WHEN we mark the struggles of a brave spirit against the restrictions of an ignoble body, we pay admiring honors to every success that it achieves. It is the contest between human will and untoward fate. Each triumph is a victory of man’s dearest heritage, spiritual power. Some have made themselves great captains despite physical weakness and natural fear ; scholars and writers have become renowned, though slow to learn, or, haply, “ with wisdom at one entrance quite shut out ”; nor have stammering lips and shambling figure prevented the rise of orators and actors, determined to give utterance to the power within. But, in our approval of the energy that can so vanquish the injuries of fortune, we are apt to overrate its quality, and to forget how much more exquisite the endowment would be if allied with those outward resources which complete the full largess of Heaven’s favoritism. In the latter case we yield our unqualified affection to beings who afford us an unqualified delight. We are reverencing the gifts of the gods ; and in their display see clearly that no human will can secure that nobility of appearance and expression which a few maintain without intention, and by right of birth.
Bodily fitness is no small portion of a genius for any given pursuit; and, in the conduct of life, the advantages of external beauty can hardly be overrated. All thinkers have felt this. Emerson says “ of that beauty which reaches its perfection in the human form,” that “ all men are its lovers ; wherever it goes, it creates joy and hilarity, and everything is permitted to it.” Now there is a beauty of parts, which is external; and another of the expression of the soul, which is the superior. But in its higher grades the former implies the latter. Socrates said that his ugliness accused just as much in his soul, had he not corrected It by education. And Montaigne writes: “ The same word in Greek signifies both fair and good, and Holy Word often calls those good which it would call fair” ; and, moreover, “Not only in the men that serve me, but also in the beasts, I consider this point within two finger-breadths of goodness.”
Can we claim too much for physical adaptation in our measure of the rank to be accorded an actor ? For he of all others, not excepting the orator, makes the most direct personal appeal to our tastes. In his own figure he holds the mirror up to Nature, while his voice must be the echo of her various tones. By the law of aristocracy in art, he must be held so much the greater, as he is able to depict the nobler manifestations of her forms and passions. Of course the first excellence is that of truth. A spirited enactment of Malvolio, of Falstaflf, or of Richard Crookback has the high merit of faithfully setting forth humanity, though in certain whimsical or distorted phases ; but we are more profoundly enriched by the portrayal of higher types. And thus, in making an actor’s chosen and successful studies a means of measuring his genius, we find in the self-poise which wins without effort, and must throughout sustain the princely Hamlet, or Othello tender and strong, that grand manner which, in painting, places the art of Raphael and Angelo above that of Hogarth or Teniers. Each may be perfect in its kind, but one kind exceeds another in glory.
We have two pictures before us. One, on paper yellow with the moth of years, is the portrait of an actor in the costume of Richard III. What a classic face! English features are rarely cast in that antique mould. The head sits lightly on its columnar neck, and is topped with dark-brown curls, that cluster like the acanthus ; the gray eyes are those which were justly described as being “at times full of fire, intelligence, and splendor, and again of most fascinating softness ” ; and the nose is of “ that peculiar Oriental construction, which gives an air of so much distincttion and command.” Such was the countenance of Junius Brutus Booth, — that wonderful actor, who, to powers of scorn, fury, and pathos rivalling those which illumined the uneven performances of Edmund Kean, added scholastic attainments which should have equalized his efforts, and made every conception harmonious with the graces of a philosophical and cultured soul. In structure the genius of the elder Booth was indeed closely akin to that of Kean, if not the rarer of the two, notwithstanding the triumphant assertion of Doran, who says that Booth was driven by Kean’s superiority to become a hero to “ transpontine audiences.” Each relied upon his intuitive, off-hand conception of a given part, and fell back to nature in his methods, throwing aside conventionalisms which had long ruled the English stage. But the former was capable of more fervid brightness in those flashes which characterized the acting of them both. Still, there was something awry within him, which in his body found a visible counterpart. The shapely trunk, crowned with the classic head, was set upon limbs of an ungainly order, short, of coarse vigor, and “gnarled like clumps of oak.” Above, all was spiritual; below, of the earth, earthy, and dragging him down. Strong souls, thus inharmoniously embodied, have often developed some irregularity of heart or brain : a disproportion, which only strength of purpose or the most favorable conditions of life could balance and overcome. With the elder Booth, subjected to the varying fortunes and excitements of the early American stage, the evil influence gained sad ascendency, and his finest renditions grew “ out of tune and harsh.” In depicting the pathetic frenzy of Lear, such actors as he and Kean, when at their best, can surpass all rivals ; and the grotesque, darkly-powerful ideals of Richard and Shylock are precisely those in which they will startle us to the last, gathering new, though fitful, expressions of hate and scorn, as their own natures sink from ethereal to grosser atmospheres. The mouth catches most surely the growing tendency of a soul; and on the lips of the elder Booth there sat a natural half-sneer of pride, which defined the direction in which his genius would reach its farthest scope.
