Diary of Charles Francis Adams, volume 4


Tuesday. March 1st.

Some Dramatic Performers in Their Roles as Seen by Charles Francis Adams at the Tremont Theatre, 1830–1832 following or facing page 124[unavailable]

Charles Francis Adams’ first attendance at the theater after his marriage, indeed his first in more than a year, was on 3 February 1830 to see Shakespeare’s King John with Junius Brutus Booth in the title role and Edwin Forrest as Falconbridge (No. 2; and see volume 3:153). Forrest, in the few years since his New York debut in 1826 as Othello, had won his place as perhaps the finest American interpreter of the heroic roles of Shakespeare. By 1828 he had added to his repertoire, Brutus, Shylock, Richard III, Lear, and Macbeth, as well as Falconbridge with which he was to be long identified (George C. D. Odell, Annals of the New York Stage, New York, 1927–1949, 3:334–337, 384, 404).

The principal event of the 1831 season at the Tremont Theatre was the twenty-five-night engagement of the phenomenal child, Master Burke (Nos. 3 and 4), beginning on 31 January, during which “an unparallelled excitement prevailed” as he repeated the triumphs he had enjoyed in New York from his debut there in November 1830 until the beginning of his tour in the following January. The twelve-year-old, who also conducted the orchestra and played the violin, brought to Boston an astonishing repertoire of roles that already included Romeo, Shylock, Richard III, and Hamlet, as well as Napoleon and young Norval (in Home’s Douglas) and a host of Irish comic characters, of whom the most popular was Looney McTwolter (Odell, Annals of the New York Stage, 3:490–495). Charles Francis Adams, who went twice to see him and tried unsuccessfully another time (volume 3:420, 423, 425), like the critics and the established actors and actresses who played with Master Burke, took his interpretations with the utmost seriousness. “During his engagement, tickets were sold at auction, at advanced prices; which, not infrequently, fell into the hands of speculators, who found purchasers at enormous profits.” (Bowen’s Picture of Boston, 2d edn., Boston, 1833, p. 208.)

The next theatrical season offered a number of divertissements of varying degrees of importance. The American comedian and mimic, James Henry Hackett, gave his imitations of other actors and of American folk types and appeared in the native American plays which he also produced, such as Rip Van Winkle and James K. Paulding’s The Lion of the West. In the latter he took the role of Colonel Nimrod Wildfire, “an uncouth Kentuckian just elected to Congress” (No. 5; and see below, p. 190; Odell, Annals of the New York Stage, 3:419, 459, 501). Suggestive of the range of theatrical taste was the presence on the same bill of M. Gouffe, the man-monkey (No. 6; below, p. 190; Odell, Annals of the New York Stage, 3:569).

However, the principal feature of the season at the Tremont Theatre was the introduction of operatic performances “in a style of excellence hitherto unattempted” of such character as to “form an era in the annals of our stage.” The stage arrangements for the operas were under the direction of “Mr. Barrymore,” and the lead-ixing vocalists of the time were employed (Bowen’s Picture of Boston, 2d edn., p. 209). Outstanding among these was the lovely and beautiful Mrs. Elizabeth Austin, “the acknowledged queen of song,” who in early 1832 brought to Boston the greatest operatic success of the previous year (and of many years) in New York, Cinderella, an English adaptation by Rophino Lacy of Rossini’s Cenerentola (No. 7; and see below, p. 263–264). The critic William Cox of the New York Mirror had written of the production: “the most incredible transformations take place with a beautiful and dream-like facility, living fairies float on the bosom of the air, above the branches of the forest.... Cinderella offers an attraction superior to anything of the kind ever produced in the United States.” Of Mrs. Austin’s voice he wrote, “its liquid tones come as softly upon the sense of hearing as snow upon the water, or dew upon the flower.... We do not believe more delicate sounds can be borne upon the air, than are breathed forth in some of her cadences.” But it was Mrs. Austin in Cinderella that brought his superlatives: “The unrivalled excellence of Mrs. Austin consists in the possession of a voice, which for bird-like softness, sweetness, and wonderful flexibility, has never been excelled in American theaters, ... a clearness like that which delights the eye upon a sleeping stream in summer, when there is not a ripple to break its motionless beauty.... Mrs. Austin discovers a curious facility of execution, as if music escaped from her involuntarily as fragrance from a flower.... She floats through the whole part with no apparent effort.” (Odell, Annals of the New York Stage, 3:309, 461, 486, 496–498, 546.)

Forrest as Falconbridge is reproduced from a colored etching in Elton’s New Theatrical Costumes; Master Burke as Looney McTwolter from a lithograph of Ingrey & Madeley, London, after a drawing by Allison; Burke in six favorite characters from an engraving published by R. Lloyd, London, 1830; Hackett as Nimrod Wildfire from an engraving after a painting by A. Andrews; M. Gouffe from a West London Theatre playbill, September 1829, printed by Redeord & Robins, London. All are in the Harvard Theatre Collection. Mrs. Austin in Cinderella is reproduced from an illustration of an unlocated original in Odell, Annals of the New York Stage, volume 3, facing p. 498.

Nos. 2–6 courtesy of the Harvard Theatre Collection; no. 7 courtesy of Columbia University Press.