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Mrs. Siddons

Source: William Hazlitt, ‘Mrs. Siddons’, Examiner, 16 June 1816, reproduced in A View of the English Stage, or, A Series of Dramatic Criticisms (London: Robert Stodart, 1818), pp. 103-106

Production: William Shakespeare, Macbeth, Covent Garden, London, 14 June 1816

Text: Players should be immortal, if their own wishes or ours could make them so; but they are not. They not only die like other people, but like other people they cease to be young, and are no longer themselves, even while living. Their health, strength, beauty, voice, fails them; nor can they, without these advantages, perform the same feats, or command the same applause that they did when possessed of them. It is the common lot: players are only not exempt from it. Mrs. Siddons retired once from the stage: why should she return to it again? She cannot retire from it twice with dignity; and yet it is to be wished that she should do all things with dignity. Any loss of reputation to her, is a loss to the world. Has she not had enough of glory? The homage she has received is greater than that which is paid to queens. The enthusiasm she excited had something idolatrous about it; she was regarded less with admiration than with wonder, as if a being of a superior order had dropped from another sphere, to awe the world with the majesty of her appearance. She raised tragedy to the skies, or brought it down from thence. It was something above nature. We can conceive of nothing grander. She embodied to our imagination the fables of mythology, of the heroic and deified mortals of elder time. She was not less than a goddess, or than a prophetess inspired by the gods. Power was seated on her brow, passion emanated from her breast as from a shrine. She was Tragedy personified. She was the stateliest ornament of the public mind. She was not only the idol of the people, she not only hushed the tumultuous shouts of the pit in breathless expectation, and quenched the blaze of surrounding beauty in silent tears, but to the retired and lonely student, through long years of solitude, her face has shone as if an eye had appeared from heaven; her name has been as if a voice had opened the chambers of the human heart, or as if a trumpet had awakened the sleeping and the dead. To have seen Mrs. Siddons was an event in everyone’s life; and does she think we have forgot her? Or would she remind us of herself by showing us what she was not? Or is she to continue on the stage to the very last, till all her grace and all her grandeur gone, shall leave behind them only a melancholy blank? Or is she merely to be played off as “the baby of a girl” for a few nights?—” Rather than so,” come, Genius of Gil Bias, thou that didst inspire him in an evil hour to perform his promise to the Archbishop of Grenada, “and champion us to the utterance” of what we think on this occasion.

It is said that the Princess Charlotte has expressed a desire to see Mrs. Siddons in her best parts, and this, it is said, is a thing highly desirable. We do not know that the Princess has expressed any such wish, and we shall suppose that she has not, because we do not think it altogether a reasonable one. If the Princess Charlotte had expressed a wish to see Mr. Garrick, this would have been a thing highly desirable, but it would have been impossible; or if she had desired to see Mrs. Siddons in her best days, it would have been equally so; and yet, without this, we do not think it desirable that she should see her at all. It is said to be desirable that a princess should have a taste for the Fine Arts, and that this is best promoted by seeing the highest models of perfection. But it is of the first importance for princes to acquire a taste for what is reasonable and the second thing which it is desirable they should acquire is a deference to public opinion: and we think neither of these objects likely to be promoted in the way proposed. If it was reasonable that Mrs. Siddons should retire from the stage three years ago, certainly those reasons have not diminished since, nor do we think Mrs. Siddons would consult what is due to her powers or her fame, in commencing a new career. If it is only intended that she should act a few nights in the presence of a particular person, this might be done as well in private. To all other applications she should answer, “Leave me to my repose.”

Mrs. Siddons always spoke as slow as she ought: she now speaks slower than she did. “The line, too, labours, and the words move slow.” The machinery of the voice seems too ponderous for the power that wields it. There is too long a pause between each sentence, and between each word in each sentence. There is too much preparation. The stage waits for her. In the sleeping scene, she produced a different impression from what we expected. It was more laboured and less natural. In coming on formerly, her eyes were open, but the sense was shut. She was like a person bewildered, and unconscious of what she did. She moved her lips involuntarily; all her gestures were involuntary and mechanical. At present she acts the part more with a view to effect. She repeats the action when she says, “I tell you he cannot rise from his grave,” with both hands sawing the air in the style of parliamentary oratory, the worst of all others. There was none of this weight or energy in the way she did the scene the first time we saw her, twenty years ago. She glided on and off the stage almost like an apparition. In the close of the banquet scene, Mrs. Siddons condescended to an imitation which we were sorry for. She said, “Go, go,” in the hurried familiar tone of common life, in the manner of Mr. Kean, and without any of that sustained and graceful spirit of conciliation towards her guests, which used to characterise her mode of doing it. Lastly, if Mrs. Siddons has to leave the stage again, Mr. Horace Twiss will write another farewell address for her; if she continues on it, we shall have to criticise her performances. We know which of these two evils we shall think the greatest.

Too much praise cannot be given to Mr. Kemble’s performance of Macbeth. He was “himself again,” and more than himself. His action was decided, his voice audible. His tones had occasionally indeed a learned quaintness, like the colouring of Poussin; but the effect of the whole was fine. His action in delivering the speech, “To-morrow and to-morrow,” was particularly striking and expressive, as if he had stumbled by an accident on fate, and was baffled by the impenetrable obscurity of the future. In that prodigious prosing paper, the Times, which seems to be written as well as printed by a steam-engine, Mr. Kemble is compared to the ruin of a magnificent temple, in which the divinity still resides. This is not the case. The temple is unimpaired; but the divinity is sometimes from home.

Comments: William Hazlitt (1778-1830) was an English essayist, journalist and literary critic. Sarah Siddons (1755-1831) had retired from the stage in 1812, but made some special apperances thereafter to 1819, including playing Lady Macbeth opposite her brother John Philip Kemble at Covent Garden.

Links: Copy at Hathi Trust

Hamlet Once More

Source: Matthew Arnold, ‘Hamlet Once More’, in Essays in Criticism: Second Series – Contributions to ‘The Pall Mall Gazette’ and Discourses in America (London: Macmillan, 1903), pp. 271-275, originally published in The Pall Mall Gazette, p. 4

Production: William Shakespeare, Hamlet, Princess’s Theatre, London, October 1884

Text: At the very moment when Mr. Wilson Barrett is bringing out Hamlet at the Princess’s, there comes into my hands Shakspeare and Montaigne, an Endeavour to explain the Tendency of ‘Hamlet’ from Allusions in Contemporary Works, by Mr. Jacob Feis, an author not known to me. Mr. Feis seeks to establish that Shakspeare [sic] in Hamlet identifies Montaigne’s philosophy with madness, branding it as a pernicious one, as contrary to the intellectual conquests his own English nation has made when breaking with the Romanist dogma. ‘Shakspeare,’ says Mr. Feis, ‘wished to warn his contemporaries that the attempt of reconciling two opposite circles of ideas – namely, on the one hand the doctrine that we are to be guided by the laws of nature, and on the other the yielding ourselves up to superstitious dogmas which declare human nature to be sinful, must inevitably produce deeds of madness.’

