Tragedies

Garrick’s Acting As Seen in His Own Time

‘Mrs. Hopkins & Mr. Garrick in the Character of Queen Gertrude and Hamlet’, Late 18th century [1774?], via Folgerpedia

Source: Extracts from Walter Herries Pollock, ‘Garrick’s Acting As Seen in His Own Time’, Longman’s Magazine (August 1885), pp. 371-375, translated from two letters by Georg Christoph Lichtenberg, originally published in German in the periodical Deutsches Museum, November 1776

Production: William Shakespeare, Hamlet, theatre Royal Drury Lane, London, 2 and 12 December 1774

Text: Now, my dear B., if, after what I have told you, you have been able to picture a Garrick to yourself, follow me with him in one or two scenes. To-day, because I am somewhat in the humour for it, I will take the one out of Hamlet where the Ghost appears to him. You know this scene already from Mr. Partridge’s excellent description in Fielding. My description will not make the other superfluous, but only explain it.

Hamlet appears in black attire, the only one, alas, which is still worn in the whole court, for his poor father, who has been scarcely dead a couple of months. Horatio and Marcellus accompany him in uniform. They await the Ghost. Hamlet has folded his arms and pulled his hat over his eyes. It is a cold night, and just twelve o’clock. The theatre is darkened, and the whole audience as still and the faces as motionless as if they had been painted on the walls of the house. At the extreme end of the theatre one might have heard a pin drop. Suddenly as Hamlet goes rather far up the stage somewhat to the left, with his back to the audience, Horatio starts. “Look, my lord, it comes,” says he, pointing to the right where the Ghost is standing immovable, ere one is even aware of it. At these words Garrick turns suddenly round, and at the same moment staggers back two or three paces with trembling knees, his hat falls to the ground, both arms—especially the left—are nearly extended to the full, the hand as high as the head, the right arm more bent and the hand lower, the fingers spread out and the mouth open. There he remains standing, with legs far apart, but still in a graceful attitude, as if electrified, supported by his friends. His features express such horror that I felt a repeated shudder pass over me before he began to speak. The almost appalling silence of the assembly, which preceded this scene and made one feel scarcely safe in one’s seat, probably contributed not a little to the effect. At last he speaks, not with the beginning but with the end of a breath, and says in a trembling voice “Angels and ministers of grace defend us,” words which complete whatever may yet be wanting in this scene to make it one of the sublimest and most terrifying of which, perhaps the stage is capable. The Ghost beckons him; then you should see him, with his eyes still fixed upon the Ghost, while yet speaking to his friends, break loose from them, although they warn him not to follow, and hold him fast. But at last, his patience exhausted, he faces them, and with great violence tears himself away, and, with a swiftness which makes one shudder draws his sword on them, saying, “By heavens, I’ll make a ghost of him that lets me.” Then, turning to the Ghost,’ he holds his sword out: “Go on; I’ll follow thee;” and the Ghost moves off. Hamlet remains standing still, his sword extended before him, to gain more distance; and when the audience have lost sight of the Ghost, he begins to follow him slowly, at times stopping, and then going on again, but always with his sword extended, his eyes fixed on the Ghost, with dishevelled hair and breathless, until he, too, is lost behind the scenes. You may easily imagine what loud applause accompanies this exit. It begins as soon as the Ghost moves off, and lasts until Hamlet likewise disappears.

… In the fine soliloquy, “O that this too too solid flesh would melt,” &c, Garrick is completely overpowered by the tears of just grief for a virtuous father, for whom a frivolous mother no longer wears mourning, nor even feels grief, at a time when every parasite of the court should still be wearing black—the most unrestrained of all tears, perhaps because they are the only alleviation which in such a struggle between one duty and another duty an honest heart can procure. Of the words, “so excellent a king,” the last word is quite inaudible; you only perceive it by the motion of the mouth, which closes immediately afterwards firmly, and trembling with agitation, as if to repress with his lips the only too clear indication of the grief which might unman him. This way of shedding tears, which shows the whole burden of inward grief, as well as the manly soul suffering under it, carries one irresistibly away. At the end of the soliloquy he mixes just anger with his grief; and once, when he strikes out violently with his arm to give emphasis to a word in his indignation, the word (to the surprise of the audience) remains unuttered, choked by emotion, and only follows after a few seconds, when tears begin to flow. My neighbour and I, who had not yet exchanged a word, looked at each other and spoke. It was irresistible.

