Le Cothurne Étroit

— Certain gentlemen who wield with much skill the stylus of theatrical criticism are wont to tell us that for all purposes of dramatic effect there must needs be a timely and reasonable exaggeration; that the stride should be longer, the voice deeper, the gesture freer, than would be needful to produce a similar impression in social circles ; that if even so potent a personality as that of the late Edwin Forrest had spoken and moved “ naturally ” on the stage he would have been inaudible and unintelligible (though, from his great stature, not quite invisible); that stage effect is necessarily effect produced at long range,—an impression distributed over hundreds, perhaps thousands, of spectators. What, then, becomes of the oft-repeated assertion that one must feel the part in order to be “natural ” or “effective ” ? Is it not obvious on the face of it that what riflemen call “ point-blank range,” wherein one aims directly at the object, making no allowance for gravitation, wind, etc., refers only to very short distances ?

We are told by persons experienced in theatrical art that every representation is an experiment, requiring anew the adaptation and the adjustment to new conditions, scenic or acoustic, — an experiment implying also a new audience with which the artist must bring himself into rapport. The late George Fawcett Rowe, when running a play of his own at the Park Theatre, for a hundred nights (a play in which he himself enacted the leading part), told me that, even then, each performance was an anxious effort, since, although the play ran smoothly enough, there was for him every night a “ new audience to capture.”

In no other art does daily practice seem so nearly a necessity of life. One may put one’s chess-playing in a glass case (the phrase is Paul Morphy’s); one may for a time neglect the palette, the piano, the pen; yet, on resuming when occasion offers, prove that, aside from finding one’s self slightly “rusty,” the “ desuetude ” was practically “ innocuous.” Not so with the Genius of the stage ; that mistress must be won by daily devotion, that goddess worshiped by sacrifice diurnal. Giulia Grisi, the only Norma, when she came to this country after a thirty years’ service on the lyric stage, brought with her her old manager and dramatic teacher, saying that without his daily strictures even her Norma was insecure. Again, the necessity for constant scrutiny of ever-varying effect under evervarying conditions is shown in the case of Madame Ristori. When she first played Marie Stuart in this country, she was in the habit of using for the religious scenes a crucifix not more than four inches in length. A few weeks’ experience with our large and dimly lighted halls resulted in a substitution in the same scenes of a crucifix whose measurement approached a yard! This element of change was observable in yet more vital matters : her voice became strident and more penetrating, her step resembled the stride of the grenadier, and all her gestures showed greater breadth ; for in that way only, she said, could she make herself intelligible to the larger audiences assembled in those various barnlike structures called opera houses, etc.

On first visiting a French theatre an American will be struck by its smallness. True, the edifice holds a good many people, but somehow the architectural conformation enables the eager audience to cluster about the stage, tier above tier, at no great distance therefrom. Then can one note how important is the finish of the actor, the nuances coming into play admirably ; not a shade of expression, not a single modulation in quality of tone, failing to deliver its message. Is it strange that in France the art of acting should attain a polish unknown elsewhere, or that French artists, when removed to theatres in other lands, where what Spiritualists call the “ conditions ” are absent, should find themselves ill at ease, disconcerted, failing to produce intended effects, and disappointed in their audiences ?

When Serjeant Talfourd’s play of Ion was in rehearsal, the production was entrusted to the skillful hands of Macready, at once the ablest actor and most exacting manager on the British stage. He insisted upon having the “ curtain scenes,” or picturesque grouping at the close of an act, carefully chalked, the position of each character accurately designated, and the last few effective movements clearly indicated by chalk lines drawn upon the flooring of the stage. So patiently and so painstakingly was the piece rehearsed that the leading lady, Miss Ellen Tree (afterwards Mrs. Charles Kean), was found, before the performance, to have contracted a serious disease of the kneejoint, caused by frequently falling upon her knees during rehearsals under the tutelage of the martinet manager. Young and undisciplined actors, accustomed to rely upon the “beautiful spontaneities ” of an artistic nature, were wont to regard Mr. Macready with something akin to terror, and to stigmatize as artificial his relentless accuracy and precision in details. There is undoubtedly something perilously fascinating about the effortless productiveness which we are accustomed to regard as genius, and which, as it vouchsafes no hint of toil, is seemingly the gift of Heaven; but I fear the more we examine the matter, the more we shall be inclined to accept the homely assurance of Wirt that “there is no excellence without great labor.” Who can doubt that the unpremeditated eloquence of the “sensation preacher would be often improved by a little thought and care of preparation, to say nothing of wearing the fetters of his country’s grammar? Even the improvvisatori of Italy are in the habit of keeping on hand a large and carefully selected stock of ready rhymes on the beauty of Italy, as on some other inevitable subjects, for use at a moment’s notice. Disraeli himself, astute politician as he was, tells us with boyish candor how he used to lounge in the London parks, to muse and get up his impromptus, — he whose spontaneity was afterwards to astonish the world.

It was reserved for François Delsarte, leading the cohorts of the younger generation of French artists, to show us how, even in impulsive movements of passionate grace, beauty is but the fulfillment of law. Going back to the statuary of ancient Greece for authority as to motive, fortifying the same by earnest scrutiny and comparison of the masterpieces of the Roman and other galleries, correcting or confirming all by the traditions of the Théâtre Français and of the Conservatoire, he and his followers have formulated and laid before us a school of expression, an art of arts, so distinct, so purposeful, that, when mindful of its laws, the veriest stroller need not greatly err, — an art so critical and penetrative withal that its mere acolytes, on witnessing the untutored declamation of certain stars, might say, with the French marshal who saw the charge of the light brigade at Balaklava, “C’est magnifique, mais ce n’est pas la guerre.” Evidently the cothurnus should be so laced by discipline and practice that no uncertain, no slipshod gait shall be possible to the wearer.