Vestris, Lucia (1797–1856)
Vestris, Lucia (1797–1856)
English actress, singer and theatrical manager who had a great influence on the development of stagecraft, insisting on realism in scenery and furnishings and historical accuracy in costume. Name variations: Mrs. Armand Vestris; Eliza or Elizabeth Vestris; Madame Vestris; Mrs. Charles Mathews or Matthews; Lucia Elizabeth Mathews; known as Lucy to her family but preferring Elizabeth or Eliza on the stage. Born Lucia Elizabetta Bartolozzi on March 3, 1797, in London, England; died in London on August 8, 1856; granddaughter of the famous engraver Francesco Bartolozzi; daughter of Gaetano Stefano Bartolozzi (a music teacher) and Theresa Janssen Bartolozzi (a German musician and music teacher); married Armand Vestris (1787–1825, a dancer and ballet master), in 1813; married Charles James Mathews, Jr. (1803–1878, an actor and son of the actor Charles Mathews, sometimes seen as Charles James Matthews), in 1838; no children. Lucia Vestris is not to be confused with another Madame Vestris, the French actress Françoise-Rose Gourgaud (1743–1804) who was married to Angelo Vestris (né Vestri), a relation of Lucia Vestris' first husband, and had migrated from Italy to Paris in 1747.
Made first stage appearance in the title role in von Winter's opera Il Ratto di Proserpina (1815); subsequently appeared in such productions as The Siege of Belgrade, The Haunted Tower, Artaxerxes, Harlequin's Invasion, Giovanni in London, and The Beggar's Opera (all 1820); Tom and Jerry, or Life in London (1821), The School For Scandal, The Poor Soldier, and as Ophelia in Hamlet (all 1822); La Gazza Ladra, Dirce, La Donna del Lago, Ricciardo e Zoraide, Matilde de Shabran, The Merry Wives of Windsor, and The Comedy of Errors (all 1823); Zelmira, and The Barber of Seville (both 1824); Paul Pry and Oberon (both 1825); Pong Wong (1826); The National Guard and Hofer, or Tell of the Tyrol (both 1829); appeared at the Olympic in Mary Queen of Scots, The Grenadier, Duke for a Day, My Great Aunt, Chaste Salute, Olympic Revels, The Love Spell, The Widow, or my Uncle's Will, Dumb Belle, and Olympic Devils or Orpheus and Eurydice (all 1831), My Eleventh Day, The Young Hopeful, Olympic Devils, The Court of Queen's Bench, The Conquering Game, and The Paphian Bower, or Venus and Adonis (all 1832), A Match in the Dark, High, Low, Jack, and the Game, Beulah Spa, The Welch Girl, and Deep, Deep Sea, or Perseus and Andromeda (all 1833), Loan of a Lover, The Retort Courteous, How to Get Off, and Telemachus or the Isle of Calypso (all 1834), A New Farce, Why Don't She Marry?, Hearts and Diamonds, The Court Beauties, Love in a Cottage, The Two Queens, or Politics in Petticoats, The Beau Ideal, and Olympic Picnic (all 1835), One Hour, or the Carnival Ball, A Handsome Husband, Court Favour, or Private and Confidential, Olympic Devils, Barrack Room, The Two Figaros, and Riquet with Tuft (all 1836), The Sentinal, The Rape of the Lock, Country Squire, Hugo Bambino, A Dream of the Future, The Ladder of Love, and Puss in Boots (all 1837), The Black Domino, You Can't Marry Your Grandmother, The Drama's Levee, or Peep at the Past, A Hasty Conclusion, and Naval Engagements (all 1838), Blue Beard, Our Cousin German, or I Did it for the Best, Faint Heart Never Won Fair Lady, Izaac Walton, and Meet Me by Moonlight (all 1839); appeared at Covent Garden in The Fortunate Isles (1840), London Assurance (1841), The Confederates, A Match for a King, Don Cesar de Bazan and London Assurance (1844), Medea and Time Works Wonders (both 1845); appeared at the Lyceum in a variety of burlettas and comedies (1847–56).
