OUR walk from Botallack Mine to St. Ives, led us almost invariably between moors and hills on one side, and cliffs and sea on the other; and displayed some of the dreariest views that we had yet beheld in Cornwall. About nightfall, we halted for a short time at a place which was certainly not calculated to cheer the traveller along his onward way. Fancy three or four large, square, comfortless-looking, shut-up houses, all apparently uninhabited; fancy some half-dozen miserable little cottages near the houses, with the nasal notes of a Methodist hymn pouring disastrously through the open door of one of them; fancy the largest of the large buildings being called an inn, but making up no beds, because nobody ever stopped to sleep there: fancy in the kitchen of this inn a sickly little girl, and a middle-aged, melancholy woman, the first staring despondingly on a wasting fire, the second setting before the stranger a piece of bread, three eggs, and some sour porter, corked down in an earthenware jar, as all that her larder and cellar afforded; fancy an old, grim, dark church, with two or three lads leaning against the church-yard wall, looking out together in gloomy silence on a solitary high road; fancy a thin, slow rain falling, a cold twilight just changing into darkness, a surrounding landscape wild, barren, and shelterless - fancy all this, and you may form some idea of the impressions produced on my companion and myself when we found ourselves in the village of Morvah.
Late that night, we got to the large sea-port town of St. Ives; and stayed there two or three days to look at the pilchard fishery, which was then proceeding with all the bustle and activity denoting the commencement of a good season. Leaving St. Ives, on our way up the northern coast, we now passed through the central part of the mining districts of Cornwall. Chimneys and engine-houses chequered the surface of the landscape; the roads glittered with metallic particles; the walls at their sides were built with crystallized stones; towns showed a sudden increase in importance; villages grew large and populous; inns disappeared, and hotels arose in their stead; people became less curious to know who we were, stared at us less, gossiped with us less; gave us information, but gave us nothing more - no long stories, no invitations to stop and smoke a pipe, no hospitable offers of bed and board. All that we saw and heard tended to convince us that we had left the picturesque and the primitive, with the streets of Looe and the fishermen at the Land's End; and had got into the commercial part of the county, among sharp, prosperous, business-like people - it was like walking out of a painter's studio into a merchant's counting-house!
As we were travelling, like the renowned Doctor Syntax, in search of the picturesque, we hurried through this populous and highly-civilized region of Cornwall, as rapidly as possible. I doubt much whether we should not have passed as unceremoniously through the large town of Redruth - the capital city of the mining districts - as we passed through several towns and villages before it, had not our attention been attracted and our departure delayed by a bill, printed on rainbow-coloured paper, and pasted up in the most conspicuous part of the market-place.
The bill set forth, that "the beautiful drama of The Curate's Daughter," was to be performed at night, in the "unrivalled Sans Pareil Theatre," by "the most talented company in England," before "the most discerning audience in the world." As far as we were individually concerned, this theatrical announcement was remarkably tempting and well-timed. We were now within one day's journey of Piran Round, the famous amphitheatre where the old Cornish Miracle Plays used to be performed. Anything connected with the stage was, therefore, a subject of particular interest in our eyes. The bill before us seemed to offer a curious opportunity of studying the dramatic tastes of the modern Cornish, on the very day before we were about to speculate on the dramatic tastes of the ancient Cornish, among the remains of their public theatre. Such an occasion was too favourable to be neglected; we ordered our beds at Redruth, and joined the "discerning audience" assembled to sit in judgment on "The Curate's Daughter."
The Sans Pareil Theatre was not of that order of architecture in which outward ornament is studied - there was nothing "florid" about it; canvas, ropes, scaffolding-poles, and old boards, threw a fine character of Saxon simplicity over the whole structure. Admitted within, we turned instinctively towards the stage. On each side of the proscenium boards was painted a knight in full armour, with swollen calves, weak knees, and an immense spear. Tallow candles, stuck round two hoops, threw a brilliant light on the green curtain, in front of which sat an orchestra of four musicians, playing on a trombone, an ophicleide, a clarionet, and a fiddle, as loudly as they could - the artist on the trombone, especially, performing prodigies of blowing, though he had not room enough to develop the whole length of his instrument. Every now and then great excitement was created among the expectant audience by the vehement ringing of a bell behind the scenes, and by the occasional appearance of a youth who gravely snuffed the candles all round, with a skill and composure highly creditable to him, considering the pertinacity with which he was stared at by everybody while he pursued his occupation.
