2. The Witchfinder (1864)
by Robert Buchanan
London: Sadler’s Wells Theatre. 8 to 22 October, 1864.
Illustrated Times (1 October, 1864)
Talking about Shelley reminds one of the “Cenci;” and the poetic drama is, then, not so far off. We have all of us got into a reckless way of saying the poetic acting drama is dead and done for. It will pass, as a random shot,
Between the walnuts and the wine;
but that is all. One thing is certain, there are yet people living, and people of fine powers, too, who believe in it. Mr. Robert Buchanan (“Undertones”) has a new poetic drama coming out at Sadler’s Wells directly. It is called “The Witchfinder.” The scene is laid in Salem, Massachusetts; the date is 1695, and the hero, an interesting male imbecile, is played by Miss Marriott. I, for one, shall be there to see. Won’t you go after that? If you should see in the outermost row of the stalls a severe-looking person of ripe years and long iron-grey beard, wearing an enormous pair of tortoiseshell spectacles, and applauding in a select manner, with a large green umbrella, that will be a disinterested claqueur, but it won’t be me.
N.B. For a defence of that last locution I refer you to Dr. Latham. You don’t choose to be “referred?” Very good; what do you suppose I care? Leave it alone—but go and see “The Witchfinder.”
The Era (9 October, 1864)
SADLER’S WELLS.—(Last Night.)
Under the title of The Witch-Finder, a new play by Mr. Buchanan, was last night produced at this Theatre with every possible attribute of success. The author, who is better known to readers of Magazines than visitors to Theatres, by the proofs of poetic power manifested in his writings, has long identified his name with some graceful poems and a volume or two, not merely passing the ordeal of criticism but gaining the highest meed of praise from very fastidious judges, might be cited as illustrative of the prominent position he has already attained in the world of literature. This can hardly be called Mr. Buchanan’s maiden effort in dramatic authorship, for, if we remember rightly, an effective drama played for some time at an East-end Theatre about a year ago, showed a peculiar facility which the author of “Undertones” possessed for fitting his fanciful thoughts to stage interpretation. The present play, cast in the mould of the high poetical drama but written in metrical prose, is a much more ambitious production, and the favour with which it was received by a crowded and fashionable assemblage, embracing a large number of the veterans who have earned their laurels in the same field, will, it is to be hoped, stimulate the young author to persevere in the path he has chosen, and make the Theatre the medium for conveying his high-trained thoughts and noble aspirations to the public. The Witch-Finder is in three acts, and though the title is not quite new either to the stage or the circulating library, it is attached to a plot which is of strong original interest. Elijah Brogden, an imbecile youth, personated by Miss Marriott with great ability, is the principal personage in the story, which deals with a chronicle of ancient Salem, at the time when the Puritans, settled in New England, began to be agitated by that extraordinary belief in witchcraft of which Cotton Mather has left us such a remarkable and entertaining record. The action takes place according to the bills in the year 1693, but the persecutions of the supposed witches must have commenced at this spot at least half a century earlier. The scene is laid on the outskirts of Salem, and the piece opens with a pretty view of a rustic bridge crossing a stream, running into the bay of Massachusetts. Elijah Brogden, the poor crazed youth, has an aged mother, who is accused by Martin Holt (Mr. George Melville) of being a witch, and under his direction she is taken to the stake and burned. Elijah has been fascinated by the gaze of Ruth Holt, the daughter of the bigoted Puritan who has so mercilessly advocated the death of the old dame. Ruth has an accepted lover in Walter Vane (Mr. Charles Horsman), who has a desperate rival in Josiah Jones (Mr. W. H. Drayton), and acting on the popular belief that one bereft of reason has an instinctive perception of a witch, the latter takes advantage of Elijah’s infatuation for Ruth to charge her with witchcraft as a means of carrying out his own plan of revenge. Martin Holt, who had a terrible curse levelled against him by the demented youth when he saw his aged mother sacrificed at the other’s instigation, now finds the storm he has raised menacing the safety of his own family. Ruth is proclaimed a witch and cast into prison, and Martin suffers the mental torture which he has so often inflicted on others. Ultimately Elijah turns out to be closely related with the family, and the worst consequences are happily averted by his timely intercession. The drama was not over till past eleven, and the lateness of the hour to which it was protracted will render compression advisable; but the interest of the plot and the spirit of the diction never flagged. Miss Marriott looked and acted admirably as the afflicted youth, and delivered the curse, which so effectively closes the first act, with thrilling power. Mr. George Melville personated the sombre Puritan Martin Holt with great care and judgment, Mr. Charles Horsman was a gallant Walter Vane, and Mr. W. H. Drayton, as Josiah Jones, the villain of the piece, was sufficiently mischievous and mysterious. Ruth Holt was quietly represented by Miss E. Beaufort, and Miss L. Harrison played Hester Holdenough, a less rigid member of the New England sect, with great animation. The other parts were satisfactorily distributed in the hands of Mr. W. S. Foote, as Stephen Flaxmore; Mr. W. Artaud, as Abel Heywood; and Mr. W. H. Courtley and Mr. W. Ellerton, as two clownish citizens with a comic horror of supernatural agency. At the end of the first act Miss Marriott, Mr. George Melville, and Mr. Charles Horsman were called before the curtain, and similar honours, with a call for the author, were paid at the end. The new play, which was enriched with some effective scenery by Mr. Broadfoot, was preceded by the farcical sketch called Love in the East, taken from the old piece of Englishmen in India, and followed by The Deserter, in which Mr. W. Ellerton, as Dominique the “possessed,” furnished the audience with abundant merriment.
