About the Production of The Kiss
by Denise Conejo, Kaitlyn D’Agostino, and Christian Didier
Theodore de Banville’s Le Baiser, was performed in translation at the Royalty Theatre on March 4, 1892. The theater, which was constantly under renovation, had re-opened in 1883 as the Royalty Theatre. It was run by Mrs. Charles Selby who had been long acquainted with the stage and who used the theater as a chance to showcase young and fresh talent (Lloyd). Appropriately, Le Baiser was well regarded at the Royalty, as it works with themes of innocence, youth, and beauty in a charming and pastoral setting. The naive and virginal Pierrot was performed by Bernard Gould and the fantastical Urgele was played by Edith Chester (Wearing). Le Baiser, under the management of the Independent Theatre Society, was part of a three-show program which, according to The Theatre: A Monthly Review, was regarded as the “best selected programme that they had up to that date set before the public” (Eglington, June 1982). The play was licensed by the Lord Chamberlain produced by actor/manager Charles Hoppe, manager/treasurer J.T. Grein, and musical director Jan Mulder (Wearing).
John Gray, English poet and friend of Oscar Wilde, translated Le Baiser into English for the Independent Theater Society production, which retitled it The Kiss. The self-educated Gray was a member of a circle of English poets that patronized the controversial productions of the Independent Theater Society. He viewed the modern actor as a “bohemian, outcast, and poet” (Bristow 51). Critics were divided in regards to the success of Gray’s translation, which was reviewed by The Theater as having “uneven verse” while Dramatic Notes: A Yearbook of the Stage praised the English couplets of Gray’s translation as “graceful.” The production was also reviewed in Times, Era, and The Saturday Review.
The leading role of Pierrot was played John Bernard Partridge, credited in this production by his stage-name of Bernard Gould. Better remembered today as an illustrator and cartoonist, he was elected as a member of the Royal Institute of Painters in Watercolors, and served as chief cartoonist for the influential Punch from 1909 until his death in 1945. Nevertheless, Gould was an accomplished stage actor, appearing in numerous plays alongside luminaries such as Henry Irving and Johnston Forbes-Robertson. His success prompted Justin Huntly McCarthy to write, “Whenever I see him act, I think he ought to only be an actor, but when I see his pencil-work I think he should be faithful to that branch of art.”
Partridge’s performance as Pierrot was universally lauded by contemporary critics. Despite criticism of the translation, the Theatre wrote that a better performance “could not have been given,” while the Stage made note of his “grace and delicacy.” In his review for Gentleman’s Magazine, McCarthy again praised the actor and his take on a “latter-day Pierrot.” This is perhaps not a surprise given Gould’s history with Pierrot as a stock character; Strand Magazine makes note of several paintings he had done of the character prior to Le Baiser’s 1892 London premier.
Less successful was the performance of Edith Chester in her role as Urgele. Best known for her appearance as Lady Orreyed in Pinero’s Second Mrs. Tanqueray, Chester — the stage name of Edith Morgan Gellibrand — was famous not only for her charm and beauty, but for her tumultuous personal life. An 1883 Theatre report on an amateur comedy performance called her “one of the best amateurs we have seen for a long time; not only does she possess the natural advantages of a pretty face and sympathetic voice, but she knows how to move on the stage with freedom and grace.”
A decade later, in reviewing Le Baiser, the Theatre would call her performance “charming,” white noting her shortcomings in the “proper delivery of verse.” Others were less charitable. “Not successful” was the highest praise the Stage cared to offer. This was largely representative of critics on the whole, characterizing her as sympathetic, but her performance as lackluster. One wonders if that performance might have been influenced by concurrent events in her life outside the theater — 1892 saw her divorce her abusive husband amidst false allegations of adultery. Though she would make it through the scandal and even remarry, she would die of typhoid just two years after her appearance as Urgele.
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