… Hamlet, who, as I have already reminded you, is in mourning, appears here with thick, loosened hair, some of it hanging over one shoulder, he having already begun to play the madman; one of his black stockings is half-way down his leg, showing the white understocking, and a noose of red garter hangs down the middle of the calf. Thus attired, he steps slowly forward in deep thought, supporting his chin with his right hand, and the elbow of the right with the left, looking on one side on the ground in a dignified manner. Here, taking his right hand away from his chin, but, if I mistake not, still holding it supported by the left, he utters the words “To be or not to be” softly; but they are everywhere audible, on account of the great stillness, and not through the peculiar gift of the man, as some of the papers state.

I must here make a little observation on the text. In the fourth line of this soliloquy some propose reading “against assailing troubles” instead of “against a sea of troubles,” because arms cannot be taken against a sea. Mr. Garrick nevertheless says, “against a sea of troubles.”

The graveyard scene is suppressed at Drury Lane. At Covent Garden it is still kept. This suppression Garrick should not have introduced. Such a splendid old piece, with all its fine characteristic raw strength, would still in these mealy-mouthed times, when even the language of nature begins to give way to conventional babble, have broken the fall of it even if it had not been able to uphold it.

I must pass over some of the most beautiful scenes, among others that in which he instructs the actors, as well as that in which he thunders into his mother’s heart the comparison between his uncle and his father when the Ghost appears; one blow upon another before one has yet recovered.

Comments: Georg Christoph Lichtenberg (1742-1799) was a German physicist and philosopher. A keen Anglophile, he visited England in 1770 and over 1774-1775. His celebrated account of David Garrick‘s performance in Hamlet (original diary entries reveal that he saw the production on 2 and 12 December 1774) was written in two letters to his friend Heinrich Christian Boie in 1775 and originally published in Boie’s literary periodical Deutsches Museum in November 1776.

Links: Copy of English translation at Hathi Trust
Copy of German original at Hathi Trust

Extracts of the Journals and Correspondence of Miss Berry

Source: Lady Theresa Lewis (ed.), Extracts of the Journals and Correspondence of Miss Berry, from the year 1783 to 1852 (London: Longmans, Green, 1865), pp. 167-168

Production: Antoine de la Fosse, Manlius Capitolinus and Marc-Antoine Legrand, L’Aveugle Clairvoyant, Comédie-Française, Paris, 6 July 1818

Text: Monday, July 6th. — M. de Duras gave us tickets for this week in the box of the gentlemen in waiting. I arrived in time to see the last scene’ of Talma, in ‘Manlius.’ It was the night of his return to the theatre after rather a long absence. On the curtain falling, they called loudly for him, with a noise and a disturbance much more like London than Paris. Three times they in vain began the second piece; it was impossible to hear a word. Three times the two actresses who had to commence the piece took refuge in the side scenes. At last, whilst Baptiste Cadet came forward to address the audience, some officer of the police, in his scarf of office, announced that, by an order of the police, the actors were forbidden to appear upon the stage out of their parts. One might well ask why this rule? which prevents the audience from showing, and the actor from receiving, these marks of approbation. They have much to learn in this country upon the ne quid nimis in the way of government. At last the audience was asked if they would have the second piece, ‘L’Aveugle Clairvoyant.’ Upon the reiterated ‘Ouis’ from the pit, they replied, ‘Vous l’aurez quand ces misérables criards ont cesses.’ On this the noise was renewed for some minutes, after which we had the piece very well acted and very amusing.

Comments: Mary Berry (1763-1852) was a British editor, letter writer and diarist, known for her close association with Horace Walpole. Her published journals and correspondence include many theatregoing references. François-Joseph Talma (1762-1826) was the leading French actor of the period. One of his most celebrated roles was than of Manlius in Manlius Capitolinus, the 1698 Roman tragedy by Antoine de La Fosse. L’Aveugle Clairvoyant was written by the prolific French playwright Marc-Antoine Legrand.

