IT has often been said that the great actors who flourished in the times preceding our own gave a more striking proof of genius than their successors are called upon to give. They produced their famous effects without aids to illusion. They had no help from scenery and costume ; the background was nothing ; they alone were the scene. Garrick and Mrs. Siddons, wandering over England, and interpreting Shakespeare as they went, represented the visions of Hamlet and the sorrows of Constance with the assistance of a few yards of tinsel and a few dozen tallow candles. The stage was dim and bare, but the great artists triumphed, so that the tradition of their influence over their auditors has been sacredly preserved. For the most part, to-day we have changed all that. There is to be seen in London at the present moment a representation of one of Shakespeare’s comedies which is the last word of picture-making on the stage. It is a series of exquisite pictorial compositions, in which nothing that can delight the eye or touch the imagination has been omitted — nothing, that is, save the art of the actor. This part of the business has not been thought indispensable, and the performance is a great success, in spite of the fact that a fastidious spectator, here and there, feels vaguely that he misses something. What he misses is what Garrick and Mrs. Siddons had it in their power to give; what he enjoys is a wealth of scenic resource of which they never dreamed. It is unreasonable to expect to have everything, and we must doubtless take our choice. I mention the case of the comedy in London, which fairly glows to the eye, like a picture by a great colorist, because, besides being a topic of the moment, it is probably the most perfect example the English stage has seen of the value of costume and carpentry. We have lately been having in Boston an illustration equally perfect of success achieved, in the old-fashioned manner, by personal art as distinguished from mechanical. The famous Italian actor, Tommaso Salvini, giving us an opportunity to admire him in far too small a number of performances, has played to us under conditions very similar to those with which the actors of the last century had to struggle. There are differences, of course, — as in the Globe Theatre being an exceedingly comfortable house for the spectator, and in the stage being illuminated by gas rather than by tallow. Apart from this, it is difficult to imagine an actor surrounded with fewer of those advantages which I have called aids to illusion. Salvini’s triumph — a very great triumph — is therefore, like that of Garrick and Mrs. Siddons, a proof of extraordinary power. He had no scenery, and he had no “ support; ” in this latter respect we feel sure that Garrick and Mrs. Siddons were very much better off. His fellowactors were of a quality which it is a charity not to specify ; unmitigated dreariness was the stamp of the whole episode, save in so far as that episode was summed up in the personality of the hero. Signor Salvini naturally played in Italian, while his comrades answered him in a language which was foreign only in that it sometimes failed to be English. It was in this manner that Macbeth, Othello, King Lear, were given. Signor Salvini uttered the translated text, and the rest of the company recited the original. This extraordinary system, which has been in operation in various parts of the country for many months past, has only to be described to be characterized ; it has all the barbarism of an over-civilized age. It is grotesque, unpardonable, abominable. It is the condemnation of a public that tolerates it. If I were capable of saying anything unkind about the admirable Salvini, I should say it was also the condemnation of an actor who could lend himself to it. But of course he is well aware of his offense, and he is equally well aware that, unpardonable as it is, he induces us to pardon it. He has discovered that, rather than not have Salvini at all, the American public will take him as he offers himself, or as his impresario sees fit to offer him, — with a mixture of tongues, with a melancholy company, with pitiful scenery. The American public is either very superficial or very deep; in the presence of the large houses to which Salvini played, it was possible to be at once exhilarated and depressed. It was to the honor of the people of Boston that they should come in such numbers to see a great actor deliver himself in a language which conveyed no meaning to the great majority of them, — should come because they had the wit to perceive his greatness through the veil of his alien speech. It was not to their honor, on the other hand, that they should gaze without a murmur at the rest of the spectacle, and condone so profusely the aberrations of his playmates. Their attitude involved a contradiction, and it was difficult to get to the bottom of it. I frankly confess I have not done so yet ! That people who have a taste for Salvini should not have a distaste — I mean an effective and operative distaste — for his accessories is a proof, as I just now hinted, either of density or of self-control. Were they culpably goodnatured, or were they nobly magnanimous ? Two things, at any rate, are certain. One is that the way in which the theatrical enterprise is conducted leaves much to be desired; the other is, there is that about Tommaso Salvini which excites the geniality, the tenderness, I may almost say the devotion, of the spectator. I am free to declare that, if he were to appear with a company of Hottentots, I should regret that a happier arrangement might not have been made, but I should go every night to see him.
