No. 031 [from The Spectator] by Joseph Addison

Story type: Essay

No. 31.
Thursday, April 5, 1711. Addison.

‘Sit mihi fas audita loqui!’


Last Night, upon my going into a Coffee-House not far from the Hay-Market Theatre, I diverted my self for above half an Hour with overhearing the Discourse of one, who, by the Shabbiness of his Dress, the Extravagance of his Conceptions, and the Hurry of his Speech, I discovered to be of that Species who are generally distinguished by the Title of Projectors. This Gentleman, for I found he was treated as such by his Audience, was entertaining a whole Table of Listners with the Project of an Opera, which he told us had not cost him above two or three Mornings in the Contrivance, and which he was ready to put in Execution, provided he might find his Account in it. He said, that he had observed the great Trouble and Inconvenience which Ladies were at, in travelling up and down to the several Shows that are exhibited in different Quarters of the Town. The dancing Monkies are in one place; the Puppet-Show in another; the Opera in a third; not to mention the Lions, that are almost a whole Day’s Journey from the Politer Part of the Town. By this means People of Figure are forced to lose half the Winter after their coming to Town, before they have seen all the strange Sights about it. In order to remedy this great Inconvenience, our Projector drew out of his Pocket the Scheme of an Opera, Entitled, The Expedition of Alexander the Great; in which he had disposed of all the remarkable Shows about Town, among the Scenes and Decorations of his Piece. The Thought, he confessed, was not originally his own, but that he had taken the Hint of it from several Performances which he had seen upon our Stage: In one of which there was a Rary-Show; in another, a Ladder-dance; and in others a Posture-man, a moving Picture, with many Curiosities of the like nature.

This Expedition of Alexander opens with his consulting the oracle at Delphos, in which the dumb Conjuror, who has been visited by so many Persons of Quality of late Years, is to be introduced as telling him his Fortune; At the same time Clench of Barnet is represented in another Corner of the Temple, as ringing the Bells of Delphos, for joy of his arrival. The Tent of Darius is to be Peopled by the Ingenious Mrs. Salmon, [1] where Alexander is to fall in Love with a Piece of Wax-Work, that represents the beautiful Statira. When Alexander comes into that Country, in which Quintus Curtius tells us the Dogs were so exceeding fierce that they would not loose their hold, tho’ they were cut to pieces Limb by Limb, and that they would hang upon their Prey by their Teeth when they had nothing but a Mouth left, there is to be a scene of Hockley in the Hole, [2] in which is to be represented all the Diversions of that Place, the Bull-baiting only excepted, which cannot possibly be exhibited in the Theatre, by Reason of the Lowness of the Roof. The several Woods in Asia, which Alexander must be supposed to pass through, will give the Audience a Sight of Monkies dancing upon Ropes, with many other Pleasantries of that ludicrous Species. At the same time, if there chance to be any Strange Animals in Town, whether Birds or Beasts, they may be either let loose among the Woods, or driven across the Stage by some of the Country People of Asia. In the last great Battel, Pinkethman [3] is to personate King Porus upon an Elephant, and is to be encountered by Powell [4] representing Alexander the Great upon a Dromedary, which nevertheless Mr. Powell is desired to call by the Name of Bucephalus. Upon the Close of this great decisive Battel, when the two Kings are thoroughly reconciled, to shew the mutual Friendship and good Correspondence that reigns between them, they both of them go together to a Puppet-Show, in which the ingenious Mr. Powell, junior [5] may have an Opportunity of displaying his whole Art of Machinery, for the Diversion of the two Monarchs. Some at the Table urged that a Puppet-Show was not a suitable Entertainment for Alexander the Great; and that it might be introduced more properly, if we suppose the Conqueror touched upon that part of India which is said to be inhabited by the Pigmies. But this Objection was looked upon as frivolous, and the Proposal immediately over-ruled. Our Projector further added, that after the Reconciliation of these two Kings they might invite one another to Dinner, and either of them entertain his Guest with the German Artist, Mr. Pinkethman’s Heathen Gods, [6] or any of the like Diversions, which shall then chance to be in vogue.

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This Project was receiv’d with very great Applause by the whole Table. Upon which the Undertaker told us, that he had not yet communicated to us above half his Design; for that Alexander being a Greek, it was his Intention that the whole Opera should be acted in that Language, which was a Tongue he was sure would wonderfully please the Ladies, especially when it was a little raised and rounded by the Ionick Dialect; and could not but be [acceptable [8]] to the whole Audience, because there are fewer of them who understand Greek than Italian. The only Difficulty that remained, was, how to get Performers, unless we could persuade some Gentlemen of the Universities to learn to sing, in order to qualify themselves for the Stage; but this Objection soon vanished, when the Projector informed us that the Greeks were at present the only Musicians in the Turkish Empire, and that it would be very easy for our Factory at Smyrna to furnish us every Year with a Colony of Musicians, by the Opportunity of the Turkey Fleet; besides, says he, if we want any single Voice for any lower Part in the Opera, Lawrence can learn to speak Greek, as well as he does Italian, in a Fortnight’s time.

The Projector having thus settled Matters, to the good liking of all that heard him, he left his Seat at the Table, and planted himself before the Fire, where I had unluckily taken my Stand for the Convenience of over-hearing what he said. Whether he had observed me to be more attentive than ordinary, I cannot tell, but he had not stood by me above a Quarter of a Minute, but he turned short upon me on a sudden, and catching me by a Button of my Coat, attacked me very abruptly after the following manner.