Links: Copy at Hathi Trust

The Diary of Philipp Von Neumann

Source: E. Beresford Chancellor (ed.), The Diary of Philipp von Neumann, vol. 1 (London: Philip Allan, 1928), p. 5

Production: William Shakespeare, Hamlet, Covent Garden Teahtre, London, 27 September 1819

Text: Sept. 27th. While riding in Hyde Park my groom fell from his horse and hurt his foot badly. I dined at the Piazza Coffee House and later went to Lady Floyd who had offered me a place at her box at Covent Garden. They performed Hamlet. Charles Kemble filled the title-rôle, and did it very well. He has a noble presence, but puts too much pathos into the part for which, too, he is not young enough. Miss Mathews as Ophelia so overdid the character, one of the most interesting in English tragedy, that she almost made a caricature of it. It is a pity that a play containing so many beauties should be spoilt, as most of Shakespeare’s are, by certain blemishes of taste. In spite of excisions, much had been left in which may suit the spirit of the people but to which others object. The management has to consider the former rather than the latter.

Comments: Baron Philipp von Neumann (1781-1851) was an Austrian diplomat, posted at the Austrian embassy in London during the 1810s and 1820s. His diaries provide a detailed account of the political and high society life of the time, and document his many visits to the theatre and opera. Charles Kemble, at the time of this production, was forty-four years old. Miss Mathews (presumably related to theatre manager Charles Mathews) had stood in at short notice for Ann Maria Tree, who was unwell.

An Unconscious Autobiography

Source: Thatcher T.P. Luquer (ed.), An Unconscious Autobiography: William Osborn Payne’s diary and letters, 1796 to 1804 (New York: privately printed, 1938), pp. 21-22

Production: Arthur Murphy, The Grecian Daughter plus The Shipwreck, Holliday Street Theater, Baltimore, 3 December 1798

Text: 1798 Decem 3. Went to the Play – which was the Grecian Daughter. Mrs. Merry acted the Part of Euphrasia. In it she exceeded every Thing, that I have ever seen before in the Theatrical Way – Her voice – Attitudes – Expression & Countenance were admirable – & I cannot conceive an Idea above her performance. Mr. Wynel [sic] acted the Part of Evander – with much Taste & accuracy. Mr. Warren as Dionysius played correctly – but I do not think him a Pleasing Actor. Mr. Hardinge as Phocion was but middling – his Irish Brogue hurt the Performance. He possesses no Dignity of Action or Attitude.

The Farce, which was the Shipwreck, afforded amusement – but observations take too much Time to bestow them on a Farce.

The Tragedy of the Grecian Daughter is the most Pleasing one I ever saw – it concludes happily, which the most of Tragedies do not. The Affection of Euphrasia to her Father, her Constancy, her Fortitude & Heroism – charm the mind & the happy Issue which ended all her misfortunes renders the Spectator happy.

Mr. Taylor objects strongly to my visiting the Plays – he says he cannot find an excuse, either to himself, or to my Father, for bringing me up in such a dissipated Way, as he pleases to name it. I am sorry for it. Certainly it is expensive, but I think it the Best possible School for Morality & Knowledge of the World – my Father always told me so & that if he could afford it, I should attend the Theatre constantly. Mr. T. calls it Dissipation; to most of those who attend Plays it is so, but I am always an attentive observer of what Passes without entering into any of the Dissipated scenes which I see going on. I never walk the Lobby, stand at the Bar drinking – or in the Oyster House – but always get the most Instruction I can out of everything I see and hear – whether Real or acted. It is a School which in some measure supplies the Plan of experience by shewing scenes which tho’ Generally a little Exaggerated, Still shew the Passions, the Faults, the Weaknesses of men – & there are those who will Learn Wisdom only by Experience – who if They will Pay attention, may make the Stage answer a very good Purpose to Them.

