Part II: The Boy Who Loved to Draw Skeletons
[This multi-part series of entries examines Anna Cora Mowatt’s experience playing the lead role in Thomas Noon Talfourd’s “Ion.” If you are unfamiliar with the play, a full cast recording of this classic drama is available at Librivox]
In the last blog entry, I got so caught up in the drama between actor William Macready and theater manager Alfred Bunn that paved the way for the debut of this drama in the late 1830s that became a starring vehicle for Anna Cora Mowatt in the late 1840s, that I almost failed to describe the play or the playwright at all. This week, I wish to strive to correct those oversights. Both the play and its author are quite worthy of investigation. Each, however, has a nature that has caused them to be overlooked by history.
If one was somehow granted the supernatural ability to body-swap with a historical figure from the Victorian era for a week in order to obtain a bird’s eye view of London’s cultural and political scene from the mid-century, Thomas Talfourd would make an excellent choice as a host. He was a low-key, amiable, somewhat non-descript person living an extremely high-key, dynamic life in the midst of the most powerful and historically significant literary, artistic, and political figures of his day. William Macready, as you know from the last entry, helped Talfourd get his plays produced because — by the actor’s own report — Macready believed “it would make him happy.”1 Charles Dickens dedicated the first edition of the Pickwick Papers to Talfourd. He was a highly successful lawyer and a Member of Parliament. Talfourd counted dozens of the most successful writers, playwrights, performers, artists, and poets of the day as friends. He was acquainted with many more. He moved in the most exclusive circles of London’s literary elite with ease.
Despite mixing in such heady company, Talfourd remained a person that Macready described as follows;
Talfourd and myself went together in his carriage to town. On our way, in speaking of the heartburnings and littleness practiced in the theatrical profession, and observing that, though lawyers said that in their vocation they were exposed to equal annoyances, yet there was the restraint which the character of gentlemen laid on them, Talfourd surprised me by replying that he did not think there were any unworthy feelings displayed from rivalry or envy at the Bar.2
Reading this quote, one can picture Macready in open-mouthed astonishment at his friend’s assertion that the legal profession was free of squabbles motivated by professional jealousies. Lawyers, during the Victorian era as now, tend to be highly competitive and career-driven individuals.
Macready, whose career had been — and would be – repeatedly disrupted by incidents spawned by personal and professional piques and resentments that would grow into crises that would not only threaten his livelihood and reputation but –in the case of the Astor Place Riots – his very life, could only marvel at Talfourd’s happy obliviousness to this dark side of human nature. In his diary, he remarked;
I did not acquiesce in his opinion, but it served to convince me of the happier life they lead who do not stop in their life’s journey to remove every impediment from their path and kick every bramble out of their way – how much more easily and more readily the traveler, who steps over the dirt, goes out of the way of obstinate hindrances, and leaves the thorns through which he picks his path, attains the goal of his desires! Talfourd’s easiness of disposition, his general indulgence of others’ faults, and good-natured aversion to dispute, has proved, in the happiness that has resulted from such amiability, the best wisdom.3
Amiable, easy-going lawyer Talfourd does seem to have led a more conflict-free existence than the fault-finding, moody Macready. Another close friend, novelist Charles Dickens, borrowed Talfourd’s blindness to the faults of others when he used the lawyer as the model to create the character of Tommy Traddles in his semi-autobiographical work “David Copperfield.” Dickens introduces this noble, but rather plodding character in this manner;
Poor Traddles! In a tight sky-blue suit that made his arms and legs like German sausages, or roly-poly puddings, he was the merriest and most miserable of all the boys. He was always being caned—I think he was caned every day that half-year, except one holiday Monday when he was only ruler’d on both hands—and was always going to write to his uncle about it, and never did. After laying his head on the desk for a little while, he would cheer up, somehow, begin to laugh again, and draw skeletons all over his slate, before his eyes were dry. I used at first to wonder what comfort Traddles found in drawing skeletons; and for some time looked upon him as a sort of hermit, who reminded himself by those symbols of mortality that caning couldn’t last forever. But I believe he only did it because they were easy, and didn’t want any features.
He was very honourable, Traddles was, and held it as a solemn duty in the boys to stand by one another. He suffered for this on several occasions; and particularly once, when Steerforth laughed in church, and the Beadle thought it was Traddles, and took him out. I see him now, going away in custody, despised by the congregation. He never said who was the real offender, though he smarted for it next day, and was imprisoned so many hours that he came forth with a whole churchyard-full of skeletons swarming all over his Latin Dictionary. But he had his reward. Steerforth said there was nothing of the sneak in Traddles, and we all felt that to be the highest praise. For my part, I could have gone through a good deal (though I was much less brave than Traddles, and nothing like so old) to have won such a recompense.4
I must fight my pedantic leanings and make a very stern effort at this point to resist the urge to trail off into a long tangent about the meaning and significance of the character of Tommy Traddles in “David Copperfield.” Be that as it may, the significance to this blog entry of Dickens’ caricature of Talfourd as Traddles is that, like Macready, this literary portraiture clearly shows that the novelist was impressed by the lawyer’s tenacious idealism.