The Times (10 October, 1864 - p.7)
The announcement that a new play by M. Robert Buchanan would be produced at Sadler’s-wells on Saturday night attracted an audience remarkable not only for its great numerical strength, but for the literary character of many of its constituents. The author has been recognized as one of the poets of the day, and Miss Marriott has regained for her theatre the reputation first acquired under Mr. Phelps of supplying the hungry after intellectual fare with a satisfactory repast. To be brought out as the chief piece at Sadler’s-wells a drama must, at all events, pretend to an aim higher than that of exciting transient applause, and, although such aims seldom prove quite so successful as the dramatic marksman expects, the very attempt to gain perennial laurels excites, when made upon a public stage, the curiosity of that portion of the literary world that still looks hopefully to the theatre. Nor is that portion of the literary world—if the word be taken in a broad sense—by any means small. In spite of all the changes of fashion, there is still a large public believing that a theatre may be devoted to higher uses than the excitement of “sensations,” or the performance of burlesque. In this public Miss Marriott, following in the steps of Mr. Phelps, finds her best supporters; it is by this public, which in a great measure represents a national feeling, that the resuscitation of Drury-lane, under Messrs. Falconer and Chatterton, is hailed as the forerunner of a better order of things.
Mr. Buchanan’s play, which, though in only three acts, has been written in the style usually associated with five, is entitled The Witchfinder, and is evidently intended to exhibit the careful development of a character, placed under very exceptional circumstances. Mr. Henry Spicer, who was very prolific as a dramatist, when the cessation of the patents awakened a hope for extended “legitimacy,” and whose theatrical productions deserve to be better remembered than they are, wrote a play called the Witch Wife, in which the villain of the story was the notorious Matthew Hopkins, and the audience assembled at Sadler’s-wells on Saturday might expect to find a similar villain in the witchfinder of Mr. Robert Buchanan. But Martin Holt, as he is called, is the reverse of a bad man. Trained among the early Puritan settlers of New England, with whom a belief in witches, which they held in common with most of their civilized contemporaries, was rendered peculiarly intense by the convictions that their enemies, the Indians, were arch-magicians, he has firmly persuaded himself that he is preternaturally endowed with the power of detecting the sorceresses to whom all the evils that befall his neighbours are commonly ascribed. Many a harmless old woman has suffered death on the stake through the mere ipse dixit of Martin Holt, but still he is the honest incarnation of a popular belief, and his only fault is that sort of vanity from which even a successful visionary is not expected to be exempt. When it is universally allowed that the glance of Martin Holt can penetrate into those dark regions that are closed to the natural sight, and that the very lustre of his eye is sufficient to make a witch drop powerless at his feet, it is but human that Martin’s head should be a little turned, and that he should take a sort of gloomy pleasure in the barbarous office which makes him the great man of the town of Salem in Massachusetts. However, while his position is high, it is by no means safe, and he has enemies at his elbow who would gladly see his fall. Though exceptionally inspired as a witchfinder, he seems to be less rigidly Puritanical than some of his neighbours, and his encouragement of his daughter’s love for Walter Vane, a gay young Englishman, whose manners are rather of the cavalier than of the roundhead order, and who—shame on him—does not believe in witchcraft, is a grievous cause of offence, especially to Josiah Jones, a Puritanical villain of the deepest dye, who would willingly marry pretty Ruth Holt himself. A straw will overbalance the fortunes of Martin Holt.
The straw is at hand. One Mistress Brogden, whose only crime is poverty, is suspected of witchcraft by public opinion, and is declared guilty by the more deliberative Martin. She dies at the stake, and leaves behind her a half-witted son, named Elijah, who has fallen idiotically in love with Ruth, and being an adept in the art of interpreting the language of bells, which is at least as old as the days of Lord Mayor Whittington, takes it into his head that the church peals utter the warning “Be-ware-E-li-jah-be-ware-the-pret-ty-witch,” and thus designate Ruth Holt. When his mother is condemned, Elijah not only curses the witchfinder, but implores his daughter to use her powers of witchery, and by drawing down thunderbolts to save his parent’s life. Mistress Brogden having been safely reduced to ashes, the good folks who have hounded her to the stake begin to look upon her orphan son with tardy compassion, to like Martin Holt a little less than they did before, and to pay marked attention to the idiot’s assertion that Ruth Holt is a witch. Josiah Jones does all he can to strengthen the bad opinion entertained of Ruth, hoping thus to get her into his power, and at last it is settles that she is to be formally accused. As Martin Holt is the only competent detecter of witches, and it will be rather indelicate to ask him to denounce his own daughter, of whom he is dotingly fond, a deputation waits upon him to have the signs by which a sorceress may be discovered without naming the suspected person. Martin, solicited by Ruth, has resolved to give over witchfinding, and to accompany her and her intended husband, Walter Vane, to “Merrie England,” but he cannot resist the appeal of his neighbours, and, unfortunately, all the tests which he recommends as infallible serve to prove that Ruth is a witch beyond the possibility of doubt.
