As England’s oldest literary periodical, The London Magazine has an illustrious history dating back to 1732. To celebrate our heritage, we delved into the archives to discover London’s arts and letters exactly 250 years ago this month, in March 1770. A selection of fascinating excerpts is presented below. Many of the writers’ concerns seem strange or even quaint to us now, but several topics of discussion — war, the supposed decline of national morality, controversial theatre productions — seem to be of enduring relevance.
From the archive
This month: The London
Magazine in March 1770
‘Fidelity Rewarded. A Tale.’
This sentimental story of a slave set free by his master, published in The London Magazine under the pseudonym ‘Horatio’, opens with an appeal to optimism. Unsurprisingly, Steven Pinker is not the first to argue that now is the best time to be alive.
“WHAT a bad world we live in” is a common, nay an almost universal exclamation, amongst our pretenders to wisdom and discernment—but bad as the world may be in this generation, what preceding period, let me ask, to which we can turn our eyes, has not at least equalled us in vice, and that too without a single trace of the virtues that now flourish and abound?
It is true, in this very bad world, that many people of fortune dare to indulge themselves in fashionable follies; but then do we not find these very people fathers to the fatherless and friends to the widow? […]
‘Extract of a Letter from New York’
Virtue may have ‘flourished and abounded’ in 1770, but epoch-making conflicts were on the horizon. The London Magazine printed a series of letters from Britain’s American colonies describing the chaos that would lead to revolutionary war of Independence only five years later.
“We are all in confusion in this city; the soldiers have cut and blowed-up Liberty Pole, and have caused much trouble between the inhabitants: on Friday last between Burling Slip and the Fly Market, was an engagement between the inhabitants and the soldiers, where much blood was spilt: one sailor got run through the body, who since died: one man got his skull cut in a most cruel manner.
On Saturday the hall bell rang for an alarm, when was another battle between the inhabitants and soldiers; but the soldiers met with the rubbers, the chiefest part being sailors with clubs to revenge the death of their brother, which they did with courage, and made them all run to their barracks. What will be the end of this God knows!”
Back in London, tragedy was entertainment — and big business. Written by one Mr. Colman, this ‘Poetical Essay’ humorously skewers the mind of the tragedian, as well as the actresses of sensationalist plays.
WHAT horrors fill the tragic poet’s brain!
Plague, murder, rape, and incest, croud his train;
He pants for miseries, delights in ills,
The blood of fathers, mothers, children, spills;
Stabs, poisons, massacres; and, in his rage,
With daggers, bowls, and carpets strews the stage.
Our gentler poet, in soft opera bred,
Italian crotchets singing in his head,
Winds to a prosp’rous end the fine-drawn tale,
And roars—but roars like any nightingale.—
Woman, whate’er she be—maid, widow, wife—
A quiet woman is the charm of life.
And sure Cephisa was a gentle creature,
Full of the milk and honey of good nature,
Imported for a spouse—by spouse refus’d!
Was ever maid so shamefully abus’d?
And yet alas, poor prince! I could not blame him.
One wife, I knew, was full enough to tame him. […]
Ladies, to you alone our author sues:
Tis yours to cherish, or condemn his muse.
The Theatre’s a mirror, and each play
Should be a very looking-glass, they say;
His looking-glass reflects no moles or pimples,
But shews you full of graces, smiles, and dimples.
If you approve yourselves, resolve to spare,
And criticks! then attack him, if ye dare.
‘The opening of a play, A Word to the Wise.’
The London stage of 1770 was home to many a tragicomedy, albeit not always one the playwright intended. This hilarious account of the disastrous opening night of a play has everything: furious audiences, rogue oranges, and even an appearance from David Garrick.
Mr. Kelly, the author of the comedy in question, having for some time been very unpopular, from a general supposition, that he was employed by government to defend many measures generally disproved, several respectable, though misinformed, friends to freedom, who eagerly credited even the most inconsistent reports to his disadvantage, hearing that he had a play to come out Drury-lane theatre, determined to shew their dislike of the man, by preventing the exhibition of his piece…
At a time when party rage unhappily flames too fiercely, the best men often become intemperate, and run unthinkingly into excesses, which the candour of their own hearts may condemn in the tranquil moment of recollection. This was unfortunately the case on the Saturday evening when the piece was first offered—The curtain was no sooner raised, than a loud hissing prevented the performers from beginning the play…While, on the other hand, the plaudits of the author’s numerous friends, as well as of the unprejudiced, who desired to give him a fair hearing, and afterwards express their censure or approbation, rendered the confusion general.
The performers, totally disconcerted by the tumult, were unable to exercise their abilities, or to remember their parts—Whole speeches, essentially necessary to the conduct of the fable, were left out, and others mutilated for the sake of brevity. In short, the sole consideration was to get the comedy through the five acts in any manner.
It was no difficult matter to foresee that the theatre on the succeeding Monday night would be a scene of fresh tumult, and the consequences appearing more and more alarming to Mr. Kelly, he went to Mr. Garrick, who came to town on the Sunday morning, to consult with him on the best means of preserving peace.
False Delicacy was acted instead, but such was the inconsiderateness of prejudice, that the female performers met with as little quarter as the male—Mrs. Baddeley very narrowly escaped being greatly hurted by an orange. They did, however, at length, reach the conclusion. The contention gradually declined, and every one departed very peaceably.
Transcribed and edited by James Riding.
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