An Apology for the Life of George Anne Bellamy

Letter XXIII

April 5, 17--

[p. 153] About the time that I was so well recovered of my disorder as to be able to play again, Mr. Barry, wishing to try his fortune in England, went off without giving the manager any previous notice, or paying any respect to his articles. I have already observed that Mr. Sheridan was held in high estimation by the people of Dublin. The young gentlemen belonging to the college looked upon him as a divinity. The ladies of his acquaintance flattered him; and his own vanity misguided him. Thus situated, he thought himself equal to any undertaking the stage required. So that, upon Mr. Barry's departure, he left the characters in which he could have no competitor, to enter into the walk of lovers and genteel comedy. It is true, his figure was tolerable, and might have suited this line; but his voice and manner totally precluded him from making any comparative stand in them.

It was not long before he was convinced of his mistake; and seemed by his revival of Aesop to wish to find out plays that were more suited to his scientific talents. In casting a part for me in this piece, that of the Young Lady was considered as to insignificant. The [p. 154] Categorical Lady required too much volubility, and I was obliged to put up with that of Doris, which was the character of an old nurse; and a part of such immense length, that this and Aesop's made two-third of the performance.

There was no doubt but Mr. Sheridan, who must be allowed to be the best declaimer that ever trod our stage, would have made a very capital figure in a character which was so conspicuously marked out for his talents, had not the performance been interrupted on the first night of its representation. The house was so much crowded, and that a person, I will not so far degrade the title of gentleman, as to bestow on him that appellation, finding himself inconveniently situated in the pit, got over the spikes which divide that part from the stage. This removal received marks of approbation from many of the audience, who by no means approved of the new regulation, which debarred them from coming behind the scenes. Mr. Kelly (that was the person's name) was not a little pleased that he had escaped from his confined situation, and at the same time shewn by his manoeuvre an appearance of courage, which he was conscious he did not really possess.

Elevated with his success, he made his way to the green room. Having heard much of the liberties taken by the gentlemen with the performers, during the time that they [p. 155] were admitted behind the scenes, I had adopted Mr. Quin's mode of confining myself to my dressing-room. But being apprehensive that I was not perfect in a scene which was mostly lines, and which I was to repeat in the next act, I went into the green-room to request Mrs. Dyer to run it over with me.

When I entered the room, I observed that lady to be greatly confused, and that she could not move out of an arm-chair in which she sat, from a man's impeding her. She whispered to me as I drew near, that Kelly had most grossly insulted her. Upon which, not considering the brutality of a drunken man, particularly of an illiterate Irishman when drunk, I asked her why she staid to hear him. I had no sooner said this, than I observed I had offended the brute, and accordingly ran out of the green-room into my dressing-room, which adjoined to it. When I got in, I prudently locked the door, judging that a wretch who could dare to insult a woman with an indelicate conversation, would dastardly strike or misuse any of the sex on a supposed offence. It was a very porovidential circumstance that I had pursued this step; for I had scarcely done so, when Kelly pursued me, and attempted to force the door; at the same time swearing vengeance against me. -- What outrages against decency, decorum, and humanity, are drunken men guilty of, even if ignorance and brutality are not [p. 156] united with intoxication! It was no bad custom of the ancient Romans, to make their slaves drunk once a year, that their children might be witnesses to the detestable consequences of inebriation, and early learn to abhor it.

The noise which Kelly made at my dressing-room door alarmed the audience, and drew the manager to inquire into the cause of it. Finding Kelly thus riotously disposed, he desired him to quit the scenes. The other refusing, Mr. Sheridan ordered him to be turned out by force. He now found room in the pit, as several of the manager's friends, on hearing the disturbance, had left their places, and gone into his room to learn th eoccasion of it. The play proceeded till we were come to the first scene of the last act, when an orange or apple was thrown at Mr. Sheridan, who played the character of AEsop, and so well directed, that it dented the iron of the false nose which he wore, into his forehead.

Mr. Sheridan was not only born and bred a gentleman, but possessed as much personal courage as any man breathing. It may therefore be supposed, that he would not put up with such an indignity. He went forward, and addressed the audience, or the person that was supposed to throw it; but what he said, my fright prevented me from hearing. The curtain was then dropped, and the piece left unfinished. The foolish being who had occasioned this confusion, Kelly, now went to [p. 157] the manager's room to demand satisfaction. And this he immediately gave him in the most ample manner, with an oak stick, which, as AEsop, he had carried in his hand during the performance; whilst Kelly, to the great entertainment of such of Mr. Sheridan's friends as were present, fell upon the ground in tears, crying out at the same time "that he should severely repent this usage to a gentleman." To the disgrace of the military (for he wore a cockade) during this humiliating scene, Mr. Kelly had a sword by his side.

