Reminiscences of a Dramatic Critic
MIDWAY of the quinquennium mirabile to which most of my reminisoences appear to be related, to wit, on the evening of Monday, November 24, 1873, Tommaso Salvini acted for the first time in Boston, appearing at the Boston Theatre as Samson, in Ippolito d’ Aste’s tragedy of that name. During the engagements of his first year in America he was supported by a company who spoke only Italian. Afterward, beginning with the season of 1880-81, he played frequently in this country, and was the “ star ” of troupes otherwise composed of English-speaking actors. This bilingual arrangement was a monstrosity, and nothing short of Salvini’s genius could have made the combination tolerable. During the season of 1882-83 Miss Clara Morris was his leading lady ; in other years, Miss Prescott, Miss Wainwright, Mrs. Bowers, and other reputable performers belonged to his supporting companies. In the spring of 1886 he appeared in Othello and Hamlet with Edwin Booth, who played Iago and Hamlet to Salvini’s Othello and the Ghost.
For many of the most finely discriminating connoisseurs of acting, in this region, Salvini became the first and foremost of the histrionic artists of our day, and with nearly all “ the judicious ” he took, held, and holds a highly exalted position. His personality was the most splendid — the adjective is fit, and, indeed, required — that has illustrated the theatre of his time. When he was first seen here, the beauty and strength of his classic face, the grand proportions of his figure, and the vibrant, sympathetic sweetness of his voice —a voice as glorious as ever proceeded from a man — combined to overpower the observer and listener. As was said of Edmund Kean, “ he dominated stage and audience completely.” His training in the Continental school had been thorough, and, in temperamental force, I doubt if he was surpassed by any player at any period of the world. His acting was of the Latin order, not of the Teutonic or Anglo-Teutonic ; it was, however, though always vital and strong, never extravagant ; in gesture, though exuberant, it was not excessive ; in its general method, it belonged to what, in choice from a poverty of terms, must be called the exhaustive rather than the suggestive school of art; there was in it not so high a solution of pure intellectuality as in Edwin Booth’s, but in its mastery, in the largest way and to the smallest detail, of the symbols of histrionic expression, it ranked, I think, above that of every other player whom the stage of America has known within the past fifty years. Salvini was Charles Fechter carried up to the second power of all the Frenchman’s virtues, with scarcely a hint of his limitations.
The Othello of Salvini was the assumption through which he most strongly impressed the public, by which he will be most widely remembered. Fully conscious of its magnificence and of the unequaled and terrible force of its passion, which in the third scene of the third act represents, perhaps, the highest conceivable stress of which humanity is capable, I personally preferred to it several of his other impersonations. It seemed to me that his Othello was Shakespeare orientalized and supersensualized, at the cost of some of the Master’s heroic conception, and of much of the Poet’s beautiful thought. Salvini knew that Othello was a Moor, and a Moor he would have him in body, soul, and spirit; not such a Moor as he might have discovered from the wondrous text, but a tawny barbarian, exuberant with the qualities conventionally assigned to the race. His gloating over Desdemona ill became the lines which displayed the depth and chastity of the hero’s love, and in the fierce savagery of his jealous rage, during the last half of the play, the imaginative grace and beauty of many passages were smothered and lost. In the murder of Desdemona, done with realistic horrors, and in Othello’s suicide, effected, not with indicated dagger, but with a crooked scimiter and hideous particulars of gasp, choke, and gurgle, I perceived that both the letter and the spirit of Shakespeare were defied and defeated for sensational purposes.
But thirty years ago criticism of this sort fell, as now perhaps it falls, upon few ears that would hear; one of my friends said that such carping was like girding at Niagara. Salvini’s Othello was undoubtedly stupendous and monumental. Leaving Shakespeare and Anglo-Saxon scruple out of account, it was great; considered by itself, it was homogeneous and self-consistent, — “ one entire and perfect chrysolite,” or, with a suitable variation of the Moor’s own phrase, one huge, ardent carbuncle.
SALVINI’S SAMSON AND SULLIVAN.