When Martin sees his daughter dragged to prison in consequence of his own decision, and learns that she is condemned to death, he becomes altogether deranged, and wanders about the country a forlorn old man, with no other companion than the boy Elijah, who now regards him with a strange sympathy. Josiah Jones offers to effect the escape of Ruth from prison if she will grant him her love, but his offer is of course rejected, according to the well-known precedent of Claude Trollo and Esmeralda, and Ruth is freed from prison and Jones too by the half-witted Elijah. The people endeavouring to recapture Ruth while she is defended by Walter Vane and Elijah, the piece ends with a general tumult, in the course of which Josiah Jones kills Martin Holt, to be slain in turn by Walter Vane. Ruth is only saved by the very timely arrival of despatches, declaring that the law against witchcraft has been abolished in England, and that that abolition has been confirmed by the local Government.
The conception of Martin Holt, the gloomy but honest fanatic, constantly upholding the cause of injustice and oppression, while he thinks himself engaged in a holy work, is very original, and the preternatural side of his character is happily contrasted with his purely human devotion to his daughter. What the author intended by the character of Elijah Brogden, who in prominence stands next to Martin Holt, it is not so easy to decide. The vengeance with which the judicial murder of his mother at first inspires him soon dies away; his love for Ruth is of the least tangible kind, his imbecility seems to come and go at the author’s pleasure, and his strange sympathy with Martin, though much talked about, seems merely to imply that one maniac may be attracted by another, as when Shakespeare’s Lear is fascinated by the assumed insanity of Edgar.
Mr. Buchanan knows how to make his act-drop descend on an effective tableau. The first act ends with the curse uttered by Elijah, when his mother is dragged off to prison; the second with Holt’s despair on learning that his daughter is condemned; the third with a scuffle that heightens the force of the catastrophe. But in the general conduct of his play he is far from skilful. The interest, instead of being concentrated, is often frittered away by purposeless scenes and insipid personages. Josiah Jones is one of the weakest of villains—a Claude Trollo without the passion, and with respect to the brisk cavaliers and grotesque Puritans, who relieve the more tragic portions of the work, it is hard to say which is the least exciting, the faint brilliancy of the former, or the very dry humour of the latter. The Shakespearian principle of relief should always be adapted with caution, and only by masters of strong comedy.
The more serious portion of the dialogue is written in blank verse, and much beautiful language is put into the mouth of Martin Holt. Indeed, we suspect that the story altogether would look better in a narrative than in a dramatic form. That concentration which is so essential to the stage is not required for the novel, and such psychological subtleties as the sudden friendship between Elijah and his m other’s persecutor may be rendered clearer by a mixture of description and reflection than by theatrical exhibition.
Of the acting of Miss Marriott we can speak in the highest terms. Elijah is not only an unintelligible but an unthankful part, for his mental deficiency precludes him from variety of expression. But Miss Marriott presents us with a strange weird figure, with light flowing hair, wandering eye, and graceful movements, that give us a striking picture, where the author has failed to give us a distinctly marked character. Mr. George Melville achieves an intelligent interpretation of the witchfinder. In the zenith of his power he is dreamy and imposing, in the agony of his despair he displays unwonted force. Miss E. Beaufort prettily represents Ruth Brogden.
The piece is well put on the stage, two of the “set scenes” being at once elaborate and picturesque. Its success was vigorously declared by a storm of applause that followed the conclusion of every act.
The Daily News (10 October, 1864)
An original romantic play by Mr. Robert Buchanan, the author of “Undertones”—a volume of poetry of more than ordinary beauty and promise—was produced at Sadler’s Wells on Saturday night, under the title of The Witch Finder, with a fair amount of success. Mr. Buchanan has appeared once before as a dramatic author with a piece called The Rath Boys, which was produced at the Standard Theatre by Miss Marriott, but the present, we believe, is his first acknowledged drama. Though his work is faulty, and is built upon what we consider to be an unsound basis, he is entitled to high praise for originality and independence. He has evidently thought for himself. He has not started in business as a mere dramatic importer, a subscriber to the library of Messrs. Michel Lévy Frères, a turner of five acts into three, of three acts into two, and a clever young man who can make French adultery and fornication agreeable. Though it would be too much to say that his imagination has not been tinged by certain popular dramas, and notably by Mozenthal’s beautiful pastoral play of Deborah or Leah, he has attempted to give us characters, scenes, and incidents which are not common on the stage. He has striven honestly to present a picture of that superstitious, puritanical state of society which existed in America towards the close of the seventeenth century, more or less reliable accounts of which may be found in the pages of Neale, Mather, and other historians.
