By E. L. BLANCHARD.
LITTLE more than forty years ago — or, for the satisfaction of those who insist on chronological accuracy, on the evening of Saturday, September 15th, 1838 — I was
waiting at the wing of the Royal English Opera, as the Lyceum was then called, to accompany my early friend, George Wieland, to the City of London Theatre. The famous pantomimist, who was here filling up his time before the recommencement of the Drury Lane season, had promised to give his services that night for the benefit of a well-known clown at the East End, who stood sadly in need of some substantial help through sudden pressure on his pecuniary resources, caused by the afflictions that had befallen his family.
It was well known in the profession that the purse and personal services of George Wieland were ever at the disposal of his more unfortunate brethren; but in this case he had taken especial interest, as the poor wearer of the motley supplicating his aid was a man of acknowledged worth and ability, though his talents had never enabled him to secure more than a scanty subsistence for a family increasing out of all proportion to his reputation.
Old playgoers need not be told that Wieland was an artist in his peculiar line, excelling all who had come before him, and who has never been equalled since. He was about twenty-eight years of age at this time, but had been upon the stage since a child; and his marvellous embodiment of the droll imp in the ballet of “The Daughter of the Danube” had then placed him at the highest point of his particular branch of the profession.
In the dangerous department of the art to which he had devoted himself with so much zeal, he had suffered the usual penalties of popularity; and after being shot up traps and sent flying off on wires at perilous heights for nearly a quarter of a century, the reflection that so many of his limbs were left unbroken used to astonish him in his frequent moments of serious meditation. He was, however, no mere acrobat or gymnast. His powers of expressing purpose by action were of an extraordinary kind; and when Edmund Kean, after witnessing some of his remarkable pantomimic performances, used to say “that boy could convey, by gestures alone, the significance of every line of ‘Hamlet,’ ” the compliment conveyed was felt to be only a fair tribute to the cleverness of an exponent of what is now almost a lost art.
On the Saturday night referred to, Wieland was playing, for the twenty-eighth time, his popular character of Diavoletto, in Alexander Macfarren’s now almost forgotten
dramatic composition, known as “The Devil’s Opera,” in which Miss Priscilla Horton as Pepino, the page, and Miss Poole as Signora Giovannina, the gouvernante, rendered with such admirable effect the best songs of the composer. In the last scene, Wieland had to rapidly run down to the footlights on his knees, a feat of physical dexterity on which he had always prided himself.
The carelessness of a stage-carpenter had left the trap by which the pantomimist had ascended a few moments before, above the level, and the result was a severe injury to the knee-cap of the performer, that compelled the immediate descent of the curtain. Borne to the wing in an insensible condition, Wieland was placed on a couch, while the nearest surgeon was sent for. When he attended, the painful nature of the accident suggested the ready opinion that many days, if not weeks, must elapse before the pantomimist could appear in public again.
Wieland, suffering most acute tortures, feebly murmured that he had promised, in the course of the next hour, to appear at the “City of London,” in his character of the imp in the ballet of “The Daughter of the Danube,” and that if disappointed, the audience would probably resent their displeasure by hooting at the poor clown who was taking a benefit that night, and injure, in many ways, the prospect of providing for the poor sick family depending on the extra attraction that had been offered.Medical remonstrance was of no avail, and the coach, coming to the stage door of the Lyceum at the appointed time, Wieland was helped into the vehicle, and I accompanied him, in his state of acute suffering from the injured limb, to the theatre then recently opened in Norton Folgate. The house was full to overflowing, and relying on the unfailing punctuality of the prominent “star,”the overture to “The Daughter of the Danube” was, at the instigation of the prompter, proceeding at the appointed hour.
There was but a short time left for assuming the needful costume, during which brief period Wieland fainted three times from the extreme physical agony he was enduring, but the promise he had so generously given had been faithfully kept, and though the weird antics of the amusing goblin never created more merriment than on that occasion, and tears, wrung by pain, streamed frequently from under the mask during the memorable combat with Gilbert, the good-natured self sacrificing representative of the German goblin exerted himself more than usual, and even complied with the earnest demand of the audience for a repetition of the principal movement.”This will lay me up for another month,” said Wieland feebly to me as we parted after midnight, at the door of his house in a street near Bedford Square; “but, thank heaven! I have helped to put into the pockets of the poor fellow a good hundred pounds, for the benefit of the sick children he is working so hard to support.”
Story above published in 1880.
“It was E. L. B.’s opinion that Wieland was the greatest exponent of the now almost lost art of pantomime whom he had ever witnessed in the course of his lengthened experience; this was high praise from one who had been a worshipper of the great Joey Grimaldi, and who had seen Ella, Bologna, and all the most famous pantomimists of his time. He used to relate an anecdote of meeting Wieland at a supper-party on one occasion. Wieland, upon being asked to give a specimen of his art, said it was difficult for him to do so without the aid of a definite story, and costume and scenery. He, however, threw a sofa cushion on to the hearthrug, which was supposed to represent a dead child, whilst he, as its father, portrayed such grief and sorrow, by his action alone, that he moved his little audience to tears. Wieland first appeared as harlequin, in Harlequin Blue Beard, at the Adelphi in 1843.”
From: The Life and Reminiscences of E. L. Blanchard, Volume 1, 1891 pp.301-302.
“George Wieland, also another highly-gifted pantomimist, made his first appearance on the stage, at the age of five years, at Sadler’s Wells, in 1817. Grimaldi introduced his famous song, “Hot Codlings”—in the pantomime of The Talking Bird—for the first time, in 1819.”
From: Some London Theatres, Past and Present by Michael Williams, 1883, p. 13
From The Theatre, May 1880 p.298:
“About 1830 there was a gentleman who was known as the “Facetious George Wieland,” a pantomimist who indignantly repudiated the idea that the silent portrayal of anything whatever was impracticable. The ingenious George revelled as a monkey, did marvels as an elephant, sent the pit into ecstasies as a horned owl. Surely George quest must be the grandson of this elder George. But his culminating triumph was as the D___1 on two sticks. The impersonation was something very awful and thrilling, no doubt; indeed, there is a fearsome woodcut of this appalling D__ 1 in a penny paper of the period (yclept “Actors by Daylight”), with glaring eyes, and long nails, and a harrowing tail, and wings upon his hips, the contemplation of which, t’other day, caused my tongue to cleave unto the roof of my mouth, and banished slumber from my eyelids for a fortnight. So great was the inimitable George in this impersonation that a babbling unconscious Milton was impelled to seize his lyre and to pour forth his soul in poesy thus:
Here lies Wieland; take no heed
Of where his soul is, for indeed
Satan would turn away from one
Who has so more than he did, done.
How sublime is this thought! How perfect and rhythmical the metre! Verily, an expiring swan!”