The Life of an Actor
by H. F. Lloyd, Comedian
Late of the Theatre Royal Edinburgh and Glasgow
The Loss of Mr Elton, The Tragedian
It was in the month of July of this year 1843, that the steamer "Pegasus", on her usual run from Leith to Hull, was wrecked off Holy Island, with the loss of nearly 50 lives. Amongst those drowned was Mr Elton, the well-known tragedian of Drury Lane Theatre.
It was about a week after my return from Montrose, as recorded in last chapter, that I met him by pure accident in Leith Walk.
Right - Leith Walk, Edinburgh in 2003 - Photo M.L.
He told me he had just arrived from Glasgow, and had secured a berth on the steamer "Pegasus", to sail that evening. From Hull, he should go direct to London, being anxious to rejoin his family there. He had been pressed, he said, by a friend in Glasgow to stay with him till the end of the week, but some unaccountable feeling seemed to urge him to get home as soon as possible and the invitation was declined. I wished him a pleasant voyage and we parted, never to meet again. Mr Elton, in addition to being an able and accomplished actor, was much respected for his private worth, both in and out of his profession, and the result was a widespread feeling of sympathy with his bereaved family, which soon took a thoroughly practical form of manifestation. All the leading London theatres gave a clear benefit in aid of a fund for the orphan children of the deceased, whilst a subscription appeal, headed by Miss Burdett Coutts, was largely responded to by all classes. In Edinburgh, the cause was taken up by Mr Murray, who gave the whole of one night's receipts - the actors giving their services gratuitously - together with a private subscription, the whole making a very handsome sum, which was forwarded by him to the general fund in London.
Mr Alexander sent his subscription to Mr Murray and offered the use of the Glasgow Theatre for a benefit if the Edinburgh manager would let the company come over for a night and play, as his (Mr Alexander's) establishment was at the time closed. This proposal fell through, however, owing to some misunderstanding, which gave rise to another pretty mighty quarrel between Mr Murray and Mr Alexander, in which by-the-by, the wife of the latter even took a small part. Mr Alexander took it into his head that he was being made "a secondary consideration" in the arrangements, and withdrew the offer of the use of his house unless, as one of the Glasgow papers put it, under conditions to which it was impossible to submit. One of these was, no part in the performances should be taken by Mr Lloyd. I was not to be allowed to enter the Dunlop Street house, after the occurrences described in the last chapter. In a letter written by Mrs Alexander to Murray, she said:-
"Anyone made acquainted with the circumstances would not for a
moment suppose that Mr Alexander could possess so little feeling as
to invite Mr Lloyd again into
his theatre, I am sure,"
My manager, however, stuck by me manfully. In the first reply to Mr
Alexander's objecting to my appearance, he said he feared that objection
would be a fatal one; in the next, he declared that:-
"As to Lloyd, he is a very important feature in my 'Company,' and, under the circumstances previously and fully stated to you, indispensable."
"The friends and admirers of the late Mr Elton, who perished in the calamitous wreck of the 'Pegasus', having resolved to appear to the benevolence of the public of Glasgow, on behalf of his seven fatherless and motherless children, have requested the principal comedians and vocalists of the Theatre Royal, Edinburgh, to unite in giving an entertainment for the above charitable purpose and have obtained their generous consent to appear on this occasion. They have also secured the assistance of other distinguished performers and they respectfully announce to the public of Glasgow that on Wednesday Next, August 9, a Grand Evening Entertainment, under the patronage of the Honourable the Lord Provost and Magistrates of Glasgow, will take place in the Trades' Hall, in aid of the Fund for the Destitute Orphans. The following distinguished Performers have agreed to give their valuable assistance:-
Mr Mackay, of the T.R., (Theatre Royal) Edinburgh; Mr Reaves, of the Edinburgh Company; the celebrated vocalist, from the T.R., Drury Lane; Mr Hamilton, of the Edinburgh Company; the celebrated Irish comedian from the Adelphi Theatre, London; Mr Frank Mori, the celebrated pianist of London and Edinburgh; Mr Musgrave, the celebrated violinist, of the Philharmonic Concerts, London; Mrs Leigh, of the T.R., Edinburgh; Mrs Fitzpatrick, of the London and Edinburgh Concerts."
The occasion was a great success, the Hall being crowded to the doors.
Some six weeks later, the Adelphi having closed
and the Theatre Royal not yet
opened, I organised an excursion to Aberdeen,
to give a couple of nights' performances there. The party included Mr
John (Sims) Reeves, Mr and Mrs Leigh (Murray), Mr Sam Cowel, and myself.
