by G. BERNARD SHAW
BARRY SULLIVAN, son of an Irish Catholic Waterloo soldier, was born in Birmingham, in 1821, and died in 1891.
He was a great actor. He kept the Shakespear and the tradition of great acting alive in these islands whilst in fashionable London Shakespear “spelt ruin” for theatre managers. For players, “cup and saucer” manners in the plays of Robertson and in adaptations from the French of Scribe’s mechanically constructed “well made” pieces (I helped to kill them) had London all to themselves.
What was Sullivan like at the height of his power and glory? Why did his Hamlet, which he played every week (often twice) for forty years after his triumphant success in the part at the Haymarket in London in 1852, remain so imposing and satisfying, though he made no pretense of being a young student prince fresh from Wittenberg University? No doubt his splendid physical graces had something to do with it. His stage walk was by itself worth going to the theatre to see. When he killed the king by dashing up the whole depth of the stage and running him through again and again, he was a human thunderbolt. His attitude as he threw off Horatio and Marcellus with his “By heaven, gentlemen, I’ll make a ghost of him that lets me,” his superb and towering contempt for his guilty stepfather, and his gesture as he turned away from Rosencrantz and Guildenstern with his peculiar reading of “I know a hawk from a heron. Pshaw!” were unforgettable.
But these ageless feats were not enough to carry his Hamlet through over three thousand times. His secret, which was no secret, was simply that he presented himself as what Hamlet was: a being of a different and higher order from Laertes and the rest. He had majesty and power. As Richelieu, one of his greatest parts, his dignity as he invoked the power of the Church and drew the charmed circle of Rome round the head of the heroine was literally supernatural. I cannot believe that any mortal actor ever surpassed it.
For boys like me he was irresistible. His Richard was a monster of truculence. When he stabbed King Henry with the words “For this, among the rest, was I ordained” he swung his eyes one way and his sword the other in a stage picture of villainy that from any lessor actor would have made the audience laugh. When he proclaimed that Richard was himself again, he struck the attitude of a fencer on guard. His stage fights with Macduff and Richmond were none the less exciting because we knew quite well that what we were witnessing was a prearranged battery of what is known behind the scenes as “sixes.” As the Gamester, in which he had to die of poison in the last act, his groans were frightful and heart-rending. Every Crummles could, and did, attempt these “effects”; but nobody could get away with them like Sullivan, nor any rival keep up the illusion of his towering superiority.
He had classic taste and noble judgment for older critics too. In Hamlet’s scene with Ophelia he never sentimentalized it to drag in vulgar sex appeal as Irving did. As to treating the closet scene as an example of the Oedipus complex, such notions did not exist for him. His natural force was so great that he had not to stoke himself up with drink as Kean, Robson, and even Dickens in America killed themselves prematurely by doing. Nor had he to husband his strength, as Salvini did, to give explosive contrasts to his outbursts. His ebullient energy, natural force, called for sedatives rather than for stimulants. Yet he lived to be seventy before his incessant activity killed him. And in his private life there was no scandal.
Beginning in his boyhood in Cork, he learned his business in the old stock companies in Cork, Edinburgh, Aberdeen, Glasgow, Liverpool, and ManChester (where he first headed the bill) and finally in London at £10 a week. He carried all before him there. The £10 a week ended as £80 a night.
For the rest of his victorious career he was a princely stroller, moving like Kean from city to city with his basket of costumes and swords, playing with local stock companies as he found them, in scenery with wings and flats, changed in full view of the audience on naked stages lighted by gas footlights and battens, to face which he had to paint his face with bismuth that damaged the skin almost as much as smallpox.
The substitution of gas for candles was to him an ultra-modern touch: all the rest of the stage equipment, its cellar with the three traps, one for graves, and two one-man traps for demons to pop up through, winches to raise and lower the skied cloths, and the pictorial act drop with its dangerously heavy roller that players had to be careful not to die under, and the final green curtain that showed the costumes so effectively when the wearers took their curtain calls, all the power for these contrivances being supplied by the muscles of the stage carpenters and scene-shifters, were as they had been for two hundred years past.
I once asked Bram Stoker, Irving’s manager, why he did not introduce the then new hydraulic lifts and electric motors of the modern stages. He shrugged his shoulders and said he felt safer with eighty stage carpenters, who could not stop the performance (as happened at Drury Lane once) by short-circuiting the strange machinery. Sullivan was in the stone age of stage equipment compared to Irving, who at least had a modern switchboard.