The exact date of the birth of Lucia Elizabetta Bartolozzi, later known as Lucia Vestris, is uncertain; 1797 is the year given in most sources. The place was the Marylebone district of London. Records were poorly kept at the turn of the 18th century, and as an actress she had good reason to keep her age to herself. Vestris was of mixed Italian and German descent. Her father Gaetano Bartolozzi, a penurious music and fencing teacher, was the son of the celebrated Florentine engraver and bon vivant Francesco Bartolozzi, who had migrated to England in 1764, where he was later joined by his son and future daughter-in-law, Lucia's parents. Her mother Theresa Janssen Bartolozzi was an accomplished German musician and music teacher whom Gaetano had met in Aachen (Aix-la-Chapelle). They were married in London on May 16, 1795, at St. James Church, Piccadilly. In 1797, Gaetano moved to Paris, where Theresa, finding him unable to provide for his family, left him and returned to London. There she supported herself and her two daughters, Lucia and Josephine Bartolozzi (1807–1848), by giving music lessons. Lucia was educated at Manor Hall School, where she studied music under Dr. Jay and Domenico Corri. A precocious child, she early showed a talent for music, learned to play the piano, and mastered both French and Italian. In 1811, Lucia entered the school at Her Majesty's Theater, where she studied dance and appeared in the ballet there for a season. That winter, she was sent to Paris to study at the Académie, returning to London to study dance for one year under the celebrated dancer and ballet master Armand Vestris. Lucia's upbringing was relaxed and liberal, her mother taking her to the theater regularly and allowing her to attend operas, concerts and balls as soon as she was old enough to do so.
At age 16, Lucia married Armand in London on January 28, 1813, at the church of St. Martin-in-the-Fields. Armand, ten years older than his bride, came from a family of dancers, who had originated in Italy and whose Italian name was Vestri. Armand was connected with the English theater through his father, Auguste Vestris (1770–1842), who had fled the French Revolution and who had become associated with the King's Theater in London. Taking Eliza as her Christian name, Vestris used her husband's surname professionally for the rest of her life, even though after her marriage to Charles Mathews, she tried unsuccessfully to substitute his name in its place. Despite the fact that she had been trained as a dancer under his tutelage, Armand was impressed more by his bride's rich contralto than by her terpsichorean talents, and arranged for her debut as an opera singer at the King's Theater, on July 20, 1815. Remarkably, she was given the title role in von Winter's now forgotten opus Il Ratto di Proserpina and scored an immediate success. This was followed by another success as Susanna in Mozart's Le Nozze di Figaro and then by an appearance in Zaira. Meanwhile, Armand had gone bankrupt and soon after took his young wife to Paris where, through her connection with the Vestris family,
she was able to perform at the Comédie Française for the next three years (1816–19). There she appeared in both comedy and tragedy with the celebrated French tragedian François Joseph Talma (1763–1826), who had begun his career as a dentist in London and who spoke fluent English. From Talma, Lucia learned the importance of realism in scenery and costumes, and from him she imbibed the idea of the need for realism upon the stage. Talma deplored the turgidity of the classical stage with its artificial acting and pompous declamation, and called for a greater naturalism in acting and staging, sentiments already being expressed in London by the prominent actor John Kemble, and which Vestris never forgot.
Armand and Lucia Vestris were poorly matched and two years after their arrival in Paris were separated when he left for Naples with another woman. Lucia never saw him again. A drinker, gambler and philanderer in his youth, he grew increasingly dissolute over the years, dying at 37 in Vienna in 1825. The successes of Lucia Vestris in post-Napoleonic Paris, including occasional roles in Italian opera, were such that upon that her return to London by September 1819 she was easily able to secure engagements on her own terms. Her first success came at the Drury Lane Theater in the 1820 revival of Montcrief's Giovanni in London, a satire on Mozart's opera Don Giovanni first staged in 1817. Such satires, known as burlettas or burlesques, were common in the London theater of the day and Mme Vestris not only appeared in many such productions in her career but eventually became noted for having advanced this particular theatrical form. Already, in the role of Giovanni, which had played to a packed house at the Drury Lane Theater and had catapulted her to stardom, she showed herself to be an actress of subtlety and refinement whose naturalistic approach to comedy was at the time something quite new. Contemporary critical estimates of her qualities as a singer vary, but her soft, contralto voice pleased the audiences of her day, as did her vivacious personality and comic sense, although the rumors of her private life in Paris also did much to spread her name.
