Tuesday, March 28, 2023

A path of dreams

In the moon’s clear light
all mundane desires
are but a path of dreams

So wrote the great poet Saiokuken Sōchō in medieval Japan, half a millennium ago. The verse comes from a memoir-like text, translated and published as The Journal of Sōchō. Although more a poetry collection with personal remembrances than a diary, the journal - and a companion work - have been called a ‘magisterial study’ of the poet.

Saiokuken Sōchō was born in 1448 in Suruga province (now in Shizuoka prefecture), Japan, to a blacksmith and his wife. He became a Buddhist monk in 1465 and later served Yoshitada Imagawa, but after Yoshitada’s death in battle, he left Suruga and went to Kyoto. He studied renga (a kind of collaborative way of writing poetry) under Sogi. He came to practice Zen Buddhism under Sojun Ikkyu of Daitoku-ji Temple, living by Shinjuan in Daitoku-ji Temple, and after Sojun passed away, he lived in Shuonan in Takigi village (Yamashiro Province, present-day Kyotanabe City, Kyoto Prefecture).

In 1496, Sōchō went back to Suruga, and served Ujichika Imagawa. In 1502, hearing the news of Sogi’s fall at Hakone Yumoto, he went to care for him on his deathbed. After Sogi’s death, he became the leader of the renga world with many influential friends. He is said to have been a diplomatic adviser to the Imagawa clan. In his later years, he built the Saiokuken (present-day Saioku-ji) Temple at Izumigaya by Mt. Utsuno in Totomi Province. He died in 1532. A little further information is available online at Encyclopaedia Britannica and at Worldtrade.com (a book industry website).

Sōchō left behind several manuscripts amounting to a kind a journal of his travels between 1522 and 1527. H. Mack Horton, an associate professor of East Asian Languages and Cultures at the University of California, Berkeley, studied the manuscripts and produced, in 2002, an English language version, complete with annotations and various appendices - The Journal of Sōchō (published by Stanford University Press). He also produced a second work (also published by Stanford) to accompany the journal itself: Song in an Age of Discord: ‘The Journal of Sōchō’ and Poetic Life in Late Medieval Japan. The publisher claims that The Journal of Sōchō ‘is one of the most individual self-portraits in the literary history of medieval Japan’ and ‘provides a vivid portrayal of cultural life in the capital and in the provinces, together with descriptions of battles and great warrior families, the dangers of travel through war-torn countryside, and the plight of the poor.’

The journal records, the publisher explains, ‘four of Sōchō’s journeys between Kyoto and Suruga Province, where he served as the poet laureate of the Imagawa house, as well as several shorter excursions and periods of rest at various hermitages. The diverse upbringing of its author - a companion of nobles and warlords, a student of the orthodox poetic neoclassicism of the renga master Sogi, and a devotee of the iconoclastic Zen prelate Ikkyu - afforded him rich insights into the cultural life of the period. [. . .] This variety of cultural detail is matched by the journal’s wealth of prose genres: travel diary, eremitic writing, historical chronicle, conversation, and correspondence.’

The full work can be read freely online at Horton’s own website. Harvard Journal of Asiatic Studies has called Horton’s books ‘a magisterial study’ of Sōchō. However, describing Sōchō’s manuscripts as a diary or journal might be considered artful publishing. On the one hand, a very large part of the text is poetry, and, on the other, that which is not poetry reads far more like a memoir or autobiographical memories than a diary. Here’s an extract from ‘The Third Year of Daiei (1523)

‘An old friend of mine named Rikijū lives at Gokokuji temple at Higuchi Aburanokōji. He called on me at my place of retirement, and for more than ten nights we slept side by side. He is an extraordinary lie-abed - a Time sect monk who cannot tell the time

Counting up the hours,
it is past four, now past six -
when does he think it is,
that Time sect monk fast asleep,
as dead to time as Fuji’s peak.

At Shinden’an in Takigi, I came across a letter case containing correspondence sent now and again about an offer to raise my son, the novice Jōha, about whom the writer had so often heard. On the back of one letter was a copy of the Diamond Sutra I had had young Jōha make at thirteen years of age. Shinden’an was built by the Zen nun Jikō, widow of Nose Inabanokami Yorinori. I perused the sutra and at the end, to the side, I wrote:

These dew-like tears
are all that now remain
after the wending wind,
a nurturing mother,
brought deep color to the oak leaves.

Inabanokami Yorinori did me great favors in the past, and I have been told that he said until the day he died that he regretted not seeing more of me. Because of his uncommon taste for renga, I inaugurated a memorial thousand-verse sequence at An’yōji temple in Higashiyama for the repose of his spirit. I discussed the matter with Lord Sanetaka, and for the occasion the Zen priest Shōhaku, Sōseki, Teramachi, Hahakabe, Kawarabayashi Tsushimanokami, and others came up to the capital. It was quite a special event. I composed the tenth hokku of the thousand verses:

In the moon’s clear light
all mundane desires
are but a path of dreams.’

Sunday, March 26, 2023

A glittering occasion

Noël Coward, one of the greatest international show business personalities of the 20th century, died half a century ago today. His published diaries give a marvellously glittering sense of the London, Paris and New York theatre worlds, such as when he is describing a night at the Palladium, or hobnobbing with royalty; but they also provide a gossipy self-portrait of his own celebrity status.

Coward was born in Teddington, near London, in December 1899. He began performing on the stage at an early age, thanks to his mother answering an advert for child actors, and appeared in several productions with Sir Charles Hawtrey, a successful actor, comedian and director since the 1880s.

By the early 1920s, Coward was writing as well as performing, and had some success with his own play The Young Idea. It was The Vortex - with veiled references to drugs and homosexuality - performed in 1924 at the Everyman Theatre in Hampstead which brought him into the public eye. Several very successful plays - including Hay Fever and Cavalcade - followed in the late 1920s and early 1930s. In Private Lives, Coward starred with his famous stage partner Gertrude Lawrence.

Coward was also a prolific song writer and a talented singer. During the war, he entertained allied troops; and, clandestinely, he worked for the intelligence services. His play Blithe Spirit (1941) broke box-office records for a West End comedy. After the war, his work remained commercial, but did not achieve the heights of popularity he had experienced in the 1930s. In 1945, one of his short stories was turned into the very successful film Brief Encounter. He continued writing and producing plays, also for television, and found new popularity as a cabaret entertainer - both in the US and UK. From the 1950s, he became a tax exile, residing in Bermuda, Switzerland and finally Jamaica, returning regularly to London (as well as New York and Paris) to perform or oversee the production of a new show.

From 1956 to the end of the 1960s when ill health began to affect his work, Coward also became a film celebrity, starring in films such as Around the World in 80 DaysOur Man in Havana, and The Italian Job. And from the mid-1960s, revivals of his pre-war plays, as well as revues of his work became highly popular on both sides of the Atlantic. Towards the end of his life, he was dubbed the greatest living English dramatist, and Time magazine said of his best work it ‘seemed to exert not only a period charm but charm, period.’ He was knighted in 1969, and died on 26 March 1973. His estate was then administered by Graham Payn, Coward’s companion since the 1940s and 20 years his junior. Further information is available from Wikipedia, Musicals101 or the Noel Coward Society.

Part of Coward’s estate included 30 years worth of diaries. These were edited by Payn and Sheridan Morley for publication by Weidenfeld & Nicolson in 1982 as The Noël Coward Diaries. In their introduction, the editors summed up the author as ‘playboy of the West End world, jack of all its entertainment trades and master of most’ and ‘the most ineffably elegant and ubiquitous of entertainers’. In a second edition, brought out in 2000, the American theatre critic John Lahr observed that all of Coward’s diaries were written with a view to posterity, and as part of his ‘charm offensive’. A few pages can be read at Amazon.

