A Conversation on the Stage
Be cautious and sage,
Lest the courtiers offended should be.
If you mention vice or bribe,
'T is so pat to all the tribe,
That each cries, ‘That was levelled at me !’”
Vif Esprit. It is the very error of the moon. Everything goes wrong; and as for the stage, it is thoroughly demoralized. Only a few months ago that excellent actor, Mr. E. L. Davenport, publicly declared he should be obliged to acquire the noble arts of clog-dancing and banjo-playing, in order to put into his pocket that amount of pecuniary consolation which is as grateful to artists as to common men.
Sang-froid. Gently, my friend ; history is but repeating itself.
Vif Esprit. Prove it if you can.
Sang-froid. Well, then, let us go back to the days of Garrick. Poetry, architecture, painting, sculpture, and music have all attained greater perfection than they attain now ; and acting seems to be no exception to the rule. Before Garrick, even, the inimitable dramatic critic, Colley Cibber, deplored the fallen condition of the stage ; and so applicable to the present age is his criticism that “ His Apology ” might have been written yesterday. Let us see what Cibber says of English theatres and of their management. Ah! here it is. “They were reduced to have recourse to foreign novelties. If Abbe, Balon, and Mademoiselle Subliguy,” three of the then most famous dancers of the French Opera, “were at several times brought over, at extraordinary rates, to revive that sickly appetite which plain sense and nature had satiated. But, alas ! there was no recovering to a sound constitution by those merely costly cordials ; the novelty of a dance was but of a short duration. and perhaps hurtful in its consequence ; for it made a play without a dance less endured than it had been before, when such dancing was not to be had; and the same may be said of every deviation from plain sense and nature.” Pursuing the subject, he remarks: “This sensual supply of sight and sound coining into the assistance of the weaker party, it was no wonder they should grow too hard for sense and simple nature, when it is considered how many more people there are that can see and hear, than think and judge.” Again declares Cibber: “ As their hearers are, so will actors he; worse or better, as the false or true taste applauds or discommends them. Hence only can our theatres improve, or must degenerate.It is not to the actor, therefore, but to the vitiated and low taste of the spectator, that the corruptions of the stage (of what kind soever) have been owing. If the public by whom they must live had spirit enough to discountenance and declare against all the trash and fopperies they have been so frequently fond of, both the actors and the authors, to the best of their power, must naturally have served their daily table with sound and wholesome food.” Here you have a picture of the times of Sir William Davcnant, and of the struggle for supremacy when there were but two theatres in London. Do you suppose matters will improve when competition becomes greater. Public taste grows so slowly that, like the century-plant, it ripens and blossoms but once in a hundred years. If you will only remember that “ all the world’s a stage,” and that the stage is but a reflection of all the world, you will learn to have more patience with the theatre and less patience with the public. You sigh that donkeys on the New York stage should be applauded by their species off it, and think the theatre has touched its lowest level. You forget that, when Congreve’s play “ The Way of the World” failed, the exacting London public was pacified with dancers, tumblers, strong men, and quadrupeds. And an elephant at The Great Mogul in Fleet Street proved so exceedingly remunerative, that he too would have been introduced on the stage if the master-carpenter had not declared that he would pull the house down ! Give the American theatre its due ; we have not yet seen the elephant. When Mossop, in 1758, acted Richard III., Signor Grimaldi relieved the tedium of tragedy by comic dances between the acts. Such an insult to the Tragic Muse would not be permitted in our time.
Vif Esprit. Instead of seeing jigs we listen to them ; an improvement which, after all, is not as radical as it might be. The incongruity of comic dancing on solemn occasions is apparent enough, but it by no means follows, because our age has greater regard for the eternal fitness of things, that the stage is in a more hopeful state. What takes place between the acts of a play is of secondary consideration. It is the wholesale slaughter of plays themselves that makes me sad. Signor Grimaldi might dance until he grew purple in the face, provided I could see a Quin, a Garrick, a Mrs. Cibber, a Mrs. Pritchard, a Wood, a Ryan, and a Chapman in one and the same play, as happened years since at Covent Garden. Imagine the delight, too, of seeing Romeo and Juliet performed one night by Garrick and Miss Bellamy, and the next by Barry and Mrs. Cibber ! I doubt very much whether Shakespeare would have written a line had he known what the nineteenth century had in store for him.