This is as much as to say that Salvini is a charmer; he has the art of inspiring sympathy. Not the least of the drawbacks of the manner in which he appears is the consequent reduction of his repertory to five or six parts. To teach Italian cues to American actors is a work of time and difficulty ; to learn American cues may be assumed to be, for an Italian, no more attractive a task. We see Salvini, therefore, in only half his range; we take the measure of only a part of him, though it possibly is the better part. The auditor who once has felt the deep interest of his acting desires ardently to know the whole artist. He is essentially a large, rich, abundant genius, capable of sounding a wide variety of notes. However, we are thankful for what is offered us, — thankful for Macbeth, thankful for King Lear, thankful for La Morte Civile, thankful above all for Othello. We scan the horizon in vain ; no other artist today begins to be capable of giving us such an exhibition of tragic power. Othello headed the short list of his performances, and there is an artistic propriety in his playing Othello first. It is a sort of compendium of his accomplishments ; he puts everything into it, and the part, as he plays it, has so full a volume that it may almost be said that it embraces all the others. There are touches in Salvini’s Macbeth, touches in his Lear, very naturally, that are absent from his picture of the overwrought Moor ; but it carries him to his maximum, and what he puts into it above all is an inexhaustible energy. There are twenty things to be said about it, and half a dozen criticisms which it is impossible that we spectators of English speech should not make. But the depth, the nobleness, the consistency, the passion, the visible, audible beauty of it, are beyond praise. Nature has done great things for the actor ; with the aid of a little red paint, the perfect Othello is there. But I assume too much in talking off-hand about the “ perfect Othello,” who is after all a very complex being, in spite of his simplicity. It may seem to many observers that Salvini’s rendering of the part is too simple, too much on two or three notes, — frank tenderness, quick suspicion, passionate rage. Infinite are the variations of human opinion ; I have heard this performance called ugly, repulsive, bestial. Waiving these considerations for a moment, what an immense impression— simply as an impression — the actor makes on the spectator who sees him for the first time as the turbaned and deep-voiced Moor! He gives us his measure as a man; he acquaints us with that luxury of perfect confidence in the physical resources of the actor which is not the most frequent satisfaction of the modern play-goer. His powerful, active, manly frame, his noble, serious, vividly expressive face, his splendid smile, his Italian eye, his superb, voluminous voice, his carriage, his tone, his ease, the assurance he instantly gives that he holds the whole part in his hands and can make of it exactly what he chooses, — all this descends upon the spectator’s mind with a richness which immediately converts attention into faith, and expectation into sympathy. He is a magnificent creature, and you are already on his side. His generous temperament is contagious; you find yourself looking at him, not so much as an actor, but as a hero. As I have already said, it is a luxury to sit and watch a man to whom an expenditure of force is so easy. Salvini’s perfect ease is a part of the spell he exercises. The straining, the creaking, the overdoing, the revelation of the inadequacy of the machinery, which we have been condemned to associate with so much of the interpretation of the dramatic gems of our literature, — there is no place for all this in Salvini’s complete organization and consummate manner. We see him to-day perforce at the latter end of his career, after years of experience and practice have made him as supple as he is strong, and yet before his strength has begun to feel the chill of age. It is a very fine moment for a great artistic nature. The admirable thing in this nature of Salvini’s is that his intelligence is equal to his material powers; so that if the exhibition is, as it were, personal, it is not simply physical. He has a great imagination ; there is a noble intention in all he does. It is no more than natural, surely, that his imagination, his intentions, should be of the Italian stamp, and this is at the bottom of his failure to satisfy some of us spectators of English speech, — a failure that is most marked when he plays Shakespeare. Of course we have our own feelings about Shakespeare, our own manner of reading him. We read him in the light of our Anglo-Saxon temperament, and in doing so it is open to us to believe that we read him in the deepest way. Salvini reads him with an Italian imagination, and it is equally natural to us to believe that in doing so he misses a large part of him. It is indeed beyond contradiction that he does miss a large part of him, — does so as a necessary consequence of using a text which shuts the door on half the meaning. We adore the exorbitant original ; we have sacred associations with all the finest passages. The loose, vague language of the Italian translation seems to us a perpetual sacrifice to the conventional : we find ottima creatura, for instance, a very colorless translation of “ excellent wretch.” But in the finest English rendering of Shakespeare that we can conceive, or are likely to enjoy, there would be gaps and elisions enough, and Salvini’s noble execution preserves much more than it misses. Of course it simplifies, but any acting of Shakespeare is a simplification. To be played at all, he must be played, as it were, superficially.
