Decade

The Diaries of Franz Kafka

Source: Franz Kafka (ed. Max Brod, trans. Joseph Kresh), The Diaries of Franz Kafka 1910-1913 (London: Secker & Warburg, 1948), pp. 175-176

Production: Gerhardt Hauptmann, Der Biberpelz, Prague, December 1911

Text: December 13. Biberpelz. Bad play, flowing along without climax. Scenes with the police superintendent not true. Delicate acting by the Lehmann woman of the Lessing Theater. The way her skirt folds between her thighs when she bends. The thoughtful look of the people when she raises her two hands, places them one under the other on the left in front of her face, as though she wanted to weaken the force of the denying or protesting voice. Bewildered, coarse acting of the others. The comedian’s impudence toward the play (draws his saber, exchanges hats). My cold aversion. Went home, but while still there sat with a feeling of admiration that so many people take upon themselves so much excitement for an evening (they shout, steal, are robbed, harass, slander, neglect), and that in this play, if one only looks at it with blinking eyes, so many disordered human voices and exclamations are thrown together. Pretty girls. One with a flat face, unbroken surfaces of skin, rounded cheeks, hair beginning high up, eyes lost in this smoothness and protruding a little. – Beautiful passages of the play in which the Wulffen woman shows herself at once a thief and an honest friend of the clever, progressive, democratic people. A Wehrhahn in the audience might feel himself justified. – Sad parallelism of the four acts. In the first act there is stealing, in the second act is the judgment, the same in the third and fourth acts.

Comments: Franz Kafka (1883-1924) was a Bohemian Jewish novelist and short story writer, author of ‘Die Verwandlung’ (‘The Metamorphosis’) and Der Process (The Trial). He saw Gerhardt Hauptmann‘s 1893 satirical play Der Biberpelz (The Beaver Coat). The ‘Lehmann woman’ he saw perform was presumably Else Lehmann, who was noted for her naturalistic performances in Hauptmann’s plays. The Lessing Theatre was located in Berlin.

Eleonora Duse

Ilya Repin, ‘Portrait of Actress Eleonora Duse’ (1891), via WikiArt

Source: Alice Meynell, ‘Eleonora Duse’, in The Colour of Life: and other essays on things seen and heard (London: John Lane, 1897), pp. 45-52

Text: The Italian woman is very near to Nature; so is true drama.

Acting is not to be judged like some other of the arts, and praised for a “noble convention.” Painting, indeed, is not praised amiss with that word; painting is obviously an art that exists by its convention—the convention is the art. But far otherwise is it with the art of acting, where there is no representative material; where, that is, the man is his own material, and there is nothing between. With the actor the style is the man, in another, a more immediate, and a more obvious sense than was ever intended by that saying. Therefore we may allow the critic—and not accuse him of reaction—to speak of the division between art and Nature in the painting of a landscape, but we cannot let him say the same things of acting. Acting has a technique, but no convention.

Once for all, then, to say that acting reaches the point of Nature, and touches it quick, is to say all. In other arts imitation is more or less fatuous, illusion more or less vulgar. But acting is, at its less good, imitation; at its best, illusion; at its worst, and when it ceases to be an art, convention.

But the idea that acting is conventional has inevitably come about in England. For it is, in fact, obliged, with us, to defeat and itself by taking a very full, entire, tedious, and impotent convention; a complete body of convention; a convention of demonstrativeness—of voice and manners intended to be expressive, and, in particular, a whole weak and unimpulsive convention of gesture. The English manners of real life are so negative and still as to present no visible or audible drama; and drama is for hearing and for vision. Therefore our acting (granting that we have any acting, which is granting much) has to create its little different and complementary world, and to make the division of “art” from Nature—the division which, in this one art, is fatal.

This is one simple and sufficient reason why we have no considerable acting; though we may have more or less interesting and energetic or graceful conventions that pass for art. But any student of international character knows well enough that there are also supplementary reasons of weight. For example, it is bad to make a conventional world of the stage, but it is doubly bad to make it badly — which, it must be granted, we do. When we are anything of the kind, we are intellectual rather than intelligent; whereas outward-streaming intelligence makes the actor. We are pre-occupied, and therefore never single, never wholly possessed by the one thing at a time; and so forth.

On the other hand, Italians are expressive. They are so possessed by the one thing at a time as never to be habitual in any lifeless sense. They have no habits to overcome by something arbitrary and intentional. Accordingly, you will find in the open-air theatre of many an Italian province, away from the high roads, an art of drama that our capital cannot show, so high is it, so fine, so simple, so complete, so direct, so momentary and impassioned, so full of singleness and of multitudinous impulses of passion.

Signora Duse is not different in kind from these unrenowned. What they are, she is in a greater degree. She goes yet further, and yet closer. She has an exceptionally large and liberal intelligence. If lesser actors give themselves entirely to the part, and to the large moment of the part, she, giving herself, has more to give.

Add to this nature of hers that she stages herself and her acting with singular knowledge and ease, and has her technique so thoroughly as to be able to forget it—for this is the one only thing that is the better for habit, and ought to be habitual. There is but one passage of her mere technique in which she fails so to slight it. It is in the long exchange of stove-side talk between Nora and the other woman of “The Doll’s House.” Signora Duse may have felt some misgivings as to the effect of a dialogue having so little symmetry, such half-hearted feeling, and, in a word, so little visible or audible drama as this. Needless to say, the misgiving is not apparent; what is too apparent is simply the technique. For instance, she shifts her position with evident system and notable skill. The whole conversation becomes a dance of change and counterchange of place.

Nowhere else does the perfect technical habit lapse, and nowhere at all does the habit of acting exist with her.

