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Bill Thayer

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Auction on Shipboard

This webpage reproduces a chapter of
Life in a Man-of‑War

a Fore‑top-man

published by
Houghton Mifflin Company
Boston and New York

The text is in the public domain.

This page has been carefully proofread
and I believe it to be free of errors.
If you find a mistake though,
please let me know!


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The Melancholy Excursion
This site is not affiliated with the US Naval Academy.

 p122  Aquatic Theatricals

— "All the world's a stage,

And all the men and women merely players."

Think not, you play-goers and lovers of the drama, although a wide waste of waters separates us from those shores where histrionic representations are cherished and admired as they ought to be by all classes, that the inmates of our gallant ship are debarred the pleasures derived from witnessing the heroes of the sock and buskin "tread the boards;" no such a thing. Be it known to you, gentle reader, that amongst our jolly lads we have several who in by‑gone days have "strutted their brief hour," and who, to gratify their three years' associates, voluntarily came forward to lend their humble aid towards dispelling the dull monotony by which we are surrounded; and the quarter-deck of our trim old frigate, can in a few short hours, as if by the wand of an enchanter, be transformed into a little theatre, which would not be looked on slightingly even by those who are wont to gaze upon the gorgeous decorations of the Bowery or Park.

At the commencement of our cruise the entire ship's company came forward, with all a sailor's frank generosity, and subscribed something like two hundred and fifty dollars towards the theatrical fund. In Rio de Janeiro articles necessary to constitute a wardrobe were purchased, together with paints, &c.; two or three of our "ocean artists" went to work, and in a little time completed a set of scenes in a style considerably above mediocrity. The slightest intimation that a theatre was in progress was sufficient to induce numbers of stage-struck heroes to flock under the theatrical banner, and on the 14th of February they commenced their campaign in the harbour of Callao, with the play of Damon and Pythias, and the after-piece of the Lying Valet. I must say, without vanity, our little concern when rigged up looked wonder­fully well — the entire quarter-deck from the mainmast was closed in on all sides with sails, and lined  p123 with the several national flags, which had an uncommon pleasing effect — the battle and signal lanterns, arranged with tasteful regularity, emitted a halo of brilliancy. A great number of French and English officers from the vessels of war in port were present, together with several of the beau monde of Callao and Lima; and as our band struck up "Hail Columbia," one to look around him, and to see the happy, pleasant group that met his gaze, could not for a moment believe but that he was seated in some theatre on shore, so completely had we metamorphosed the after part of "Old Ironsides."

As soon as the company were all assembled the tinkling of the prompter's bell was heard; in another moment the curtain was gently raised, and all awaited in breathless anxiety to see how the affair was about to commence; one of our fore-topmen now stepped, tastily rigged à la mariner; he was greeted with a round of applause; and after making his obeisance to the impatient audience, delivered the following address, which he had previously manufactured for the occasion:

"What cheer, my hearties! Shipmates how d'ye do?

I've come to spin a twister unto you;

And tho' my lingo should, d'ye see, be rough,

I not being graced with grammar or such stuff,

I'll in my humble style get under way

Knowing you'll list to what I'm going to say:

Since we from famed Columbia's shores set sail

Our gallant ship has weathered many a gale,

And buffeting each tempest that we've met

She's proved herself the same trim sea‑boat yet

That she was wont to be in days long past,

When she withstood the battle and the blast!

Safe and unharmed the stormy Cape we've braved,

Although its gales with fierceness o'er us raved:

And spite of its terrors, which make thousands fear,

We now, thank Heaven, are safely anchored here. —

No doubt you think it is a novel sight

To see Jack Tar strut forth with all his might,

Doffing tarpaulin, and with lightsome heart,

Enact the tragic or the comic part;


But Shakespeare says that 'all the world's a stage;'

Why should not we on shipboard catch the rage

As well as those upon the dull tame shore?

We strive to please, the best can do no more.

Although our pond'rous guns now passive lay,

Our "spangled banner" spread to grace our play,

Yet should our country but require again

Our services upon the azure main,

I'll venture that 'Old Ironsides' once more

(Her present captain, crew and commodore,)

Would prove herself, as o'er the deep she'd glide,

Columbia's ornament — Columbia's pride!