Salvini’s Othello is not more superficial than the law of self-preservation (on the actor’s part) demands ; there is, on the contrary, a tremendous depth of feeling in it, and the execution is brilliant — with the dusky brilliancy that is in the tone of the part—at every point. No more complete picture of passion can have been given to the stage in our day, — passion beginning in noble repose and spending itself in black insanity. Certain exquisite things are absent from it, — the gradations and transitions which Shakespeare has marked in a hundred places, the manly melancholy, the note of deep reflection, which is sounded as well as the note of passion. The pathos is perhaps a little crude; there is in all Shakespeare’s sentiment a metaphysical side, which is hard to indicate and easy to miss. Salvini’s rendering of the part is the portrait of an African by an Italian ; a fact which should give the judicious spectator, in advance, the pitch of the performance. There is a class of persons to whom Italians and Africans have almost equally little to say, and such persons must have been sadly out of their account in going to see Salvini. I have done with strictures, and must only pay a hasty tribute to his splendor of execution. If those critics who dislike the Othello find it coarse (some people, apparently, are much surprised to discover that the representation of this tragedy is painful), there is at least not a weak spot in it from beginning to end. It has from the first the quality that thrills and excites, and this quality deepens with great strides to the magnificent climax. The last two acts constitute the finest piece of tragic acting that I know. I do not say it is the finest I can imagine, simply because a great English Othello would touch us more nearly still. But I have never seen a great English Othello, any more, unfortunately, than I have ever seen a great English Macbeth. It is impossible to give an idea of the way in which Salvini gathers force as he goes, or of the superior use he makes of this force in the critical scenes of the play. Some of his tones, movements, attitudes, are ineffaceable ; they have passed into the stock of common reference, I mean his tiger-like pacing at the back of the room, when, having brought Desdemona out of her bed, and put the width of the apartment between them, he strides to and fro, with his eyes fixed on her and filled with the light of her approaching doom. Then the still more tiger-like spring with which, after turning, flooded and frenzied by the truth, from the lifeless body of his victim, he traverses the chamber to reach Iago, with the mad impulse of destruction gathered into a single blow. He has sighted him, with the intentness of fate, for a terrible moment, while he is still on one knee beside Desdemona ; and the manner in which the spectator sees him — or rather feels him — rise to his avenging leap is a sensation that takes its place among the most poignant the actor’s art has ever given us. After this frantic dash, the one thing Othello can do, to relieve himself (the one thing, that is, save the last of all), he falls into a chair on the left of the stage, and lies there for some moments, prostrate, panting, helpless, annihilated, convulsed with long, inarticulate moans. Nothing could be finer than all this: the despair, the passion, the bewildered tumult of it, reach the high-water mark of dramatic expression. My remarks may suggest that Salvini’s rage is too gross, too much that of a wounded animal; but in reality it does not fall into that excess. It is the rage of an African, but of a nature that remains generous to the end ; and in spite of the tiger-paces and tigersprings, there is through it all, to my sense at least, the tremor of a moral element. In the Othello, remarkable in so many respects, of Salvini’s distinguished countryman, Ernesto Rossi, there is (as I remember it) a kind of bestial fury, which, does much to sicken the English reader of the play. Rossi gloats in his tenderness and bellows in his pain. Salvini, though the simplicity, credulity, and impulsiveness of his personage are constantly before him, takes a higher line altogether; the personage is intensely human.
