Command Performance - Preparations and Rehearsals - The Performance and its Etiquette Honouring the Actors - From a Royal Banquet to a Coffee-stall t was Queen Elizabeth who first instituted I the idea of command performances. Many of Shakespeare's plays were performed at her Court, and there is a story to the effect that the "Merry Wives of Windsor" owed its origin to the fact that, having seen Falstaff in the historical plays, her Majesty was anxious to see him in a play in which he was represented in love.
Like the modern dramatist, who takes his facts and incidents from real life, Shakespeare introduced a "command performance" into one of his tragedies. The play scene in "Hamlet," which the Prince of Denmark himself describes as "a play before the King," is to all intents and purposes a command performance, for the actors played at the palace by his command. In the great hall they set up their stage, and they even introduced a speech, which Hamlet himself wrote, in order to give special point to the play in its relation to the circumstance of his father's murder.
During the reigns succeeding that of Elizabeth, masques and similar entertainments, as well as plays, were often "commanded" to the Court, but after a time the custom fell into abeyance.
It was reserved for Queen Victoria to revive the custom of "command performances." In the early years of her reign, and during the life of the Prince Consort, her late Majesty took a great deal of interest in the theatre as an enlightening and inspiring force.
Charles Kean, the most noted Shakespearean actor of the day, whose productions were on a scale of magnificence which not even those of the late Sir Henry Irving or of Sir
Herbert Tree have ever surpassed, constantly directed these special performances, and had for his associates the most renowned actors of the time, such as Benjamin Webster, the grandfather of Mr. Ben Webster, now one of our most popular actors, or Mrs. Kean, John Ryder, Buckstone, etc.
After the death of the Prince Consort, Queen Victoria lived in seclusion for very many years, and never saw a play. In the later years of her life, however, her Majesty relaxed the austerity of her outlook, and after consenting to be present at a theatrical entertainment which was specially arranged by his late Majesty King Edward, then Prince of Wales, occasionally commanded performances at Balmoral and Windsor. In this way, the Queen was able to see some of the leading actors of the day.
The custom of command performances was greatly extended by King Edward, and rarely or never was any crowned head of Europe a guest of the nation but one or more command performances were given in honour of the event.
The same thing, it may be assumed, will occur in the future, for these Court performances are very pleasing to our Imperial and Royal guests. Naturally, they offer opportunities for the display of costumes which would be out of place at an ordinary performance, unless it were a gala, which involves a great deal of special preparation, as well as for a certain stateliness which is always imposing in its ceremonial.
The arrangements for these performances are, like the arrangements made when the King and Queen go to the theatre, left in the hands of Mr. George Ashton, who has been associated with the theatre-going of the Royal family for more than thirty years.
As soon as his Majesty has decided which manager he will honour with a command, the play to be produced is chosen. Very often it is one which is running in the ordinary way at the manager's theatre. Sometimes, however, it is not, but is selected from a list which the manager is asked to submit for his Majesty's selection.
In the latter case the piece is specially cast, and the actors who have played in it before are often invited to take up their old parts, even though they are acting in other theatres at the time. Permission has then to be obtained from the manager with whom they are under contract. It need hardly be said this permission is never asked in vain, even though it puts a manager to the trouble of having special rehearsals, so that the understudy who takes the place of the actor may be thoroughly efficient in his duties and able to give a performance which will reflect credit on himself and the management on that one night.
If the play has to be arranged in this way, the rehearsals are conducted in London just as if the piece were designed for a run. While rehearsals are going on, the scenery is prepared. This is always exactly like that of the original performances. As, however, the space available at Windsor, Sandringham, or Balmoral, at one of which places the command performance will be given, is very much less than that in a theatre, the scenes are all on a much smaller scale. To allow time for the scenery to be made and painted, a sufficient notice of the date selected for the performance is always given to the manager.
His representative, accompanied by the scenic artist and the carpenters, go down to the Royal residence which is to be the scene of the performance and take careful and accurate measurements of the stage, so that the scenery may be made to fit it.
On their return to London the work is begun. The woodwork of the scene is put together, the canvas is stretched on it, and-the old models which were originally made for the scene are got out, or the scene itself is carefully studied by the artist, who paints it so as to reproduce his original design with the utmost minuteness of detail. When it is ready it is sent down to the palace to be fitted in its place. Some of the stage carpenters go with it, and they may be away for three or four days or longer, getting all in readiness under the direction of the manager's representative.