In witnessing the Italian dramas which Salvini produced, the spectators did not need to be troubled with Shakespearean doubts and qualms. His Samson, which he played on his opening night in this city, seemed to me a supreme histrionic expression of the emotional-picturesque. The play, which was in verse, freely dramatized the Biblical story of the Lion of Dan, had considerable merit, and was quite redeemed from commonplace by the character of its hero. In Samson’s mighty personality two individualities were fused: the giant, the man of blood, the slave of passion, was also the son of promise, the just judge, and, above all, the appointed deliverer of God’s people Israel. It was wonderful to see how Salvini’s impersonation combined these two natures ; expressing with sensuous fullness all that was gross and earthy in the man, and not less effectually displaying the lofty consciousness of the leader and commissioned servant of the Lord Jehovah. When directly under the divine inspiration, as in the second act of the play, when he perceived in the flames that consumed his house the presence of the I AM whom Moses knew in the burning bush on Horeb, the face and speech of the actor became glorious and awful in their consciousness of Divinity ; and at lower moments, sometimes in the midst of unholy and degrading pleasures, a strange and mystical light seemed to fill his eyes, to touch and amplify his form. In his fatal drunkenness there was something godlike as well as pathetic, even while the details of intoxication were shown with remorseless truthfulness, — touches of rare delicacy being made in the facial action accompanying the first draught of the “ wine of Sorec,” where the repulsion of the Nazarite for the forbidden cup was merged in his presentiment of coming ill. His declamation of Jacob’s blessing of the tribe of Dan was like the tramp of a jubilant host. The long speech, in which he rehearsed in detail, with appropriate action, the story of his victory over the young lion that roared at him in the vineyards of Timnath, afforded by far the most signal illustration I have ever seen of the ability of an actor to reproduce in narrative a series of varied incidents. The performance had the effect of a set of biograph pictures, with the added vividnesses of ear-filling sound, and, somehow, of apparent color. Another almost equally remarkable and even more stirring triumph in a similar sort was Salvini’s narrative, in La Morte Civile, of Conrad’s escape from prison. No other actor of our day was capable of either achievement. In the Biblical play his highest point was attained in the fourth act, when he discovered the loss of his hair and his strength; and here his cry of agony and his frenzied, vaguely grasping gesture, accompanying the words, “ Gran Dio! La chioma mia! la chioma! ” were indescribably thrilling and awful. His Samson was in its different aspects as closely human as the Ajax of Sophocles, as heroic and unhappy as Œdipus, as remote as the Prometheus of Æschylus.
Salvini’s skill was as high in comedy as in tragedy. His impersonation of Sullivan, in the Italian play of which David Garrick is a replica, was ideally perfect, even surpassing Mr. Sothern’s performance in grace, vivacity, and distinction. He played Ingomar occasionally, in the Baron Munsch-Bellinghausen’s drama of that name, and filled the part to overflowing with humor and virile gentleness. His interpretation of King Lear was of great merit, though some of the subtilties of the text did not reach him through the Italian version. His Hamlet was quite unsatisfactory to American audiences, and was seldom given in this country; but his performance of the Ghost far surpassed every other that our stage has known.
SALVINI IN LA MORTE CIVILE.
Without dealing with his other admirable assumptions, I wish to put myself on record for an opinion which is shared by hundreds of my fellow citizens. Salvini’s impersonation of Conrad, the central personage of La Morte Civile of Paolo Giacommetti, has not been rivaled, has not been approached, by any dramatic performance of our time, in respect of pure and heart-searching pathos. The story is that of an Italian artist, Conrad, who, condemned to imprisonment for life for the commission of a crime of unpremeditated violence, after many years of confinement escapes from jail, finds his wife and daughter, both of whom had been saved from want by a kind and honorable physician, and learns that his daughter, now almost grown to womanhood, has received the name of her protector, and been brought up in the belief that the physician is her father. Though strongly drawn by natural instinct to make himself known to the girl, Conrad is persuaded, through a desire for his child’s happiness and peace of mind, to conceal his relation to her; the supreme effort required for this sacrifice completes the work of his many sufferings and privations, and in it he dies. The character of Conrad is built upon a large plan. He is naturally a man of violent passions, capable of furious jealousy, easily wrought to suspicion, and by years of solitude and misery has been made sullen and morose. Yet the spirit within him is really great, and, possessed by the passion of paternal love, rises to such deeds and self-denials as might be sung by choirs of angels. Every phase of the man’s nature was presented by the actor with fine discrimination and full potency. But as the fiery soul was brought to its great trial, and prepared itself for the renunciation of its one hope and joy, the player’s art took on an entrancing loveliness. From scene to scene Conrad’s face was gradually transformed, its grim severity being replaced by a sober earnestness. The passage with his wife, in which they were united in their spirit of self-abnegation, where disappointment, desire, and grief swelled his heart almost to bursting, was deeply impressive, but served principally to lead the mind of the spectator to the last scene of all. What words can do justice to that, — to the exquisite pathos of his final interview with his daughter, when, struggling with the agony of imminent death, he endeavored, by caressing tones and timid gestures of tenderness, to excite an answering throb in the young breast, which he would not press against his own, and, having borne the extremity of anguish and shame in her discovery upon his wrists of the flesh marks that told the disgrace of his captivity, found one moment of happiness in the offer of her childish prayers in his behalf ? The pain depicted was so awful, the heart hunger so terrible, that the sight of them could not have been endured but for the glory and grandeur of the act of self-immolation. At the very last, the yearning in his hollow eyes as they glazed in death was almost insupportable, and was, indeed, so pitiful that the dread realism of the final moment, when the strong soul parted from the weary body, was felt as a relief. At the first performance of this play in Boston, I had the never paralleled experience of being one of a company of spectators whose emotion was manifested by audible gasping for breath, by convulsive choking and sobbing; strong men being specially affected.
