Friday, 23 April 2010

A Whimsical Trifle of 1710

Aaron Hill's afterpiece The Walking Statue; Or, the Devil in the Wine Cellar (1710) is one of those relatively minor eighteenth-century works, by a relatively minor eighteenth-century writer that hardly casts a shadow on the internet.

Aaron Hill (1685–1750) has a fairly feeble entry on Wikipedia (here), even though there is a recent full-dress biography by Christine Gerrard: Aaron Hill: The Muses' Projector, 1685-1750 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2003). There are also a few short biographies online, but they are on subscription sites (like the ODNB online and The Dictionary of Literary Biography). Because of the friendship of Hill and Richard Savage and Eliza Haywood there are a number of short references to Hill online in biographies of these and other writers.

As for The Walking Statue: Thomas Whincop described it as "a Farce, acted with good Success, at the Theatre Royal in Drury-Lane" in his "Compleat List of All the English Dramatick Poets" (1747), 248. One of the few recent references is Gerrard's description of it as "a slight but funny farce that was revived a number of times over the subsequent decade" (27). If you trawl even further you will also find this reference by William John Lawrence in Old Theatre Days and Ways (1935), 183:

On 3 January 1709/10 Hill brought out his tragedy Elfrid; or, The Fair Inconstant and on 9 January added his farce afterpiece The Walking Statue; or, the Devil in the Wine Cellar. It cannot be but that this whimsical trifle met with considerable success (it certainly lived much longer than the tragedy), for, following it, there came an eruption of similar afterpieces.

As you can see, none of these writers actually tells you anything about the action.

For reasons too complicated to explain my curiosity was roused by this title, so I read it. And having read it, I thought I would say a few words about it. If you want to read it you will find a reprint of the text in The Dramatic Works of Aaron Hill, Esq., vol. 1 (1760), 53–70.

* * * * *

The Dramatis Personæ are

Sir Timothy Tough
Leonora, his daughter
[Robin, Jonathan, servants to Sir Timothy]

Sprightly, a young Gentleman in love with Leonora
Toby, Sprightly's man
Corporal Cuttum, the statue

In the first scene Toby is attempting to gain entry into the house of Sir Timothy Tough in order to get a love-letter by Sprightly to Leonora. He is doing this by adopting the disguise of an "Exchange Girl" (a milliner). Sir Timothy Tough has poor eye-sight, but is suspicious and comes to the door with two servants, armed to the teeth. Toby is searched, the love-letter is discovered and he flees.

In the second scene Sprightly commiserates with Toby, and lays out a fresh plan of attack. He is going to take advantage of Sir Timothy's poor eyesight by substituting Cuttum for a statue that Sir Timothy has ordered. Toby dresses as a Jew and delivers the "statue" to Sir Timothy.

In the third scene Sir Timothy and Leonora are arguing about the fact that, although he once encouraged the suit of Sprightly, he has become greedy and now wants her to marry an even richer suitor. Leonora wants to marry Sprightly, but Sir Timothy will only honour his word to the extent of allowing them to marry if Sprightly can out outwit him. At this point the "statue" is delivered.

Toby (dressed as a Jew) needles Sir Timothy about his age until he is chased out of the room (see passage below); Cuttum tries to take the opportunity to speak to Leonora, who screams, bringing back Sir Timothy. With his sudden arrival Cuttum must hold a different posture, when Sir Timothy notices, Cuttum rushes him and Sir Timothy and his servants chase him from the house. Leonora, realising too late her that this was another attempt by Sprightly to rescue her from her father, also flees.

In the fourth scene, we see that Toby has been unable to flee the house altogether. He hides in the cellar, putting on an old mask and horns he happened to have on him. Sir Timothy and his servants return, the former encouraging the latter to celebrate with a bottle of wine.

In the fifth scene, the servants are in the cellar drinking and singing. When Toby is about to be discovered, he rushes from his hiding place, terrifying the servants and Sir Timothy. Toby escapes. Sir Timothy and the servants return, and while they are huddled in the hallway, Leonora, Sprightly, Toby and Cuttum turn up and explain the deception. Sprightly asks to be pardoned, and to agree to the marriage. Sir Timothy exits, ranting: "Confusion! furies! devils! witchcraft! rogues! tricks! damnation! conjuration! and distraction!" The stage direction is: "He raves, and stamps, and runs off the stage."

