Four Months on the Stage
NOT long since, combined necessity and inclination led me into an unknown country, as it were, where it was my fortune to encounter many surprising novelties. It happened in this wise. I was a painter, and had been for some years enthusiastically, but far from profitably, devoted to my art, when one day I was suddenly made aware that my exchequer had become lean, consumptive, nay, utterly, collapsed, and that I must do something to get my daily bread and butter.
Naturally imaginative, and having more or less closely observed men and things from the painter’s stand-point, I had not been so completely taken up with my own art as to shut my eyes to the intimate relation and interdependence of all the arts. Indeed, this underlying unity had always been a favorite subject of contemplation, and I was now induced to think that, though my artistic sense might be denied the dearer method of expression, still another was left, not inadequate, and for which I believed myself in a measure fit. In short, I made up my mind to strut a brief hour on the stage, and thus put what dramatic talent I possessed to immediate use. I determined on this course, moreover, because I could offer my services as a commodity which would bring a price somewhat corresponding to its real worth in the theatrical market. Acting is in one respect like sawing wood ; for a stipulated sum an alloted task is to be accomplished ; beyond this arrangement one preserves as complete independence as is possiblein any business relation.
Without consulting any one, or making undue delay, I sought means to carry out my intention. Having obtained from a friend a letter of introduction to Mr. Edwin Booth, and, during an interview late in the summer of 1866, having convinced that gentleman that I was no sentimental, stage-struck youth, but well aware of the serious difficulties to be surmounted and the indignities to be borne, and that I was willing to fight, he generously extended to me the right hand of fellowship ; my name was enrolled in the “ Winter Garden ” company, and I thus became a member of the actors’ guild. Having thorough conception of the inevitable apprenticeship to be served before the first principle of art can be mastered, I did not expect that the treatment of important characters would be intrusted to me. Nor did I desire it. Thinking that a true artist may assert his feeling in carving a knife-handle as well as in hewing a colossal statue, the difference being only in degree, I deemed it an ample opportunity that I should be permitted to play what are called inferior parts, and thought it no shame to give my whole strength to the study of the most insignificant rôle in which I might be cast. For experience had taught me that, in getting at a refined conception of the essential qualities of Shakespeare’s characters, it was not only requisite to study a part itself, but to comprehend the play in its entirety, and the relations of all the dramatis personœ. I saw also that, though I
might have in my own mind a clear image of the character I would exhibit, the limitations of the art must then be known before I could hope to make my conception evident to an audience. Art is not nature, but the interpretation of nature; and in reconciling what I knew of the latter to the exigencies of the stage, I anticipated not only difficulty, but was prepared to encounter failure if need were, and even through defeat win the laurel I coveted, — which was not a clapping of hands.
Luckily, I had never acquired the tricks and mannerisms of amateur dramatic associations, so I had nothing to unlearn. Elocution I shunned as I would a dangerous quicksand, but I studiously noted the inflections and modulations of ordinary conversation, the connection of gesture with word or thought; in the street I was equally keen to remark manner, gait, expression, and the like, and to discover every indication of temperament. A few weeks were left before the commencement of the season at the “ Winter Garden " ; meanwhile I embraced the opportunity to increase my knowledge of Hamlet, Othello, Taming of the Shrew, etc., committing several of the “ utility parts in each, and making ready, so far as possible, for the work to come. In the mechanical drudgery of learning text, I soon found that the retentive faculty may be cultivated by practice as surely as muscular quickness is developed by fencing; and that, besides the iacility acquired in constant use, the memory is greatly stimulated when necessity obliges one to depend on it. The labor of memorizing was distasteful ; but the idea of the new life before me, with the novel relations I should sustain, and the opportunity for knowing many curious people I might never otherwise meet, filled me with a kind of buoyant exhilaration. There was not wanting a strong desire to view closely every type of individual character, to know the full gamut of social life, and to scrutinize human nature with the impersonal Shakespearian sense. The idea of becoming remote from myself, of investing my personality in the disguise of an assumed character entirely opposite to my real nature; of hiding behind an impenetrable mask that should reflect some one’s villany, perhaps, and make him wince ; or of serving the great cause of poetic justice in any way, delighted me.