Sang-froid. There you are unjust. Remember Ristori’s Lady Macbeth, Salvini’s Othello, Edmund Kean’s Richard III., Macready’s King Lear, and Fanny Kemble’s readings, and acknowledge that, though Shakespeare’s interpreters are few, they have probably never been surpassed. You long for the great cast of Covent Garden, and yet forget how at times the public neglected even Garrick. “ If you won’t come to Lear and Hamlet, I must give you Harlequin,” said the great little man, and forthwith went to great expense in introducing the Continental ballet, the appearance of which was the signal for a riot, inspired by jealousy of France. And pray what happened during the reign of Mrs. Siddons and the Kembles? Was it not marked by the mushroom growth and triumph of Master Betty, — the youthful Roscius, as he was enthusiastically called ? When Home, the author of “ Douglas,” went to see this boy in Young Norval, he blubbered in his box, and absolutely declared that the part had never before been properly acted, — that in Master Betty he beheld Cooke, Kemble, Holman, and Garrick, all in one. Charles Young played subordinate parts to Betty, and, with the exception of Mrs. Siddons and John Kemble, there was not a great actor that did not hold up the train of this absurd phenomenon. The public was stark mad. It would tolerate no one on the stage but Betty. If the boy fell ill, England was convulsed and bulletins were as regularly issued as if the nation’s life depended upon it. Real dramatic genius was forced to stand and wait until the public returned to its senses ; meanwhile young Betty cleared five hundred pounds per week, and John Kemble offered to engage him at fifty pounds per night and a “ half benefit.” During the Betty epidemic there was not a critic in London who dared to maintain the dignity of the stage by condemning the popular idol. In Glasgow, however, one man absolutely refused to lose his wits, and persisted in impaling Roscius ; for which thankless task he was “compelled to leave the town.”
Vif Esprit. Profiting apparently by this example, critics, since then, have paid tribute to that better part of valor, discretion.
Sangfroid. “He who tells the truth,” says Emerson, “will find himself in sufficiently dramatic situations.” If the majority entertain a morbid fear of truth, surely you cannot expect critics to furnish an unpalatable article.
Vif Esprit. But I do expect it. Notwithstanding the oft-repeated assertion, that nobody believes what newspapers say, an immense number ot people live and move and have their being by and in them. Every journal of importance is a bell-wether, after which the public precipitates itself like a flock of sheep. Critics, therefore, are teachers, and it is their mission to elevate the standard of morals and taste. In writing down to the dead level of opinion, they produce incalculable mischiefs by confirming ignorance. The early critics in America were far more honest than those of today. In 1796 New York could boast of six dramatic critics who were absolutely without fear and without reproach.
Sang-froid. Indeed ! and who were these immaculate gentlemen ?
Vif Esprit. John Wells, Elias Hicks, Samuel Jones, William Cutting, Peter Irving, and Charles Adams, — private individuals who attended the theatre for the purpose of conscientious criticism. They took notes of every performance, compared their comments, one with another, and, in turn, prepared articles for the press. For calling things by their right names, for recommending a national drama, and an independence in literature as well as in politics, these benevolent gentlemen were branded as “liars” and “ assassins.”
