A website from the Massachusetts Historical Society; founded 1791.
close

Browsing: Diary of Charles Francis Adams, Volume 5


This note contained in document ADMS-13-05-02-0001-0005-0011
1. The dinner at Dr. George Parkman’s had been planned with care to bring together for the occasion, two lions—JQA and Miss Fanny Kemble. Dr. Parkman had called at Quincy on 2 May to make certain of JQA’s presence: “His principal object seemed to be to ascertain whether I would accept an invitation to an Evening party at his house to meet Mr. and Miss Kemble. He said the young Lady was desirous of being introduced to me. And I could but say that it would be very pleasing to me.... As a sort of personage myself, of the last century, I was flattered by the wish of this blossom of the next age, to bestow some of her fresh fragrance upon the antiquities of the past, and I answered Dr. Parkman accordingly” (JQA, Diary, 2 May). Both parties have left records of the dinner conversation. JQA entered in his journal: “I had much conversa• { 85 } tion with Miss Kemble, chiefly upon dramatic Literature; but it differed not from what it might have been with any well educated and intelligent young woman of her age. I spoke to her of some of her own poetical productions, but she did not appear inclined to talk of them. What she appeared chiefly to pride herself upon was feats of horsemanship. She said she had rode this morning about thirty-miles, and leaped over many fences and stone walls. She said they expected to remain in this country till about this time next year. I asked her if she had ever seen her Aunt Mrs. Siddons upon the Stage. She had not—but had heard her read Shakespear. She had known her only as a very good woman.” (Diary, 11 May.)
Miss Kemble’s recollection of the conversation centered upon one aspect only, that which related to JQA’s views on Shakespeare: “Last Saturday, I dined at ——’s; where, for my greater happiness, I sat between —— and ——.... Presently, Mr. —— began a sentence by assuring me that he was a worshipper of Shakespeare; and ended it by saying that Othello was disgusting, King Lear ludicrous, and Romeo and Juliet childish nonsense: whereat I swallowed half a pint of water, and nearly my tumbler too, and remained silent; for what could I say?” (Journal by Frances Anne Butler, 2 vols., London, 1835, 2:205–206).
When the published Journal reached Boston readers and became a topic of general conversation. (see entry for 5 May 1835, below), Dr. Parkman requested JQA to record his response to her remarks in Parkman’s copy of her Journal. JQA entered a lengthy defense:
“Miss Kemble appears to have misapprehended the purport of my remarks upon the plays of Shakespeare. I said that my admiration of him as a profound delineator of human nature and a sublime Poet was little short of idolatry, but that I thought he was often misunderstood as performed on the stage.
“The character of Juliet, for example, was travestied almost into burlesque, by the alteration of the text in the Scene where the Nurse with so much precision fixes her age (Act 1, Scene 3). The Nurse declares she knows it to an hour; and that next Lammas eve ... she will be fourteen. Upon this precise age, the character of Juliet, her discourse, her Passions, and the deep Pathos of the interest that we take in her fate very largely repose.... As the play is performed on the Stage, the Nurse instead... says she will be nineteen.
Nineteen! In what Country of the world was a young Lady of nineteen ever constantly attended by a Nurse?... Take away the age of Juliet and you take away from her all... the consistency of her character, all that childish simplicity, which blended with the fervour of her passion, constitutes her greatest charm.... [T]hat which in her mouth is enchanting would seem but frothy nonsense from a woman five years older. Miss Kemble is mistaken when she says she remained silent at these and similar observations. She dissented from them. She thought the love of Juliet and her discourse were suited to any age.... I inferred that having been accustomed to personate Juliet as a young woman of nineteen, she saw no incongruity.... From the discolouring of my remarks in her journal, it is apparent that she did not understand them.... Miss Kemble ... singularly misstates the fact when she represents me as saying that Romeo and Juliet was childish nonsense. That there was childishness in the discourse of Juliet I did say; and the Poet has shown us why—because she had scarcely ceased to be a child, the nonsense is not in Shakespear; but in the alteration of his text upon the Stage.
“I observed also that there were several of the most admired plays of Shakespear, which gave me much more pleasure to read than to see performed upon the Stage—As instances of which I mentioned Othello and Lear, both of which abounded in beautiful details in poetical passages, in highly wrought and consistently preserved characters. But the pleasure that I take in witnessing a performance upon the Stage depends much upon the sympathy that I feel with the sufferings and enjoyments of the good characters represented and upon the punishment of the bad. I said I never could sympathise much with Desdemona or with Lear; because I never { 86 } could separate them from the estimate that the Lady was little less than a wanton, and the old King nothing less than a dotard. Who can sympathise with the love of Desdemona?.... She falls in love and makes a run away match with a Blackamoor for no better reason than that he has told her a braggart story.... For this she not only violates her duties to her father, her family, her Sex, and her Country, but she makes the first advances....