There's now tranquillity from shore to shore

And the dread voice of war is heard no more;

Our country's smiling in the lap of peace,

Her navy and commerce every year increase,

And we the sons of war have laid us by

The exercising our artillery;

And armed with pointless swords we now are here

Awaiting your approbation to appear: —

Which should we gain, our efforts will not cease,

But strive with something new each night to please;

For, believe me, the purport of each farce or play

Is but to while the tedious hours away,

To cause a gladsome twinkle in your eye,

And try to dispel the dull monotony

That oft on board of ship doth intervene

And serves to sadden many a joyous scene.

So while we move in our dramatic sphere

Let not your criticisms be too severe;

And should some trivial errors meet your eye,

Mariner like I know you'll pass them by.

So, shipmates, I've told you all I'm going to tell,

For hark! I surely hear the prompter's bell;

And when my other maties do appear

I hope they'll meet a kind reception here."

From the repeated plaudits received throughout the continuance of both play and farce, our Thespians were led to suppose their performance was anything but displeasing, and without vanity I must say they exceeded the expectations of the most sanguine. To particularize each character is needless — suffice it to say, they one and all acquitted themselves to the entire satisfaction of every one  p125 present, and the curtain dropped with a wish that they would soon again be favoured with a repetition of this amusement, which now appeared to engross the attention of all on board.

On the twenty-second (Washington's birth-night) by particular request of the officers, they again came forth with the Ruffian Boy, repeating the farce of the Lying Valet; and on this occasion our fore‑top poet once more made his bow, and delivered the following lines:

"Shipmates, I've come again before your sight:

For after your plaudits of last Friday night

'Twould be ungenerous of our Thespian crew

Did we not give our heartfelt thanks to you;

Accept them then on their behalf from me,

Although uncouth and rude those thanks should be;

But the reception our first efforts met

Believe me, my friends, we never will forget.

Our little corps had enemies enough,

But spite of each frown and spite of each rebuff

We've catered once more to please your appetite,

And stand prepared this glorious festal night

To try our luck again; — with you it lays

Either to damn us or to give us praise.

Think to yourself with what a beating heart

We first stepped forth to play our humble part,

Fearful that every criticising eye

Would in each word or action something spy

To censure and condemn for little cause;

But no, you gave us undeserved applause.

For which we thank you; and our humble band

Are here again waiting for your command

To come before you, and to prove to all,

We're ever ready to obey your call;

Aye, from this duty we will never flinch —

You'll find we've not relaxed a single inch;

For though our time was short, we've something new

I hope will prove acceptable to you;

And if our humble efforts but succeed,

We will feel doubly satisfied indeed.

This is a night to every freeman dear;

And I am sure there's scarce a bosom here

That does not throb with pleasure and delight,

And hail with rapture, Washington's birth-night.


This twenty-second, gave that mortal birth

Whose brilliant actions echoed round the earth;

Who, with the flag of liberty unfurled,

Became the pride and wonder of the world; —

In all his deeds, heroic virtue shone;

His friendship, kings and potentates did own;

And he performed so virtuous, his career,

His foes by turns did wonder and revere.

My warmth of feeling, who is there will blame,

When eulogising Washington's great name?

For Britain's naval sons are too possessed

Of that which fills each guileless, noble breast,

To censure me for my expressions here

When on the subjects which we all hold dear.

Grim war now rears his fitful head no more,

But smiling peace extends along our shore;

And as it is the gem with which we've dress'd

Columbia's fruitful, palpitating breast,

May him who'd wish to wrest this gem away,

Become to his impolitic views a prey.

Yes, Heaven, grant this peace may far extend,

And rival nations in sweet union blend;

May Britain and Columbia still go hand in hand,

And show to the world how close their friendship stand;

And strongly cemented by this friendly tie,

They might without fear the very globe defy:

What nations, then, combined in all their might,

Dare stop the lion's roarthe eagle's flight?"