The reader who has seen him in La Morte Civile will have no difficulty in believing this. The part of Conrad, in that play, is an elaborate representation of a character that is human almost to a fault. Before speaking of this extraordinary creation in detail, however, I must give proper honor to Salvini’s Macbeth, the second part in which he appeared in Boston. This is a very rich and grave piece of acting; like the Othello it is interesting at every step. Salvini offers us a Macbeth whom we deeply pity, and whose delusions and crimes we understand, and almost forgive. Simple, demonstrative, easily tempted ; pushed and bitten by the keener nature of his wife ; dismayed, overwhelmed, assailed by visions, yet willing to plunge deeper into crime, and ready after all to fight and die like a soldier, if that will do any good, his picture of the character preserves a kind of gallantry in the midst of its darkness of color.
This Macbeth is sombre enough, of course, but he is wonderfully frank and transparent ; he gives us a strange sense of being honest through it all. Macbeth, like Othello, but unlike Lear, to my mind, is an eminently actable character; the part is packed with opportunities. Salvini finds the first of these in the physical make-up of the figure; presenting us with a fair-colored, sturdy, rather heavy, and eminently Northern warrior, with long light hair, a tawny beard, and an eye that looks distractedly blue, as it stares at the witches, at the visionary dagger, at the spectre of Banquo. In the matter of dress I venture to remark that our actor is not always completely felicitous ; something is occasionally wanting to the artistic effect of his costume ; he is liable to wear garments that are a little dull, a little conventional. I cannot help regretting, too, that in four out of the five parts he played in Boston he should have happened to be so profusely bearded. His face is so mobile, so living, that it is a pity to lose so much of it. These, however, are small drawbacks, for, after all, his vigorous person is in itself a picture. His Macbeth deserves the great praise of being temperate and discreet; much of it is very quiet; it has a deal of variety ; it is never incoherent, or merely violent, as we have known Macbeths to be; and there is not a touch of rant in it, from the first word to the last. It changes, from scene to scene ; it is really, broadly rendered, the history of a human soul. I will not declare that with the scene of the murder of Duncan, which would be in its opportunities the great scene of the play if the scene at the banquet were not as great, I was absolutely satisfied. I thought that a certain completeness of horror was absent, that the thing was not as heart-shaking as it might have been. When the late Charles Kean — an actor to whom, on so many grounds, it is almost a cruelty to allude if one is speaking of Salvini — staggered out of the castle, with the daggers in his hands, blanched and almost dumb, already conscious, in the vision of his fixed eyes, of the far fruits of his deed, he brought with him a kind of hush of terror, which has lingered in my mind for many years as a great tragic effect. It is true that that was many years ago, and that if I were to have seen Charles Kean to-day I might possibly be ashamed to mention him in this company. In the scene in question, prodigious as it is, however acted, everything hangs together ; the lightest detail has much to do with the whole. We are usually condemned to see it with a weak Lady Macbeth, and we always feel — we felt the other night — that the effect would be doubled if the Thane of Cawdor should have a coadjutor of his own quality. Perhaps, therefore, it was the short-comings of the actress alone that made us feel we had lost something ; perhaps it was the fact that the knocking at the gate was by no means what it should be. That knocking is of great importance, — that knocking is almost everything ; this is what I mean by saying that everything in the scene hangs together. Signor Salvini should have read De Quincey’s essay before he arranged those three or four vague, muffled, impersonal thumps, behind the back scene. Those thumps would never have frightened Macbeth ; there is nothing heart-shaking in those thumps. They should have rung out louder, have filled the whole silence of the night, have smitten the ear like the voice of doom; for the more they break into the scene, the more they add to the tension of the nerves of the guilty couple, to say nothing of the agitation of the spectators. This, however, is more than I meant to say. In the rest of the play Salvini is admirable at a hundred points; admirable in sincerity, in profundity, in imaginative power; and in the scene of the banquet he is magnificent. The banquet was grotesque — so grotesque as to bring out the full force of the analogy I have suggested between our great Italian and his handful of lean strollers and those celebrated players who flourished before the introduction of modern improvements ; but the actor rose to a great height. He keeps this height to the end. The last part of the play is the wonderful picture that we all know, of the blind effort of a man who once was strong to resist his doom and contradict his stars, and Salvini rides the situation like a master. His Macbeth is less brilliant, less prodigious, than his Othello, and it is not so peculiarly and exhaustively successful as his portrait, in La Morte Civile, of the escaped convict who finds himself without social, almost without human, identity. But it comes third, I am inclined to think, in the list of his triumphs, and it does him, at any rate, the greatest honor.