“The great moral lesson of the Tragedy of Othello, is that black and white blood cannot be intermingled in marriage without a gross outrage upon the law of nature, and that in such violations Nature will vindicate her Laws....
“Whatever sympathy we feel for the sufferings of Desdemona flows from the consideration that she is innocent of the particular crime imputed to her, and that she is the victim of a treacherous and artful intriguer. But while compassionating her melancholy fate I cannot forget the vices of her character. Upon the Stage, her fondling with Othello, is to me disgusting....
“The character of Desdemona is admirably drawn, and faithfully preserved throughout the play—It is always deficient in delicacy.... This character takes from me so much of the sympathetic interest in her sufferings, that when Othello smothers her in bed, the terror and the pity subside immediately into the sentiment that she has her deserts.
“I further observed to Miss Kemble, that I felt a similar want of interest in the character and fortunes of Lear, as represented upon the Stage.... The dotage of an absolute Monarch, may be a suitable subject for a Tragedy; and Shakespear has made a deep Tragedy of it. But as exhibited upon the Stage it is turned into a Comedy. Lear the dotard and the Madman is restored to his throne and Cordelia finishes with a wedding. What can be more absurd!... [T]he restoration of a dotard from old age to his senses, is as much out of nature as the restoration to his throne is preposterous....
“This was the purport of the remarks which I made at your Table to Miss Kemble, and with which it would seem from the notice of them in her journal, she was not only displeased but shocked.... Miss Kemble had herself written a Tragedy not destitute of merit; and I thought the most respectful manner of treating her would be, not by complimenting her upon her own performances, nor even upon her writings, but by conversing with her upon subjects with which she must necessarily be familiar, and upon which in acknowledging some impressions of my own mind, I hoped to elicit from her, either her assent to them, or some observations which might have served me to rectify my opinions.”
(Parkman’s copy of the Journal has not been located; JQA, however, had his remarks copied into his letterbook, dated 5 Nov. 1835, Adams Papers.)
JQA expatiated further upon his views of Shakespeare and reflected upon a lifetime of witnessing his plays upon the stage in a letter to Parkman following the return of the now annotated copy of Kemble’s Journal to him (19 Nov. 1835, LbC, Adams Papers). Parkman, in reply (23 Nov., Adams Papers), expressed his admiration and reported that he had made JQA’s inscribed remarks available to the editor of the New England Magazine. They appeared, with the omission of the sentences relating to Miss Kemble, in the December issue of that journal (9:435–440) with the title “Misconceptions of Shakespeare upon the Stage” and signed “Q.” In Jan. 1836, the American Monthly Magazine published JQA’s letter to Parkman of 19 Nov. 1835 under the title “Personations of the Characters of Shakespeare,” unsigned, and again with references to Miss Kemble deleted (7:38–40). Both articles were also circulated in tear-sheet form with separate pagination; copies are in MHS. A third article, with the title “The Character of Desdemona” and signed “J.Q.A.,” followed in the March issue of the American Monthly Magazine (7:209–217), but whether this was written under the same provocation as the other two or at a different time is not certain.
Most surprising in the contretemps is the failure of the knowledgeable Miss Kemble to recognize that the main thrust { 87 } of JQA’s remarks, however otherwise confined, was directed against theatrical practice already under challenge in London. “Improving” Shakespeare’s text in staging his plays had been the accepted and generally followed practice for a century and a half. However, objections to the rewriting of Shakespeare’s plays for stage presentation were commonplace in literate circles in the 18th century, if unheeded in the theater. Moreover, the theater managers and directors themselves had at last, within the preceding decade, begun to move toward the restoration of the original text. Kean at Drury Lane in his production of Lear from 1823 onward had discarded Nahum Tate’s version of Act V, in use since 1681, in which Lear is restored to his throne and Cordelia marries Edgar, replacing it with the original ending. Macready was already preparing for his 1834 production of a Lear still further stripped of Tate, and in 1838 would achieve a presentation of Lear faithful to Shakespeare’s text. C. B. Young, “Stage-History,” in George Ian Duthie and John Dover Wilson, eds., King Lear, Cambridge, England, 1960, p. lvi–lxiii.
Cite web page as: Founding Families: Digital Editions of the Papers of the Winthrops and the Adamses, ed.C. James Taylor. Boston: Massachusetts Historical Society, 2017.
http://www.masshist.org/apde2/