The Journal of a London Playgoer

Source: Henry Morley, The Journal of a London Playgoer: from 1851-1866 (London: George Routledge, 1866), pp. 152-155

Production: William Shakespeare (et al), Timon of Athens, Sadler’s Wells, London, 18 October 1856

Text: October 18.— ‘Timon of Athens’ has been reproduced again by Mr. Phelps, with even more pains than were bestowed upon his former revival of that play, which, when he first produced it, had been acted but a few times since the days of Shakespeare. As now performed it is exceedingly effective.

A main cause of the success of Mr. Phelps in his Shakespearean revivals is, that he shows in his author above all things the poet. Shakespeare’s plays are always poems, as performed at Sadler’s Wells. The scenery is always beautiful, but it is not allowed to draw attention from the poet, with whose whole conception it is made to blend in the most perfect harmony. The actors are content also to be subordinated to the play, learn doubtless at rehearsals how to subdue excesses of expression that by giving undue force to one part would destroy the balance of the whole, and blend their work in such a way as to produce everywhere the right emphasis. If Mr. Phelps takes upon himself the character which needs the most elaborate development, however carefully and perfectly he may produce his own impression of his part, he never by his acting drags it out of its place in the drama. He takes heed that every part, even the meanest, shall have in the acting as much prominence as Shakespeare gave it in his plan, and it is for this reason that with actors, many of whom are anything but stars, the result most to be desired is really obtained. Shakespeare appears in his integrity, and his plays are found to affect audiences less as dramas in a common sense than as great poems.

This is the case especially with ‘Timon.’ It may be that one cause of its long neglect, as potent as the complaint that it excites no interest by female characters, is the large number of dramatis personae, to whom are assigned what many actors might consider parts of which they can make nothing, and who, being presented in a slovenly way, by a number of inferior performers, would leave only one part in the drama, and take all the power out of that. Such an objection has not, however, any weight at Sadler’s Wells, where every member of the company is taught to regard the poetry he speaks according to its nature rather than its quantity. The personators of the poet and the painter in the first scene of the ‘Timon,’ as now acted, manifestly say what Shakespeare has assigned to them to say with as much care, and as much certainty that it will be listened to with due respect, as if they were themselves Timons, Hamlets, or Macbeths. Nobody rants — it becomes his part that Alcibiades should be a little blustery — nothing is slurred; a servant who has anything to say says it in earnest, making his words heard and their meaning felt; and so it is, that, although only in one or two cases we may have observed at Sadler’s Wells originality of genius in the actor, we have nevertheless perceived something like the entire sense of one of Shakespeare’s plays, and have been raised above ourselves by the perception.

It is not because of anything peculiar in the air of Islington, or because an audience at Pentonville is made of men differing in nature from those who would form an audience in the Strand, that Shakespeare is listened to at Sadler’s Wells with reverence not shown elsewhere. What has been done at Islington could, if the same means were employed, be done at Drury Lane. But Shakespeare is not fairly heard when he is made to speak from behind masses of theatrical upholstery, or when it is assumed that there is but one character in any of his plays, and that the others may be acted as incompetent performers please. If the ‘Messiah’ were performed at Exeter Hall, with special care to intrust some of the chief solos to a good bass or contralto, the rest being left to chance, and members of the chorus allowed liberty to sing together in all keys, we should enjoy Handel much as we are sometimes asked to enjoy Shakespeare on the London stage. What Signor Costa will do for an orchestra, the manager must do for his company, if he would present a work of genius in such a way as to procure for it a full appreciation.

Such thoughts are suggested by the effect which ‘Timon of Athens’ is producing on the audiences at Sadler’s Wells. The play is a poem to them. The false friends, of whom one declares, “The swallow follows not summer more willing than we your lordship,” and upon whom Timon retorts, “Nor more willingly leaves winter,” are as old as the institution of society. Since men had commerce first together to the present time the cry has been, “Such summer birds are men.” The rush of a generous impulsive nature from one rash extreme into the other, the excesses of the man who never knew “the middle of humanity,” is but another common form of life; and when have men not hung — the poets, the philosophers, the lovers, the economists, men of all habits — over a contemplation of the contrast between that soft town life represented by the luxury of Athens in its wealth and its effeminacy, and the life of a man who, like Timon before his cave’s mouth, turns from gold because it is not eatable, and digs in the wood for roots? With a bold hand Shakespeare grasped the old fable of Timon, and moulded it into a form that expresses much of the perplexity and yearning of our nature. He takes up Timon, a free-handed and large-hearted lord, who, though “to Lacedaemon did his lands extend,” found them too little to content his restless wish to pour himself all out in kindness to his fellows. He leaves him dead by the shore of the mysterious eternal sea.

I do not dwell upon the play itself, for here the purpose only is to show in what way it can be made, when fitly represented — and is made at Sadler’s Wells — to stir the spirit as a poem. Mr. Phelps in his own acting of Timon treats the character as an ideal, as the central figure in a mystery. As the liberal Athenian lord, his gestures are large, his movements free — out of himself everything pours, towards himself he will draw nothing. As the disappointed Timon, whose love of his kind is turned to hate, he sits on the ground self-contained, but miserable in the isolation, from first to last contrasting with Apemantus, whom “fortune’s tender arm never with favour clasped,” who is a churl by the original sourness of his nature, hugs himself in his own ragged robe, and worships himself for his own ill manners. Mr. Marston’s Apemantus is well acted, and helps much to secure a right understanding of the entire play.

Comments: Henry Morley (1822-1894) was a British academic and writer. He was Professor of English at University College London from 1865-1889. His Journal is a record of his attendance at most new production in the leading London theatres over a fifteen-year period. The journal he kept served as the basis for his dramatic reviews in The Examiner, which he edited 1859-1864. He saw William Shakespeare’s Timon of Athens at Sadler’s Wells, London, on 18 October 1856. Samuel Phelps had first revised Timon of Athens in 1851 and again in 1856.

Links: Copy at Hathi Trust

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