Reminiscences of a Dramatic Critic


THE most noted achievement of one of our leading comedians, to which allusion was made in my article of last month, — the Lord Dundreary of E. A. Sothern, the elder, — is peculiarly worthy of remembrance and of being freshly recalled to the minds of all who witnessed the performance. I am inclined to believe that the records of the theatre furnish no parallel with the experience of the actor and the public in respect of this impersonation. Mr. Sothern was a player of ability, recognized in his profession, before he became celebrated.

The received story concerning the original production of Tom Taylor’s Our American Cousin appears to be substantially true. The manager was very anxious for the triumph of the new play, hoping for a reëstablishment of prosperity upon the basis of its success, and, in order to increase the strength of a very strong cast, purchased the reluctant consent of Mr. Sothern to accept the unimportant part of a stage fop by giving him full leave to “ gag ; ” that is to say, to enlarge and vary his assigned text with new matter of his own interpolation. Out of this acceptance and this license a unique histrionic product was evolved.

Even at the first representations of the comedy the public eye and ear were taken and filled with Mr. Sothern’s extraordinary action and speech, and the other chief players, of whom several ranked with the best in the country, in spite of their cleverness and the greater significance of their parts, found themselves relegated into the background. The scheme and perspective of the author were much impaired, indeed almost inverted as in a moment. It was something as if Osric had pushed himself in front of Hamlet. And no one was more surprised than Mr. Sothern himself. Whence the actor derived the outside of his impersonation I have not been informed. Its substratum was the conventional dandy of the theatre, of course, — one of the foolishest and unrealest of fictions, — and Continental Europe had evolved a caricature of the traveling Britisher which adumbrated Mr. Sothern’s make-up; but the aggregation of Lord Dundreary’s oddities could hardly have originated with the actor. I think he must have encountered somewhere an Englishman whose whole dress, speech, and manner displayed the courage of a monstrous eccentricity. Here, at all events, was a bird of a new feather, — of a new variety, species, genus.

Who that looked upon the noble lord can ever forget the glare of his monocle, and the rigid play of the muscles that held the glass in place; the corrugations of his anxious brow; the perpetually varied movements of his lips and chin as he struggled to utter himself ; the profuse hair of the period; his long, silky whiskers; the hop-andskip walk, — that gait which was not of “ Christian, pagan, nor man ; ” his talk, in which a combined lisp, stutter, and stammer, punctuated by quaint gurgles and chuckles, made an unprecedented novelty in human vocalism ; and the long, sumptuous coats and dressing gowns and amplitudinous trousers which he affected ? The whole thing came close to the verge of gross absurdity, but through the actor’s rare gifts in drollery and vivacious intensity was accepted, freely and with a delicious sense of immersion in a new kind of fun, by the whole public, gentle and simple.


If Mr. Sothern had gone no further than to produce the strange figure which has been partially described, and to make it effective for mirth, the event would have deserved only a mere mention. But he proceeded, with processes and results like those of creative genius, to broaden and deepen his conception, until his Lord Dundreary, without any loss, or rather with an increase, of his comicality, came to have a definite individuality, and to exemplify certain common weaknesses and limitations, which cause the brightest of us acute misery at times, but in him were chronic and the source of continual discomfort. The nobleman’s text and business were enlarged fourfold, and the rest of the play was proportionally reduced. The developed Dundreary was occasionally asinine, but he was by no means the idiot that the crowd had at first imagined him to be. In truth, it now became evident that the noble lord had a mind of his own, — peculiar, but real, capable of clearness, capable even of penetration and astuteness, but cursed with a tendency to err in dealing with the surface resemblance of things. Life was a muddle by reason of these recurring likenesses, and language was a pitfall or a labyrinth. It was a genuine grief and trial to him, though very amusing to the spectators, when he came upon another of “ those things that no fellah can find out.” His weakness was carried to the point of farcical extravagance, but there was something to sympathize with when he was most ridiculous, and one had new visions both of the inherent weakness and the latent capacities of our language when he said, with eager hitches and emphatic bursts, to Lieutenant Vernon : “ Of course you can pass your examination; what I want to know is, can you go through it ? ” Closely allied to this mental infirmity, and another important element in the humor of the conception, was Dundreary’s absolute incapacity to cherish more than one idea at a time. A single thought, whether great or small, brimmed his brain, and his cerebral machinery was thrown completely out of gear by the intrusion of another idea. The rhythmic motion of Asa Trenchard’s foot made it impossible for him to remember the words of his song ; the accidental view of a split hair in his whiskers caused him to be oblivious of Georgina’s narrative; a sudden discovery of her chignon, when her back was modestly turned, and the train of consequent meditation, broke him off in the midst of an offer of marriage.

