The Actor of to-Day
WHEN the controlling parts of theatre audiences were educated, when companies were permanent and actors outcasts, the art of acting wore a different aspect from that it wears to-day. The philistine who once condemned the playhouses now chooses the plays ; the control of our theatres by speculators suits the tendencies of a mercenary age ; and our players now mingle with the society which dictates the dramas in which they must appear. This degeneration of the theatre has lessened the actor’s chance of fame. We know players of the past, because at that day writers of genius haunted the theatres and left pictures of their favorites. Depending on such an audience, the actors appeared in plays of merit, and gained a glory from the genius of a Ben Jonson or a Congreve. When Colley Cibber was maltreating Richard III. and King John, no less a man than Henry Fielding led the attack on him, and Alexander Pope embalmed him in satire. What genius of to-day cares enough for the stage to lift his pen against a manager’s improvements of Sheridan or Wycherley? “As Shakespeare is already good enough for People of Taste,” says Fielding to Cibber, “ he must be altered to the palates of those who have none ; and if you will grant that, who can be properer to alter him for the worse ? ” What writer will give us a Partridge or Booth or Irving, preserve Ellen Terry and Modjeska in the letters of an Elia, or with the experience of Lewes tell of Richard Mansfield’s satirical comedy and his queer conception of tragedy ?
An actor’s name, it is plain, cannot survive unless he appears in plays which live. Miss Elizabeth Robins will be known after the names of most of the successful actresses of to-day are forgotten, because she is one of the leaders in the introduction of Ibsen to England. On the other hand, actors who get newspaper space, but no attention in lasting dramatic records, will be in oblivion before they are dead. Has anybody stopped to draw the connection between the sudden step to a higher plane of reputation, taken by Forbes Robertson lately, and his assumption of Shakespearean rôles ? In some ways Mr. Mansfield surpasses all our other actors, but as his greatest successes have not been in the highest rôles which he has assumed, his name will not be what, even despite the desertion of the theatre by the intelligent, it might have been if his success had been won in Richard and Shylock. The living American actress whose reputation is firmest is Ada Rehan, and she will be known, not because she has exploited her individuality in weak farce, but because she has done Katharine well. Garrick, who played worthless tragedies of the hour, has his fame linked with the name of Shakespeare, so closely, indeed, that his monument in Westminster Abbey bears the epitaph which the kindly Lamb thinks a desecration of the poet: —
Her magic pencil in his glowing hand,
A Shakespeare rose ; then, to expand his fame
Wide o’er the breathing world, a Garrick came.
Though sunk in death the forms the Poet drew,
The Actor’s genius made them breathe anew ;
Though like the bard himself, in night they lay,
Immortal Garrick called them back to-day.
And till Eternity with power sublime
Shall mark the mortal hour of hoary Time,
Shakespeare and Garrick like twin stars shall shine
And earth irradiate with a beam divine.”
Lamb argues, like many before him, that the poet does everything for the actor, who usually returns evil for good. Still, the dramatist lives upon the stage, and however a poetic conception may lose by embodiment in common flesh, it gains hearers and sometimes meanings. We do not care to see Lear now, but we saw his majesty in Edwin Booth ; and for what Booth gave Shakespeare the poet returned him the actor’s highest glory. The most famous players who have spoken the English tongue are known in the creations of our great dramatists, as Talma and Rachel are connected with the highest tragedy of France ; and, among living actors, Bernhardt, Salvini, Coquelin, Mounet-Sully, Irving, all have mounted the ladder on great plays, whatever pandering some have done after the battle has been won. If Réjane were measured by her talent, she would deserve a position of which inferior plays have deprived her ; and Eleanora Duse has been held in check by mediocre rôles, to the diminution of her proper fame. Many weaker actors, restive in empty pieces, chafe in vain, and still others, mistaking notoriety for fame, rest in unsuspecting complacency.