Comments: William Osborn Payne (1783-1804) was an American who died young, leaving a diary that was later printed privately. His younger brother was the actor, playwright and poet John Howard Payne (author of ‘Home Sweet Home’). The Grecian Daughter was a tragedy by the Irish author Arthur Murphy. The leading performer in the production seen by Payne at the Holliday Street Theater, Baltimore, was Ann Brunton Merry (1768-1808), a British actress who enjoyed considerable success in America from 1796 onwards. The part of Euphrasia in The Grecian Daughter was one of her signature roles. Other performers mentioned include Thomas Wignell (later Ann Merry’s second husband) and William Warren (later Ann Merry’s third husband). The play was accompanied by the comic opera The Shipwreck.

Links: Copy at Hathi Trust

Diary, Reminiscences, and Correspondence of Henry Crabb Robinson

Charles Turner, ‘Edmund Kean as Richard III’ (1814), via Wikiart

Source: Thomas Sadler (ed.), Diary, Reminiscences, and Correspondence of Henry Crabb Robinson (London: Macmillan, 1869), vol. I, pp. 273-274

Production: William Shakespeare, Richard III, Drury Lane, London, 7 March 1814

Text: March 7th. — At Drury Lane, and saw Kean for the first time. He played Richard, I believe, better than any man I ever saw; yet my expectations were pitched too high, and I had not the pleasure I expected. The expression of malignant joy is the one in which he surpasses all men I have ever seen. And his most flagrant defect is want of dignity. His face is finely expressive, though his mouth is not handsome, and he projects his lower lip ungracefully; yet it is finely suited to Richard. He gratified my eye more than my ear. His action very often was that of Kemble, and this was not the worst of his performance; but it detracts from his boasted originality. His declamation is very unpleasant, but my ear may in time be reconciled to it, as the palate is to new cheese and tea. It often reminds me of Blanchard’s. His speech is not fluent, and his words and syllables are too distinctly separated. His finest scene was with Lady Anne, and his mode of lifting up her veil to watch her countenance was exquisite. The concluding scene was unequal to my expectation, though the fencing was elegant, and his sudden death-fall was shockingly real. But he should have lain still. Why does he rise, or awake rather, to repeat the spurious lines? He did not often excite a strong persuasion of the truth of his acting, and the applause he received was not very great. Mrs. Glover had infinitely more in the pathetic scene in which she, as Queen Elizabeth, parts from her children. To recur to Kean, I do not think he will retain all his popularity, but he may learn to deserve it better, though I think he will never be qualified for heroic parts. He wants a commanding figure and a powerful voice. His greatest excellences are a fine pantomimic face and remarkable agility.

Comments: Henry Crabb Robinson (1775-1867) was an English lawyer and diarist, whose published journals document his acquaintance with literary figures of the period and refer regularly to theatre productions that he saw. Edmund Kean (1787-1833) first came to general attention, in January 1814 playing Shylock in The Merchant of Venice at Drury Lane, which was followed by Gloucester in Richard III. His visceral performances excited huge audience enthusiasm and established his reputation. Queen Elizabeth was played by Julia Glover.

Links: Copy at Hathi Trust

Queen Victoria’s Journals

Source: Alexandrina Victoria, journal entry for 22 June 1852

Production: Johann von Goethe, Faust, St James’s Theatre, London, 22 June 1852

Text: We dined early & went to the St. James’s Theatre, to see Goethe’s great & wonderful Tragedy of “Faust”, It was in 6 acts & though necessarily much curtailed, it lasted till 12. Having never read it before, I can hardly be a fit judge of it, but I mean to study it well now. For Philosophy, depth of feeling & beauty of reasoning, it has no equal, but I could not understand the 1rst part or follow it well. Then the story of poor Gretchen, the true story of all such poor girls, who are seduced, & whose pure innocent natures, are led step by step into sin, till they lose their reason & destroy both themselves & their child, — is most painful & the constant appearance of threat dreadful Mephistopheles, equally painful & oppressive. Still it is a magnificent work, & I have no doubt that by studying the Piece I shall get to appreciate it more. It was admirably acted. Devrient acted the part of Faust & recited the long monologue in the 1rst act beautifully; Herr Kühn, that of Mephistopheles, acting the part admirably, with a complete personification of the Devil, in both looks & gestures. He was quite horrid to look at; Fraülin Schäfer, as Gretchen, looking so pretty & acting the part so simply, naturally & innocently. At the end, when she said “I must die, I am still so young”, quite went to one’s heart, as also when Mephistopheles speaks to her & she answers so simply “I am a poor young creature”. She was charmingly dressed. Frau Flindt took the part of Martha. The end is too terrible when Gretchen is in prison & speaks of having poisoned her mother & killed her child. —