The funniest and most highly illustrative incident of this sort was the famous passage in which his search for his misplaced trousers pocket passed from a usual automatic act to a mind-absorbing effort, and — with a perfect parallelism of effect at every stage — at first left his words unchecked, then gradually slowed his tongue, then stopped his speech altogether, finally required the united devotion of hand, eyes, and brain to discover the missing receptacle. Dundreary’s mind had — to change the figure — a single track, with very few switches, and his confusions of intellect were the result of collisions of trains of thought, running in opposite directions. In a large way, Dundreary was an inclusive satire upon the small stupidities of our human nature, and his most inane utterances awakened answering echoes, as has been said, in the consciousness of the most sensible men and women.


Mr. Sothern’s Dundreary became, indeed, something more than “ a definite individuality,” in the phrase just now used; he passed into a genuine and convincing personality. He was a true product of invention and synthetic art, and even his extreme eccentricities were soon accepted as innate, unconscious sincerities, not as conscious affectations. The noble gentleman grew to be lovable, and the quaint conjunction in him of eager good nature with nervous irritability proved to be a source of charm as well as mirth. Extraordinary were the variously combined expressions of complaisance, stupidity, humor, and acuteness which flitted over his countenance, and the diversity of intonations which finely indicated the proportions of his much-mixed emotions was wonderful. A page might be filled with descriptions of his different smiles ; the broad, effulgent smile which filled his face when he thought he had struck a brilliant conversational idea, and his dubious, tentative, come-and-go flicker of a grin when he was feeling his mental way, being two striking examples in the vast variety. The surprises which he effected by his comic gift were often overpowering, and made the spectator fairly gasp and choke, as two contrary currents of mirth suddenly poured into the unprepared brain.

I think the funniest small thing I ever noted at a theatrical performance was his delivery of one of Dundreary’s speeches in connection with Sam’s “ letter from America.” The passage began, “Dear Bwother,” Mr. Sothern reading the opening words of the epistle; then he made one of his pauses, and, with a characteristic click and hitch in his voice, commented, —

“ Sam always calls me his bwother — because neither of us ever had a sister.”

Left without further description, the phrase might pass with the reader as rather droll ; but on the words “ because neither of us ever had a sister ” the actor’s voice became instantly saturated with mock pathos, and the sudden absurd demand for sympathy reached the amazed auditor with soul-tickling effect.


Mr. Sothern played several other parts brilliantly well. His impersonation of David Garrick was surpassed upon our stage only by Salvini’s. Dundreary’s Brother Sam he made an interesting figure of fun ; and during the latter years of his life he achieved great success in The Crushed Tragedian, a drama reconstructed, for the actor’s purposes, from The Prompter’s Box, of Henry J. Byron, in which Mr. Sothern took the part of an unfortunate player, whose bearing and speech in private life were portentously and melodramatically theatrical. There were many good passages in the comedy, and one of the most notable occurred in a passage-atarms between the thin, out-at-elbows tragedian and a large-girthed, purse-proud banker. The actor had spoken of “ the profession,” meaning, of course, his own ; the banker answered, with a sneer, “ Oh ! you call it a profession, do you ? ” and the player replied, with superb conviction of superiority, “ Yes, we do ; banking we call a trade,” — the retort hitting rather harder in London than here, because in England “ the trade of banking ” was a familiar and technical phrase.


The dialogue which was last quoted, and a half line of comment passed above upon a stage fiction, come together in my mind. It is not uncommon to hear close observers of the life of cities speak of the peculiar remoteness and aloofness of the theatrical profession from other orders of humanity ; but only a very small proportion even of thoughtful persons come near to realizing how complete is the separation of the actor and actress from other men and women. The conditions of modern life, with the prevailing passion for publicity, incarnated in the newspaper reporter, whose necessity knows no law, and expended with special force upon the people of the theatre, who often seem to invite notoriety, have, in fact, accomplished very little in breaking down the barriers which divide “ the profession ” from the rest of the world. The race of gypsies does not lead an existence more alien from its entourage than the order of players. Here and there, actors or actresses of uncommon distinction or definite social ambition, sought or seeking, make appearances in “ society ; ” but such irruptions are few and intermittent. Mr. Irving is the only eminent artist of our day who has made social prestige a steady feeder of histrionic success. Edwin Booth and William Warren, with all their rare gifts, grace, and charm, were practically unknown in private, except to other actors and a few personal friends. The prejudice of the outside world has doubtless been an important agent in effecting this segregation ; but if that prejudice, which has been gradually diminishing, were wholly to disappear, the situation would remain substantially unchanged, I am convinced, for centuries to come.


