Mathews in the Archive: Assembling the Traces of Performance: A Special Guest Blog By Jane Wessel

06 September 2016

History

This blog post has been written by guest blogger Jane Wessel. Jane is Assistant Professor of English at Austin Peay State University. 

One of the biggest challenges of studying theatre history is reconstructing the non-textual elements of performance: the performers’ gestures and expressions, the costumes and set, the audience reaction. The challenge is amplified when studying illegitimate entertainments or legitimate plays that relied heavily on mimicry. How do we imagine the sounds or conjure the image of a scene in which a single actor, without leaving the stage, performs five or ten separate characters? Actor and mimic Charles Mathews did just that in his “At Home” performances – one-man shows that ended with Mathews successively embodying all of the characters he had created in the earlier scenes.

Illustration of Mathews in characters from his A Trip to America, one of his “at home” performances. Image © The Garrick Club Library. Further reproduction prohibited without permission.

Click on the image to view the whole document, available open access for 30 days.

As Tracy Davis notes, the complete texts for Mathews’s “At Home” performances do not exist, either in prompt copy or printed edition. Even if full texts existed, they could not enable us, at this distance, to experience the effect of Mathews’s mimicry. Yet Mathews’s performance in an earlier play, Theodore Edward Hook’s Killing No Murder – a text that was not only printed, but was twice submitted to the examiner of plays – forecasts his dramatic method. These texts gives us a sense of how his character changes were scripted and staged.

In Hook’s farce, Mathews performs Buskin, a “play-acting gentleman” whose stage is the world he inhabits. As he schemes to stop another man from marrying the woman he loves, he performs a series of identities to trick those around him. In a single scene, Buskin pretends to be an ostler, a waiter, a French hairdresser, and a cook, all of whom will wait upon a visiting nabob, Sir Walter. Buskin briefly interacts with Sir Walter in each of these parts before things get complicated and he is forced to quickly shift between multiple identities, speaking to himself in various parts.

 

Manuscript of Killing No Murder submitted to the examiner of plays. Image © The Huntington Library. Further reproduction prohibited without permission.

 

Click on the image to view the whole document, available open access for 30 days.

In the manuscript section above, Buskin stands behind Sir Walter pretending to be both the hairdresser and his son. The alternating speech tags for “Bus / as the child” and “Bus / as the frenchman” highlight the rapid-fire exchange, as Buskin performs six consecutive character changes. Soon his protean performances escalate into a song, in which he performs the cook, waiter, and barber, popping up on Sir Walter’s left and right. This song, which is not in the manuscript submitted to the censor, appears in the printed version also held in the Larpent Collection.

 

Printed copy of Killing No Murder held in Larpent Collection. Image © The Huntington Library. Further reproduction prohibited without permission.

 

Click on the image to view the whole document, available open access for 30 days.

The existence of manuscript and printed texts for this farce gives us a sense of staging and shows us how elements of performance were represented on the printed page. But the humor of Mathews’s performance was primarily visual and auditory. It is unsurprising, then, that illustrations of his multi-character performances abound. Many of these are included in the database’s “image gallery.” One such image, pasted into a scrapbook, is a print reproduction of George Henry Harlow’s iconic portrait of Mathews. The actor sits and studies himself performing his past roles. In the background, Buskin looks saucily out at the audience. 

 

Print reproduction of Harlow’s portrait of Mathews. Included in a scrapbook of theatrical portraits, Vol. V. Image © The Garrick Club Library. Further reproduction prohibited without permission.
 

Click on the image to view the whole document, available open access for 30 days.

The engraving supplements the manuscript and printed text as an archival clue about how Mathews performed Buskin. The character who moves seamlessly between reality and performance, for whom all the world is a stage, is the only one in the image not watching the performance in the center. Instead, he looks outward, challenging the audience to defy his artfulness. While Mathews sits in the corner watching his own creations with amazement, Buskin is unsurprised by the deftness of his and Mathews’s performance. As he tells Tap the innkeeper, “I’m always ready – and perform any part on the shortest notice” – a declaration that applies as much to Mathews as to Buskin.

Herein lies one of the strengths of Eighteenth Century Drama. In compiling key resources, from the Larpent Collection to The London Stage to theatrical ephemera from a range of archives, into a single database, the collection brings together various media that, when studied together, give us a fuller image of eighteenth-century performance.

 

Eighteenth Century Drama: Censorship, Society and the Stage is available now. For more information, including trial access and price enquiries, please email us at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

About the Author

Jane Wessel

Jane Wessel

Jane Wessel is Assistant Professor of English at Austin Peay State University. She has published articles in Theatre Survey and Restoration: Studies in English Literary Culture, 1660-1700 and is currently working on a book project on literary property and dramatic authorship in 18th-century England.

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