From Macready and Dickens’ writings about him, Talfourd seems to be rather more like a Dickensian character than Dickens was himself. Private correspondence that has come to light recently underlines the extent to which novelist held a world view that was pragmatic and sometimes cynical. Talfourd seems like the type of person who became the protagonists of Dickens’ books – open, honest, optimistic almost to an unrealistic extent. Thomas Noon Talfourd seems to have been the sort of lovable, principled, friendly person that makes those of us who, like William Macready, are in touch with human nature’s darker side sit back, scratch our heads, and say, “Well, don’t know how they manage to keep it up all the time, but must be very pleasant to be able to live like that.”
Although the playwright was notoriously good-natured, it does not mean that his play was pure saccharine. Between the play’s now quaint Victorian sensibilities, pseudo-Elizabethan language, and Grecian trappings, it can be easy to overlook the fact that in 1836, “Ion” was a drama with serious, overt political overtones. The tragedy was, after all, written by a sitting Member of Parliament who sided with a party openly critical of the government.
As I covered in a previous entry, in 1848, when Walter Watts arranged for the London debut of Anna Cora Mowatt’s drama, “Armand,” that play was subject to strict standards of censorship from the Lord Chamberlain’s office. The title had to be changed from the potentially inflammatory “Armand: Child of the People” to the more pastoral “Armand: the Peer and the Peasant.” Several speeches that the Lord Chamberlain’s office deemed anti-monarchical had to be cut completely before the play could be approved for public performance.
At the time of “Armand’s” London debut, Queen Victoria was a young mother of six. Her personal popularity was high. There had been several high-profile assassination attempts on her life. The mood of the country was protective towards their Royal Family. A decade earlier, when Talfourd’s “Ion” was set to premiere, the political situation was entirely different.
Victoria was crowned on June 20th of 1837 – just a year before “Ion” appeared on the London stage. The Hanoverian line had proved to be a long series of incompetent, expensive, foreign rulers with little real enthusiasm for England or her people. The messy process of succession that led to Victoria’s ascension to the throne held out little promise that her attitude or character would be any different than any of her forbearers.
Several weeks after reading Talfourd’s original dramatic poem for the very first time, William Macready made the following entry in his diary after witnessing what he felt was the undue stir the then un-crowned Victoria caused at a public appearance;
(Sept. 18th 1835) The Duchess of Kent and Princess Victoria were the attraction at the concert room, where, as in the Minister – in the house of God – these servile idolaters of wealth and an empty name actually cheered and applauded two human beings! A clever monarch – but where is there such a monster in nature? Might soon enslave this country! “We must look within for that which makes us slaves!” Truly said by Talfourd.5
I have not been able to locate a copy of Talfourd’s original text, but in the script that passed through Macready’s edits and found its way to the stage, an anti-monarchical feeling certainly is strongly present. Ignoring some other threads, the plot of the play can be crystalized down to the following: The hero, Ion, must sacrifice himself in order to purify his nation of the offense to the Gods introduced by the sitting king, Adrastus, who stubbornly will not humble himself, admit fault, and fully shoulder the responsibility of saving his plague-ridden people.
To give just a few representative examples of moments where monarchy is presented in a starkly negative light, in this monologue, the tyrant, Adrastus describes his various classes of subjects in the following terms, dripping with regal contempt;
To parents who could doubt me? To the ring
Of grave impostors, or their shallow sons,
Who should have studied to prevent my wish
Before it grew to language; hail’d my choice
To service as a prize to wrestle for;
And whose reluctant courtesy I bore,
Pale with proud anger, till from lips compress’d
The blood has started? To the common herd,
The vassals of our ancient house, the mass
Of bones and muscles framed to till the soil
A few brief years, then rot unnamed beneath it,
Or, deck’d for slaughter at their master’s call,
To smite and to be smitten, and lie crush’d
In heaps to swell his glory or his shame?6
Is it possible to for a writer to find more heartless, less empathetic images for a ruler to use to describe their advisors, those who labor to make the land productive, and the armies that defend their domain? To Adrastus, the aristocracy are only puppet-like sycophants. Workers are soulless drudges. Soldiers are expendable cannon-fodder. No one in his kingdom has any intrinsic worth or value other than the purpose they fill to serve his needs. This is as bleak and damning a portrait of autocracy as is possible.