I must not lose the opportunity to declare the deep impression which was made upon me at this time by the acting of Signora Piamonti, who was the tragedian’s leading lady during his first season in America. In none of the impersonations which she presented was the highest force required of her, and therefore I am not justified in pronouncing her the equal of Ristori or Bernhardt or Seebach. But in the large variety of her performances, which ranged from Ophelia in Hamlet to Zelia in Sullivan, — corresponding to Ada Ingot in David Garrick, — Signora Piamonti exhibited such grace, adresse, dramatic judgment, and vivid delicacy of style as the world expects only from players of the first rank. Her Ophelia was the most beautiful and poetic assumption of the character that I have witnessed, surpassing by a little even Miss Terry’s fine performance; and the achievement was especially remarkable because the Italian artist could not sing, and was obliged to interpret Ophelia’s ballads in a kind of dry chant, or monotone, with occasional cadences. Better than any one of all the other players I have seen, many of whom well expressed the Dramatist’s idea, Signora Piamonti made Ophelia’s insanity lovely as well as pathetic, turning “ thought and affliction, passion, hell itself, to favor and to prettiness,” according to the word of the Poet. Her Desdemona was charming in its unaffected sweetness, and in its final passages indicated, with true tragic stress, the heroic loyalty of the wife, while preserving the feminine softness of the gentle Venetian. A striking contrast, whereby the breadth of her art appeared, was afforded by her impersonations of Delilah in Samson and Zelia in Sullivan. The latter was shown as a young girl of modern type, fresh and unconventional, but of a character strongly based in purity, intelligence, and refined sensibility, — an ideal daughter of England, emotional, yet dignified and self-contained ; the anxious, restless attention, crossed by shame and disgust, with which she watched the actor in the early moments of his pretended intoxication was a triumph of the eloquence of attitude and facial expression, interestingly followed by the voluble passion of her oral appeal to his nobler soul. Signora Piamonti’s Delilah, though kept at every moment entirely within the lines prescribed by good taste and propriety, exhibited Samson’s mistress and destroyer like some flaming flower of the voluptuous East, incarnadined in tint, heavy with aromatic odors, intoxicating to the sense of man, — the hireling slave of passion, yet almost redeemed at the last by the violent access of her remorse and self - loathing. Her final rejection of the Philistines’ reward of her perfidy was so mixed of rage and shame as to seem strong even against the background of Salvini’s tremendous performance.
ADELAIDE NEILSON : HER LIFE AND CAREER.
No player in my time vied with Adelaide Neilson in respect of the keenness of the curiosity and the profuseness of the admiration of which she was the object. Both curiosity and admiration were justified. As a woman and as an artist she was difficult to account for. I do not pretend to know the truth about those portions of her life which have a dubious aspect. After she came to the fullness of her power the voice of disparaging gossip grew faint, as if there could be but one verdict, and that of approval, upon a personality which appeared so refined in every public manifestation. It is known that her baptismal name was Elizabeth Ann Brown ; that she was born in Leeds, March 3, 1848, and was the daughter of an actress of no great ability. As a young girl, she had employment in a mill, as a nurserymaid, as a barmaid, and as a member of a theatrical corps de ballet; having been befriended, at the beginning of her career on the stage, by Captain, afterward Admiral, Henry Carr Glyn, a noted officer of the British navy. Through all the occupations just now mentioned she must have passed before she was eighteen years of age, since her début as Juliet was made at Margate in 1865. Her success was immediate, and her repertory soon embraced many parts in Shakespearean and other dramas. She made her first appearances in America and in Boston during the autumn and winter of 187273 ; and afterward, in a nearly unbroken succession of seasons, she acted in most of the chief cities of this country, until the winter of 1879-80. On the 15th of August, 1880, after many months of failing health, she died suddenly at the Chalet du Rond Royal, in the Bois de Boulogne. A considerable portion of her estate she bequeathed by will to Admiral Glyn. She acted frequently in England, also, during the last eight years of her life, appearing, in the course of one memorable engagement, in one hundred consecutive performances of Julia, in The Hunchback of Sheridan Knowles.
