The Tragedian; An Essay on the Histrionic Genius of Junius Brutus Booth

BY <AUTHOR>THOMAS R. GOULD</AUTHOR>. New York: Hurd and Houghton. 16mo. pp. 190.
THE elder Booth — the father of the distinguished tragedian now so popular in all American theatres— had a certain strangeness of character which discriminated him from all other actors, and almost lifted him out of the operation of the conventional rules which properly regulate ordinary life. More than any other English performer of whom we possess an authentic record, he was of “imagination all compact.” His real existence was passed in an ideal region of thought, character, and passion; and, however feeble he may have been, considered simply as Mr. Booth, there could be no question of his greatness, considered as Hamlet, Othello, Macbeth, or Lear. To the student of Shakespeare his acting was the most suggestive of all interpretative criticisms of the poet by whose genius he had been magnetized. Through his imagination he instinctively divined that Shakespeare’s world represented the possibilities of life rather than its actualities ; into this ideal region of existence his mind as instinctively mounted; and the essentially poetic element in Shakespeare’s characters was therefore never absent from his personations. By his imagination, also, he passed into the spiritual depths of a complex Shakespearean creation ; grasped the unity which harmonized all the varieties of its manifestation; realized, indeed, the imagined individual so completely that his own individuality seemed to melt into it and be absorbed. Other tragedians appeared, in comparison with him, to deduce the character from the text, and then to act the deduction ; his hold was ever on the vital fact, and he thus conceived what others inferred, reproduced what others deduced, ensouled and embodied what others merely played. Shakespeare’s words, too, were so domesticated in his mind, so associated with the character they expressed, that in ■uttering them he did not seem to remember, but to originate. All the peculiarities of a man who speaks under the pressure of impassioned imagination were visible in his acting. The rapid and varied gesture, indicating or shaping each one of the throng of contending images rushing in upon his mind ; the gleam and glow of eye and check, as words struggled impatiently for utterance in his throat, hinting the physical impotence ef the organ to keep up with the swift pace of the soul’s passion, — these, and scores of other things lying between what may be perfectly expressed and what is in itself inexpressible, created a positive illusion in tlve audience. Perhaps this illusion was most complete in those passages which people are commonly educated to treat as general reflections, entirely independent of the characters by whom they are uttered. Booth always gave these as individual experiences, flashing out, in the most natural way, from the minds of the characters in the varying positions in which they were placed. Thus nothing can be more general, more impersonal, as ordinarily conceived, than Macbeth’s series of questions to the doctor, beginning,
“Canst thou not minister to a mind diseased?”
The passage is so stereotyped in all memories as the authorized expression of a troubled conscience, that even the most careful actors are apt to give it as a detached didactic reflection, rather than as an intense dramatic experience. As Booth gave it, the general truth was all swallowed up in the perception of its vital, individual application to the condition of Macbeth’s mind at the time it was ullered. Macbeth, it will be remembered, is in a hurrty of action and meditation, of resolute purpose and agonized remorse : —
Send out more horses, skinthe country round ;
Hang those that talk of fear. — Give me mine armor.-
How does your patient, doctor ?
Doct. Not so sick, my lord,
As she is troubled with thick-coming fancies,
That keep her from her rest.”
Nobody that ever witnessed it can forget the convulsive eagerness with which Booth rushed to the doctor with the imploring demand,
“ Cure her of that ! ”
And then came, in a strange, wild blending of hope and^despair,
“ Canst thou not minister to a mind diseased !
The auditor felt at once that it was Macbeth’s own mind, and not the mind of humanity in genera], that prompted the question. The next line,
Pluck from the memory a rooted sorrow?”
was accompanied by a tearing gesture of both hands over his brow, as though there might possibly be some physical, external means of extracting the baleful memory which he felt was rooted in his own moral being.
“ Raze out the written troubles of the brain ?
His. gesture in this line was indcscribably pathetic, —a motion of the fingers over the forehead, as if to erase the “ characters of blood ” therein inscribed. Then came the tremendous lines, —
“ And with some sweet oblivious antidote
Cleanse the stuffed bosom of that perilous Stuff
That weighs upon the heart ? ”
It Would be impossible to describe the gesture and accent which gave reality to the “stuffed bosom,” and especially to the suggestion of Alps on Andes piled, in the terrible enunciation of the simple expression “ weighs.” The whole cumulative, remorseful reaction of Macbeth’s crimes was condensed, as it were, in a word.
