Mrs. Fiske's Acting

“I HAVE been to the theatre for years,” said a playgoer, “ and have seen many actors, but only three times have I seen acting : once it was Duse in Camille ; again it was that Yiddish woman — what is her name ? — in one of their strange plays ; and lastly Mrs. Fiske in Tess.”

Signora Duse is Fame’s favorite; no need of another trumpet to praise her ! The “ Yiddish woman ” is Fame’s stepchild, shut up in the dark closet of a German-Jewish constituency and dialect, whither the great world may not penetrate, — where even her name is hushed with the plaudits of her brooding and imaginative race. But Mrs. Fiske makes her appeal to a people which, however fortunately situated for independent judgment, is slow to assert its opinion in matters of art. We wait too long at the large end of Fame’s trumpet, listening for the foreign roar. We hesitate to lift the great instrument and blow a blast back. We receive gratefully from London and Paris the knighted Irving, the “ divine Sara,” and other products of a refined and highly artificialized art; and our message in return is too often a mere echo of their verdict.

The playgoer was right, perhaps, in basing his opinion of Mrs. Fiske’s quality upon her Tess, though probably he had not seen her in the varied repertory with which she returned to the stage a few years ago, after a seven years’ retirement. In those days she was playing La Femme de Claude, The Doll’s House, Divorçons, and a few other dramas, to little handfuls of listeners, regaining as a woman the art she had practiced as a child. In Divorçons she sparkled in the froth of life, and infected a rather crude company with her own gayety, so that an effect was attained rarer among Anglo-Saxons than among Latins: the frolicsome, irresponsible spirit of comedy seemed to be mixing up the world. La Femme de Claude belongs to another class, — a class somewhat outworn nowadays, doubtless, — typical of the tricky French mid-century style of melodrama which is passing with Sardou; but even more than most plays of its kind it offers histrionic opportunities. For a bit of exquisite virtuosity in acting, a sheer tour de force, may be cited the fit of trembling with which Mrs. Fiske, in playing the heroine, meets her captor’s revelation of her past. It seized and shook her in spite of herself, — a battle to the death between will and physical weakness, in which will conquered as by a hair’s breadth, leaving the body worn and shaken.

Another tour de force was Nora’s desperate dancing of the tarantella, in The Doll’s House, that tragic mock of gayety with which the child-wife sought to cajole fate. For delicate and complete achievement, either of these details proves Mrs. Fiske’s mastery of the technique of her art. But no mere virtuoso could give us this Nora in her later de-

velopment. Only an artist, profoundly conscious of human character and passion, could interpret with such quiet mastery the sudden awakening of a mind in this child of the senses and the emotions ; could reveal, with a simplicity severe to the point of nudity, the horror of that stripping of the soul which the ruthless arctic poet suggests in the last momentous dialogue.

And this leads us to Tess, which at present is Mrs. Fiske’s masterpiece, as no other play in her repertory offers to her imagination a situation at once so simple and so tragic. Becky Sharp is a delightfully clever and vital piece of work, but it is all in the same key. The whole play has but one moment of feeling, and thus confines the artist to a delicate play of sardonic humor and skeptical intelligence. Tess is a larger field to work in, an out-of-door field, free of the “ tables and chairs ” which Signora Duse, in a recent interview, proclaimed herself weary of. Moreover, as a drama, it is more adroitly put together than most plays constructed from novels. Mrs. Fiske’s Tess, we may admit at the outset, is a different creation from Hardy’s : she cannot escape her delicate physique, her subtle intellectuality, her singular and haunting but distinctly civilized charm, — a combination which does not suggest the big, beautiful, stupid woman whom the novelist presents to us, and which always embarrasses this artist’s efforts to portray the peasant type.

Her Tess, then, is her own, and must be judged by its own truth. One does not feel the milkmaid in it, but a totally different creature. One does feel the grace, the spent refinement, the impotent mentality, of the last lady of a fallen race, against whose insufficiency the very stars conspire. The heart-breaking beauty of this enmeshed soul, the pathetic fluttering of its crippled wings, the horror of its final desperate dash for freedom, all these are revealed with a largeness of tragic beauty which is unmarred by an instant of disillusion. The severe simplicity of the conception, and the artist’s dignity and restraint in presenting it, make heroic outlines for a figure whose colors glow with passion and life.

Two moments of the drama stand out with special prominence : Tess’s revelation of her past to Angel Clare, and the murder scene. Who that has ever heard it can forget the pathos of that almost whispered story, poured into her husband’s ear, while her face hides on his breast and her arms embrace him ? — the lofty courage of it, made possible only by sudden joyous knowledge that she also has something to forgive ! When one reflects upon the opportunities for excess offered by this bit of dialogue, the slightness of the means employed to produce a great effect becomes the more noteworthy. The contrast between the penetrating half whisper used here and the desperate tone of the cry “ Marian ! ” in the last act, shows the range of expression achieved by this artist with a voice not exceptionally endowed by nature.

In the murder scene, the extraordinary thing is the completeness of the change. In the twinkling of an eye a woman weak and tender becomes a savage ; the rags of centuries drop from her, the dark primeval brute awakes in her, long ages of evolution become as naught, when, purring, exulting, powerful, she glides like a tigress to her work. And then the return after the deed: the listless holding of the knife, the guttural sounds of gloating and horror, the meddling over the open drawer, the piteous brushing of the hair while the eyes are changing back from brute to human, — the utter irrelevancy of all the little acts which the body mechanically performs during the suspension of thought, — all this proves the profundity of the artist’s intuition. Such acting lies beyond the range of mere intellect ; it could never be thought out. The imagination leaps into the dark to get it, — into the deeply hidden sources of human character.