IT is somewhat strange that the quotation from Joanna Baillie’s “Jane de Montfort,” with which Campbell sketched a portrait of Mrs. Siddons, should answer almost equally well for a description of the great Italian’s stage appearance.
“ Page. So queenly, so commanding, and so noble,
I shrunk at first in awe ; but when she smiled,
Methought I could have compassed sea and land To do her bidding.
“Page. Neither, if I right guess ; but she is fair.
For Time has laid his hand so gently on her,
As he too had been awed.
“Lady. The foolish stripling !
“ Page. So stately and so graceful in her form,
I thought at first her stature was gigantic ;
But on a near approach I found in truth
She scarcely does surpass the middle size.”
Ristori the woman, however, is as unlike Ristori the artist, as her real character differs from that of Elisabetta or Medea. If we may credit the assertions of biography and tradition, Mrs. Siddons was always, though unintentionally, more or less of a tragedy queen. She “stabbed the potatoes,” astounded shopkeepers by the majesty with which she inquired whether material for clothing would wash, and frightened her dressing-maid by the sepulchral intensity of her exclamations. The awe which Ristori frequently excites is confined entirely to the theatre. Away from it she is the most human, — and humane, —the most simple, the most unaffected, the most sympathetic of women. So strongly is the line drawn between reality and fiction, that in Ristori’s presence it requires a mental effort to recall her histrionic greatness, though you have a sense of her power, and you feel persuaded that whatever such a woman earnestly willed would be accomplished.
The large friendliness in Ristori’s nature creates a fellow-feeling, making you wondrous kind toward your own personality, and razing those barriers with which genius often surrounds itself. To excite love as well as admiration is not always in the power of greatness. There is frequently an intolerance of manner, an assertion of superiority, a species of intellectual scorn for the dead level of humanity, that preclude the possibility of sympathy. Yet there is no surer test of grandeur of character than a readiness to acknowledge and respect the individuality of all God’s creatures. This is the crowning grace that brings Ristori so near to the hearts of her friends. Her social ease makes you wonder how she can ever be transformed into the classic statue of Mirra. Rachel was so complete a Pagan princess — “ Elle pose toujours,” said her best friends — that she never succeeded in being herself. Both she and Siddons were first artists, and then women. Ristori is first a woman, and then an artist. Which is more satisfactory to the world admits of argument, but for ourselves we believe it better to step from nature to art than from art to nature. In acting, the common should precede the uncommon ; one must be a creature of every day, and walk upon the earth, in order to be a complete master of the heart. It is not enough that an actor know how to wear a toga. To live in his own age, and love and laugh with his contemporaries, is as necessary as to suffer, hate, and murder after the fashion of the past.
It is not often that Nature does her work equally. She gives us beauty without wit, and then again wit without beauty. She fashions a distorted mouth, and demands that a fine eye make amends for all short-comings. She places a beautiful head on a diminutive, unattractive body, as in the case of Junius Brutus Booth. She gave the erratic Edmund Kean a bad voice, and breathed a Greek fire into the fragile form of Rachel. Garrick was too short, and Salvini, though handsome, is too stout. But Nature favored the Kembles, and was again in her best mood when she created Adelaide Ristori. She gave her height to command, and added a bearing that would befit the ideal queen. Cast in the large mould of the Venus of Milo, Ristori’s figure is finely proportioned, while the modelling of her throat is a study for a Michel Angelo. Her hand has no claim to beauty, but makes up in expression what it lacks in symmetry. Her head is not the Greek classic, but rather belongs to the type of the Madonna, for whom she has so often been the model. Her face is oval, her features regular, her nose perfectly Roman, her teeth beautiful, and her mouth and chin very fine. Her ear is small and shell-like, and her hair dark brown. Her eyes are that most enviable of all colors, dark gray, — enviable for the reason that it may be everything by turns and nothing long, — black, or even blue, according to the passion of the moment. We never saw an eye that was capable of such varied emotion, — and in fact, for mobility of feature Ristori stands alone. It is said of Talma, that he had only to pass his hand over his face to alternate “ from grave to gay, from lively to severe.” Ristori needs the interposition of no such veil to undergo the most wonderful facial transformation. Her walk also is most admirable. It is no stilted strut, no conventional stride, — it is the tread of majesty.