Hamlet was announced. The time of trial had come. Summoned to rehearsal, I made my maiden effort in the mimic art by assuming a bold front, anxiously concealing a sense of greenness that threatened to undermine my self-possession. For the first time I entered the stage-door of a theatre, repaired to the mysterious purlieus of the yet unexplored greenroom, and, as I had expected, found my patronymic low down, on the call, opposite Guildenstern of the play. While waiting for rehearsal to begin, I should have suffered a chilling disillusion, had not my interest and love of the picturesque been excited by the novel secrets of my prison-house. On the right stood the prompt-box, — that fish-pond of the actor, restorer of lost lines, and solace of distracted brains ; to the left, the property-room, — temple of vanity and delusion, gaudily bedecked with refulgent paste-jewels, wooden banquet-sets, and bogus armor; its treasury rich in brass medals, spurious coin, purses stuffed with broken glass. In every condition of freshness and demolition, queer stacks of scenery were piled against the wall, partly hid by deep, grotesque shadows ; while against slits of dim light, let fall on the stage through the narrow wings, various groups of actors defined themselves like sharp-cut silhouettes. Tophamper, by which the dingy flies, drops, and floating lights were manipulated, and intricate as the rigging of a ship, appeared vaguely, far above. Consulting their ragged paper “plots,”or directions for working the machinery, shirtsleeved carpenters bustled about, dexterously handling the unwieldy scenes and flats to be used in the evening. Beyond the curtain and foot-lights, its red plush swathed in ghastly cerements of protecting linen, gaped the inane obscure of the auditorium, filled with cavernous reverberations, and the expended breath of last night’s audience, unpleasantly suggestive of this “muddy vesture of decay.” Actors, actresses, and ballet-girls or ‘"waxworks,” as these last are sometimes called, — whose arduous duty it is to fill the important roles of “ lords-ladiesand-pages,” stood carelessly about, conning their lines, or idly talking of every thing, perhaps, but the business of the morning. On the bridge, swung at the rear of the theatre, scene-painters plunged their free pencils in pots of vivid ochre, and lathered the virgin canvas with that festive breadth of touch generally reputed to be indispensable to the embodiment of their gorgeous creations.
At eleven o’clock the prompter posted himself at the front of the stage, ready for business ; and, instructed by this official to " call one,” the call-boy began rehearsal by crying sharply, in a peculiar nasal monotone, “ Hamletact-first-scene-first-Francisco-BernardoHoratio-Marcellus-and-ghost,” and so made the call throughout the play, adding, “lords-ladies-and-pages,” whenever those personages were to appear. The stage-manager, with cast in hand, called the names of actors who took part in the first scene, indicating their proper entrances and relative positions ; the characters named sauntered leisurely upon the boards, in street dress, cut the long speeches, and mumbled the short ones, repeating only the cues with tolerable distinctness. At first rehearsal it is permitted to read from the book, and every one availed himself of the prerogative. The “business ” of the scene merely was ascertained, and no effort made at even the slightest sketch of the character to be interpreted. My turn to go on the stage came in the second act. I deliberately went through the part just as I intended to do in the evening, reading in as clear a voice as I could command ; though by so doing I was fully aware attention would be drawn to the fact of my being a novice, and inexperienced in theatrical matters. My mind was too much excited to note the comments probably indulged, but I had a particularly uncomfortable sensation of being quizzed, though I could not detect what eyes were turned upon me.
I knew actors to be great mockers, nor was I ignorant of their ingrained aversion to anything that savors of innovation ; a young aspirant, I could not wonder at being placed under the ban, and ridiculed, till the rawness had worn away, and practice given me assurance. My object was to make short work with what I conceived to be the first obstacles to be cleared ; and, determined to win the first thing to be aimed at,— ease and self-possession, — it mattered little to me whether the method I chose were considered en règle. I was prepared for every disappointment, but must confess having been annoyed to find the interest wanting that would have inspired every one to feel a personal responsibility and pride in the harmonious conception of the piece.
