Wednesday, October 7, 2015

Young Charles Whitney in Albany, 1840

Laura Allison as "The Captive"
© Trustees of the British Museum
via The Gothic Imagination
On February 24, 1859 Charles Whitney (1815-1885) the "elocutionist" and dramatic reader closed out Herman Melville's Chicago lecture on "The South Seas." Whitney by then was well known for entertaining impersonations of American orators, including Red-Jacket and other celebrated Indians. But he got his start doing Shakespeare. And Milton, and Monk Lewis. Many years before their 1859 Chicago gig, back when Charles Whitney was just 25 and Melville not yet 21 (still with Albany connections but then teaching in Greenbush, mother and sisters in Lansingburgh), young Whitney gave a number of well-received lectures in Albany during February, March, and April 1840. Albany especially loved the dramatic speeches from Merchant of Venice, King Lear, and Macbeth, and heartbreaking lines from the widely circulated "Scene in a Private Madhouse" by M. G. Lewis.

Whitney's first performance was reviewed very favorably in the Albany Argus, February 14, 1840:
Mr. WHITNEY’s Lecture on Elocution of Saturday evening last, was listened to with great satisfaction. His delineation of many passages from Shakespeare were both in conception and declamation vivid and clear. His imitation of the style of Senator McDuffie was decidedly a hit. But above all we liked the sweet and beautiful manner in which Mr. W. delivered Mark ["Monk"] Lewis’ beautiful poem, “I am not mad.” At all times he evinces such an understanding of the science of elocution that nothing but severe study and great genius could have accomplished.
The same performance of Saturday (that would have been April 8, 1840), reviewed in the American Masonic Register and Literary Companion:
Oratory—Mr. Whitney.—This gentleman's efforts on Saturday evening last were very fine, and from all quarters, we hear him spoken of in lauditory terms 
"Ay, laugh ye fiends: I feel the truth;
Your talk is done—I'm mad! I'm mad!
is the perioration to one of the most pathetic appeals to one's sensibility, in the language; and however trivial may appear this sentence, yet Mr. W.'s utterance of it, more clearly discovered to the spectator, the sensations of his bosom, than could the most labored description. We were much pleased with his delineations of Shylock and Richard 3d. His delivery of the celebrated soliloquy in the first act of the latter, reminded us forcibly of the "immortal Booth and Kean." We should think that characters of this sort, were more congenial to tho genius of Mr. W. than the delineation of the minute passions of the human mind; where energy of action, and delivery is required, he is particularly successful. To any one who saw his Shylock and Richard, this will be apparent. A friend who sat on the bench with us, and who is conversant with the manner of M' Duffie and Preston, pronounced his imitations of these celebrated Senators, as being perfect. 
We are happy in being informed that Mr. W. will deliver a second lecture the ensuing week. All who wish to see the manner of Clay, McDuffie, Preston, Forrest, M'Cready, &c., perfectly hit off, will then have an opportunity.
Hon. George E. McDuffie of South Carolina
Image Credit: Library of Congress
On March 14, 1840 the American Masonic Register also reviewed Whitney's second lecture, as follows:
ELOCUTION—MR. WHITNEY.—This gentleman gave his second lecture on elocution, on Wednesday evening last, to a respectable and attentive auditory. His conceptions of the various characters he represents are fine, and rivets the attention of his hearers. His voice is finely cultivated, exhibiting an extraordinary compass. If his imitation of M’Duffie, is any thing to nature, we would cheerfully go twenty miles to hear the original. Those of our readers who are desirous of spending an evening in intellectual enjoyment, at a trifling cost, can now have an opportunity. For particulars see his card in another column.
Two weeks later (March 28, 1840), another favorable notice in the American Masonic Register--this time with reference to Whitney's appeal to Albany women:
We would again invite the attention of the reader to the Card of Mr. Whitney, in anohther column. It is but necessary to see this gentleman once, to go again. A large number of Ladies attended on Wednesday evening last.
The Card:

