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BEFORE THE CURTAIN.
In the programme of our “ wide and universal theatre,” we read the outline of many entertainments to be presented to an eager public in the Year of Grace One Thousand Eight Hundred and Sixty, but with as little foreknowledge of what is positively in store for us as have the spectators who flock to the Haymarket or the Adelphi to see a previously unacted play. Like them we are more or less acquainted with the principal performers; we can predict, with tolerable certainty, the skilful acting of some, and give a shrewd guess at the failures of others; but in what particular passages the great tragedian will shine or the low comedy man eclipse himself
, is a question that can only be solved after the curtain, which is now about to be raised, has fallen.
The first piece to be performed is a play called “ The Congress.” The materials of the story are derived from Italy, the scene is laid in Paris, and the dramatis personæ are the representatives of every people in Europe, except those who are the most interested in making their
appearance. Something of the plot is known to us. It is an intricate one, and the author has the arduous task before him of being obliged to reconcile impossibilities. There are tyrannical old fathers, who have been forcibly dispossessed of their estates, yet promised restitution; there is a young and ardent lover, with several blooming brides all eager to throw themselves into his arms; there are numerous disappointed suitors; there is a real hero, such as the world in these latter days has seen but few of; there is a bandit from the Abruzzi, the villain, par excellence, of the piece; and, finally, there is the grand escamoteur, who has set all the wheels in motion but does not know
how to stop them, unless, indeed, the marvellous pamphlet “ Le Pape et le Congrès,' to which the name of M. de la Guerronière is attached, be the panacea for all the ills that Italy is heir to. If Louis Napoleon be the absolute master of the situation, which every one says he is, the pamphlet which expresses his will has settled the question. The posters circulated throughout Europe announced the first representation of “The Congress” for the 5th instant; but though the dresses and decorations and all the mise en scène were prepared, the cast of the play could not be completed in time, in consequence of the disputed claims of some of the actors to certain parts, and
the disinclination of others to make their appearance. These little difficulties have, however, been got over, and the 19th of this month is the day definitively fixed for the parties concerned to meet, seal, and sign, that being all which the French emperor requires of them.
A melodrama succeeds this comedy—if comedy it turn out, and not eventually a tragedy—and here we have a distinguished troupe engaged. The piece bears the high-sounding title of “The Cross and the Crescent,"—the locality is the north coast of Africa,--and the persons represented, on real horses, are the hidalgos of tawny Spain and the fiery sons of swarthy Morocco. The story, on the face of it, is as unintelligible as the story of most melodramas, unless we content ourselves with that derived from the fable of the Spaniard assigning to the Don the role of the quarrelsome wolf, and to the Moor that of the inoffensive lamb. Here, however, the parallel stops-for the fray begun, the showman's dilemma arises, and it becomes difficult to tell which is which. There will be a tremendous deal of prancing and curveting, no end to vaporous speeches; the Virgin will be appealed to on one side, the Prophet on the other; there will be a good deal of cutting and slashing, and perhaps a few unhacked rapiers; much powder will be wasted, a good many oaths expended, red fire ad libitum, and the whole affair, if diplomatic declarations mean anything—“a question to be asked”—will probably end in smoke. At all events, there will be a vast amount of bloodshed without any one being the better for it. Stay! One result there must infallibly be. The Spanish army will cover itself with glory!”—whether the Moors get the worst of it or not. But to be glorious in this wise is to fulfil the true purpose of melodrama.
Akin to this glittering production is the pantomime now getting ready for the Chinese waters. It bears the title of “ Harlequin Mandarin; or, the Willow-pattern in Danger.” The tricks and transformations are likely to be very numerous, hard knocks will abound, and the tumbling is expected to be in the loftiest style.
To descend to the lowest point in the dramatic scale, a farce, and not a very amusing one, is in preparation nearer home. It is to be called " The Reform Bill of 1860,” and the infinite jest which makes it farcical will, in all probability, be found to lie in the fact that the “bill” contains no “reform" worth mentioning. Such as it is, this piece is the great card of the Palmerston cabinet. It has long been underlined, and the parts distributed. The premier, course, has no more to do than cut the
very few jokes with which it will be sprinkled; Lord John has to pretend to be very much in earnest-a style of acting in which he is perfect--and Mr. Bright, who has already told us he will take anything he can get, even without the ballot, will be the “cheap Jack” of the entertainment, and make a vast display of wares “not vendible.”