The second picture is a likeness of this great actor’s son, — of a face and form now wonted to all who sustain the standard drama of to-day. Here is something of the classic outline and much of the Greek sensuousness of the father’s countenance, but each softened and strengthened by the repose of logical thought, and interfused with that serene spirit which lifts the man of feeling so far above the child of passions unrestrained. The forehead is higher, rising toward the region of the moral sentiments ; the face is long and oval, such as Ary Scheffer loved to draw; the chin short in height, but, from the ear downwards, lengthening its distinct and graceful curve. The head is of the most refined and thorough-bred Etruscan type, with dark hair thrown backwards and flowing studentwise ; the complexion, pale and striking. The eyes are black and luminous, the pupils contrasting sharply with the balls in which they are set. If the profile and forehead evince taste and a balanced mind, it is the hair and complexion, and, above all, those remarkable eyes, — deep-searching, seen and seeing from afar, — that reveal the passions of the father in their heights and depths of power. The form is taller than either that of the elder Booth or Kean, lithe, and disposed in symmetry ; with broad shoulders, slender hips, and comely tapering limbs, all supple, and knit together with harmonious grace. We have mentioned personal fitness as a chief badge of the actor’s peerage, and it is of one of the born nobility that we have to speak. Amongst those who have few bodily disadvantages to overcome, and who, it would seem, should glide into an assured position more easily than others climb, we may include our foremost American tragedian, - EDWIN THOMAS BOOTH.1
But men are often endowed with plenteous gifts for which they never find employment, and thus go to the bad without discovering their natural bent to others or even to themselves. In the years preceding our late war how many were rated as vagabonds, who had that within them which has since won renown! They were “born soldiers,” and, in the piping time of peace, out of unison with the bustling crowd around them. Life seemed a muddle, and of course they went astray. But when the great guns sounded, and the bugles rang, they came at once to their birthright, and many a ne’er-do-well made himself a patriot and hero forever.
Edwin Booth, having the capabilities of a great actor, found himself about the stage in his childhood, and, by an unwonted kindness of fortune, went through with perhaps the exact training his genius required. If the atmosphere of the theatre had not almost enwrapt his cradle, and thus become a necessity of his after years, his reflective, brooding temperament and aesthetic sensitiveness might have impelled him to one of the silent professions, or kept him an irresolute dreamer through an unsuccessful life. But while his youth was passed in the green-room, a stern discipline early made him selfreliant, matured his powers, taught him executive action, and gave him insight of the passions and manners ot our kind. As for black-letter knowledge, such a nature as his was sure to gain that, — to acquire in any event, and almost unknowingly, what mere talent only obtains by severe, methodical application. We know how genius makes unconscious studies, while in the daily routine of life. The soul works on, unassisted, and at length bursts out into sudden blaze. How did Booth study ? Just as young Franklin weighed the minister’s sermons, while mentally intent upon the architecture of the church roof. Night after night the lonely face brightened the shadows of the stage-wings, and the delicate ear drank in the folly, the feeling, the wit and wisdom of the play. To such a boyhood the personal contact of his father's nature was all in all. It was quaffing from the fountain-head, not from streams of the imitation of imitation. As the genius of the father refined the intellect and judgment of the son, so the weaknesses coupled with that genius taught him strength of character and purpose. We have heard of nothing more dramatic than the wandering companionship of this gifted pair, — whether the younger is awaiting, weary and patient, the end of the heard but unseen play, or watching over his father at a distance, when the clouds settled thickly upon that errant mind, through long nights and along the desolate streets of a strange city. With other years came the time for young Booth to fight his own battle, and wander on his own account through an apprenticeship preceding his mature successes, — to gain those professional acquirements which were needed to complete his education, and to make that tasteful research to which he naturally inclined. He is now in the sunshine of his noonday fame ; and we may estimate his measure of excellence by a review of those chosen and successful renderings, that seem most clearly to define his genius, and to mark the limits of height and versatility which he can attain.