The Witch Finder—a chronicle of Ancient Salem—to give it its full title, is a drama in three acts of somewhat sombre interest. Martin Holt (Mr. George Melville) is a man who stands high in the estimation of his fellow-citizens by reason of his supposed power of detecting witches. By the exercise of this power many poor old women have been denounced and put to death, and at last comes the turn of one Mistress Brogden, the mother of an idiot boy, Elijah Brogden (Miss Marriott). Martin Holt has a daughter, who is beloved by Walter Vane (Mr. Charles Horseman), an emigrant cavalier, who, if we except a male companion, appears to be the only representative of a disbelief in witchcraft. The idiot-boy has conceived a wild passion for Ruth Holt, and his ravings about her as a “sweet witch,” lead the ignorant multitude to believe that she inherits Mistress Brogden’s infernal power—the more so as Martin Holt was cursed by Elijah for causing the death of his mother. This feeling is fostered by Josiah Jones (Mr. Drayton), the villain of the piece, who is an old and unsuccessful suitor of Ruth’s, until a trial of the young woman for witchcraft is demanded. Of course she is condemned to death. Martin Holt, on this, becomes insane, and is watched over by the idiot, whose heart has softened towards him. Josiah strives hard to secure the hand of Ruth by offering to effect her escape, but is defeated by Walter Vane. Josiah, somewhat impulsively and unnecessarily, stabs the old man, and is then killed by Walter; and the lovers are made happy by the arrival of a ship from England, bearing a royal order from King William the Third to stop the persecution of supposed witches, which order has been accepted by the local government.
The great mistake which we think Mr. Buchanan has made in this piece has been in selecting a very exceptional passion as his chief motive of action. Martin Holt, the witch-finder—half enthusiast, half imposter, like the John of Leyden of the operatic stage—is the principal character of the drama, and witch-finders are so far removed from our experience—have so little which we can sympathise with, or even believe in, that the author could hardly have placed before us a more uninteresting shadow. Martin Holt may be a psychological problem, like many more exceptional men, but psychological problems seldom bend themselves kindly to dramatic treatment. Shakespeare’s psychological puzzles (we are not speaking of his imaginative creations) are nearly all drawn from life in its broad phases, and not from the unreal phantoms of lying or mistaken historians. Not three years’ debating of a Social Science Congress would ever make us believe that men like Martin Holt were ever representatives of a class, and, if not, Mr. Buchanan might just as well have dramatised the life of Johanna Southcote.
The treatment of the story involves many tiresome repetitions—both of language and incident; but we were more disappointed with the writing than with the construction of the drama. The action may be a little draw-out and sprawling, and there is a strong resemblance—which we have before hinted at—between the first act, and the play of Deborah or Leah, but the author has shown that he has caught the stage tricks of working up to climaxes, and also of flattering green- room superstitions. His puritan-clowns are as stagey as the most bigoted actor could desire; and the same may be said of the cut and thrust business at the end. The general language of the play, however, is not stagey, neither is it very choice or very powerful. The words used are plain and simple, which is all well enough, but there is an obtrusive poverty in the ideas, especially in many of the similes, which is not so satisfactory. Mr. Buchanan is a poet of no mean reputation, and we are entitled to expect from him something richer in fancy than the dialogue of the Witch Finder. There is little marked character in the piece to interfere with poetical utterances, and yet, with the exception of one scene between the father and daughter in the cottage, there is little writing that rises above a very common-place level.
The acting was occasionally tolerable, and that is the most we can say of it. Miss Marriott had very little to do as the idiot boy—if we take variety into account—and she dressed herself to look pretty, and capered through her task. She is an actress—natural and to the manner born—and could have done much better. Mr. George Melville laboured much as Martin Holt, but he failed to give the part much picturesque force or dignity. The scenery was good, but the musical accompaniments were far too noisy. The management are entitled to great credit for their courage in producing such a piece, and we wish we could have spoken of it more warmly. Mr. Buchanan, we believe, can do much better, and we hope soon to see him take a position as an original poetical dramatist by the side of men like Mr. Westland Marston.
The Standard (10 October, 1864 - p.3)
Two or three years ago a play, entitled The Rathboys, was produced at the Standard Theatre, under the management of Miss Marriott. Mr. Robert Buchanan was the author of the piece; which from its conception and general composition afforded ample proof that he was capable of greater things.