This condition, which from some important points of view is fortunate, from others unfortunate, and from nearly all inevitable, is unique indeed. Here we have the only large class of workers which keeps the world at arm’s length. Clergymen, physicians, lawyers, architects, merchants, tradesmen, and laborers of all sorts, by the very terms of their toil, are brought into constant personal contact with parishioners, patients, clients, or customers. Even painters and sculptors must needs be in touch with their patrons. But that thin, impassable row of blazing lamps, which rims the front of the stage, accomplishes as the Great Wall of China was built to accomplish. Behind them is the sole “ profession ; ” in front of them the barbarous laity. If the player desired to break down the partition, he would scarcely be able to do so. From the more important social gatherings, which take place in the evening, both actress and actor are necessarily absent; the actor may vote, if he can acquire a residence and contrive to be in his own city on election day, but it is impossible that he should take any active part in politics or participate in preliminary meetings, caucuses, and “ rallies,” which are held at night; and as to attendance at church, the player encounters, in the first place, the difficulty, inseparable from his wandering life, of making a connection with a parish, and besides, in recent years, is almost constantly required to travel on Sunday, passing from a Saturday evening’s performance in one town to a Monday morning’s rehearsal in another.


Quite unrelated, however, to these outward limitations of the histrionic life is the disposition of the players themselves. They compose a guild of extraordinary independence, which, in spite of its vague and shifting boundaries, intensely feels and sturdily maintains its esprit de corps. “ Independence of temper,” as Mr. Leon H. Vincent lately said, “ is a marked characteristic of the theatre and of theatrical life. The stage is a world to itself, and a world altogether impatient of external control.” One cause of this temper is to be found in the legal disabilities under which the player labored in most countries for many years. The reaction was sure. Treated as an outlaw, the player became a law unto himself. But the causa causans lies in the peculiar conditions of temperament which inhere in most actors, and in the singular concentration and devotion of energy, essential to success upon the stage, which are exercised upon the Active material of the theatre. The rule, to which there have been important but few exceptions, is that the actor, like the acrobat, must be caught and practiced young, in order that the suppleness required in the mimetic as in the gymnastic art may be attained ; and, as a result of the application of this rule, nearly all the great body of actors are devoid of general academic and scholastic training. Their culture is the culture of their own private study, worked out in the greenroom and on the stage. It is marvelous what acquisitions many of them make with such handicaps ; but their general narrowness of mental vision may be inferred. Practically out of relation, then, with the social, political, and religious life of the entire rest of mankind, immersed in the unreal realities of the mimic life, driven both by natural impulse and by professional competition to whet their talent to the sharpest edge, the guild of actors is the most charming, naïf, clever, contracted, conventional, disorderly, sensitive, insensible, obstinate, generous, egotistic body in the world, and — “ unique.” Players are as conservative and as superstitious as sailors ; they have but one theme, one material of thought and conversation, — the theatre, and, of course, themselves as exponents of the theatre. They hold to their traditions like North American Indians, and their conventions have the perdurable toughness of iron. Be the thing bad or good, once it is firmly fastened upon the theatre, it sticks indefinitely. The stage fop, now almost obsolete, was a survival, probably, from the period of the Restoration, and drawled and strutted over the boards for hundreds of years after he had disappeared from society. Yet actors are distinguished by plasticity. That they succeed as well as they do in reproducing the contemporary life which they see only by snatches is little short of a miracle, and demonstrates the extreme speed and delicacy in observation of some of them, and the large imitative gift of others, together with a power of divination, which is an attribute of genius. Through the operation of natural selection, they are practically birds of a feather, and the most docile and intimate layman never quite learns their language or long feels at home in their company. That it is highly desirable, for a dozen grave reasons, that the actor should be less a stranger to his fellow men is obvious ; and also it is obvious that, to the end of the world, success upon the stage will involve in the successful artist a peculiar attitude of mind, a peculiar adaptability of temperament, and a rare singleness of devotion, which must separate him from the laity. Comparative isolation will always be a condition of high achievement in the histrionic profession, and the stage will always have a climate and an atmosphere of its own, with which the thermometers and barometers of the outer world will have no immediate relation.