The ministerial repertoire will not, however, be exhausted in the profitless farce of Reform. A serious drama is in rehearsal on the subject of “The National Defences.” Lord Palmerston's brotherin-law, Admiral Bowles, has lately taught us the most expeditious way of leaving our shores defenceless, and Lord Palmerston's commissioners have found out the most expensive mode of defending them, while Lord Palmerston's Chancellor of the Exchequer—the man of one expedient-encouraged by the Times, proposes to raise the ten millions necessary for putting our house in order by again increasing the income-tax, instead of having recourse to a loanthough the policy and justice of the latter measure are beyond all dispute. It is to be presumed that the works recommended for the protection of our arsenals and dockyards are intended to be permanent: why, then, should the present generation alone, who have quite enough to do to pay the existing income-tax, be saddled with all the cost? Situated as Europe is now, the contingency of war is not so remote as to justify a finance minister in anticipatmg his war resources upon every occasion. When the day of invasion arrives, augment the income tax to what extent you please and the people will cheerfully pay it; but if you wish the goose to go on laying her golden eggs, for the sake of common prudence leave her throat uncut while peace is still permitted! A propos of invasion, and the grand military spectacle which is being got up to prevent or render it abortive, there is one great reason for national encouragement which has not been sufficiently dwelt upon. It is commonly believed that, except in the memorable case cited by Sir Boyle Roche, mortals are not ubiquitous; yet this would seem to be an error, for the Volunteer Rifle Corps returns tell us that our evergreen premier, like Mrs. Malaprop’s Cerberus, is decidedly " three gentlemen'at once.” Lord Palmerston is at one and the same time a volunteer in Westminster, a volunteer at Southampton, and a volunteer at Tiverton. So active a man as Lord Palmerston has not put down his name without intending to serve, and therefore on three of our most vulnerable points we are safe. Should the enemy land in the west, Lord Palmerston is at the head of the riflemen of the borough he represents in Parliament; if the Solent be their point of attack, see how gallantly he marches forth from his ancestral home at Broadlands; and, supposing the metropolis assailed, what chance has the foe against the St. James's Rifles, with the indomitable premier to lead them on? Falstaff says of Mrs. Quickly, “A man knows not where to have her," but to those and they are many-who express the same doubt of Lord Palmerston, his lordship, pointing to his three suits of uniform, may reply, with the much-abused hostess of the Boar's Head, “ Any man knows where to have me.” All this, however, is before the curtain rises.
Having disposed of our pièces de résistance, let us see what
entremets remain for our discussion. And here we confine our. selves entirely to home matters, treating of those subjects which more legitimately than politics or at all events more pleasantlyfall under our consideration.
What is behind the curtain in respect of Art ? A determination on the part of the Royal Academy to take from that body the reproach of being the incubus of genius instead of its fostering protector, seems to be no longer doubtful. Already its portals expand for the admission of a larger number of Associates, and more liberal measures are on the tapis for the benefit of those members amongst “ The Forty" who, seeking retirement, are willing to leave the field open for younger men. These alterations are valuable, chiefly, however, as indications of measures of reform of greater amplitude. We are not amongst those who believe that genius is monopolised by the unrepresented, but it is quite time that the Art-franchise should be extended, if only to relieve the picture-loving public from the monotony of worn-out names and the iteration of complacent mediocrity. The annual Exhibition gives us here and there a diamond of purest water, but paste unfortunately, predominates. It is not enough to make competition general, if you neutralise its effect by arbitrary exclusion: let the Academy, therefore, consult its best interests by being unreservedly liberal.
The prospects of the Drama--the actual, not the hypotheticalare by no means of an encouraging nature. The retirement of Mr. Charles Kean from the management of the Princess's Theatre, is a blow to the London stage from which it will not readily recover. The learning, the skill, the taste, the talent, the unselfish perseverance of Mr. Kean, are qualities of the rarest combination, and we look in vain for his successor. To
this is not to disparage the laudable exertions of other managers who cater in their own way for the amusement of the public, but their sphere is limited to specialities which “come like shadows" and "so depart.” It seems to be the aim, now, of those who are considered the most successful dramatists, to emulate M. Scribe and Lope de Vega in the multiplicity of their productions and the rapidity with which they are written, but the resemblance goes no further.
Of literature we have higher expectations, for besides what we know of the silent labours of the most distinguished writers—Lord Macaulay and Mr. Carlyle being cited as examples—fresh names are being added every day to the long list of English authors, whose productions worthily sustain the intellectual reputation of the country. It would be hard, indeed, if this were not the case, for never, perhaps, has the cacoethes scribendi been so fully developed as at the present day. The mania for rushing into print assails all classes, and happy is the family that does not number an author among its members; but, notwithstanding the deluge of