At last, the bell was rung furiously for the twentieth time; the curtain drew up, and the beautiful drama of "The Curate's Daughter," began.
Our sympathies were excited at the outset - we beheld a lady-like woman who answered to the name of "Grace;" and an old gentleman, dressed in dingy black, who personated her father, the Curate; and was, I reluctantly confess, utterly drunk. There was no mistaking the cause of the fixed leer in the reverend gentleman's eye; of the slow swaying in the reverend gentleman's gait; of the gruff huskiness in the reverend gentleman's elocution. It appeared that a pendent law-suit, and the absence of his daughter Fanny in London, combined to make him uneasy in his mind just at present. But he was by no means so comprehensible on this subject as could be desired; in fact he spoke through his nose, put in and left out his hs in the wrong places, and involved himself in an inextricable confusion of parentheses whenever he spoke at any length. It was not until the entrance of his daughter, Fanny (just arrived from London: nobody knew why or wherefore), that he grew more emphatic and intelligible. Then, after giving his children his blessing and embracing them both at once, he affectionately declared, that his "daughters were the h'all on which his h'all depended - that they would watch h'over his 'ale autumn; and that whatever happened they must always trust in heabben's obdipotent power!"
Grateful for this clerical advice, Fanny goes into the garden to gather her parent some flowers; but immediately returns shrieking, and followed by a Highwayman with a cocked-hat, mustachios, bandit's ringlets, a scarlet hunting-coat, and buff boots. This gentleman has had the extraordinary politeness - although a perfect stranger - to give Miss Fanny a kiss in the garden; conduct for which the Curate fiercely curses him, in the strongest possible language. Being apparently a quiet and orderly character, the Highwayman replies by beginning a handsome apology, when he is interrupted by the abrupt entrance of another personage, who orders him (rather late in the day) to "let go his holt, and beware how he lays his brutal touch on the form of innocence !" This new-comer, as the parson informs us, is "good h'Adam Marle, the teacher of the village school" - and a pattern to teachers he appears to be. He is a very short man, dressed in a high-crowned modern hat, with a fringed vandyck collar drooping over his back and shoulders, a modern frock-coat, buttoned tight at the waist, and a pair of jack-boots of the period of James the Second. We see but little of him in the first scene; for he follows the penitent Highwayman out, lecturing him as he goes. No sooner are their backs turned, than a waggoner, in a clean smockfrock and high-lows, comes in with an offer of a situation in London for Fanny, which the unsuspicious Curate greedily accepts. It is soon confided to the audience that this waggoner is a depraved villain, who is in the employ of another depraved villain (Colonel Chartress himself), who has commissioned a third depraved (female) villain to lure Fanny from virtue and the country, to vice and the metropolis. By the time the plot has "thickened" thus far, the scene changes, and we get to London at once.
We now see the Curate, Chartress's female accomplice, Fanny, and the waggoner, all standing in a row, across the stage. The Curate is just lifting up his hands to bless the company, when Colonel Chartress (dressed in an old naval uniform, with an opera hat of the year 1800), somewhat prematurely enters, followed by the Highwayman, who has relapsed from penitence to guilt, and has determined to supplant Chartress in the favour of Miss Fanny. These two seize each other by the throat; a tremendous shouting, scuffling, and screaming ensues; the Curate clasping his daughter round the waist, frantically elevates his walking-stick in the air, apparently with the intention of giving her a good thrashing; and the curtain falls down with a bang, on the crisis of act the first.
