Der Zuschauer

A Journal of Essays and Reportage on Drama, History, and Literature

Aaron Hill Upon the Prompter

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Custom has made it necessary for a writer who aims at the entertainment or instruction of his readers (I mean in this humble half-sheet way) to assume a character either illustrious or obscure, either heroic or ludicrous; or, to express the common intention better, such a character as is most able to excite curiosity, raise mirth, and procure attention. So that a modern author, like an ancient pilgrim, as soon as he sets out, must take some sobriquet or mock name, if he hopes to come quietly to the end of his journey.
Convinced of this, before I sat down to form lessons for the public, I spent some time in search of a title to appear under, but so many have travelled before me in this road, that I found it almost impossible to fix upon one which I might properly call my own. I believe it must occur to the memory of every reader that even the subjects which furnish these kinds of essays are not more exhausted than the titles which adorn them.
I lay long under this difficulty, and indeed it was so heavy that I had for some time almost laid my purpose, till at length my love for theatrical entertainments, which frequently led me to the playhouses, gave me an opportunity of extricating myself. In one of my walks behind the scenes, while I had this matter full in my head, I observed an humble but useful officer standing in a corner and attentively perusing a book which lay before him. He never forsook his post but, like a general in the field, had many aides de camp about him, whom he dispatched with his orders, and I could perceive that though he seeemed not to command, yet all his instructions were punctually complied with, and that in the modest character of an adviser he had the whole management and direction of that little commonwealth. I enquired into his name and office and was informed that he was The Prompter.
I blessed my stars for my fortunate curiosity. We have had, said I to myself, dictators and censors, monitors and instructors, names that carry presumption and arrogance in the sound of them. But since the analogy is in all respects so close between the stage and the world, what character is so proper, so modest, so pertinent, for an humble adviser, as The Prompter?
But in order to give my reader a higher idea of the dignity of this character, I must take the liberty of being a little more particular in the description of his office; and when I have shown them that he, without ever appearing on the stage himself, has some influence over everything that is transacted upon it, I doubt not but they will agree with Cato that “post of honour is a private station.”
To proceed then. He stands in a corner, unseen and unobserved by the audience, but diligently attended to by everyone who plays a part; yet, tho’ he finds them all very observant of him, he presumes nothing upon his own capacity; he has a book before him, from which he delivers his advice and instructions. From this part of his conduct a very good moral is to be drawn, which, I hope, I shall never be so forgetful of as to be accused of talking without a book.
He takes particular care not only to supply those that are out in their parts with hints and directions to set them right, but also, by way of caution, drops words to those who are perfect, with an intention to keep them from going wrong. I have often observed the most expert and courageous generals tremble thro’ fear of mising his instructions, and wisest of monarchs lend him an attentive ear. I have seen the merriest of mortals not dare crack a joke till he gave them cue, and the most despairing of lovers refrain from sighs and tears till they had his permission to be miseraable. I have seen a discontented statesman hush his sedition at his nod, and a very habile prime minister not able to pay pensions without his advice and concurrence. In short, I have seen so much, that I sall not hesitate to pronounce him a Director of the Ignorant, a Comforter of the Afflicted, a Terror to the evil Actor, and a Counsellor to the Counsellors of Kings.
I have already taken notice of the scouts and messengers which attend him. By dispatching one of these he can, at a minute’s warning, bring the greatest characters of antiquity, or the pleasantest of the present times, upon the stage, for the improvement or diversion of the audience. I mention this here again because ’tis a part of his conduct which I intend strictly to imitate.
Among his Instrumenta Regni, his implements of government, I have taken particular notice of a little bell which hangs over his arm. By the tinkling of this bell, if a lady in Tragedy be in the spleen for the absence of her lover, or a hero in the dumps for the loss of a battle, he can conjure up soft music to soothe their distress. Nay, if a wedding happens in a Comedy, he can summon up the fiddlers to dispel care by a country dance. I must inform my readers that I have procured an emblematical bell for these purposes, and that whenever any of these misfortunes shall befall them, I can call up a musical spirit of cheerfulness and make them as merry as is consistent with the old proverb.
Another tool of his authority is a whistle which hangs about his neck. This is an instrument of great use and significance. I won’t say but the sound of a boatswain’s whistle may be sometimes more terrible, but I am sure it cannot be more punctually obeyed. Dr. Faustus’ celebrated wand has not a more arbitrary and extensive power than this musical machine. At the least blast of it I have seen houses move as it were upon wings, cities turned into forests, and dreary deserts converted into superb palaces. I have sen an audience removed in a moment from Britain to Japan, and the frozen mountains of Zembla resembling the sunny vales of Arabia Felix. I have seen Heaven and Earth pass away and Chaos ensue. and from thence a new Creation arise, fair and blooming as the poets fancy, and all by the powerful magic influence of this wonder-working whistle. Nobody will be surprised, after this, to hear that I made use of all my interest to procure from the ingenious Mr. Chetwood an attested copy of this marvellous instrument, by virtue of which, and some directions from that eminent adept, I shall be able to present my readers with a never-failing variety of objects.
Thus qualified, and fired by such examples, I enter boldly upon my province. The comparison between the world and the stage will hold in all points. I could go thro’ with it, if it were not too old to be repeated, as well as too certain to be doubted. Therefore, when we daily see so many men act amisss, can we entertain any doubt that a good Prompter is wanting? I will do my best to make up for that by closely imitating that worthy officer of the playhouse. I shall give the word impartially to every performer, from the peasant to the prince, from the milkmaid to Her Majesty; every part, whether male or female, serious or humorous, high or low, shall be carefully and equally prompted.
Nor can I think it any dishonour, since the stage has long been transcribing the world, that the world should now make reprisals and look as freely into the theatres. Let their managers therefore be upon their guard, and their dependents, tragic or comic, take good heed to their parts, since there is, from this day forward, arisen a Prompter, without doors, who hath a cat-call, as well as a whistle, and whenever the players grow flat, will himself make bold to be musical.
Now if after what I have said any of my readers should be still of opinion that I have chosen too humble a character, let them remember that travellers who go incog. may take what appellation they please and are never the worse company. Let me also inform them from history that a prince of royal house undertook a pilgrimage to Jerusalem under the humble name Plana Genista (which his illustrious successors afterwards assumed for their surname, and were proud to be called Plantagenets) that is, in plain English, neither better nor worse than Mr. Broomstick. I mention this not withou some tincture of secret pride, as I have the honour to be a Broomstick myself, by paternal descent, from a stock of immemorial antiquity, transplanted from a mountain in Scotland, at last as ancient as Ararat. I would have The Great, whom I may see cause to prompt in their parts, take due notice of this, that they make know I am Gentleman enough to be wise in right of my ancestors, and not neglect my instructions, as the good sense of an upstart too obscure to deserve notice.

Aaron Hill, Tuesday, November 12, 1734

Written by herrdramaturg

May 18, 2008 at 9:25 am

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  1. […] I enquired into his name and office and was informed that he was The Prompter. Further Prompter here. Tagged with: Aaron Hill, The Promptor « Spirits Were Cheap Further […]


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