During the season of 1869-70 Charles Fechter played for the first time in the United States, appearing first in New York, and opening, in March of the latter year, at the Boston Theatre as Hamlet. He was born in London, in 1824, and was the son of an Englishwoman and Jean Maria Fechter, a sculptor, who was of German descent, but a native of France. Notwithstanding the mixture of his blood, Charles Fechter was wholly French in his affiliations and sympathies, loathed Germany and all its ways, works, and words, and was careful to pronounce “ Fayshtair ” his surname, the first syllable of which Boston, because of its extreme culture, persisted and persists in giving with the North Teutonic guttural. In his early childhood he was taken to France, where he grew up, and, after dabbling for a short time in the clay of the sculptor, studied for the stage, and at the age of twenty appeared successfully, in Le Mari de la Veuve, at the Théâtre Français, of whose company he afterwards became jeune premier. In Paris he attained a great reputation, though he was often censured for his audacious disregard of the conventions of the classic drama. He had had a polyglot education, and early acquired a good knowledge of English, which he taught himself to speak fluently and with a generally correct accent, though it was impossible for him quite to master the intonations of the language. In 1860, with characteristic boldness, he assailed London, playing Ruy Blas in English at the Princess’s Theatre. His success was signal, and for ten years’as a star he made England his firmament, also holding the lease of the Lyceum Theatre from 1862 to 1867. He was sped on his transatlantic way by the praise of most of the critical journals of the great metropolis, and by the warm eulogium of his friend Charles Dickens. His complete abandonment of England for this country tends to prove that he had outworn the best of his favor in the British Isles.


In New York Fechter’s interpretation of Hamlet was greeted with a chorus of disapproval, broken by emphatic praise from several high sources, and his innovations upon received traditions as to the outer particulars of the performance were the subject of much disparagement. The public, however, were keenly interested in all his work, especially in his assumptions of Ruy Blas, Claude Melnotte, and other romantic characters. I thought, and think, that most of the vexed questions of detail alluded to were matters of leather and prunella. Fechter’s reasoning that Hamlet was a Dane, and that Danes are fair, with the practical conclusion that he played the Prince of Denmark in a blond wig, seemed to me of no import either for praise or blame; and as long as he, or another actor, did not defeat the Poet in letter or in spirit, I was willing that he should find, indicate, and manipulate the pictures in little of the elder Hamlet and Claudius in any way that suited his taste or convenience. His conception of the melancholy prince was a different matter, and from first to last I held to the opinion that he did not rightly indicate the weaknesses of spirit and temperament with which Shakespeare has chosen to disable his otherwise noblest ideal, for the reproof, correction, and instruction in righteousness of mankind throughout the ages. The general public did not much concern itself, of course, with questions as to the actor’s fidelity to the dramatist’s psychic scheme, but immersed itself in the novel and agreeable sensations excited by Fechter’s vivid and impressive playing. New York, always more closely critical of acting than other American cities, and much influenced, no doubt, by Mr. Winter’s severe censure, held out in many quarters against the new Hamlet. But Boston, manifestly relieved by the change from Edwin Booth’s more conventional and studied, but far more just and intuitive impersonation, incontinently accepted the French artist’s performance, satisfied for the time with its outward and visible charms, its vitality, directness, and fervid sincerity.