On Saturday night the same gentleman produced at Sadler’s Wells a second piece, under the title of The Witchfinder. In this he displays greatly-increased knowledge of dramatic composition, and fully justifies all that was expected from him when he first came before the public. He takes his story, which he divides into three acts, from a passage in the “Lives of the Necromancers.” He develops it with much force, and depicts some truthful and telling situations, showing how witchcraft at one period was persecuted under prejudiced and implacable fanaticism. At the same time he has treated his subject with an originality that not alone stamps his drama a success, but we believe ensures it a prosperous run. With all this there is room, nevertheless, for some little alteration, which, in our opinion, would make the piece doubly acceptable to a Sadler’s Wells audience. The first act, than which nothing could work smoother, fixes attention and arouses intense interest; not so the second. The created interest relaxes somewhat consequent upon the want of a consecutiveness that so pleasingly marks the first and third acts. And, again, if the second and third acts were slightly compressed and diffused with a little more of the humorous the drama would be of a very acceptable character.
Mr. Buchanan lays the scene of his play in Ancient Salem, in Massachusetts, in 1693, at which period one Martin Holt (Mr. George Melville), a religious fanatic, who believes he has been specially endowed by God with an infallible gift to detect witchcraft, mercilessly puts to death all whom he so detects: hence his name of “Witchfinder.” He is supposed to have already denounced seven victims, and finds an eighth in Mistress Brogden (Mrs. Stevenson), a poor widow, who is hunted from pillar to post by an ignorant and determines crowd for being, as they suppose, a witch. She is taken before Martin Holt, and is doomed to die. Her half idiot son Elijah (Miss Marriott), implores Ruth (Miss E. Beaufort), the beloved daughter of Martin Holt, to intercede for his mother’s life. In vain she does so, for the bloodthirsty crowd having once got the woman denounced, insist upon putting her to death. Elijah curses and imprecates vengeance upon the old man and his daughter, upon which the first act closes. The second act discloses a rustic chapel by moonlight, in the ruins of which Holt stands soliloquising upon his past deeds, and displays much remorse of conscience for the blood he has shed. He is here interrupted by Josiah Jones (Mr. W. H. Drayton), who seeks the hand of Ruth, who is already betrothed to one Walter Vane (Mr. Charles Horsman). The old man suspects the treachery of Josiah, and sternly rejects his suit. Thus scorned, he determines on revenge, and as the idiot Elijah in his ravings has coupled the name of Ruth with the term “witch,” Josiah works on the credulity of the populace, and by a deep-laid ruse gets Ruth denounced by her own father in the presence of the people. She is condemned to die. The old man goes mad at thus causing his child’s condemnation. Her lover, however, hearing than an English ship has arrived in the bay, conceives a hope of rescuing Ruth. He appeals to the captain of the vessel, who dispatches a party of sailors to her rescue. She is conveyed on board the vessel, and the lovers fly to England. Holt is killed by Josiah, who in return falls by the sword of Stephen Flaxmore (Mr. W. S. Foote).
Of Miss Marriott’s impersonation of the idiot boy we cannot speak too highly. The withering curse she pronounces on the witchfinder, when he convicts the old woman, was a piece of acting that elicited, not alone tremendous applause, but a call before the curtain. The character of Martin Holt, too, was excellently interpreted by Mr. Melville, who was also called before the curtain; and Mr. Horsman’s gentlemanly impersonation of the lover met with similar acknowledgment, as did also Mr. Drayton’s Josiah. Miss E. Beaufort, as Ruth, made the most of a small part to much effect, while the acting of the less important characters was very creditable. The dialogue of the play is generally good and much to be commended.
The piece is well put on the stage, and the scenic appointments all that could be desired. The house was crowded; and it is to be hoped that Miss Marriott will meet with the reward her enterprise deserves in thus placing before the public something more than a mere sensational drama.
The Globe (10 October, 1864 - p.3)
SADLER’S WELLS THEATRE.