Sangfroid. Of course. But what was comparatively easy for those primitive reformers would be infinitely more difficult now. As society becomes complicated, its corruption increases. No private individual, however able, is permitted to express Ms opinions in the daily press, for the reason that every journal has, very properly, its own critic. Your exception to the manner in which this regular critic ordinarily discharges his duties are just enough ; at the same time it must be remembered that critics are employees, and are obliged to conform to the dictation of higher powers. Matters entirely independent of abstract truth exert an immense influence upon the greater part of dramatic criticism ; advertisements, friendship, popular opinion, etc., etc., are of vastly more import than the progress of art; and the critic who would retain his head must be prepared to turn his back upon conscience. Then, again, allowing that a critic is master of his pen, and is naturally disposed to be honest, inducements to falsehood are so much greater than inducements to truth-telling that few but heroes can withstand temptation. In tire first place, it is excessively disagreeable to be disliked, and the incorruptible critic is morally certain of harvesting a large crop of enemies. He almost inevitably becomes personally acquainted with the dramatis persona: ; he likes them as individuals, wishes them well; he shakes hand with managers, and perhaps accepts their wines and cigars. How much easier and pleasanter it is to go home, and, dipping a good-natured pen into goodnatured ink, endow actors and managers with every giftgenius is heir to, than to administer unsavory truths. Y'ou know not what strength of mind is required to brave a managerial lion in his den. You are in danger of being torn to pieces by the royal beast, and receive no succor from the public, who would as willingly have black called white as any other color.
Vif Esprit. Terrible or not, the danger should be met. If acting is an art, — and the greatest minds have placed it high among the fine arts, — if the stage has such tremendous power for good or evil, surely dramatic criticism ought not to be prostituted. A critic should hold himself aloof from every influence that is likely to trammel his judgment.
Sangfroid. My clear friend, your ideas are Utopian. You seem to think that our critics, one and all, actually know what is good and what is bad in acting, and yet deliberately deceive the public. Now, I do them more justice ; I believe that they express their honest opinions far more frequently than yon imagine.
Vif Esprit. Worse and worse. Doran is right when he says, that no man should be admitted to practise theatrical criticism who has not got by heart Cibber’s descriptions of Betterton and Mrs. Oldfield, or who fails on examination as to his proficiency in the Canons of Colley. To be in sympathy with Cibber is to have the right feeling for the drama.
Sang-froid. Pardon me, but you are unreasonable. Recollect what Barton says, — “ As a rule, nothing gets the immortal work from first-rate men but money ” ; and then be surprised that there are any clever dramatic critics! Will any person of brains deliberately go to work to fit himself for a profession that — although he may exhibit extraordinary ability in it —can never bring him in more than twelve or fifteen hundred dollars per annum ? A clerk on such a salary looks forward to promotion ; a critic knows that, in order to live like a Christian, Ire must seek additional employment. If, under these circumstances, he accept douceurs for unmerited praise, what wonder ? And if the critical chair is often occupied by those who are unfitted for It, again what wonder ?
Vif Esprit. A dramatic critic should be a scholar and a gentleman. He should believe as firmly in the nobility of his calling as the clergyman believes* in the sacredness of Iris pulpit, and he should be paid liberally for his honesty and for his brains.
Sangfroid. Bravo ! there ’s not a critic worthy of the name that would not throw up his hat with delight were your sentiments universal.
Vif Esprit. I have no hesitation in saying that America has more need today of critics than of artists. If latent ability is not properly fostered, it will either die or, in order to please the ignorant, become corrupt. Political principles are sufficiently defined, and therein journals endeavor to act consistently. Why are art principles so universally disregarded ? Art is not a matter of taste ; it has its fundamental laws, although, by the way people talk, one might suppose art in any form to be a mere matter of caprice. Everybody can no more judge of acting, singing, painting, etc., than everybody can judge of machinery, manufactures, or horses. “ They talk a great deal about what I don’t understand,” said Edmund Kean of the noblemen who sought his companionship ; " but when it comes to plays, they talk such nonsense ! ”
Sang-froid. We as a people have no intellectual conscience. Younger than England, we are even worse than she in this respect, and Matthew Arnold declares the mother-country to be bad enough. There will be no criticism in America until there is culture.