Mr. Feis’s name has a German look, and the first instinct of the ‘genuine British narrowness’ will be to say that here is another German critic who has discovered a mare’s nest. ‘Hamlet dies wounded and poisoned, as if Shakspeare had intended expressing his abhorrence of so vacillating a character, who places the treacherous excesses of passion above the power of that human reason in whose free service alone Greeks and Romans did their most exalted deeds of virtue.’

Shakspeare is ‘the great humanist,’ in sympathy with the clear unwarped reason of ‘a living Horace or Horatio,’ an Horatio intrepid as the author of ‘non vultus instantis tyranni.’ This is fantastic. Far from abhorring Hamlet, Shakspeare was probably in considerable sympathy with him: nor is he likely to have thought either that salvation for mankind was to be had from the Odes of Horace.

Mr. Feis is too entire, too absolute. Nevertheless his book is of real interest and value. He has proved the preoccupation of Shakspeare’s mind when he made Hamlet with Montaigne’s Essays. John Sterling had inferred it, but Mr. Feis has established it. He shows how passage after passage in the second quarto of Hamlet, published in 1604, has been altered and expanded in correspondence with things in the first English translation of Montaigne’s Essays, Florio’s, published in 1603.

The Essays had already passed through many editions in French, and were known to Shakspeare in that language. Their publication in English was an event in the brilliant and intellectual London world, then keenly interested in the playhouses; and Shakspeare, in revising his Hamlet in 1604, gives proof of the actual occupation of his patrons with the Englished Montaigne, and confirms, too, the fact of his own occupation with the Essays previously.

For me the interest of this discovery does not lie in its showing that Shakspeare thought Montaigne a dangerous author, and meant to give in Hamlet a shocking example of what Montaigne’s teaching led to. It lies in its explaining how it comes about that Hamlet, in spite of the prodigious mental and poetic power shown in it, is really so tantalising and ineffective a play. To the common public Hamlet is a famous piece by a famous poet, with crime, a ghost, battle, and carnage; and that is sufficient. To the youthful enthusiast Hamlet is a piece handling the mystery of the universe, and having throughout cadences, phrases, and words full of divinest Shakspearian magic; and that, too, is sufficient. To the pedant, finally, Hamlet is an occasion for airing his psychology; and what does pedant require more? But to the spectator who loves true and powerful drama, and can judge whether he gets it or not, Hamlet is a piece which opens, indeed, simply and admirably, and then: ‘The rest is puzzle’!

The reason is, apparently, that Shakspeare conceived this play with his mind running on Montaigne, and placed its action and its hero in Montaigne’s atmosphere and world. What is that world? It is the world of man viewed as a being ondoyant et divers, balancing and indeterminate, the plaything of cross motives and shifting impulses, swayed by a thousand subtle influences, physiological and pathological. Certainly the action and hero of the original Hamlet story are not such as to compel the poet to place them in this world and no other, but they admit of being placed there, Shakspeare resolved to place them there, and they lent themselves to his resolve. The resolve once taken to place the action in this world of problem, the problem became brightened by all the force of Shakspeare’s faculties, of Shakspeare’s subtlety. Hamlet thus comes at last to be not a drama followed with perfect comprehension and profoundest emotion, which is the ideal for tragedy, but a problem soliciting interpretation and solution.

It will never, therefore, be a piece to be seen with pure satisfaction by those who will not deceive themselves. But such is its power and such is its fame that it will always continue to be acted, and we shall all of us continue to go and see it. Mr. Wilson Barrett has put it effectively and finely on the stage. In general the critics have marked his merits with perfect justice. He is successful with his King and Queen. The King in Hamlet is too often a blatant horror, and his Queen is to match. Mr. Willard and Miss Leighton are a King and Queen whom one sees and hears with pleasure. Ophelia, too what suffering have Ophelias caused us! And nothing can make this part advantageous to an actress or enjoyable for the spectator. I confess, therefore, that I trembled at each of Miss Eastlake’s entrances; but the impression finally left, by the madness scene more especially, was one of approval and respect. Mr. Wilson Barrett himself, as Hamlet, is fresh, natural, young, prepossessing, animated, coherent; the piece moves. All Hamlets whom I have seen dissatisfy us in something. Macready wanted person, Charles Kean mind, Fechter English; Mr. Wilson Barrett wants elocution. No ingenuity will ever enable us to follow the drama of Hamlet as we follow the first part of Faust, but we may be made to feel the noble poetry.

Perhaps John Kemble, in spite of his limitations, was the best Hamlet after all. But John Kemble is beyond reach of the memory of even

AN OLD PLAYGOER.

October 23, 1884.

Comments: Matthew Arnold (1822-1888) was an English poet, critic and essayist. His ‘Letters of an Old Playgoer’, five short essay-reviews written 1882-1884 for The Pall Mall Gazette. The Princess’s Theatre production of Hamlet featured Wilson Barrett as Hamlet, Edward Willard (Claudius), Margaret Leighton (Gertrude) and Mary Eastlake (Ophelia).

Links: Copy at Internet Archive

‘Ghosts’ at the Royalty

Source: Anon., ‘Ghosts’ at the Royalty, The Daily Chronicle, 14 March 1891

Production: Henrik Ibsen, Gengangere [Ghosts], Royalty Theatre, London, 13 March 1891

Text: Mr. J.T. Grein, the “founder and literary manager,” and apparently general superintendent of “The Independent Theatre of London,” has, perhaps unconsciously, done the Lord Chamberlain’s department an exceedingly good turn. He last night at the Royalty demonstrated that there must be some value in an office that can save the general public — that is to say the public paying money at the doors of a theatre, and not always sure of the performance that is to be witnessed — from a domestic drama so revoltingly suggestive and so blasphemous as Ibsen’s “Ghosts.” By resorting to an invitation representation of this loathsome production, the disciples of the Norwegian playwright have at last carried out the idea they are believed to have long entertained, and the time has now arrived when it would be injurious to the interests of the English stage to do otherwise than speak plainly. The large audience, which included more females than might have been expected, considering the nature of a play of which very few persons knowing anything of the modern drama can be ignorant, consisted solely of members or guests of the “Independent Theatre” association, but this circumstance did not prevent one healthy-minded individual at the fall of the curtain on a deplorable picture of youthful insanity, constituting the inheritance of a father’s unbridled passion (they call it in “Ghosts” “The joy of life”), exclaiming, “It’s too horrible!” Mr. Grein, however, was loudly summoned by the more appreciative majority, and stating that he should like to explain his views respecting the “Independent Theatre,” proceeded to say that he desired to foster a more literary species of drama than that now prevailing on the English stage, that he intended to bring forward masterpieces for the benefit of our younger dramatists, and that generally he wished to stimulate more artistic productions. The hopes of the advanced school of dramatic authors — by which we mean those who in one way or another may be anxious to emulate Ibsen — must have been considerably raised by Mr. Grein’s further declaration that he should “stand firm” in his endeavour to elevate the literary standard of stage work. With a plea for help in his undertaking, and thanking the assemblage for their “gracious reception” of what he admitted was a terrible although artistic play, Mr. Grein retired. Some people appeared to consider this little march somewhat of a mistake, but there were others who were grateful to learn the speaker to which they are henceforward to look for the regeneration of the drama in this country.