Although Ristori’s poses are often very beautiful, they are more frequently striking than purely statuesque, and occasionally there is just enough angularity of movement to prevent her being accorded perfect grace. Nor, in spite of fine physical attributes, do we now claim for her the great beauty she once possessed. A few years ago, Ristori’s appearance was alone sufficient to excite the greatest enthusiasm. Passion, not time, has wrought a change. No one can possess her temperament without intensity of feeling, and emotion leaves its ineffaceable mark. A woman who from childhood has fought the world single-handed, and has lived half her life in depicting the terrible sufferings of a Marie Stuart, a Juliet, a Mirra, and a Francesca da Rimini, is doomed to pay the penalty of genius, — and heart, for Ristori not only depicts, but becomes, each character. With her nothing is a cool calculation. Her quick impulses constitute her greatness. Surrounded by such cares and vexations as would thoroughly absorb almost any other human being, we have seen her, at a suggestion, forget the present, live for the moment, and, with the greatest animation in the subject of her narration, at its conclusion as quickly return to the disagreeable realities confronting her, and then rush on the stage to astonish people by her acting. It is this impulse, too, which renders her recitations so fine. In a drawing-room, where the liveliest imagination cannot conjure up the shadow of an illusion, in the lecture-room before an audience ignorant of her language and of most stolid aspect, Ristori sees nothing but her art, and by her own enthusiasm creates life under the ribs of death. Sensitive to moral atmospheres, she yet depends entirely upon her character for inspiration. Being outside of herself, applause is not a necessity. This is the secret of her success in countries where Italian is no more intelligible than Greek. Moreover, with all her sense of humor, her nature is thoroughly earnest. She takes life seriously. We never saw a person who put more conscience into work, whether of much or of little import. “ Everything that is worth doing at all is worth doing well,” is the first article of her creed, and is illustrated as forcibly in the packing of a trunk as in the deathscene of Elizabeth.
Though the brilliant bloom of her girlhood has yielded to the more interesting beauty of expression, first youth seems to have left Ristori’s face only to linger the more lovingly in her voice. That “excellent thing in woman” is, in Ristori, an organ so wonderfully melodious that the ear delights in its music even when no sense is conveyed to the mind. There is not a note in the register of human passion, but is richly rounded, and bursts forth grandly at the will of the artist. Italian from Ristori’s mouth is the ideal of harmony, and Dante is twice Dante when he finds in her an interpreter. Listening as she tells the story of Francesca da Rimini, we see Francesca’s self, and hear her heart-broken wail as Ristori sighs forth,
Che ricordarsi del tempo felice
In according to Ristori the highest order of dramatic genius, we merely allow what has long since been decided beyond appeal by the critical tribunals of France, Italy, Germany, England, and Spain. For the New World, therefore, to cry, Brava ! is to make no discovery : we crown a long-acknowledged queen. America may make fortune, but cannot make fame, for an artist; and it will be many a year ere cultivated Europe listens respectfully to our verdict in art. Those will be “ time-bettering days ” when our intellectual equals our moral conscience, and public opinion is founded upon principle. To-day, our criticism is, for the most part, either actuated by sentiment or prejudice; and, in the absence of real appreciation, we have made Ristori’s advent in America the signal for a dramatic feud, the public arraying itself, according to feeling, under one of two standards, —• the name of Rachel being opposed to that of her Italian rival. Is this criticism ? Is this love of the drama? “We are, in truth, great children,” wrote Jules Janin some years ago. “ When we have amused ourselves for some time with a pretty plaything, if another one is given to us we immediately forget the first. It is fortunate if we do not break it by striking on it with the new one. We had a beautiful tragic toy, Mademoiselle Rachel. The Italians show us another, Ristori. Crac! Here we are about to smash Rachel with Ristori, as if the dramatic art were not vast enough to afford two places of honor to two women of different kinds of talent, yet equal in their sublimity.”
