Actors and Actresses

IT is very difficult to write theatrical history. If an author attends to the mere annals of the stage, changes of management, the forgotten successes of a season, his narrative runs the risk of being dry and dead ; if he keeps to the rise and fall of actors and the clash of great reputations, it is apt to lose itself in anecdotes and trivialities, and to get entangled in the rights and wrongs of quarrels of long ago; and if he has a mind to include the plays themselves as a part of the story, it is a chance that he will prove an indifferent critic, and confuse literature and the histrionic art to no good purpose. The subject itself is a very attractive one. The glamour lasts after the lights are put out, and our curiosity is only the greater because we were born too late to see the masters of former times and the beautiful and vivacious women who gave the pledge to the town ; and there are such wit, such variety of character, so many pranks of all kinds, in the merry chronicles, as effectually to win both the man of the world and the scholar to the feast. The main fascination of the historic theatre, however, consists in the personalities of the players ; there is almost a physical need of strong individuality, of vital force, of will and power, in their profession, and the conditions under which it must be practiced favor peculiarities of temperament and the largest diversity of gifts while its unreality and the strain of simulated passion involved tend to develop that moodiness of spirit in which so many great actors have seemed to give signs of a mind unhinged. This idiosyncrasy of character and freedom of its manifestation, together with the brilliant fortunes, the reverses, the romantic episodes, which belong to the lives of individual players, and the personal attachment which many of them have been able to excite in the public at large, make the method of biography the fittest to be followed in giving a view of the past and present of the stage, and the most conducive to entertainment. The editors of this series of five volumes 1 have adopted this plan, but in a peculiar form : a sketch is given of each of the more prominent actors and actresses since Garrick’s days, and this is supplemented in each case by copious extracts from the writings of contemporaries and the best later critics, to illustrate the style of acting and the personality of the player ; the result is a very convenient and valuable repertory of information in regard to all the lights of the English and American stage whose reputations have not already expired.

There is, of course, nothing new in the main body of such a work, though the mere collection of so much theatrical history from so many various sources affords a bird’s-eye view of the development and conditions, the art of acting, from Quin to Irving, which suggests many reflections ; but the editors have had in their service as writers of the prefatory biographical sketches, besides some excellent literary hands, among whom are Austin Dobson and such theatrical specialists as Ireland, Winter, and Pollock, a few contributors from the stage itself, whose papers have a special interest to play-goers and the lovers of the drama. Among these, there is no disparagement to any one in singling out Edwin Booth’s articles upon Kean and upon his own father, admirable as they are in substance and in feeling, and set forth with a personal charm which is absent in the more mechanical writing of the professional authors. He has conceived his work differently from the rest, so that the few pages stand out by themselves : they are more human, as we say, and proceed more directly from the heart and mind ; they express the man. In the first sketch he casts a rapid glance at the more famous of the quality, whose portraits and masks are his familiars in the solitude of his study. He does not stop with the accidents of their times and habits which make up their memoirs, but thinks he can discern their character better, or at least approach them more nearly, in these counterfeits of their features; and to the reader he certainly seems to get at the naked soul and inborn capacity of these predecessors of himself in the great rôles of English imagination with intuitive insight. This, however, is the work of only an opening paragraph or two, after which he places before our eyes his conception of Kean’s nature and acting with a reality, a delightfulness, and a revealing power of which the literary secret is probably unknown to him ; but while imagination is the parent of sympathy, and simple truth is the utmost skill in expression, such a study as this, brief as it is, has a sure power to penetrate and to illuminate its subject. There are passages, too, which are finely touched with the actor’s temperament and experience of life, and have the authentic stamp of genius; not that Mr. Booth is a man of letters, but his writing exhibits his personality and the charm of it unconsciously, as does sometimes happen when a man, great in some other sphere of action but not trained to literature, takes the pen. In the sketch of his father, he is even more successful in the attempt to give the public understanding of an exceptional and erratic nature, and his tone has the same winning characteristics, the same simplicity and refinement, while there is peculiar sweetness, oddly mingled with a certain grim humor, in the relations of this strange father and child, which lends unusual attractiveness and some piquancy to the episodes of their intimacy as here narrated. Moreover, he makes his father credible, if one may say so, and in his paragraphs of defense and excuse for the more trying traits and wild starts of the elder Booth he does not allow the touch of grotesqueness to derogate from his honor, nor does he falsify his human nature ; this, in the case of one who was so freakish and full of contradictions, is a triumph of interpretation. He says he knew his father best; he has certainly described him with most fidelity and insight, most picturesqueness, truth, and power. Of the stories he tells of him, the traits and manners he marks with some allusion to incidents, and in general the minute and careful modeling of the work, it would be useless to report, for one cannot break up such composition; hereafter one must seek the father’s features in the son’s portrait of him. One feels, however, in this, as in the study of Kean, the presence of the writer himself; the melancholy, the humanity, the pervading nobleness, are his ; and in the free, natural, unconscious expression of his thoughts, as they arise, colored by his moods and taking form from the intellectual habit of his mind, he has met with that success by which nature occasionally vindicates herself against the too loud claims of art, and teaches us that, in spite of all the hard-won victories of technique, excellence is rather a thing of the heart than of the profession.

The other essays do not need to be remarked upon, and indeed we had specially in mind, in noticing this series, only to pay the courtesy of deserved compliment to the leading actor of the age on his chance and passing entrance into our company of authors. Mr. Lawrence Barrett does service to him, on the part of the fraternity of players, in an article most excellent in taste and feeling, and pleasant in its slight notes of his early life; and the same not altogether inexperienced writer portrays Macready and Forrest with justness, with full and strong touches, and with seasoned admiration. Mr. W. J. Florence’s sketch of Sothern is also a noticeably attractive characterization.

There is a pleasure in reading what these actors have to say of their forerunners and companions, and the editors are to be congratulated on their success in obtaining such desirable help. Manners have changed, and perhaps Garrick would not have written of Quin with such good temper as obtains in these actor-criticisms of our own times ; but if there were a series of such articles, recording what the successive masters of the stage thought of the action and temperament of their predecessors, what a treasure it would be ! But it is not likely that such gaps as there are in our knowledge of the past of the stage will again occur. The history of what the theatre was, with its swift-changing scenes and great traditions, has been told in these volumes with commendable skill, notwithstanding the difficulties inherent in its heterogeneous materials ; and not the least part of its interest is due to the living actors who have assisted in its composition.

  1. Actors and Actresses of Great Britain and the United States, from the Days of David Garrick to the Present Time. Edited by BBANDER MATTHEWS and LAURENCE HUTTON. Five vols. New York : Cassell & Co.