I have spoken of this actress’s nationality and of her womanhood together. They are inseparable. Nature is the only authentic art of the stage, and the Italian woman is natural: none other so natural and so justified by her nature as Eleonora Duse; but all, as far as their nature goes, natural. Moreover, they are women freer than other Europeans from the minor vanities. Has any one yet fully understood how her liberty in this respect gives to the art of Signora Duse room and action? Her countrywomen have no anxious vanities, because, for one reason, they are generally “sculpturesque,” and are very little altered by mere accidents of dress or arrangement. Such as they are, they are so once for all; whereas, the turn of a curl makes all the difference with women of less grave physique. Italians are not uneasy.

Signora Duse has this immunity, but she has a far nobler deliverance from vanities, in her own peculiar distance and dignity. She lets her beautiful voice speak, unwatched and unchecked, from the very life of the moment. It runs up into the high notes of indifference, or, higher still, into those of ennui, as in the earlier scenes of Divorçons; or it grows sweet as summer with joy, or cracks and breaks outright, out of all music, and out of all control. Passion breaks it so for her.

As for her inarticulate sounds, which are the more intimate and the truer words of her meaning, they, too, are Italian and natural. English women, for instance, do not make them. They are sounds à bouche fermée, at once private and irrepressible. They are not demonstrations intended for the ears of others; they are her own. Other actresses, even English, and even American, know how to make inarticulate cries, with open mouth; Signora Duse’s noise is not a cry; it is her very thought audible — the thought of the woman she is playing, who does not at every moment give exact words to her thought, but does give it significant sound.

When la femme de Claude is trapped by the man who has come in search of the husband’s secret, and when she is obliged to sit and listen to her own evil history as he tells it her, she does not interrupt the telling with the outcries that might be imagined by a lesser actress, she accompanies it. Her lips are close, but her throat is vocal. None who heard it can forget the speech-within-speech of one of these comprehensive noises. It was when the man spoke, for her further confusion, of the slavery to which she had reduced her lovers; she followed him, aloof, with a twang of triumph.

If Parisians say, as they do, that she makes a bad Parisienne, it is because she can be too nearly a woman untamed. They have accused her of lack of elegance — in that supper scene of La Dame aux Camélias, for instance; taking for ill-breeding, in her Marguerite, that which is Italian merely and simple. Whether, again, Cyprienne, in Divorçons, can at all be considered a lady may be a question; but this is quite unquestionable—that she is rather more a lady, and not less, when Signora Duse makes her a savage. But really the result is not at all Parisian.

It seems possible that the French sense does not well distinguish, and has no fine perception of that affinity with the peasant which remains with the great ladies of the old civilisation of Italy, and has so long disappeared from those of the younger civilisations of France and England—a paradox. The peasant’s gravity, directness, and carelessness —a kind of uncouthness which is neither graceless nor, in any intolerable English sense, vulgar—are to be found in the unceremonious moments of every transalpine woman, however elect her birth and select her conditions. In Italy the lady is not a creature described by negatives, as an author who is always right has denned the lady to be in England. Even in France she is not that, and between the Frenchwoman and the Italian there are the Alps. In a word, the educated Italian mondaine is, in the sense (also untranslatable) of singular, insular, and absolutely British usage, a Native. None the less would she be surprised to find herself accused of a lack of dignity.

As to intelligence—a little intelligence is sufficiently dramatic, if it is single. A child doing one thing at a time and doing it completely, produces to the eye a better impression of mental life than one receives from—well, from a lecturer.

Comments: Alice Meynell (1847-1922) was an English poet and essayist. Eleonora Duse (1858-1924) was an Italian actress of worldwide renown, the performances celebrated for the depth of their sensitivity. The plays in which she appeared mentioned here are Henrik Ibsen‘s Et dukkehjem (A Doll’s House), Divorçons by Victorien Sardou and Émile de Najac, and Alexandre Dumas filsLa Femme de Claude and La Dame aux Camélias.

Links: Copy at Hathi Trust

A Diary of the French Revolution

Source: Beatrix Cary Davenport (ed.), A Diary of the French Revolution by Gouverneur Morris, 1752-1816 (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1939), vol. 1, pp. 223-224

Production: Jean Racine, Athalie, Comédie-Française, Paris, 19 September 1789

Text: Saturday 19. — Employed this Morning in writing. Dine at Monsr. de Corny’s, in consequence of a Note from Madame, desiring the Engagement for Tomorrow may take Effect this Day. After Dinner converse with de Corny about a Contract for supplying Flour to Paris, and offer him a fourth Concern. He desires a Note of my Ideas, which I promise. The Conversation is as usual political. From hence I go to the french Theatre and see the Chef-d’oeuvre of Racine, Athalie. It is well performed and is well calculated for Performance. There is however a Deal of ridiculous Gesticulation during the Time in which the high Priest is inspired but this can hardly be avoided, for the Mutes, who cannot in the usual Course of Things possess the Talents which are required to speak to the Eye, must either appear as insensible Statues or ludicrous Pantomimes. Hence results a Maxim for Theatrical Exhibitions which I do not remember to have met with anywhere: the Stage should never be filled on great and solemn Occasions. The Procession may be admitted and a Crowd may appear when only common Emotions are to be expressed, or when Laughter is to be excited by Something outré, because most Men have Talents enough to render themselves ridiculous, but very few are able to excite, much less to sustain, the greater Sensations of the Soul such as Terror & Admiration. Return Home immediately after the Piece and write what I promised to de Corny. This has been a rainy disagree[e]able Day.

Comments: Gouverneur Morris (1752-1816) was one of the founding fathers of the United States of America, author of the Preamble to the US Constitution. He went to France in 1789 and was Minister Plenipotentiary to France 1792-1794. His diary provides a vivid account of the French Revolution and includes several accounts of visits to the Paris theatre. The ‘French Theatre’ is the Comédie-Française.