Comments: Alexandrina Victoria (1819-1901), later just Victoria, was Queen of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland from 1837 to her death, and additionally titled Empress of India from 1876. She kept up a journal from 1832 until almost the end of her life. The journal records many visits to the theatre, particularly in her younger days. Goethe‘s play Faust (part one) was one of a number of productions put on in a three-week season at the St James’s Theatre by a German company, led by Emil Devrient, who played Faust, with C. Kühn playing Mephistopheles. All the productions, which included Hamlet, were performed in German. Victoria was accompanied by her German husband, Prince Albert, who afterwards commissioned artist Edward Corbould to produce a painting of a scene from the play for the queen. It is held in the Royal collection.

Links: Queen Victoria’s Journals
Edward Henry Corbould, ‘Scene from Goethe’s Faust: the appearance of the Spirit of the Earth’ (1852), The Royal Collection

The Journals of Washington Irving

Source: William P. Trent and George S. Hellman (eds.), The Journals of Washington Irving, vol. 1 (Boston, The Bibliophile Society, 1919), p. 123

Production: William Shakespeare (trans. August Wilhelm Iffland), King Lear, Prague, 22 November 1822

Text: Fashionable drive on a hill outside of the walls — in a broad valley bordered by trees — from house fine view in every direction — see the town below you, bristles with steeples — river below — distant hills.

In the evening saw “King Lear” performed at the theatre, translated by Iffland — the part of Lear very well performed, the translation apparently very good and exact. Part of Edgar very well done, as likewise that of Kent — the tender parts of the character of Lear particularly well done and some of the mad passages — a very crowded audience — people much affected and gave great applause — tho’ at the battle between Edgar and Edmund there were tokens of disapprobation.

Comments: Washington Irving (1783-1859) was an American writer and diplomat, best known for his short stories ‘Rip Van Winkle’ and ‘The Legend of Sleepy Hollow’. He lived in Europe 1815-1832 and travelled across the continent, partly in pursuit of folk tale material. August Wilhelm Iffland (1759-1814) was a German actor and playwright.

Links: Copy at Hathi Trust

The Private Journal of Aaron Burr

Source: Matthew L. Davis (ed.), The Private Journal of Aaron Burr, during his residence of four years in Europe: with selections from his correspondence (New York: Harper & Brothers, 1838), vol. 1, p. 362

Production: William Shakespeare, Hamlet, Theatre au Palais, Hanover, 17 December 1809

Text: To the theatre. Hamlet. I admire very much the Theatre au Palais, where I was to see Hamlet in German, translated from Shakspeare. There is parterre and five rows of boxes. No gallery. As in Edinburgh, there is a place assigned for les courtisannes. The curtain is, of the ornament of the theatre, the thing most worthy of notice. I will endeavour to get a description for you. It is about the size of that in Philadelphia; but in every part of the house you hear distinctly. I saw nothing very remarkable in the performers. The style of acting a good deal like that in England. Stayed only two acts …

Comments: Aaron Burr (1756-1836) was Vice President of the United States (1801–1805), serving under Thomas Jefferson. He is best known for having killed a political rival, Alexander Hamilton, in a duel. After the scandal, and later charges of treason, he went on a long tour of Europe. His letters and journal record numerous visits to the theatre. Prostitutes commonly operated in theatres at this time.