In the speech to which Macready refers when deploring the crowds’ fawning reaction to Princess Victoria, the hero, Ion, rouses the republican impulses of his comrades;
O think! before the irrevocable deed
Shuts out all thought, how much of power’s excess
Is theirs who raise the idol:—do we groan
Beneath the personal force of this rash man,
Who forty summers since hung at the breast
A playful weakling; whom the heat unnerves,
The north-wind pierces; and the hand of death
May, in a moment, change to clay as vile
As that of the scourged slave whose chains it severs?
No! ’tis our weakness gasping, or the shows
Of outward strength that builds up tyranny,
And makes it look so glorious:—If we shrink
Faint-hearted from the reckoning of our span
Of mortal days, we pamper the fond wish
For long duration in a line of kings:
If the rich pageantry of thoughts must fade
All unsubstantial as the regal hues
Of eve which purpled them, our cunning frailty
Must robe a living image with their pomp,
And wreathe a diadem around its brow,
In which our sunny fantasies may live
Empearl’d, and gleam, in fatal splendour, far
On after ages. We must look within
For that which makes us slaves;—on sympathies
Which find no kindred objects in the plain
Of common life—affections that aspire
In air too thin—and fancy’s dewy film
Floating for rest; for even such delicate threads,
Gather’d by fate’s engrossing hand, supply
The eternal spindle whence she weaves the bond
Of cable strength in which our nature struggles!7
In this monologue, Talfourd has Ion reverse the sort of imagery he put in the mouth of Adrastus. As the tyrant de-humanized the masses with his words, Ion uses his rhetoric to individualize the ruler and bring him back down to human scale. The hero points out that the fearsome king was once a weak baby. He still suffers from physical frailties and will share the mortality common to them all. Ion warns his countrymen not to be dazzled by the spectacle of royalty. Here lay the pathway to what Talfourd terms “sunny fantasies” that create a “fatal splendor” that cause populations to make slaves of themselves to tyrants like Adrastus. Ion’s self-sacrifice at the end of the play is ultimately meaningful only if his people take it as a wake-up call to regain agency and take the reins of government back into their own hands.
In May of 1836, England hovered in an uneasy liminal space politically as the dying king held on to life to deny a regency to relatives he distrusted. The nation flirted with ideas of republicanism as they waited to see what kind of monarch the young Victoria would prove to be. Reviews of Thomas Noon Talfourd’s “Ion” did not overtly mention the political slant of the play; however the sentiments expressed in the play were often praised as follows;
It abounds in moral, in beautiful, and often in lofty and noble thinking…9
Bell’s Weekly Messenger chose the following wording to laud Macready’s portrayal of the show’s protagonist;
Mr. Macready, as Ion, has by his most able representation of the youthful, self-devoted patriot, greatly augmented his fame as an accomplished master of his art.8
If the play’s underlying anti-monarchal stance did not find some resonance with elements of its audience, I doubt that it could have been described as being moral, lofty, or noble. If Ion’s critique of blind devotion to royalty rankled with audiences, I think he might have been labelled inflammatory or misguided instead of heroic and patriotic. In addition to the boost that this play got from the publicity generated from the conflict between Alfred Bunn and William Macready that precipitated its debut, I believe the skeptical view of royalty presented in the tragedy echoed popular misgivings about the British monarchy in contemporary politics for its audiences. Like Lin-Manuel Miranda’s “Hamilton” of recent years, Talfourd’s “Ion” managed to hit the right note of discomfort with the present and idealistic vision for the future for left wing viewers of 1836.
Thus, as Charles Dickens’ Tommy Traddles had drawn skeletons to remind himself that things could be worse even in dire circumstances, Thomas Talfourd created a tragedy about a hero who killed himself that cheered audiences with a bright thread of idealistic hope in a bleak time in England’s political history.
Next entry: Talfourd’s hero becomes a heroine.
- Macready, William Charles. The Diaries of William Charles Macready 1833-1851, Vol. I. Edited by William Toynbee. (New York: G.P. Putnam’s Sons, 1912). Page 362.
- Ibid, 291.
- Dickens, Charles. The Personal History of David Copperfield. (London: Chapman and Hall, LP., 1849.) Page 72.
- Macready, William Charles. The Diaries of William Charles Macready 1833-1851, Vol. I. Edited by William Toynbee. (New York: G.P. Putnam’s Sons, 1912). Page 249.
- Talfourd, Thomas Noon. “Ion: A Tragedy in Five Acts.” (New York: James Mowatt & Co., 1844). Page 31-32.
- Ibid 39.
- “Theatres.” Morning Post. Friday, May 27, 1836. Page 3, col. 4.
- “Covent Garden Theatre.” Bell’s Weekly Messenger. Sunday, May 29, 1836. Page 5, col. 4.