This imaginative realization of character in all its moods, and in all the situations in which it might be placed, extended to the minutest particulars. Booth vitalized every image, allusion, almost every word, of the text In his acting, as in Shakespeare’s writing, nothing was dead and didactic, and nothing was merely passionate. Shakespeare always blends the emotional with the mental elements of his characters, so that they speak as individual natures, and not a . mere qualities of individual natures. The smiting euiciency of their expression in moments of excitement is owing to tke fact that they are impassioned, and not simply passionate ; that their whole intellectual and moral being is kindled into the greatest possible energy, and fused into the most indissoluble unity, so that thought in them is quickened by the very rush of rage or rapture which, in ordinary persons, extinguishes mental action. Passion in Shakespeare is thus thoroughly “intellectualized,”and his great characters never appear so great in mind as when their thoughts and imaginations are pushed out, as it were, by the pressure of the emotional forces hungering for expression at the centre of their natures. Booth understood this both by instinct and intuition. The most impassioned of actors, he was the least passionate. Ton could almost see the workings of his mind in his face, as the swift thought shaped itself under the stimulus of the swift feeling. The result was, that his expression under streng excitement was electric and electrifying. The imaginative element in it satisfied the sense of beauty as well as the sense of power, for it was the passion of a poet, and not merely the fury of an unimaginative man in a rage. Most people complain that when they are in a passion they do not know what to say, and are therefore compelled to rely on such stereotyped terms of profanity or abuse as chance to spring to their lips. Shakespeare’s men never so well know what to say as when they are in a white heat of passion, for Shakespeare lends them his own intellect and imagination to help them out. And in Shakespeare, the greater the character the greater the poet. As Romeo is a lover, we are all ready to admit him to be a poet; but Hamlet, Macbeth, Othello, Lear, are as much greater poets than Romeo as they are much greater men. Shakespeare enlarges the imagination of his characters in just the proportion that he enlarges the other qualities and faculties of their natures; and Booth was greatest in the poet’s greatest parts, He did not make so many “points ” as other actors, because he properly pointed the entire expression of the person he embodied, He illuminated the whole text as his mind moved along its lines, and showed, if any actor ever could, that Shakespeare does not, from the mere surplus stores of his own mind, overload his personages with needless richness of thought and imagination. Their opulence of nature is what makes them Shakespearian men and women. They are really natives, not of England, or Scotland, or Denmark, or Italy, or Africa, but of Shakespeare-land; and it was in that land that Booth seemed to pass his imaginative existence.
The thoroughness with which his whole nature was impregnated with Shakespearian ideas of dramatic character was palpably manifest when he performed in the plays of more prosaic dramatists. “The Stranger ’ is, of all worthless dramas that keep the stage, the most detestable in its combination of morbidness with mediocrity. There is not a ray of imaginative relief in all its many scenes of maudlin wretchedness. It is pathetic as the sight of a man run over in the street is pathetic. Nothing is lilted into the world of art. When Booth acted the principal character, he unconsciously idealized it; made it indeed what Kotzebue would have made it, had he possessed sufficient sentiment and imagination to perceive its possibilities. To Reuben Glenroy, an essentially prosaic character as conceived by Colman, he imparted dignity, tenderness, thoughtfulness, and a certain illusory imaginative charm. In Sir Edward Mortimer he followed Godwin the novelist rather than Colman the playwright, and put into certain scenes an intensity of imaginative passion which would have startled Godwin himself. In passages of Sir Giles Overreach and of Luke he carried Massinger almost up into the lower region of Shakespeare’s own mind. In truth, whatever was the character that Booth acted, he instinctively made of it a work of art Merely prosaic grief, or rage, or suffering did not suit his genius, and did not suit his voice. He performed in many poor play-, but we do not remember of him any poor performance. Kotzebue, Celman, Maturin, Shiel, could not drag him down from his pride or height of place. He “builded better than they knew.”
The volume which has betrayed us into these extended, but still incomplete, remarks is the production of Thomas R. Gould, a sculptor whose ideal busts of “ Imogen ” and “ Michael Angelo,” and whose portrait busts of Governor Andrew and the elder Booth, rightly rank among American works of art. Mr. Gould knew Mr. Booth personally, witnessed his performances through a dozen successive engagements, and took notes of his action, gesture, and tones in special passages. His volume is introduced by a carefully written general essay on the genius of Booth, in which he is compared with Garrick and Edmund Kean, and pronounced their superior. Then follows an estimate of him in eighteen of his different characters, illustrated by references to the elusive beauties of his acting, its subtilty, grace, and constant suggestion of imaginative insight, as well as to its more obvious characteristics of grandeur, massiveness, and energy. The most extended of these suggestive and eloquent essays are on Richard III., Hamlet, Shylock, lago, Othello, Macbeth, and Lear. They are elaborately written, in a style which is equally terse and glowing, and give continual evidence that the author’s admiration of the actor is based on his intense appreciation of the poet. The following description of Booth’s person and voice is a heightened representation of what many persons will remember as substantially true : —
“ In person Mr. Booth was short, spare, and muscular; with a head and face of antique beauty; dark hair; blue eyes; a neck and chest of ample but symmetrical mould ; a step and movement elastic, assured, kingly. 1 lis face was pale, with that healthy pallor which is one sign of a magnetic brain. Throughout this brief, closeknit, imperial figure Nature had planted or diffused her most vital organic forces, and made it the capable servant of the commanding mind that descended into and possessed it in every fibre.
