Re-imagining Cardenio

Prologues and epilogues

March 31, 2011

My indefatigable Stage Manager, Alix Harvey-Thompson, has spent her Saturday up at Collingdale at the British Library Newspaper Museum, scanning back copies of the London Daily Post, and the Evening Journal for 1727 on Microfiche. She has brought back photocopies of the relevant pages. She has tracked down the London Daily Post announcing the first performance of Double Falshood, on Wednesday December 13th 1727:

'Never acted before
By His Majesty's Company of Comedians
At the Theatre in Drury Lane, this present Wednesday, a play called Double Falshood; Or, The Distrest Lovers. Written originally by Shakespear. The principal parts to be performed by Mr Wilks, Mr Mills, Mr Williams; Mr Corey, Mr Harper, Mr Griffin, Mr Norris, Mrs Porter, and Mrs Booth. With proper decorations.'

The rest of the page conjures a brief snap shot of the Georgian era. There's a notice of an item lost on the Woodford Stage Coach: 'a wicker basket containing a small bandbox tied with packthread' with the appeal: 'If the said box be brought and delivered at the Bar at the Dolphin Tavern in Tower Street, the person who delivers the same shall have four guineas and no question asked.' It sounds like the start of a novel by Henry Fielding. I wonder what was in the box.

Meanwhile on that same Wednesday, at the new Theatre in the Haymarket there seems to be competition from a group of French acrobats: 'The famous Mr Francisco will dance on the stiff rope with fetters at his feet. Mr La Fevre will perform equilibres, and Signor Guilmarine will perform several surprising things the like never yet seen in England.'

But Alix has also found a copy of the first night review of Theobald's play in the Daily Post. This makes the whole thing seem so real and immediate. I can imagine Theobald rushing out to buy his copy of the paper, or reading it in his local ordinary in Great Russell Street. Scanning the page, among the Port-News we read that the King George packet boat had arrived in Falmouth from Lisbon; Mrs Vanderbank, the King's tapestry maker had died, while Mr Cheesdon, on being appointed Her Majesty's surgeon, 'had the honour to kiss the Queen's hand.' And then the following:

'Last Night was acted an original play of William Shakespeare's in Drury-lane, where the audience was very numerous and the most remarkable attention through the whole. Mr Williams supplied, not unsuccessfully, Mr Booth's part; Mrs Booth and Mrs Porter most amiably distinguished themselves; Mr Wilks shone with his usual spirit in the Prologue; and Mrs Oldfield even exceeded herself with the highest gracefulness in the epilogue.'

No mention of Theobald again, but Wilks (who played the villain, Fernando, called Henriquez in Double Falshood) had clearly charmed the house shining 'with his usual spirit' in the prologue. It's a jingoistic piece of verse, in heroic couplets, all about Shakespeare's genius:

'Let Britons boast
The glorious birth, and eager, strive who most
Shall celebrate his verse; for while we raise
Trophies of fame to him, ourselves we praise:
Display the talents of a British mind,
Where all is great, free ,open, unconfin'd'

He goes on (at length) and then rings out:

'O, could the Bard, revisiting our light,
Receive these honours done his shade this tonight,
How would he bless the scene this age displays
Transcending his Eliza's golden days
When great Augustus fills the British throne,
And his loved consort makes the muse her own,
How would he joy to see fair merit's claim
Thus answered in his own reviving fame!'

The prologue also gets in a respectful bow to the new monarch; King George II; crowned two months before at Westminster, with a new coronation anthem composed by Handel. Zadok the Priest has been played at every coronation since.

Finally the prologue imagines Shakespeare crying out with gratitude and pride:

'Oblivion I forgive
This my last child to latest times shall live:
Lost to the world, well for the birth it stayed;
To this auspicious era well delayed.'

It's a pretty neat device to present Double Falshood as a child lost to the world like Perdita, and only now recovered, to the gratitude of Shakespeare himself. Indeed it suggests that the lost play had deliberately waited until now, to this reign and this era to be re-born. Quite a clever tactic!

The notice tells us that the celebrated actress Mrs Oldfield delivered the epilogue. And then far from celebrating the Anglo-Spanish connections between Cervantes and Shakespeare, the Epilogue finishes with the same jingoistic strain which the Prologue boasted, spiced with a dash of xenophobia:

'Tis yours to crown the Bard, whose magic strain
Could charm the heroes of that glorious reign
Which humbled in the dust the pride of Spain.'

The House of Hanover had allied with France and Prussia, at this period, and England was drawn into a short war with Spain between 1726-7. Hence the Spain-bashing.

Nevertheless it is quite another neat tactic, to close the play by telling the audience that it is up to them if they choose to celebrate the genius of the Bard, because he inspired anti-Spanish sentiments in his audience.

In rehearsal we laugh at what sort of a prologue and epilogue we would write today, but in a crowded tube train on the Victoria Line on the way home, I find myself pondering the opportunity...

by Greg Doran  |  1 comment

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Apr 15, 8:16pm
Norman Fry

I had the pleasure of seeing the opening night of Cardenio on Thursday night at the Swan. It was a great performance and enhanced by the Spanish musicians and singers.

Please could you correct the 2nd line, the Newspaper library is at Colindale

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