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"Hast though a friend more dear than Belvidera?"
Venice Preserv'd Act IV, Scene 1

History of productions of Venice Preserv'd

Saul and Jonathan were lovely and pleasant in their lives,
And in their death they were not divided;
They were swifter than eagles,
They were stronger than lions.
Ye daughters of Israel, weep over Saul,
Who clothed you in scarlet delicately,
Who put ornaments of gold upon your apparel.
How are the mighty fallen in the midst of the battle!
Jonathan is slain upon thy high places.
I am distressed for thee, my Brother Jonathan:
Very pleasant hast thou been unto me:
Thy love to me was wonderful,
Passing the love of women.
How are the mighty fallen,
And the weapons of war perished!

Second Book of Samuel

Venice Preserv'd was first performed at the Duke's Theatre, Dorset Gardens, on 9 February 1682, with Thomas Betterton as Pierre, William Smith as Jaffier, and Elizabeth Barry as Belvidera. The play had a brilliant reception but fell out of favour after the death of Charles II. Popular interest in the piece was, however, revived by the Jacobite agitations of the 1690s, and thereafter it became an established part of the repertoire, although without the character of Aquilina and the "Nicky Nacky" scenes, which were dropped by 1701.

In 1748 Garrick and Mrs Gibber appeared together as Jaffier and Belvidera with enormous success. A contemporary critic noted that "they warmed and animated each other to such a degree that they were both carried beyond themselves". John Kemble and Mrs Siddons had a similar success in the parts from 1782 onwards, though the popularity of the play in this period owed perhaps as much to the radical sympathies aroused by the American and French revolutions as to the performers.

At Drury Lane on 21 October 1795, Pierre's denunciation of the Senate was greeted with applause lasting several minutes. There were similar scenes on 26 October when, said The Times, "the audience seemed enraptured with every development of rebel villainy". On 29 October George III was attacked in his carriage by a crowd demanding peace and bread. Venice Preserv'd on that evening provoked a near riot, with government supporters in the house clamouring loudly for God Save the King to be played. Further performances were cancelled and the play was not seen again in London for seven years. When it returned in 1802, the part of Pierre was stripped of its idealism and entrusted to George Frederick Cooke, known as "the Machiavel of the modern stage... a master of every species of hypocrisy", who played the role as "a sly slow circumspective villain".

Who is she that comes, makying turn every mans eye
And makyng the air to tremble with a bright clearenesse
That leadeth with her Love, in such nearness
No man may proffer of speech more than a sigh?

Ah God, what she is like when her owne eye turneth, is
Fit for Amor to speake, for I can not at all;
Such is her modesty, I would call
Every woman else but an useless uneasiness.

No one could ever tell all of her pleasauntness
In that every high noble vertu leaneth to herward,
So Beauty sheweth her forth as her Godhede;

Never before was our mind so high led,
Nor have we so much of heal as will afford
That our thought may take her immediate in its embrace.

Ezra Pound (after Cavakanti)

But styles of acting were changing. Otway's blend of the heroic and the human was little suited to the idiosyncratic naturalism developed by Kean, with his "lack of dignity and fitful elocution", or Macready. And although Venice Preserv'd was once again to cause outbreaks of republican fervour in 1809 and 1848, it had ceased to be one of the stock plays of the London stage by 1842 and after that was only seen in sporadic revivals. Irving admired the play and even planned a production, but his intentions came to nothing.

Otway the man Oliver Goldsmith described as "next to Shakespeare the greatest genius England has produced in tragedy" was also celebrated on the continent. Venice Preserv'd was widely translated: Balzac makes Vautrin introduce it into his conversation with Lucien de Rubempre in Lost Illusions. Goethe spoke enthusiastically of it: "The comic scenes are particularly good. It is they alone which account for and go near to justify the conspiracy, for we see in them how utterly unfit for government the Senate had become". Hugo von Hofmansthal wrote his own version of the story, Das Gerettete Venedig, which appeared in 1905.

In the present century, Venice Preserv'd was revived by the Otway Society at the Royal Theatre in June 1904, with the "Nicky Nacky" scenes restored for the first time in over 200 years. The rest of the text was, however, heavily cut and the performance was not a success. The play was next seen in London in 1920 at the Lyric Theatre, Hammersmith, with Baliol Holloway as Pierre, Cathleen Nesbitt as Belvidera, and Edith Evans as a particularly successful Aquilina. It was the Lyric Hammersmith which also housed the celebrated Peter Brook revival of 1953, designed by Leslie Hurry, with John Gielgud as Jaffier and Paul Scofield as Pierre. More recently a production was staged by the Bristol Old Vic in 1969, with Alan Bates as Jaffier; by Prospect Productions in 1970, with John Castle as Jaffier, Barbara Leigh Hunt as Belvidera and Julian Glover as Pierre; by the Citizens' Theatre, Glasgow, in 1972; and by the Almeida Theatre, Islington, in 1982 in a four-handed version.

"Next to Shakespeare"
Oliver Goldsmith (1759)
 

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