The 19th-Century Comedy Routines of Charles Mathews
What made people laugh 200 years ago? Among other things, old jokes and comedy performances in theatres. One of the leading comedians of the early 19th century was British actor Charles Mathews. Famous for his wit and his skill at mimicry, he kept audiences in stitches with his one-man shows, which were a hit on both sides of the Atlantic. How funny would we find his comedy routines today? Read on and decide for yourself.
Comic actor Charles Mathews
Charles Mathews was born in London on June 28, 1776. His father was a Methodist bookseller and minister who took a dim view of the theatre, but accepted his son’s decision to take up acting. After building a reputation in smaller cities around the UK, Charles Mathews appeared on the London stage in 1803, performing in plays and farces. His comedic talent was quickly recognized and he was much in demand as a performer. He was also known for his offstage humour and wit.
Mathews’s skill as an actor could deceive even people who knew him. For example, at Drury Lane Theatre, he would often go into the green room – where performers and their celebrity friends gathered – in the guise of a “Mr. Pennyman,” whom everyone assumed was a friend of someone else. He would then do odd things and make ridiculous remarks. Pennyman’s antics became increasingly absurd, to the point where a doctor was called upon to give his opinion regarding the stranger’s sanity, but acquaintances were still amazed when Mathews eventually revealed Pennyman’s true identity.
In 1808 in Hull, Mathews appeared for the first time in his own show, called The Mail Coach; Or, Rambles in Yorkshire. This set the pattern for a series of one-man shows that Mathews performed annually starting in 1818. These consisted of three consecutive hours of comic monologues, sketches, impersonations and songs. Mathews played all of the characters himself, convincingly moving from one to the other through rapid changes in expression, voice and clothing. The following review gives the flavour of the 1818 show, called Mr. Mathews at Home.
Everything was given with an airiness, a taste, and an epigrammatic conciseness, which prevented it from hanging heavy on the auditor even for a single moment. The novelty of the evening was ventriloquism; in the exhibition of which five distinct persons were heard to speak, as if they were actually before the audience, while all the voices came from one and the same person; and this was Mr. Mathews himself. In the character of a French valet, which he sustained with characteristic naïveté and humour, he alternately held a conversation with a little child, with a housekeeper, a butler, and his master. The child was represented by a doll, which he took out of a box; and one would have thought the doll actually spoke, so well did he by his ventriloquial power imitate the voice of a child, without any movement of the natural organs of speech. He sang a song on the London Newspapers, which abounded with humour and satire. He next delineated a Yorkshire clown in a most natural manner, and afterwards, in a strain of exquisite mimicry, personated an old Scotch lady, who told a long story about nothing. He concluded the whole with a perfect imitation of several eminent performers of the present day. The passage he selected for the purpose was a part of Hamlet’s instructions to the players. He began by mimicking the exact tones, accents, and gestures of Mr. Kemble in this part; and afterwards described the manner in which it would be spoken by Young, Talma, Pope, Cooke, Munden, Blanchard, Fawcett, &c.
We never witnessed any exhibition at which the audience seemed to feel so much unmixed and uninterrupted pleasure. It was altogether a delicious treat, because it made everybody merry and happy. (1)
Manager, performer, orchestra, and scene-shifter
Initially others wrote Mathews’s routines; later he wrote his own. After each 40-day run in London closed, Mathews would tour the show in other cities. His entertainments became hugely popular, although not everyone was a fan. William Hazlitt criticized Mathews’s 1820 show as follows:
Mr. Mathews shines particularly, neither as an actor, nor a mimic of actors, but…his forte is a certain general tact, and versatility of comic power. … He is best when he is his own prompter, manager, and performer, orchestra, and scene-shifter; and perhaps, to make the thing complete, the audience should be of his own providing too. … His talent, though limited, is of a lively and vigorous fibre; capable of a succession of shifts and disguises…but by the suddenness and abruptness of his turns, he surprises and shocks oftener than he satisfies. His wit does not move the muscles of the mind, but, like some practical joker, gives one a good rap on the knuckles, or a lively box on the ear.… He is afraid to trust for a moment to the language of nature and character, and wants to translate it into pantomime and grimace…. His best imitations are taken from something characteristic or absurd that has stuck his fancy, or occurred to his observation in real life – such as a chattering footman, a drunken coachman, a surly traveller, or a garrulous old Scotchwoman. … The fault of these exhibitions…is that they turn too much upon caricaturing the most common-place and worn-out topics of ridicule – the blunders of Frenchmen in speaking English, the mispronunciations of the cockney dialect, the ignorance of Country Cousins, and the impertinence and foppery of relations in town. (2)
Other prominent writers praised the shows. Lord Byron said:
Mathews…seems to have continuous chords in his mind, that vibrate to those in the minds of others, as he gives not only the look, tones, and manners of the persons he personifies, but the very train of thinking, and the expressions they indulge in; and, strange to say, this modern Proteus succeeds best when the imitated is a person of genius or great talent, as he seems to identify himself with him. His imitation of Curran can hardly be so called – it is a continuation, and is inimitable. I remember Sir Walter Scott’s observing, that Mathew’s imitations were of the mind, to those who had the key; but as the majority had it not, they were contented with admiring those of the person, and pronounced him a mimic who ought to be considered an accurate and philosophic observer of human nature, blessed with the rare talent of intuitively identifying himself with the minds of others. (3)
King George IV was a fan; he invited Mathews to perform at Carlton House. The Duke of Wellington also enjoyed Mathews’s entertainment.