7 November 1954
‘On Monday I appeared at the Royal Command Performance at the Palladium. It was a glittering occasion, crammed with stars, all shaking aspens. The moment I arrived in the dressing-room and found Bob Hope tight-lipped, Jack Buchanan quivering and Norman Wisdom sweating, I realized that the audience was vile, as it usually is on such regal nights. In the entr’acte Cole and Charles came round from the front and said it was the worst they had ever encountered and that I was to be prepared for a fate worse than death. This was exactly what I needed and so I bounded on to the stage like a bullet from a gun, sang ‘Uncle Harry’, ‘Mad Dogs” and ‘Bad Times’ very, very fast indeed and got the whole house cheering! I was on and off in nine and a half minutes. The next day the papers announced, with unexpected generosity, that I was the hit of the show. This was actually true but it wouldn’t have been if I had stayed on two minutes longer. Bob Hope had them where he wanted them, and then went on and on and lost them entirely. [. . .] After the show we lined up and were presented to the Queen, Prince Philip and Princess Margaret. The Queen looked luminously lovely and was wearing the largest sapphires I have ever seen. She was very charming, everyone was very charming, and that was that.’

5 June 1957
‘London has changed, even in eighteen months; the traffic is appalling and all elegance has fled from the West End. Coventry Street, Piccadilly Circus, Leicester Square and Shaftesbury Avenue have acquired a curious ‘welfare state’ squalor which reminds me of Moscow.’

1 February 1959
‘I have a charming suite here [at the Ritz hotel] and I much prefer it to the Dorchester. It is Edwardian in feeling and quiet and I have a brass ‘pineapple’ bed which makes me feel rather like the late Mrs George Keppel. I have definitely decided to do the Graham Greene film with Alex Guinness and Ralph Richardson. I have had two lunches with Carol [Reed, director of Our Man in Havana], who is treating me en prince. In fact in London this time I am definitely ‘hot’. Every time I go out I am beset with by reporters and photographers.’

16 December 1965
‘Sixty-six years ago today I was propelled from the womb. There were no electric trains, and motor cars were exciting curiosities. There was not even the thought of an aeroplane in the winter skies, and horse-buses clopped through the London streets. There were no buses in Teddington.’

31 December 1969
[This is the first entry since 7 September, and in fact his very last. His 70th birthday had occurred two weeks earlier and was the occasion of many social and artistic celebrations which he dubbed ‘Holy Week’.] ‘I opened the National Film Theatre season of my films with In Which We Serve, which I am the first to admit is a rattling good movie. I wept steadily throughout, right from the very beginning when they were building the ship in the shipyard. The BBC gave a terrific birthday party for me in the Lancaster Room at the Savoy which was a terrific success. My birthday lunch was given by the darling Queen Mother at Clarence House, where I received a crown-encrusted cigarette-box from her, an equally crown-encrusted cigarette-case from the Queen herself, and some exquisite cuff-links from Princess Margaret and Tony. During lunch the Queen asked me whether I would accept Mr Wilson’s offer of a knighthood. I kissed her hand and said, in a rather strangulated voice, “Yes, Ma’am.” Apart from all this my seventieth birthday was uneventful.’ [Nearly 30 years earlier, George VI had wished to award Coward a knighthood, but had been dissuaded by Winston Churchill.]

This article is a slightly revised version of one first published on 26 March 2013.

Saturday, March 25, 2023

I have been relapsing

‘All my associations here are bad, and I can hardly shake them off. All the old feelings I have been trying to get rid of, seem revived: particularly vanity and wandering of mind.’ This is a typical self-recriminating entry from the short diary of Richard Hurrell Froude, born 220 years ago today. He is remembered largely because of his early association with the Oxford Movement though he died very young, within a few years of its formation.

Froude, the son of a clergyman, was born on 25 March 1803, at Dartington, Devon, and educated at Eton and Oriel College, Oxford, where he came under the influence of John Keble. He was also a friend of Isaac Williams. Froude went on to become a Fellow of Oriel in 1826. In 1832, he went abroad for health reasons, accompanied by his father, Archdeacon Froude, and John Henry Newman.

Not long after their return, Froude, Keble, Williams and others founded the so-called Oxford Movement for high church Anglicans wishing to move closer towards Anglo-Catholicism. Froude is particularly remembered for his essays in the Tracts of the Times which advanced the Oxford Movement’s opinions.

Still suffering from consumption, Froude went abroad again, this time to Barbados, but, not long after returning to England, he died at his father’s house in Devon in 1836. Further information is available from Wikipedia, the Anglican History website or the Bureau of Public Secrets.

Froude’s colleagues decided to include his short diary, which is full of self-recrimination, with his literary remains, published the year after his death in several volumes. Here are a few extracts from the start of the diary and one from near the end (all contained in the first of the volumes and freely available at Internet Archive).

2 January 1826
‘I ought to read six hours a day.’

1 February 1826
‘Oxford. All my associations here are bad, and I can hardly shake them off. All the old feelings I have been trying to get rid of, seem revived: particularly vanity and wandering of mind. I do not really care for any of their opinions; and I will try to act as if “I had root in myself.” I will try to do steadily what I ought to do; and, as far as I can control the impulse of the moment, will never let a desire to obtain their good opinion be the motive of any of my slightest actions.

I ought to spend an hour at Bp. Butler, or Lloyd, and an hour at Greek Testament, two hours at Greek classics, one hour at Latin, and as much time more as I can about my prize, &c.’

21 February 1826
‘I have been relapsing into idle ways, but will try to turn over a new leaf.’

23 February 1826
‘I have had a long idle fit, partly caused by circumstances; but I shall not throw it off without recording an idle day. K. says I ought to attend to nothing but my essay, till I have finished it.’

30 March 1826
‘The standing for the fellowship is over, and I have done a great deal better than I expected: I am silly enough to be nervous about the event; but I hope it is not for my own sake. I know it will be, in the best way, for my interest, if I do my part. It will not be any excuse for my past idleness if I succeed; and I am resolved at any rate to make a better use of my time for the future. I put this down to try to keep myself from caring for the event; but I am afraid it is of no use. It is one o’clock; it will be settled in ten hours.’

10 April 1826
‘I have had so long a spell of idleness, that I hardly know how to set to work to-day. I will try to make a good beginning to-morrow.’

12 April 1826
‘I have been a fool, and argued when it was bad taste to do so.’

11 May 1826
‘I have allowed myself to relapse into a most lax way, by idle speculations, and feel all the habits of regularity, which I have been trying for, deserting me.’

1 July 1826
‘I have got into a bad way, by writing down the number of hours. It makes me look at my watch constantly, to see how near the time is up, and gives me a sort of lassitude, and unwillingness to exert my mind.

I think it will be a bettor way to keep a journal for a bit, as I find I want keeping in order about more things than reading. I am in a most conceited way, besides being very ill-tempered and irritable. My thoughts wander very much at my prayers, and I feel hungry for some ideal thing, of which I have no definite idea. I sometimes fancy that the odd bothering feeling which gets possession of me is affectation, and that I appropriate it because I think it a sign of genius; but it lasts too long, and is too disagreeable, to be unreal. There is another thing which I must put down, if I don’t get rid of it before long: it is a thing which proves to me the imbecility of my own mind more than anything; and I can hardly confess it to myself; but it is too true.’

