Short Stories
All Titles

In Association with Amazon.com

Home > Authors Index > Browse all available works of Charles Lamb > Text of Old Actors (London Magazine, October, 1822)

An essay by Charles Lamb

The Old Actors (London Magazine, October, 1822)

Title:     The Old Actors (London Magazine, October, 1822)
Author: Charles Lamb [More Titles by Lamb]

I do not know a more mortifying thing than to be conscious of a foregone delight, with a total oblivion of the person and manner which conveyed it. In dreams I often stretch and strain after the countenance of Edwin, whom I once saw in Peeping Tom. I cannot catch a feature of him. He is no more to me than Nokes or Pinkethman. Parsons, and still more Dodd, were near being lost to me, till I was refreshed with their portraits (fine treat) the other day at Mr. Mathews's gallery at Highgate; which, with the exception of the Hogarth pictures, a few years since exhibited in Pall Mall, was the most delightful collection I ever gained admission to. There hang the players, in their single persons, and in grouped scenes, from the Restoration--Bettertons, Booths, Garricks, justifying the prejudices which we entertain for them--the Bracegirdles, the Mountforts, and the Oldfields, fresh as Cibber has described them--the Woffington (a true Hogarth) upon a couch, dallying and dangerous--the Screen Scene in Brinsley's famous comedy, with Smith and Mrs. Abingdon, whom I have not seen, and the rest, whom having seen, I see still there. There is Henderson, unrivalled in Comus, whom I saw at second hand in the elder Harley--Harley, the rival of Holman, in Horatio--Holman, with the bright glittering teeth in Lothario, and the deep paviour's sighs in Romeo--the jolliest person ("our son is fat") of any Hamlet I have yet seen, with the most laudable attempts (for a personable man) at looking melancholy--and Pope, the abdicated monarch of tragedy and comedy, in Harry the Eighth and Lord Townley. There hang the two Aickins, brethren in mediocrity--Wroughton, who in Kitely seemed to have forgotten that in prouder days he had personated Alexander--the specious form of John Palmer, with the special effrontery of Bobby--Bensley, with the trumpet-tongue, and little Quick (the retired Dioclesian of Islington) with his squeak like a Bart'lemew fiddle. There are fixed, cold as in life, the immovable features of Moody, who, afraid of o'erstepping nature, sometimes stopped short of her--and the restless fidgetiness of Lewis, who, with no such fears, not seldom leaped o' the other side. There hang Farren and Whitfield, and Burton and Phillimore, names of small account in those times, but which, remembered now, or casually recalled by the sight of an old play-bill, with their associated recordations, can "drown an eye unused to flow." There too hangs (not far removed from them in death) the graceful plainness of the first Mrs. Pope, with a voice unstrung by age, but which, in her better days, must have competed with the silver tones of Barry himself, so enchanting in decay do I remember it--of all her lady parts exceeding herself in the Lady Quakeress (there earth touched heaven!) of O'Keefe, when she played it to the "merry cousin" of Lewis--and Mrs. Mattocks, the sensiblest of viragos--and Miss Pope, a gentlewoman ever, to the verge of ungentility, with Churchill's compliment still burnishing upon her gay Honeycomb lips. There are the two Bannisters, and Sedgwick, and Kelly, and Dignum (Diggy), and the bygone features of Mrs. Ward, matchless in Lady Loverule; and the collective majesty of the whole Kemble family, and (Shakspeare's woman) Dora Jordan; and, by her, _two Antics_, who in former and in latter days have chiefly beguiled us of our griefs; whose portraits we shall strive to recall, for the sympathy of those who may not have had the benefit of viewing the matchless Highgate Collection.


O for a "slip-shod muse," to celebrate in numbers, loose and shambling as himself, the merits and the person of Mr. Richard Suett, comedian!

Richard, or rather Dicky Suett--for so in his lifetime he was best pleased to be called, and time hath ratified the appellation--lieth buried on the north side of the cemetery of Holy Paul, to whose service his nonage and tender years were set apart and dedicated. There are who do yet remember him at that period--his pipe clear and harmonious. He would often speak of his chorister days, when he was "cherub Dicky."

What clipped his wings, or made it expedient that he should exchange the holy for the profane state; whether he had lost his good voice (his best recommendation to that office), like Sir John, "with hallooing and singing of anthems;" or whether he was adjudged to lack something, even in those early years, of the gravity indispensable to an occupation which professeth to "commerce with the skies"--I could never rightly learn; but we find him, after the probation of a twelvemonth or so, reverting to a secular condition, and become one of us.

I think he was not altogether of that timber, out of which cathedral seats and sounding boards are hewed. But if a glad heart--kind and therefore glad--be any part of sanctity, then might the robe of Motley, with which he invested himself with so much humility after his deprivation, and which he wore so long with so much blameless satisfaction to himself and to the public, be accepted for a surplice--his white stole, and _albe_.

The first fruits of his secularization was an engagement upon the boards of Old Drury, at which theatre he commenced, as I have been told, with adopting the manner of Parsons in old men's characters. At the period in which most of us knew him, he was no more an imitator than he was in any true sense himself imitable.

He was the Robin Good-Fellow of the stage. He came in to trouble all things with a welcome perplexity, himself no whit troubled for the matter. He was known, like Puck, by his note--_Ha! Ha! Ha!_--sometimes deepening to _Ho! Ho! Ho!_ with an irresistible accession, derived perhaps remotely from his ecclesiastical education, foreign to his prototype, of--_O La!_ Thousands of hearts yet respond to the chuckling _O La!_ of Dicky Suett, brought back to their remembrance by the faithful transcript of his friend Mathews's mimicry. The "force of nature could no further go." He drolled upon the stock of these two syllables richer than the cuckoo.