Vestris continued her career as a singer-actress on her own for several seasons under the management of Robert William Elliston and John Ebers, alternating between elevated singing parts at the King's Theater and comic male roles or "breeches parts" as they were then known. Despite her excellent singing voice, which easily would have qualified her for an operatic career had she chosen to follow one, she preferred to be seen in burlesques and light comedies and in these productions dominated the light theater of London for nearly 30 years, the display of her shapely legs in Giovanni having contributed no small part to her success in the role. In the comic Tom and Jerry or Life in London (1821), based on a popular novel of the day, Vestris again delighted audiences in a play noteworthy for dealing with real London types, some of them speaking a London slang now virtually unintelligible to a modern audience and at that time taken for the height of realism. In 1823, she performed in musical versions of two of Shakespeare's plays, The Merry Wives of Windsor and The Comedy of Errors. When she appeared in the burlesque Paul Pry in 1825, her rendition of the ballad "Cherry Ripe" is said to have created a considerable stir and ever afterwards the song was associated with her name. As a singer, Vestris did not hesitate to alter a lyric to suit herself, and later as a manager thought nothing of inserting songs from one burletta into another or dropping a song entirely. Gifted with exquisite taste, she was equally cavalier with costumes, dressing for roles to suit herself.
In her youth, Lucia Vestris specialized as what was known then as a "singing soubrette," a performer described decades later as an actress who "possessed a good voice, could sing by ear, and had a saucy way of tossing her head that was half-boyish, half hoydenish, and wholly captivating." Long after Vestris' time, this character would evolve into the saucy and sexy characterization of Anna Held and Gaby Deslys . In her day, she became highly popular as a singer of ballads and a comedian in light opera specializing in male roles. One of her most popular parts was that of Macheath in John Gay's The Beggar's Opera. This excursion into what was then known as travesty (Italian: cross-dressing) was common in the theater and remained so throughout the 19th century, when a woman's legs were still carefully concealed offstage and any excuse to display them was utilized as a device to draw male audiences into the theater. Un-like male actors, who cross-dressed for comic effect—usually parodying elderly, plain or otherwise sexless women—actresses engaged in travesty as a mode of sexual attraction. Dressing as a man enabled a woman to show her legs—in trousers, if she were cautious; in tights, if she decided to throw caution to the winds. Charles Mathews' comic Mrs. Tulip is an example of male travesty accepted by Victorian audiences; Mme Vestris as Don Giovanni, Don Felix, and Macheath are examples of the latter. Of her performance in The Beggar's Opera, the European Magazine for November 1820 reported:
Drury Lane, November 7, 1920. This evening "The Beggar's Opera" was performed with the novelty of Madame Vestris as Macheath…. Macheath was received with great applause, and as an exhibition of female versatility there was some interest in Madame Vestris' adroit representation of the gay highwayman. She sang with a bold plainness that was not unsuitable to the dashing spirit of the robber; and her acting was appropriate and animated.
From their first appearance on the English stage in the late 17th century until well into the 20th, women of the theater dwelled in a strange half-world outside the limits of conventional society, limits, it may be added, that together with their exceptions, were thoroughly defined by men. For one thing, actresses came from all social classes and, according to whether they appeared in large patent theaters or as entertainers in cheap saloons, they worked on every social level. Some, like Lucia Vestris, were highly paid and lived well; others lived little better than the parlor maids or factory girls who so envied them. Actresses in Vestris' day were often married more than once, were frequently childless, and were presumed to be of easy morals if not worse. In the pulpit, it was assumed that they were sinners destined, after a brief flash of glory, for a destitute old age, and for hellfire thereafter. Nevertheless, despite the poverty, squalor, hardships and sexual exploitation that faced actresses on its lowest levels, the theater was one of the few outlets available to women of independent natures, active minds, and a certain amount of talent, beauty or captivating personality. The theatrical world was anything but dull. The liveliest minds of the day—writers, artists, designers, musicians, composers, intellectuals—circulated around it, and the wealthiest and most influential men patronized its ladies and showered the better-favored ones with gifts of clothes, jewels, carriages, and cash. Successful and famous actresses wore the latest fashions, appeared on stage with handsome matinee idols, and had, or were presumed to have, innumerable lovers. They worked when they pleased, traveled freely, slept late, and when offstage spent their business hours in long and involved discussions with managers, producers, directors, costumers, set designers, music arrangers, and choreographers, or in the company of fawning and flattering hairdressers, wigmakers, voice coaches, and dancing masters.