So out of vogue is the classic drama in America that in theatrical circles it is frequently called “ the legitimate,” to distinguish it from contemporary plays, although the regular theatres are distinguished from the variety houses by the same word. Old plays are given oftener in our smaller towns, where the public is contented with feeble companies and bare scenery ; for great dramas now pay only when they are cheaply produced, or when they are played by great actors. That the gain from keeping worthy dramas alive by cheap productions is not unmixed may be indicated by this signed statement of a variety actor : “ I would attempt Shakespeare to-morrow, only I ’m afraid that the newspapers would ‘ roast ’ me. They seem to be prejudiced against a vaudeville actor essaying tragic rôles; but time may overcome that, as I think the day is not far distant when it will be a common occurrence to see Julius Cæsar or Hamlet played by variety actors at continuous performances. I am busily engaged at present reconstructing Shakespeare’s plays, as there are lots of lines in them that I do not like, and I think by careful pruning and rewriting I can improve on them so as to make them acceptable to a vaudeville audience. Don’t misconstrue me when I say that I will improve Shakespeare. I do not mean in its entirety, as I believe there are lots of lines in Shakespeare’s plays that should not be touched ; but if they don’t suit me, I will be forced to change them.”
American stars who do play “ the legitimate ” now have wretched companies, partly from economy, partly because there is so little opportunity for the actor to learn to represent idealized characters. The only theatre of prominence where great plays are given, usually desecrating them, offers one of the worst schools of acting, proving that the presentation of the best dramas may work harm unless there is some comprehension of their meaning. Look at the Daly performance of The School for Scandal. Sheridan wrote his comedy for a company of players, and Lady Teazle is a part no more “ fat,” probably less fat, than others in the play, since Sheridan, in giving an admirably balanced dramatic action, entirely overlooked the necessity of glorifying one actor. There was, therefore, nothing open to Mr. Daly but to supply Sheridan’s oversight, which he did with astounding frankness. The orchestra played when Miss Rehan went off the stage ; she took away a speech belonging to Charles Surface, in order to have the last chance at the audience. In dialogues where six or eight persons are of equal importance she sat at the side while the others talked, and when it was her turn for a word she walked out into the centre, all the others faded off, and the word was spoken. Again and again in several scenes was every bit of art sacrificed to the desire to force this actress into the middle of the stage. It followed, of course, that her delivery must match this factitious eminence, and she said a simple line with an air which would have made Hamlet dizzy : “ Speak the speech, I pray you, as I pronounced it to you, trippingly on the tongue ; but if you mouth it, as many of your players do, I had as lief the town-crier spoke my lines. Nor do not saw the air too much with your hand, thus.” Miss Rehan has unusual gifts, but it is worse than futile to force a whole play to be nothing but background. Some of the grossest instances are in the scenes between Sir Peter and Lady Teazle. When Miss Rehan spoke, Mr. Varrey obediently pretended he was dead. When he spoke, Miss Behan went over to an interpolated musical instrument and pounded for the attention of the audience. She gave an imitation of a trotting horse in one place, and went through another variety turn in imitation of a peculiar mode of speech.
“Suit the action to the word, the word to the action, with this special observance, that you o’erstep not the modesty of nature ; for anything so overdone is from the purpose of playing, whose end, both at the first and now, was, and is, to hold, as ’t were, the mirror up to nature; to show virtue her own feature, scorn her own image, and the very age and body of the time his form and pressure. Now, this overdone, or come tardy off, though it make the unskilful laugh, cannot but make the judicious grieve.” The action at Daly’s has nothing whatever to do with the words or with the modesty of nature. The actors simply walk up and down the stage, saw the air with their hands, shrug their shoulders and snicker, to supply the place of acting their parts. Everything they do sticks out. They cannot seem to hold any effect by legitimate means. If they sat in the German theatre every night for a month, they might guess that there can never be good acting where every player is trying to kill every effect except his own and Miss Rehan’s.
“ And let those that play your clowns speak no more than is set down for them; for there be of them that will themselves laugh, to set on some quantity of barren spectators to laugh too ; though in the meantime, some necessary question of the play be then to be considered ; that’s villainous, and shows a most pitiful ambition in the fool that uses it.” What Hamlet means by that, as applied to this playhouse, is that the hundreds of interpolated exclamations and laughs, repetitions by the whole assemblage of what one actor says, whether it is “ never ! ” shouted fifty times, or “ you ! you ! ” forty times, or “ did ” and “ did n’t ” one hundred times, and all the silly skipping about and laughing that accompany them, add nothing to the value of the play.
