The Distressed Mother

Source: William Hazlitt, ‘The Distressed Mother’, Examiner, 22 September 1816 pp. 9-10, reproduced in A View of the English Stage, or, A Series of Dramatic Criticisms (London: Robert Stodart, 1818), pp. 108-110

Production: Ambrosse Philips, The Distrest Mother, Covent Garden Theatre, London, 16 or 20 September 1816

Text: A Mr. Macready appeared at Covent Garden Theatre on Monday and Friday, in the character of Orestes in the Distressed Mother, a bad play for the display of his powers, in which, however, he succeeded in making a decidedly favourable impression upon the audience. His voice is powerful in the highest degree, and at the same time possesses great harmony and modulation. His face is not equally calculated for the stage. He declaims better than anybody we have lately heard. He is accused of being violent, and of wanting pathos. Neither of these objections is true. His manner of delivering the first speeches in this play was admirable, and the want of increasing interest afterwards was the fault of the author rather than the actor. The fine suppressed tone in which he assented to Pyrrhus’s command to convey the message to Hermione was a test of his variety of power, and brought down repeated acclamations from the house. We do not lay much stress on his mad scene, though that was very good in its kind, for mad scenes do not occur very often, and, when they do, had in general better be omitted. We have not the slightest hesitation in saying that Mr. Macready is by far the best tragic actor that has come out in our remembrance, with the exception of Mr. Kean. We, however, heartily wish him well out of this character of Orestes. It is a kind of forlorn hope in tragedy. There is nothing to be made of it on the English stage beyond experiment. It is a trial, not a triumph. These French plays puzzle an English audience exceedingly. They cannot attend to the actor, for the difficulty they have in understanding the author. We think it wrong in any actor of great merit (which we hold Mr. Macready to be) to come out in an ambiguous character, to salve his reputation. An actor is like a man who throws himself from the top of a steeple by a rope. He should choose the highest steeple he can find, that, if he does not succeed in coming safe to the ground, he may break his neck at once, and so put himself and the spectators out of farther pain.

Ambrose Phillips’s Distressed Mother is a very good translation from Racine’s Andromache. It is an alternation of topics, of pros and cons, on the casuistry of domestic and state affairs, and produced a great effect of ennui on the audience. When you hear one of the speeches in these rhetorical tragedies, you know as well what will be the answer to it, as when you see the tide coming up the river – you know that it will return again. The other actors filled their parts with successful mediocrity.

We highly disapprove of the dresses worn on this occasion, and supposed to be the exact Greek costume. We do not know that the Greek heroes were dressed like women, or wore their long hair straight down their backs. Or even supposing that they did, this is not generally known or understood by the audience; and though the preservation of the ancient costume is a good thing, it is of more importance not to shock our present prejudices. The managers of Covent Garden are not the Society of Antiquaries. The attention to costume is only necessary to preserve probability; in the present instance, it could only violate it, because there is nothing to lead the public opinion to expect such an exhibition. We know how the Turks are dressed, from seeing them in the streets; we know the costume of the Greek statues, from seeing casts in the shop windows; we know that savages go naked, from reading voyages and travels; but we do not know that the Grecian chiefs at the Siege of Troy were dressed as Mr. Charles Kemble, Mr. Abbott, and Mr. Macready were the other evening in the Distressed Mother. It is a discovery of the managers, and they should have kept their secret to themselves. The epithet in Homer, applied to the Grecian warriors, kάρη kομόωντες, is not any proof. It signifies, not long-haired, but literally bushy-headed, which would come nearer to the common Brutus head than this long dangling slip of hair. The oldest and most authentic models we have are the Elgin Marbles, and it is certain the Theseus is a crop. One would think this standard might satisfy the Committee of Managers in point of classical antiquity. But no such thing. They are much deeper in Greek costume and the history of the fabulous ages, than those old-fashioned fellows, the Sculptors who lived in the time of Pericles. But we have said quite enough on this point.

Comments: William Hazlitt (1778-1830) was an English essayist, journalist and literary critic. William Macready (1793-1873) made his debut on the London stage on 16 September 1816 at Covent Garden in Ambrose PhilipsThe Distrest Mother, a translation of Jean Racine‘s Andromaque. Macready played Orestes, alongside Charles Kemble and William Abbot.

Links: Copy at Hathi Trust

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