I will not endeavour to particularize the different pieces that were brought forth from time to time; but so taken were our old sea‑dogs with the theatrical mania, that they again set a subscription on foot, and replenished the funds with two or three hundred dollars more; out of which, a wardrobe on a more splendid scale was purchased; — and to repay them in some measure for their liberality, two new pieces were brought forth, (written expressly for the ship's company by our fore-topman,)​a entitled, Life in Peru, and Old Ironsides paid off, which met with a warm and hearty reception from our tars, the language and incidents coming so home to their bosoms. The following original songs were written, and sung on the occasion:

 p127  A Sailor's Reflections

"I've just returned from a foreign station,

Where I remained almost three years;

And when I left, the girls all round me,

Black, white, and brown, shed many tears.

Says they, my dear, why will you leave us?

Once more upon the seas to roam:

Why hold your tongue said I, you're foolish,

You know I've got a wife at home.

Chorus, &c.

The little darlings sobbed and fretted

When they found our ship was under way,

I peeped my eye in turn to thank 'em —

What could I do? I dare not stay.

Much as I loved 'em, I'd no notion

For any girl on French to prance;

If I'd got catched, my doom was certain —

They'd made me a grating hornpipe dance.

Chorus, &c.

So now in spite of Cape Horn's tempests,

Our old trim frigate's here again;

And for to speak in truth and reason,

smarter craft ne'er sails the main.

And with her present crew and captain,

Her officers and commodore,

Just place her near a foe, I'd wager

She'd do as she has done before.

Chorus, &c.

Prosperity to our little Navy,

And may she every year increase —

And may the Eagle in her clutches

Still clasp the olive wand of Peace.

So here's success to General Jackson;

May no misfortune him befall. —

I like them all but General Quarters,

And damme if I like him at all.

Chorus, &c.

You see I've just this morning landed

With some bright shiners in my purse —

Tho' 'taint as much as I would wish it,

Yet still, thank Heaven it is no worse.


And should those land sharks try to do me,

I'll tip 'em an Irish Yankee wink —

I'll show them that the Constitution's

Are not as soft as they might think.

Chorus, &c.

Success to Our Frigate

Tune. — "The King God bless him."

"Some wish for a bumper of hock or champaign,

When they drink to the toast they like best;

But here, tho' we've nought but a brimmer of rum,

Yet we'll drink it with all the same zest.

I hope you'll all join me in one that I'll give,

I'm sure none amongst you will rig it;

For 'tis one that should make every heart leap with joy —

'Tis success to our trim noble Frigate.

She's a craft that has weathered the gale and the fight,

And is ready to brave 'em once more;

She is quick on the heel, and that hundreds can prove,

Since she last left Columbia's shore;

And tho' she is old, she's as sound as a roach,

If she has any fault none can twig it;

So push round the jorum, let's drink once again

Success to our trim noble Frigate.

That she is a good sea‑boat, she's proved off Cape Horn,

When the gale spit its bitterest rage;

And whether with royals or topsails close reefed,

She's "Old Ironsides" still, I'll engage.

And when safely landed in Boston, or York,

For her sake I will tipple and jig it;

And toss off my glass, whilst my rhino holds out,

In drinking success to our Frigate.

You may sail half your life-time, you'll ne'er meet a craft

With a crew so contented as we;

I've ne'er seen her equal; and I for my part

Have spent twenty years on the sea.

So to officers, commodore, captain, and crew,

Come, every man of you swig it —

And last, tho' not least, we must not forget,

Success to our trim noble Frigate."

 p129  During the whole cruise, our Thespians "trod the boards" with untiring energy; and the morning preceding a performance, crowds might be seen around the main-topsail-sheet bitts on the main deck, eagerly conning over the dramatis personae, which in large written characters stared them in the face, with as much gusto as the play-goer on terra firma would a flaming bill of fare of the Park or Bowery; and plenty of willing tars were always ready to volunteer their services, to rig up in the neatest style possible, our aquatic theatre.

Thayer's Note:

a That is, by our author.

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Page updated: 5 Oct 21