Links: Copy at Hathi Trust

Journal of a Tour and Residence in Great Britain

Sir Thomas Lawrence, ‘John Philip Kembel as Hamlet’ (1802), via Wikimedia Commons

Source: A French Traveller [Louis Simond], Journal of a Tour and Residence in Great Britain, during the years 1810 and 1811: with remarks on the country, its arts, literature, and politics, and on the manners and customs of its inhabitants (Edinburgh: Archibald Constable, 1815), pp. 121-125

Production: William Shakespeare, Hamlet and George Colman the Younger, The Grand Dramatic Romance Bluebeard, or Female Curiosity, Covent Garden Theatre, London, 21 April 1811

Text: April 21. — Hamlet was acted yesterday at Covent-Garden, and Kemble, the reigning prince of the English stage, filled the principal part. He understands his art thoroughly, but wants spirit and nature. His manner is precise and artificial; his voice monotonous and wooden; his features are too large, even for the stage. Munden in the part of Polonius, and Fawcett in the grave-digger, played charmingly. It is enough to mention the grave-diggers, to awaken in France the cry of rude and barbarous taste; and, were I to say how the part is acted, it might be still worse. After beginning their labour, and breaking ground for a grave, a conversation begins between the two grave-diggers. The chief one takes off his coat, folds it carefully, and puts it by in a safe corner; then, taking up his pick-axe, spits in his hand,— gives a stroke or two,— talks,— stops,— strips off his waistcoat, still talking, — folds it with great deliberation and nicety, and puts it with the coat, then an under-waistcoat, still talking, — another and another. I counted seven or eight, each folded and unfolded very leisurely, in a manner always different, and with gestures faithfully copied from nature. The British public enjoys this scene excessively, and the pantomimic variations a good actor knows how to introduce in it, are sure to be vehemently applauded. The French admit of no such relaxation in the dignité tragique.

L’éroite bienseance y veut être gardée;

and Boileau did not even allow Moliere to have won the prize of comedy, because he had

Quitté pour le bouffon l’agréable et le fin
Et sans honte a Terence allié Tabarin

much less would he or his school have approved of an alliance between tragedy and farce. Yet it may well be questioned whether the interest is best kept up by an uninterrupted display of elevation. For my part, I am inclined to think that the repose afforded by a comic episode renovates the powers of attention and of feeling, and prepares for new tragical emotions more effectually than an attempt to protract these emotions during the whole representation could have done. It is by no means usual for the different actors of the same scene, in real life, to be all equally affected. The followers of a hero do not feel as magnanimous as himself, and are even apt to laugh among themselves at his vices or his virtues. The hero himself is not always a hero, and does not speak invariably in the same tone. Indeed I do not know that it is unnatural for the same person to laugh and cry, within the same half hour, at the very same thing, or at least various views of the same thing; nor that this inconsistency of the human mind might not furnish stronger dramatic touches than the contrary quality. Poetical excitement cannot be maintained long at a time; you must take it up and lay it down like a flower, or soon cease to be sensible of the fragrance. If real illusion could ever take place in dramatic representation, it would certainly be produced rather by that diversity of tone and character which exists in nature, than by an artificial unity. But nobody does, in point of fact, forget for a moment, that what he sees is a fable, and, if he did, the effect of a tragedy would hardly be pleasure. We look on poetical terrors as we do from the brink of a precipice upon the yawning chasm below; it makes our head turn, and takes off our breath for very fear ; but, leaning on the parapet-wall, we feel all safe. Looking on the verdure and mild beauties around us, we enjoy the contrast; and, meeting the eye of our companion, exchange a smile.

Voltaire, D’Alembert, and many other foreign critics, agree in reproving this scene of the grave-diggers as horribly low, while they extol the soliloquy of Hamlet. Supposing, however, the sentiments of the prince had been put into the mouth of the peasant, and those of the peasant given to the prince, I question whether these critics would not still have taken part with the latter against the former. It is the spade and the jests which discredit the philosophy, yet there is a certain coarse but energetic fitness between the one and the other, — and the tone of buffoonery does not ill accord with the contempt of life, its vanities, and empty greatness. I have made a free translation of these two scenes, endeavouring to convey the ideas rather than the words, that my French readers may judge for themselves.

The tragedy of Hamlet is much more objectionable on other points, —being, in my opinion, one of the most ill conceived and inexplicable of Shakespeare’s plays,— which are all of them little else than mere frames for his ideas, comic or philosophical, gloomy or playful, as they occurred, without much attention to time and place; expressed with a vigour, a richness, and originality, quite wonderful in the original, but nearly lost in any translation. We might apply to Shakespeare what has been said of our Montaigne: “que personne ne savoit moins que lui, ce qu’il alloit dire, ni mieux ce qu’il disoit.” I have remarked before, that the style of Shakespeare is not old; and the inartificial texture of his plays appears the more strange on that account :— this style, just as it is, might be applied to the best conducted fable, and most regular argument. Of the dramatic writers who followed him, some avoided his irregularities, but missed his style, or rather had not his depth, his strength and genius; while others, and there is a recent example, approached that style, and had some sparks of that genius, but adopted, in their zeal, the inconsistencies, the coarseness, and even the puns. You can excuse, in a Gothic cathedral of five or six hundred years standing, those monkish figures carved on the walls, lolling their tongues out, or pointing the finger of scorn at each other, in low derision, and others still more indecent, in favour of the wonderful art, which, in such an age of darkness and ignorance, durst conceive, and could execute the idea of building this religious grove, rearing its arched boughs, and
lofty shades of hewn stones 150 feet above your head; — while the country-house of the wealthy citizen of London, mimicking that taste of architecture, excites a smile, — and if he should carry the imitation beyond the pointed arch, and painted windows, to the very indecencies I have mentioned, the ridicule would be complete.

The after-piece was Blue-Beard, which outdoes, in perversion of taste, all the other showy stupidities of the modern stage. A troop of horse (real horse) is actually introduced, or rather two troops, charging each other full speed, — the floor is covered with earth, — the horses are Astley’s, and well drilled; they kick, and rear, and bite, and scramble up walls almost perpendicular, and when they can do no more, fall, and die as gracefully as any of their brethren, the English tragedians. All this might do very well at Astley’s, but what a pity and a shame that horses should be the successors of Garrick, and bring fuller houses than Mrs Siddons!