The bugbear of a young actor is stage-business. This means the mechanical action requisite to preserve the sequence of the play, and includes, among other things, making entrances effective; relative position, or assuming a place so chosen as to develop the main interest of the scene by bringing characters into a degree of prominence corresponding with the dramatic importance of each ; and above all, it consists in such preparation for exit as shall prevent the feeble anticlimax of a dreary and meaningless walk across the stage when the last word of interest has been spoken. The moment a character has ceased to be indispensable to the action of the scene, he must disappear. Of course the methods to be followed in treating the “ business ” of different plays are as various as the effects to be produced ; but there are certain principles that always hold good, and may never with safety be disregarded. The object of rehearsal is mainly to secure smooth working of these mechanical details, by giving to every actor a chance to so modify his conception of the business belonging to his part that it shall become adapted to the requirements of the stage, and not interfere with, but complement, expression of the other characters. Only when this “business ” is thoroughly understood by the actor can he allow himself to become possessed by the passion of his rôle.
I knew the play of Hamlet intimately, and had my own views of the situations, having carefully studied them on what I took to be naturalistic principles ; but my ideas met with little consideration, and, abandoning what I thought right methods, I was obliged to yield to the dictation of the stage-manager. I soon learned that the “ business ” of our stage is principally founded on conventional rules, far from anything that at all resembles nature ; and that infringement of these rules is considered a sort of sacrilege, every suggestion of varying from theatrical tradition being regarded with holy horror. Rehearsal is supervised and the “ business ” directed by the stage-manager, who, if he perform the numberless duties required of him, must be ubiquitous and omniscient. He is king in his sphere, and from his decisions it is difficult to make appeal. By him the play is cast, and costumed according to his notions of historical accuracy, so far as the wardrobe at his disposal will permit. He directs the carpenters in setting the scene, and the property-men in arrangement of accessories. He is the Jupiter of the theatre; the elements obey him ; at his command, lightnings flash, and thunder rolls — on wheels ; he lifts his finger, rain descends, or the calcium light shoots moonlight through a grassgreen lens ; he is relied on for flourish of trumpets and proper introduction of red fire ; he is as necessary to the success of a play as the hangman at an execution, and the position he holds about as ungrateful ; if anything goes wrong, blame is pretty sure to light on his shoulders.
At rehearsal I had not betrayed extraordinary dulness, and having succeeded in fulfilling the requirements of the occasion, felt moderately satisfied with the result. It now remained to brace my mind for the coming ordeal of a first appearance, and I had need, as I thought, of all the resolution I could summon. Strangely enough, I became possessed with an involuntary calm, and was unembarrassed by the quaking fear I apprehended. When I entered the theatre in the evening, all was quiet, the curtain down, stage prepared, and actors in their dressingrooms, engaged in the deep mysteries of the player’s toilet. Through the baize I could hear the boys of the lobby crying “ Books of the play ! ” and a slight muttering of voices and rustle of programmes magnified in my mind the real size of the audience, causing a momentary spasm of nervousness ; but this was the only sensation of the kind I experienced during that performance.
I went to the dressing-room assigned me under the stage, which I shared with three comrades, arrayed myself in the short tunic and toga, and then proceeded to the wing, where I might survey the scene of approaching trial, and watch the progress of the first act. Time fairly flew ; almost before I could become conscious that I was placed in any unwonted predicament, I found myself before the audience, talking to Hamlet’s mother and uncle-father as easily as though I were in my own studio with old friends. Words seemed to come without any volition on my part, and I made my exit hardly able to realize that anything unusual had happened. My mind was intensely excited, and so preoccupied was I with the rôle, that there was no time for reflection, and I preserved this unnatural state till the end of the play. While off the stage I did not allow myself to lapse from contemplation of the spirit of the piece, but continually endeavored to believe in it as an actual reality. That night I slept serenely, and the next night was a repetition of the first. I had heard actors say there was no hope for a novice who could so easily keep command of himself, and began to think I had made a mistake, till, a few nights after these unlooked-for evidences of impassibility, there came a revulsion in the worst form of stagefright, from which, had I measured my talent by it, I must have inferred extraordinary ability for the theatre.