THERE is no reason to doubt that Sullivan was among the greatest of the line of British Shakespearean star actors from Burbage and Betterton to Macready. That he was a provincial celebrity leaving no mark on London, and overlooked by theatrical historians or unknown to them, is not an artistic phenomenon but a purely economic one. He was expunged from Lewes’s book on acting because when Lewes, a first-rate critic, was unwise enough to attempt a career as an actor in great parts, Sullivan, whom in his first edition he had described as “a very clever actor,” contemptuously refused to act with him; and Lewes could not forgive the disparagement. That would not have mattered had Sullivan in the days of his greatness chosen London for his headquarters. Why he did not was because he could make a fortune in the provinces only to lose it in London. Irving headed his profession in London for more than twenty years, and finally had to return to the provinces penniless to live on his reputation and his knighthood. Since the palmy days of Kemble and Edmund Kean no big actor had held out so long as Irving in London management. Charles Kean returned to the provinces after nine years of it, and Macready after seven. Sullivan tried it for some months, and then shook the dust of London from his feet save for a few appearances, not as a manager, at the enormous salary of £80 a night.
Barry Sullivan was no scholar: he was a great actor and nothing else, and not ashamed of it. He could never have said, as Macready, his boyhood’s idol, did: “I have seen a life gone in an unworthy, unrequiting pursuit. Great energy, great power of mind, ambition and activity that with direction might have done anything, now made into a player.” Barry Sullivan was proud of his profession and of his eminence in it. He knew nothing of our educated gentlemen stars who are everything except great actors. He was a boy when he went on the stage. He did nothing for contemporary literature, his repertory including nothing more modern than Lytton’s Richelieu.
A friend of mine who called on him began unfortunately with the words “I have written a drama.” Sullivan at once interrupted him with “Sir: I do not play drama: I am a tragedian.” To him drama meant melodrama, its technical sense on the stage. His famous Richard was Shakespear’s Richard; but the text was the thing of shreds and patches put together by Cibber (which, by the way, is more effective on the stage than Shakespear’s arrangement). Bar Shakespear, all the plays that Sullivan kept alive were obsolete. His professional mind was an eighteenth-century mind, and his traditions those of Garrick.
I never saw great acting until I saw him; and from him and from Salvini and Adelaide Ristori I learned my stage technique and what great acting can do. Though a later generation saw Chaliapin and Coquelin, so little of it was remembered in London when I began to write plays that I was at once set down as ignorant of stage technique and my plays denounced as no plays, when I had in fact gone back to Shakespear and the sixteenth century (much as William Morris went back to the twelfth) and started from that date as a confirmed classic.
And now what does it all matter? Barry Sullivan has come and gone, like all the other great actors since it was said of an Elizabethan playgoer that
And cried “A horse, a horse!” he Burbage cried.
The important truth is that the idols of adolescents, and to some extent of adults, are often founded on their admiration of great actors. It was certainly so in my own case. Whatever part Barry Sullivan played, a superman Hamlet or a villainous Richard or Macbeth, “he nothing common did, or mean”: he was always great; and when I was a very impressionable boy he became my model of personal nobility.
As a playwright I have had countless letters from young women for whom St. Joan has set up a standard which uplifted them beyond vulgarity and meanness. The schoolboy who, having seen my play, told his headmaster that he could pray to St. Joan but not to Jesus Christ, justified the theatre as one of the most vital of public institutions. Without such uplift the playwright may be a pander or a buffoon, an actor only a mountebank or a common clown. It is this alone which can raise a theatre to the dignity and national value of a church.
Wherever “two or three are gathered together” to see great acting, both actor and playwright can claim equality with lords temporal and spiritual. Wise rulers establish or subsidize national theatres. When Napoleon had to transfigure himself from a successful military adventurer into an emperor he wisely went to a great actor for lessons. Cromwell, who closed the theatres as the gates of hell, opened them to the ultra-theatrical Opera.
The only British-speaking successor to Barry Sullivan within my experience who could do for Shakespear what he did was a woman, American Irish, born Ada Crehan, but through a happy error in printing which she adopted gladly, famous as Ada Rehan.