On the other hand, the few things which happen to be given with an approach to comprehension at that theatre stand beautifully above the rubbish of the day. In Twelfth Night, the present company is charming in spite of silly alterations in the text, because each actor happens to fall into a rôle where his faults are checked and his merits accentuated.
Love for Love was played last year in New York, after a few ignored protests at rehearsals, as if it were a farce of action and bustling situation. The butchery of the text was less deadly than the loss of the dialogue (which is everything in Congreve) in running about, gesticulating, and hasty delivery, in an attempt to make the play go, like one of the things which contemporary actors understand. The audience applauded vigorously in the wrong places ; that is, whenever the acting succeeded in making them feel as if they were at a modern play. They ruined a good artificial thing to make a poor natural thing. The critics represented the ideas of the actors and the audience when they said that the performance was “ clever,” but the play altogether out of date.
Romantic melodrama is usually played well by our leading companies, and what we sometimes do as well as need be desired is restrained realism, such as Richard Mansfield uses in Mr. Shaw’s plays and William Gillette in his own. Mr. Mansfield thinks Shakespeare and even Racine should be played just like Shaw ; but then Mr. Mansfield could not earn Goethe’s praise of a certain actor, that he knew how to make the artificial natural, and the natural artificial. The current emphasis on naturalness is eradicating faults of over-emphasis, as Garrick killed the absurdities of the older tragedy, and the excessive elaboration of the last generation comedians is also being properly killed, so that Lessing’s ideal, to be slow without seeming slow, is often reached by our best actors. But the realism in acting which fits so well into Magda, Secret Service, or Arms and the Man is a dangerous method to apply to other grades of art. Observe various famous performances of Camille, and especially see how inferior our greatest realistic actress, Duse, is to our greatest flamboyant actress. A player of the ideal school would be equally out of harmony. This play is not primarily a character study, but a series of the most skillful theatrical climaxes ever put together by any member of the family of Scribe. Obviously, the kind of art which is the best thing in the world to correct our present taste is better suited to the elevated, idealized drama than to a piece half realistic, half sentimental and wholly theatrical. In a tragedy full of a beauty so richly selected that men turn to it for centuries, to escape the unsifted world of reality, a competent, refined art like Modjeska’s, for instance, even where it does not scale all the heights, lets the magic beauty shine out better than an art more powerful, but less true to the best tradition, or, in other words, to those eternally just conventions on which the tragedy itself is founded. On the other hand, La Dame aux Camélias offers a tour de force to an art which is classic and pure rather than flamboyant and romantic. That is why Bernhardt is the best of Marguerite Gautiers. Duse puts some of the purest pathos seen in our day into this drama; smaller actresses, as Hading, Nethersole, Clara Morris, put each her own element; but Bernhardt alone takes it for what it is, suits the method to the work, and leads the artificial theatrical effectiveness of the situations to a height reached by none of the others.
In such acting as Mr. Gillette’s Captain Thorne, combining coolness, humor, efficiency, and half-cynical seriousness into a typical American character, the realistic tendency shows at its best, fitting the play, but it would be inadequate for tragedy or for large comedy. It suits plays of exciting situations, and it suits farce, by the relief into which it throws the absurdity. Its method of handling sentiment is illustrated in Captain Thorne’s speech to his sweetheart: “ I ’d like to say one thing — it’s my last chance — Perhaps you won’t mind. You ’ll forget me, of course, — that’s right, that’s best; I hope you will! But if memory should ever throw my shadow across your path again, perhaps you ’ll remember this, too : We can’t all die a soldier’s death, in the roar and glory of battle, our friends around us, under the flag we love, — no, not all. Some of us have orders for another kind of work — desperate, dare-devil work —the hazardous schemes of the Secret Service ! We fight our battles alone — no comrades to cheer us on — ten thousand to one against us — death at every turn ! If we win, we may escape with our lives ; if we lose, dragged out and butchered like dogs — no soldier’s grave — not even a trench with the rest of the boys — alone, despised, forgotten ! These were my orders, Miss Varney. This is the death I die to-night — and I am not ashamed of it.”
