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Documents of Interest - Theatre in Victoria, c. 1850

In the 1850s, Mrs. E.C. Smyth described a production of Shakespeare's Macbeth in Victoria, British Columbia. Her account provides a humorous look at early Canadian theatre.

"Outside the theatre it was the custom in the evening for the town-crier, who was also the public wag, to ring his bell at intervals by way of proclamation to those whom perhaps his voice could not well reach, that the doors were open; while for the benefit of those within easier hearing he would give forth, first in English and then in Indian dialect, a verbal notice of the evening's programme, adorning both versions with such alterations and additions as suited his fertile imagination. The roars of laughter from the white population, coupled with the broad grins and guttural chuckles of the duskier folk who crowded about him, were the surest evidence that his wit met with hearty appreciation. The man, dead now many years, was indeed a born humourist, and, if a report spoke truly, had in the Old Country held a far better position than he did in the New. But then society in the colonies is apt to be upside-down.

...the Victoria theatre could now and then turn out some very fair performances: the 'Colleen Bawn' was once creditably got up, and another time I saw the 'Octoroon' there far better done than, only a year or two later, I beheld it at the Princess's in London, especially as regards the all-important parts of the Indian, Old Pete, McCloskey and Salem Scudder. On another occasion, the Charles Keans and their party visited us, and those, of course, were, dramatically speaking, the palmiest of eras. But about the time when the acting company essayed, with more ambition than judgement, to get up 'Macbeth,' the theatre, like the colony, had fallen upon less flourishing days, and the tragic muse was more than ever disposed to set 'laughter holding both its sides.'

...The house was a good one, scarcely an empty place to be found, not that that was very wonderful, since a piece in which there is plenty of bloodshed and a liberal display of the mediaeval bowie-knife cannot fail to be attractive; the only drawback in the eyes of a genuine Far-Westerling being perhaps that in Macbeth's time the revolver was not invented.

The curtain having ascended, a view was disclosed - so appropriate to a Scottish story! - of some tropical trees and a cotton plantation which had recently done service in the aforesaid 'Octoroon.' Behind these appeared an equally appropriate background representing a door, and on each side of it a nineteenth century parlour-window draped with nineteenth century hideous claret-coloured curtains; a tout-ensemble which surely on the part of a scenic artist hailing from a country whose citizens claim the proud privilege of doing as they please was a preposterously free rendering of the 'blasted heath.'

But, undeterred by misgivings as to adequacy of material or dread of anachronisms, the players began and continued bravely enough; and the immortal tragedy grew more farcical at every fresh scene. With the exception of the Thane of Cawdor himself and his energetic spouse, both of whose parts were creditably sustained, the other performers were ludicrously unequal to the roles they attempted; while perhaps the hardest and frequently the most audible of all fell to the prompter's share. It is almost superfluous to add that these mediaeval British worthies and unworthies discoursed, as we felt confident they would, every one in the peculiar nasal tone and embellished (?) Shakespeare's English with several of the peculiar expressions of the subjects of the then 'king of the kingless land,' Abraham Lincoln; neither perhaps will the reader be surprised when told that the costumes of the theatrical troupe were of the fashion of all ages and of no age in particular, least of all of that supposed to be represented.

Tolerably hard work it must have been for others than the prompter, as for instance, for King Duncan, who, after he had at last been sent to his account, rose again, Phoenix-like, from his ashes, and reappeared, first as a supplementary witch, and later as the somewhat prosy and scarcely competent physician who moralizes over the sleep-walking Queen. Of the three 'weird sisters,' one, unmistakably a brother, bearded beyond all doubt, six feet in height, and in a private life a fine bass singer, was evidently not well up in his part; but wholly undaunted by what to anyone else would have been a serious consideration, he leant comfortably up against the tropical trees during the singing scenes, crossed his legs, and, with a dandy spy-glass screwed beneath on brow, read or rather sang off the score held openly in his hand, testifying meanwhile a lazy indifference to time and tune which was scarcely pleasing to his auditory. Report said he had been hired at the eleventh hour and at an amount of dollars, cents perhaps, not sufficiently remunerative, in his own estimation, to warrant the bestowal of much trouble upon the study of the character allotted to him.

When Duncan arrived at the castle within whose walls his doom awaited him, and spoke of the noble prospect before his eyes, audible titters among the audience interrupted his speech, for nothing in the shape of a view was in sight save a remarkable back-scene of much-tattered and very extraordinary mountains and water, and the everlasting claret-draperied parlour-windows and door split down the centre now and doing duty as wings. The banqueting scene was supremely ridiculous. Banquet indeed it was none; for the two long tables set out upon the stage were bare both of viands and vessels; and before them sat, eating nothing whatever, and looking as if they had not the faintest idea how to dispose of their arms and legs, 'all our friends,' consisting exactly of two couples to each table, every one of whom remained throughout the whole stirring scene in a state of almost statuesque unconcern, never turning their heads even, and leaving the expression of different emotions entirely to the principal characters. Our noble lord, however, who occupied a very conspicuous front place, did give some sign of life by peeling a apple which he took out of his pocket. He succeeded in cutting what children call a 'long peel,' of which feat he appeared to be not a little vain, for while Macbeth was in an agony of terror at the ghost, His Majesty's unsympathetic guest held at length his long peel, and, with evident satisfaction, dangled it until it untimely snapped in two.

But perhaps the climax of fun was reached in the incantation scene, where the shades of Banquo and of the kings his descendants pass over the stage before Macbeth's eyes. There were but three actors to personate the seven monarchs, so that when they had every one stalked across it became necessary for them to crawl on all fours behind the back-scene - which was in too dilapidated a condition to have concealed them in the least had they stood upright - and reappear until the number was complete, when the last man carried in his fingers a small hand-mirror of the sort which ladies use to ascertain if their 'back hair' be properly arranged. Moreover those royal folks, either through poverty of theatrical wardrobe or by way of making themselves look spectral, were each enveloped from head to foot in a sheet; and during the final excursion behind the back-scene, the sheet belonging to one of the party caught upon a corner or a nail, when, after many violent struggles to get free - amid which the halting performance stopped short and dead silence took possession of the stage - he left half the covering behind him and reappeared in tatters above and ordinary tweed coat and trousers below. Now as the ragged back scene - the same which the late King Duncan has so unblushingly gone into ecstasies over - quite failed to conceal the struggling actor, this was altogether too much for the gravity of the audience, who broke into a perfect shout of uncontrollable laughter.

I have never see 'Macbeth' performed since that day; and, to tell the truth, I hardly care to do so. It is not so much heterodoxy in taste that deters me as cowardice. In the midst of some tragical scene, I might, were I present, suddenly bethink me of the play as I beheld it in the Far West, and involuntarily break out into unseasonable mirth..."

Sources: Chad Evans. Frontier Theatre. Sono Nis Press. Victoria, 1983.

N. de Bertand Lugrin. The Pioneer Women of Vancouver Island. The Women's Canadian Club, Victoria, 1928.

Last updated 2020-07-28