I place Macbeth third on the list, in spite of the fact that the principal event in Signor Salvini’s short visit to Boston was his appearance for the first time as King Lear. He achieved an immense success, and his rendering of the most arduous and formidable of Shakespearean parts was as powerful, as interesting, as might have been expected. It is a most elaborate composition, studied with extreme care, finished without injury to its breadth and massiveness, and abounding in impressive and characteristic features. It is both terrible and touching; it has remarkable beauty. But for all that, I do not put it before the Macbeth. I should make haste to add that I saw the representation of Lear but once, and that on a single occasion one can do but scant justice to a piece of acting so long, so rich, and, I may add, so fatiguing to the attention. One can do very little toward taking possession of it; one can only get a general impression. My own impression, on this occasion, was more than ever that King Lear is not a play to be acted, and that even talent so great as Salvini’s, employed in making it real to us, gives us much of the pain that attends misdirected effort. Lear is a great and terrible poem, — the most sublime, possibly, of all dramatic poems; but it is not, to my conception, a play, in the sense in which a play is a production that gains from being presented to our senses. Our senses can only be afflicted and overwhelmed by the immeasurable complexities of Lear. If this conviction is present to us as we read the drama, how much more vivid does it become in the presence of an attempt to act it! Such an attempt leaves the vastness of the work almost untouched. At the risk of being accused of shameless blasphemy, I will go so far as to say that in representation the play is tremendously heavy. I say this with a perfect consciousness that the principal part gives extraordinary opportunities to a great actor. Almost all great tragic actors have attempted it, and almost all have won honor from it, — as Salvini did, the other evening, when a theatre crowded from floor to dome recalled him again and again. The part, with all its grandeur, is monotonous ; the changes are constantly rung on the same situation; and something very like a climax is reached early in the play. Regan, Goneril, Edgar, the Fool, are impossible in the flesh. Who has ever seen them attempted without thinking it an unwarrantable violence ? When all this has been said, Salvini’s Lear is, like everything he does, magnificent. We miss the text at times almost to distraction; for the text of Lear is one of the most precious possessions of our language, and the Italian version is a sadly pale reflection of it. Allowing for this, and for the way that the play resists the transmutation of the footlights, it has elements which will probably give it a foremost place henceforth in the great actor’s repertory. The tenderness, the temper, the senility, the heart-broken misery, the lambent madness, the awful desolation of the king, — he touches all these things as a man of genius alone can touch them. He has great qualifications for the part, for he has reached the age at which an actor may lawfully approach it, and his extraordinary bodily and vocal powers give definite assurance of sustaining him. I have no space to dwell on particular points, but I may mention his delivery of the curse that the infuriated king launches on the head of Goneril, at the end of the first act, — “ Hear Nature, hear! dear goddess, hear ! ” In this there was really a touch of the sublime, and the wild mixture of familiarity and solemnity that he throws into the “ Ascolta — ascolta ! ” with which, in the Italian translation, the terrible invocation begins, was an invention quite in his grandest manner. The third and fourth acts are full of exquisite strokes; the manner, for instance, in which he replies to Gloster’s inquiry, “ Is ’t not the King?” is a wonderfully bold piece of business. He stares for a moment,— his wits have wandered so far, — while he takes in the meaning of the question ; then, as the pang of recollection comes over him, he rushes to a neighboring tree, tears off a great twig, grasps it as a sceptre, and, erecting himself for a moment in an attitude intended to be royal, launches his majestic answer: “ Ay, every inch a king! ” I do not say that this touch will commend itself to every taste. Many people will find it too ingenious, and feel that the noble simplicity of the words is swallowed up in the elaboration of the act. But it produces a great effect. All this part of the play is a wonderful representation of madness in old age, — the madness that is mixed with reason and memory, and only adds a deeper depth to suffering. The final scene, the entrance with the dead Cordelia, is played by Salvini in a muffled key, — the tone of an old man whose fire and fury have spent themselves, and who has nothing left but weakness, tears, and death. The “Howl, howl, howl ! ” has not, on his lips, the classic resonance ; but the pathos of the whole thing is unspeakable. Nothing can be more touching than the way in which, after he has ceased to doubt that Cordelia has ceased to live, he simply falls on his face on her body.