Take, then, the part of Hamlet, which, in these days, the very mention of his name suggests. Little remains to be said of that undying play, whose pith and meaning escaped the sturdy English critics, until Coleridge discovered it by looking into his own soul, and those all-searching Germans pierced to the centre of a disposition quite in keeping with their national character. A score of lights have since brought out every thought and phrase, and we now have Hamlet so clearly in our mind's eye as to wonder how our predecessors failed to comprehend his image. But what does this tragedy demand of an actor ? Proverbially, that he himself shall fill it, and hold the stage from its commencement to its end. The play of “Hamlet” is the part of Hamlet. The slowness of its action, and the import of its dialogue and soliloquies, make all depend upon the central figure. Next, he is to depict the most accomplished gentleman ever drawn ; not gallant, gay Mercutio, nor courtly Benedict, but the prince and darling of a realm ; one who cannot “lack preferment,” being of birth above mean ambition and self-conscious unrest; a gentleman by heart, no less, — full of kindly good-fellowship, brooking no titles with his friends, loving goodness and truth, impatient of fools, scorning affectation ; moreover, the glass of fashion and the mould of form, the modern ideal of manly beauty, — which joins with the classic face and figure that charm of expression revealing a delicate mind within. For our Hamlet is both gentleman and scholar. History and philosophy have taught him the vice of kings, the brevity of power and forms, the immortality of principles, the art of generalization; while contact with society has made him master of those “ shafts of gentle satire,” for which all around him are his unconscious targets. His self-respect and self-doubt balance each other, until the latter outweighs the former, under the awful pressure of an unheardof woe. Finally, he comes before us in that poetical, speculative period of life following the years of study and pleasure, and preceding those of executive leadership. Prince, gentleman, scholar, poet, — he is each, and all together, and attracts us from every point of view.
Upon this noblest youth — so far in advance of his rude and turbulent time — throw a horror that no philosophy, birth, nor training can resist — one of those weights beneath which all humanity bows shuddering; cast over him a stifling dream, where only the soul can act, and the limbs refuse their offices ; have him pushed along: by Fate to the lowering, ruinous catastrophe ; and you see the dramatic chain work of a part which he who would enact Hamlet must fulfil.
It has been said, distinguishing between the effects of comedy and tragedy, that to render the latter ennobles actors, so that successful tragedians have acquired graces of personal behavior. But one who does not possess native fineness before his portrayal of Hamlet will never be made a gentleman by the part. In its more excited phases, a man not born to the character may succeed. As in Lear, the excess of the passion displayed serves as a mask to the actor’s disposition. In its repose, the ideal Hamlet is hard to counterfeit. In the reflective portions and exquisite minor play which largely occupy its progress, and in the princely superiority of its chief figure, there can be little acting in the conventional sense. There is a quality which no talse ware can imitate. The player must be himself.