It is miserable warfare. He who most truly appreciated the greatness of Rachel will be the first to proclaim that of Ristori, and he who compares the one with the other is simply attempting to make black white. There can be no parallel between things that are in themselves unlike. Rachel and Ristori fill different niches in the great dramatic Pantheon, and receive different offerings. We do not cavil because Phidias was a sculptor, and Apelles a painter, and demand that the one should have been the other. Rachel was a Phidias ; Ristori’s genius is rather that of an Apelles. It seems to us that in what she made the study of her life Rachel as nearly approached perfection as humanity may. Now, however, that death has thrown its romance and illusion around la grande tragédienne, it is insisted by her worshippers that their idol could do no wrong. Yet Rachel living was open to criticism; Rachel dead is no less vulnerable. Madame Waldor, a French writer, said of her, years ago, “ That little girl has received of Heaven a great gift, but with it she has neither heart nor brains.” That she had little heart was fully proved by her extraordinary career; that she was endowed with a great gift is undeniable. Devoid of heart, an actress is devoid of human sympathy, without which genius is confined to narrow limits. It may be unequalled within those boundaries ; beyond them it falls to the level of mediocrity. In Horace, Phèdre, Cinna, Andromaque, Tancrède, Iphigénie en An tide, Mithridate, and Bajazet, Rachel reigned supreme. All these characters were within the compass of her gift, and woe be to the actress who now attempts these rôles.
Educated in the best and only school of dramatic art, with Sanson always at her side, it was impossible for Rachel to acquire mannerisms or faults of style. From the first, she assumed those characters for which she was intended bynature ; and although, in memory of Phèdre, we are tempted to declare that Rachel could alone interpret Racine, yet it would be absurd to maintain that the actress properly interpreted all the works of her master. Such of Racine’s heroines as are ruled by the softer emotions, or by principle, had no breath of life breathed into them by Rachel. A Jewess, she nevertheless failed in Esther, a womanly woman not being dreamt of in her philosophy ; nor was she more successful in Bérénice, where duty is the key-note of character. Corneille also at times exceeded Rachel’s powers, the religious element in Polyeucte defying her, and the Chimene of his Cid being an acknowledged misconception. In the romantic drama Rachel was not at ease, although she is still remembered as Marie Stuart, Adrienne Lecouvreur, and Tisbe, the Actress of Padua. Apart from her exquisite dressing, Rachel, measured by herself, was a disappointment in the last-named play. Her Marie Stuart was not comparable with Ristori’s. She hated superbly in the third act, but she hated as a fiend, not as the Queen of Scots, and was too good a Pagan to be a true Catholic in the final scene. “Chez I’une il y a de la hauteur, chez l’autre, l’élévation,” is the verdict of an able French writer. Adrienne Lecouvreur was written for Rachel, but, according to her biographer, “it was certainly more as a pretty woman than as a finished artiste that she won admiration in her rendering of Adrienne’s character.” Of the otherseven or eight characters created by Rachel, Madame de Girardin’s Lady Tartuffe was the only one that succeeded in running the gauntlet of Parisian criticism.
Madame Waldor’s charge of want of brains seems hardly credible, yet Rachel’s ignorance of matters in which it was her business to be well informed furnishes food for much wonderment, and no little doubt. Prominent was her painful obliquity in judging of dramatic literature, pure whim being the only apparent motive which led her to accept or reject plays. Neither were her costumes always in character, her first dress in Marie Stuart being regal in brilliancy, notwithstanding that the Oueen of Scots is imprisoned and intentionally deprived by Elizabeth of every article of luxury, even to a looking-glass ! So unenlightened was Rachel on the subject of her heroine, that, after her debut in Le Brun’s fearful version of Schiller’s drama, a good friend thought fit to present the counterfeit Stuart with a history of Scotland; yet the extraordinary dressing continued unto the end, for Rachel was vain. Naturally content with the beauty of her Greek head, it was some time before she could be persuaded to wear a wig in Adrienne Lecouvreur j and her only objection to Madame de Girardin’s very objectionable play of Cleopatra was that the author should have given her lover the plebeian name of Antony! Again, in attempting comedy Rachel showed an extraordinary mental hallucination, if not weakness. We are told that she was never so happy as when arrayed for Molière’s soubrettes, in which she made a complete fiasco. At the Odéon, in 1844, “she sorely tried the patience of the spectators ” by her rendering of Dorinne in Tartuffe but, not persuaded of her inability to excel Mademoiselle Mars, she once more attempted Molière, undertaking the rôle of Célimènc in Le Misanthrope before a London audience. Even England refused to nod approval.