5 July 1826
‘Yesterday I was very indolent, but rather better; and then began to-day with the same slly idea in my mind; I will write it down if it bothers me much longer: but my energies were rather restored by reading some of my Mother’s journal at Vineyard. I did not recollect that I had been so unfeeling to her during her last year. I thank God some of her writings have been kept; that may be my salvation; but I have spent the evening just as idly as if I had not seen it. I don’t know how it is, but it seems to me, that the consciousness of having capacities for happiness, with no objects to gratify them, seems to grow upon me, and puts me in a dreary way.

Lord, have mercy upon me.’

7 July 1826
‘Spent the morning tolerably well; read my Mother’s journal and prayers, two hours: I admire her more and more. I pray God the prayers she made for me may be effectual, and that her labours may not be in vain; but that God in His mercy may have chosen this way of accomplishing them; and that my reading them so long after they were made, and without any intention of her’s, may be the means by which the Holy Spirit will awaken my spirit to those good feelings which she asked for in my behalf.

I hope, by degrees, I may get to consider her relics in the light of a friend, derive from them advice and consolation, and rest my troubled spirit under their shadow. She seems to have had the same annoyances as myself, without the same advantages, and to have written her thoughts down, instead of conversation.

As yet they have only excited my feelings, and not produced any practical result.

How immeasureably absurd will all this appear to me before long! Even writing it has done me good; I say this, that, when I read it over at some future time, I may not think I was a greater fool than I really was.’

25 March 1828
‘I am to day twenty-five years old; I have begun it with a specimen of my state. I did not know this morning that it was either my birthday or the Annunciation: and yet all the term, I have watched for the approach of Saints’ days for weeks before hand, while I had a holiday in prospect. This is very humiliating, and upon the whole I have every reason to be dissatisfied with myself for the conduct of this year.’

This article is a slightly revised version of one first published on 25 March 2013.

Thursday, March 9, 2023

Sedaris gets the call

‘Roger Donald called from Little, Brown to say that he would like to negotiate a two-book deal. To celebrate, I bought a denim shirt, and thought it amazing how quickly one’s life can change. I never thought I’d want a denim shirt.’ This is from the diaries of the American humorist, David Sedaris, who, exactly 30 years ago today, discovered he would finally be a published author.

Sedaris was born in Johnson City, New York, in 1956 to an IBM engineer of Greek heritage and his Anglo-American wife. He grew up in a suburban area of Raleigh, North Carolina with five siblings. He attended Western Carolina University and Kent State University before dropping out in 1977. After dabbling in visual and performance art, he moved to Chicago in 1983 and graduated from the School of the Art Institute in 1987. While scraping a living from odd jobs (not least dressing up as a Christmas elf) he was invited by a local radio host, Ira Glass, to appear on a weekly programme, The Wild Room. This led on to a regular slot, edit by Glass, with National Public Radio. 

Sedaris moved to New York in 1991, and in 1993, he signed a two-book deal with Little, Brown and Company. Many of his essays began appearing in main stream magazines, such Harper’s, The New Yorker, and Esquire. His first book - Barrel Fever - came out in 1994, and Naked followed in 1997. In 2001 he was awarded the Thurber Prize for American Humor. Dress Your Family in Corduroy and Denim came out in 2004. His recording of pieces from the book was nominated for a Grammy Award for best spoken-word album; and his Live at Carnegie Hall received a Grammy nomination for best comedy album. Further successful books followed, including a collection of entries from his diaries. His most recent publication was Happy-Go-Lucky in 2022. Since 2019, he has lived in Rackham, West Sussex, England, with his longtime partner, painter and set designer Hugh Hamrick. For further information see Wikipedia, Encyclopaedia Britannica or his own website

Sedaris has been a committed diarist for most of his life, indeed his very first broadcasts were based on extracts from the diaries. In 2017, Little, Brown published a collection of edited extracts from the diaries: Theft by Finding Diaries: Volume One. The book can be sampled at Googlebooks and the full work can be digitally borrowed online at Internet Archive.

Here is part of Sedaris’s introduction explaining how and why he keeps a diary.

‘Not long after deciding to release a book of diary entries. I came upon a five-pound note. I’d been picking up trash alongside a country road in West Sussex, and there it was between a potato-chip bag and a half-full beer can that had drowned slugs in it. Given the exchange rate, the bill amounted to around $8.15, which, as my mother would have said, “Ain't nothing”. A few days later I met with my friend Pam in London. The subject of windfalls came up. and when I mentioned the money she asked if I’d spent it.

“Well, of course.” I said. 

“In the U.K. if you discover something of value and keep it. that’s theft by finding,’ she told me. “You’re supposed to investigate whether it was lost or stolen, though in this case - five pounds - of course you’re fine.’

Theft by Finding. It was, I thought, the perfect title for this book. When it comes to subject matter, all diarists are different I was never one to write about my feelings, in part because they weren’t that interesting (even to me) but mainly because they were so likely to change Other people’s feelings, though, that was a different story. Got a bone to pick with your stepmother or the manager of the place where you worked until yesterday? Please, let's talk! If nothing else, a diary teaches you what you’re interested in. Perhaps at the beginning you restrict yourself to issues of social injustice or all the unfortunate people trapped beneath the rubble in Turkey or Italy or wherever the last great earthquake hit. You keep the diary you feel you should be keeping, the one that, if discovered by your mother or college roommate, would leave them thinking. If only I was as civic minded/bighearted/philosophical as Edward

After a year, you realize it takes time to rail against injustice, time you might better spend questioning fondue or describing those ferrets you couldn’t afford. Unless, of course, social injustice is your thing, in which case - knock yourself out. The point is to find out who you are and to be true to that person. Because so often you can’t. Won’t people turn away if they know the real me? you wonder. The me that hates my own child, that put my perfectly healthy dog to sleep? The me who thinks, deep down, that maybe The Wire was overrated

What I prefer recording at the end - or, more recently, at the start - of my day are remarkable events I have observed (fistfights, accidents, a shopper arriving with a full cart of groceries in the express lane), bits of overheard conversation, and startling things people have told me. These people could be friends but just as easily barbers, strangers on a plane, or cashiers. A number of their stories turned out to be urban legends: the neighbor of a relative whose dead cat was stolen from the trunk of a car, etc. I hope I’ve weeded those out. Then there are the jokes I’ve heard at parties and book signings over the years. They were obviously written by someone - all jokes are - but the authors are hardly ever credited in the retelling. 

Another thing I noticed while going through my forty years of diaries is that many of the dates are wrong. For instance, there might be three October 1, 1982s This was most likely because I didn’t know what day it was. Time tends to melt and run together when you don’t have a job. In that prelaptop era, you had to consult a newspaper or calendar to find out if it was Wednesday the eighth or Thursday the ninth. This involved getting up, so more often than not, I’d just stay put and guess. Quite often I’d even get the month wrong.

It might look like my average diary entry amounts to no more than seven sentences, but in fact I spend an inordinate amount of time writing about my day - around forty-five minutes, usually. If nothing big happened, I'll reflect on a newspaper article or a report I heard on the radio I’m not big on weather writing but have no policy against it. Thus when life gets really dull. I’ll just look out the window and describe the color of the sky. That will lead to something else, most often: a bird being mean to another bird or the noise a plane makes.’

And here are several extracts from the diaries including those in which he writes about his first book deal, some three decades ago.