This necessity, we think, goes far toward Booth’s special fitness for the part. He is in full sympathy with it, whether on or off the stage. We know it from our earliest glance at that lithe and sinuous figure, elegant in the solemn garb of sables,—at the pallor of his face and hands, the darkness of his hair, those eyes that can be so melancholy-sweet, yet ever look beyond and deeper than the things about him. Where a burlier tragedian must elaborately pose himself for the youth he would assume, this actor so easily and constantly falls into beautiful attitudes and movements, that he seems to go about, as we heard a humorist say, “ making statues all over the stage.” No picture can equal the scene where Horatio and Marcellus swear by his sword, he holding the crossed hilt upright between the two, his head thrown back and lit with high resolve. In the fencing-bout with Laertes he is the apotheosis of grace ; and since, though his height and shoulder-breadth are perfect, he is somewhat spare in form, you call to mind — in accounting for this charm of motion, not studied, “like old Hayward’s, between two lookingglasses ” — the law that beauty is framedeep ; that grace results from the conscious, harmonious adjustment of joints and bones, and not from accidental increase and decrease of their covering. There is more hidden art in his sitting attitudes upon the quaint lounges of the period ; whether rebuking his own remissness, or listening to “the rugged Pyrrhus,” or playing upon old Polonius, — setting his breast, as it were, against the thorn of his own disgust.
A sense of the fitness of things makes Booth hold himself in close restraint when not engaged upon the sharper crises of the play. This we conceive to be the true art-spirit. There is no attempt to rouse the house by elocutionary climaxes or quick-stopping strides. Like Betterton, he courts rapturous silence rather than clamorous applause. So finished is all this as a study, that the changes into the more dramatic passages at first grate harshly upon the eye and ear. For, after all, it is a tragedy, full of spectral terrors. Lord Hamlet feels it in his soul. Why should this delicate life be so rudely freighted ? Booth, faithful to the action, accepts the passion and the pang. We hardly relish his gasping utterance and utter fall, when the Ghost rehearses his story on those solemn battlements of Elsinore. But think what he is seeing : not the stage-vision for which we care so little, but the spectre of his father, —a midnight visitant from the grave ! It has been asserted that no man ever believed he saw a spirit and survived the shock. And it is strongly urged, as a defence of Booth’s conception of this scene, that, in the closet interview with the Queen, after the slaying of Polonius, and on the Ghost’s reappearance, we, now wrought up to the high poetic pitch by the dialogue and catastrophe, and by the whole progress of the piece, ourselves catch the key, expect, and fully sympathize with his horror and prostration, and accept the fall to earth as the proper sequel to that dreadful blazon from the other world. Notwithstanding this, it seems to us that Booth should tone down his manner in the first Act. The audience has hardly left the outer life, and cannot identify itself with the player ; and an artist must acknowledge this fact, and not too far exceed the elevation of his hearers.
Five years ago there was a weakness in Booth’s voice, making the listener apprehensive of the higher and louder tones. This insufficiency has passed away with practice and growth, and his utterance now has precisely the volume required in Hamlet,— being musical and distinct in the quiet parts, and fully sustaining each emotional outburst.
In effective compositions there is a return to the theme or refrain of the piece, when the end is close upon us. One of the finest points in this play is, that after the successive episodes of the killing of Polonius, the madness and death of Ophelia, and the wild bout with Laertes at her burial, Hamlet reassumes his every-day nature, and is never more thoroughly himself than when Osric summons him to the fencing-match, and his heart grows ill with the shadow of coming death. The Fates are just severing his thread ; events that shall sweep a whole dynasty, like the house of Atreus, into one common ruin, are close at hand ; but Philosophy hovers around her gallant child, and the sweet, wise voice utters her teachings for the last time : “If it be now, ’t is not to come ; if it be not to come, it will be now ; if it be not now, yet it will come ; the readiness is all. Let be.” Then follow the courtesy, the grace, the fraud, the justice, of the swift, last scene ; the curtain falls ; and now the yearning sympathies of the hearers break out into sound, and the actor comes before the footlights to receive his meed of praise. How commonplace it is to read that such a one was called before the curtain and bowed his thanks ! But sit there ; listen to the applauding clamor of two thousand voices, be yourself lifted on the waves of that exultation, and for a moment you forget how soon all this will be hushed forever, and, in the triumph of the actor, the grander, more enduring genius of the writer whose imagination first evoked the spell.