“ The airy condensation of his temperament found fullest expression in his voice. Bound and capacious lungs, a vascular and fibrous throat, clearness and amplitude in the interior mouth and nasal passages, formed its physical basis. Words are weak, but the truth of those we shall employ, in an endeavor to suggest that voice, will be felt by multitudes who have been thrilled by its living tones. Deep, massive, resonant, many-stringed, changeful, vast in volume, of marvellous flexibility and range ; delivering with ease, and power of instant and total interchange, trumpet-tones, Delltones, tones like the ‘sound of many waters,’ like the muffled and confluent ‘roar of bleak-grown pines.’
“But no analogies in art or nature, and especially no indication of its organic structure and physical conditions, could reveal the inner secret of its charm. This charm lay in the mind, of which his voice was the organ ; a ‘ most miraculous organ,’ under the sway of a thoroughly informing mind. The chest voice became a fountain of passion and emotion. The head register gave the ‘ clear, silver, icy, keen, awakening tones’ of the pure intellect. And as the imagination stands with its beautiful and comforting face between heart and brain, and marries them with a benediction, giving glow to the thoughts and form to the emotions, so there arose in this intuitive actor a third element of voice, hard to define, but of a fusing, blending, kindling quality, which we may name the imaginative, which appeared now in some single word, now with the full diapason of tones in some memorable sentence, and which disdugeished him as an incomparable speaker af the English tongue. That voice was guided by a method which defied the sot rules of elocution. It transcended J.17VST.. H ‘brought airs from heaven and blasts from bell.’ Tt struggled and smothered in the pent fires of passion, or darted from them as in tongues of flame. It was ‘ the earthquake voice of victory.’ It was, on occasion, full of tears and heart-break. Free as a fountain, it took the form and pressure of the conduit thought ; and, expressive beyond known parallel in voice of man, it suggested more than it expressed.”
In the comparison of Booth with Edmund Kean, Mr. Gould, after referring to Macaulay’s remark, that Kean transformed himself into Shylock, lago, and Othello, says : —
“We think, not that Kean transformed himself into Shylock, lago, and Othello, but that the actor transformed those characters respectively into Edmund Kean; that is, that he took just those words, and lines, and points, and passages, in the character he was to represent, which he found suited to his genius, and gave them with electric force. Ilis method was limitary. It was analytic and passionate; not, in the highest sense, intellectual and imaginative.
“ Our final authority is Hazlitt, who has given, in his work ©n the 1 English Stage,”by far the most thorough exposition of Kean’s powers. Hazlitt learnt him by heart. lie delved him to the root, and let in on Iiis merits and defects the irradiating and the ‘insolent light’ of a searching criticism. He says, with fine hyperbole, that to see Kean at his best in Othello ‘was one of the consolations of the human mind’; yet is constrained to admit, even in his notice of this play, that ‘ Kean lacked — imagination.’
“Now this power Booth possessed of a subtile kind, and in magnificent measure. It lent a weird expressiveness to his voice. It atmosphered his most terrific performances with beauty. Booth took up Kean at his best, and carried him further. Booth was Kean, plus the higher imagination. Kean was the intense individual; Booth, the type in the intense individual. To sec Booth in his best mood was not ‘ like reading Shakespeare by flashes of lightning,’ in which a blinding glare alternates with the fearful suspense of darkness; but rather like reading him by the sunlight ot a summer’s day, a light which casts deep shadows, gives play to glorious harmonies of color, and shows all objects in vivid life and true relation.”
There are a number of passages in the criticism of Booth “as transformed into” Macbeth and Lear, which we would like to quote had we space. It is exceedingly difficult, by a description of an actor’s method of uttering certain lines, to do much more than to recall to the reader’s memory what he has once actually witnessed; but Mr. Gould puts into his description so much clearness of perception, enthusiasm of feeling, and vividness of phrase, that the difficulty is relatively overcome. Certainly by the thousands of persons still living who remember Booth as the source of the greatest satisfaction and delight they ever experienced in a theatre, this keenly appreciative and loving tribute to his genius will be warmly welcomed.