7 June 1987, Chicago
‘I dared myself to lean too hard against one of the living-room windows yesterday, and it broke and cut my elbow up. Later in the afternoon I took the empty frame to the hardware store, where they said it would cost $30 for new glass. That seemed exorbitant to me, so I was walking back home by way of the empty lot when an American Indian woman grabbed on to it, saying she’d been looking for a window frame just like this. “I need it,” she said. “Hand it over.” Her face was strikingly flat, and for a second all I could do was stare at it.

The woman was holding a beer bottle and put it down so she could grab my window frame with both hands. “Turn it loose,” she said, and the several drunk people behind her cheered her on. Then a man who was slightly less drunk told her to let it go. “Leave him alone, Cochise,” he said. “This here’s a working man.”

I haven’t worked in more than three weeks, but it was nice to be mistaken for someone with a job. Today I took the frame down a different street to the L, where I thought I’d try another hardware store. Right near the station a man asked me for money, and when I walked by he shouted, “Watch where you’re going with that thing, asshole! You almost killed that girl. You almost hit her with that window, you fucker.”

I said, “What?”

“You just about hit that baby, you son of a bitch. I’m going to kill you. I’m going to teach you a lesson you’ll never forget, you little fuck. You can’t get away from me.”

The guy was really beside himself, and I’m lucky I was so close to the ticket window. I worried he’d panhandle enough money to reach the platform before the train arrived, but luckily he didn’t. And what baby? I didn’t see any baby.

Why did I have to break that window, and on a dare, for God’s sake?’

13 February 1989, Chicago
‘Tonight at Barbara’s Bookstore, Tobias Wolff read from his new memoir, This Boy’s Life. All the seats were taken, so I sat on the floor in the front and tried to act normal. I was too shy to say anything when I got my book signed, afraid that if I started talking, everything inside me would just spill out.

He seemed like a kind person and wore a turtleneck, a plaid shirt, a tweed jacket, and jeans with black socks and running shoes. I have to be his biggest fan.’

12 July 1990, Chicago
‘For the third time this week, a man approached me and asked if he could have $1. He pointed to a van and said that it was his. “It broke down and if I don’t get to work, I’m in big trouble.”

Each time it’s a different guy, but it’s always the same van. A scam, obviously, but even if the story was true, who goes to work with no money in his pockets? What if you ran out of gas?

When I taught my night class in the Fine Arts Building, I was often asked for money by a woman who said she’d been robbed and needed to take a commuter train to one of the northern suburbs. Even the first time I saw her I thought, Really? You can’t call a friend or a family member? You’re honestly going to hit up total strangers for your fare? Like the men with the van, she was always well dressed and acting frantic.’

16 October 1991, New York
‘Amy and I walked up 8th Avenue to Intermezzo, where Hugh and his friend Sue were having lunch. “Here you are!” Amy shouted. “Just what do you think you’re doing? You can’t afford to be eating here, not when I’ve got a five-month-old baby waiting in the car. And wine too! You’re drinking wine! I hate being your sponsor, I really do.” Everyone stared and Hugh turned bright red.

Afterward I went to Macy’s, where I filled out umpteen forms, peed into a jar, and had my eyes tested. This year, as a returning elf. I’ll make $9 an hour. Regular Christmas help gets only $6.’

16 January 1993, New York
‘Helen’s forty-two-year-old nephew was a public-school teacher and today he died of AIDS. I said I was sorry to hear it and Helen said, “The bastard. Thought he was Mr. Big because he had an education, but where’s him and his college degree now? In the ground, that’s where. The last time I saw him, I called out, ‘Tommy!’ but he kept on walking. I say, ‘Fuck you, Mr. Smart.’ Yeah, we all know how smart he was now.” ’

24 February 1993, New York
‘This was an amazing New York day. In the morning I met with Geoff Kloske, the editorial assistant from Little, Brown who called a few weeks back to ask if he could read my manuscript. He’s only twenty-three, a kid, and has a grandmother in Jacksonville, North Carolina. We had coffee and afterward he took me to meet his boss, Roger, a big, good-looking chain-smoker who said that he, too, liked my manuscript and hopes to get back to me within a week or two.

Afterward I went to our play rehearsal (for Stump the Host). We open a week from tomorrow.’

8 March 1993, New York
‘The night before the play opened (at La MaMa), William dropped out, saying he wasn’t having much fun. “And if it’s no fun, why bother?”

I spent some time panicking and then decided to take the part myself, seeing as I know the lines. So I performed on Thursday, Friday, and Saturday. Opening night we had fourteen people in the audience. On Friday, there were forty, and on Saturday we were sold out. Meryl has extended our run, and thankfully Paul Dinello has agreed to take over my part. Hugh and Amy say, “Oh, you know you love being onstage.” But they’re wrong. I don’t. Not like that, anyway.’

9 March 1993, New York
‘Roger Donald called from Little, Brown to say that he would like to negotiate a two-book deal. To celebrate, I bought a denim shirt, and thought it amazing how quickly one’s life can change. I never thought I’d want a denim shirt.’

13 March 1993, New York
‘I met on Thursday afternoon with Don Congdon, the agent Roger Donald recommended. He proposed lunch and took me to Le Madri, an Italian place near his office and the fanciest restaurant I’ve been to in New York. Don is in his late seventies and was very elegantly dressed. A fine suit, a Pucci tie, a topcoat, even a black beret. The maître d’ knew him. “Right this way, Mr. Congdon.”

Our waiter poured olive oil onto a plate and then gave us bread, which I guessed we were supposed to dip into it. I had thinly carved steak arranged into a turban with grilled radicchio and endive. Don had pasta that he didn’t finish.

While eating, I learned that he represents William Styron, Russell Baker, Ellen Gilchrist, and Thomas Berger. He represented Lillian Hellman for a production of The Little Foxes in, I think, Russia, and Frank O’Connor. He told stories about wandering through the Village with J. D. Salinger, whom he called Jerry, and recounted the night the two of them went to hear Billie Holiday. I heard of the time Don was arrested by the vice squad during Prohibition, and then something about Dashiell Hammett. The problem was that it was all about the past. That said, I liked his language, especially his old-fashioned slang.’

30 April 1993, New York
‘Between cleaning jobs, I bought a coffee and sat in Union Square Park to read for a while. The benches there are sectioned off with armrests - this to prevent people from stretching out and sleeping, I imagine. I’d just lit a cigarette when a guy approached - wiry, around my age, wearing soiled white jeans and a Metallica T-shirt. His hair fell to his shoulders, he had a sketchy mustache, and he was carrying a paper bag. Ex-convict, I thought. It was a snap assessment, but I’m sticking by it.

The guy asked for a cigarette, and when I handed him one, he took it without thanking me. Then he pointed to my bag of cleaning supplies, made a sweeping gesture with his hand, and said, “I’m going to sit down there.”

There were plenty of other benches, so I said no.

“Goddamn it,” he said. “I told you to move your fucking shit.”

I got up and left, knowing that if I hadn’t moved my bag, he would have thrown it. If, on the other hand, I had moved it, he would have sat beside me and continued asking for things. All afternoon I thought about it and wished that I knew how to fight.’

8 January 1994, New York
Stitches (our play) opened Thursday night to an audience of fifty. La MaMa can squeeze in 120, so this wasn’t so bad. Friday was sold out, as was tonight. The Times came last night; tonight it was Newsday and the Voice. I want to tell them we were just joking. It’s not a real play, it’s what comes from doodling while you’re holding a bong. Whatever they have to say, it’s out of my control now and in the hands of the actors. My job is to play the host and greet people at the door as they enter.’