The performance of Richelieu, from one point of view, is a complete antithesis to that of the melancholy Dane. In the latter we see and think of Booth ; in the former, his household friends, watching My Lord Cardinal from first to last, have nothing to recall him to their minds. The man is transformed, is acting throughout the play. Voice, form, and countenance are changed ; only the eyes remain, and they are volcanic with strange lustre, — mindful of the past, suspicious of the present, fixed still upon the future with piercing intent. The soul of the Cardinal, nearing its leave of the tenement that has served it so long, glares out of the windows, with supernatural regard, over the luxury, the intrigue, the danger, the politics, the empire it must soon behold no more. As the piece is now produced, with fidelity to details of use and decoration, — with armor, costumery, furniture, and music of the period of Louis XIII., — with all this boast of heraldry and pomp of power, the illusion is most entire. The countenance is that of the old portrait; white flowing locks, cap, robes, raised moustache, and pointed beard,— all are there. The voice is an old man’s husky treble, and we have the old man’s step, the tremor, and recurring spasmodic power ; nor is there any moment when the actor forgets the part he has assumed. Yes, it is age itself; but the sunset of a life whose noonday was gallantry, valor, strength, — and intellectual strength never so much as now. How we lend our own impulses to the effort with which the veteran grasps the sword wherewith he shore “the stalwart Englisher,” strive with him in that strong yearning to whirl it aloft, sink with him in the instant, nerveless reaction, and sorrow that “ a child could slay Richelieu now ! ” He is not the intriguer of dark tradition, wily and cruel for low ambitious ends, but entirely great, in his protection of innocence and longing for affection, and most of all in that supreme love of France to which his other motives are subservient. Booth seizes upon this as the key-note of the play, and is never so grand as when he rises at full height with the averment,
The rich men despots, and the poor banditti ;
Sloth in the mart, and schism within the temple ;
Brawls festering to rebellion, and weak laws
Rotting away with rust in antique sheaths,—
I have re-created France ! ”
Bulwer’s “ Richelieu,” though written in that author’s pedantic, artificial manner, and catching the groundlings with cheap sentiment and rhetorical platitudes, is yet full of telling dramatic effects, which, through the inspiration of a fine actor, lift the most critical audience to sudden heights. One of this sort is justly famous. We moderns, who so feebly catch the spell which made the Church of Rome sovereign of sovereigns for a thousand years, have it cast full upon us in the scene where the Cardinal, deprived of temporal power, and defending his beautiful ward from royalty itself, draws around her that Church's “ awful circle,” and cries to Baradas,
And on thy head —yea, though it wore a crown —
I launch the curse of Rome ! ”
Booth’s expression of this climax is wonderful. There is perhaps nothing, of its own kind, to equal it upon the present stage. Well may the king’s haughty parasites cower, and shrink aghast from the ominous voice, the finger of doom, the arrows of those lurid, unbearable eyes! But it is in certain intellectual elements and pathetic undertones that the part of Richelieu, as conceived by Bulwer, assimilates to that of Hamlet, and comes within the realm where our actor’s genius holds assured sway. The argument of the piece is spiritual power. The body of Richelieu is wasted, but the soul remains unscathed, with all its reason, passion, and indomitable will. He is still prelate, statesman, and poet, and equal to a world in arms.
The requisite subtilty of analysis, and sympathy with mental finesse, must also specially adapt this actor to the correct assumption of the character of lago. Those who have never seen him in it may know by analogy that his merits are not exaggerated. We take it that lago is a sharply intellectual personage, though his logic, warped by grovelling purpose, becomes sophistry, while lustful and envious intrigues occupy his skilful brain. We have described the beauty of Booth’s countenance in repose. But it is equally remarkable for mobility, and his most expressive results are produced by liftings of the high-arched brows and the play of passions about the flexible mouth. The natural line of his lip, not scornful in itself, is on that straight border-ground where a hair’s breadth can raise it into sardonic curves, transforming all its good to sneering evil. In his rendering, lago must become a shining, central incarnation of tempting deceit, with Othello's generous nature a mere puppet in his hands. As Richard III., we should look to find him most effective in schemeful soliloquy and the phases of assumed virtue and affection, while perhaps less eminent than his father or Edmund Kean in that headlong, strident unrest, which hurried on their representations to the fury of the retributive end.