Mr. Fechter, at this part of his career, was, indeed, an exceedingly fascinating and eloquently appealing actor. He was somewhat handicapped by the plainness of his features and the bluntness of his figure ; but his gift in facial expression was varied, and his countenance, at moments of stress, readily took on majesty or strength, sometimes delicate spiritual beauty. His voice was rich and sweet, and easily capable of emotional saturation, though not of the widest range. His foreign intonations were numerous, as has been implied, and were very funny when mimicked ; but, while he was acting, he so possessed his auditors that they seldom found opportunity to be amused. Personally, I have generally felt, and often expressed, a distaste for broken English on the stage, and I regard the easy-going toleration of the imperfect speech of alien actors as one of the signs of the rawness of our public. Fechter’s failings annoyed me less, however, than those in this kind of other foreigners ; and, after a time, I even learned to tolerate the queerest of his blunders, probably because they seldom took the shape of faulty emphasis. Several important and common words he never mastered ; even “ love ” — the verbal talisman, treasure, pabulum, and sine qua non of the comedian — he pronounced in a mean between loaf and loave, to the end of his career. But with the appearance of Fechter American audiences first came in contact with an actor of great natural gifts and Continental training, who used the English language at his performances. In many ways the experience was a revelation. Here was the culture of the Comédie Française, conveyed through the vernacular, and not under the immense disadvantage of exposition in a foreign tongue. One could see, as Fechter played, the potency of abundant but perfectly appropriate gesture, the action fitted to the very word, the word to the action, according to Hamlet’s prescript; the trained aptitude for rapid transitions of feeling; the large freedom of movement; the ease and force of style which seemed spontaneous and unstudied, when most refined. After an experience of Fechter in tragedy or romance, one returned to our great native artists, and found them, by contrast, rather cool and starchy.


Nature, which had definitely, though not meanly, limited Mr. Fechter on the higher side of the intellect, had endowed him with a temperament of rare sensibility and ardor. Even if he had conceived the character of Hamlet aright, I doubt if he would have found it possible to embody his conception. Hamlet sometimes seems to be doing, and, when he is only marking time, tries to make believe that he is marching. I imagine that Fechter could not have contrived to import into the part of the prince that tentative, indecisive quality which characterizes Hamlet’s love for talking and thinking, and his disinclination for persistent doing, which is made only plainer by occasional unpremeditated acts of violence. His Hamlet’s feet were planted firmly on the earth ; and his head was six feet above them, — not in the clouds, where Shakespeare put it. But when the matter in hand was one of clear romance ; when youthful love, or the power of loyalty, or the spirit of daring was to be exemplified ; indeed, when any common passion was to be shown in any usual way, Mr. Fechter’s playing was eminently effective. As Ruy Blas, his bearing in his servile attire at the outset was singularly impressive, — true native dignity without presumption, deep pride without arrogance, the simplicity of a great, unsuspicious nature. His first revelation of his passion for the queen awakened profound sympathy ; and in his interview with Don Cæsar, wherein one noted the manly affectionateness of his love for his friend, the actor’s power of intensity of utterance and of swift transitions of feeling had remarkable illustration : at one moment his heart’s secret rushed forth as if it could not be stayed ; and in the same breath he checked himself in a spasm of self-disgust at his folly, with a half-mournful, half-humorous gesture of deprecation, but only to be swept away again by the torrent of feeling that must relieve itself by speech. In the great final act the actor’s manifold power attained its maximum. Through his soliloquy, dark with his own woe, yet resonant with exultation over the apparent deliverance of the queen, the agonizing encounter with his mistress, the discovery of the plot to ruin her, the triumphant entrance of Don Salluste, the humiliating disclosure of his humble birth, and the insulting proposals of the nobleman to the wretched queen, — through all these scenes the passion of the actor grew hotter and hotter, until it culminated in the thrilling passage where he snatched his enemy’s sword from its scabbard, and, with the voice of an avenging angel, proclaimed his purpose to slay the don as a venomous snake. In all that followed his action was of magnetic quality; and in his final dying instants, in which, after the proud self-abnegation with which he declared himself a lackey, he held out his arms to embrace the queen, the eager, reverent tenderness of the action, and the look of love and exaltation which transfigured his face before it stiffened in death, were profoundly stirring and very beautiful. There was no rant in any passage, and no evidence of deficient self-control. The charge of extravagance might as well have been made against a tornado as against Mr. Fechter’s Ruy Blas, at its height.