27 December 1994, New York
‘Christmas afternoon. Dad pulled out his film projector and a half dozen Super 8 movies from the late ’60s and early ’70s. I recall him standing in front of us with the camera back then, but, like the photos he takes of us on the stairs every year, I never knew what became of them. Two friends of Lisa’s had dropped by, and though nothing could be duller than watching someone else’s home movies, none of us cared. The moment we saw Mom, we forgot about our guests. They mumbled something on their way out - “Merry Christmas,” or maybe “Your kitchen is on fire,” whatever.

I never knew my mother had been captured on film moving. The first reel was from St. John in 1972. Mom Dad, Aunt Joyce, and Uncle Dick. We see the island. Boats. More island. More boats, and then there’s Mom, who waves good-bye before ducking into a thatched hut. Then the camera is handed to someone else, and we see Dad pull her out. He is young and handsome - he is always handsome. When he points at the camera. Mom buries her head in his chest. Then he lifts her chin and they kiss.

Watching this, Dad stomped his foot on the floor, the way you might if you just missed the bus and knew that another wasn’t coming for a long while. He rewound the film and replayed it a second time, then a third.

“Again,” we called. “Play it again.” To see them both on an island, so young and happy. I couldn’t believe our luck: to have this on film!’

28 August 2002, Paris
‘Shannon called to tell me I’m at number nine. This makes fifty-two weeks - a year on the Times paperback list. While she was very excited and congratulatory, the news left me slightly embarrassed, the way you feel when you’ve stayed too long at the party and notice your hosts looking at their watches. The hosts, in this case, are all the superior writers whose books haven’t sold more than a few thousand copies. On the bright side, I think I can write something much better than Me Talk Pretty. And if it fails and no one buys it, I can really feel good about myself.’

Tuesday, March 7, 2023

A dignified Speaker

John Evelyn Denison, Viscount Ossington, died a century and a half ago today. He was an unremarkable politician except for the fact that he held the office of Speaker in the House of Commons and kept a diary record of his 14 years in the post. Often dry and procedural, the diary comes alive when Denison writes about his own decisions being praised by others, not least the future Prime Minister Benjamin Disraeli. Denison also hands down occasional pearls of wisdom such as when the House was unexpectedly in a ‘a touchy, irritable state’ - ‘such is always the case with the sharpest hurricanes. The barometer gives no notice.’

Denison was born in 1800 at Ossington, Nottinghamshire, the eldest son of a wool merchant. He was educated at Eton and Christ Church, Oxford, and in 1820 on the death of his father inherited the Ossington estates with much land. He was said to be a progressive landlord, interested in agricultural improvements; and, later, he was president of the Royal Agricultural Society. In 1823, he became a Whig MP, and in 1827, he married Charlotte, daughter of William, Duke of Portland, but they had no children.

Throughout his life, Denison sat in Parliament for various constituencies, including Newcastle-under-Lyme, Hastings, South and North Nottinghamshire, and Malton. In 1857, he was chosen to be Speaker of the House of Commons, a position he retained until 1872, when he resigned and was created Viscount Ossington. He died a few months later, on 7 March 1873. A little further biographical information is available from Wikipedia or Nottingham University’s website for manuscripts and special collections.

The Oxford Dictionary of National Biography entry (log-in required) on Denison says he was fairly well regarded as speaker: ‘A consolidator rather than an innovator (he prevented, for example, the introduction of printed notice of questions to ministers), he none the less defended the financial rights of the Commons against the Lords, deploring the latter’s action in rejecting the bill of 1860 repealing the paper duty, and opposing the Lords’ introduction of a financial provision into a divorce bill. The tories in 1862 hoped he might be encouraged to retire and be replaced by Spencer Walpole. Denison was the last speaker to speak and vote in committee, and he voted against the government on the budget on 9 June 1870. He was a dignified speaker but was thought by contemporaries sometimes lacking in firmness.’

For the 14 years that he held the post of Speaker, Denison kept a diary record of his duties and decisions. This journal was found in a box many years later. Considered initially too technical for public interest, it was only printed for private circulation. However, in 1900, John Murray decided it might sell to a wider audience and so published it as Notes from My Journal when Speaker of the House of Commons. This edition is freely available at Internet Archive.

The published diary is often dense with the detail of Parliamentary procedure, nevertheless Denison did a fair job of keeping it interesting with lucid explanations of issues that were, perhaps, out of the ordinary or worth setting down. And though he must have meant it to be a dry and official record, Denison does sometimes write about his personal feelings, especially when others have praised him for decisions! Here are several extracts.

30 April 1862
‘I have been named by the Queen as one of the Commissioners to represent Her Majesty on the occasion of opening the International Exhibition. I wrote to Lord Eversley to ask him how I should go dressed on such an occasion. He answered, in plain black gown and wig. I forwarded this opinion to the Lord Chancellor, who repelled the idea in a very amusing letter, and said he had settled to go in his gold gown; he saw no necessary connection between the gold gown and the gold coach. I have decided against the lumbering gold coach for many reasons: 1) I should probably stick fast in the new granite; 2) I should have to go at a foot’s pace while in company with others who could and would trot; 3) I could not bear to drag all the officers of the House and my servants on foot such a long distance. I am not going to Court to pay my respects to the Queen; I am not going with the House of Commons as a body, and at their head.’

1 May 1862
‘The opening of the International Exhibition took place this day at one o’clock. The House of Commons adjourned from Wednesday to six o’clock on Thursday to allow the attendance of the Ministers, of myself, and of the members generally at the ceremony. I had decided to go in my gold gown, but not in the lumbering gold coach. I borrowed a good London coach of Lord Chesham. I put my coachman and two footmen in their State liveries. I added good cloths, and bows of ribbon to my horses’ furniture.

At twelve, I set off to Buckingham Palace, taking Lord Charles Russell and the mace and my trainbearer in the coach. Arrived at Buckingham Palace they desired me to drive forward near the gate, as I was to lead the procession. Royal processions move in the inverse order of precedency, the lowest in rank going first. So my carriage was first, then Lord Palmerston, then Lord Derby, I think, Lord Sydney, the Lord Chancellor, the Archbishop of Canterbury, the Prince Oscar of Sweden, the Crown Prince of Prussia, the Duke of Cambridge.

We were not ready till a quarter to one. We were to be at the Exhibition Buildings at one. I led the way at a fair trot. (Where should I have been in my gold coach - leading the way at a foot’s pace?)

We arrived at the building at one. The rest of the procession was arranged in the building, waiting for the Royal Commissioners to complete the line. I was to walk first (as I had led the way in my carriage). Lord Palmerston was desired to walk by my side. He said: “No, the Speaker should walk alone; I will follow”. I said: “Of course, as you please, but I should think it a great honour if we might proceed together”. Lord Palmerston said: “Oh, if you wish it, certainly”. [. . .]