This fifth Albany lecture by Charles Whitney received advance notice in the Albany Argus (Thursday Morning, April 2, 1840), written by an enthusiastic correspondent who signed himself (herself?) "H.":
Mr. WHITNEY delivers his fifth lecture on Oratory, this evening at the Apollo Saloon, Green street. Among the compositions selected in illustration of his subject, are Milton’s Apostrophe to Light, and the Female Maniac, by Lewis—both admirable subjects—the former as portraying in sublime yet touching language, the loss of those “orbs” for which the lofty conceptions of the poet, could scarcely compensate, and the latter exhibiting a fine mind gradually sinking beneath a weight of injustice and misery into madness.— Mr. W’s delineation is perfect. These two pieces are alone worth the whole price of admission, and no doubt a goodly portion of our citizens will avail themselves of this truly intellectual entertainment. H.  
The actual performance got another glowing review in the same newspaper on Tuesday, April 14, 1840:
A delighted audience attended Mr. WHITNEY’S fifth lecture and recitation on Thursday evening. We render no more than justice in pronouncing them the best that we ever heard, and doubt not that in the higher walks of the drama, he would be transcendantly great. His recitation of King Lear, Shylock, and Macbeth, were awfully terrific. His masterly exhibition of the scene betwixt Shylock and Tubal, was sufficient to stamp Mr. W. as possessing histrionic abilities of the highest order. In King Lear and Macbeth, he would be sublime. In his comic scenes also, he displayed admirable talent, and possibly an audience was never more gratified than in his recitation of the “Law case” and the “Hooshier Hyperbole.”—We should like to see Mr. W. repeat the soliloquy of Richard 3d, from the fifth act of that play. We have, however, a slight objection to his delivery of this. We think the tyrant’s speech indicative of his remorse, was delivered in too touching and pathetic a tone. It was rather the utterance of one to whose bosom vice was a stranger, than of a person, who till then, had no better feelings than obstinacy and invidiousness. It was elegantly, but we think not appropriately expressed. If this young gentleman, whose dramatic talents we highly respect, should think our remarks dogmatic, we would remind him that, 
“Praise undeserved is scandal in disguise, 
Well, may he blush, who gives it or receives.”
In the “Female maniac” we never witnessed any reciter so wrought up. His personation of this character was the natural unfolding of the human heart. The soul of a mother was truly depicted in the caresses of her imagined child; and the touching tone of his supplications pierced the heart of every spectator, and the tears of many of them testified to the impression he had made.  --Albany Argus, April 14, 1840



High praise for young Charles Whitney appeared also in the rival newspaper, the Albany Evening Journal, Wednesday, March 18, 1840. Here is the later but equally enthusiastic review, signed "C.D.":
“Oratorical exhibitions when properly constructed, not only show life in miniature, but improve the mind and exalt the soul; rousing the passions to sympathize with the afflicted, to admire virtue and deter vice.”

We were present at Mr. Whitney’s lecture some weeks since at the Atheneum, and have no hesitation in saying that his depiction of Shylock, Richard 3d, and various others of Shakespeare’s characters were in the very first style of the art. In him we do not have a cold personator of the Jew. It is one of the most difficult characters in the catalogue of dramatic compositions, and of all its representatives, Mr. Whitney is as clear an interpreter as any we have ever seen—and though an indifferent speaker may endeavor to characterize Shylock, and too, by some spectators it may be looked upon as a perfect representation, yet the Jew’s characteristics are of that kind that can only be grasped by one ‘that is studied in his part.’ 
Few speakers possess the faculty of seizing the most hidden and involuntary emotions, and giving expression to them; but if any one ever exhibited this faculty it was Mr. Whitney’s recitation of the ‘Female Maniac,’ it searched every thread and fibre of the heart.

“The pretty and sweet manner of it forc’d
Those waters from us which we would have stopp’d,
But we had not so much of man in us,
But all our mother came into our eyes,
And gave us up to tears.”  [King Henry V, 4.6]

C. D.
Below, a sample of what they heard Charles Whitney declaim in Albany. By M. G. Lewis, from The Captive / A Scene in a Private Madhouse:
His rosy lips, how sweet they smiled!
   His mild blue eyes, how bright they shone!
None ever bore a lovelier child:
   And art thou now for ever gone?
And must I never see thee more,
   My pretty, pretty, pretty lad?
I will be free! unbar the door!
   I am not mad; I am not mad. 
Oh! hark! what mean those yells and cries?
   His chain some furious madman breaks;
He comes,—I see his glaring eyes;
   Now, now, my dungeon-grate he shakes.
Help! help!—He's gone!—Oh! fearful wo,
   Such screams to hear, such sights to see!
My brain, my brain,—I know, I know,
   I am not mad, but soon shall be.
Related melvilliana posts:

No comments:

Post a Comment