In act the second, the first scene was described in the bills, as Temple Bar by moonlight; but - I presume by a mistake of the scene-shifters - the High Street, Newcastle did duty on this occasion for Temple Bar. The person who now confronted us, was "good h' Adam Marle." The paint was all washed off his face; his immense spread of collar looked grievously in want of washing; and he leaned languidly on an oaken stick. He had been walking - he informed us - through the streets of London for six consecutive days and nights, without sustenance, in search of Miss Fanny, who has disappeared since the skirmish at the end of act the first, and has never been heard of since. Mr. Marle further confided to us, that he was madly attached to Fanny; that he knew "he was nothink" to her; and that, under existing circumstances, he felt inclined to rest himself on a door step. Just as he has comfortably settled down, the valet of the villain Chartress passes by; and, being drunk, communicates all his master's private affairs to "h'Adam." It appears that the gallant Colonel has carried off Miss Fanny, has then got tired of her, and has coolly handed her over to a Jew, in part payment of "a little bill" Having ascertained this Jew's address, the indefatigable Marle starts off at once to rescue the Curate's daughter, or die in the attempt.
The next scene discloses Fanny, sitting conscience-stricken and inconsolable, in a red polka jacket and white muslin slip. No sooner does Mr. Marle enter to lecture and reclaim, than she stops his mouth with a scream, exclaims, "Cuss me, h'Adam! cuss me!" and rushes out. "H' Adam" speaks a despondent soliloquy, and follows with his handkerchief to his eyes; but, while he has been talking to himself, our old friend the Highwayman has been on the alert. Fanny, having fallen fainting in the street, he passes by at the critical moment, picks her up, and hands her over for safe keeping to his "pals;" these "pals" being represented by the trombone and opheicleide players from the orchestra, and by the "Miss Grace," of act first, disguised as a bad character, in a cloak, with a red pocket-handkerchief over her head. Miss Fanny, in the mean time, recovering among the "pals," and finding what sort of company she has about her, rushes out a second time into the street, falls fainting a second time on the pavement, and is gallantly picked up on this occasion by Colonel Chartress; who, it would appear, has changed his mind, and doubts whether he has quite done with the young lady yet. But, before he can get clear off with his prize, the indefatigable villain of a Highwayman, and the indefatigable moralist, Marle, rush in together, assaulting Chartress, assaulting each other, assaulting everybody. Fanny falls fainting a third time in the street, and before we can find out who is the third person who picks her up, the curtain descends in the midst of the catastrophe, and the clarionet and fiddle strike up a polka to keep curiosity alive, and prepare the audience for the death and destruction, the fighting and cursing which are to come in the last act.
Act third is opened by the heroine, still injured, still inconsolable, and still clad in the polka jacket and white slip. She is a very nice little woman, this heroine, with a melodious, genteel-comedy-voice, trim aneles, and a habit of catching her breath in the most pathetic manner, at least a dozen times in the course of one soliloquy. While she is still occupied in assuring us that she is the most forlorn and miserable woman on the face of the earth, she is suddenly interrupted by the entrance of no less a person than the Curate himself. We have seen nothing of the reverend gentleman throughout the second act; but "h'Adam" has casually informed us, that his time has been passed at his parsonage, "sittun with his 'ed between his knees, sobbun!" Having now got tired of this slightly gymnastic method of indulging in parental grief, he has set forth to seek his lost daughter, and has accidentally stopped at the very inn where she has taken refuge. Nothing can be more piteous than his present appearance; he is considerably more drunk than when we last beheld him, and is proportionally more grimly dignified in his manners, and more infinitely indefinite in his mode of expressing himself. A streak of burnt cork running down each side of his nose, shows us how deeply grief has increased the wrinkles of age; and our pity for him reaches its climax when he casts his clerical hat on the floor, drops drowsily into a chair, and begins to pray thus: "Oh heabben ! hear a solemn and a solid prayer - hear a solemn heart who wants to embrace his darling Fanny!"
Meanwhile, the lost daughter is hiding behind the forlorn father's chair; an awful and convenient darkness being thrown on the stage by the introduction of a plank between the actors and the tallow candles. In this striking situation, Miss Fanny tells her own story, and pleads her own cause as a stranger, under disguise of the darkness. Her first advances being rather severely received by the reverend gentleman - who never turns round to see who it is that is speaking to him, and has not, therefore, the least idea that it is his own daughter - Fanny rushes off in despair, without discovering herself; and the Parson, forgetting to take away his hat with him, staggers out at the opposite side to continue his journey, uttering as he goes the following profound moral observation: - "No soul so lost to Nature, but must be lost eternally - my 'art is broken!"