As we walked along I could gauge the popularity of Lord Palmerston. The moment he came in sight, throughout the whole building, men and women, young and old, at once were struck as by an electric shock. “Lord Palmerston! Here is Lord Palmerston! Bravo! Hurrah! Lord Palmerston for ever!” And so it went on through the whole building. One voice: “I wish you may be Minister for the next twenty years”. “ Well, not unlikely,” said Lord Taunton, “he would only be a little more than a hundred.” ’

10 March 1863
‘We went in a special train from Paddington to Windsor, leaving 10:30, and being an hour on the road. Carriages were ready to take us to the chapel. Lady C posted down in her own carriage, leaving 8:30, reaching St. George’s Chapel at a quarter past eleven; she escaped much cold and draughts by this, and greatly preferred it. I went in my black velvet suit. The Lord Chamberlain said that was the proper dress. He told this to the Lord Chancellor, who, however, would go in his gold gown and his wig. The Lord Chamberlain said: We had no function to perform; we had no part to play in the ceremony, we were invited guests like others. I followed the advice of the Lord Chamberlain; the Lord Chancellor went in his gold gown. The seat allotted to me was the dean’s seat, close by the door. It was a very magnificent sight - rich, gorgeous and imposing. I don’t know how I could say enough about the magnificence of the spectacle. The pageant was admirably got up, and was well performed throughout. Beautiful women were arrayed in the richest attire, in bright colours, blue, purple, red, and covered with diamonds and jewels. Grandmothers looked beautiful: Lady Abercom, Lady Westminster, Lady Shaftesbury. Among the young, Lady Spencer, Lady Castlereagh, Lady Carmarthen, were most bright and brilliant. The Knights of the Garter in their robes looked each of them a fine picture - Lord Russell looked like a hero who could have walked into the castle court and have slain a giant. The Queen sat in her closet on the left hand side of the altar, looking up the chapel and high above it. But she did not affect any concealment. She looked constantly out of the window of her closet and sometimes leaned over, with her body half out of the window, to take a survey down the church. She was dressed in plain black up to the throat, with the blue ribbon over her shoulder, and a sort of plain mob cap.

As each of the royal persons with their attendants walked up the chapel, at a certain point each stopped and made an obeisance to the Queen: the Princess Mary, the Duchess of Cambridge, the Princess of Prussia, the Princess Alice of Hesse, the Princess Helena, the Princess Christian, etc.: each in turn formed a complete scene. The Princess Alexandra with her bridesmaids made the last and the most beautiful scene. The Princess looked beautiful, and very graceful in her manner and demeanour. When her eyes are cast down she has a wonderful power of flashing a kind of sidelong look.’

4 June 1863
‘Mr. Tollemache wishing to make a personal explanation as to some observations of Mr. Gladstone’s about the Committee on the Holyhead packet - Then rose Colonel Douglas Pennant - Mr. Gladstone explained - Then rose Mr. H. Herbert - I had to interfere. Mr. Herbert moved that the House do adjourn. Then Mr. Hennessey spoke, all attacking Mr. Gladstone - I had again to interfere. Then Lord Robert Cecil tried to get a stronger expression from me about Mr. Gladstone’s words, but without success. The whole thing was verging on great irregularity, reference to past debates, etc. Still a personal explanation could hardly be permitted, and so the thing grew in dimensions, always growing more irregular as it went on.

The House was in a touchy, irritable state; the slightest step on my part might have raised a storm. It was a flare up all in a moment. But such is always the case with the sharpest hurricanes. The barometer gives no notice.’

26 July 1866 [The Reform League had been established a year earlier to press for manhood suffrage and the ballot in Great Britain. It campaigned unsuccessfully for the Reform Bill in 1866, and successfully for the Rerform Act in 1867. This diary entry is dated three days after the so-called ‘Hyde Park Railings Affair’.]
‘Great anxiety prevailed about the condition of things between the Secretary of State, Mr. Walpole, and the Reform League. The parks had been invaded, the iron railings torn down. There had been an interview between Mr. Beales, the Chairman of the League, and Mr. Walpole, and Mr. Beales had posted placards to say that Mr. Walpole had given way, and that a meeting would be held in the park on Monday. There was a feeling that Mr. Walpole had displayed great weakness.

At the morning sitting of Thursday, 26th July, Mr. Disraeli came to me and spoke of the state of affairs, and asked me what I thought of an Address to the Crown, asking the Crown to grant the use of the park for the purposes of general recreation, but not for meetings on political or religious subjects. I said that on the first blush such a course seemed to me to be open to the greatest objection. Mr. Walpole had spoken positively as to the law of the case, without doubt or reservation. Sir George Grey had concurred with him, and had supported him. The House accepted the statement without question. They had therefore already all they could obtain by a fresh answer from the Crown to an Address. To show hesitation or doubt at such a moment would be ruinous. It would justify doubt on the other side, and so give colour to the pretensions of the League. To open the question by an Address to the Crown would bring forth stormy remonstrances from the Radicals, and counter propositions.

I urged the Government to stand firmly on the ground that had been taken. All that the public required was a show of firmness on the part of the Government; at present an impression prevailed that great weakness had been exhibited.

The Government stood to their declarations, and there was a satisfactory debate in the House of Commons in the evening. I congratulated Mr. Disraeli on the result. He said to me: “It has turned out very well. I followed your advice exactly.” ’

This article is a slightly revised version of one first published on 7 March 1873.

Friday, March 3, 2023

Acted Macbeth very unequally

‘I flung my whole soul into every word I uttered, acting my very best and exciting the audience to a sympathy even with the glowing words of fiction, whilst these dreadful deeds of real crime and outrage were roaring at intervals in our ears and rising to madness all round us.’ This is the great British actor, William Macready, born 230 years ago today, writing in his diary about a performance of Macbeth in New York. During the show more than 20 people died in a riot caused by the rivalry between Macready and another Shakespearean actor, Edwin Forrest.

Macready was born on 3 March 1793 into a theatrical family, and educated at Rugby. Although he intended to go to Oxford, he joined his father’s ailing company, appearing as Romeo when only 17. Soon, though, he fell out with his father, went to Bath for two years, and then, in 1816, made his debut on the London stage as Orestes in Racine’s The Distressed Mother. His stature as an actor developed with leading roles such as Rob Roy, Richard III and William Tell. In 1826, he married Catherine Atkins, and they had two children who survived into adulthood.

Subsequently, in the late 1830s, Macready became manager of Covent Garden, and, in the 1840s, of Drury Lane. He was an important person in the development of the theatre, insisting on rehearsals, accurate costumes and appropriate sets. He also sought to employ original texts in his revivals of Shakespeare’s plays. Macready made several trips to the US. During the final one of these, in 1849, a longstanding dispute with the US actor Edwin Forrest erupted and caused a riot - in which at least 25 were killed - at the Astor Place Theatre.

Macready retired after a performance of Macbeth at Drury Lane in February 1851. His wife died the following year, and he remarried in 1860. His second wife, Cecile Louise Frederica Spencer, gave him one more son, Nevil. Macready himself died in 1873. Further information is available from Wikipedia, the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (with login), or many out-of-copyright biographies available at Internet Archive: Macready’s Reminiscences and Selections from His Diaries and Letters edited by Sir Frederick Pollock; A life of William Charles Macready by W. T. Price; Macready as I Knew Him by Lady Pollock; and William Charles Macready by William Archer.

Macready was a meticulous and interesting diarist, and kept a journal for much of his working life. Carefully selected parts of this were published soon after his death, in the volumes edited by Sir Frederick Pollock, as mentioned above. A fuller edition of Macready’s diaries was edited by William Toynbee and published in 1912 by Chapman and Hall in two volumes - these too are available at Internet Archive, and are the source of the extracts below. A further edition of the diaries came out in 1967, edited by J. C. Trewin - The Journal of William Charles Macready, 1832-1851- and published by Longmans. Much of this book can be read at Googlebooks.

However, this most recent edition was based almost entirely on the earlier published diaries, since the original manuscripts were destroyed by Nevil Macready. His daughter, Mrs Lisa Puckle, is quoted in the Trewin edition as saying ‘I can speak definitively on this, as . . . my father destroyed the diaries, and I helped him in case they should fall into the wrong hands. My grandfather wrote very freely at times.’ Trewin’s edition does, though, benefit from the addition of 64 manuscript diary pages, written during Macready’s second tour to the US, that were discovered in 1960. ‘Despite its incompleteness,’ the ODNB concludes, ‘Macready’s diary constitutes a major resource, not only for the author’s life and career, but also for the theatrical and cultural world of his day’.