Mr. Robert Buchanan, already favourably known as the author of “Undertones” and other poems, is the author of a new drama marked by some novelties of construction and treatment, which was produced at this theatre on Saturday night. The Sadler’s Wells standard still exacts that a new piece, intended for a principal place on the stage, should aim at something more than a mere rechauffé of a French sensation intrigue, and should pass muster as a literary production. It was natural in these circumstances that Mr. Buchanan’s venture should fill the house with an unusual number of literary men and theatrical amateurs. Of his play, called the “Witchfinder,” it may with some satisfaction be said that it justifies the curiosity excited, and in spite of faults it is worthy of the author’s reputation, and his success should be an encouragement to further ventures. In the “Witchfinder” we have, as the prominent feature, the character of an old man, in the days while the belief in witchcraft was yet living and powerful, sincerely believing that he had the power of discerning who were witches, and in virtue of his power denouncing and causing the death of many. At the same time the old man, Martin Holt, entertains a human love for his daughter, and the plot of the story turns upon an attempt by Josiah Jones, the villain of the piece, and the old man’s enemy, to get the daughter denounced as a witch. The scene of the story is among one of the Puritan communities in new England, established by the Pilgrim Fathers, and the setting of Puritan life in which the story is conducted, is well filled in. The designs of the villain, whose suit for the Witchfinder’s daughter has been rejected, are aided by the fact that her favoured lover is a Cavalier, and therefore suspected by the villagers, and also by the hatred borne to the old man by an idiot boy, Elijah Brogden, whose mother has been denounced and burned as a witch. The old man’s daughter is denounced and cast into prison, and himself wanders about the country insane and desolate, watched over by the idiot, whose heart is suddenly turned towards him. The story ends by the defeat of an attempt by the villain to carry off the lady, her protector being, of course, the Cavalier lover, but the old man and the villain are both killed in the closing scuffle, while the piece winds up happily with the arrival of news from England that punishment for witchcraft is abolished, and the consequent deliverance of the lady from prison. The chief defect in the piece will not easily be got rid of, viz., that the old man is too far removed from the sympathies of an ordinary audience, who cannot readily enter into his peculiar state of mind,—sincerity in the belief of a supernatural power to detect witches, turning to insanity, when his power is turned against his own daughter, whom he truly loves. But apart from this, the language in which Martin Holt’s ideas and feelings are conveyed is touching and poetical, and the audience becomes interested in his situation and sorrows. Mr. George Melville, to whom the part fell on Saturday night, laboured with much earnestness, and achieved an intelligent interpretation. In the acting, however, a good deal of prominence was necessarily given to Miss Marriott, whose representation of the idiot boy formed a striking picture, worthy of her skill and reputation. The part of Ruth Holt, the daughter of the Witchfinder, is well filled up by Miss E. Beaufort. There are several effective tableaux in the drama—the curse uttered by Elijah when his mother is dragged off to prison, Holt’s despair on learning his daughter’s condemnation, and, last scene of all, the scuffle in which the catastrophe takes place, at the close of which the applause which had been frequent during the progress of the piece was again renewed.
Bell’s Life in London (15 October, 1864 - p.3)
SADLER’S WELLS THEATRE.—Miss Marriott is continuing her intelligent career of presenting the public of northern London with several of our finest modern plays, as well as some of Shakespere’s, and has also still more honourably distinguished herself by producing a new and original play, called “The Witch Finder.” The author (Mr Robert Buchanan) has published a collection of poems under the strange title of Undertones, which have made him conspicuous in the world of letters as the possessor of real imaginative powers of a very high order. He is also, if we mistake not, the writer of a drama represented some time since at one of the minor theatres. The present play is a manifest advance on the former production, and is most admirably acted by Miss Marriott and Mr G. Melville, aided by the members of a very good and efficient working company. The plot is interesting and lucidly developed. We shall afford our readers some notion of its merits in an early number of the paper.
The London Review (15 October, 1864)
When a young poet of no mean reputation, like Mr. Robert Buchanan—the author of “Undertones,”—writes an original play, and a management can be found, even in the suburbs, with sufficient spirit and courage to produce it, it is far from gratifying not to be able to speak warmly of the production. The modern English drama is not in that luxuriant state that we can afford to lose any new recruit of promise, but, on the other hand, it would answer no permanent good to wink at his faults, and to magnify his merits. “The Witch-Finder,” an original three-act romantic drama, by Mr. Buchanan, which has been announced for some time in preparation, was produced on Saturday night last at Sadler’s Wells with qualified success. The play, though original—and with only one or two of those unconscious plagiarisms of idea, which few young artists are ever free from,—is too sombre, and too far removed in subject from every-day experience, ever to become strikingly successful. It wants that grip upon the popular imagination which all great plays must have, and is based upon an exceptional, almost mythical, passion. The hero of the story is an aged witch-finder at Salem, Massachusetts, near the close of the seventeenth century, who, having brought many old women to death on a charge of witchcraft, is punished at last by having his own daughter accused and convicted. He is half an enthusiast—half a plotting impostor—as unreal, to all appearance, as a Yogi, or any other uncommon fanatic. He is surrounded by conventional Puritans, who are copies of the old types—types that probably had little existence, except in the brains of cavalier caricaturists and courtly historians.
The action of the play is full of repetitions—the exposition in the first act is far too long and tiresome, and bears more than a passing resemblance to the play of “Leah” or “Deborah;” the language put into the mouths of some of the characters wants variety; the incidents are not striking, and the termination of the play is clumsy. Very little real flesh-and- blood passion is exhibited—its place being supplied with a half-visionary motive of action, with which no one can sympathise.