Comments: Louis Simond (1767-1831) was a French travel writer. He journeyed through Britain over 1810-11, writing his published account in English. The production of Hamlet that he saw at Covent Garden featured John Philip Kemble as Hamlet and Joseph Munden as Polonius and John Fawcett as the gravedigger. The afterpiece was George Colman the Younger‘s 1798 play The Grand Dramatic Romance Bluebeard, or Female Curiosity. Astley’s Amphitheatre in London was famed for its circus and equestrian entertainments.

Links: Copy at Hathi Trust

The Pantomime

Source: ‘The Pantomime – Boxes, Pit and Gallery’, Illustrated Sporting and Theatrical News, 16 January 1869

Comments: The Illustrated Sporting and Theatrical News was a British newspaper of the 1860s which reported on sports of all kinds and theatre productions. It was notable for its illustrations from wood engravings. The name of the artist of this illustration is not given.

The Diary of Frances Lady Shelley

Source: Richard Edgecumbe (ed.), The Diary of Frances Lady Shelley (New York: C. Scribner’s, 1912-1913), vol. 2, pp. 58-59

Text: As we passed the theatre we decided to enter, and hear Miss Stephens sing Scotch ballads to a Scottish audience. Much to our surprise we found the theatre so empty that we obtained seats in the front row. This led to some conversation afterwards relative to the sobriety in the search for amusement which is so characteristic of the people of Edinburgh. Some years ago Catalani gave a concert here. Every place was crowded, and she reaped a rich harvest. The next year she was tempted to come again, and the contrast was most striking; no one who had heard her before went again. When asked the reason, they replied that they had heard her. There was no satire in this, for the same thing occurred with Miss O’Neill. I saw her play, literally, to empty benches, and was able to obtain a seat in the front row. This is the more remarkable, as at her first visit the pressure was so great that people were fainting. All the boxes had been taken previous to her arrival in Edinburgh. I never admired Miss Stephens so much as on this occasion. The small theatre was favourable to her articulation, and I did not lose a word of that pathetic ballad “Auld Robin Gray,” which was rapturously encored, and no wonder, for she sings it with a degree of pathos difficult to describe. There was not a note, nor an intonation, which did not express in its fullest sense the pure feelings and sentiments of that most exquisite piece of poetry. I have always been of opinion that “Auld Robin Gray” affords the best example of female virtue, based on principle and sensibility, to be found in the English language. In a pure mind, like Lady Anne Lindsay’s, the spear of Ithuriel would instantly dissipate the sophism of Rousseau, and depict in their true colours and in their natural deformity the vaunted perfections of his Héloïse.

Comments: Frances Lady Shelley (1787-1873) was a well-connected, vivacious British society figure, whose lively diaries (edited by her grandson) include several accounts of theatregoing. Catherine Stephens, Countess of Essex (1794-1822) was an English concert and opera singer and actress. Eliza O’Neill was an English tragic actress (1791-1872). ‘Auld Robin Gray’ is a ballad by Lady Anne Lindsay. The Edinburgh theatre was presumably the Theatre Royal in Princes Street.

Links: Copy at Hathi Trust

Mr. Pope

‘Mr. Pope as Hotspur’, via LUNA: Folger Digital Image Collection, https://luna.folger.edu/luna/servlet/s/3491×2 (CC BY-SA 4.0)

Source: Leigh Hunt, ‘Mr. Pope’, in William Archer and Robert W. Lowe (eds.), Dramatic Essays [by] Leigh Hunt (London, W. Scott, 1894), pp. 16-21. Originally published in Critical Essays on the Performers of the London Theatres, 1807

Text: When I place Mr. Pope immediately after Mrs. Siddons, everybody will see I do not criticise the actors according to their rank. But it is for the sake of contrast. If we have just had an example of almost perfect tragedy, we have now an instance of every fault that can make it not only imperfect but disgusting. Mr. Pope has not one requisite to an actor but a good voice, and this he uses so unmercifully on all occasions that its value is lost, and he contrives to turn it into a defect. His face is as hard, as immovable, and as void of meaning as an oak wainscot; his eyes, which should endeavour to throw some meaning into his vociferous declamation, he generally contrives to keep almost shut; and what would make another actor merely serious is enough to put him in a passion. In short, when Shakspeare wrote his description of “a robustious fellow, who tears a passion to tatters,” one would suppose that he had been shown, by some supernatural means, the future race of actors, as Macbeth had a prophetic view of Banquo’s race, and that the robustious phantom was Mr. Pope. Here is an actor, then, without face, expression, or delivery, and yet this complication of negative qualities finds means to be clapped in the theatre and panegyrised in the newspapers. This inconsistency must be explained. As to the newspapers, and their praise of this gentleman, I do not wish to repeat all the prevailing stories. Who does not know their corruptions? There is, however, an infallible method of obtaining a clap from the galleries, and there is an art known at the theatre by the name of clap-trappings which Mr. Pope has shown great wisdom in studying. It consists in nothing more than in gradually raising the voice as the speech draws to a conclusion, making an alarming outcry on the last four or five lines, or suddenly dropping them into a tremulous but energetic undertone, and with a vigorous jerk of the right arm rushing off the stage. All this astonishes the galleries; they are persuaded it must be something very fine, because it is so important and so unintelligible, and they clap for the sake of their own reputation.

One might be apt to wonder at Mr. Pope’s total want of various expression, when his merit as an artist is considered. It should seem that the same imitative observation, which gives so natural an elegance to his portraits on canvas, should enliven and adorn his portraits on the stage: that the same elegant conception which enables him to throw grace into the attitudes and meaning into the eyes of others, should inspire his action with variety and his looks with intelligence.