In The Lady of Lyons he achieved a similar triumph, which was perhaps more remarkable because of the material in which he was there compelled to work. Ruy Blas may be called great, without much strain upon the adjective; but Bulwer’s play is a crafty thing of gilt, rouge, and cardboard. Fechter’s acting redeemed the English work from the artificiality and tawdriness which seemed of its essence, gave it new comeliness, and breathed into it the breath of life. The damnable plot upon which the action of the play turns has cast a shadow over the hero, which his fine speeches and copious tears, upon the tongues and cheeks of other actors, have failed to remove. But Fechter so intensified the cruelty of the insult received, and made the quality of Claude’s love so pure, lofty, and ardent, that he delivered the character from its long disgrace. It is possible to raise a question as to the depth of the feeling displayed ; but, leaving that question unanswered, I commit myself to the assertion that Mr. Fechter’s love-making was the best I ever witnessed upon the stage. In the gift of self-delivery into one short action or utterance, also, I think he surpassed all his compeers, though Salvini, Booth, Irving, and many other leading actors have excelled in the same way. In the third act of The Lady of Lyons, when he turned upon Beauseant and Glavis, there was a remarkable display of this power in Mr. Fechter, when he made three commonplace words, “ Away with you ! ” fall upon his tormentors like a bolt from a thundercloud. Mr. Booth played Ruy Blas and Claude Melnotte rather often in his early life, and briefly returned to them a few years before his death. His performance of neither part — though his playing did not lack distinction, of course—was worthy to be ranked with Fechter’s. Booth’s Ruy Blas seemed dry and slow in comparison with the French actor’s, and Booth’s Claude Melnotte, which resembled a double dahlia, was insignificant beside an impersonation that had the splendor and fragrance of an Oriental rose. Fechter was essentially a player of melodrama, however, — a master of the exterior symbolism of the histrionic art, but fully qualified neither to search into the spiritual and intellectual depths of the greatest dramatic conceptions, nor to carry out such conceptions to their just extent, or with a large grasp of their complicated parts, and the relations and proportions of the same. I have said bluntly that in romantic characters, such as the two which have been selected for special comment, he much excelled our leading American actor. But it is impossible to conceive of Mr. Fechter as interpreting King Lear or Iago or Macbeth with any approach to adequacy. His playing was almost perfect in its order, but the order was not the first.


I deem it worth while to record a curious passage in one of the very few talks I had with Mr. Fechter, because the quoted words will furnish a good illustration of the certainty that a player who is using a foreign language will make some grievous blunder in handling a classic of that language, in spite of his pains and industry. I was so foolish as to get into an argument with the actor concerning his theory of Hamlet, which I attacked on lines already indicated. Mr. Fechter defended his conception, and declared that the prince did not procrastinate, but pursued his task with vigor. Quotations flowed freely, and I was about to clinch my argument by citing the words of the Ghost at his second appearance to Hamlet, when the actor interrupted me.

“ Now,” he said, “ what can you answer to this, Mr. Clapp ? Do you not recall the words of Hamlet’s father in the queen’s closet, 'I come to wet thy almost blunted purpose ’ ? ”

That inquiry ended the discussion. It was plain that Mr. Fechter had never distinguished “ whet ” from “ wet,” and that he had no notion of the force of “ blunted.” His idea was that the Ghost’s declared purpose was to “ wet” down, and so reduce, the excessive flame of Hamlet’s zeal.

In a few emphatic words I wish to bear testimony to the merits of Miss Carlotta Leclercq, who supported Mr. Fechter, and afterwards went on a starring tour in this country, playing a great variety of parts, both in comedy and tragedy, with admirable intelligence, vigor, and taste.


Mr. Fechter’s decline was melancholy. It seemed to date from his engagement as leading actor and general manager of the Globe Theatre, of which Mr. Arthur Cheney was proprietor. In the autumn of 1870 Mr. Fechter entered upon this part of his career. Miss Leclercq accompanied him as leading lady, her brother Arthur being stage manager and of the company. Mr. James W. Wallack was engaged as second leading man. Monte Cristo was brought out by the new corps, successfully and with much splendor, on the 14th of September, and ran eight weeks. Then Mr. Fechter presented many characters in his repertory, showing a very slight falling off in his ability ; and the public appetite for his product displayed signs of abatement. Next came internal discords, which grew chiefly out of Mr. Fechter’s impetuous temper and his inability to get on with American actors and employees. With scarcely any warning to the public, a rupture took place, and on the 14th of January, 1871, in Ruy Blas, he appeared in the Globe Theatre for the last time. During several sequent years, after one return to England, he acted in many American cities. Gradually his powers began to fail, and his engagements were made with second-rate theatres. It was pitiful to see the waning of his strength, indicated by lapses into rant, and by the development of slight mannerisms into gross faults. One of his clever devices had been the use of brief pauses for effect; now the pauses were lengthened out till they became ridiculous. It is probable that growing physical disability accounted for this decadence. In 1876 he broke his leg, and retired from the stage to his farm in Richmond, Pennsylvania, where he died on the 5th of August, 1879.