Our best plays and our best actors rely on this absence of rhetoric, or this subdued rhetoric, whether it be in a war play or whether the heroism and pathos are mingled in the homely scenes of Shore Acres. In Mr, Mansfield and Mr. Drew, each first in his line, this reliance on suggestion rather than full or over execution is seen. In spite of its frequent excellence, this style is never the highest, because of its insufficiency in the greatest plays. Although those actors have fewer faults than Ada Rehan and Sir Henry Irving, these finished realists cannot be identified with permanent characters ; for an artist is measured by his highest reach, and it is the characters which make the actor, as it is his characters, and the plot which is part of them, which make the dramatist. Therefore, although in such plays as Secret Service, Margaret Fleming, and The Devil’s Disciple we have seen the most original recent development of the histrionic art, it is worth while to remember that for a greater play we should need a greater style.
In farce acting we do well, naturally, because we are a broadly humorous race ; and it is likely that when our farces cut deeper into life our players will be found to equal them. At the other extreme is growing up a style of acting in a kind of drama which promises nothing. In melodrama and farce, in cynical comedy and barn-storming classics, it is possible to discover the wheat in the chaff, but in the modern society play there is little but emptiness. Histrionic talent here reaches its lowest ebb, while manners and appearances take its place. In the leading rôles the requisite is that the actor look like a gentleman or a lady, at home in the best society, distinguished, correct, elegant. As no actor can be great whose most remarkable gift is gentility, this species of play tends to subordinate the strong réles, and bring the young hero with many lines even more to the front. Stars have always adored Hamlet because the réle is so long, as they have detested Twelfth Night for the opposite reason, and now circumstances emphasize this tendency. The best parts in our watery society plays are usually the villains’, but there are few of our actors who do not prefer the heroes’. While on the Continent the repertory theatres make us familiar with great actors in small parts, here the more prominent an actor is, the further below his dignity is any réle which lacks the conventional length and central position ; and this conception is often strongest in the society play heroes, whom natural selection makes at once handsome and stupid. In a great play the company would be cast according to its genius, and in the realistic society play according to its looks. In real acting fitness is determined by a combination of physical and intellectual gifts. Edwin Booth probably could not play Sir Toby, though he ranged from Romeo to Lear. Ellen Terry, whose Lady Macbeth is not tragic, fills such different rôles as Portia and Marguerite, Beatrice and Olivia, characters so diverse that no woman could represent them if she were merely herself. Ellen Terry is a new creature in each, born of the power she has of yielding to the rôle and feeling its simple elements. Portia takes hold of her and she lives it, and she enters a new world when she is Olivia.
Of course, ever since the first woman stepped upon the stage, beauty has been on the average a necessary gift of the actress, as facial magnetism has been, in both sexes, since masks were discarded. Beauty and magnetic features are allied to the charm of great art, while clothes and suggestions of society are not. Each theatre has its standards of personal beauty. In one large American playhouse, an actress, however fair, can hardly have the leading role unless her feminine proportions are ample, since to the patrons physical flatness in a heroine is an absurdity, while in the theatre across the street womanly heroism is slim. Dramatists give comeliness in woman a conspicuous part in their stories ; it has its artistic bearing on the stage, but nevertheless it has its dangers for acting, and where personal beauty and histrionic art come in conflict, each should have a fair hearing. A little gain in beauty is not sufficient to excuse a large loss in art; but neither, perhaps, is a little gain in art an excuse for a great sacrifice of beauty.
At bottom, the majority of AngloSaxons, especially of that part of them represented by the voyagers on board the Mayflower, find something unrighteous in the bestowal of any of the prizes of life on mere comeliness. It is right to put as much emphasis on the beauty of the Hermes of Praxiteles or the Madonnas of Titian as we wish to, because they are art, and it is moral to think highly of the qualities of the artist and to encourage them ; but to praise, in a man or a woman, what he or she deserves no credit for possessing savors of wickedness. So deep-seated is this feeling, so evenly distributed through the different strata of society, that at a variety show, although people often go mainly to see a pretty soubrette, they praise only the performers who do their acts with skill; and in the Broadway theatres, though the shrewd managers fill their casts with beauties, disingenuous persons, who have been lured to the theatres largely by personal charm, go away and give all the credit to something which can be praised with no offense to the moral instincts. Practically it is not difficult to strike a just balance between physical advantages, training, and talent, when intelligent people are the judges. Audiences at the Comédie Française and the subsidized German theatres prize beauty, especially in woman, but they demand of the players sufficient talent to satisfy the intellectual exactions of their rôles.