With references to this occasion, I am glad at being able to allow a
more practised writer than myself to speak. In noticing an appearance
of Mr Sims Reeves in Aberdeen in September, 1841,
the Free Press of that city thus pleasantly recalls our little experiences
there in the far back '43:
Having quoted our bill in detail, which included "The Two Gregories," a concert, and the farce of "The Young Widow," the writer proceeded:- "A goodly audience assembled in 'the Old House in Marischal Street,' eager for the entertainment - the majority of those present being, we may say, musically inclined - the concert portion of the programme promising, of course, special delight to that body. When, however, a quarter to eight o'clock arrived, and nothing in the shape or sound of an orchestra put in an appearance, a whisper began to pass along that something or somebody was out of joint. Then, at eight o'clock, with no response to the sharp call for 'fiddlers, fiddlers,' the doubtful whisper grew into an ominous gallery growl, and this again, some ten minutes after, into bad humour with significant noises. Suddenly the prompter's bell was heard, and, immediate silence following, Mr Lloyd stepped in front with a bill in his hand and apologetic gravity - of a kind - concentrated all over one side of his expressive face. In two or three sentences he explained that through order of the Magistrates the fact had been pointed out to him that, by a clause in the recently-passed Act for the regulation of public entertainments, it was impossible for the company to enter upon the dramatic portion of the entertainments. In short, they had no license for stage plays, but, continued in effect, Mr Lloyd - it so happens that we are pretty strong in vocal talent, and, if you will kindly stay and accept our services in that line, we shall do the best in our power to please you and send you home satisfied. Warm applause followed the well-put words; everybody remained, and, of a verity, the speaker and his companions kept real faith with their audience. Up went the curtain; a piano was drawn well down to the footlights, and, with a bow, a keen-faced, dark-haired handsome young man took his place thereat. This was Mr John Reeves. And what a night of mirth and music followed! For two swift hours the old house rang with such mingled applause and laughter as few present had ever heard or helped in before. Audience and artistes soon got into admiringly familiar terms, and in this frame of mind they continued to the close. It is not easy now to remember all that was embraced in the concert, but at least a dozen songs, ballads, and glees, with encores ad lib., were given in addition to those set down in the programme. It was the halcyon period of hope and strength with the performers. The gentlemen were just budding into general favour, and they afterwards all attained much celebrity in their respective lines. Mr Lloyd held the first place for years both in Edinburgh and Glasgow as a low comedian of rare humour and capacity; Mr Sam Cowell's name became a household word amongst all who could enjoy clever comic singing; Mr Leigh became, as Leigh Murray, the ablest walking gentleman the London stage could boast. Regarding the career of Mr Sims Reeves little requires to be said. In the year of his first visit to Aberdeen he had just reached manhood, and his voice was of singular beauty, fine compass, and great power. He did a right good night's work on the 25th September. Over and above contributing five or six songs, he presided throughout at the piano, accompanying Lloyd and Cowell in all their comic ditties and Mr and Mrs Leigh in the ballads. Perhaps one of the most amusing incidents of the evening was the rendering of Dr Calcott's glee 'The Red Cross Nights,' in which Cowell apparently took the bass, the left hand of the pianist, however, providing the profounder notes, his voice meanwhile ringing out clarion clear in the high set leading melody. Altogether, then, the first evening of Mr Sims Reeves in Aberdeen was a musical event to be cherished in remembrance."
For more on Sam Cowell see John Culme's Footlight Notes.
I may supplement the above reference to Reeves as an accompanist with a few words of my own. He was pianist on all our musical tours, and, although he did his part as well as need be in accompanying the comic songs of Cowell and myself, it was evidently much against the grain with him. What doubtless aggravated him much was that these were almost invariably and enthusiastically encored, whilst his own were not. I never knew him once encored on any of our tours. I must admit that this fact said little for the appreciation of the audiences, as few of them could ever have heard singing to equal his before. It was amusing sometimes to watch the symptoms of impatience and disgust with which he did his duty as regarded the accompanying Cowell and I. When I, for instance, had finished and made my exit he would rattle off the last two or three bars of the symphony at a break-neck speed, ending with a loud and discordant bang, and then walk rapidly off the platform, as if he had relieved his mind by saying to the audience - "There, you brats!" Notwithstanding these little ebullitions of feeling, I will do Reeves the justice to say that he was one of the best fellows to travel with I ever met, full of fun, with just a little spice of mischief and practical joking combined, and always in good humour with those around him. Of a convivial disposition, he was withal a most temperate young man. I never saw of heard of my friend Reeves - for we were friends in those days - going beyond the bounds of the strictest propriety. I wonder if he remembers an adventure in the lodgings occupied by Cowell, him, and myself in Dundee; or our walk to Scone palace at midnight. It had been my wish, if possible, to have been joined at Aberdeen by Mr Murray who was about that time in London on business, and was also under treatment by the celebrated surgeon Liston, for some affection of the arm, which, amongst other inconveniences, disabled him from shaving himself. This fact will be found referred to in the subjoined note which I received from him, and which is interesting, also, as containing the opinion of so experienced a man as to the capabilities of Sims Reeves' voice at that early stage of his career:-
"Dear Lloyd, - Aberdeen
I must decline, as I shall have but scant time to prepare for our opening
on the 30th instant. I called at your father's,
but he is in the country - gone, as Le Sage said of his mother, 'to
get the better of his health;' but I promised to call again. Theatricals
are looking down here, as the merchants say. Lots of half-salaries.
My arm in under Liston, and I hope better, though I am still taken by
the nose every morning by my chin-dresser. Remember me to Cowell, Mr
and Mrs Leigh, and that careless fellow, Reeves. What a pity he won't
study harder; there's no voice like his.