MISS NEILSON’S PROGRESS.
When Miss Neilson, at the age of twenty-four, first played in this city, her beauty and charm were on all sides conceded to be of a rare and bewildering sort, and the public acclaim upon that theme was loud and sonorous. Her great ability, also, was obvious. It was easy to see that “ the root of the matter ” was in her; that she possessed the true plastic quality of the actor, native histrionic discrimination, and extreme temperamental sensibility. But her style, at that time, lacked the highest distinction ; her voice, though usually very pleasant in quality, had many unrefined nasal intonations; and in the interpretation of her text she frequently missed delicate opportunities, sometimes squarely blundered. It happened that she did not reappear in Boston till 1880, and connoisseurs of acting were then permitted to note the effect upon her of seven years of the experience and culture of the stage. The change was remarkable : she had gained greatly in vivacity and power, almost equally in breadth and suavity of style. Her voice had acquired an absolute clarity, with no loss of richness of tones. An extraordinary advance had been made in the finish of her work, which now exhibited, at almost every point and in almost every detail, an exquisite precision that testified to the operation of a clear and highly cultivated intelligence.
The evening of February 16, 1880, when, after the long absence referred to, she was once more seen in Boston, was an evening to be much remembered by every star-long-suffering critic. At last a Juliet had appeared whose style was as large as it was passionate and sweet, — a Juliet who did not color the words “Art thou not Romeo and a Montague ? ” with hostility, sincere or affected ; who did not fall into a twenty seconds’ ecstasy of terror because the orchard walls were high and hard to climb, and the place death to Romeo, considering who he was, if any of her kinsmen found him under her window; who did not get out of temper with her nurse, and emit her “ By and by I come ” like a blow from an angry fist; who did not rush on from “ Dost thou love me ? ” to “ I know thou wilt say ay,” as if she were mortally afraid that Romeo would say no, and proposed to stop his tongue in time ; who did not exhibit all the symptoms of a blue funk of terror while the friar was describing the consequences of her drinking his potion. These bêtises, and many others like unto them, some practiced for effect, some mere products of misunderstanding, we had endured at the hands and lips of many noted actresses. A large style here, suited to Shakespeare’s large scheme! A style, that is to say, which takes into account, at every moment, not only the text by itself, but the text as it is related to all the other texts, and to the Juliet revealed by them in her many aspects and in her total definite personality. Not a studied, self-conscious Juliet, not a Juliet adorned with foreign excrescences, not a babyish, lachrymosal Juliet, but Shakespeare’s own true love - taught heroine. Illustrations of her strong judgment, and of its coöperation with her delicate intuition, might be indefinitely multiplied : I cite only one other, which relates to a passage that crucially tests both the fineness and the strength of an actress’s artist eyesight.
In the first act of As You Like It, Miss Neilson’s treatment of Rosalind’s concluding interview with Orlando was ideally expressive : the words, “ Sir, you have wrestled well, and overthrown more than your enemies,” were made to carry just as far as they ought, and no farther, — winging their message of incipient love to the young man’s faithful ear, bravely, modestly, gravely, without smile or simper, it might fairly be said without a hint of coquetry.
MISS NEILSON AS IMOGEN.
It happened that Miss Neilson played at no time in Boston any other than Shakespearean characters, confining herself, during her early engagement, to Rosalind and Juliet. At her season here in February, 1880, she added to her record with impersonations of Viola and Imogen, presenting Cymbeline on the 23d of that month, for the first time here within twenty-four years. She returned to Boston for one week, two months later in the same year, and on the night of the 19th of April appeared as Isabella, in Measure for Measure, which until then had not been performed in this city. Her impersonation of Imogen was masterly, the adjective befitting an interpretation whose gamut ran from high passionate force to the most delicate sensibility. In her interview with Iachimo she showed admirable judgment; not falling into a frenzy at the disclosure of his baseness, but, in her repulse of the libertine, combining courage, scorn, and loathing, in a grand demonstration of womanhood and wifehood. Her loftiest point was reached in the scene with Pisanio, wherein she learned of her husband’s mad disbelief and murderous purpose. Here, at first, a hundred shades of fond hope, of anxiety and alarm, were depicted in her face ; and when the blow fell from the letter of Posthumus, and she dropped to the earth as if she had been shot, her passion of grief seemed to pass beyond simulation, and in the speech beginning,
To lie in watch there and to think on him ?
To weep twixt clock and clock ? ”
honest indignation, outraged affection, and anguish were uttered, without a touch of rant or self-consciousness, in a cry that pierced the heavens and the listener’s heart. The feminine sweetness and physical delicacy of Imogen were shown with true poetic grace ; and among all the lovely images that the stage has shown, none is, I think, so appealingly lovely as that of Miss Neilson’s Imogen as, emerging from her brothers’ cave, she made her trembling declaration of hunger and honesty and her meek yet clear-voiced plea to the gentleness of the stout strangers.