The next moment, we are startled by a long and elaborate trampling of feet behind the scenes, and the villain, Chartress, enters with a run, hotly pursued by "good h' Adam Marle." Adam loquitur: - " Stay, ruffian, stay! Enquiring for Chartress at the bar of this inn, I found indeed that you was the very identical. You foul, venimous, treacherous, voluptuous liar, where is the un'appy Fanny? where is the victim of your prey? - Ha! 'oary-'edded ruffian, I have yer!" (Collars Chartress.) "But no! I will not strike yer; I will drag yer!" And, thereupon, Mr. Marle proceeds to exemplify the peculiar distinction in the science of assault, implied in his last words, by hauling Chartress all round the stage. At the second turn the Colonel loses his temper, murderously snaps a pistol in "h' Adam's" face, and then rushes out. The valiant Marle starts, frowns, pauses, laughs fiercely, exclaims, - "The villain 'as missed!" and follows in pursuit.
In the interim, Miss Fanny has fallen fainting, for the fourth time, in the street; has been picked up by a benevolent "washerwoman," who happened to be passing by at the moment; has been conveyed to the said "washerwoman's" lodgings; and now appears before us, despoiled, at last, of all the glories of the red polka; enveloped from head to foot in clouds of white muslin, and dying with frightful rapidity in an arm-chair. In the next and last scene, all that remains to represent the unhappy heroine, is a coffin decently covered with a white sheet. With slow and funereal steps, the Curate, Miss Grace, "h' Adam," the Highwayman, and the "venimous and voluptuous liar," Chartress, approach to weep over it. The Curate has gone raving mad since we saw him last; his wig is set on wrong side foremost; the ends of his clerical cravat float wildly, a yard long at least over his shoulders; his eyes roll in frenzy; he faints at the sight of the coffin; recovers convulsively, and places Marle's hand in the hand of Miss Grace (telling him that now one daughter is dead, nothing is left for him but to marry the other); and then suddenly falls flat on his back, with a thump that shakes the stage and makes the audience start unanimously. Marie - well bred and respectable to the last - politely offers his arm to Grace; and pointing to the coffin, asks Chartress, reproachfully, whether that is not his work. The Colonel takes off his opera hat, raises his hand to his eyes, and doggedly answers, "Indeed, it is!" The Tableau thus formed, is completed by the Highwayman, the coffin, and the defunct Curate; and the curtain falls to slow music.
Such was the plot of this remarkable dramatic work, exactly as I took it down in the theatre, between the Acts; noting also in my pocket-book, such scraps of dialogue as I have presented to the reader, while they fell from the actors' lips. There were plenty of comic scenes in the play which I leave unmentioned; for their humour was of the dreariest, and their morality of the lowest order that can possibly be conceived. I am afraid I shall not be considered as reporting very favourably of the critical taste of the modern Cornish in dramatic matters, when I state that the "Curate's Daughter" was attentively, nay, eagerly listened to; and was, evidently, considered a remarkably impressive and interesting play, by an audience which, though chiefly composed of the humbler classes, contained a very fair proportion of respectably dressed persons. The necessity of teaching the lower orders of London some appreciation of common sense and common propriety in their dramatic amusements, by gradually elevating their drama above the utter moral and literary degradation to which it has now fallen, has been already insisted on by one who is essentially the people's author. Of the importance of the question raised by Mr. Dickens, no one can doubt who has ever visited any of the low minor theatres of London, or who recognises the power which the stage possesses, for good or evil, over those especially whom neither pulpit nor printing press can hope to attract. I can only say, as the result of my own experience at Redruth, that if dramatic reforms are ever attempted in the dramatic purlieus of the metropolis, there would be no harm in extending the experiment even as far as the locomotive stage of Cornwall. Good plays are good missionaries; and, like missionaries, let them travel to teach.
And now, having seen enough of the modern drama in Cornwall, without waiting for the songs, the dances, and the farces which are to follow the "Curate's Daughter," let us go on to Piranzabuloe and look at the theatre in which the Cornish of former days assembled; endeavouring to discover, at the same time, by what sort of performances the people were instructed or amused some two or three hundred years ago.