It is in the acknowledgment of gesture and attitude, but more particularly in the variation of countenance, in the adaption of look to feeling, that the actor is best known. Mr. Pope, in his general style, has but two gestures, which follow each other in monotonous alternation, like the jerks of a toy-shop harlequin: one is a mere extension of the arms, and is used on all occasions of candour, of acknowledgment, of remonstrance, and of explanation; the other, for occasions of vehemence or of grandeur, is an elevation of the arms, like the gesture of Raphael’s St. Paul preaching at Athens, an action which becomes the more absurd on common occasions, from its
real sublimity. If Mr. Pope, however, is confined to two expressions in his gesture, he has but two expressions in his look: a flat indifference, which is used on all sober occasions, and an angry frown, which is used on all impassioned ones. With these two looks he undertakes to represent all the passions, gentle as well as violent; he is like a quack who, with a phial in each hand, undertakes to perform every possible wonder, while the only thing to be wondered at is his cheating the mob. The best character he performs is Othello, because he performs it in a mask: for when an actor’s face is not exactly seen, an audience is content to supply by its own imagination the want of expression, just as in reading a book we figure to ourselves the countenance of the persons interested. But when we are presented with the real countenance, we are disappointed if our imagination is not assisted in its turn; the picture presented to our eyes should animate the picture presented to our mind; if either of them differ, or if the former is less lively than the latter, a sensation of discord is produced, and destroys the effect of nature, which is always harmonious.

The pain we feel at bad acting seems, indeed, to be entirely the result of a want of harmony. We are pleased when the actor’s external action corresponds with the action of his mind, when his eye answers his heart, when all we see is the animated picture of all we feel: we are displeased whenever the passion and the expression are at variance, when the countenance does not become a second language to the dialogue, when moderate tones express vehement emotions and when vehement tones express moderate emotions, when, in short, Mr. Pope is not Rolla or Romeo but Mr. Pope. A musician who tells us that he is going to play a melancholy movement, and then dashes his harp or his piano in a fury, cannot disappoint us more than this actor, when he raises from language merely sorrowful an expression of boisterous passion. The character of Hotspur has been reckoned a proper one for Mr. Pope, because it is loud and violent; these are good reasons certainly, and we would rather hear him in Hotspur than in Hamlet, for noise, like any other enjoyment, is delightful in its proper season only. But to act Hotspur well is a mark of no great talent; of all expressions, violence is the most easily affected, because the conception of violence has no sensation of restraint, it has no feelings to hide or to repress, and no niceties of action to study. The gentler passions give us leisure to examine them, we can follow every variation of feeling and every change of expression; but here we have leisure for nothing; everything is rapid and confused; we are in the condition of a man who should attempt to count the spokes of a wheel in a chariot-race.

Mr. Pope, in short, may be considered as an example of the little value of a good voice unaccompanied with expression, while Mr. Kemble is a proof how much may be done by an expressive countenance and manner with the worst voice in the world.

But perhaps as I can say nothing of Mr. Pope as a tragic actor, I may be expected to say something of him as a comic one, for he does act in comedy. Any one, however, who examines this double gift, will discover that to act in comedy and to be a comic actor are two very different things. Mr. Kemble performs in comedy, but who will call Mr. Kemble a comic actor? Who will reckon up the comic actors, and say, “We have Bannister, and Lewis, and Munden, and Kemble?” If Mr. Pope acts in sentimental comedy, what is called sentimental comedy is nothing more than a mixture of tragedy and comedy, or, if Dr. Johnson’s definition is to be allowed, it is sometimes entire tragedy, for he calls tragedy “a dramatic representation of a serious action.” There may be very often a serious character in humorous comedies, such as a sober merchant, a careful father, or one of those useless useful friends who serve as a kind of foil to a gay hero; but the actor who performs these characters never excites our livelier feelings or our mirth, and therefore cannot be called a comic actor. Lord Townley, for instance, in The Provoked Husband is merely a tragic character who has stepped into comedy: Mr. Kemble represents Lord Townley with much gravity and stateliness; yet nobody in the pit ever said at seeing this character, “Really that is very comic!” It is necessary to a comic actor that he should be able to excite our laughter, or at least our smiles ; but Mr. Pope never excites either, at any rate not designedly. It is for this reason that he has been placed among the tragedians, and that Mr. Charles Kemble, Mr. Henry Johnston, Mr. Murray, and Mr. Siddons will be placed among them too. All these gentlemen might undoubtedly be called comic actors, as Robin Hood’s companion, who was seven feet high, was called Little John; or we might say such a man was as comic as Mr. Kemble or Mr. Henry Johnston, just as we say such a thing is as smooth as a file. But upon plain subjects I would rather be plain spoken.

Comments: Leigh Hunt (1784-1859) was a British essayist, journalist and poet, and one of the leading dramatic critics of his time. Alexander Pope (1763-1835) was an Irish actor and painter who was a regular member of the company at Covent Garden.

Links: Copy at Hathi Trust

Indirect Journey

Postcard image of Catlin’s Royal Pierrots, 1906, from Indirect Journey

Source: Harold Hobson, Indirect Journey: An Autobiography (London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1978), pp. 55-58

Text: One of the great joys of my life occurred during that holiday in 1912. It came when my father bought me a good, strong walking-stick from a shop on the north side of the town, just opposite Peasholm Lake. This was the first tangible expression of the hope that some time I should be able to walk more or less purposefully. In fact, with this stick I found that I was able to walk for five or six yards provided that the road was perfectly flat. An immense sense of liberation flooded over me. Years later (at a party, of course) I saw Elizabeth for the first time. As she came down a few steps into the room in which I was sitting there flashed into my mind
Henry Esmond’s first Vision of the radiant Beatrix descending the staircase in the home of the Castlewoods. I felt then as if a new planet had swum into my ken, like Keats opening Chapman’s Homer. I had the same feeling when my father bought the walking-stick, the first I ever had.