Links: Copy at Hathi Trust

The Black Man: His Antecedents, His Genius, and His Achievements

Portrait of Ira Aldridge in 1858 by Taras Shevchenko, via Wikimedia Commons

Source: William Wells Brown, The Black Man: His Antecedents, His Genius, and His Achievements (New York: Thomas Hamilton, 1863), pp. 118-121

Text: On looking over the columns of The Times, one morning, I saw it announced under the head of “Amusements,” that “Ira Aldridge, the African Roscius,” was to appear in the character of Othello, in Shakspeare’s celebrated tragedy of that name, and, having long wished to see my sable countryman, I resolved at once to attend. Though the doors had been open but a short time when I reached the Royal Haymarket, the theatre where the performance was to take place, the house was well filled, and among the audience I recognized the faces of several distinguished persons of the nobility, the most noted of whom was Sir Edward Bulwer Lytton, the renowned novelist — his figure neat, trim, hair done up in the latest fashion — looking as if he had just come out of a band-box. He is a great lover of the drama, and has a private theatre at one of his country seats, to which he often invites his friends, and presses them into the different characters.

As the time approached for the curtain to rise, it was evident that the house was to be “jammed.” Stuart, the best Iago since the days of Young, in company with Roderigo, came upon the stage as soon as the green curtain went up. Iago looked the villain, and acted it to the highest conception of the character. The scene is changed, all eyes are turned to the right door, and thunders of applause greet the appearance of Othello. Mr. Aldridge is of the middle size, and appeared to be about three quarters African; has a pleasant countenance, frame well knit, and seemed to me the best Othello that I had ever seen. As Iago began to work upon his feelings, the Moor’s eyes flashed fire, and, further on in the play, he looked the very demon of despair. When he seized the deceiver by the throat, and exclaimed, “Villain! be sure thou prove my love false: be sure of it — give me the ocular proof — or, by the worth of my eternal soul, thou hadst better have been born a dog, Iago, than answer my waked wrath,” the audience, with one impulse, rose to their feet amid the wildest enthusiasm. At the end of the third act, Othello was called before the curtain, and received the applause of the delighted multitude. I watched the countenance and every motion of Bulwer Lytton with almost as much interest as I did that of the Moor of Venice, and saw that none appeared to be better pleased than he. The following evening I went to witness his Hamlet, and was surprised to find him as perfect in that as he had been in Othello; for I had been led to believe that the latter was his greatest character. The whole court of Denmark was before us; but till the words, “‘Tis not alone my inky cloak, good mother,” fell from the lips of Mr. Aldridge, was the general ear charmed, or the general tongue arrested. The voice was so low, and sad, and sweet, the modulation so tender, the dignity so natural, the grace so consummate, that all yielded themselves silently to the delicious enchantment. When Horatio told him that he had come to see his father’s funeral, the deep melancholy that took possession of his face showed the great dramatic power of Mr. Aldridge. “I pray thee do not mock me, fellow-student,” seemed to come from his inmost soul. The animation with which his countenance was lighted up, during Horatio’s recital of the visits that the ghost had paid him and his companions, was beyond description. “Angels and ministers of grace defend us,” as the ghost appeared in the fourth scene, sent a thrill through the whole assembly. His rendering of the “Soliloquy on Death,” which Edmund Kean, Charles Kemble, and William C. Macready have reaped such unfading laurels from, was one of his best efforts. He read it infinitely better than Charles Kean, whom I had heard at the “Princess,” but a few nights previous. The vigorous starts of thought, which in the midst of his personal sorrows rise with such beautiful and striking suddenness from the ever-wakeful mind of the humanitarian philosopher, are delivered with that varying emphasis that characterizes the truthful delineator, when he exclaims, “Frailty, thy name is woman!” In the second scene of the second act, when revealing to Guildenstern the melancholy which preys upon his mind, the beautiful and powerful words in which Hamlet explains his feelings are made very effective in Mr. Aldridge’s rendering: “This most excellent canopy, the air, the brave o’erhanging firmament, this majestical roof fretted with golden fire …. What a piece of work is a man! How noble in reason! how infinite in faculties! in form and moving how express and admirable! in action how like an angel! in apprehension how like a God!” In the last scene of the second act, when Hamlet’s imagination, influenced by the interview with the actors, suggests to his rich mind so many eloquent reflections, Mr. Aldridge enters fully into the spirit of the scene, warms up, and when he exclaims, “He would drown the stage with tears, and cleave the general ear with horrid speech, — make mad the guilty, and appall the free,” he is very effective; and when this warmth mounts into a paroxysm of rage, and he calls the King “Bloody, bawdy villain! Remorseless, treacherous, lecherous, kindless villain!” he sweeps the audience with him, and brings down deserved applause. The fervent soul and restless imagination, which are ever stirring at the bottom of the fountain, and sending bright bubbles to the top, find a glowing reflection on the animated surface of Mr. Aldridge’s colored face. I thought Hamlet one of his best characters, though I saw him afterwards in several others.