Vif Esprit. Much of our careless criticism is owing to the necessity of writing on time. No one can do justice to a fine dramatic performance.who, tired and sleepy, is obliged to write out his opinion for the next morning’s journal.
Sang-froid. We should die if we did not breakfast off the previous night’s cakes and ale.
Vif Esprit. Nonsense. The French, who actually do possess an intellectual conscience, make no such demands upon a critic. Jules Janin writes one dramatic fcuilleton a week, for which he receives two hundred and fifty francs, the equivalent of one hundred dollars in our currency and at our prices. Jules Janin and his distinguished fraternity can therefore afford to know what they are writing about, and to produce articles that educated people can read with interest and profit.
Sang-froid. Nevertheless, critics can be bought in Paris. Look at Fiorentino.
Vif Esprit. Yes. He certainly was no honor to ids profession ; yet he knew his business thoroughly. Fie made no secret of the fact that he received money from artists praised by him. “ If they make fortunes in consequence of my criticisms,” he once said to a friend of mine, “ it is but fair that they should remunerate me for my pains.” Fiorentino was an Italian, and black-mail is more frequent in Italy than in France. Then, again, as French audiences judge for themselves, a critic cannot praise what is bad without injury to his reputation.
Sang-froid. But even Janin at times has allowed personal feeling to influence his criticism ; for example, he “ wrote up” a Mademoiselle Maxime, asserting that she was greater in Phedre than Rachel.
Vif Esprit. True ; but usually Janin can be depended upon, and is capable of giving a judicial opinion. I certainly have no desire to award undue praise to France. Indeed, I am inclined to think that the French stage does about as much harm as good ; for. while its school of acting is the best in the world, and some of its plays are delightful, the code of morals set forth is so exceedingly loose that the worse appears the better cause. I confess that I rarely witness a French performance in New York without being offended. Sooner or later plot or action hovers upon forbidden ground, and frequently puts all ideas of decency at defiance.
Sang-froid. We are called upon to improve our accent at the expense of our moral sense, which is. of course, perfectly comme it fauf. Americans will tolerate any impropriety whatever, provided it is in French.
Vif Esprit. Alas, yes ! The success of Offenbach’s Grand Duchess of Gerolstein, —a tissue of doubles entendres and equivoques from beginning to end, mingled with an extract of the Can-can, a dance so vile that, in its mildest form, it is acknowledged to be abominable, — is the saddest fact to be recorded in the history of our stage.
Sangfroid. My dear friend, blame no one but the public : —
The people like what you most disapprove, and those who cater to the public will offer what is most remunerative. The majority of those who delight in The Grand Duchess are ignorant of French. They listen to pleasing music, see an excellent mise enscene, admirable costumes, and some clever burlesque acting. They enjoy a novelty, for the reason that it is novelty.
Vif Esprit. Ay! and the Can-can, together with what arc euphoniously called “French fascinations,” have become so popular that I very much doubt whether any Optra bough will hereafter be tolerated unless spiced with the essence of Parisian vice.
Sangfroid. Nothing is more likely ; in fact, looking back upon our history, I may say that such a consummation is inevitable. Puritanism has so long held us in rigid subjection, depriving us of even innocent amusements, that human nature is sure to be revenged. The pendulum will swing as far to one extreme as it has swung to the other : the moral of all which is, never to starve humanity, or it will, one day, fall upon everything edible, and contract disease from unwholesome food.
Vif Esprit. Admitting what you say to be true, I am fain to agree with Bickerstaff, in his opinion that “when we see anything divert an audience, either in tragedy or comedy, that strikes at the duties of civil life, or exposes what the best men in all ages have looked upon as sacred and inviolable, it is the certain sign of a profligate race of men, who are fallen from the virtue of their forefathers, and will be contemptible in the eyes of their posterity.” The most pathetic part of this matter is, that there is no opposition made to the introduction of a foreign virus. The salvation of a country is in a virtuous minority. Where is the minority ? The absence of consistency in our public is melancholy. Les Idées de Madame Aubray, the great comedy of Alexandre Dumas fils, has been condemned, on moral grounds, by the same people who uphold The Grand Duchess! This demonstrates that we do not stand as high, morally, as the French ; for while only their minor theatres devote themselves to Offenbach and vaudevilles of an equivocal nature, Dumas’s comedy is played night after night before crowded and approving audiences. Les Idées de Madame Aubray redeems a wilderness of Offenbachs, and places Dumas in the advance-guard of reformers.