When the manager had given Kelly this severe correction for his insolence and brutality, he suffered him to crawl away, for walk he could not, to Lucas's Coffee-House. As soon as he got there, he claimed the compassion of the company; and having informed them how ill he had been used, to interest them the more in his favour, falsely added, that Mr. Sheridan had had the audacity to declare that he was a better gentleman than any one who had been that night at the theatre. It is necessary here to acquaint you, that Lucas's Coffee-House is the place to which the Irish gentlemen usually resort to decide, in an honourable way, their quarrels. Whilst the combatants retire into the yard to acquire glory, the rest of the company flock to the windows, to see that no unfair advantages are taken, and to make bets on which of them falls first. And of these [p. 158] combats, I can assure you, there are not a few; the Hibernians being extremely captious; and very often ready to take offence where none is intended. You must "speak by the card" amongst them, or a quarrel will ensue. They are possessed of many good qualifications, but this seems to be one of the foibles of the country.

It is not to be wondered at, that persons of this cast should be easily excited to enter into any proposal which seemed likely to be productive of a riot. More especially ,as most of the frequenters of Lucas's, at that time, had a natural antipathy to all learning, except that kind of knowledge which enabled them to distinguish good claret from bad. They therefore one and all agreed to sally forth to lay seige to Smock Alley Theater, and sacrifice the presumptuous manager of it for having forfeited the name of gnetleman, by appearing upon the stage. They likewise had another excitement, which was no less powerful with persons of their liberal way of thinking; and that was his having had the misofrutne to have had a classical education, whch he had greatly improved by application and intense study.

Mr. Sheridan not supposing any persons could be found weak enough to abet such a cowardly being, imagined the affair was over, at least for that nght; and he had retired, to enjoy himself with some of his friends. The [p. 15] theatre was also shut up. The heroes, however, made a brave assault against it, and strove to force the doors. But finding them too strongly barricaded, to hope for success, they retired for that night.

The next evening, the Fair Penitent1 was to be performed for the benefit of a public charity. Notwithstanding which, upon the appearnce of Mr. Sheridan, in the character of Horatio, the Bucks, as they termed themselves, immediately arose, and cried, "Out with the ladies, and down with the house." It is impossible to describe to you the horrors of a riot at a Dublin theatre. The consternation and fright which it occasioned among the ladies, with whom the stage was exceedingly crowded, is beyond conception. Husbands and brothers were busily employed in taking care of their wives and sisters; and all was a scene of confusion.

Mr. Sheridan was early advised by his friends to quit the house; but he would not hear of it. However, when the rioters leaped upon the stage, and threatened his life, he found a retreat absolutely necessary for the preservation of it. Had he not prudently taken this step, these sons of Bacchus would certainly have put their threats into execution; for they broke open every door in the house to find the offender as they called him. These dastardly ruffians brore open the wardrobe, and as they could not find the manager they [p. 160] revenged themselves upon the stuffing of Falstaff, which they stabbed in many places.

In their researches they did me the honour of a visit. Two gentlemen of quality having joined the rioters, out of curiosity, one of them Mr. Edward Hussey, now Lord Beaulieu, the other Mr. Mirvan, they came to the door of my dressing-room, and very politely told me, they were come to protect me from insult. But apprehending them in my fright, to be leaders of the mob, and finding that the rioters were determined to leave no part of the theatre unsearched, instead of returning thanks for their politeness, as I should have done, I answered with some acrimony, "that my room was an improbable place to find the person they wanted, as I certainly should not undress, was there a gentleman in it."

Upon this Kelly advanced, and mistaking me, as I imagined, for Mrs. Dyer, said I was the -- who had occasioned all the disturbance. And I don't know whether I should have escaped further insult, had I not, in a resolute tone of voice, ordered them to quit the room. To this at length they consented, upon being permitted to lift up the covering of my toilette, to see whether the hemnager was there. As soon as they were departed I hurried to my chair, and Mr. Hussey had the hmanity to walk by the side of it, to see me safe home. And I was never more rejoiced in my life, than when I found myself secure within doors.

[p. 161] The magistrates having reason to apprehend that greater mischief would ensue, if the theatre continued open, ordered it to be shut up till the benefits commenced. The affair, however did not end here; for the College-Boys, as they are usually termed, in order to revenge the cause of their fellow-students, as well as to shew their resentment at being deprived of their favourite amuseent, took it in to their heads to pay Mr. Fitzgerald, Mr. Kelly, and several other ringleaders of the rioters, a morning visit, and obligingly invited them to partake of a breakfst at their college; where they bestowed as much cold water upon them from their pump, as served to keep their heads perfectly cool to defend their cause against the manager, whi had the same day commenced a prsectuon against them.

G. A. B.

  1. The pathetic part of Jane Shore in Nicholas Rowe's (1647-1718) Fair Penitent would be just the sort of role Bellamy excelled in. There is a real irony in her playing this role while these brutal men try to enforce their supposed right to pester, harass, and abduct actresses, and insult the manager and actors because the mores of the time looked down upon stage acting.

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