But Rachel’s limitations do not render her the less a genius in her own sphere; on the contrary, concentration of force brings with it increase of power, nor is it probably an exaggeration to state that the world will never look upon her like again. There is always a supply for every demand, but in the economy of nature there is no waste of matter or spirit; and though the stage requires great actresses, it does not ask for Rachels, for the very good reason that the classical drama is dead. Once France believed in it ; once France demanded that there should be no other school, and made grimaces before the mirror which Shakespeare held up to nature. Those “ superannuated prejudices” died with Talma. In spite of beauty and smoothness of language, the classical drama of France is a base imitation, a degenerate echo of former ages, antiquity in court clothes, Greece without her soul. France at last realizes that the masters of her idiom, whose spirit is utterly opposed to her awakened genius, are not masters of a national drama. After the death of Mademoiselle Duchesnoir, a famous Phèdre, Racine and Corneille became the bêtes noires of theatre-loving Parisians, who, at the rising of the star, Rachel, spent their enthusiasm upon manner, not matter. The actress was an incarnation : this they could understand and appreciate. Rachel galvanized a corpse, and seems to have been born into the world that the setting sun of the classical drama might be glorious and brilliant. We think, therefore, that there will be no more Rachels ; we feel that, if the romantic drama is to live, there must be other Ristoris.
There is no common ground upon which Rachel and Ristori can meet. Their conceptions of Phèdre may be compared, but not their genius. Ristori makes a tour de force of what with Rachel was bone of her bone and flesh of her flesh. She is noble in it; her reading is beautiful, as it ever is ; and some of her points, particularly in the fourth act, are fine ; but we do not feel a character. Ristori’s large humanity speaks through it all, and we heartily wish that Phèdre had never been translated. Rachel was fifteen years in mastering the idea of this wretched daughter of the monster Pasiphae. How useless, then, to look for an equal work of art from a foreigner, with whom the part is a comparatively recent assumption ! Independently of predestined genius, Rachel’s figure eminently fitted her for the rendering of Greek tragedy. Drapery hung upon her as it hangs upon no other human being, her veryphysical defects making her the more exquisitely statuesque. Rachel’s effects depended greatly upon her poses, — her poses depended upon her drapery, the management of which had been one of her profoundest studies. She knew the secrets of every crease in her mantle. Every movement was the result of thoughtful premeditation. A distinguished painter once said to us: “ I never studied my art more carefully than I studied Rachel. I watched her before and behind the curtain, and so narrowly, that, while one action was going on, I could see her fingers quietly, and to all appearances unconsciously, making the folds by which she shortly after produced a beautiful effect in what the public considered a spontaneous pose.” This is plastic art, and Rachel was mistress of it. Of course, Ristori has little or none of it in Phèdre. Impulse is death to it, and no amount of pictorial genius will produce results for which years of practice, as well as of thought, are required. Rachel, too, looked the
Her head was classic; that small, deepset brown eye burned with a silent intensity. You saw before you the victim of the wrath of Venus, exhausted, burnt out by the fire of a horrible passion ; —
Rachel fully realized Phèdre’s daring confession to Hippolyte,
She was a Pagan, controlled by influences outside of herself. There was nothing of to-day about her. From first to last, she put three thousand years between the auditorium and the stage. She was a fate : she glided, she did not walk. She held attention by magnetism, not by gesticulation. You saw wonderful art, and were awe-struck. This is the only feeling Phèdre can excite when consummately done. It must be as Rachel did it, or it must not be at all. Yet we have heard a great foreign critic—one whom it is audacious to dispute—-deny that Rachel’s interpretation was complete as a whole. “ Nothing in this world could be greater than her fourth act; but in the first act she gave too much the effect of a dying person to go through with all the succeeding action and emotion, and in the second act there was too much of Potiphar’s wife to be in keeping with the Phèdre of Racine.” When doctors disagree, who shall decide ?