We have alluded to “Ghosts” as revoltingly suggestive and blasphemous. Justification of the former term would involve a more detailed explanation of the relations of three of the characters towards each other than we care to enter upon; of the second charge it is sufficient perhaps to say that a vile elderly being, as distorted in person as he is in mind, whose darling design it is to employ a young girl — supposed by some to be his daughter, though he knows to the contrary — as a decoy at a “sailors’ tavern,” where there shall be “singing and dancing, and so forth,” is allowed to say to an extremely simple-minded clergyman, whom he is partly befooling and partly threatening, that he knows “a man that’s taken others’ sins upon himself before now,” emphasising the statement by raising his right hand to heaven. “Ghosts,” however, as a play contains greater faults even than those of lack of decency or of respect for religious convictions. The characters are either contradictory in themselves, uninteresting, or abhorrent. The only really respectable individual in the piece, Pastor Manders, is nerveless just when courage is required, is an easy prey to schemers, and is rather too addicted to figuratively bringing the pulpit into private houses. To Mrs. Alving — the long-patient wife of a dissolute husband — we should by no means like to pin our faith. She has loved the pastor, and in the course of conversation with him makes one or two remarks that are certainly not in good taste respecting what might have been in the past had the clergyman succumbed to temptation when she left her drunken spouse and sought Manders’s roof. Nor can we forgive her — although her life is bound up in that of her son — for not setting her face to the very end against the association of Oswald, “worm-eaten from his birth,” with Regina. As the just and outspoken critic last night declared, “It’s too horrible!” This Regina, it should be added, is quite as artful as Rebecca West in “Rosmersholm,” though she is less constant and more self-seeking. She attempts to captivate the son of the kindly woman who has dragged her from a life of squalor and degradation, but when she learns that Oswald is ill, and that she cannot wed him, coolly throws him over, and says, with a shrug of the shoulders, “A poor girl must make the best of her young days, or she’ll be left out in the cold before she knows where she is.” This same minx, when she learns that her mother was betrayed by her employer, says, “So mother was that kind of woman after all.” Of the reputed father of this girl and of the melancholy insane youth who persistently cries for “the sun” as the curtain descends, after he has striven to persuade his mother to give him a fatal dose of morphia to free him from the dread by which he is possessed, we have sufficiently spoken. The one is detestable in his craft and hypocrisy, the other a pitiful, mean, and abject creature in the exposition of the doctrine of heredity.

If anything could have made the play last night tolerable to those not stricken with the Ibsen fever it would have been the excellent acting it obtained. Few professional actresses could have given a more realistic or forcible impersonation of the distressed Mrs. Alving than Mrs. Theodore Wright; whilst the Oswald of Mr. Frank Lindo and the club-footed Jacob Engstrand of Mr. Sydney Howard were also embodiments that commanded approval for unswerving faithfulness to the cause in hand. Mr. Leonard Outram too did his best to avoid prosiness as the lecturing and eventually frightened Pastor Manders, and Miss Edith Kenward’s representation of Regina had several meritorious points. The interpretation, indeed, far exceeded in harmoniously artistic quality the worth of the play from the theatrical aspect. There were times last night when laughter was evoked by the commonplace utterances of some of the characters, but on the whole the audience behaved decorously. As there is such a tendency in the Ibsen “social dramas” to throw a strong light upon “the seamy side of life,” it is as well that occasionally — either purposely or by accident — excuse should be afforded for merriment. Finally, the experience of last night demonstrated that the official ban placed upon “Ghosts” as regards public performance was both wise and warranted.

Comments: Henrik Ibsen‘s Gengangere, given the title Ghosts by its English translator William Archer, was written in 1881 and first staged in Chicago in 1882 by a Danish touring company, after it had been rejected by Scandanavian theatre companies, alarmed by its themes of free love, syphilis, incest and its attacks on religion. It enjoyed some performances in continental Europe through the 1880s, but the first British production (using Archer’s translation) was not until 13 March 1891, in a private performance by the subscription-based Independent Theatre Society (founded by critic Jacob Grien). It was held at the small Royalty Theatre in Soho, in defiance of the Lord Chamberlain’s ban on the play. The outrage caused by the single performance is encapsulated in the above review.

Links: Copy at All About Henrik Ibsen (National Library of Norway)

An Old Playgoer at the Lyceum

Source: Matthew Arnold, ‘An Old Playgoer at the Lyceum’, in Essays in Criticism: Second Series – Contributions to ‘The Pall Mall Gazette’ and Discourses in America (London: Macmillan, 1903), pp. 265-270, originally published in The Pall Mall Gazette, p. 4

Production: William Shakespeare, Much Ado About Nothing, Lyceum Theatre, London, May 1883

Text: History tells us that the Sultanas of the famous Sultan Oulougbeb would not hear the philosophical romance of Zadig, but preferred to it an interminable succession of idle tales. ‘How can you prefer,’ asked the sage Sultan, ‘a heap of stories utterly irrational, and which have nothing in them?’ The Sultanas answered, ‘It is just on that very account that we prefer them.’ (‘C’est précisément pour cela que nous les aimons.’)

By what magic does Mr. Irving induce the Sultanas to listen to Shakspeare [sic]? From the utterances of Captain Crichton, Mrs. Beresford, and Mrs. Macdonald, how does he manage to wile them away to the talk of Benedick and Beatrice of Benedick, capable of looking pale ‘with anger, with sickness, or with hunger, not with love’; of Beatrice, ‘upon my knees every morning and evening that God may send me no husband’? The truth is, in a community so large as ours you may hope to get a demand for almost anything not only for Impulse at the St. James’s, or for the Biography of Mr. Archer and the Early Days of Mr. Marwood among visitors to Epsom, but even for the fantastic – Mr. Labouchere would add, the tiresome comedy of Shakspeare at the Lyceum. Fantastic, at all events, it is. It belongs to a world of fantasy; not to our world, palpitating with actuality, of Captain Crichtons, and Fred Archers, and Marwoods. It so belongs to a world of fantasy that often we have difficulty in following it. ‘He sets up his bills here in Messina, and challenged Cupid at the flight; and my uncle’s fool, reading the challenge, subscribed for Cupid, and challenged him at the bird-bolt.’ Who understands without a commentary? Even where the wit is more evident and we can follow it, it is still the wit of another world from ours, a world of fantasy. ‘He that hath a beard is more than a youth; and he that hath no beard is less than a man; and he that is more than a youth is not for me; and he that is less than a man, I am not for him; therefore I will take even sixpence in earnest of the bearward, and lead his apes into hell.’