Care, that troubles all the world, was forgotten in his composition. Had he had but two grains (nay, half a grain) of it, he could never have supported himself upon those two spider's strings, which served him (in the latter part of his unmixed existence) as legs. A doubt or a scruple must have made him totter, a sigh have puffed him down; the weight of a frown had staggered him, a wrinkle made him lose his balance. But on he went, scrambling upon those airy stilts of his, with Robin Good-Fellow, "thorough brake, thorough briar," reckless of a scratched face or a torn doublet.

Shakspeare foresaw him, when he framed his fools and jesters. They have all the true Suett stamp, a loose gait, a slippery tongue, this last the ready midwife to a without-pain-delivered jest; in words light as air, venting truths deep as the centre; with idlest rhymes tagging conceit when busiest, singing with Lear in the tempest, or Sir Toby at the buttery hatch.

Jack Bannister and he had the fortune to be more of personal favourites with the town than any actors before or after. The difference, I take it, was this:--Jack was more _beloved_ for his sweet, good-natured, moral, pretensions. Dicky was more _liked_ for his sweet, good-natured, no pretensions at all. Your whole conscience stirred with Bannister's performance of Walter in the Children in the Wood--how dearly beautiful it was!--but Dicky seemed like a thing, as Shakspeare says of Love, too young to know what conscience is. He put us into Vesta's days. Evil fled before him--not as from Jack, as from an antagonist,--but because it could not touch him, any more than a cannon-ball a fly. He was delivered from the burthen of that death; and, when Death came himself, not in metaphor, to fetch Dicky, it is recorded of him by Robert Palmer, who kindly watched his exit, that he received the last stroke, neither varying his accustomed tranquillity, nor tune, with the simple exclamation, worthy to have been recorded in his epitaph--_O La!--O La! Bobby!_


Not many nights ago we had come home from seeing this extraordinary performer in Cockletop; and when we retired to our pillow, his whimsical image still stuck by us, in a manner as to threaten sleep. In vain we tried to divest ourselves of it by conjuring up the most opposite associations. We resolved to be serious. We raised up the gravest topics of life; private misery, public calamity. All would not do.

--There the antic sate
Mocking our state--

his queer visnomy--his bewildering costume--all the strange things which he had raked together--his serpentine rod swagging about in his pocket--Cleopatra's tear, and the rest of his relics--O'Keefe's wild farce, and _his_ wilder commentary--till the passion of laughter, like grief in excess, relieved itself by its own weight, inviting the sleep which in the first instance it had driven away.

But we were not to escape so easily. No sooner did we fall into slumbers, than the same image, only more perplexing, assailed us in the shape of dreams. Not one Munden, but five hundred, were dancing before us, like the faces which, whether you will or no, come when you have been taking opium--all the strange combinations, which this strangest of all strange mortals ever shot his proper countenance into, from the day he came commissioned to dry up the tears of the town for the loss of the now almost forgotten Edwin. O for the power of the pencil to have fixed them when we awoke! A season or two since there was exhibited a Hogarth gallery. We do not see why there should not be a Munden gallery. In richness and variety the latter would not fall far short of the former.

There is one face of Farley, one face of Knight, one face (but what a one it is!) of Liston; but Munden has none that you can properly pin down, and call _his_. When you think he has exhausted his battery of looks, in unaccountable warfare with your gravity, suddenly he sprouts out an entirely new set of features, like Hydra. He is not one, but legion. Not so much a comedian, as a company. If his name could be multiplied like his countenance, it might fill a play-bill. He, and he alone, literally _makes faces_: applied to any other person, the phrase is a mere figure, denoting certain modifications of the human countenance. Out of some invisible wardrobe he dips for faces, as his friend Suett used for wigs, and fetches them out as easily. We should not be surprised to see him some day put out the head of a river horse; or come forth a pewit, or lapwing, some feathered metamorphosis.

We have seen this gifted actor in Sir Christopher Curry--in Old Dornton--diffuse a glow of sentiment which has made the pulse of a crowded theatre beat like that of one man; when he has come in aid of the pulpit, doing good to the moral heart of a people. We have seen some faint approaches to this sort of excellence in other players. But in what has been truly denominated "the sublime of farce," Munden stands out as single and unaccompanied as Hogarth. Hogarth, strange to tell, had no followers. The school of Munden began, and must end, with himself.

Can any man _wonder_, like him? can any man _see ghosts_, like him? or _fight with his own shadow_--sessa--as he does in that strangely-neglected thing, the Cobler of Preston--where his alternations from the Cobler to the Magnifico, and from the Magnifico to the Cobler, keep the brain of the spectator in as wild a ferment, as if some Arabian Night were being acted before him, or as if Thalaba were no tale! Who like him can throw, or ever attempted to throw, a supernatural interest over the commonest daily-life objects? A table, or a joint stool, in his conception, rises into a dignity equivalent to Cassiopeia's chair. It is invested with constellatory importance. You could not speak of it with more deference, if it were mounted into the firmament. A beggar in the hands of Michael Angelo, says Fuseli, rose the Patriarch of Poverty. So the gusto of Munden antiquates and ennobles what it touches. His pots and his ladles are as grand and primal as the seething-pots and hooks seen in old prophetic vision. A tub of butter, contemplated by him, amounts to a Platonic idea. He understands a leg of mutton in its quiddity. He stands wondering, amid the commonplace materials of life, like primaeval man, with the sun and stars about him.


[The end]
Charles Lamb's essay: Old Actors (london Magazine, October, 1822)