It held a promise of a world which contained such marvels as the glitteringly white and elegant Spa; the fascinating display of all that Yorkshire held to be high fashion every Sunday morning in what was known in those days as the Church Parade, when the rich visitors to Scarborough slowly walked down the hill from church in their finest attire, whilst we lined up on the pavement to gape at them in wonder and envy; the daily concerts held on the Spa conducted by the flamboyant Alastair Maclean, who, in his cloak and wide-brimmed hat, rather resembled the Toulouse-Lautrec posters of Aristide Bruant, but who was not, if he encountered my wheel-chair in the streets of Scarborough, above gravely saluting me; and best of all there were Catlin’s Royal Pierrots on the south foreshore. What young Gibson had begun, Catlin’s Royal Pierrots continued, especially one of its members called McAllister.

It was said that Mr Catlin, who himself appeared with the company, and despite advancing middle age did a sensational somersault at every performance, had begun his entertainment career on the sands in a fit-up booth, but when I knew his magical organization he had his own splendid theatre. This was quite an inspiration to me. It told me what opportunities were open to talent, and it occurred to me even in that early part of my life that if Mr Catlin had been able to force the door of success in his most improbable ascension, I might be able to do something of the sort myself. Not for nothing was I the nephew of Jabez, Frank, and Tom.

The Catlin shows were, in the first half of the programme, played in pierrot costume: peaked hat and pom-poms. It was this that brought me to the height of ecstasy, for I did not like the second half, in which the men wore dinner jackets and the ladies long evening dresses, anything like so much. All the players were delightful; they could, it seemed to me, sing and dance with miraculous skill, but one of them, the McAllister (I think his Christian name was Andrew) whom I have already mentioned, particularly entranced me. I was already convinced that Martin-Harvey was the greatest of actors, but after all I had only seen his genius in the pale reflections of the amiable Gibson, whilst McAllister was there on the stage, alive, Vital, amusing and overwhelmingly pathetic. Vesta Tilley and Little Tich were far more famous than he, for they were London stars, and McAllister was only a seaside entertainer, but he was the first actor I ever saw who could bring a lump to the throats of the audience, and send that shiver down the spine which many years later A.E. Housman said was the only sign by which he recognized that he was in the presence of great poetry.

McAllister was, however, funny as well as sad. He did two turns, in the first of which he told Scottish stories that doubled me up with laughter. Long afterwards, also in Scarborough, I heard the great Harry Lauder. In comparison with McAllister I found him smug and patronizing, conscious of an eminence which it seemed to me nothing in his performance justified. But McAllister would also do another turn, this time in the King’s English. This was a very serious turn, and it was to me the very summit of McAllister’s achievement. He would work us up into a tremendous passion and excitement with a monologue like ‘The Green Eye of the Little Yellow God’, though this was probably somewhat later in his career than my first visit to Scarborough. On that visit he recited ‘His First Long Trousers’. It evoked the ending of childhood, the finish of innocence, the moment when the father ceases to be his son’s protector, and the son takes his first timid and uncertain steps in the world on his own. It was wondrously sentimental, and those who themselves have no capacity for touching the feelings of an audience may well despise it. In this I cannot but consider them unwise. It is foolish to scoff at a kind of theatre for which you have no talent. The simple fact is that when McAllister recited ‘His First Long Trousers’ not only did tears pour down my face, but I understood better both the danger and the excitement of life.

There was something else about McAllister that profoundly moved me and deeply influenced me when I became a drama critic: he was not only a powerful artist but he was also a delicate one. He used to deliver his comedy talk wearing his peaked hat, but he recited his serious pieces bareheaded. His taking off his hat and his removal of the black skull cap underneath it was the first piece of imaginative ritual I ever encountered. I was stirred by this simple gesture of respect for the seriousness and reverence of life: the moment when he doffed his cap was always to me one of the high points of his performance. When in Godspell at Wyndham’s Theatre the clowns did exactly this before representing the Crucifixion, all the emotion I had felt when watching McAllister rushed back upon me. This particular scene (there have been others in other plays) is one of those which my feelings will never allow me to describe in level tones. When I think of it my voice always breaks. McAllister, without knowing it, taught me to appreciate Godspell. That, I think, would not have surprised him. He might have been somewhat more taken aback had he known that it was partly his use of ritual that enabled me to understand Genet. The knowledge might, in fact, have made him sad.

Comments: Harold Hobson (1904-1992) was a renowned British theatre critic, whose childhood was spent in Scarborough. Catlin’s Royal Pierrots, led by Will Catlin (real name William Fox) appeared at venues throughout the UK in the late 19th/early 20th century. He became associated in particular with Scarborough, opening the Catlin’s Arcadia venue in the town in 1909. A. ‘Mac’ McAllister was a member of the all-male troupe. The religious rock musical Godspell opened in London in 1971.

Remarks on Our Theatres

Source: Oliver Goldsmith, ‘Remarks on Our Theatres’, The Bee no. 1, 6 October 1759, reproduced in Essays and The Bee (Boston: Wells and Lilly, 1820), pp. 11-17

Production: Henry Fielding, The Miser, Covent Garden Theatre, London, 24 September 1759 and Henry Fielding, The Mock Doctor, Drury Lane Theatre, London, 25 September 1759

Text: Our theatres are now opened, and all Grub-street is preparing its advice to the managers; we shall undoubtedly hear learned disquisitions on the structure of one actor’s legs, and another’s eye-brows. We shall be told much of enunciations, tones, and attitudes, and shall have our lightest pleasures commented upon by didactic dulness. We shall, it is feared, be told, that Garrick is a fine actor, but then, as a manager, so avaricious! That Palmer is a most surprising genius, and Holland likely to do well in a particular cast of character. We shall have them giving Shuter instructions to amuse us by rule, and deploring over the ruins of desolated majesty at Covent-Garden. As I love to be advising too, for advice is easily given, and bears a show of wisdom and superiority, I must be permitted to offer a few observations upon our theatres and actors, without, on this trivial occasion, throwing my thoughts into the formality of method.