But Mr. Labouchere deals hardly with himself in refusing to enter this Shakspearian world because it is a world of fantasy. Art refreshes us, art liberates us, precisely in carrying us into such a world, and enabling us to find pleasure there. He who will not be carried there loses a great deal. For his own sake Mr. Labouchere should ‘away to St. Peter for the heavens’ with Beatrice; should let it be revealed to him ‘where the batchelors sit, and there live we as merry as the day is long.’ With his care for seating his colleague and for reconstructing society, can he live as merry as the day is long now?

So salutary is it to be carried into a world of fantasy that I doubt whether even the comedy of Congreve and Wycherley, presented to us at the present day by good artists, would do us harm. I would not take the responsibility of recommending its revival, but I doubt its doing harm, and I feel sure of its doing less harm than pieces such as Heartsease and Impulse. And the reason is that Wycherley’s comedy places us in what is for us now a world wholly of fantasy, and that in such a world, with a good critic and with good actors, we are not likely to come to much harm. Such a world’s main appeal is to our imagination; it calls into play our imagination rather than our senses. How much more is this true of the ideal comedy of Shakspeare, and of a world so airy, radiant, and spiritual as that of Much Ado about Nothing!

One must rejoice, therefore, at seeing the Sultanas and society listening to Shakspeare’s comedy; it is good for them to be there. But how does Mr. Irving bring them? Their natural inclination is certainly more for a constant ‘succession of idle tales’ like the Dame aux Camelias or Impulse. True; but there is at the same time something in human nature which works for Shakspeare’s comedy, and against such comedy as the Dame aux Camelias or Impulse; something prompting us to live by our soul and imagination rather than by our senses. Undoubtedly there is; the existence of this something is the ground of all hope, and must never, in our impatience at men’s perversions, be forgotten. But to come into play it needs evocation and encouragement; how does Mr. Irving evoke it?

It is not enough to say that Much Ado about Nothing, in itself beautiful, is beautifully put upon the stage, and that of ideal comedy this greatly heightens the charm. It is true, but more than this is requisite to bring the Sultanas. It is not enough to say that the piece is acted with an evenness, a general level of merit, which was not to be found five-and-twenty years ago, when a Claudio so good as Mr. Forbes Robertson, or a Don Pedro so good as Mr. Terriss, would have been almost impossible. This also is true, but it would not suffice to bring the Sultanas. It cannot even be said that they are brought because certain leading or famous characters in the piece are given with a perfection hitherto unknown. The aged eyes of an ‘Old Playgoer’ have seen the elder Farren and
Keeley in the parts of Dogberry and Verges. Good as is Mr. Irving’s Benedick, those who have seen Charles Kemble as Benedick have seen a yet better Benedick than Mr. Irving. It is, however, almost always by an important personality that great things are effected; and it is assuredly the personality of Mr. Irving and that of Miss Ellen Terry which have the happy effect of bringing the Sultanas and of filling the Lyceum.

Both Mr. Irving and Miss Ellen Terry have a personality which peculiarly fits them for ideal comedy. Miss Terry is sometimes restless and over-excited, but she has a spiritual vivacity which is charming. Mr. Irving has faults which have often been pointed out, but he has, as an actor, a merit which redeems them all, and which is the secret of his success: the merit of delicacy and distinction. In some of his parts he shows himself capable, also, of intense and powerful passion. But twenty other actors are to be found who have a passion as intense and powerful as his, for one other actor who has his merit of delicacy and distinction. Mankind are often unjust to this merit, and most of us much resist having to exhibit it in our own life and soul; but it is singular what a charm it exercises over us.

Mr. Irving is too intelligent, and has too many of an actor’s qualities, to fail entirely in any part which he assumes; still there are some parts for which he appears not well fitted, and others for which he appears fitted perfectly. His true parts are those which most display his rare gift of delicacy and distinction; and such parts are offered, above all, in ideal comedy. May he long continue to find them there, and to put forth in them charm enough to win the Sultanas to art like Much Ado about Nothing as a change from art like Fedora and Impulse!

AN OLD PLAYGOER.

May 30, 1883.

Comments: Matthew Arnold (1822-1888) was an English poet, critic and essayist. His ‘Letters of an Old Playgoer’, five short essay-reviews written 1882-1884 for The Pall Mall Gazette. Henry Irving‘s famous 1882 production of Much Ado About Nothing at the Lyceum featured Irving as Benedick, Ellen Terry as Beatrice, Johnston Forbes-Robertson as Claudio and William Terriss as Don Pedro. Henry Labouchère was a British politician and theatre owner.

Links: Copy at Internet Archive

An Old Playgoer on ‘Impulse’

Source: Matthew Arnold, ‘An Old Playgoer on “Impulse”’, in Essays in Criticism: Second Series – Contributions to ‘The Pall Mall Gazette’ and Discourses in America (London: Macmillan, 1903), pp. 260-264, originally published in The Pall Mall Gazette, pp. 3-4

Production: B.C. Stephenson, Impulse, St James’s Theatre, London, May 1883

Text: Like ‘society’ in general, I have been to see Impulse. Nothing, apparently, could be more to the taste of ‘society’ than this piece. That alone is a reason for going to see it. And what impression did it leave, what remained in the mind after seeing it? Chiefly, to tell the truth, this sentence of the Imitation: Multa oportet surda aure pertransire, et quae tuce pacis sunt magis cogitare. A piece more perfectly unprofitable it is hard to imagine. But it is worth pausing upon, because its production and its popularity bring well to light the want of clear vision, the turn for the half- true and for the factitious, characteristic of English ‘society.’

Impulse is founded, as its author, Mr. Stephenson, honestly informs us, upon a French piece. French pieces have their reason for existing in the state of society which they reflect and interpret. All people want to know life, above all the life which surrounds them and concerns them; and we come to the novel and to the stage-play to help us to what we want. French plays and French novels do undoubtedly render for French people the life which surrounds them. Those productions have this merit, at any rate. George Sand declares that Madame Bovary is not at all an immoral work, but, on the contrary, a useful one. Good and useful, after reading Madame Bovary in the family circle, Madame Sand and her family circle, so she tells us, judged this reading to be. But why? Because of the numberless Madame Bovarys, ‘les innombrables Madame Bovary en herbe’ at the present moment springing up everywhere throughout the provincial life of France, with their immense crop of ‘maris imbéciles’ and of ‘amants frivoles’ to attend them. That, says George Sand, is M. Flaubert’s defence for writing his book, and that is the reason for reading it that it holds the mirror up to French nature. Of course the same plea may even more confidently be urged for plays and novels rendering the life of Paris. They may be full of immoralities, but at any rate they hold the mirror up to nature, they do render the life of Paris.