Comments: William Wells Brown (c.1844-1884) was an African-American abolitionist lecturer, historian, playwright and novelist. He spent 1849 to 1854 living in Britain. However, there are problems with his account of seeing the great African-American actor Ira Aldridge (1807-1867). Although Aldridge performed in Britain around that time, most of his performances were in provincial theatres, and he did not play Othello at the Haymarket until 1865, two years after Brown’s account was published. The performance may have been an Othello at the Lyceum in 1858, when his reputation was greater and Stuart played Iago, but Brown does not appear to have been in Britain at that date. Nor did Aldridge play Hamlet at this time.

Links: Copy at the Internet Archive

An Apology for the Life of Mr. Colley Cibber

Thomas Betterton as Hamlet, seeing the Ghost in his mother’s chamber, from Nicholas Rowe’s edition of Shakespeare’s works (1709), via Wikimedia Commons

Source: Colley Cibber (ed. Robert W. Lowe), An Apology for the Life of Mr. Colley Cibber, written by himself (London: John C. Nimmo, 1889 [orig. pub. 1740), vol. 1, pp. 99-105

Text: Betterton was an Actor, as Shakespear was an Author, both without Competitors! form’d for the mutual Assistance and Illustration of each others Genius! How Shakespear wrote, all Men who have a Taste for Nature may read and know — but with what higher Rapture would he still be read could they conceive how Betterton playd him! Then might they know the one was born alone to speak what the other only knew to write! Pity it is that the momentary Beauties flowing from an harmonious Elocution cannot, like those of Poetry, be their own Record! That the animated Graces of the Player can live no longer than the instant Breath and Motion that presents them, or at best can but faintly glimmer through the Memory or imperfect Attestation of a few surviving Spectators. Could how Betterton spoke be as easily known as what he spoke, then might you see the Muse of Shakespear in her Triumph, with all her Beauties in their best Array rising into real Life and charming her Beholders. But alas! since all this is so far out of the reach of Description, how shall I shew you Betterton? Should I therefore tell you that all the Othellos, Hamlets, Hotspurs, Mackbeths, and Brutus‘s whom you may have seen since his Time, have fallen far short of him; this still would give you no Idea of his particular Excellence. Let us see then what a particular Comparison may do! whether that may yet draw him nearer to you?

You have seen a Hamlet perhaps, who, on the first Appearance of his Father’s Spirit, has thrown himself into all the straining Vociferation requisite to express Rage and Fury, and the House has thunder’d with Applause; tho’ the mis-guided Actor was all the while (as Shakespear terms it) tearing a Passion into Rags – I am the more bold to offer you this particular Instance, because the late Mr. Addison, while I sate by him to see this Scene acted, made the same Observation, asking me, with some Surprize, if I thought Hamlet should be in so violent a Passion with the Ghost, which, tho’ it might have astonish’d, it had not provok’d him? for you may observe that in this beautiful Speech the Passion never rises beyond an almost breathless Astonishment, or an Impatience, limited by filial Reverence, to enquire into the suspected Wrongs that may have rais’d him from his peaceful Tomb! and a Desire to know what a Spirit so seemingly distrest might wish or enjoin a sorrowful Son to execute towards his future Quiet in the Grave? This was the Light into which Betterton threw this Scene; which he open’d with a Pause of mute Amazement! then rising slowly to a solemn, trembling Voice, he made the Ghost equally terrible to the Spectator as to himself! and in the descriptive Part of the natural Emotions which the ghastly Vision gave him, the boldness of his Expostulation was still govern’d by Decency, manly, but not braving; his Voice never rising into that seeming Outrage or wild Defiance of what he naturally rever’d. But alas! to preserve this medium, between mouthing and meaning too little, to keep the Attention more pleasingly awake by a temper’d Spirit than by meer Vehemence of Voice, is of all the Master-strokes of an Actor the most difficult to reach. In this none yet have equall’d Betterton. But I am unwilling to shew his Superiority only by recounting the Errors of those who now cannot answer to them, let their farther Failings therefore be forgotten! or rather, shall I in some measure excuse them? For I am not yet sure that they might not be as much owing to the false Judgment of the Spectator as the Actor. While the Million are so apt to be transported when the Drum of their Ear is so roundly rattled; while they take the Life of Elocution to lie in the Strength of the Lungs, it is no wonder the Actor, whose end is Applause, should be also tempted at this easy rate to excite it. Shall I go a little farther? and allow that this Extreme is more pardonable than its opposite Error? I mean that dangerous Affectation of the Monotone, or solemn Sameness of Pronounciation, which, to my Ear, is insupportable; for of all Faults that so frequently pass upon the Vulgar, that of Flatness will have the fewest Admirers. That this is an Error of ancient standing seems evident by what Hamlet says, in his Instructions to the Players, viz.