I have known only one other case of gradual histrionic disintegration in the early life of a player. A native actress, who attained fame in her youth, and, in spite of many crudities and excesses of style, prevailed through frequent flashes of genius, first showed the subsidence of her power by the steady widening of her peculiar extravagances ; then, suddenly, all vitality disappeared from her playing, which became a mere desiccated husk, with queer contours, rigid and fixed.


There is no occasion for me to discuss minutely the work of him whose art was the crown of our tragic stage during nearly all the second half of the nineteenth century, — of Edwin Booth, clarum et venerabile nomen. There had been scarcely a break in the reign of his dynasty for the seventy-two years between 1821, when the wonderful Junius Brutus Booth, Sr., began to act in the United States, and 1893, when the son, Edwin, after a life strangely mixed of gloom and glory, “ passed to where beyond these voices there is peace.” The elder tragedian died in 1852, and in 1852 the younger, at the age of nineteen, in California, was playing “ general utility business.” My memory holds an undimmed picture of Edwin Booth as I first saw him at the Boston Theatre, in Shakespearean parts, during the season of 1856-57, when he was twenty-three years of age, — beautiful exceedingly in face and form, crude with the promisecrammed crudity of youthful genius, and already showing, with short intermissions and obscurations, the blaze of the divine fire. From that point I followed him, I may say, through his histrionic course until its close, as hundreds of my readers followed him. We saw, with an interest and curiosity always keen and a satisfaction seldom marred, his gradual growth in refinement and scholarship, the steady deepening and enriching of his docile and intuitive spirit, the swift experimental play of his keen intellect, and the broad development of that style in which the academic and the vital were so finely fused.

A famous nomen I called him even now. Alas ! the plain truth in plain English is that his illustrious name and fame and the tradition of his art are all that is left to the American tragic stage, which to-day is trodden only by the spirits of departed actors, of whom all but him are practically forgotten. A vacant stage, haunted by ghosts, visited by dying winds of memory ! One recalls with delight the purity of his enunciation, the elegant correctness of his pronunciation, the exquisite adjustment and proportion of his emphases, his absolute mastery of the music and the meaning of Shakespeare’s verse; and, then, one may note, if one chooses, that the art of elocution, as he practiced it, is to all intents and purposes, for the theatre of 1901, a lost art.


A great tragic actor, who is dealing with material such as that which is furnished by the Great Dramatist, is usually driven by an imperious impulse to try experiments with his text and to vary his histrionic conceptions as he advances in years and knowledge, and as his temperamental force waxes or wanes. Edwin Booth furnished a signal and most interesting example of the effect of this impulse, which was of itself a proof of the unflagging vitality of his spirit. With scholarly eclecticism, at different times he made choice of various “ readings,” subjecting them to the test of stage delivery, — often the best alembic in which to try their values, — and with innumerable diversities of vocal shading, ictus, and cadence sought to utter the Master Poet’s thought with new delicacies or new potencies. I think it might be fairly said that his theories of the great characters were never wrong or seriously defective. And through his shifting ideals, as they were embodied from year to year, the spectator could discern the extraordinary variety of treatment which Shakespeare’s creations, because of their many-sided humanness, will permit.

I have seen him play Shylock, sometimes as a fierce money-catching oldclothes dealer of Jewry; sometimes as a majestic Hebrew financier and lawgiver ; sometimes, at his full maturity, in what I suppose to be the just mean between the two extremes: and the Jew was terrible, vital, convincing, in every aspect. I witnessed the advance in his impersonation of Richelieu, whose theatricalism he succeeded in interpreting in terms of fiery sincerity, until the cardinal was equally imposing in his wrath and fascinating in his shrewdness and amiability. The changes in his conception of Iago were peculiarly noteworthy, the movement being almost steady from lightness in tint and texture to darkness and weight. His early Iago was a gay, jocund, comfortable villain, malicious rather than malevolent, at his strongest moments suggesting the litheness and swiftness, the grace and ominous beauty, of a leopard, to which, indeed, in attitude and action, he bore a physical resemblance. His last Iago showed a vast deepening and broadening of the artist’s idea. The subtile Venetian, still as persuasively frank in speech and manners, as facile and graceful, as before, now threw a shadow of baleful blackness as he walked, was Prince of the Powers of the Air as he wove and cast the dreadful “ net that should enmesh them all,” and in his soliloquies uttered such a voice of unquenchable anguish and hate as might proceed from the breast of Satan himself.