Sang-froid. Such is your opinion, and such is the opinion of those who believe that a woman, having erred once through ignorance and poverty, may redeem herself, and be worthy of a good man’s love ; but you know perfectly well the majority maintain that a woman once fallen should be forever branded as a social outcast.
Vif Esprit. But where is the justice, the charity, the Christianity, of such a creed ?
Sang-froid. I am not advocating, I am simply stating a fact. You acknowledge that a noble play, like Les Idees de Madame Aubray, attracts very small audiences, that the questionable vaudeville succeeding it is received with laughter and applause, and that The Grand Duchess is an immense success. What conclusion do you reach ?
Vif Esprit. The same with which I began our conversation, — that the stage never was in so deplorable a condition.
Sangfroid. The more I think of the matter the less I agree with you. Let us see if our reason will not argue that the American stage is doing as well as can be expected.
Vif Esprit. “ Good reasons must, of force, give place to better.” Still, I ’ll listen.
Sangfroid. Well, then, to begin at the beginning, you object to the plot and dialogue of many French inspirations. While allowing that there is nothing so diabolically insidious as Gallic license, I do not forget the rampant vice delineated in old English comedies, nor do I forget the days when ladies dared not attend a first representation of a new play for fear of being insulted. When they did go, concessions to modesty were made by wearing masks. Do you believe that the stage can ever sink as low again ?
Vif Esprit. Hardly. Manners are somewhat improved.
Sangfroid. What made the stage licentious? The example of royalty; George II. so revelled in vice, that he ordered Ravenscroft’s beastly comedies to be performed as they were written. We have improved in this respect ; we have improved in our theatres ; never were such beautiful buildings erected as now. The conduct of audiences is vastly better; once, the occupants of boxes deliberately spat into the pit, and the pitites amused themselves by pulling the noses of neighbors, at whom they chose to take offence. French audiences frequently threw stones upon the stage. All this is changed. Then there never was such artistic scenery as there is to-day.
Vif Esprit. I am not so sure of that. When Macbeth was produced at Kemble’s new theatre, in 1794, Mrs. Siddons declared that the banquet was a thing to go and see of itself. The scenes and dresses were all new, and as superb and characteristic as it was possible to make them. And think of the “cast”! John Kemble as Macbeth ; Palmer as Macduff; Wroughton as Banquo ; Charles Kemble as Malcolm ; Bensley as Duncan ; Barrymore as Rosse ; Bannister as Plecate; and Moody, Dodd, and Snett as the witches! Where now can such a combination be found ?
Sangfroid. I do not pretend to argue the matter of the cast. That was the Elizabethan age of actors. The scenery and costumes you mention were the first attempts at historical truth. They were not the rule of the age. In 1723 Duncan and Julius Cæsar had worn the same robes for a century. That incomparable actor, Betterton, wore the laced kerchief of his time in Hamlet. Fancy Garrick dressing the melancholy Dane in a court suit of black, with a short wig and cue ; looking in Macbeth like a modem Scottish sergeant-major, and using a pocket-handkerchief in Lear ? Barton Booth donned a flowered gown and bag wig in Cato, and John Kemble’s costume in Hamlet set chronology quite wild. His was a fancy suit, powdered wig, and a blaze of jewelled orders ! In Hippolytus, Lewis arrayed himself in knee-breeches, a jaunty silk jacket, tight fitting boots, and a little court bodkin on his thigh ! As for ladies, they always wore court dresses over huge hoops. Imagine Mrs. Pritchard dressed in this guise for Lady Macbeth! Even in 1775, Mrs. Siddons appeared as Portia in a salmoncolored sack and coat ! Could anything be more ridiculous ? and yet no one doubts the intellect of these unquestionably great actors.
