Theatre Madness, But There’s Method In It

A melancholy-looking John Wesley, as painted by George Romney in 1789. It is on display at the National Portrait Gallery, London
A melancholy-looking John Wesley, as painted by George Romney in 1789. It is on display at the National Portrait Gallery, London

by Ray Setterfield

November 2, 1743 — The Rev. John Wesley was born in 1703, the fifteenth of no less than nineteen children produced by the Rev. Samuel Wesley and his wife Susanna. She, herself, was the twenty-fifth child of a minister.

While studying at Oxford University John, his brother Charles and several other students formed a Christian group devoted to bible study, prayer, and helping the underprivileged.

Sneeringly, some other students referred to them as “Methodists” because of the orderly way they used rules and methods to go about their religious activities. Far from being offended, the Wesley group embraced the name – and a new Protestant denomination was born.

Its leader always committed his thoughts to paper and The Journal of John Wesley covers 50 years of his reflections. A remarkable entry on November 2, 1743 describes a theatre visit at Newcastle in the north of England where a farce about Methodism was being performed.

Fortunately, there were no health and safety experts then. If there had been, this account would probably have led to a collective heart attack:

Wednesday, November 2. The following advertisement was published:

By the Edinburgh Company of Comedians will be acted a Comedy, called,
To which will be added a Farce, called,

A vast multitude of spectators were assembled in the Moot Hall to see this. It was believed there could not be less than fifteen hundred people, some hundreds of whom sat on rows of seats built upon the stage.

Soon after the comedians had begun the first act of the play, on a sudden all those seats fell down at once, the supporters of them breaking like a rotten stick. The people were thrown one upon another, about five foot forward, but not one of them hurt. After a short time the rest of the spectators were quiet, and the actors went on.

In the middle of the second act, all the shilling seats gave a crack, and sank several inches down. A great noise and shrieking followed, and as many as could readily get to the door, went out and returned no more.

Notwithstanding this, when the noise was over, the actors went on with the play. In the beginning of the third act the entire stage suddenly sank about six inches: the players retired with great precipitation; yet in a while they began again.

At the latter end of the third act, all the sixpenny seats, without any kind of notice, fell to the ground. There was now a cry on every side; it being supposed that many were crushed in pieces. But, upon inquiry, not a singe person (such was the mercy of God!) was either killed or dangerously hurt.

Two or three hundred remaining still in the hall, Mr. Este (who was to act the Methodist) came upon the stage and told them that for all this he was resolved the farce should be acted. While he was speaking, the stage sank six inches more; at this he ran back in the utmost confusion, and the people as fast as they could out the door, none staying to look behind him.

[Wesley concludes:] Which is most surprising – that those players acted this farce the next week – or that some hundreds of people came again to see it?

Published: October 1, 2020
Updated: October 8, 2020

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