Lucia Vestris reached the highest levels of her profession appearing with the finest actors. In 1828, she took part in a benefit for the actor John Fawcett at Covent Garden in which the famed Edmund Kean appeared in the third act of Richard II, Charles Kemble in the last act of Romeo and Juliet and she, herself, appeared as Macheath. On February 14, 1840, she presented The Fortunate Isles to commemorate the marriage of Queen Victoria to Prince Albert, the royal couple honoring the occasion by their presence. Above all, Vestris was extraordinarily popular with the theatergoing public, "London's Goddess of Joy." In 1832, The London Tatler described her archly, saying:
Madame Vestris is the best actress that ever sang and decidedly the best singer that ever acted. She was born to fascinate the world and she has a world of fascination. A man might be satisfied with the charms of her mind, if could avoid minding her charms. With talent to transcend beauty, she has beauty as transcendent as her talent. Those most ready to frame faults can find no fault with her frame…. Her lips are severed cherries imbued with their own dew; and the commentary they form on Horn's song "Cherry Ripe" gave to that song its popularity … she will never grow old, for time that flies with others stands to gaze at her; his wings are idle while he is loitering at hers.
In her private life, Vestris was a child of the 18th century flourishing in an early 19th century milieu that had little time for the prudishness that one has come to associate with the Victorian era. A lover of men and of intrigue, she created a mild scandal in her youth. Until her father's death in 1821, she had lived at home with her parents and sister, but by late 1822 she had taken her own apartment in Curzon Street, where she soon reigned as "The Belle of Mayfair." A star ever since her appearance in the revival of Giovanni in London, she was courted by many of the beaux and dandies of the day, the so-called "Vestry-men," often coyly negotiating her love affairs through the use of intermediaries and anonymous letters. With her extravagant tastes in clothes and jewels, her lavish entertainments, and her need to support her mother and younger sister, Vestris freely accepted annuities and diamonds and the pampering and protection of rich admirers. The most popular ballad singer in London by 1826, she also accepted payment from composers for the promotion of their songs. Surrounded by gossip and the subject of scurrilous verses, Vestris knew the value of publicity, and even the suit she brought against the publisher of a scandalous "memoir" attributed to her pen was perhaps motivated by the desire to keep her name in the papers.
As a singer-actress in the years 1820–31, Vestris appeared in an astonishing number of roles and took part in a grueling number of performances annually. In 1825 alone, she gave no fewer than 114 performances in the enormously successful Paul Pry, then offered a series of concerts at Vauxhall. The following year, she appeared in Dublin and upon her return gave 76 performances at Covent Garden in 18 different roles. On tour, she offered managers a choice of 15 productions in which she was prepared to appear. A woman of prodigious energy, she regularly went on tours of the English provinces, appearing as far afield as Edinburgh and in Dublin and other Irish towns. Despite the looseness of her private life, by all accounts she took her professional work with the greatest seriousness. Personally extravagant and self-indulgent, she was a conscientious, disciplined, and dedicated artist. Her sister Josephine, some ten years her junior, hankered after a theatrical career of her own, and Vestris, devoted to her, did her best to launch her on the stage. She took her with her company on her tour of the provinces in 1829, but the girl failed to achieve any success and seems to have lived her life not being Mme Vestris.
The career of Lucia Vestris spanned a new and most important period in the history of the London stage, and she, herself, was very much a part of it. In the early 19th century, the London theatrical scene was dominated by two theaters, the Haymarket, opened in 1705, and Covent Garden (1732) which alone had "patents" (permits) to produce serious drama. The only other theaters permitted to operate were the so-called minor theaters, which were required by law to limit themselves to musical satires. Theaters such as these were rented by large repertory companies sponsored by either wealthy patrons or a small group of investors whose funds supported a theatrical family, or, in the case of Vestris and her second husband Charles Mathews, by a star performer or acting team. Otherwise, a repertory company would tour the provinces playing at strings of theaters owned and operated by an individual or a family who offered seasonal contracts. The custom of having touring companies offering "road productions of London successes" belongs to a later period. This situation of two patent theaters and several minor ones, though often challenged in bills set before Parliament, continued until 1848, when the Theater Regulation Act granted full freedom to the management of theaters and to the production of plays. Thereafter, theaters proliferated and spread throughout the country, competition between managements increased and so did opportunities for employment, especially in the provinces and on the increasingly lively touring circuits where the new railroads made travel so much less arduous. Women performers in particular benefited from the new system; whereas only 310 actresses were recorded in England and Wales in the census of 1841 as opposed to 1,153 actors (26.89%), by 1851, there were 643 actresses against 1,398 actors, women having now risen to 46% of the profession.