Whatever calls attention to the actor’s personality, to the exclusion of his talent, gives prominence to the players at the expense of the play. In Athens, where, if we are to believe our scholars, taste was high, the actor was esteemed, as he is to-day in Paris, but only if he satisfied the critical instinct of an audience which knew the play by heart. Natural magnetism or social ease could not then atone for faulty delivery. Popularity is now frequently gained by actors outside the theatre ; more than it could be before society was so glad to receive presentable players, most of whom are only too ready to respond. Men and women who stand on a pedestal nightly, heroes and heroines in the light of poetry and romance, have always attracted outsiders, but the influence of social attentions on the actor, as far as it goes, is usually bad. Players got what was best when their relations to the world were mainly love affairs, or friendships with playwrights. This may be a slight thing, but it is distinct. There is a maxim on the stage that severe love experiences are the best training. Whatever makes the profession more respectable is in danger of injuring it by substituting an undramatic life for one containing none of the emotions which the actor needs. Mr. Henry James has told a story in which an old couple, of unmistakable gentility, think they can make a success on the stage by playing the “ real thing,” because they are it; but the moral of the story is that they fail to play it, just because they are it. The actor is a person whose almost unconscious imagination swings with equal freedom through the life of the peasant and the life of the prince. That loyalty to himself as a person, the product of a fixed environment, that “ self-respect ” which marks the aristocrat, would be his death warrant. Eleanora Duse is great as the lady and as the virtuous peasant, for she is not bound by any caste ; but she is poor as Marguerite Gautier, because she is limited by her moral taste, where Bernhardt, for instance, is not. It is therefore natural, also, that she failed in rôles where Réjane succeeded. Her refinement is her artistic shortcoming, which shuts her from vast fields of human nature. If Shakespeare had kept the delicacy of Ophelia when he drew Dame Quickly, or the austerity of Henry V. when he created Bardolph, Pistol, and Nym, he would never have been the real thing in his deep and universal sense. Instead of rejoicing that the barriers between the stage and society are being removed, should we not mildly bemoan it ?
In one of his rehearsals Voltaire said that an actress should have something of the devil in her. Refinement is a far second to fire, and even stage refinement is not given by the possession of the real thing. It is not conversational intelligence that an actor needs, but rapid instinct, professionally trained, a sensitiveness altogether unrelated to actual life. We do not need Goldsmith’s testimony to believe that Garrick seemed affected off the stage, any more than we need a multitude of stories to prove that Sarah Bernhardt in private lacks the simplicity which we associate with social breeding. Many of the most refined players are failures. Rachel could do the queen out of the theatre as well as within, but was equally ready to take another rôle when some of the guests had departed. The stage demands overexpression of everything, and our society demands under-expression. There is still force in Diderot’s contention that in order to take all characters well, a man should himself have none,
The rule of the business manager, and the consequent prevalence of the long run, is one of the hardest obstacles today, especially in the path of younger actors. Although the commercial managers are largely responsible for the length to which plays run, good and bad, the fault is less theirs than a part of our money-loving time. To be sure, three centuries ago Ben Jonson said, in reference to the theatre, “ This is the money-got, mechanic age ; ” but the love of wealth pervades all classes in America more than it has done in any other country at any time. Augustin Daly is almost a solitary example of an American manager who changes his plays frequently at the immediate sacrifice of receipts. The figures of Joseph Jefferson, Denman Thompson, and James A. Herne, all artists, remind us that actors are often as willing as managers to bend everything to income. So far has the system been carried, combined with the habit of choosing bad plays for new productions, that a student of our stage actually has to find most of his interest in benefits and occasional performances. Last year, for instance, Julia Arthur, one of the strongest younger players, devoted her entire season to a philistine pseudoliterary drama, and her gifts were shown at their best only in a one-aet piece at a couple of benefits; but this year she has been bold enough to insist on a worthy repertory. It was at a benefit that David Bispham, one of our singers, proved himself a powerful actor ; at a benefit that our most delicate comedienne tested a play which has since run in two countries, with the result of forcing the managers to give Annie Russell a better opportunity ; and at a similar performance that a promising young actress, Julie Opp, did her best work in an idyllic poetic comedy ; to say nothing of such single performances as Miss Robins’s Hedda Gabler and the late Mr. Henley’s John Gabriel Borkman. The point is clear enough, that many actors who have talent, and the desire to use it worthily, are driven to obscure opportunities, with much labor and unfavorable conditions, because the regular theatres offer so few artistic plays. No wonder, therefore, that so often an actor who has chafed for years in an empty minor rôle rushes from that misfortune into the grave of the minor star.