Be not too tame, neither, &c.

The Actor, doubtless, is as strongly ty’d down to the Rules of Horace as the Writer.

Si vis me flere, dolendum est
Primum ipsi tibi –

He that feels not himself the Passion he would raise, will talk to a sleeping Audience: But this never was the Fault of Betterton; and it has often amaz’d me to see those who soon came after him throw out, in some Parts of a Character, a just and graceful Spirit which Betterton himself could not but have applauded. And yet in the equally shining Passages of the same Character have heavily dragg’d the Sentiment along like a dead Weight, with a long-ton’d Voice and absent Eye, as if they had fairly forgot what they were about: If you have never made this Observation, I am contented you should not know where to apply it.

A farther Excellence in Betterton was, that he could vary his Spirit to the different Characters he acted. Those wild impatient Starts, that fierce and flashing Fire, which he threw into Hotspur, never came from the unruffled Temper of his Brutus (for I have more than once seen a Brutus as warm as Hotspur): when the Betterton Brutus was provok’d in his Dispute with Cassius, his Spirit flew only to his Eye; his steady Look alone supply’d that Terror which he disdain’d an Intemperance in his Voice should rise to. Thus, with a settled Dignity of Contempt, like an unheeding Rock he repelled upon himself the Foam of Cassius. Perhaps the very Words of Shakespear will better let you into my Meaning:

Must I give way and room to your rash Choler?
Shall I be frighted when a Madman stares?

And a little after,

There is no Terror, Cassius, in your Looks! &c.

Not but in some part of this Scene, where he reproaches Cassius, his Temper is not under this Suppression, but opens into that Warmth which becomes a Man of Virtue; yet this is that Hasty Spark of Anger which Brutus himself endeavours to excuse.

But with whatever strength of Nature we see the Poet shew at once the Philosopher and the Heroe, yet the Image of the Actor’s Excellence will be still imperfect to you unless Language could put Colours in our Words to paint the Voice with.

Et, si vis similem pijigere, pinge sonum, is enjoyning an impossibility. The most that a Vandyke can arrive at, is to make his Portraits of great Persons seem to think; a Shakespear goes farther yet, and tells you what his Pictures thought; a Betterton steps beyond ’em both, and calls them from the Grave to breathe and be themselves again in Feature, Speech, and Motion. When the skilful Actor shews you all these Powers at once united, and gratifies at once your Eye, your Ear, your Understanding: To conceive the Pleasure rising from such Harmony, you must have been present at it! ’tis not to be told you!

Comments: Colley Cibber (1671-1757) was an English actor-manager, playwright and poet laureate, whose engaging memoir Apology for the Life of Colley Cibber is one of the best accounts we have of the theatre of his times. He began his acting career in Thomas Betterton‘s company in 1690, and rose in the profession to become manager of Drury Lane Theatre in 1710. Thomas Betterton (c.1635-1710) was the leading English male actor of his time, who frequently played Shakespearean roles (generally in adaptations by writers of the period, including Betterton himself). Going by the rough chronology of Cibber’s memoir, he is referring to performances of Betterton in Hamlet in the 1690s.

Links: Copy at the Internet Archive