There is something in the deportment of all our players infinitely more stiff and formal than among the actors of other nations. Their action sits uneasy upon them; for as the English use very little gesture in ordinary conversation, our English-bred actors are obliged to supply stage gestures by their imagination alone. A French comedian finds proper models of action in every company and in every coffee house he enters. An Englishman is obliged to take his models from the stage itself; he is obliged to imitate nature from an imitation of nature. I know of no set of men more likely to be improved by travelling than those of the theatrical profession. The inhabitants of the continent are less reserved than here; they may be seen through upon a first acquaintance; such are the proper models to draw from; they are at once striking, and are found in great abundance.

Though it would he inexcuseable in a comedian to add any thing of his own to the poet’s dialogue, yet as to action he is entirely at liberty. By this he may show the fertility of his genius, the poignancy of his humour, and the exactness of his judgment; we scarcely see a coxcomb or a fool in common life that has not some peculiar oddity in his action. These peculiarities it is not in the power of words to represent, and they depend solely upon the actor. They give a relish to the humour of the poet, and make the appearance of nature more illusive; the Italians, it is true, mask some characters, and endeavour to preserve the peculiar humour by the make of the mask; but I have seen others still preserve a great fund of humour in the face without a mask; one actor, particularly, by a squint which he threw into some characters of low life, assumed a look of infinite stolidity. This, though upon reflection we might condemn, yet immediately upon representation we could not avoid being pleased with. To illustrate what I have been saying by the plays I have of late gone to see; in the Miser, which was played a few nights ago at Covent Garden, Lovegold appears through the whole in circumstances of exaggerated avarice; all the player’s action, therefore, should conspire with the poet’s design, and represent him as an epitome of penury. The French comedian, in this character, in the midst of one of his most violent passions, while he appears in an ungovernable rage, feels the demon of avarice still upon him, and stoops down to pick up a pin, which he quilts into the flap of his coat-pocket with great assiduity. Two candles are lighted up for his wedding; he flies, and turns one of them into the socket; it is, however, lighted up again; he then steals to it, and privately crams it into his pocket. The Mock-Doctor was lately played at the other house. Here again the comedian had an opportunity of heightening the ridicule by action. The French player sits in a chair with a high back, and then begins to show away by talking nonsense, which he would have thought Latin by those who he knows do not understand a syllable of the matter. At last he grows enthusiastic, enjoys the admiration of the company, tosses his legs and arms about, and in the midst of his raptures and vociferation, he and the chair fall back together. All this appears dull enough in the recital; but the gravity of Cato could not stand it in the representation. In short, there is hardly a character in comedy, to which a player of any real humour might not add strokes of vivacity that could not fail of applause. But instead of this we too often see our fine gentlemen do nothing through a whole part, but strut, and open their snuff-box; our pretty fellows sit indecently with their legs across, and our clowns pull up their breeches. These, if once or even twice repeated, might do well enough; but to see them served up in every scene argues the actor almost as barren as the character he would expose.

The magnificence of our theatres is far superior to any others in Europe, where plays only are acted. The great care our performers take in painting for a part, their exactness in all the minutiae of dress, and other little scenical proprieties, have been taken notice of by Ricoboni, a gentleman of Italy, who travelled Europe with no other design but to remark upon the stage; but there are several improprieties still continued, or lately come into fashion. As, for instance, spreading a carpet punctually at the beginning of the death scene, in order to prevent our actors from spoiling their clothes; this immediately apprises us of the tragedy to follow; for laying the cloth is not a more sure indication of dinner than laying the carpet of bloody work at Drury-lane. Our little pages also with unmeaning faces, that bear up the train of a weeping princess, and our awkward lords in waiting, take off much from her distress. Mutes of every kind divide our attention, and lessen our sensibility; but here it is entirely ridiculous, as we see them seriously employed in doing nothing. If we must have dirty-shirted guards upon the theatres, they should be taught to keep their eyes fixed on the actors, and not roll them round upon the audience, as if they were ogling the boxes.

Beauty methinks seems a requisite qualification in an actress. This seems scrupulously observed elsewhere, and for my part I could wish to see it observed at home. I can never conceive a hero dying for love of a lady totally destitute of beauty. I must think the part unnatural, for I cannot bear to hear him call that face angelic, when even paint cannot hide its wrinkles. I must condemn him of stupidity, and the person whom I can accuse for want of taste, will seldom become the object of my affections or admiration. But if this be a defect, what must be the entire perversion of scenical decorum, when for instance we see an actress that might act the Wapping Landlady without a bolster, pining in the character of Jane Shore, and while unwieldly with fat, endeavouring to convince the audience that she is dying with hunger!

For the future, then, I could wish that the parts of the young or beautiful were given to performers of suitable figures; for I must own, I could rather see the stage filled with agreeable objects, though they might sometimes bungle a little, than see it crowded with withered or mis-shapen figures, be their emphasis, as I think it is called, ever so proper. The first may have the awkward appearance of new-raised troops; but in viewing the last I cannot avoid the mortification of fancying myself placed in an hospital of invalids.

Comments: Oliver Goldsmith (1728-1774) was an Anglo-Irish novelist, playwright, poet and critic. The Bee was a periodical that he published himself. The Miser and The Mock Doctor were plays by Henry Fielding, both adapted from Molière. Antoine-François Riccoboni was an Italian actor whose treatise L’Art dit Théâtre was published in 1750.