I am far from saying that I agree with Madame Sand that a book is good reading, even for grown men and women, because it faithfully represents actual life. It must have a quality in it besides to make it so. Manon Lescaut, which has this quality, is good reading; I would not say that Madame Bovary has the quality, or that it is good reading. All this, however, we need not discuss now. What is certain is that the French play, the French novel, render the actual life of the French. One may rate the work of M. Alexandre Dumas the younger, or of M. Sardou, as low as one pleases. One may even refuse to call it literature. Of course it is not literature as the comedy of Shakspeare [sic] and of Molière is literature; it is not even literature as the comedy of Beaumarchais and of Sheridan is literature; perhaps it is not to be called literature at all. But that it renders French life one cannot deny, and that the French public, wishing to see its life rendered, should follow with eagerness and pleasure this rendering, one cannot wonder.

But Impulse – what life does it render? What does it say to all these wearers of attractive toilettes, to all these charming faces and figures, to all this ‘society’ a little wanting in soul and very much wanting in clear vision, which frequent it? Something half-true, factitious, and unmeaning. The English provinces really do not teem with ‘des innombrables Madame Bovary en herbe’: the most salient features of English society are really not the ‘mari imbécile’ and the ‘amant frivole.’ The ‘society’ news papers and their emancipated and brilliant staff may regret that the fact should be so, but so it is. Madame Bovarys, instead of being countless in our country neighbourhoods, are almost unknown there; the ‘amant frivole’ instead of being a stock element in our married life, is rare and unimportant. That fraction of our society for which the French play and novel are a rendering of its own life is so small as to be quite unimportant. This is proved, indeed, by the transformation the French play undergoes before the English playwright can present it to the charming faces, figures, and toilettes of our boxes and stalls. Virtue has to triumph; the ‘amant frivole’ has to come to grief. Ingenuous playwright! ingenuous ‘society’! Know this, as to your ‘amant’ as to your Victor de Riel: that, as your French guides would tell you, ‘c’est à prendre ou à laisser.’ Where he exists, where he is an institution, matters may well enough pass as they pass in the genuine French play; logic and experience are in favour of their so passing. Where he is an exotic, nothing can make him tolerable; defeated or triumphant, he equally makes the piece, of which he is the centre, unpleasant, makes it ridiculous.

Impulse is, in truth, in itself a piece intensely disagreeable. It owes its success to the singularly attractive, sympathetic, and popular personalities of Mr. and Mrs. Kendal. While they are on the stage it is hard to be dissatisfied. One must feel, nevertheless, even while liking Mr. Kendal, that the young English gentleman, whom one so well knows, with sterling qualities but no philosopher, does not talk quite so like a fool as Captain Crichton. Mrs. Kendal, as Mrs. Beresford, one could accept with entire pleasure if one could understand so winning and sensible a person having so little influence with her sister, or being so easily baffled by circumstances. Perhaps a sympathetic actress might have made the ungrateful part of Mrs. Macdonald not quite repulsive, not quite impossible. At present Mrs. Macdonald makes the impression, not of an interesting victim of passion, but of a personage morbid and perverse; and every scene between her and Victor de Riel is a misery. Victor de Riel is not ill acted; on the contrary, this exotic ‘amant’ is well acted too well. The fatal likeness to the ‘similis turpissima bestia nobis’ which so struck Alfieri in the passion-driven Frenchman, forces itself upon the mind; and the more passionate the love-making, the more that likeness forces itself on us. Why should cool-headed people hide their conviction that this sort of drama is detestable, even though the journals of ‘society’ call to one another, deep to deep, ‘Edmund’ to ‘Henry’ that it is very good? One can imagine the grim colleague of ‘Henry’ surveying the ‘society’ which enjoys this half-true, factitious, and debilitating art, and waving ‘Henry’ aside while he himself cries sternly to their common constituents, the Northampton populace, ‘Arise, ye Goths, and glut your ire!’

AN OLD PLAYGOER.
May 25, 1883.

Comments: Matthew Arnold (1822-1888) was an English poet, critic and essayist. His ‘Letters of an Old Playgoer’, five short essay-reviews written 1882-1884 for The Pall Mall Gazette. Benjamin Charles Stephenson‘s play Impulse was based on the novel La Maison du mari by Xavier de Montépin. It was produced at the St. James’s Theatre in London, with Madge Kendal and William H. Kendal. The Latin phrase at the start of the article from from Thomas à Kempis’s The Imitation of Christ.

Links: Copy at Internet Archive

Covent-Garden Theatre

Source: Anon., ‘Covent-Garden Theatre’, The Morning Post, 6 October 1829, p. 3

Production: William Shakespeare, Romeo and Juliet, Covent Garden, London, 5 October 1829

Text: The name of KEMBLE was exercised with magic-like effect at this Theatre last night. Plunged into difficulties, almost overwhelming, Mr. CHARLES KEMBLE exerted his best strength and influence: his wife returned to the stage, his daughter made her debut, and a brilliant and overflowing audience was the consequence. This was precisely as every friend of the Drama must have wished. the name of a family which has for half a century contributed so largely, and with so much distinction and honour, to the most rational  and intellectual of our amusements, ought not to be used in vain, or to be heard without cheering and liberal encouragement. On this occasion it met with enthusiastic support, and those who anticipated a display of hereditary genius were happily confirmed in their kindly hopes. That the difficulties of the Theatre have been most alarming there can be no question; but however desperate they may have been in their character, or however distressing to the Managers, we can hardly help rejoicing in their occurrence, since thy have been the immediate cause of giving to the stage another KEMBLE, and one too who promises to enhance rather than to depreciate the unrivalled reputation of her family. With the debut of Miss FANNY KEMBLE too, we are inclined to date the disappearance of the distresses of the Theatre, and therefore we shall make no further mention of them, but content ourselves with expressing a hope that the young Lady’s introduction to the stage will only be one of many acts of good judgment on the part of the Manager.