* * * * *

To give you a better idea of the "whimsical" style, the bluster, confusion, slapstick and casual prejudice, here is an excerpt from Scene 3.

  Toby. I am by profession a statuary, by country a Portuguese, but brought up in England; by quality a foreman, alias a journeyman, and by religion a Jew, Sir.
  Sir Tim. A Jew? Adzooks! what have you to do in a christian country, sirrah?
  Toby. Ha, ha, you are pleas'd to be merry, Sir! But where must the statue be plac'd, an't please you?
  Sir Tim. Plac'd ? [Aside. Egad I don't like this fellow, he says he's a Jew, but he looks like a Philistine!]
  Toby. Set him down there, gently, gently; be careful how you place him, pray, Gentlemen—So, now he stands right; go—stay without till I come to you.

[The four bearers go out.]

  Sir Tim. Let me see how this statue looks. Ads my life! a pretty piece of workmanship truly! But pray, friend, why did not Mr. Chisiel come himself? Am I so bad a customer, that he must send servants to do my business? nay, and heathen servants too?
  Toby. Your worship, I perceive, is a facetious old gentleman. But my master, an't please you, is sick at present.
  Sir Tim. Old gentleman! sirrah! Is that your Hebrew breeding! Get out of my house, you rogue! that Levitical face of thine stirs up my indignation!
  Toby. I beg your pardon heartily, if I have said any thing that offends you, Sir; but pray don't be in a passion for nothing. Is not the work done as you expected it?

[All the while Sir Timothy is talking with Toby, Cuttum makes whimsical motions from the table to Leonora, who leans pensively, and don't observe him.]

  Sir Tim. Expected it, sirrah! I did not expect to have the figure to be sent home by a rogue of a Jew, sirrah! Let Let me look all round the piece ’egad, 'tis ten to one but the superstitious dog has circumcised my statue!
  Toby. Ha, ha, ha, ha.
  Sir Tim. Villain, rascal! what, am I to be laugh'd at to my face!
  Toby. Ha, ha, ha, you must excuse me, Sir, ha, ha, ha, I vow you are the pleasantest gentleman of your age that ever I met with.
  Sir Tim. Again at my age, sirrah! here, Robin, Jonathan, quickly, bring me my blunderbuss. Sirrah, get out of my house, or I'll break off a limb of the statue, and knock out your brains with it.

[He runs to pull offone of the Statue's legs, and Cuttum kicks him down backward with the other.]

* * * * *

If you dig deeper into the eighteenth- and nineteenth-century texts on Google Books you will find a few more details than those I quoted above, which I will finish by quoting.

The unfailing David Erskine Baker et al. in Biographia Dramatica (1812) are more loquacious than Thomas Whincop.

The Walking Statue; or, The Devil in the Wine Cellar. Farce, by A. Hill. 4to. No date. [1710]; 8vo. 1760. This little farce is printed at the end of, and was annexed in the representation to, Elfrid, or, The Fair Inconstant, of the same author. The plot of it is totally farcical, and the incidents are beyond the limits of probability; nay, even of possibility: yet there is somewhat laughable in the incident of passing a living man on the father as a statue, or automaton; and the consequence of it, though somewhat too low for a dramatic piece of any kind of regularity, may, nevertheless, be endured, by considering this as a kind of speaking pantomime; which may surely be as readily admitted of, and allowed as instructive, at least, as those where the parti-coloured gentleman has no other method of expressing his sensations and sentiments, than the very ingenious one of gestures and grimaces.

Finally, according to the Memoirs of John Bannister, Comedian, vol. 1 (1839), on 25 July 1786 John Bannister revived this "extravagant farce" for his benefit.

He performed the principal character, who, having been received into the house of an old virtuoso as a statue, produces some confusion and much merriment by being sometimes a man, sometimes an image, but always where he is not wished for, except when he is forwarding the love intrigues, for which his ingenuity is employed. It is said, and perhaps justly, that to introduce a living man as a statue, is to draw strongly on public credulity; but much may be allowed in a broad farce, and the experiment has recently been repeated in Paris, with great success, in "L'Homme Automate."

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