Remembering Alfieri’s masterpiece, however, we feel that we have been unjust to Ristori in confining her genius to the picturesque. What Phèdre is to the French, Mirra is to the Italian stage. The latter is, if possible, more difficult of creation, being the most repulsive of heathen subjects, and written with a frigidity that even Racine never dreamed of. Alfieri materially changes mythology, by making his Mirra guilty in thought only. Through four long acts she embodies the one fearful passion of incestuous love for her father, against which she struggles, for which she loathes herself, but to which she is doomed by Venus, under whose curse she lives and dies. Where, in the last act, Ciniro insists upon knowing the cause of his daughter’s mysterious suffering, and her vindictive tempter forces a disclosure of her crime in the insinuating words,
the expression of Riston’s face and her delivery of these two lines were inexpressibly thrilling ; and the gesture with which the dying girl implored Ciniro to conceal from her mother her impious revelation was worthy of being perpetuated in everlasting marble. Ristori triumphed over the wellnigh unattainable. “Tu seras reine ! ” said Internari, Ristori’s great predecessor in this character. Five years later the pupil fulfilled her teacher’s prediction, when Paris looked in wonder upon her Mirra, and the French government offered her the position at the Théâtre Français which Rachel had resigned on going to America. “ I cannot renounce my nationality, nor will honor permit me to accept what belongs by right to a great artist,” was Ristori’s noble reply. “ Notre langue est trop pauvre pour exprimer la valcur de cette femme,” declared Lamartine, after witnessing this extraordinary performance. And what said Rachel herself, who went incognita to see her rival ? “ Cette femme me fait mal ! cette femme me fait mal ! ” and, greatly excited, left the theatre before the conclusion of the tragedy.
Much has been written and more said against the morality of Mirra. As Ristori portrays the heroine, it is impossible to take offence. By the purity of her conception, she absolutely excites the sympathy of her audience. You see before you beauty and virtue condemned to sin by destiny, and not until that final glance which Mirra expiates in suicidal death does Venus gain the mastery over principle. We have nothing but repugnance to bestow upon both Phèdre and Mirra as plays, even though they take a high rank as literature ; but we most certainly stand in awe of the genius that can personate either Phèdre or Mirra, and we thoroughly understand why great artists should aspire to this office. Public morals will never be the -worse for their representation. Both are fabulous, both are victims, and upon both falls the vengeance of retributive justice, it is the jubilant triumph of possible vice, in such plays as too often degrade the modern. French stage, at which the public censor would do well to take exception.
Apart from the complete dissimilarity of Rachel and Ristori, and the consequent injustice toward both of regarding one in comparison with the other, it is our faith that Rachel was the greater artist and that Ristori is the greater genius. As has already been stated, Rachel was educated in the purest school of art. With the exception of three years’ intercourse with La Marchionni and Vestris, both fine Italian actresses, and a few months of study with Internari, Ristori is indebted to no outside influences for her art. It is then probable that in details Rachel was less faulty than Ristori is. The actress who confines her study to half a dozen characters is far more likely to achieve artistic perfection, than she who. with even greater genius, spreads her time and thought over a larger surface. “Genius is in a certain sense infallible, and has nothing to learn ; but art is to be learned, and must be acquired, by practice and experience.” Rachel held you spellbound : it was tire fascination of a snake. She acted with her head. Ristori inspires love, and consequently there is color in all that she does. Rachel froze : Ristori brings tears. One was intense, and the other is passionate. Rachel was French, and Ristori is Italian, — which may also account for the greater art of the one and for the greater genius of the other.