Before the commencement of the play, “God save the King” was sung by the Company, which mustered unusually strong, the different solos being given by Miss HUGHES, Mr. WOOD (who acquitted himself remarkably well), and Mr. HORNE, who appears to have returned to this Theatre. The national song was warmly encored, and the Theatre looked extremely handsome while it was singing: the whole of the audience were standing, the private boxes were full, and the dress and first circle of boxes were adorned by a great number of Ladies. As for the rest of the House, it was crowded to excess. The play was Romeo and Juliet, Miss KEMBLE of course being Juliet. In stature she is like her mother, being rather under than over the middle size; but she may not yet have completed her growth, being, as we are informed, and as she really appears, not more than eighteen. Her form, however, is rich in beauties. The contour of her throat, neck, and head, reminded us forcibly of Mrs. SIDDONS; and her arms have that roundness and capability of majestic action in which her aunt was so entirely unrivalled, In her countenance Miss KEMBLE partakes more of the beauties of Mrs. SIDDONS, and the expression of JOHN KEMBLE, than she does of the features of her father and mother. Her brow is like that of all the KEMBLES – lofty and full of deep expression; her eye is finely placed, dark and powerful; her nose is sufficiently prominent to give a good profile, and to ad to the effect of the other features; and her mouth has much of the character of that of her great predecessor, Mrs. SIDDONS, being capable of expressing tenderness, scorn, and triumph, in all their depth, bitterness, and lofty joy. The general character of her face is dignity; it is plainly and beautifully traced, although she has hardly yet attained the state of womanhood. Her voice is equal to every demand that even Tragedy can make. It is powerful, rich, and has great variety. It has none of the poverty of her uncle’s in particular passages, and little of the monotony of her aunt’s in level speaking. It often resembles her mother’s in sweetness, and is capable of declamation without any of the evidently acquired facility of her father’s. In the peculiar expression, however, for which each of her distinguished relatives have been celebrated, they are likely still to stand unrivalled. Without challenging the triumphant declamation and the agonizing bursts of Mrs. SIDDONS, Miss KEMBLE has an ample field before her, wherein she may gather

“Golden opinions of all sorts of men.”

On her entrance Miss KEMBLE was most enthusiastically welcomed: the pit rose in a body, and the cheers from the boxes were loud and long continued. She appeared to be greatly embarrassed, and did not recover her self-possession during her first scene. In her next scene, the masquerade, she made a certainty of success; the only difficulty was to predict the degree she would attain. There was in the delivery of the passage –

My only love sprung from my only hate!
Too early seen unknown, and known too late!”

a sensibility and a depth of feeling which gave an unquestionable indication of the possession of fine powers. Her exit too was marked by a melancholy but soul-searching passion, which admirably prepared for the succeeding scene. It was in this scene that her conception and her capabilities were at once developed. The garden scene is in itself a thing of beauties, and many of the passages received ample justice at her hands. the soliloquies appeared to flow from a heart wrapped up in a new and all-absorbing passion, and which, during the absence of the object it idolised, existed but in thinking of it. Nor did she deliver the passages addressed to Romeo with less felicity. They were full of fervour, and the passion was unrestrained, but it was pure, and natural from its purity.

“But farewell compliment!
Dost thou love me?”

was most beautifully given. The full effect was produced without violence of any description. The heart seemed to prompt the tongue, and nature to lend every grace to give the interrogatory force. Again, in the latter part of the scene, she characterised her love with admirable emphasis and expression. Her delivery was fully equal to the comprehensive words which SHAKESPEARE has assigned to Juliet :-

“My bounty is as boundless as the sea,
My love as deep; the more I give to thee
The more I have; for both are infinite.”

In her tone and manner there was something which bespoke the capability of Juliet, though yet a girl, undertaking the dangerous and appalling course she subsequently pursues. In her next scene, the scene in which the Nurse brings tidings from Romeo, there was a great deal of sweetness, but nothing calling for particular remark, unless perhaps we except the lines –

“Had she affections, and warm youthful blood,
She’d be as swift in motion as a ball;
My words would bandy her to my sweet love,
And his to me.”

In delivering these her action was peculiarly appropriate and original. In the next scene, however, she made “a giant’s step” in reputation. She rushed into the depths of tragedy, and although there was a great poverty or rather total want of action while she delivered the lines –

O, break, my heart! poor bankrupt, break at once!
To prison, eyes, ne’er look on liberty!
Vile earth, to earth resign; end, motion, here;
And thou and Romeo press one heavy bier!

the defect was more than compensated for by the agonizing burst with which she exclaimed –

“Banished! is Romeo banished?”

It was entirely in the manner of SIDDONS, as was the passage commencing-

“Blistered be thy tongue” &c.

In the next scene she achieved another triumph, and perhaps the greatest of the evening. After having in vain implored her parents to postpone her marriage with Paris, Juliet has recourse to the Nurse for advice:-

JULIET: O. Nurse, how shall this be prevented?
NURSE: – Faith, here it is,
Romeo is banished: all the world to nothing
That he dares ne’er come back to challenge you;
Or, if he do, it needs must be by stealth;
Then, since the case so stands, I think it best
You married with the Count.
JULIET. Speak’st thou from they heart?
NURSE. From my soul, too;
Or else beshrew them both.
JULIET. Amen!
NURSE. What? what?
JULIET. Well, thou has comforted me marvellous much.

The effect of these passages was splendid in the extreme. the dignity of the wife was suddenly called into action, and it was commanding as it was pure and lovely in its nature. The Theatre rang with applauses. The arduous soliloquy in the next scene she finished by one of the most perfect and beautiful attitudes we have seen for a long time. The last scene was unfortunately the least successful of the whole; she was badly dressed and badly painted, and the Romeo on the night was not of the slightest assistance to her. But Miss KEMBLE had been the admiration of the audience long before the close of the play; and looking at her performance, we should most decidedly give it the preference to every debut made since that of Miss O’NEILL. To say that it was destitute of fault would be as absurd as to say that it not did display a conception of the highest order, and much execution of a similar character. Having said thus much, we shall be content to await her next performance without more remark, when me may find time and opportunity to return to the subject.

Mr. C. KEMBLE sustained the part of Mercutio for the first time. On his entrance the applause was enthusiastic, and he acknowledged the compliment with great grace and feeling. Of his acting we have only space sufficient to say that his readings were perfect, if he was  not quite so airy as LEWIS, or quite so humorous as ELLISTON was wont to be. His death was managed very beautifully, and with much originality. The kindness with which he took leave of Romeo was excellently conceived and executed. As the peculiarity of the circumstances has induced him to resign Romeo, we are happy to see him in possession of Mercutio; on no other occasion, however, could we consent to his quitting the lover. Of Mr. ABBOTT we need say but little. He is precisely the same as he was before he went to France, and therefore a very moderate Romeo. He is destitute of tenderness. Mrs C. KEMBLE trod the stage and acted with so much excellent sense and spirit as Lady Capulet, that we could  hardly believe she had ever been absent from it, and heartily wished for her permanent return to it. Mrs. DAVENPORT as the Nurse was a delightful as ever. It was a piece of acting in itself worth a journey to witness. She was most cordially received. The other parts were sustained as usual; and at the fall of the curtain the applause was unanimous and most hearty. Mr. KEMBLE came forward and addressed the audience in the following words:- “Ladies and Gentlemen, from the kind indulgence with which you have been pleased to receive the first efforts of my daughter on any stage, I am induced to announce this tragedy for repetition on Wednesday, Friday, and Monday next.”

This announcement was received with great approbation, and the entertainments concluded with The Miller and his Men.