By enhancing the physical and existential distance between the stage and the auditorium, she fundamentally altered the playhouse dynamics.
Before this happened, however, the move toward a more realistic staging and performance of plays had already been initiated by the actor-manager David Garrick (1717–1779) and this continued to be developed into the new century. The formality and bombast of 18th-century classical actors, such as John Philip Kendle (1757–1823), and Sarah Siddons (1755–1831) were being replaced by a more emotional style better suited to the new Romantic drama. Vestris, dissatisfied with current production methods, became intrigued with the bold and novel idea for a woman, of leasing and managing her own theater. It was as the lessee and operator of such a theater that Lucia Vestris made her mark in English theatrical history. In 1831, she rented Covent Garden in conjunction with the playwright J.R. Planché assembling a company that included such well-known performers of the day as Julia Glover , J. Vining, F. Mathews, John Liston, and Maria Foote . The venture was an immediate success and soon after, Vestris took a five-year lease on the Olympic Theater in London, which at her own expense she had redecorated and which she reopened as a "minor" theater, managing it herself for almost a decade. There she introduced realism in scenery and abandoned the grotesque costumes and acting styles long associated with burlettas. The active years of Mme Vestris also saw a slow but steady rise in the status of the acting profession, which increasingly came to be seen as a middle-class occupation, a rise which culminated in the offer of a knighthood to Henry Irving in 1883, an honor that he declined to accept until 1895.
Vestris was an excellent theatrical manager, and, ruling her company with an iron hand, introduced some notable reforms into both the business of running a theater and the staging of plays. At the Olympic, she was aided not only by her excellent company (now augmented by the engagement of Mary Ann Orger and Anne Humby ) but above all by the advice of Planché, who wrote and staged a series of magnificent burlettas for which the Olympic became famous. Lavishly mounted, with elaborate sets and the richest costumes, these productions made use of the latest advances in theatrical machinery and technical developments, especially in the new gas lighting first utilized for footlights in the season of 1817–18. She rehearsed her company before each production, thereby ending the wildly improvisatory acting that was then common, and when not performing herself, she often sat in a box and took notes to correct her cast before the next performance. Recalling his Olympic association years later, Planché described the theater under Vestris' management as "a confectioner's shop, where, although one could not absolutely make a dinner, one might enjoy most agreeable refection, consisting of jellies, cheesecakes, custards and such trifles, 'light as air,' served upon the best Dresden china in the most elegant style."
Lucia Vestris is said to have made a breakthrough in theatrical presentation in 1832, when she staged a play with an interior setting consisting of a ceiling and three connected walls (a rear wall with two flanking walls on either side), the three-walled room with a missing fourth wall that dominated stage settings until the 1920s and which has survived to a great extent ever since. With this, she is credited with adding the first ceiling used in a stage setting. Only the proscenium arch was needed to complete the enclosed, room-with-a-missing-fourth-wall effect; this, however, was not to come until after Vestris' time at the hands of Squire Bancroft (1841–1926) and his wife Marie Winton, known as Lady Bancroft (1839–1921). There is some dispute among historians of the theater as to whether or not these innovations should be attributed to Vestris. Some say the first boxed set was not used by her until 1841 in the play London Assurance at Covent Garden. Others say she did not invent it at all. Nevertheless, she was certainly one of the first managers to use historically correct costumes and was responsible for introducing the use of real props on the stage rather than facsimiles of wood or cardboard. In the words of T.C. Davis, "She achieved artistic notoriety by setting performances within box sets, making herself seem less approachable within a domestic, scenic framework. By enhancing the physical and existential distance between the stage and the auditorium, she fundamentally altered the playhouse dynamics. Within the closed domestic scenic interior, Vestris seemed to restore the proper demarcation of public and private realms, or at least achieved a partial illusion of having done so."