The unhappy hero of La Morte Civile is, however, the character which he has made most exclusively his own, and in which we watch him with the fewest mental reservations. Here is no sacrifice of greater admirations; here is none of the torment of seeing him play a Shakespeare that is yet not Shakespeare. It is Salvini pure and simple that we have ; for of Giacometti there is, to begin with, as little as possible. Signor Giacometti’s play has but a single part (to speak of), and it is Salvini who makes that part. The play is none of the best; it is meagre and monotonous ; but it serves its purpose of giving the great actor a great opportunity. It deals with the unfortunate situation of an honest man, who, in spite of his honesty, has had the folly to kill his brother-inlaw. The circumstances were of the most extenuating character, but he has been condemned (with a degree of rigor to which Italian justice resorts, we fear, only on the stage) to penal servitude for life. After fifteen years of imprisonment at Naples, he succeeds in escaping; and, having eluded pursuit, he feels a natural desire to see what has become of his wife and daughter. They are getting on perfectly without him : this fact, simply stated, is the great situation in Signor Giacometti’s play. The child has been adopted by a benevolent physician, and by the mother’s consent passes for the daughter of her benefactor. The mother, meanwhile, for whom there is no honor in her relationship to a murderer, lives under the same roof in the character of governess to the young girl, who is not in the secret of those transformations. When Corrado turns up, with a legitimate wish to claim his own, he finds that for these good people he has quite dropped out of life ; they don’t know what to do with him; he is civilly dead. How can he insist upon his paternity to his innocent child, when such paternity must bring her nothing but anguish and disgrace ? How can he ask his wife to leave their daughter, in the tender care of whom she finds her one compensation for past shame and suffering, to go and live with him in hiding, and share at once the dangers and the infamy of his life ? The situation is without an issue ; it is the perfection of tragedy. At last poor Corrado, after a terrible struggle, determines to sacrifice himself to accomplished facts, and, since he is dead civilly, to die personally as well. He relieves his embarrassed relatives of his presence; he expires, abruptly and publicly, as people expire on the stage, after hearing his daughter, who is still not in the secret, but who obeys the pitying adjuration of his wife, address him for the first and last time as her father. Such is the subject of La Morte Civile, which is very effective in matter, though not very rich in form. It is interesting to compare Signor Giacometti’s piece with the successful compositions of contemporary French dramatists, and to observe what the French would call the extreme naïveté of the Italian writer. It is not with the latter that we are dealing, however; for, after all, Signor Giacometti has provided Salvini with an occasion which an infinite infusion of French cleverness could not have improved. His Corrado is a most remarkable, most interesting, most moving creation. This is the great point, that it is really a creation; the conception, from the innermost germ, the construction, the revelation, of an individual. Corrado is a special nature. We live in an age of psychology; and it is not going too far to say that Signor Salvini’s exhibition of this character has in it something of psychological research. Given a simple, well-meaning, generous, hotblooded, uncultivated, and above all affectionate, Sicilian; a man personally sympathetic, but charged with the perilous ingredients of his race and climate, — given such a nature as this, how will it have been affected by years of suffering, by the sting of disgrace, by the sense of injustice, by the reaction that comes with recovered freedom, by the bewilderment of a situation unexpected, unconceived, unendurable ? Salvini undertakes to show us how, and his demonstration, in which every step is taken with the security of a master, is a triumph of art, of judgment, of taste. His acting is absolutely perfect: the ripeness, the sobriety, the truthfulness of it will remain in the minds of many people as a permanent standard. There is a piece of acting with which the American public has long been familiar which has something of this same psychological quality, as I have ventured to call it; but the material of Mr. Jefferson’s admirable Rip Van Winkle is infinitely lighter and more limited. There is something extraordinarily affecting in the impression we get that Corrado was meant to be a good fellow; that he feels himself that he is a good fellow ; that he eloped with his wife, it’s true, but that, after that little adventure