Comments: The review is of a production of William Shakespeare‘s Romeo and Juliet, at Covent Garden, London, 5 October 1829. Fanny Kemble (1809-1893) was the daughter of the actor Charles Kemble and niece of his sister, the actress Sarah Siddons. The financial fortunes of the ailing Covent Garden (in which Charles Kemble was a shareholder) were greatly improved following the great success of Fanny Kemble in Romeo and Juliet, and the production was a further success touring North America. The remaining lead performers named in this review were Theresa Kemble (Mrs Charles Kemble), William  Abbott, and Mrs Davenport (Fanny Vining), while other actors mentioned are Eliza O’Neill, Robert Elliston and William Lewis. The Miller and his Men was a two-act romantic melodrama by Isaac Pocock.

Links: British Newspaper Archive (£)

An Old Playgoer at the Play

Source: Matthew Arnold, ‘An Old Playgoer at the Play’, in Essays in Criticism: Second Series – Contributions to ‘The Pall Mall Gazette’ and Discourses in America (London: Macmillan, 1903), pp. 255-259, originally published in The Pall Mall Gazette, pp. 3-4

Productions: Herman Charles Merivale and Florence Grauford Grove, Forget-Me-Not, Olympic Theatre, London, March 1883, and Hamilton Aide, A Great Catch, Olympic Theatre, London, March 1883

Text: Twice at the Olympic! At last I have seen Forget-me-Not. If the renovated and crowded house at the Princess’s was quite unlike the house of my recollections, I must own that the Olympic is dingy and shabby enough to correspond to them perfectly. Nor was the house full. But then Forget-me-Not has been given seven hundred and something times, and one is the very Epimenides of playgoers to be seeing it for the first time now.

The piece of Messrs. Grove and Merivale is full of clever things. The dialogue is always pointed and smart, sometimes quite brilliant. The piece has its life from its ability and verve, and it is effectively acted besides. What can one want more? Well, the talent of the authors, the talent of the actors, makes one exacting. The dialogue is so incisive, Miss Genevieve Ward is so powerful, that they make one take them seriously, make one reflect. Now the moment one deliberates, Forget-me-Not is, I will not say lost, but considerably compromised.

That Monsieur and Madame de Mohrivat should have kept a gambling-house, that their blameless son should have married Rose Verney, that Rose should have become a widow, that her disreputable father-in-law should have been killed by one of his victims, that his wife should desire to be whitewashed, and to this end should seek to extort the aid of Rose’s sister, Alice Verney, for getting into society, all this is admissible enough. But the gist of the play lies in the pressure which Madame de Mohrivat can put upon Alice, and the force of the pressure which Madame de Mohrivat can put upon Alice lies in Article 148 of the French Code. For by this article Madame de Mohrivat has the power, if she chooses to exert it, of making her son’s marriage with Rose Verney invalid in France. But the marriage is good in England. Rose lives with her English friends and on her English fortune; her worthy French connections have no effects, and their social status is all gone to ruin. Under these circumstances Madame de Mohrivat’s threatened invocation of Article 148 has by no means the substantial force which, for our authors’ purpose, it requires. Why all this terror and dismay, for why should Rose live in France at all? To live in the Capital of Pleasure without effects and with execrable connections for the mere satisfaction of belonging to a nation where, like the lady of whom M. Blowitz told us the other day, one can name one’s child Lucifer Satan Vercingetorix, is surely no such irresistible object of longing to an English girl. It is the last thing Alice Verney would naturally desire for her sister, or her sister for herself. But then Madame de Mohrivat’s power over the sisters has no basis.

I have seen, too, the new piece by Mr. Hamilton Aide, A Great Catch. If the piece of Messrs. Grove and Merivale wants motive, that of Mr. Hamilton Aide wants development. It has not the terse and sparkling dialogue of Forget-me-Not, but it is better grounded and more substantial. It has one character which strongly attracts sympathy, Mrs. Henry de Motteville; and another which might easily be made to do so, Sir Martin Ingoldsby. But Sir Martin does not produce his due effect, and the piece does not produce its due effect, from a want of development. Why Mr. Hamilton Aide should develop the humours of his super numeraries so copiously, and the relations of his main characters so sparingly, I do not understand. The truth is, the piece requires another act, if not two. Mrs. Henry de Motteville is a widow who has in her youth knewn Sir Martin Ingoldsby as Richard Carlton. Her father was his benefactor; the young people loved one another. But Richard Carlton robs his benefactor, causes his ruin and death, leaves his daughter to her fate, flies to Australia, then reappears in England some years later, a prosperous and powerful man. At the height of his prosperity Mrs. Henry de Motteville recognises him, and can unmask him. But his conduct is not really what it has seemed; and, above all, his heart and that of Mrs. de Motteville still vibrate to each other. At the last moment he exculpates himself, and she relents. Here are elements of strong interest, and Mr. Hamilton Aide should have thrown all his power into their development. But they are summarily indicated in the last scene; they are not prepared, established, made to produce their due effect. Mr. Hamilton Aide’s play is seen with pleasure as it is ; but I cannot but think he might treble its effect by a more complete use of the resources which he has created, but does not employ.

The Olympic Company, on the whole, like that at the Princess’s, surprises by the merits of its acting an Epimenides who has been asleep all these years. Mr. Vernon is good as Sir Horace Welby, and good, too, in the more difficult part of Sir Martin Ingoldsby. Miss Lucy Buckstone is pleasing and sympathetic. Mr. Beerbohm Tree is excellent as a young nobleman of the period. Miss Genevieve Ward is a host in herself. External advantages go for much, and in A Great Catch Miss Genevieve Ward has three ‘arrangements’ – an arrangement in black, an arrangement in grey, and an arrangement in red, of which the arrangement in red is the most irresistible, but every one of them is charming. Her intellectual qualities are as eminent as these external advantages. Her cynicism, coolness, and scorn, her energy, invective, and hate, are unsurpassable. Have her pathos and tenderness quite the sincerity of these qualities, and therefore quite the power? Perhaps not; but one should see her in a more favourable part before deciding. Her elocution is admirable; she has an intonation supremely distinct, intelligent, and effective. A slight nasality, certainly; but perhaps this, like the transplanted French idioms in the novels of Mr. Howells, will be the English of the future. However this is, whatever the future may be or whatever the present, the gifts of Miss Genevieve Ward will always make their possessor a fine actress.

AN OLD PLAYGOER.

March 30, 1883.

Comments: Matthew Arnold (1822-1888) was an English poet, critic and essayist. His ‘Letters of an Old Playgoer’, five short essay-reviews written 1882-1884 for The Pall Mall Gazette. Forget-Me-Not was an 1879 drama by British writer Herman Charles Merivale and Florence Crauford Grove (despite appearances, male). The cast included the actress-opera singer Geneviève Ward (who enjoyed worldwide success with the play) and W.H. Vernon. Both also appeared in A Great Catch, written by the Anglo-Armenian poet and playwright Charles Hamilton Aide, also with Lucy Buckstone and Herbert Beerbohm Tree.