“ Ristori! ” wrote Jules Janin, -— “she is tragedy itself. She is comedy itself. She is the drama.” What Shakespeare is among dramatists, Ristori is among actors. Both are universal, both can laugh and weep at will. Reviewing the career of the great players of the world, we can recall none possessed of Ristori’s wonderful versatility. Garrick was admirable in both tragedy and comedy, but we have knowledge of no woman who excelled in each. Mrs. Sid dons was great in a few characters. Praise was not awarded to her Juliet ; she acted Ophelia but once ; her Rosalind was “totally without archness”; she was pronounced “too tragic” in Murphy’s comedy of “ The Way to Keep Him,” and “not good” in Lady TownleyWilliam Godwin said of her that she “condescended in comedy”; Bannister, that her inspiration was too weighty for it ; and George Colman likened her in it to “ a frisking Gog.” it is impossible for us to conceive of the highest order of dramatic genius without the combination of light and shade, and we believe it was no accident that made jovial Bacchus the god of tragic poets. Setting the classical drama aside, which is pure tragedy, there is always an element of at least high comedy in the most serious dramatic compositions. For ourselves we hold comedy in great respect, and have grave doubts of the truth of acting that can only produce effects in harrowing moments. Togas and doublets may deceive, but frock-coats and blouses come within the comprehension of even the groundlings, and are not to be put on hastily. “ Eh ! eh ! ” exclaimed Garrick, when Bannister informed him of his intention to renounce tragedy for comedy ; “ why, no, don’t think of that; you may humbug the town for some time longer as a tragedian ; but comedy is a serious thing, so don't try it! ”
In Italy it is exacted of the prima donna that she be competent to perform comedy as well as tragedy, and for years Ristori’s attention was divided between the two. She is such a comédienne as Peg Woffington or Mrs:. Jordan must have been. See her in Goltion i, or in the petite comedy of I Getosi Fortunati, wherein a husband and wife, both equally and unreasonably jealous, play at cross-purposes, and you would declare that Momus was the only god of her idolatry, and that tragedy would spoil a face whose smile is irresistible, and whose laugh is brimful of merriment. Ristori’s manner, too, is so high-bred, and her tone so colloquial, that her acting becomes downright reality.
Leaving Alfieri and Goldoni, and entering upon the romantic, Ristori’s genius shines with additional lustre ; and were not our present aim generalization rather than detail, we could find ample material for as many essays as there are characters in her répertoire. In Ristori’s Elisabetta and Marie Stuart historical characterization has reached its climax. Anathema can with difficulty transcend the solemn power of her malediction in Mosenthal’s Deborah, and passionate love culminates in her Francesca da Rimini. It is almost impossible to conceive of more marvellous facial expression than that of Ristori in Camma, and poetry can never be more beautifully rendered than by this grand priestess, when, listening to the exquisitely pathetic music of her bard, the gates of Paradise are disclosed in a vision, and she expires with the name of her lover upon her lips. It seems as though her very soul escaped from her body in the passionate ecstasy of that final recognition and exclamation, “Sinato!” There are moments in life and art which transcend language. This is one of them. It is a thrill of inspiration ; it is a sensation for which there can be no description.
The Medea recalls us to Greece, but not to sculpture ; for by her own confession the dread niece of Circe is a creature of impulse and passion, with a pure animal love for her children. In Riston’s Medea we see what Balzac would call “ an adorable fury,” none the less true to character because of the absence of repose. “ We are not to suppose,” argues Schlegel, “that the Greeks were contented with a cold and spiritless representation of the passions. How could we reconcile such a supposition with the fact, that whole lines of their tragedies are frequently dedicated to inarticulate exclamations of pain, with which we have nothing to correspond in any of our modern languages ? ” In Medea there must be continued actioq, there must be color ; and perhaps Rachel was right in preferring a lawsuit and its damages to assuming a rôle totally opposed to the school she so faultlessly embodied. “ Rachel killed me ; you have restored me to life,” wrote Legouvé in Ristori’s album.