Macready’s diaries have already featured in The Diary Review, in an article to celebrate Dickens’ bicentenary. Here are several more extracts. The penultimate and very long one below was written following Macready’s performance of Macbeth at the Astor Palace in New York on 10 May 1849. Wikipedia says this about the so-called Astor Place Riot. ‘The riot - which left at least 25 dead and more than 120 injured - marked the first time a state militia had been called out and had shot into a crowd of citizens, and it led to the creation of the first police force armed with deadly weapons, yet its genesis was a dispute between Edwin Forrest, one of the best-known American actors of that time, and William Charles Macready, a similarly notable English actor, which largely revolved around which of them was better than the other at acting the major roles of Shakespeare.’ For more on this see a New York Times review of the 1912 edition of Macready’s diaries.

2 January 1833
‘My performance this evening of Macbeth afforded me a striking evidence of the necessity there is for thinking over my characters previous to playing, and establishing, by practice if necessary, the particular modes of each scene and important passage. I acted with much energy, but could not (as I sometimes can, when holding the audience in wrapt attention) listen to my own voice, and feel the truth of its tones. It was crude, and uncertain, though spirited and earnest; but much thought is yet required to give an even energy and finished style to all the great scenes of the play, except perhaps the last, which is among the best things I am capable of. Knowles is ravished with his own acting, and the supposed support it has met with. I wish I was with mine.’

3 January 1833
‘Went home to breakfast. Spent an idle, but in all other respects a happy day. A well-spent day is pleasing while it lasts, and pleasant to remember when for ever gone; a day of mere pleasure is agreeable in its passage, but regret attends its close in the reflection that time which God has given for employment has been squandered, or lost in idleness. Compunction is injurious if unproductive of improvement; let my revision of this day enable me to be more resolute in my resistance of future temptations, and teach me for my own and my children’s good the necessity of blending activity with enjoyment. In my absence from home I am sometimes inclined to question the prudence of living so far from town; but when, on reaching home, I taste the fresh air of the country, look over its extent of prospect, feel in a manner the free range of thought and sense through the expanse of earth and sky surrounding me, I confess to myself, in the delightful sensations I experience, that such enjoyment is worth some sacrifice.

3 March 1833
‘I am forty years of age! Need I add one word to the solemn reproof conveyed in these, when I reflect on what I am, and what I have done? What has my life been? a betrayal of a great trust, an abuse of great abilities! This morning, as I began to dress, I almost started when it occurred to me that it was my birthday.

Last night I began reading parts of Faublas [by Jean-Baptiste Louvet de Couvrai], and, as is my custom with novels, sat up late and continued it in bed until half-past five this morning. I rose late, and was shocked and ashamed to think that I had wasted, or rather misused, so much precious time over such immoral, irrational and debasing stuff.’

18 January 1836
‘Went to rehearsal at eleven o’clock; was kept waiting for some time; found things in a decent state, but the Lady Macbeth bad beyond all former out-doings - detestable! Heard of Mr Woulds’ ill success, and his reflections upon the public from the stage in consequence! Mr Denvil, who was my Macduff with a pair of well-grown moustaches, told me of his having pitched Mr Elliot, a pantomimist, from a height of eighteen feet, in which the pitched Elliot gloried to that degree that he even suffered pain from the surmise that some of the audience might suppose it was a dummy that was thrown. Now, what is ambition in the pleasure its success conveys? Was the Duke of Wellington more inwardly gratified after a victory than this man would be if three or four rounds of applause were to follow him into the black hole into which Mr Denvil or any other person might pitch him? Gloria mundi! Proceeded to the theatre. The house was very fair, and I tried to act with the millstone of Lady Macbeth round my neck. Oh! - Muses! I acted Macbeth very unequally - some parts I thought I did very well; the scene before the banquet and the melancholy of the fifth act particularly. I should, however, say that it was not sustained.’

19 January 1836
‘Acted Hamlet. Oh, how unlike my London performances! The best thing in the play was the grave scene; I played it well, the rest was effort and not good. Still worse, I was morose and ill-tempered. Fie! fie! shall I never outlive my folly and my vice? I fear not.’

2 December 1836
‘Acted Othello with earnestness and spirit, but occasionally weak as to physical power; very much applauded, and in possession of the audience; heard that Mrs Butler was in the theatre before the fifth act, and from a feeling of pique which I cannot altogether account for, except that I thought her an impostor in the art, took particular pains with the last scene, and played it very powerfully; was much applauded, and heard a call begun for me as I left the stage. The prompter came to my room for me, but when I reached the stage I heard that Mr Kemble (!) had gone on; this was too good, so I observed that they would no doubt be quiet, and returned. This was either a most extraordinary freak in the audience, or a most consummate piece of Jesuitical impertinence in him - to make something of himself before his daughter. I was not very pleased, but showed no feeling about it.’

11 July 1842
‘Went in a gig to Brighton; the morning made the drive over the downs, through Seaford and Newhaven, very pleasant. Where is beauty wanting in this world, if we do but choose to see it? Waited an hour and a quarter for the railway train at Brighton, reading Philip Van Artevelde, the first part of which I finished before I reached London. Went over to the Bank and received my dividends, from which the Income Tax was deducted. Bear on, ye free people, enslaved to the worst cant that ever stultified mankind.’

24 July 1845
‘Went to Brighton by railroad; saw that disgusting person, Mr ___, a disgusting member of a disgusting family - one who belongs to “the order” of “noble by convention”; pah! Read on my whole journey to Eastbourne Carlyle’s Life of Schiller - some contrast both in the character of the biographer and of the subject of his description to these elegant specimens of the man-made aristocracy. Delighted with the book - excited by the author and deeply interested in the character and fate of Schiller. Came on in a fly to Eastbourne.’

10 May 1849
‘I went, gaily, I may say, to the theatre, and on my way, looking down Astor Place, saw one of the Harlem cars on the railroad stop and discharge a full load of policemen; there seemed to be others at the door of the theatre. I observed to myself, “This is good precaution.” I went to my dressing-room, and proceeded with the evening’s business. The hairdresser was very late and my equanimity was disturbed. I was ruffled and nervous from fear of being late, but soon composed myself. The managers were delaying the beginning, and I was unwilling to be behind the exact hour.

The play began; there was some applause to Mr Clarke (I write of what I could hear in my room below). I was called, and at my cue went on with full assurance, confidence, and cheerfulness. My reception was very enthusiastic, but I soon discovered that there was opposition, though less numerously manned than on Monday. I went right on when I found that it would not instantly be quelled, looking at the wretched creatures in the parquette, who shook their fists violently at me, and called out to me in savage fury. I laughed at them, pointing them out with my truncheon to the police, who, I feared, were about to repeat the inertness of the previous evening. A black board with white letters was leaned against the side of the proscenium: “The friends of order will remain silent.” This had some effect in making the rioters more conspicuous.

My first, second, third scenes passed over rapidly and unheard; at the end of the fourth one of the officers gave a signal, the police rushed in at the two sides of the parquette, closed in upon the scoundrels occupying the centre seats and furiously vociferating and gesticulating, and seemed to lift them or bundle them in a body out of the centre of the house, amid the cheers of the audience. I was in the act of making my exit with Lady Macbeth, and stopped to witness this clever manoeuvre, which, like a coup de main, swept the place clear at once. As well as I can remember the bombardment outside now began. Stones were hurled against the windows in Eighth Street, smashing many; the work of destruction became then more systematic; the volleys of stones flew without intermission, battering and smashing all before them; the Gallery and Upper Gallery still kept up the din within, aided by the crashing of glass and boarding without.