The next piece called was “ Richelieu.” I was anxious to play “François,” the young priest,—apart I admired, and had enthusiastically studied. Indeed, I had obtained a half-promise that, did I show fitness, the rôle should be mine. After some hesitation it was decided I might make the attempt ; I was allowed to rehearse the character, and sketch my idea of Richelieu’s protégé. Full of confidence, and ambitious to distinguish myself, I went boldly to work preparing for the representation, never dreaming that I should be deserted in my hour of need by what I mistook for constitutional indifference to the presence of an audience. Alas, how vain are all things here below! How may our hopes be shattered ! But I did not merely hope, 'I was sanguine ; hinc illœ lacrymœ ! François’s first entrance is in the first act, when he has only to make an announcement. In going on the stage I noticed a slight feeling of sea-sickness, the boards seeming to tilt like a ship ; this looked ominous, but I thought little of it then, and trusted all would yet be well. Somewhat nervous, but unabashed, I made ready to cover myself with glory in the second act ; the moment I set foot on the stage, however, I knew my hour had come. The confidence I had felt in a power to keep cool left me unprepared to combat the violent reaction that attacked my nervous system. The stage seemed a wilderness. I saw Richelieu very dimly, and had but an indistinct notion of the lines he addressed to François ; but the audience appeared to my fixed eye a hundred times larger than it was, and every individual stood out alone. My legs suddenly turned to lumps of lead, and refused to move ; my breath was stifled ; my paralyzed tongue lolled against my teeth incapable of speech. My head swam, and the audience began to revolve with an ever-increasing velocity, and seemed like a great bewildering pattern of mosaic ; while cold beads of sweat stood out on my brow. Marian de Larme, catching the infection, cut the Cardinal out of half a speech, and hurriedly withdrew ; I seemed bound to her with hooks of steel, and by a gigantic effort of will restoring animation to my deadened pedal extremities, incontinently fled after her as though scourged by fiends. Richelieu, who had just before taken the stage to the left, turned to deliver the closing lines, but was perforce obliged to apostrophize thin air The dreadful nightmare clung to me, I could not shake it off, but wandered restlessly from one dark corner to another, trying to escape from myself, and dreading to face again the crowded auditorium. Perfectly worn out, and benumbed with fear, I got through the following scenes, I know not how. In the prison the terror again assailed me, and I made frantic efforts to tear open the flat, mistaking the seam where it was joined for the door through which I had to pass. The last words I spoke, “ O my lord, I have not failed ! ” stung my ears like a horrible mockery. Connected with this almost intolerable mortification and pain was a psychological phenomenon worthy of notice. I seemed to have a dual existence, and while one of the two individuals confined within my mortal frame was stretched on the rack, the other, invested with the phlegm of an inquisitor, incisively anatomatized the agony of the victim, whose every throe he noted with cold-blooded accuracy. I have never heard this mentioned as a usual accompaniment of stage-fright, though it occurred in my own case.
On another occasion I had to suffer the consequences of ignorance in regard to a phenomenon that sometimes unpleasantly obtrudes itself on the actor’s notice. I mean the fact that one may become too well acquainted with his author, or, as it is called, study the text out of his head. A beneficiary of the theatre had chosen “The Wife,” and I was cast to fill a small part; but after the piece had been rehearsed, the person becoming ill who was to have done “ Lorenzo,” the young advocate, it fell to my lot to take his place. Accordingly, the day before the benefit, I began to memorize the insane rhetoric of that drowsiest of all dramatists, Sheridan Knowles, continuing to studyafter that evening’s performance; and by five o’clock in the morning had learned the part, and could repeat it, though I was not “ dead-letter perfect.”