And Lady Macbeth! The spirit of Shakespeare has descended upon Ristori, through whom we see one of the grandest characters of dramatic literature. Her Lady Macbeth is powerful in intellect, beautiful in affection, first a woman and then a queen, a “ splendid fiend ” during the “ hurly-burly ” of terrible plotting, but a true wife when the foul deed is done. Ristori hails “ Great Glamis, worthy Cawdor,” with a tenderness of tone we never heard before, and, as soon as the situation will permit, makes you realize why Lady Macbeth exerted so powerful an influence over her husband. You see that she possesses womanly fascinations, that her heart, so far as he Is concerned, is as large as her brain, and that, while she is the dearest partner of his greatness, the brightest jewel in her crown is wifely devotion. No gentle counselling could be gentler than Ristori’s
and the unspeakable pathos which she puts into the simple action of laying Macbeth’s hand upon her shoulder, as she leads him from the stage, is never to be forgotten. The entire harmony between the guilty pair is told in this sadly beautiful exit. Ristori’s sleepwalking scene is a wonderfully solemn vision of retribution. The twenty-two lines of the dramatist become a five-act tragedy. It is the thrilling, terrible picture of a guilty, heart-broken woman on her way to the grave. There is none of the horrible and conventional gasping, but just sufficient hardness of breathing to denote somnambulism and approaching dissolution ; for Ristori evidently, and we think properly, believes that Lady Macbeth died by no suicidal hand, but of that disease to which none could minister. There never was such a washing of the hands ; there never was queen so quickly transformed into a spirit of Dante’s hell; there never was more fearful remorse, more pitiful heartrending sighs. And her final exit is the fatal flicker, before the going out of the candle ; it is the summing up of all the horrible past, a concentration of superhuman power into one moment of superb action ! Ignorant of English, with no knowledge of Macbeth but what she has obtained from an inferior translation, Ristori has made the part of Lady Macbeth her own. It is the interpretation of Shakespeare’s soul.
Italy, the first country of antiquity to bring disgrace upon the profession of acting, has never had a national theatre. It is a just retribution for the brand put upon actors by Julius Cæsar in depriving them of civil rights. What are Alfieri and Goldoni — the one only fitted for the closet, the other superficial and monotonous — compared with the dramatists of England and Spain, or even those of France and Germany? Confined to the Italian theatre, Ristori’s power would, in a great measure, be lost. The great void has been partially filled by translations, but it is sad to think how much greater than she is Ristori might have been, had Italy produced a Shakespeare, or had adequate translations of our master been put before her at the beginning of her career.
We hear the well-known voice of that “ extraordinary man whom nothing can please,” Pococurante, saying, “ Praise is not criticism. He is no critic that does not find fault. Where are your buts and ifs ?” True. Where are our buts and ifs ? Many years ago, a noble writer of noble English went to see Edmund Kean in Richard the Third. Upon returning home he wrote a criticism worthy of both author and actor, and, hearing the approach of this same Pococurante, closed his beautiful tribute with the following burst of generous and righteous indignation: — “It is a low and wicked thing to keep back from merit its due ; and I do not know more miserable beings than those who, instead of feeling themselves elevated and made happy by another’s excellence, and having a blessed consciousness of belonging to the same race with him, turn envious at his distinction, and feel as if the riches of his intellect made the poverty of theirs.
‘ O what a world is this, when what is comely Envenoms him that bears it ! ’
I owe a debt of gratitude to Mr. Kean for the good which the little I have seen of him has done my mind and heart. Would that what I could say might at all repay him. His genius in his calling has a right to our highest praise ; nor does an ardent enthusiasm of what is great argue such an unhappy want of discrimination as that measured and cold approval which is bestowed alike upon men of mediocrity and those of gifted minds.” Would that we were a Dana, to do equal justice to Ristori !
“ There is nothing more rare than a truly great player,” says the German critic. That phenomenon is now among us. Not to give her a grateful recognition would be to prove ourselves unworthy of a gift with which God so seldom endows humanity. Heartily, then, do we thank Ristori that she was not content to close her artistic career without coming to America. The Drama, when properly directed, is no less a civilizer than the Church. It remains with the public to say whether it shall be reduced to a frivolous amusement, or elevated to the rank of high art. Ristori has proved to us how capable the dramatic profession is of the most exalted influence over mind and heart, and how noble may be its exponents. She has been a missionary of art. We do not assert that she is perfection, we do not say that she is at all times equally great; but, take her for all in all, as a woman and as an artist, we do say, in the words of the message that Charlotte Cushman sends across the Atlantic, “ The world does not hold her equal.”