The weather is very hot
This excerpt is from Mathews’s Travels in Earth, Air, and Water, performed at the Theatre Royal, English Opera House, in 1821.
Some one observes that ‘the weather is very hot;’ upon which the Major exclaims, ‘Hot! What d’ye call hot? Pho—nonsense! Why, I’ve been in countries where salamanders dropped down dead with the heat of the sun. I dined one day with a friend and his wife at Callimahammaquackadelore, near Cudderapoo. Well, after dinner, as we were taking our wine, a coup de soleil struck the lady and in a moment reduced her to a heap of ashes! I, of course, was much shocked; but my friend, who was quite accustomed to such accidents, coolly rang the bell, and said to the servant, ‘Kit, my gar, and consumar, hitheratoo jumma chaudra put;’ which means, in plain English, ‘Bring fresh glasses, and sweep away your mistress!’ (4)
Frenchman at the Boston Post Office
In 1822-23, Mathews toured the United States with a show called The Youthful Days of Mr. Mathews, to great acclaim. Napoleon’s brother, Joseph Bonaparte, was among those who saw him. Mathews wrote to his wife from Philadelphia on March 22, 1823:
My entertainments keep up here. ‘The Youthful Days,’ last night, went off as well as ever it did in England. Joseph Bonaparte, the ex-king of Spain, has been three or four times. He is very like the portraits of Napoleon, and has a most pleasing expression of countenance. The other evening I was encored in the Playhouse song; and, as I left the stage, he applauded, and, stretching forward, nodded at me very good naturedly. I have frequently dreamt of Napoleon, and at this moment it appeared as though his countenance beamed on me and patronized me. (5)
In 1824, Mathews launched a new show, called The Trip to America, based on his impressions of the Americans. It included the following sketch, among many others.
Our next scene is at the Boston Post-Office, where a Monsieur Mallet, a French emigrant, makes repeated applications to know if a long-expected letter from his daughter had arrived; and he attends daily, with ‘Pray Sair have von letter for Mr. Mallay!’ The man, turning over the letters, always said, ‘No,’ and the poor Frenchman left the office, thinking his daughter had completely lost sight of her exiled father. Still, day after day, he repeated the visit, and was as repeatedly repulsed with the familiar monosyllable, ‘No.’ Week after week passed away, and the poor Frenchman never received the wished-for consolation. One day, however, he went to the office, and while the man was sorting the letters he named several persons, and among the rest, ‘Mr. Mallet; to be left till called for.’ The Frenchman shrugged his shoulders and exclaimed that it was very strange; when the Republican told him if he was not satisfied he might look over the list himself. Mr. Mallet does so; and only reflect, only conceive his astonishment, when he casts his eye on the identical letter he had been so long searching after. His joy at having received the letter for a moment subdues his rage, and while he kisses the treasure, and presses it to his bosom, he exclaims, ‘Sair, don’t you see this letter is for me!’ When the Office-keeper coolly exclaims, ‘Why had you said Màl-let, I should have given it to you before.’ This tends to aggravate the emigrant, who impresses upon him that his name is Mallet (which he prounces Mallay) and threatens to report him to Congress. The Republican tells him he don’t care what he does, he’s only an individual. The Frenchman, enraged, tells him he is the same, that he is an individual too; and while he is venting his passion, he incautiously tears his letter to atoms. The man laughs; but Monsieur Mallet very deliberately picks up the pieces; and leaves the office, kissing the letter, and vowing revenge. This is certainly the best picture in the whole performance, and was acted well by Mr. M. Indeed it was at once complete, masterly, and truly affecting, and deserved the thunders of applause with which it was received. (6)
Gentleman suspicious of his housekeeper
The following description comes from a review of Mathews’s Comic Annual for 1832, performed at the Adelphi Theatre in London.
