is shown in this later photograph by W&D Downey. He knew Wilkie well through his work with Dickens on Household Words but it is not clear they were more than acquaintances. In The Journal of a London Playgoer he wrote these two contemporary accounts of The Lighthouse and The Red Vial.

July 14.—On Tuesday evening at Campden House, Kensington, the residence of Colonel Waugh, semi-private theatricals were given, with a charitable purpose, and with striking success , under the management of Mr. Charles Dickens.

At Campden House there is a miniature theatre, complete with pit and boxes, stage and footlights. For the benefit of the funds of the Bournemouth Sanatorium for Consumptive Patients, the amateurs performed in this little theatre, before a crowded audience composed principally of ladies, a new two-act play by Mr. Wilkie Collins, and a two-act farce. The play was called The Lighthouse, and told a tale of Eddystone in the old times. An exquisite picture (for such it is, and not a mere ordinary scene) of Eddystone as it stood in those days, from the pencil of Mr. Stanfield, was the drop-scene, and the actors were exhibited throughout as shut up in a little room within the lighthouse, also of Mr. Stanfield’s painting, which, from its nature, could with the best possible effect be set up in a private drawing-room, or on a miniature stage. Similar exigencies appear also to have been consulted in the manner of developing the plot of the play; the crime, the wreck, and all the events upon which hangs the passion of the story, not being produced upon the scene, but breaking out from the narration of the actors. None of the leading incidents are shown actually, but their workings on the minds of the three lighthouse-men who are the chief performers, and of the few other persons introduced into the story, contribute interest enough to sustain an earnest attention throughout. The little piece told upon the audience admirably.

But it had rare advantages. It was, in its principal parts, acted by distinguished writers, with whose artistic skill upon the stage the public has been for some time familiar. The three lighthouse-men are at first shown cut off by a month’s storms from the mainland. They are an old man and his son, together with the father of the young man’s sweetheart. The old man’s memory is haunted by what he believes to have been his passive consent to a most foul murder. Weakened by starvation, his brain becomes wholly possessed by dread of this crime. The spectre of the supposed murdered lady seems to stand at his bedside and bid him speak. He does speak, and, possessed with a wild horror at all he recollects, reveals to his son his shame. Upon the acting of this character depends the whole force of the story, as presented to the audience, and it is in the hands of a master. He is a rough man, whose face has been familiar for years with wind and spray, haggard and wild just now, and something light-headed, oppressed not more by conscience than by hunger. He tells his tale, and his son turns from him, shrinks from his touch, struck down by horror of the crime and the humiliation to himself involved in it. Relief comes to the party soon after this; they are fed, and the physical depression is removed. Eager then to regain his son’s esteem, and cancel the disclosure of his secret, the old lighthouse-man changes in manner. By innumerable master-touches on the part of the actor, we are shown what his rugged ways have been of hiding up the knowledge that stirs actively within his conscience; but his effort to be bold produces only nervous bluster, and his frantic desire to recover his son’s respect, though he may take him by the throat to extort it from him, is still mixed up with a horrible sense of blood-guiltiness, wonderfully expressed by little instinctive actions. I will not follow the story to its last impressive moment of rough, nervous, seaman’s prayer, in which the old man stands erect, with his hands joined over his head, overpowered by the sudden removal of the load that has so long weighed upon his heart. But to the last that piece of the truest acting was watched with minute attention by the company assembled; and rarely has acting on a public stage better rewarded scrutiny. [pp103-105]

October 16.—At the OLYMPIC we have had, during the week, the opening of Mr. Wilkie Collins’s Red Vial. Intent upon the course, of his narrative, the author has in this instance forgotten that in a drama characters are not less essential than a plot. There is not a character in The Red Vial. One person is, indeed, benevolent; another rigid in the sense of probity; another, represented by Mrs. Stirling, weak in the same, and wicked; and another, represented by Mr. Robson, a maniac, with wits of dimensions varying according to the convenience of the story; but they are all shadows for a tale that should be read in ten minutes, not characters to be offered bodily to our senses, for a two hours’ study. Still with the same exclusive care about the story, it happens also that the author of The Red Vial has taken no pains to secure pithiness of expression; there is no effort to say good things pointedly, and sometimes even a tendency to say commonplace things tediously, as if they were worth elaborating into speeches.

But the defect fatal to the success of this melodrama, probably, is something in itself apparently more trivial than any of these faults. The morality of the play is, indeed, to a certain extent, bad; we are asked for some sort of sympathy with mother’s love that begets robbery and murder; but plays seldom are condemned for bad morality. Crowded houses at the Haymarket have this week taken harmless delight in London Assurance, of which the whole story shines only through a bright halo of swindling and lying; a play without the faintest recognition in it of such a principle as honour, except by a weak tag at the end about two gentlemen. That play succeeds because it has a fairly managed story, a pleasant variety of well-marked stage-characters, enough of sparkle in the dialogue, although it is by no means good, and an easy sense of the ridiculous everywhere paramount. Want of power in the writing does not much offend an audience that is otherwise contented. When will Boots at the Swan fail to attract playgoers to the Olympic, and to awaken peals of laughter there? Yet as a piece of writing it is utterly unreadable. The fatal defect in The Red Vial is that it makes no allowance for the good or bad habit that an English audience has of looking out for something upon which to feed its appetite for the absurd. The orthodox writer of melodramas satisfies that hunger with a comic underplot, and by so doing saves his terrors whole. But Mr. Wilkie Collins has experimented in a drama without one break in the chain of crime and terror, and the audience therefore makes breaks for itself at very inconvenient places. That a play so contrived should contain frequent solemn references to a doctor’s shop, blue, green, and red bottles, drops and tablespoonfuls, small matter as that may be, is in the presence of a laughter-loving public very perilous. It needs the highest and the truest exaltation of the language of the drama to keep an audience in an English playhouse in a state of unbroken solemnity for two hours at a stretch. Mr. Robson and Mrs. Stirling raise the story to the utmost possible height by their acting; every help of effective scenery has been supplied on the most liberal scale. The piece is the work of a popular writer, admirably mounted, perfectly acted, with the favourite actor of the day labouring his utmost in what should have been a striking part. Nevertheless it was condemned, and condemned, as we believe, not for any serious demerit, but for a defect arising from misapprehension of the temper of an English audience. It is no new temper among us. Even Shakespeare felt that to King Lear the Fool was necessary. Such plays as Jane Shore, or Otway’s Orphan, never had healthy life upon our stage; and as a nation we have for the style of the serious French drama an ingrained antipathy. There must be a deeper earnestness than plays can demand, in whatever serious thing Englishmen are to look at without exercise of that sense of the humorous which is part of their life; so natural a part that every man is in every grade of society regarded as a bore who wants it; and the very phrase with thousands even among our educated men for not finding a thing acceptable is "seeing no fun" in it. [pp189-191]

From The Journal of a London Playgoer – From 1851 to 1866 by Henry Morley, London 1891. Originally published in 1866, this extract is taken from the 1891 edition.

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