At the Olympic, Vestris not only produced and appeared in both burlesques and farces but also staged Shakespearean comedies in which she devoted great attention to historical accuracy in both settings and costumes. This was the era of romanticism in literature, drama, and in every other branch of the arts, a movement that rejected the cold, formal, intellectual approach to life and art that had its source in an 18th-century understanding of Greece and Rome, an intellectual interpretation that saw everything through the prism of reason. In its place, or at least by its side, the romantics would put the emotional and spiritual side of human nature, rejecting sheer reason and logic for intuition, and calculation for spontaneity. Though the modern drama of Henrik Ibsen lay in the future, the theater of Vestris' day was dazzled by the new romantic drama of Victor Hugo, Alexandre Dumas père, and Charles Gordon (Lord Byron), as well as, of course, by the gloriously romantic dramas of William Shakespeare—as originally written rather than in the sentimentalized 18th-century versions in which, for example, Romeo and Juliet was endowed with a happy ending. Hugo rejected the classical unities of time and place that stipulated that the action of a play must take place in a single locale and not exceed the time span encompassed by the play itself. Shakespeare, though never losing his popularity, was considered by many in the 18th century to have been brilliant but uncultivated. By the romantics, however, he was regarded as a native, spontaneous genius, who had produced his masterpieces through the outpouring of emotional passion unfettered by classical rules.
The same forces that were producing a new tragic acting were also at work in comedy, and at the Olympic Vestris was aided by the playwright J.R. Planché in developing her own natural style of acting which created humor through its contrast with the extravagant words and action of the burlesques that he either wrote for her, himself, or translated from the French. In 1835, Vestris and Planché were joined at the Olympic by the actor Charles Mathews, whose depiction of the elegant English gentleman with neither irony nor exaggeration was much esteemed by critics and audiences alike. In 1850, George Henry Lewis described Vestris and Mathews in a performance together as "a lady or gentleman such as one meets in drawing rooms, graceful, quiet, well-bred, perfectly dressed, perfectly oblivious to the footlights." This was a new style of acting that was to be raised to a perfection by Squire Bancroft at the Prince of Wales Theater, which he managed from 1865 to 1880.
On July 17, 1838, Mme Vestris and Charles Mathews were married, an event that led to the emergence of a famous though probably apocryphal anecdote that swept London at the time. Three members of her company were discussing the impending nuptials. Mrs. Humby said that she had heard that, before agreeing to marry, Mme Vestris had made a complete confession of her previous affairs to her intended husband. "What a touching confidence," added Humby, to which Mrs. Orger replied, "What endless trouble!," to which Mrs. Glover replied, "What a memory!" At the time of their wedding, Vestris was about 40 and Mathews 34. Genuinely in love and thoroughly devoted to one another, the couple remained together for 18 years, through good times and bad, and the rest of Vestris' career was completely interwoven with that of her husband.
One week after their marriage, the team of Mathews and Vestris embarked for an American engagement for which they had been promised $100,000 for a year of performances. In New York, they opened at the Park Theater on September 17 in The Drama's Levee, but soon ran afoul of the New York newspapers, first because of Lucia's unwillingness to mingle with the other guests at her Catskill hotel to which she had repaired to escape a New York heat wave that was in full force when she arrived, second for some disparaging remarks that she had made in regard to certain popular New York actors, and third because of the rumors that had begun to circulate concerning her supposedly scandalous private life in London. English artists had not been welcome on the American stage for decades after the American Revolution and only in 1822 did the beauty and charm of the young Fanny Kemble so captivate her New World audiences that the way was cleared for Vestris and Mathews to appear in the United States without prejudice. Unfortunately, Vestris' lack of sensitivity and a bad press caused her American tour to end a failure. Audiences too, having heard of her mildly scandalous reputation and expecting a glamorous coquette, were disappointed to find before them a woman no longer young. Originally scheduled for 36 performances at the Chestnut Street Theater in Philadelphia, the Mathews-Vestris engagement was cut to 12 (October 8–12) and the manager of the theater where they were to appear in Baltimore canceled their engagement entirely. Their final appearances back in New York drew better audiences, but Mathews alone managed to salvage some personal success of his own. Upon returning to England, the couple found that they had realized but £1,750 instead of the £20,000 they had expected to bring home.