The first character is that of Bachelor Winks, a prim, demure, and priggish gentleman, who had occupied the same set of chambers in the Temple for seven and thirty years, and who has one set form of speech for every occasion, — ‘Really,’ ‘Bless me!’ ‘Never saw such a thing in all my life.’ Say to him, Mr. Winks, the wind’s easterly to-day. — ‘Pon my word, so it is, really, — never saw such a thing in all my life.’ Ask him whether there were any news; whether his answer was in the negative or affirmative, it was sure to be accompanied by the eternal, ‘Never saw such a thing in all my life.’ What would Solomon have given for such a man?’ He surely would never have declared ‘there was nothing new under the sun,’ if he had but had the pleasure of Mr. Winks’ acquaintance. We are under the necessity of omitting the very laughable story of the ‘cold-bath,’ and pass on to Mr. Anthony Sillylynx, the suspicious gentleman, a character which is drawn most admirably. He is one who fancies that the whole world is leagued in a conspiracy against him. He never keeps a servant two months, — nor even then without applying for a search warrant to ascertain whether he had not stolen or secreted any of his property. He at last gets an Irish housekeeper, Mrs. O’Haggerty, whose imperturbable good-humour is proof against all his suspicions. One morning she went out to market, and he, according to his usual custom, began to pry into her table drawers, work-box, &c. if haply he could discover anything which might justify the eternal suspicions by which he is tormented, when he lights upon a paper containing the following memorandum in her own hand-writing, ‘Cut off my poor boy’s head, September 14th, 1808.’ Upon reading this he is struck dumb with horror, and is about to fetch a constable for the purpose of apprehending her, when she enters to inquire, ‘What his honour would like for dinner?’ and a most admirably sustained colloquy takes place; she proposes ‘calves-head;’ but the very mention of a head makes him shake with terror. He endeavours to pump her about her family. She says, she buried her first son years ago. ‘Oh!’ says he, ‘you did bury him then?’ — ‘Yes,’ replied she, ‘I laid his head under the cold stone.’ The bachelor starts at this confirmation of his suspicions, and begins to wonder what she has done with the body. The good lady then proceeds to talk of her second son, whom she intended for a priest, him she sent to Maynooth College; ‘but,’ said she with a sigh, ‘it was of no use.’ — ‘Why so?’ said Mr. Sillylynx. ‘Why; because he had no head at all, my jewel!’ — ‘That’s the very one,’ says Sillylynx, ‘after all.’ He then shows her the memorandum, and asks her what she cut it off with’? She replies that she snipt it off with the scissors. ‘Bless me!’ said she, ‘your honour’s angry with me, I fear.’ — ‘Angry with you, woman! what can you say after you have acknowledged to the crime described in this memorandum.’ — ‘Crime is it? Crime your honour says, — Lord! if that memorandum puts you in such a flusteration, what would you have said if you had found this?’ (taking up another and reading it.) ‘September 20th, cut off my own head.’ Sillylynx looked aghast; his reckless tormentor, however, continued. — ‘But, pray, what has your honour done with the lock of hair that was in that paper?’ — ‘Hair!’ said Sillylynx opening his eyes, ‘it wasn’t your son’s head then that you cut off after all?’ — ‘Lord! no, your honour; nor my own either, — it was but a lock of his hair.’ This dialogue, which was admirably sustained, and of which we have given but a summary, drew down shouts of laughter. (7)
Charles Mathews’s final years
In 1834, Mathews made another tour of the United States, but he had to cut it short because of illness. He made his last appearance on the stage in New York in February 1835. Charles Mathews died of heart disease in Plymouth, England, on the morning of his 59th birthday, June 28, 1835.
In the latter part of his career, Mathews was co-manager of the Adelphi Theatre in London. He also, as a hobby, amassed a large collection of theatrical portraits. These became the basis of the Garrick Club’s art collection.
Charles Mathews’s wife, Anne Jackson, an actress, wrote a four-volume biography of him, based on an autobiography Mathews had started. Their son, Charles James Mathews (1803-1878), became a successful comic actor.
You might also enjoy:
- Anne Jackson Mathews, Memoirs of Charles Mathews Comedian, Vol. II (London, 1838), pp. 448-449.
- William Hazlitt, A View of the English Stage; or A Series of Dramatic Criticisms (London, 1818), pp. 180-183.
- Marguerite Gardiner, Conversations of Lord Byron with the Countess of Blessington (London, 1834), pp. 239-240.
- Anne Jackson Mathews, Memoirs of Charles Mathews Comedian, Vol. III (London, 1838), p. 184.
- Ibid., p. 398.
- Charles Mathews, The London Mathews; containing an Account of this Celebrated Comedian’s Trip to America (Philadelphia, 1824), pp. 15-16.
- Anne Jackson Mathews, Memoirs of Charles Mathews Comedian, Vol. IV (London, 1839), pp. 106-108.
Mathews…gives not only the look, tones, and manners of the persons he personifies, but the very train of thinking, and the expressions they indulge in.