To give the distant reader our own impression of a great actor is a slow and delicate task, and perhaps the most we can accomplish is to set him before others somewhat as he has appeared to us, and to let each decide for himself the question of histrionic rank. But have we not unconsciously defined our view of the excellence of Booth’s genius, and hinted at its limitations? The latter are by no means narrow, for his elastic, adaptable nature insures him versatility ; and, despite the world’s scepticism as to the gift of an artist to do more than one thing well, he is acknowledged to surpass our other actors in a score of elegant parts. Amongst these are Pescara, Petruchio, and Sir Edward Mortimer; while in a few pieces of the French romance-school, such as “ Ruy Bias,” and that terrible “The King’s Jester,” he has introduced to us studies of a novel and intensely dramatic kind. As for the lighter order, the greater including the less, our best Hamlet should be the best “ walking gentleman,” if he elect to assume that versatile personage’s offices. We know also that Booth’s Shylock should be a masterly performance, since his voice, complexion, eyes, and inherited powers of scorn, all lend their aid to his mental appreciation of the part. But it is not our purpose to consider any of these roles. We only allude to them to say that in most directions his equal has not appeared on the American stage; and in qualifying an opinion of his powers, we make no exception in favor of his contemporaries, but, rather, of those who have been and shall be again, when Jove shall
An age of better metal.”
As Hamlet, Mr. Booth will hardly improve his present execution, since he is now at the age of thirty-two, and can never fill more easily the youthful beauty of the part, without artifice, and, we may say, by the first intention. We should like to see him, ere many winters have passed over his head, in some new classic play, whose arrangement should not be confined to the bald, antique model, nor drawn out in sounding speeches like Talfourd's “ Ion,” nor yet too much infused with the mingled Gothic elements of our own drama; but warm with sunlight, magical with the grace of the young Athenian feeling, and full of a healthful action which would display the fairest endowments of his mind and person. As Lear or Shylock, he will certainly grow in power as lie grows in years, and may even gain upon his masterly performance of Richelieu. But in one department, and that of an important order, he will perhaps never reach the special eminence at which we place a few historic names.
Our exception includes those simply powerful characters, the ideal of which his voice and magnetism cannot in themselves sustain. At certain lofty passages he relies upon nervous, electrical effort, the natural weight of his temperament being unequal to the desired end. Those flashing impulses, so compatible with the years of Richelieu and the galled purpose of Shylock, would fail to reveal satisfactorily the massive types, which rise by a head, like Agamemnon, above the noblest host. Dramatic representations may be classed under the analogous divisions of poetry : for instance, the satirical, the bucolic, the romantic, the reflective, the epic. The latter has to do with those towering creatures of action — Othello, Coriolanus, Virginius, Macbeth
— somewhat deficient, whether good or evil, in the casuistry of more subtile dispositions, but giants in emotion, and kingly in repose. They are essentially masculine, and we connect their ideals with the stately figure, the deep chest-utterance, the slow, enduring majesty of mien. The genius of Mr. Booth has that feminine quality which, though allowing him a wider range, and enabling him to render even these excepted parts after a tuneful, elaborate, and never ignoble method of his own, might debar him from giving them their highest interpretation, — or, at least, from sustaining it, without sharp falsetto effort, throughout the entire passage of a play. In a few impersonations, where Kemble, with all his mannerisms and defective elocution, and Macready, notwithstanding his uninspired, didactic nature, were most at their ease and successful, this actor would be somewhat put to his mettle,
— a fact of which he is probably himself no less aware.