In 1841, Vestris and Mathews, having given up the Olympic, now leased the theater known as Covent Garden (1839–42). There they opened in London Assurance, the first play by Dion Boucicault the Elder (1822–1890), a 19-year-old actor and playwright of Irish extraction, who later immigrated to the United States where he enjoyed a highly successful career. Of this production, The Theatrical Observer reported: "The squire's house, opening on to a green lawn, the drawing room so magnificently furnished, with the most costly articles of decoration—not stage properties, but bona fide realities—were such as were never before seen beyond the pale of fashionable life, and could only have been imitated by one used to that society." Though this production was a great success, things did not always go well financially for Vestris and Mathews. Mounting plays and managing a theater were risky under-takings in early Victorian London as, indeed, they remain. Twice they were forced into bankruptcy and once in 1847 they were both imprisoned for a short time for debt. Released, Mme Vestris quickly took control of the Lyceum Theater, which she managed for eight years (1847–55). There, she staged French plays that she and Mathews introduced to London in English translation and continued to stage the lavish musical productions for which they had become famous. Charles Mathews the Elder, Lucy's famed father-in-law, had been celebrated for his solo performances known as "At Homes" in which he impersonated one character after another, and in time, his son and Mme Vestris demonstrated their versatility as performers by presenting a similar entertainment titled "Mr. and Mrs. Mathews at Home," a series of brief sketches in which the two likewise played a number of different characters.
Throughout the Lyceum years, Vestris and Mathews suffered many financial crises. The expense of their lavish productions made it very difficult to return a profit. Their lifestyle, moreover, with its elegant carriages, expensive jewels, and the latest fashions for both of them, though justified by their position in the theatrical world, was more the result of their own extravagant temperaments and kept them continually on the verge of bankruptcy. Many of their tours were necessitated by the need to raise cash to pay their creditors. Generous to a fault and childless, Vestris supported her mother until she died in 1843, and took in her sister's children after Josephine's death from tuberculosis in 1848.
As the years passed, Lucia Vestris appeared less and less frequently on the stage, though she was always available for benefits held for her fellow performers, who, together with her unfailingly faithful public, held her in high regard. Forced to retire in 1855 for reasons of failing health, she made her last appearance on the stage at the Lyceum in 1856 and died of cancer of the uterus on August 8, 1857. Her husband, in debtors' prison in Lancaster at the time, was released to enable him to attend the funeral. Lucia Vestris was buried at Kindle Green, where her grave now lies untended with the inscription on the tombstone completely worn away. Charles Matthews continued to act until his death in 1878.
Though photography did not exist until 1839, engravings made in Mme Vestris' youth show a fair woman with a long oval face, long rounded chin, slender graceful neck, large eyes, dark hair, and a broad forehead. She did not have the type of features that aged well, but she kept her figure, retained her voice, her wit, and her charm, and, as an entertainer, was said to have been at the height of her career when she retired. Vestris was neither a great actress nor a great beauty but through her personality and wit, she dominated the "light" theater of London and delighted audiences for over 30 years. Not all that skilled in straight comedy, she excelled as a singer-actress, especially in musical extravaganzas in which her acting was said to have been characterized by skill, grace and finesse. Her real importance, however, lies partly in the fact that she was the first woman ever to operate her own theater, a feat not duplicated in the United States until Louisa Lane Drew took control of the Arch Street Theater in Philadelphia a generation later, but more because of the real and permanent advances that she made in the staging of plays and the development of set, scenery, and costume design. Passionate and energetic, she led a rich and exciting life, and as both an actress and a personality she stood alone on the English stage in the second quarter of the 19th century.
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Watson, Ernest Bradlee. "Vestris an Actress-Manager of 1830," in Theater Arts. November 1928.
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Memoirs of the Life of Madame Vestris of the Theaters Royal, Drury Lane and Covent Garden. Privately printed. London, 1830 [actually c. 1840].
Robert H. Hewsen , Professor of History, Rowan University, Glassboro, New Jersey