After two hours’ sleep I was injudicious enough to again apply myself to the text, and continued to do so till that afternoon, when I had to play at a matinée. Worried at the thought of not having rehearsed the character, and fearing lest I should make sorry confusion of the stage-business, I studied when not in the scene. To my horror and amazement I found my benumbed brain refusing to retain the lines. Redoubled exertion only made a bad matter worse ; the lines insisted o,n stealing out of my treacherous memory ; and by the time I ought to have had them pat, I could not remember a single word. Calling to mind my late experience in François, I had hardly courage to go upon the stage ; but there was no way of compromise. Somewhat to my relief, I found that, though I could not recall a vestige of the original text, I was collected enough to give its spirit in my own language, and, gaining confidence, played the rôle without betraying the state of affairs to the spectators. After these trials I found myself growing to be in unison with the audience, and knew I had experienced that best estate of the actor, when he feels a grateful sympathy without which he must vainly strive to enlist the affections of those he would move. But from the sublime to the other extreme is only a step : sometimes when perhaps most deeply preoccupied with the spirit of my part, or interested with what might be taking place in the scene, a trivial occurrence, that at no other time could have excited my risibles, would appear so extravagantly absurd that it required the exercise of great self-control to prevent an explosion of laughter. I was particularly loath to attempt the part of François again ; but I overcame this feeling, and my victory was rewarded with applause. The ice had been broken. I had tasted the bitterest calamity likely to befall a novice. Self-possession, had been won, and from that time I rapidly improved. The routine of theatrical life grew easy. I considered myself of some little importance. The study which a young actor ought to pursue, and which I had proposed to myself, in many ways gratified my artistic sense, though this was sometimes hurt by having to play when physically unfit, or by having to study in the very teeth of an audience, trying experiments with different methods of expressing character, and unable to explain,
“ This is an unfinished sketch.” Questions continually arose concerning principles of dramatic art, and these I had to solve for myself, trusting to my unaided research for information in every important particular. Through continual reference to nature I sought to escape affected mannerism, and secure originality of invention, at the same time closely observing the dignified breadth of art with which the interior sense of human passion was laid bare by the powerful actor under whom it was my privilege to study. I have reason to sincerely thank that good “ friend at court ” for having stood between me and much that would have been disagreeable.
While my attention was chiefly devoted to pursuit of the aesthetic principles involved in my new profession, the curious relations and elements that went to make up the strange world in which I found myself awakened constant interest; and I could not fail to notice, as an inexhaustible source of amusement, that here, as everywhere, life was a medley of aspirations and low aims, generosity and suspicious jealousy, community of interest and conflicting ambition. But, on the whole, a greater degree of harmony existed than could have been expected; and a friendly feeling was apparent, much like the bond that unites sailors who have trusted their fortunes in the same ship. The prejudice, that an actor’s life is intrinsically demoralizing,
I discovered to have not the slightest foundation in truth. It is not the requirements of his profession, but his habits outside the theatre’s walls, that injure him as a man. At both rehearsal and performance there is little time for anything but the slightest association ; and in the green-room, unless a piece is played for a long period, the actor is entirely devoted to his present duty. If he is playing a rôle for the first time, then even an old hand is anxious enough to fix his mind on the business of the hour. Nor is the fatigue following the performance so excessive as is imagined. It is as natural for an actor, if his temperament be nervous, to require exercise for it, as for a gymnast to desire means to throw off his surplus muscular activity. Unless nature be overwrought, the weariness in both cases is equally healthful.