I must not multiply details, especially as a difficult and more important attribution is to be attempted. More than once I have spoken of Miss Neilson’s beauty, and of the general enthusiasm over that theme. In truth, her face was not distinguished by the regularity which the sculptor approves. Her forehead was broad and full ; her eyes were softly brilliant, and their gray shifted into every appropriate color; her mouth, both firm and sensitive, had not the outline of the conventional Cupid’s bow; her chin was square and strong. In the one interview I had with her, she compared herself with a notoriously handsome English actress, concluding, with a frank laugh, “ But I have n’t a featchur, I know.” Yet on the stage her beauty irradiated the scene. The explanation is easy. She had a countenance over which the mind and spirit had absolute control, in and through whose plastic material they uttered themselves without let or hindrance, making it their exponent rather than their veil, as if, by a mystical operation of the physical law, the force of the soul were transmuted into terms of flesh. These words, which sound extravagant, are simply true. One does not remember the beautiful Adelaide Neilson in propria persona: the figures and faces which are associated with her are those of Shakespeare’s heroines, every one of them unlike every other, every one immortally beautiful. I suspect that, as a histrionic artist, she excelled not so much through swift impulses and inspirations as through her supreme docility, discretion, and responsiveness. She was always studying, evolving, and considering fresh ideas, eliminating old faults, taking on new excellences. She afforded in her person a rare example of artistic and mental development; and I have ventured to go so far in my thought — now confided to the reader — as to believe that of her intimacy with the pure and lovely conceptions of the Poet whom she sincerely reverenced she was making a ladder upon which her soul was mounting and to mount.
MISS NEILSON’S INEFFABLE CHARM.
It remains to be said that, perhaps not for all, but certainly for very many persons, Miss Neilson as an actress possessed an ineffable charm, which has never been analyzed or explained. A signal illustration of this charm was afforded by her Viola, in Twelfth Night. Of all Shakespeare’s women, Viola is the most elusive. Deeply reserved, void of initiative, confirmed in patience, exquisitely fine in all the texture of her nature, as pure as new-fallen snow, she is, however, not like Miranda, fearless with the ignorant innocence of Paradise, or Isabella, calm with the untempted chastity of the cloister, but is familiar with life and its lures, as well as susceptible of love and its enthrallment. Yet she passes through uncounted compromising situations without a smirch, and in her masculine attire is no less virginal-sweet than in her woman’s weeds. Miss Neilson’s performance said all this, and the much more there is to say, with an art that was beyond criticism; keeping the character well in the shadow to which it belongs, and at the point of highest tension, with a hundred deft touches, conveying the strength of the tender passion which could endure and smile at grief. But, aside from the distinction and charm, the subtilty and the depth, of the impersonation ; aside, even, from the completeness with which the personality of the artist was transformed into that of Shakespeare’s heroine, there was a quality in the performance by which it was related to some evanescent ideal of perfect beauty, to some vision of supernal loveliness vaguely apprehended but eagerly desired, through which it touched the infinite. Other of Miss Neilson’s assumptions had a like power ; but the manifestation through this character was singularly clear. More than once I saw scores of mature men and women gazing through eyes filled with suddensurprising moisture at this slip of a girl, as she stood upon the wreck-strewn shore of the sea, in the midst of sailors, and began a dialogue no more important than this : —
Cap. This is Illyria, lady.
Vio. And what should I do in Illyria ?
My brother he is in Elysium.
Perchance he is not drowned : what think you, sailors ? ”
In that slender maid, as she looked through Adelaide Neilson’s eyes and spoke through her voice, the fairest dream of romance seemed incarnate ; in her the very “ riches of the sea,” strangely delivered from its “ enraged and foamy mouth,” had “come on shore.”
CHRISTINE NILSSON IN ORATORIO.