Vif Esprit. A beautiful frame is very well in its way, but what is its worth if it surrounds a bad picture ? We neglect the substance for the shadow.
Sang-froid. Hear me to the end. I firmly believe that the general idea about acting is more enlightened than formerly, — that the school of acting is better, no matter how few good scholars there are. Talma himself assures us that Lekain — Garrick’s contemporary — was the first to break away from tradition and endeavor to be natural ; and it is only within the last few years that Americans have begun to talk about colloquial acting. Ranting is less popular, much as we hear of it, and fondly as the galleries cherish it. You cannot doubt for a moment that if Edwin Forrest were now a young man, he would be a much finer actor than the traditions and taste of thirty years ago have made him.
Vif Esprit. In this I agree with you.
Sang-froid. Again, the theatrical profession never was so much respected as at present. Old Dunlap says he remembers the time when children would cry out contemptuously, “ There goes a play-actor!” In Philadelphia, in 1754, young men were arrested for performing in private theatricals. Puritanical prejudice is wearing away, and the clever actor is welcomed in society as a bright and shining light. Our theatres are also more fully attended. We have, then, better theatres, better scenery, better costumes, more respectful and numerous audiences, better tendencies in our school of acting, and a better appreciation of one of the noblest professions.
Vif Esprit. Cut where are the actors ?
Sang-froid. Patience. Ours is a transition state. We are not quite off with the old love, and not quite on with the new : but with so much in its favor, I cannot doubt of the ultimate triumph of an intellectual stage. When culture becomes an accomplished fact, we shall have critics, and we shall have actors.
Vif Esprit. Meanwhile we shall prepare ourselves for the good time corning by scenes from The Black Crook and the sensational drama.
Sang-froid. Both of these are bad enough ; but I believe that the sensational drama no more interferes with the legitimate drama than the Police Gazette interferes with the sale of standard literature. Of course the former has the greater number of adherents ; but were it to be abolished to-morrow, I doubt whether the ranks of those who enjoy the legitimate drama would be swelled. If the drunkard is deprived of his dram, he does not gladly turn to cold water ; rather will he drink pure alcohol. But, after all, the legitimists are more numerous than we have so far allowed. Shakespeare cannot be called unpopular when Edwin Booth acts Hamlet one hundred nights in succession,— the first time that such a feat was ever accomplished. Joseph Jefferson’s Rip Van Winkle meets with an enthusiastic reception week after week. Wallack rarely puts an old English comedy upon the stage that his theatre is not filled, and Madame Ristori holds multitudes spellbound by the grandeur of her acting. Why, my friend, you don’t know what a glorious era you live in ! Ristori alone cannot but create a revolution in acting.
Vif Esprit. I am sure I hope so. But in order to obtain good actors, we, like the French, should have a dramatic college, where students could be taught music, declamation, grammar, history, mythology, and the dramatic art.
Sang-froid. You cannot have a college without teachers ; and how can there be competent teachers when fine actors are so rare ?
Vif Esprit. Then the shortest road to reform would be for every State to take one theatre under its protection, granting it a sufficient subsidy to secure the employees against loss for the production of good art, insisting upon a faithful performance of duties, and bringing all possible force to bear against the starring system, which is as disastrous to the drama’s real interests as rotation in office is to American politics.
Sang-froid. Hold, hold ! enough ! once more have you dashed wildly into the next century. All this will come with culture ; culture will come with the lapse of a hundred years. From your celestial perch you may look down upon the fulfilment of your aspirations. Meanwhile calm your ardor, and rest assured that the elevation of the stage is as inevitable as the elevation of humanity.