The “sups” and ballet-girls formed a class by themselves, the actors’ contact with which was confined to the stage. I never saw in their conduct anything offensive, or that I would not have permitted in my own house. The ballet was made up of young women who had their living to make, and when not on the scene they were generally engaged in embroidery, sensation novels, or quietly watching the play. So far as my observation went, — and I kept my eyes open, — there was no greater amount of immorality among them than among the same number of sewinggirls of our great cities : they were always treated with respect. The “ sups ” were a rough crew, given to noise, and rather difficult to manage, but, on the whole, kept tolerably repressed. As most of them were blacksmiths, coopers, machinists, etc., they did not rehearse, being directed at night by a captain. The sum paid them was nominal, these romantic youths thinking it sufficient honor to dress in shabby Turkey-red, and carry a spear. The dressing-room in which they disported themselves was a perfect pandemonium, where they spent their valuable leisure between the acts, revelling in neverending games of cards. The great jubilee for these merry gentlemen is " Richard III.” ; the fifth act of which affords them ample opportunity to indulge their ambition to be seen of men, and satisfy the grudges that may have occurred over their greasy cards by hacking each other gloriously with tin swords. On one such occasion, I very nearly paid dear for having inadvertently incurred the sovereign displeasure of one of these roaring blades ; in the confusion of the fight between Richmond’s and Richard’s armies, the indignant “ sup,” aided by one or two whom he had prevailed on to join the conspiracy, hammered me over the sconce without mercy, and I only escaped a broken pate by virtue of the helmet in which my head was encased. During this adventure a quarrel broke out in another part of the field and resulted in the thorough fright of one of the belligerent parties, who had his throat deeply enough scratched to draw his precious blood.
Though my experience had failed to teach me why an actor, as such, should be thought a person of questionable respectability, I was forced to endure a portion of the odium that has always attached to the guild. A few friends deliberately expressed what many felt, and regretted that I should compromise my social position by remaining on the boards. Considering the thoughtless way in which the matter was sure to be regarded, the objection was not surprising ; but in my mind its only title to respect lay in its moss-grown antiquity. If age could have the effect of making it reverend, it had a powerful argument on its side ; the prejudice against actors is the inheritance of nearly eighteen centuries ; and we may even trace it beyond the beginning of our era. Plato omitted actors from his Republic. From the beginning of Christian Church history, players have been a proscribed race, held in contempt, as pernicious to the welfare of mankind. From the very first the Fathers of the Church eyed them with suspicion, exercising every possible means to make them odious and their profession disreputable ; they pursued actors with an ingenuity of persecution only rivalled by that inflicted on the Jews. Edicts were promulgated, making it impossible for an actor to embrace the Christian faith until he had formally renounced his calling, and received absolution ; the same edicts denied him right of baptism or burial in consecrated ground. A canon of the African Church, in the third century, forbade “ such infamous persons as comedians ” from making accusations in court. The Christian emperors Theodosius and Valentinian, in a prohibitory instrument, call Thespians “that infamous race of players,” and speak of their vocation as a “ shameful trade.” Through these emperors the pious Fathers procured excommunication of all renegades from the true faith who should abet or tolerate “ the children of Sathanas.’” In 1568, Charles Borromeo, Bishop of Milan, exhorted the preachers “ to represent incessantly how much the shows, the sports, and other little diversions (which are the remains of paganism), are contrary to the Christian discipline; how execrable and detestable they are ; how many public evils and afflictions they draw down on the Christian people.” “Omit nothing,” says the good bishop, “ that may contribute to destroy these irregularities and debauches.” Detractors have never been wanting. Stephen Gosson, who had himself been a player, but repented of his wickedness, embodied the intolerance that obtained in Shakespeare’s time in a well-known pamphlet entitled “ The School of Abuse ; containing a Pleasant Invective against Poets, Pipers, Players, Jesters, etc.,” “and such like Caterpillars of the Commonwealth.” It is needless to recount the oppressions heaped upon them by the Puritans, who entertained the theory of Tertullian, that all art is “a counterfeit and a lie,” synonymous with spiritual death. Finally, the adverse opinion of our own time is adequately expressed in a “ Lecture on Popular Amusements,” delivered to young men by a celebrated preacher at Indianapolis, in 1846. With admirable perspicacity the lecturer places “ vagabond fiddlers, fashionable actors, strumpet dancers, dancing horses, and boxing men ” in the same category, and with a naïveté truly refreshing asks his hearers if they ever knew a theatre in which a prayer at the beginning and at the end of the performance would