Approaching the end of these reminiscent sketches, the scenes of which must not be brought too near the foreground in time, I purpose to note several disconnected and contrasting experiences of stage and platform, which stand out in my memory by reason of some salient peculiarity. The moments of highest exaltation, among many lofty moments, which came to me at any concert of sacred music, were passed as I listened, at the Music Hall, in April, 1871, to Christine Nilsson’s interpretations of “ There were shepherds abiding in the fields ” and “ I know that my Redeemer liveth,” in a performance of the Messiah given by the Handel and Haydn Society. The former of the numbers named was, in her mouth, a piece of idyllic religious poetry, the Pastoral Symphony of the oratorio, informed with a soul, and uttered, as it were, through the voices of rapt men and jubilant angels. The latter was the only utterance of the centuries’ great Song of Faith to which I had, or have, ever listened with entire satisfaction. Then, for the first time, I heard the spirit’s assurance of immortality breathed from its depths, not argued with its lips. Here and there, as in the words “ Yet in my flesh shall I see God” and “Now is Christ risen from the dead,” the singer, as if overborne by a sudden ecstatic vision, broke forth with vehement intensity; but for the most part the words were sung as by a soul communing with the Almighty, not as by a man defending a doctrine against men. So, the customary conventional exaggeration of emphasis upon the “ I know” was discarded, and the stress was thrown upon “ liveth,” which, by some swift alchemy of tone or accentuation, was charged with the fullness of the soul’s conviction; while, in the closing passages of the air, the words “ the first fruits of them that sleep ” ascended like the breath of one who longed to be with those that rest in the hope of a joyful resurrection.
LEVI THAXTER, INTERPRETER OF BROWNING.
Time is most relentless in effacing remembrance of the work of public readers. Let a strong word, then, be said for Levi Thaxter, who read the poems of Robert Browning in a fashion beside which all other attempts in that kind were, and yet are, prosaic, small, and faint. He was not a professional elocutionist, and his efforts were not deformed by mechanical artifice; his voice was sweet, pure, and of extraordinary depth and reach, and his enunciation and pronunciation were elegantly faultless. The source of his peculiar power was in his full sympathy with poet and poem, and in his firm grasp of their thought. His reading, as an illumination of the text, was marvelous, and fairly compelled Browning to be comprehensible, even in works as subtle and obscure as La Saisiaz. Mr. Thaxter’s dramatic gift was nothing short of magnificent, and I put his reading of the dialogue of Ottima and Sebald, in Pippa Passes, in the same class, for force and completeness, with Mrs. Kemble’s reading of the Shakespearean tragedies.
MR. PARTRIDGE’S READING OF SHELLEY.
In quite another kind, but unique and highly remarkable, was the reading of Shelley’s and Keats’s poetry by Mr. William Ordway Partridge, now noted as a sculptor. Not much of the verse of Shelley will bear putting under the logician’s press or into the analyst’s crucible ; but some of it is the fine wine of poetry, — poetry for poets, as has been cleverly said, appealing to the subtlest parts of the imaginative sense, as remote from the common touch as a rosy cloud dissolving in a sunset glow. Mr. Partridge read Shelley as if he were the author as well as the interpreter of the verse. His refined and delicate beauty of face, intensified by a rapturous expression as if he were thrilled by the melody which he made ; the clear tones of his cultivated voice, not widely varied in modulation, but perfect within a sufficient range; his absolute plasticity and responsiveness under the thrill of the music, combined to give his reading an exquisitely appropriate distinction. There was, indeed, in his delivery something singularly lovely and impossible to describe, — the product, apparently, of a gift, like Shelley’s own, to charge mere sound with sense, so that it seemed to bear a message almost without the help of articulate utterance.
The reference to Mrs. Kemble suggests a contrast sharply noted in my mind a few years ago. As a very young man, I had the keen delight of hearing Mrs. Fanny Kemble at one of the last series of readings which she gave in the Meionaon. I vividly recall the occasion when I listened to her delivery of The Merry Wives of Windsor, and was one of an audience which laughed itself almost faint over her interpretation of Falstaff, A middle-aged Englishwoman, in usual afternoon costume, read from an ungarnished platform, out of the big book which had come down to her from her aunt, Mrs. Siddons! Some thirty years later I was present at Mr. Beerbohm Tree’s opening night in Boston, and saw the leading actor — “ made up ” with extreme skill, assisted by an accomplished company, using all the appliances of an excellent stage — succeed in carrying the part of Sir John Falstaff, in the same comedy, through an entire evening without once evoking a laugh for his incomparably humorous text.
A FEAT IN PARAPHRASE.
Another case of professional misfit, which worked less serious results, and, indeed, made a remarkable display of ingenuity, appeared during Miss Genevieve Ward’s last engagement in Boston. The play was Henry VIII., Miss Ward impersonating Queen Katharine. Mr. Louis James, her leading man, was cast for Cardinal Wolsey. The cardinal’s part is long and hard to learn, and very likely was new to Mr. James, whose position was onerous. He got through the evening without incurring or causing disaster. He hit his cues with necessary precision ; and it is also true that he performed the astounding feat of presenting Wolsey’s words in an original paraphrase ex tempore. Of the cardinal’s lines not so many as one in three were exactly reproduced, even the most familiar sustaining some twist or variation. Sometimes the original text was entirely suppressed. But Mr. James’s speech did not halt, and his mind demonstrated extreme adresse, furnishing his tongue with phrases which carried a considerable portion of the Dramatist’s meaning, and even fell decently in line with the rhythmic scheme of the verse. William Shakespeare, or John Fletcher, or whoever is responsible for Wolsey’s share of the dialogue, would have been tickled by the actor’s performance, which was in the line of the “ descant ” that Elizabethan gentlemen were expected to be able to supply with the voice, upon any melody, at short notice.