For more on Sam Cowell see John Culme's Footlight Notes.
Yet another occurrence marks the year 1843 as a memorable one in my recollection - I mean the retiral from the stage of my dear friend Montague Stanley. On the farewell night, at the close of the pieces, he was loudly called for by the audience, in response to which he appeared, led on to the stage by Mr Charles Kean, and took farewell of the audience in the following terms:-
"Ladies and Gentlemen, - In obedience to the flattering call bestowed upon me, I appear before you - and it is for the last time - to present my warmest acknowledgements for the uniform kindness with which, during a succession of years you have ever treated me. I have now arrived at the terminating point of my dramatic career. What has past appears but as a shadow; only one thing remaining with me, prominent and substantial - the favour with which you have always been good enough to regard my efforts to please. I am now about to retire into a situation more private, for the pursuit of a sister branch of art; and, in so doing, let me hope that I shall carry with me some portion of your good-will, whilst, in the words of Byron, I say:-
"Farewell! A word which hath been and must be,
Alas! He was not long spared to devote his undivided attention to that
sister branch of art of which he was such an ornament. There came to
me one day in the year, following his retiral, this announcement:-
"His life was gentle, and the elements
By birth and education, he was 'every inch a
gentleman,' a most exemplary husband and affectionate father, a strict
attender at church, where he and his family might be seen twice every
Sunday. I never knew or heard of his using an oath or a profane expression;
in this industry, this was something remarkable.
I need hardly say that his accomplishments as an artist, in landscape, were of a high order and these, together with his general worth and amiability, made him well known to, and well received among, the elite of Edinburgh society.
Skating was his favourite recreation but it was not allowed to interfere with business. After the performances at the theatres were over, he would walk out to Doddingstone Loch and skate there by moonlight for a couple of hours, but was always at his painting in the morning as usual. He would save several persons from drowning on these occasions at the loch; and at a large fire in Leith Street, nearly lost his own life in assisting to rescue a family from one of the burning tenements.
Charles Kean was an intimate friend
of his, and continued so until the last. Such was my dear old friend
Stanley, who was so much esteemed by us all, and by none more than by
our good manager, Mr Murray.
Stanley and I, let me explain, whilst the best of friends, only met in the theatre; I scarcely ever came across him out of it. He was never in my house, nor I in his. But in the theatre, we had acted so long together that each seemed to know instinctively what "business" the other would wish to introduce when on in the same scene.
As an actor, I shall speak of him only in one part - Robert Macaire. His rendering of this character, I considered to be almost perfect; a friend of mine, who knew the original, declared it to be quite equal to that of Frederick Lemaitre, the creator of the part. I used to play Jacques Strop to him, and could never quite enter into the spirit of the 'business' with anyone else. I have seen many actors in the part of Robert Macaire since, but most of them played it as if the hero of the piece had been reared in a cellar, educated in a ragged school and brought up as a heartless, vulgar, low-bred scamp - a mean pickpocket, not a swell-mobsman. Their chief aim seemed, to me, to be to make the 'groundlings' grin by their cowardly, brutal kicking and striking of poor Jacques, at every opportunity.
When on the stage with Macaires of this stamp, I have frequently felt inclined simply to walk off and leave them to their own devices. Who could imagine a Macaire of the type to which I am referring, passing himself off as a nobleman in disguise? Montague Stanley did not make the character that of an ignorant, impudent, unfeeling bully. He gave the picture of a man who had originally moved in the best society, but who, giving way to habits of dissipation, had lost caste and self-respect, and become a reckless adventurer. He infused into it, too, a fine spirit of fun, contrasted now and then with a pause, as if a cloud of melancholy retrospection were passing over his mind. Through the rags of the scamp, the innate bearing of the gentleman would ever and anon peep.
Some of his 'business' in the part was quite original and effective, and just such as might be fancied to occur to a man, possessed of refined feelings like himself. For instance, after assaulting Jacques, he would shake him by hand and say, "Poor fellow, forgive me," - then he would enter into friendly conversation with him, his arm round the other's neck, and kindly chuckle at any little bit of Jacques's fun - instead of the everlasting stick, as was so commonly the case.
Stanley would raise his stick as if to strike, but most commonly withdrew it without striking. Just one other piece of his 'business', I may recall, which seemed to me to be an artistic touch, and which was always effective.
He would come upon the stage, solus, and, after leaning on the back of a chair for a moment or two, he would bring it to the centre and sit down. Then, with his head buried in his hands, he would make a long pause, and then, as if some recollection of early days of innocence had come suddenly across him, he would start up with a suppressed scream; and then, wiping the tears hurriedly from his eyes, call upon Jacque, and with forced laughter, say to him; "You rascal! Where have you been?"
I have very possibly said more than enough about my dear old friend, but the name of Montague Stanley brings back to me some of my happiest days, and I could not help it. He was buried in the little churchyard of Ascog, in the island of Bute, where he died; the scene and circumstances affording Mrs S. C. Hall, a few years later, the theme for a kindly tribute to his memory, published in the Art Journal under the title of "The Painter's Grave."