Friday, June 21, 2024

Pantomime with mock pier mirrors, seen by Helen Melville at the Boston Museum in January 1844

Interior Ornamented Wall with Windows and Pier-Glasses
Michelangelo Pergolesi via The Metropolitan Museum of Art

Helen Melville's Boston letters to her sister Augusta get well-deserved attention from John Bryant in the second volume of Herman Melville: A Half Known Life (Wiley Blackwell, 2021) at pages 1136-1144. Bryant focuses on Helen's lively and detailed descriptions of shows, plays, and tableaux vivants she experienced in private homes as well as theaters and other public venues. In a previous post on Melvilliana I transcribed Helen's letter to Augusta dated November 27, 1843, the one in which she writes about seeing Macready as Macbeth, twice:

Down the road I hope to transcribe more of Helen's extant letters in the Augusta Melville papers, now accessible via the New York Public Library Digital Collections. Here and now, I just want to change one word in the wonderful excerpt that Bryant has provided from Helen's letter to Augusta dated January 14, 1844. Helen is describing a magical scene with "mirrors" in the holiday pantomime "The Golden Axe," as performed at the Boston Museum. In this enchanting bit, two fairies are played by child actresses, one of whom plays the part of the other's reflection. 
"The one upon the stage would wind the garland about her head, and dance before the fire[?] between the mock mirrors." --Helen Melville to Augusta Melville, as transcribed in Herman Melville: A Half Known Life, Volume 2 (Wiley Blackwell, 2021) page 1142.  

Detail, letter from Helen Melville to Augusta Melville dated January 14, 1844, page 4
via The New York Public Library Digital Collections

Where Bryant gives the conjectural reading "fire[?]" I think the word Helen wrote is "pier."

PIER, n. [Sax. per, pere.] ... 3. A mass of solid work between the windows of a room.

PIER GLASS, n. A glass which hangs against a pier, between windows. 

-- Noah Webster's 1841 American Dictionary of the English Language, page 610. 

As Helen explained to Augusta, the staging "represented a parlour, containing among other furniture, two enormous mirrors from ceiling to floor." Two young performers only are mentioned (girls "not more than nine years old"): one fairy dancer in front of the full-length mirrors or rather faux-mirrors, and one playing her "shadow" or simulated reflection. The semblance of a solid mass or "pier" between the two mock mirrors would have enabled the "shadow" to appear behind each of the two mirrors as a perfectly reflected image of the supposedly real fairy. Some sort of wall or opaque structure between the two stage mirrors was required to effectively conceal the shadow-fairy's prior movements, so that the audience could only see her when she appeared in the frame of one or the other mirror. 

Images from this and other letters from Helen Melville (Griggs) in the Augusta Melville papers are accessible courtesy of The New York Public Library Digital Collections. Transcribed below, Helen's full report on The Golden Axe as given on the final page of her letter to Augusta of January 14, 1844:
We made up a party the other evening for the Museum to see the beautiful pantomime of the "the golden axe". I was really delighted, the fairy scenes were so lovely, the beautiful little girls, with long flowing ringlets, gossamer robes, and glistening jewels in their hair and on their garments. Their fairy wands, and light footsteps were really beautiful. The scenery was very appropriate, and the little creatures performed their parts admirably. One scene represented a parlour, containing among other furniture, two enormous mirrors from ceiling to floor. The frames only were real. The glass itself was only black gauze, woven tightly across them. One of these little creatures not more than nine years old, danced before them with a garland of flowers, and another behind them, mimicked so completely her motions, in every particular, that the illusion was perfect, you were sure it was her image in the glass. They were dressed exactly alike, and were the same size. The one upon the stage would wind the garland about her head, and dance before the pier between the mock mirrors. But the very instant she passed before either her little shadow on the other side appeared also. I never saw anything so perfect. Then we had Harlequin & Columbine which I have heard of forever but never saw before, and the farce of "Dr. Dilworth", which was very amusing.


Manuscripts and Archives Division, The New York Public Library. "Melville (Griggs), Helen" The New York Public Library Digital Collections. 1835 - 1863.

Bryant's excerpt in Herman Melville: A Half Known Life leaves out Helen's reference to "Dr. Dilworth." A Google-digitized 19th century Boston edition of the popular one-act Doctor Dilworth by John Oxenford is accessible online courtesy of HathiTrust Digital Library. The farce that Helen Melville found "very amusing" in the first month of 1844 opens with Syntax, devoted assistant of Dr. Dilworth, deep into Lindley Murray's Grammar and comically conjugating the verb "to love." That performance happened many years before Pip's more ominous conjugation of "to look" in Herman Melville's 1851 book Moby-Dick chapter 99, The Doubloon--as if the cabin boy, like Dilworth's earnest disciple, had "been studying Murray's Grammar."
In The Age and Stage of George L. Fox, 1825-1877 (Expanded Edition, University of Iowa Press, 1999) at page 26, Laurence Senelick reports that Caroline aka "Caddie" Fox and soon-to-be husband George C. Howard "were prominently featured in The Golden Axe, she as Sylva, Queen of the Fairies, and he as Colin, afterwards Harlequin; and throughout the season they were inseparable on stage and off."

Boston Evening Transcript - January 3, 1844

Related posts:

No comments:

Post a Comment