Madame Janauschek is so near the present day that it has seemed best to me not to make her work the theme of extended comment. Her achievement on our stage was great, considering the handicap which she sustained in dealing with a foreign language; she had a large style, and her playing was steadily marked by intellectual clarity and emotional power. Her unique performance, the assumption of the French waiting maid, Hortense, in the stage version of Dickens’s Bleak House, played under the name of Chesney Wold, is not likely to be forgotten by any who were so fortunate as to witness it. The French accents and intonations of the girl were made piquantly effective through the operation of a tongue more familiar with them than with English vocables, and the feline malice and alertness of the character — which in the novel is scantily outlined — were reproduced with high picturesqueness and vivacity.
ALEXANDER SALVINI AS DON IPPOLITO.
By natural association with Madame Janauschek’s achievement, there occurs to my mind the rarest example I have known of the fortunate fitting of an alien actor to a part in which all his lingual imperfections made for ideal success. On the evening of November 5, 1889, at the Tremont Theatre, was performed a dramatic version of Mr. Howells’s novel, A Foregone Conclusion, with Alexander Salvini as Don Ippolito. The play “ was caviare to the general,” and was obviously deficient in constructive skill; but its gay wit, its lavish humor, — now frank and direct, now sly and ironical, — its intuitive schemes of character, its large human sympathy, its reproduction of the atmosphere and beauty of Venice, and its literary distinction made its presentation delightful to the critical few. As for Alexander Salvini, — of whom, as an artist, I entertained, in general, a rather low opinion, finding him in his larger attempts pretty steadily commonplace, — his impersonation of Don Ippolito was a marvel. Every native physical peculiarity of the player repeated the figure of the romance, and the priest’s Italianic English was the actor’s very own dialect. It is to be added that the don’s timid sweetness, naïveté, and humility, and his shy yet substantial manliness, with their overlay of southern finesse, were clearly appreciated and nicely indicated.
MR. LATHROP’S ELAINE, AND MISS ANNIE RUSSELL.
The performance, on the evening of May 14, 1888, at the Park Theatre, of Mr. George P. Lathrop’s drama of Elaine has taken a little niche of its own in my mind and memory. The play, which was in blank verse, had real merit: its text was always smooth, sweet, and graceful, and was fine or fervid in a mode much like that of Tennyson, the story of whose idyl was strictly followed until the final passages, when grave liberties were taken with Launcelot and Guinevere. The effect of the work and its representation was to transport the soul of the spectator out of the dusty glare of common day into the empurpled twilight of romance. Through Miss Annie Russell the play was supplied with an ideal Elaine. The actress had but recently recovered from a severe illness, and her fragile beauty and delicacy pathetically befitted the lily maid of Astolat. Her gentle speech had a thrilling quality which seemed made to utter the heart of Elaine. Few of those who saw the scene will forget how, after love for Launcelot had entered her soul, she began to look at him with a gaze as direct, as unhesitating, and as maidenly as full moonlight. At great moments the concentration and simplicity of her style exactly fulfilled the difficult conditions of the part; the shudder with which she caught and held her breath when Launcelot kissed her forehead, the gasping pain of the sequent words, “ Mercy, my lord,” and the dry despair of her “ Of all this will I nothing,” will be long and deservedly remembered. Few more beautiful scenes have been shown upon the stage than the fifth tableau, which reproduced a famous picture, and exhibited the barge, draped in black samite, bearing the body of the maiden — pale as the lily which her right hand held, the “dead steered by the dumb” old servitor — up with the flood.
THE PRIVATELY ENDOWED THEATRE.