The writing—judged by the standard which we are entitled to use when dealing with Mr. Buchanan—is poor and commonplace, with a few honourable exceptions. There are plenty of similes, but few of them have the true poetical ring. There are few traces of character in the play, and no strong power is displayed of revivifying the past. As an historical drama, the “Witch-Finder” can claim no prominent place; and as a domestic drama, it is far inferior to Mozenthal’s “Deborah.” Mr. Buchanan, however, may be praised for having dared to step out of the beaten path of dramatic authorship, and the Sadler’s Wells management may be praised for producing this drama. The scenery was very good, but the acting was only passable. Miss Marriott’s idiot boy, from which much was expected, turned out to be a weakly- coloured character weakly acted, and the old witch-finder wanted a more picturesque and forcible representative than Mr. George Melville. We are glad that Mr. Buchanan wrote the play, and that it has been put upon the stage, but we can only regard it as a stepping-stone to something better.
Illustrated Times (15 October, 1864)
While on the subject of the legitimate drama (what a singular application of the word legitimate! I wonder who invented it?) I must mention that a new play has been produced at that home of blank verse and paradise for elderly playgoers, SADLER’S WELLS. It is called the “Witchfinder,” and is the work of Mr. Robert Buchanan; and, I believe, has met with tolerable success. It must be remembered that all this is but hearsay. I, myself, your Theatrical Lounger, have not seen it.
The Illustrated London News (15 October, 1864 - p.27)
It is a pity that we have no one at present who studies actors and actresses with that acuteness which marked the early years of Mr. Dickens. Does not everybody recollect the microscopic revelations he afforded us of Mr. Vincent Crummles, Mr. Folair, and Miss Snevellecci? But did Boz, in any of his papers, remark upon the fact that whenever a tragic lady, who has been for years performing in a torrent of black hair (or her own wig) adopts a light chevelure, all the critics are astonished, and declare that she, by a stroke of inspiration, has magnetised them? “Ah! my friends,” said a literary Oxenstiern, “with what very little genius may one make a sensation!” This reflection is, by-the-way, made of a real sensation caused by the alteration of Miss Marriott into a fair idiot boy (the playbills call him an “imbecile youth”) in Mr. Buchanan’s new play of “The Witchfinder,” a play with true poetry in it, and with good acting too. Sadler’s Wells is again declared to be the home of the poetic drama, and gentlemen with mild countenances, long hair, and poetic inspiration flock to it. Perhaps there is something too much of this. Poetry can exist out of deccasyllabics, and the one touch of nature need not always be given in blank verse; but we are bound to say that Mr. Robert Buchanan has real stuff in him, and to acknowledge that he has been accepted amongst the crowned ones.
Reynolds’s Newspaper (16 October, 1864)
“THE WITCH FINDER,” AT SADLER’S WELLS.
The above is the title given by Mr. Robert Buchanan to an original romantic drama, in three acts, produced on Monday last with every outward sign of success; but we are nevertheless suspect that it is not destined to enjoy a very lengthy career. The plot may be thus briefly sketched:—Martin Holt (Mr. George Melville) is a man who stands high in the estimation of his fellow-citizens by reason of his supposed power of detecting witches. By the exercise of this power many poor old women have been denounced and put to death, and at last comes the turn of one Mistress Brogden, the mother of an idiot boy, Elijah Brogden (Miss Marriott). Martin Holt has a daughter, who is beloved by Walter Vane (Mr. Charles Horsman), an emigrant cavalier, who, if we except a male companion, appears to be the only representative of a disbelief in witchcraft. The idiot-boy has conceived a wild passion for Ruth Holt, and his ravings about her as a “sweet witch” lead the ignorant multitude to believe that she inherits Mistress Brogden’s infernal power—the more so as Martin Holt was cursed by Elijah for causing the death of his mother. This feeling is fostered by Josiah Jones (Mr. Drayton), the villain of the piece, who is an old and unsuccessful suitor of Ruth’s, until a trial of the young woman for witchcraft is demanded. Of course she is condemned to death. Martin Holt, on this, becomes insane, and is watched over by the idiot, whose heart has softened towards him. Josiah strives hard to secure the hand of Ruth by offering to effect her escape, but is defeated by Walter Vane. Josiah, somewhat impulsively and unnecessarily, stabs the old man, and is then killed by Walter; and the lovers are made happy by the arrival of a ship from England bearing a royal order from King William the Third to stop the persecution of supposed witches, which order has been adopted by the local Government. Notwithstanding the periodical arrival from America of gentlemen who, like the brothers Davenport, can not only summon spirits from the vasty deep and elsewhere, but likewise, we are assured, compel them to put in an appearance to the summons, the general public takes little interest in anything relating to witchcraft or wizardism. Hence we fear that Mr. Buchanan has hit upon an unfortunate subject for his drama, and the construction of the piece itself is far from perfect. The dialogue is neatly written, occasionally poetic, and seldom descends to commonplace. The idiot boy Elijah is forcibly acted by Miss Marriott, albeit there is little scope for much display of histrionic talent. Mr. G. Melville is somewhat stagey in the part of Martin Holt, but the performance is not without its merits. Mr. C. Horsman has a good voice and presence, but his acting wants animation, while his love-making is of Quaker-like propriety. The piece is fairly mounted, and on the first night of performance the author, Miss Marriott, and Mr. Melville were called before the curtain.