The second act passed, the noise and violence without increasing, the contest within becoming feebler. Mr Povey, as I was going to my raised seat in the banquet scene, came up to me and, in an undertone and much frightened, urged me to cut out some part of the play and bring it to a close. I turned round upon him very sharply, and said that “I had consented to do this thing - to place myself here, and whatever the consequence I must go through with it - it must be done; that I could not cut out. The audience had paid for so much, and the law compelled me to give it; they would have cause for riot if all were not properly done.” I was angry, and spoke very sharply to the above effect. The banquet scene was partially heard and applauded. I went down to change my dress, the battering at the building, doors, and windows growing, like the fiends at the Old Woman of Berkely’s burial, louder and louder. Water was running down fast from the ceiling to the floor of my room and making a pool there. I inquired; the stones hurled in had broken some of the pipes.

The fourth act passed; louder and more fierce waxed the furious noises against the building and from without; for whenever a missile did effectual mischief in its discharge it was hailed with shouts outside; stones came in through the windows, and one struck the chandelier; the audience removed for protection behind the walls; the house was considerably thinned, gaps of unoccupied seats appearing in the audience part. The fifth act was heard, and in the very spirit of resistance I flung my whole soul into every word I uttered, acting my very best and exciting the audience to a sympathy even with the glowing words of fiction, whilst these dreadful deeds of real crime and outrage were roaring at intervals in our ears and rising to madness all round us. The death of Macbeth was loudly cheered, and on being lifted up and told that I was called, I went on, and, with action earnestly and most emphatically expressive of my sympathy with them and my feelings of gratefulness to them, I quitted the New York stage amid the acclamations of those before me.

Going to my room I began without loss of time to undress, but with no feeling of fear or apprehension. When washed and half dressed, persons came into my room - consternation on the faces of some; fear, anxiety, and distress on those of others. “The mob were getting stronger; why were not the military sent for?” “They were here.” “Where? Why did they not act?” “They were not here; they were drawn up in the Bowery.” “Of what use were they there?” Other arrivals. “The military had come upon the ground.” “Why did they not disperse the mob then?” These questions and answers, with many others, were passed to and fro among the persons round me whilst I was finishing my hasty toilet, I occasionally putting in a question or remark.

Suddenly we heard a volley of musketry: “Hark! what’s that?” I asked. “The soldiers have fired.” “My God!” I exclaimed. Another volley, and another! The question among those surrounding me [. . .] was, which way was I to go out? News came that several were killed; I was really insensible to the degree of danger in which I stood, and saw at once - there being no avoidance - there was nothing for it but to meet the worst with dignity, and so I stood prepared. They sent some one to reconnoitre, and urged the necessity of a change in my appearance. I was confident that people did not know my person, and repeated this belief. They overbore all objections, and took the drab surtout of the performer of Malcolm, he taking my black one; they insisted, too, that I must not wear my hat; I said, “Very well; lend me a cap.” Mr Sefton gave me his, which was cut all up the back to go upon my head. Thus equipped I went out, following Robert Emmett to the stage door; here we were stopped, not being allowed to pass.

The “friend” was to follow us as a sort of aide, but we soon lost him. We crossed the stage, descended into the orchestra, got over into the parquette, and passing into the centre passage went along with the thin stream of the audience moving out. We went right on, down the flight of stairs and out of the door into Eighth Street. All was clear in front - kept so by two cordons or lines of police at either end of the building stretched right across. We passed the line near Broadway, and went on threading the excited crowd, twice or three times muttering in Emmett’s ear, “You are walking too fast.” We crossed Broadway, still through a scattered crowd, and walked on along Clinton Place till we passed the street leading down to the New York Hotel. I then said, “Are you going to your own house?” “Yes.” We reached it, and having opened the door with a latch-key, closing it after us, he said, “You are safe here; no one will know anything about you; you shall have a bed in ten minutes or a quarter of an hour, and you may depend upon all in this house.”

I sat down in the drawing-room, talking of the facts about us, and wondering at myself and my condition, secretly preparing myself for the worst result, viz., falling into the hands of those sanguinary ruffians. A son of Emmett’s was there, Robert; in about a quarter of an hour Colden came in. Several men had been killed, how many not certainly known yet. “You must leave the city at once; you must not stay here!” It was then a consultation between these excellent friends, I putting in an occasional opinion objecting or suggesting upon the safest course to pursue. At length it was decided, and Robert was sent out to find Richard, another son, probably at the Racket Club, to put the plan in execution. He was met by Robert in the street, and both returned with additional reports; the crowd was still there, the excitement still active. Richard was sent to the livery stable to order a carriage and good pair of horses to be at Emmett’s door at four o’clock in the morning, “to take a doctor to some gentleman’s house near New Rochelle.” This was done and well done by him; Colden and Emmett went out to reconnoitre, and they had, as I learned from Emmett, gone to the New York hotel, at the door of which was still a knot of watchers, and to Emmett’s inquiries told him, if any threats were made, to allow a committee of the crowd to enter and search the house for me. Emmett returned with my own hat, one from the hotel, and I had got Colden’s coat. An omnibus drove furiously down the street, followed by a shouting crowd. We asked Richard, when he came in, what it was; he said, “Merely an omnibus,” but next morning he told me that he asked the men pursuing, “What was the matter?” and one answered, “Macready’s in that omnibus; they’ve killed twenty of us, and by G we’ll kill him!”

Well, all was settled; it was believed that twenty had perished. Robert went to bed to his wife. Emmett went upstairs to lie down, which I declined to do, and with Richard went down into the comfortable office below before a good fire and, by the help of a cigar, to count the slow hours till four o’clock. We talked and he dozed, and I listened to the sounds of the night, and thought of home, and what would be the anguish of hearts there if I fell in this brutal outbreak; but I resolved to do what was right and becoming. The clock struck four; we were on the move; Emmett came down; sent Richard to look after the carriage. All was still in the dawn of morning, but we waited some ten minutes - an age of suspense - the carriage arrived. I shook the hand of my preserver and friend - my heart responded to my parting prayer of “God bless him” - and stepping into the carriage, a covered phaeton, we turned up Fifth Avenue, and were on our way to safety. Thank God. During some of the time of waiting I had felt depressed and rather low, but I believe I showed no fear, and felt determined to do my duty, whatever it might be, acting or suffering. We met only market carts, butchers’ or gardeners’, and labourers going to their early work; the morning was clear and fresh, and the air was cooling to my forehead, hot and aching with want of sleep. The scenery through which we passed, crossing the Manhattan, giving views of the various inlets of the sound, diversified with gentlemen’s seats, at any other time would have excited an interest in me, now one’s thought or series of thoughts, with wanderings to home and my beloved ones, gave me no time for passing objects. I thought as we passed Harlem Station, it would never have done to have ventured there. Some of the places on the road were familiar to my recollection, having been known under happier circumstances.’

15 May 1849
‘Read the telegraphic verdict on the killed: “That the deceased persons came to their deaths by gun-shot wounds, the guns being fired by the military, by order of the civil authorities of New York and that the authorities were justified, under the existing circumstances, in ordering the military to fire upon the mob; and we further believe that if a larger number of policemen had been ordered out, the necessity of a resort to the use of the military might have been avoided.” ’

This article is a slightly revised version of one first published on 3 March 2013.