Mr. Booth’s assumption of King Lear I put at the head of all his performances. The tragedian, as the “ childchanged father,” showed, I thought, a loftier reach of spirit, a wider and stronger wing of imagination, a firmer intellectual grasp, than he displayed elsewhere, even in the other great assumptions more frequently associated with his name. That he had not as magnificent a physical basis for the part as Salvini is to be conceded ; but Mr. Booth’s Lear had been wrought into as pure a triumph of mind and soul over matter as the most idealistic critic could wish to see. Without extravagance of action or violence of voice, without extreme effort, indeed, of any sort, the chaotic vastness of Lear’s nature, the cruel woe sustained through the ingratitude of his daughters, the fullness of his contrition over his own follies and his rejection of Cordelia, the moral splendors which illuminate the darkness of his insanity, and the sweet anguish of his restoration to clearness of mind and to gentleness of thought, word, and deed, — all these were grandly exhibited. The progress of mental decay in the king was indicated with consummate skill, Booth’s interpretation of the whole of the third act being a lesson to the profession in the art of picturesque effectiveness without overelaboration. In the final scenes with Cordelia the tragedian reached his highest point. Mr. Booth’s ability in pathos was unequal, but in these passages it was exquisite and poignant, the dryness which sometimes marred his efforts in this kind being replaced by suavity and warmth, like those of an April rain.

Mr. Booth’s limitations were obvious. He had little success in straight lovemaking ; in some few seconds of his dialogues with Ophelia, the passion of Hamlet’s love was mixed with a spiritual pain and unrest, which somehow heightened every tenderness of action and utterance. Like his father, and all his father’s other sons, he had small gift in mirth. It was therefore of interest to note that his Petruchio, Benedick, and Don Cæsar de Bazan were almost sufficient, by virtue of his vivacity, fire, and mental alertness, and, in the case of the last two characters, by the elegance and distinction of his manners and speech.


Through his Hamlet Edwin Booth made, upon the whole, his deepest and surest impression. In his performance of the part, there was retained to the last, consciously and deliberately, more of the old-fashioned formality and precision of style than he permitted himself in other impersonations, and the effect was sometimes that of artifice. But Mr. Booth elected to represent Hamlet in a style far less familiar and far more remote from ordinary life than he used for any other character in his large repertory. It was not that his Hamlet was all in one key; that its moods were not many and diverse ; that the actor did not finely discriminate between the son, the prince, the courtier, the friend, the lover, the artist, and the wit. The contrary was true. It was as full of delicate and just differences as one could wish. But, through its prevailing quality, made constantly prominent by the tragedian’s methods, certain definite and necessary results were reached. Hamlet differs from Shakespeare’s other tragic heroes both in his supernatural experience and in his unique spiritual constitution. The grim effects of jealousy upon Othello and of ambition upon Macbeth, the griefs which work their torture and their transformation upon King Lear, do not separate these men from others of the human family, — rather ally them with every human creature. But the bark of Hamlet’s misfortunes is borne upon a current whose dark waters flow from the undiscovered country. Macbeth questions with witches and is visited by ghosts, but at every step his path is shown to be of his own making. To Hamlet, by the conditions of his life and his soul, is given the largest opportunity for choice, and the smallest power of choosing. Mr. Booth, with careful and scrupulous art and full success, attempted thus to distinguish the Prince of Denmark from all the rest of the world. His eyes, after the fourth scene of the first act, never lost the awful light which had filled them as they looked upon his father’s ghost; his voice never quite lost the tone which had vibrated in harmony with the utterances of that august spirit.

After all, there is a fine fitness in that closeness of association between Edwin Booth and Hamlet the Dane, which is to abide as long as the man and his art and his life are remembered. In his largeness and sweetness, his rare delicacy and sensibility, he was nobly human to the core, after the pattern of the most human of all the creations of the Poet. Like the melancholy prince, he was required to drink the bitter water of affliction, and to hold his peace when his heart was almost breaking; and, in its extraordinary depth and reserve, his soul, even as Hamlet’s and as Milton’s,

“ Was like a star, and dwelt apart.”

Henry Austin Clapp.

(To be continued.)