After all, what are we saying, except that his genius is rather Corinthian than Doric, and therefore more cultured, mobile, and of wider range ? If Kemble was the ideal Coriolanus and Henry V., he was too kingly as Hamlet, and Booth is the princeliest Hamlet that ever trod the stage. If Kean and the elder Booth were more supernal in their lightnings of passion and scorn,—and there are points in“ Richelieu ” which leave this a debatable question,— Edwin Booth is more equal throughout, has every resource of taste and study at his command ; his action is finished to the last, his stage-business perfect, his reading distinct and musical as a bell. He is thus the ripened product of our eclectic later age, and has this advantage about him, being an American, that he is many-sided, and draws from all foreign schools their distinctive elements to fuse into one new, harmonious whole.
It is our fashion to speak of the decline of the Drama, to lament not only a decay of morals, manners, and elocution, but the desertion of standard excellence for the frippery which only appeals to the lightest popular taste. But this outcry proceeds mostly from old fogies, and those who only reverence the past, while the halo which gilds the memories of youth is the cause of its ceaseless repetition. For it has been heard through every period. It was in the era when our greatest dramas were created that Ben jonson, during a fit of the spleen, occasioned by the failure of “ The New Inn,” begat these verses “ to himself” : —
And this more loathsome age,
Where pride and impudence, in faction knit,
Usurp the chair of wit !
Inditing and arranging every day
Something they call a play.”
At the commencement of our own century, and in what we are wont to consider the Roscian Period of the British stage, its condition seemed so deplorable to Leigh Hunt, then the dramatic critic of “ The News,” as to require “ An Essay on the Appearance, Causes, and Consequences of the Decline of British Comedy.” “ Of Tragedy,” he wrote, “ we have nothing ; and it is the observation of all Europe that the British Drama is rapidly declining.” Yet the golden reign of the Kembles was then in its prime ; and such names as Bannister, Fawcett, Matthews, Elliston, and Cooke occur in Hunt’s graceful and authoritative sketches of the actors of the day.2 As to the newer plays, Gifford said, “ All the fools in the kingdom seem to have exclaimed with one voice, Let us write for the theatre ! ” Latter-day croakers would have us believe that the Tragic Muse, indignant at the desecration of her English altars, took flight across the ocean, alighting in solemn majesty at the Old Park Theatre of New York, but that she disappeared utterly in the final conflagration of that histrionic shrine. Well, there are smouldering remnants of the Old Park still left to us ; veteran retainers of the conventional stride, the disdainful gesture, the Kemble elocution, and that accent which was justly characterized as
But the Muse is immortal, though so changing the fashion of her garb, it would appear, as often to fail of recognition from ancient friends. We think that modern acting is quite as true to nature as that of the school which has passed away, while its accessories are infinitely richer and more appropriate ; and as to the popular judgment, how should that be on the decline ? In America, — where common wealth makes common entrance, and the lines are not so clearly drawn between the unskilful many and the judicious few, — managers will always make concessions to the whim and folly of the hour. But we see no cause for discouragement, so long as dramas are set forth with the conscientious accuracy that has marked the latest productions of “ Hamlet” and “ Richelieu,” and while hushed and delighted audiences, drawn from every condition of society, leave all meaner performances to hang upon the looks and accents of Nature's sweet interpreter, — Edwin Booth.
- Not Edwin Forrest Booth, as often and erroneously written. Our actor, bom in November, 1833, derived his middle name from Thomas Fiyn, the English comedian, his father's contemporary and friend. Edwin was the chosen companion of his father in the latter’s tours throughout the United States, and was regarded by the old actor with a strange mixture of repulsion and sympathy, — the one evinced in lack of outward affection and encouragement, the other in a silent but undoubted appreciation of the son’s promise. The boy, in turn, so fully understood the father’s temperament, that a bond existed between the two. Whether to keep Edwin from the stage, or in caprice, the elder Booth at first rarely permitted the younger to see him act ; hut the son, attending the father to the theatre, would sit in the wings for hours, listening to the play, and having all its parts so indelibly impressed on his memory as to astonish his brother-actors in later years.↩
- “ Critical Essays on the Performers of the London Theatres, including General Observations on the Practice and Genius of the Stage. London, 1807.” Some publisher would do well to give us a reprint of this noted collection.↩