Illustrated Times (22 October, 1864)
I suppose it is known that a “lounger” is, or may be, a Multiplicity in Unity. That being premised, let the writer who now takes up the Lounger’s stylus say a word about Mr. Buchanan’s “Witchfinder,” at SADLER’S WELLS. You will have seen from the daily and other papers that it was a success, and that Miss Marriott, as Elijah, the half-wit, and Mr. Melville, as Martin Holt, won all sorts of golden opinion. Since the first night, alterations have been made, and the whole thing goes swimmingly. I read some of the criticisms, and very good they were, but a little “abroad” in some points. One critic fearlessly pronounced an opinion about the poetry of the play: all I can say about it is that I hadn’t the remotest idea, half the time, when the poetry was turned on and when the prose. It was like a pump giving hard and soft water together, so badly did some of the actors “deliver” the matter on the first night. Again, something was said to have been absurdly presented as taking place in “five minutes.” Now, if you read fifty you will be near the mark; but what’s a difference of ten times? As for the antiquarian criticism, it was only too clever! Salem was a locally-governed colony. Witches were hanged, and not burnt there; and the statute of King James had nothing whatever to do with the witch- prosecutions in Massachusetts. What a deal of good learning is sometimes thrown away, to be sure! As for the author, taken as a dramatist, the stage shall hear more of him. He is obviously a man who has the knack of conquering.
Lloyd’s Weekly Newspaper (23 October, 1864)
The most prominent of recent poets, Mr. Robert Buchanan, whose Under Currents at once leaped into position, has produced at Sadler’s Wells a drama in blank verse, which people not only listen to, but admire and applaud. From hearing a play written in blank verse, it is difficult to say at once whether the verse be good or bad—as verse; but in the case of The Witchfinder, it is certain that it flows well, and always produces good effect. In Salem, Massachusetts, in 1693, the pilgrim fathers, or sons, or whoever they were, were about as bigoted and intolerant as those English worthies who had originally driven them on board the Mayflower. Martin Holt (Mr. G. Melville) is a gloomy fanatic, who really believes that he can discover witches by his glittering eye; and he is so respected for the possession of this faculty, that he goes on discovering witches with all the freedom and certainty of a ship’s captain discovering islands in the Archipelago. In particular, he discovers one Mistress Brogden, who suffers accordingly, and here the story begins. Her son, Elijah Brogden (Miss Marriott), is an “imbecile youth,” but, like all stage idiots, crafty as well as cracked. He is in love with Holt’s daughter, Ruth (Miss Ellen Beaufort), who also has another suitor in the person of Josiah Jones (Mr. Drayton), but both are disregarded in favour of Walter Vane (Mr. Horseman), an accomplished young English gentleman. A mingling of disappointed love and revenge for his mother’s cruel and untimely fate, produces mischief in Elijah, who now, with the connivance of the also disappointed Josiah, has Ruth accused of witchcraft. The fanatic population obtain the secret from Martin Holt who knows not that the reputed witch is his own daughter, and convict her. She is left for execution, and, strangely enough, Holt and the idiot become wandering and miserable friends, calling one another by the appellation of father and son. At this point the malicious Josiah is willing enough to secure Ruth’s freedom, provided—
For such gifts as no lady can spurn,
She will offer her love in return.
But the lady does spurn all, and is quite contented to suffer in preference, and is about to suffer, when, only just in time, comes news from England that the shameful laws against witchcraft are repealed. This gives opportunity for Josiah to shoot Holt, whom nobody is sorry to see put out of the way, and justice promptly overtakes Josiah. And so, the one stone having hit both objectionable birds, the curtain falls upon much future happiness, which may fairly be left to the imagination.
The Witchfinder is a happy mixture of poetry and broad picturesque effect. There is much character and variety of character, but the gloomy fanaticism prevails. Some touches of this, heightened into comedy by hypocrisy, relieve the great seriousness of the drama; and passages which we have not thought proper to introduce here, give a broader effect than could be produced from the more concentrated interest of the story as described. Miss Marriott has the principal character, and fills it worthily, with strength and spirit. A curse—every drama has a curse—was a most successful effect. Mr. Melville and Miss Beaufort, and others, gave ample satisfaction in their respective characters.
From Chapter VIII of Robert Buchanan by Harriett Jay:
Encouraged by the success of the “Rathboys,” Mr. Edgar arranged for the production of the poetical play, the “Witchfinder,” at Sadler’s Wells, and it met with an excellent reception. The leading male part, Matthew Holt, was played by the late George Melville, while the late Miss Mariot personated a mad youth, one Elijah Holt, whose brain had been turned by the denunciation of his mother by himself and by her subsequent execution for witchcraft. The other characters were well sustained, and the piece had a fair local run, but it was the last attempt made by the poet for many years to conquer a foothold on the stage. After the “Witchfinder” had had its run, he turned aside from the theatre, and for some time devoted himself to literature pure and simple.
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