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Besides, Sir, I have heard of a very extraordinary Genius for Musick that lives in Switzerland, who has so strong a Spring in his Fingers, that he can make the Board of an Organ sound like a Drum, and if I could but procure a Subscription of about Ten Thousand Pound every Winter, I would undertake to fetch him over, and oblige him by Articles to set every thing that should be sung upon the English Stage.

After this he looked full in my Face, expecting I would make an Answer, when by good Luck, a Gentleman that had entered the Coffee-house since the Projector applied himself to me, hearing him talk of his Swiss Compositions, cry’d out with a kind of Laugh,

Is our Musick then to receive further Improvements from Switzerland! [8]

This alarmed the Projector, who immediately let go my Button, and turned about to answer him. I took the Opportunity of the Diversion, which seemed to be made in favour of me, and laying down my Penny upon the Bar, retired with some Precipitation.


[Footnote 1: An advertisement of Mrs. Salmon’s wax-work in the ‘Tatler’ for Nov. 30, 1710, specifies among other attractions the Turkish Seraglio in wax-work, the Fatal Sisters that spin, reel, and cut the thread of man’s life, ‘an Old Woman flying from Time, who shakes his head and hour-glass with sorrow at seeing age so unwilling to die. Nothing but life can exceed the motions of the heads, hands, eyes, etc., of these figures, etc.’]

[Footnote 2: Hockley-in-the-Hole, memorable for its Bear Garden, was on the outskirt of the town, by Clerkenwell Green; with Mutton Lane on the East and the fields on the West. By Town’s End Lane (called Coppice Row since the levelling of the coppice-crowned knoll over which it ran) through Pickled-Egg Walk (now Crawford’s Passage) one came to Hockley-in-the-Hole or Hockley Hole, now Ray Street. The leveller has been at work upon the eminences that surrounded it. In Hockley Hole, dealers in rags and old iron congregated. This gave it the name of Rag Street, euphonized into Ray Street since 1774. In the Spectator’s time its Bear Garden, upon the site of which there are now metal works, was a famous resort of the lowest classes. ‘You must go to Hockley-in-the-Hole, child, to learn valour,’ says Mr. Peachum to Filch in the Beggar’s Opera.]

[Footnote 3: William Penkethman was a low comedian dear to the gallery at Drury Lane as ‘Pinkey,’ very popular also as a Booth Manager at Bartholomew Fair. Though a sour critic described him as ‘the Flower of Bartholomew Fair and the Idol of the Rabble; a Fellow that overdoes everything, and spoils many a Part with his own Stuff,’ the Spectator has in another paper given honourable fame to his skill as a comedian. Here there is but the whimsical suggestion of a favourite showman and low comedian mounted on an elephant to play King Porus.]

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[Footnote 4: George Powell, who in 1711 and 1712 appeared in such characters as Falstaff, Lear, and Cortez in ‘the Indian Emperor,’ now and then also played the part of the favourite stage hero, Alexander the Great in Lee’s Rival Queens. He was a good actor, spoilt by intemperance, who came on the stage sometimes warm with Nantz brandy, and courted his heroines so furiously that Sir John Vanbrugh said they were almost in danger of being conquered on the spot. His last new part of any note was in 1713, Portius in Addison’s Cato. He lived on for a few wretched years, lost to the public, but much sought by sheriff’s officers.]

[Footnote 5: ‘Powell junior’ of the Puppet Show (see note [Footnote 2 of No. 14], p. 59, ante) was a more prosperous man than his namesake of Drury Lane. In De Foe’s ‘Groans of Great Britain,’ published in 1813, we read:

‘I was the other Day at a Coffee-House when the following Advertisement was thrown in.–At Punch’s Theatre in the Little Piazza, Covent-Garden, this present Evening will be performed an Entertainment, called, The History of Sir Richard Whittington, shewing his Rise from a Scullion to be Lord-Mayor of London, with the Comical Humours of Old Madge, the jolly Chamber-Maid, and the Representation of the Sea, and the Court of Great Britain, concluding with the Court of Aldermen, and Whittington Lord-Mayor, honoured with the Presence of K. Hen. VIII. and his Queen Anna Bullen, with other diverting Decorations proper to the Play, beginning at 6 o’clock. Note, No money to be returned after the Entertainment is begun. Boxes, 2s. Pit, 1s. Vivat Regina.

On enquiring into the Matter, I find this has long been a noble Diversion of our Quality and Gentry; and that Mr. Powell, by Subscriptions and full Houses, has gathered such Wealth as is ten times sufficient to buy all the Poets in England; that he seldom goes out without his Chair, and thrives on this incredible Folly to that degree, that, were he a Freeman, he might hope that some future Puppet-Show might celebrate his being Lord Mayor, as he has done Sir R. Whittington.’]

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[Footnote 6:

‘Mr. Penkethman’s Wonderful Invention call’d the Pantheon: or, the Temple of the Heathen Gods. The Work of several Years, and great Expense, is now perfected; being a most surprising and magnificent Machine, consisting of 5 several curious Pictures, the Painting and contrivance whereof is beyond Expression Admirable. The Figures, which are above 100, and move their Heads, Legs, Arms, and Fingers, so exactly to what they perform, and setting one Foot before another, like living Creatures, that it justly deserves to be esteem’d the greatest Wonder of the Age. To be seen from 10 in the Morning till 10 at Night, in the Little Piazza, Covent Garden, in the same House where Punch’s Opera is. Price 1s. 6d., 1s., and the lowest, 6d.’

This Advertisement was published in 46 and a few following numbers of the Spectator.]

[Footnote 7: wonderfully acceptable]

[Footnote 8: The satire is against Heidegger. See note [Footnote 1 of No. 14], p. 56, ante.]

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