not be considered an intrusion. The only term fit to apply in characterizing such extravagance is “bigoted intolerance,” and many will think opposition useless and unprofitable. But this tirade represents the opinion of a very large and important part of the community, who think twice before makingsuch a compromise with conscience as to go to the theatre themselves, and who would never dream of permitting such lapses from grace on the part of their children. The feeling is illiberal, and evidence of incomplete culture. It is an ill time, however, to defend the drama, when the Black Crook is in its “second year,” nor shall I attempt it. Yet I need not deny myself the pleasure of saying how nobly, during my brief acquaintance with the stage, the drama was vindicated by the genius and character of Edwin Booth, whose imaginative instinct and creative intelligence exhibit the synthetic nature of his art, which appeals like music to the senses, at the same time stimulating intellectual perception. In these days of rationalism and materialism, much is said of naturalistic treatment in art. But this actor’s conceptions, while they are in accord with the principles of the French school, and are derived from a wide and searching knowledge of nature, transcend petty details that would obscure the interior sense and relation of the passions he impersonates ; divested of everything superfluous, they have all the harmony and sublime repose that dignify Greek art. His incisive insight, his illustration of hidden recesses of character, and his lucid interpretations of nature, are worth stacks of commentaries and libraries of books. In the spirit of true art, he elevates common things into an ideal realm, and makes plain unsuspected meanings. His subtile magnetism sways the audience, as the passion of the part he plays vibrates through his sensitive nervous temperament. No one so well as he can make us feel the immediate and terrific presence of the supernatural. But his is no vulgar conception of terror. His Hamlet stands in so unearthly a frame of mind, that spiritual perception dominates physical sensibility ; we look through and beyond the mortal Hamlet, and breathlessly watch the soul of the Dane in dreadful conflict with the powers of the air. Yet we never lose sight of his humanity ; and Edwin Booth’s Hamlet is surpassingly pathetic, because above all he realizes a soul trammelled and dejected by a secret burden, and holds up a glass that brings near to every one of us the spectral shadow of his own spirit’s wrestling. A conception that equally attests the genius of this actor is his rendering of Shylock, — an interpretation remarkable for refined intellectual discrimination, and flexible versatility. In his hands the cruel Jew becomes a colossal character, and type of his race, symbolizing the curse that cost “ thirty talents of silver.” The avarice of Judas consumes him, and his great badness is shown to consist in his great meanness, never permitted to pass from sight even in the pathetic passage where Shylock laments his stolen turquoise because he had it of Leah when he was a bachelor. A true hero is equally a hero in defeat. Had Shylock been the hero he is often represented, he would have sacrificed himself, spite of Portia’s quibble, and cut the flesh from Antonio’s heart. Great art is shown in making the Jew enter court as though he had deluded himself with the idea that, directly appointed by God and the prophets, he is the avenger of his oppressed people, hunting down the Christian merchant from pure motives of divine justice; and then in his becoming terror-stricken, and utterly cast down, when he finds what extreme penalty will be demanded of him as the price of his revenge. Avarice has stood for a time in abeyance, but a life’s passionate greed makes him incapable of martyrdom. Iscariot reigns there still.
Such interpretations make plain the function of dramatic art, and through such the high office of the actor becomes potent. But even if one have genius, this perfection is only to be attained by laborious discipline, and an amount of intellectual culture that would of itself make honorable any other walk in life, but that seems to be left entirely out of consideration in estimating the histrionic profession. This might be otherwise, and will be, when the people see that their national and domestic life is traduced, and has no adequate expression in the theatre. When they see the necessity for a trained school of actors, and for something in the way of a dramatic college, that may induce our best youth to look to the stage as an honorable career, and render possible a national dramatic literature, — then may the actor hope to impress his genius on the art of his time, and leave some trace behind him.