If, however, the conditions for the actor are in some ways to be regretted, it is only from the æsthetic standpoint, for in pleasure and comfort his estate has improved indeed, not only since the days when even the law was against him, but within the memory of the living. While knighthood and social glamour are given alike to the talented and the commonplace, never before could so much money be gained on the stage with so little talent. A larger salary can now be reached by a mediocre actor after a few years than once went to the greatest; and room is made for many more than could formerly exist, because of the multitude of companies. Imagining an ideal theatre, Hédelin, selected by Cardinal Richelieu to write about “ the whole art of the stage,” thought that three companies would suffice for Paris. How many would satisfy that city to-day ? The severity of natural education was excellent for the fittest, but our more lenient standards are certainly a comfort to the others. In this contrast between material and artistic conditions the actor but shares our civilization, where not only a larger share of the world’s goods goes to the poor, but a greater power over the course of thought is given to the ignorant. As hundreds of writers are comfortable where formerly the literary genius starved, so the average actor’s lot is higher at the cost of obscuring the exceptional artist. An enormous and indiscriminate public demands an art different from that which springs out of one more select, — æsthetics losing to the gain of ethics. The family, so flourishing a portion of modern progress, takes in the playhouse the place of the wits and the fashionable ladies who wore masks or needed none, and children’s day, which comes occasionally at the Français, is with us always, while the virtuous dull, to whom the theatre used to spell damnation, now outnumber all. The most influential living critic of the drama tells us that even in the foremost theatre the modern world has seen the comedies of Molière are now played badly.
If democratic changes have made perfection in the histrionic art more difficult, they have not rendered futile an attempt at improvement. Concentration in permanent companies in big cities is needed as a basis for training. A few actors are born great, but most of them, like Rachel, have gifts which ripen only by strict cultivation. For the leading rôle in Zaïre Voltaire selected an amateur, and Colley Cibber’s eighteen-yearold wife made her début in the part at the first English performance ; but although an untrained person may occasionally fit ideally into a part, or even step at once into many rôles, the dominating rule is the reverse. In its first year the cast of Secret Service contained one of our most experienced soubrettes, but she was replaced by a young woman who was exactly the kind of girl Mr. Gillette had described: with the result that the part, which had been fascinating, became empty and affected. Since the only means of raising the general level of acting is by correct training, the first consideration is the establishment of permanent companies with high standards, which will select from the army of young people now going on the stage those who are more interested in the artistic than in the commercial results, and gifted with talent. Preferring artistic to vulgar success, they would likewise live among persons of intelligence, especially in their own and allied arts.
In the last analysis everything hinges upon the play. Once bring it about that a few city theatres produce regular dramas demanded by the highest portion of the community, and good acting will follow as soon as intelligent people have again formed the theatre-going habit. The best average acting in any American playhouse is seen at the one which gives, in German, more classics than any of our English-speaking companies. These two facts are inseparable. Whatever may be true for the actor dominated by income, and caring as much for one audience as another, for the player who measures his progress by the perfection of his talent the play is the thing. An actor may be cast almost anywhere in Twelfth Night, and know that if he cannot do great work, the fault is not in the rôle. Not Viola, the Duke, and Malvolio alone, but Andrew Aguecheek, Maria, the clown, even Sebastian and Antonio, — every part except Fabian, — is so profoundly conceived that it will hold the genius of a great actor ; and in this regard Twelfth Night is but an example of the truth that in a great play, which is composed of deeply created characters, however few their lines, lies the artistic salvation of actors, great and small. What should be sought by our player of ideals is an entrance to some company where there are frequent changes of bill, made necessary by a regular clientele, and a line of plays in which he will be sure of finding in his part not a wooden image accompanied by minute stage directions about his clothes, but the outlines of a solid and typical human being, whom it is his privilege, by the power of instinctive sympathy, to re-create.