was over, he would so willingly have settled down to domestic felicity. He was not intended for false situations, for entanglements and agonies and insoluble problems ; though he is all of one piece, as it were, he is not aggressive, and all that he asked was to be let alone and to let others alone. He is dazed and stupefied, although his southern blood spurts up occasionally into flame; he doubts of his own identity, and could easily believe that the whole story is a bad dream, and that these horrible things have not happened to himself. The description of the manner of his escape from prison, which he gives to his old friend Ferdinando and to the treacherous ecclesiastic, Don Giacchino, a long, uninterrupted narrative, which it takes some minutes to deliver, is the most perfect thing in the play. He begins it with difficulty, with mistrust, with diffidence; but as he goes on, his excitement, his confidence, a sense of doing it all over again, take possession of him, and he throws himself, as it were, with a momentary sense of freedom and success—it breaks out in a dozen touches of nature, of rapture, of familiarity — into the hands of his listeners, one of whom is only waiting to betray him. He not only describes his flight, he lives it over again ; for five minutes he is off his guard, and his native good faith is uppermost. I have used the word which sums up the whole of this masterly performance. Corrado is a living figure.
In leaving The Gladiator to the last I have left myself no room to speak of it. This, however, I do not particularly regret, as there is little good to be said of the play, and there is less good to be said of Salvini’s acting of the principal part than his performance of other characters would lead us to suppose. He can do nothing that is not powerful and interesting; but, all the same, I cannot help thinking his devotion to this feeble and ridiculous piece rather a mistake. The play is full of the incongruous, the impossible; if it had no other fault, it would be open to the objection that it is neither English nor Italian. With a text translated into one language for Salvini, and into another for his assistants, the polyglot system seems peculiarly vicious. Le Gladiateur of Alexandre Soumet, of the French Academy, was produced for the first time at the Théâtre Français, in 1841 ; but it had little success, and has, to the best of my belief, never been revived in France. It treats of a Roman empress, whose proceedings are incomprehensible ; of a Christian young girl, a slave, of whom the empress is jealous, and whom she dedicates to a martyr’s death ; and of one of the heroes of the arena, who, when he is on the point of slaying the young girl, — a peculiar task for a gladiator, — discovers, from a scar on her arm, that she is his long-lost daughter. All this is terribly conventional and awkward, and even Salvini’s vigorous acting fails to carry it off; there is a terrible want of illusion. The mounting of the play presents insuperable difficulties, and the scene in the arena makes a fearful draught upon the imagination without giving us anything in return. An Italian audience will rise to such occasions; it has good faith, a lively fancy, an abundant delight in a story, and a singular absence of perception of the ridiculous. But we poor Americans are made of sterner stuff, and there was something very dull in the house the night The Gladiator was played. What I mainly brought away was a recollection of Salvini’s robust figure, invested in a very neat maillot, of the always magnificent tones of his voice, and of the admirable delivery of several speeches. It did not seem to me the gladiator killed his daughter so well as Salvini does some of his killing; but this young lady was a very difficult person to kill. It is a curious fact that Salvini’s make-up in this piece gave him a striking resemblance to the late Edwin Forrest, who also used to represent a gladiator. It need scarcely be added that the resemblance was superficial.
Salvini’s performances in Boston were lamentably few, and we take leave of him with the ardent hope that he will come back to us. We even go so far as to hope that he will, in that case, as on the occasion of his first visit to this country, bring with him an Italian company ; though we are sadly afraid there is little ground for either of these hopes. We part from him, at any rate, in admiration and gratitude, and we wish him a continuance of triumphs and honors, with plenty of rest at last. Our American stage is in a state of inexpressible confusion ; our American taste is sometimes rather wanting in light. It can do us nothing but good to have among us so noble and complete an artist. His example must be in some degree fruitful ; his influence must be in some degree happy. And, fortunately, it is not to be said that we have not appreciated him.
Henry James, Jr.