Links: Copy at Hathi Trust

The Night Side of Europe

Illustration accompanying this chapter from The Night Side of Europe

Source: Karl Kingsley Kitchen, The Night Side of Europe, as seen by a Broadwayite abroad (Cleveland: The David Gibson company, 1914), pp. 49-55

Production: François de Curel, La danse devant le miroir, Théâtre de l’Ambigu-Comique, Paris, 17 January 1914

Text: “First nights” in Paris are a thing of the past. Paradoxical as this may seem it is actually true. For all the people who used to make up “first nights” audiences see the new plays at their répétition générale. Often two and even three of these functions are given before a new play is offered to the public — so that by the “first night” a play is stale.

A répétition générale used to be called a dress rehearsal — and as is the custom all over Europe the critics were invited to witness the performance, but they were placed on their honor not to write about the play until after its formal “first night.” To-day, however, a répétition générale is not a rehearsal at all. It is the first public performance of a play — yet entirely different from a “first night.” It is a sort of trial trip for a special public, and has become the dressiest and most sought after function in twentieth century Paris. It is also above all things, for the stranger, a marvellous lesson in humbug. The theatrical world of Paris has learned how necessary humbug is in modern life, and the répétition générale is a very excellent object lesson in the knowledge.

All who attend this function are the guests of the management. That is to say the manager, the author, and the members of the cast, the dressmakers, stage furnishers, scene-shifters, everybody who has anything to do with the production, has a right to invite a certain number of friends. This being so, the verdict of the répétition générale audience is the severest verdict which the play will ever get, and very often plays have been half-failures at this répétition générale, and boomed successfully for several hundred nights. For the general attitude is that of “I-dare-you-to-make-me-laugh.” People do not mind applauding so as to be polite, but so many people present are interested in the play business themselves, that comparatively few of them are very anxious for the play to be a success.

Quite an instructive entertainment at a répétition générale in Paris is, after listening to the “Mais c’est charmant! Quel esprit! Que c’est délicieux!” and similar exclamations of delight, to wriggle out of the lighted stalls or balcony into the comparative darkness back in the corridors and listen to what the exclaimers whisper after they have exclaimed. It is also very interesting to hear the different opinions expressed by the same persons to their own friends and the friends of the author or the actor or the actress of whom they are talking. In fact, the more one goes with eyes and ears open to the répétition générale the more one becomes convinced of the fact that if Ananias and Sapphira had lived in our day they would have been immensely popular favorites in Paris.

The iron door which separates the stage from the front of the house is always opened and left open after each act of the modern répétition générale, for two-thirds of the audience really has some right to go behind and congratulate the author, and the manager, and the actors, and the actresses, and the other third, which used to be refused admission, made such a noise about it that it became simpler and easier to let them all through. The principal business of each entr’acte is to embrace the author.

How poor M. François de Curel suffered the evening I was there! It was the répétition générale of La Danse devant le Miroir at the Nouvel Ambigu theater. With most of the audience I went behind the scenes at the end of the second act to congratulate the author. What I saw would have resulted in several sudden deaths in an American playhouse. Forty or fifty highly excited, long-whiskered Frenchmen were shoving and pushing each other about in their frantic efforts to kiss the author. They kissed the back of his head, his ears; in fact, every available place. When they were through the women got a chance. They mobbed him on all sides and kissed him until his face was streaked with rouge and face powder, his glasses broken and his hair rumpled like that of a football player.

I waited until the mob had left to attack M. Garry, the leading player, before I congratulated M. de Curel on his success. He was trying to wipe his mouth and cheeks with his handkerchief and when I only shook hands with him, and did not venture a kiss, he pressed my hand firmly and said “You are a real friend. Tell me, do you like the play? And do you think it will be a success?

“I like it tremendously,” I hastened to assure him, although I had never seen anything quite as bad. “But of course that does not mean it will be a success. Still, from the kissing you underwent, I should say that it looks like a winner.”

“My friend,” said M. de Curel, “at the répétition générale of my last play I was kissed by three times as many people and my play only ran two weeks.” And M. de Curel, let it be known, is considered one of the greatest dramatic authors of France.

I must give a very brief outline of La danse devant le Miroir, it is so typically Parisian. American theatergoers will be interested in it because its leading feminine role is played by Mme. Simone, who tried so hard to establish herself as a star on our stage.

Voila! Face to face with ruin, Paul Bréan throws himself into the Seine, rather than confess his love to Régine, whose fortune he is afraid he may appear to covet. But he is rescued from the river, and Régine offers him her hand. He refuses, and to establish between them a kind of equality, Régine makes him believe that she needs to be saved from dishonor. Out of devotion, he consents to give her his name. Then, learning he has been told a fairy-tale, he in turn plays a part: he pretends he still believes in her lapse. The result is a misunderstanding that is prolonged right up to the wedding night. Régine would like to ascertain whether Bréan is really a hero lover, or, on the contrary, merely a low speculator decked out with the mask of a knight, and Bréan, to quell her perplexities, shoots himself while she is embracing him.

However, Robert de Flers and M.F. Duquesnel, two of the leading critics in Paris, said it was very fine and Edmond See, another critic, added his word of praise. But Paris is a long way from New York.

I was told that some years ago the répétition générale was a real dress rehearsal. There were never to be more than thirty critics and other folk whose business was the stage, and they were expected to come back to the first night. If anything went at all wrong, it was done over again and rehearsals used to be over at three or half past in the morning.

Nowadays the dressmakers, a few critics, and a few friends manage to fill the house at the rehearsal which is called the dressmakers’ and photographers’ rehearsal, but they do not appear in evening dress. The real dress rehearsal is now two or three days before the show. By the first night the play is stale.

Comments: Karl Kingsley Kitchen (1885-1935) was an American travel writer, newspaper columnist and bon viveur. François, Vicomte de Curel (1854-1928) was a French playwright. His play La danse devant le miroir had its premiere at the Théâtre de l’Ambigu-Comique, Paris on 17 January 1914. The actors mentioned are Claude Garry and Simone Le Bargy, known as Madame Simone.

Links: Copy at Hathi Trust