My last word may well bear my message of desire and hope for the theatre in America. Some fourteen years ago, I began to contend in public for the establishment in one of our largest cities of a playhouse which should be supported or “ backed ” by the munificence of two or more men of great wealth and proportionate intelligence, — even as the Symphony Orchestra in Boston is maintained by one public-spirited gentleman. It is to be a théâtre libre in that it is to be absolutely absolved from slavery to its patrons and box office. As a place of edification, it is not to be a kindergarten for infants who still suck their sustenance from a “ vaudeville ” bottle, nor a primary or grammar school for small children, but a high school or university for adults, dedicated to the higher culture of that great “ humanity,” the histrionic art. For this house are to be engaged the best - equipped managers, and the most highly accomplished company of actors, artists, and artisans that the country can furnish; and on its stage are to be produced, with the closest attainable approximation to completeness, only clean plays, of real merit. These dramas are to be in every key and color, of any and every nation, of any period in time. Rare inducements will be held out for the production of new and original works, of which the censorship will be critical, yet catholic and unniggardly ; but there will be no limitation of the field to the domestic inclosure. This theatre once open and operant, let the dear public attend or not, as it pleases; and let the experiment be faithfully tried for three years.
From the effecting of such a scheme I did not expect, soon or ever, every conceivable advantage. I did not, in prevision, anticipate the speedy regeneration of the theatre as an “ institution,” the prompt suppression of cheap and vulgar plays, the immediate elevation of public taste. But I was confident — judging by the success of similar enterprises, and by the parallelism of European theatres maintained by national and civic subsidies or organized subscription — that salutary results would flow from a theatre thus maintained and managed. This playhouse would at once be the talk of the country; and the city that contained it would soon be a dramatic Mecca, drawing to itself, from every part of the land, true amateurs of the drama and of acting. A standard of high excellence would be set up, and held up to view, in respect both of material of programme and mode of representation. By and by our swift people would respond and appreciate. Before many years had passed we should have our own American Theatre, evolving the material of a fine tradition, dedicated to the best expression of a great art; and by the time that point was reached, Conservatories of Acting would be clustered about the new house, and be preparing to feed its companies with trained actors and actresses.
Much good ought eventually to come to the theatrical profession out of the maintenance of such a privately subsidized theatre : first and obviously, through the higher esteem and appreciation which actors would then receive from the public ; secondly, through the advance in means of training which would be open to neophytes. It will be a shame if we do not develop a great race of actors in this country. The American temperament is, I believe, the best adapted of any in the world for histrionic success. As a nation, we unite English thoughtfulness, steadfastness, and aplomb with Gallic vivacity, intuition, and speed. It is true, as I said in a former article, that our native artists show extraordinary swiftness and sensibility and a very large mimetic gift, and that the general level of histrionic attainment is high, considering the desultory character of the instruction upon which a large majority of our players are obliged to depend. Therefore, not only very good, but the very best things are to be hoped for, when our admirable domestic material is treated by competent masters, in schools attached to a theatre of the highest grade.
It is hardly necessary for me to say that it is my idea that the leaven of such an American Theatre would work sooner or later in the lump as a discourager of the prevailing flimsiness and triviality of our public shows. Thus far, by the quality of the supply of plays proceeding from American writers, one can gauge the quality of the demand. Our authors do not lack cleverness : Mr. Barnard, Mr. Belasco, Mr. Howard, Mr. Gillette, and others show real ability. But when one considers that Mr. Gillette’s Secret Service — which I concede to be a brilliant and effective work — represents the high-water mark, “ up to date,” of our play writing; that it is, so to speak, the Hamlet of American dramatic literature, it is evident that something is needed to direct our feet into other ways, if we aspire to any great achievements in this kind for our country.
There can be no doubt that the proposed theatre, if it became successful and permanent, would do something to develop and elevate public taste in respect of players as well as plays. It would be refreshing — especially in Boston, the naïf and omnivorous — to note a progress upward on this line. Apparently, the movement of late years has been in the other direction. I saw it noted as a remarkable circumstance, in one of my criticisms of Mr. Fechter and Miss Leclercq, more than twenty-five years ago, that the chief artists were called before the curtain “ as many as five times ” at the end of the most important act of a classic play. On the night when Cyrano de Bergerac was first produced in Paris, elderly men shouted their bravos, and, at the close of the third act, embraced one another, with tears of joy, crying out, “ Le Cid ! Le Cid! ” If that spectacle, which is truly impressive, seems absurd to a Bostonian, what has he to say to one of his own first-night audiences, which, a few years since, brought a pleasing little actress, who had done a bit of pretty comedy gracefully and piquantly, seventeen times to the footlights, midway of the performance, bestowing such honors and plaudits upon the player as she would scarcely have deserved if she had been Miss Neilson and Miss Cushman rolled into one, and doing her greatest work in a play of commanding power ? A better day for the drama and the theatre in America is sure to dawn. The actors are readier than the public for a change to nobler conditions ; and the public, now learning to demand of and for itself the best things in many departments of life, will not always rest content with conditions that encourage mediocrity, and do not discourage vulgarity, in that Theatre upon which it depends for the larger part of its entertainment.
Henry Austin Clapp.