Links: Copy at Internet Archive

Mr. Kean’s Shylock

‘Mr. Kean as Shylock’, 1814 print from LUNA: Folger Digital Image Collection, CC BY-SA 4.0

Source: William Hazlitt, ‘Mr. Kean’s Shylock’, The Morning Chronicle, 27 January 1814, reproduced in William Hazlitt, A View of the English Stage, or, A series of dramatic criticisms (London: Robert Stodart, 1818), pp. 1-2

Production: William Shakespeare, The Merchant of Venice, Drury Lane, London, 26 January 1814

Text: Mr Kean (of whom report had spoken highly) last night made his appearance at Drury-Lane Theatre in the character of Shylock. For voice, eye, action, and expression, no actor has come out for many years at all equal to him, The applause, from the first scene to the last, was general, loud, and uninterrupted. Indeed, the very first scene in which he comes on with Bassanio and Antonio shewed the master in his art, and at once decided the opinion of the audience. Perhaps it was the most perfect of any. Notwithstanding the complete success of Mr Kean in the part of Shylock, we question whether he will not become a greater favourite in other parts. There was a lightness and vigour in his tread, a buoyancy and elasticity of spirit, a fire and animation, which would accord better with almost any other character than with the morose, sullen, inward, inveterate, inflexible malignity of Shylock. The character of Shylock is that of a man brooding over one idea, that of its wrongs, and bent on one unalterable purpose, that of revenge. In conveying a profound impression of this feeling, or in embodying the general conception of rigid and uncontrollable self-will, equally proof against every sentiment of humanity or prejudice of opinion, we have seen actors more successful than Mr. Kean; but in giving effect to the conflict of passions arising out of the contrasts of situation, in varied vehemence of declamation, in keenness of sarcasm, in the rapidity of his transitions from one tone and feeling to another, in propriety and novelty of action, presenting a succession of striking pictures, and giving perpetually fresh shocks of delight and surprise, it would be difficult to single out a competitor. The fault of his acting was (if we may hazard the objection), an over-display of the resources of the art, which gave too much relief to the hard, impenetrable, dark groundwork of the character of Shylock. It would be endless to point out individual beauties, where almost every passage was received with equal and deserved applause. We thought, in one or two instances, the pauses in the voice were too long, and too great a reliance placed on the expression of the countenance, which is a language intelligible only to a part of the house.

Comments: William Hazlitt (1778-1830) was an English essayist, journalist and literary critic. He was one of the leading writers on Shakespeare of his day, popularising critical understanding of the works. As a dramatic critic he played an important part in building up the reputation of Edmund Kean, whose London debut as lead performer was in this production of Shakespeare‘s The Merchant of Venice at Drury Lane on 26 January 1814, which had a sensational effect (despite the theatre being less than a third full at the start).

Links: Copy of A View of the English Stage at Hathi Trust

At the Princess’s

Source: Matthew Arnold, ‘At the Princess’s’, in Essays in Criticism: Second Series – Contributions to ‘The Pall Mall Gazette’ and Discourses in America (London: Macmillan, 1903), pp. 250-254, originally published in The Pall Mall Gazette, 6 December 1882, p. 4

Production: Henry Arthur Jones and Henry Herman, The Silver King, Princess’s Theatre, London, December 1882

Text: An ‘Old Playgoer’ sends the following:-

I am a sexagenarian who used to go much to the Princess’s some five-and-thirty years ago, when Macready had an engagement there. I remember it as if it were yesterday. In spite of his faults and his mannerism, Macready brought to his work so much intellect, study, energy, and power, that one admired him when he was living, and remembers him now he is dead. During the engagement I speak of, Macready acted, I think, all his great Shaksperian [sic] parts. But he was ill-supported, the house was shabby and dingy, and by no means full; there was something melancholy about the whole thing. You had before you great pieces and a powerful actor; but the theater needs the glow of public and popular interest to brighten it, and in England the theater was at that time not in fashion. After an absence of many years I found myself at the Princess’s again. The piece was The Silver King. Perhaps I ought to have gone to see The Lights o’ London; but the lyric of Mr. Sims with which the streets were placarded in order to charm us to The Lights o’ London, had to my aged mind, an unpleasant touch of le faux – that danger, as the critic tells us, of the romantic artist:- ‘Comme chaque genre de composition a son écueil particulier, celui du genre romanesque, c’est le faux.’ At any rate I resisted the charm of Mr. Sims, and stayed away from The Lights o’ London. But The Silver King I have just now been to see, and I should like to record some of my impressions from it while they are fresh.

It was another world from the old Princess’s of my remembrance. The theater itself was renewed and transformed; instead of shabby and dingy, it had become decorated and brilliant. But the real revival was not in the paint and gilding, it was in the presence of the public. The public was there; not alone the old, peculiar public of the pit and gallery, but with a certain number of the rich and refined in the boxes and stalls, and with whole, solid classes of English society conspicuous by their absence. No, it was a representative public, furnisht [sic] from all classes, and showing that English society at large had now taken to the theater.

Equally new was the high general level of the acting. Instead of the company with a single powerful and intelligent performer, with two or three middling ones, and the rest moping and mowing in what was not to be called English but rather stagese, here was a whole company of actors, able to speak English, playing intelligently, supporting one another effectively. Mr. Wilson Barrett, as Wilfred Denver, is so excellent that his primacy cannot be doubted. Next after him, so far as the piece now acting is concerned, I should be inclined to put Mr. Charles Coote, as Henry Corkett. But it is the great merit of the piece that the whole is so effective, and that one is little disposed to make distinctions between the several actors, all of them do their work so well.

And the piece itself! It is not Shakspeare [sic], it is melodrama. I have seen it praised as tho it were not melodrama, not sensational drama at all, but drama of a new and superior kind, bordering upon poetic drama, and even passing into it. With this praise I cannot quite agree. The essential difference between melodrama and poetic drama is that one relies for its main effect upon an inner drama of thought and passion, the other upon an outer drama of, as the phrase is, sensational incidents. The Silver King relies for its main effect upon an outer drama of sensational incidents, and so far is clearly melodrama, transpontine melodrama. But for this outer drama, no less than for the inner drama which we have opposed to it, there is needed an exposition by means of words and sentiments; and in the exposition of the melodrama of Messrs. Jones and Herman, there is nothing transpontine. The critics are right, therefore, in thinking that in this work they have something new and highly praiseworthy, though it is not exactly what they suppose. They have a sensational drama in which the diction and sentiments do not overstep the modesty of nature. In general, in drama of this kind, the diction and sentiments, like the incidents, are extravagant, impossible, transpontine; here they are not. This is a very great merit, a very great advantage. The imagination can lend itself to almost any incidents, however violent; but good taste will always revolt against transpontine diction and sentiments. Instead of giving to their audience transpontine diction and sentiments, Messrs. Jones and Herman give them literature. Faults there are in The Silver King; Denver’s drunkenness is made too much of, his dream is superfluous, the peasantry are a little tiresome, Denver’s triumphant exit from Black Brake Wharf puzzles us.

But in general throughout the piece the diction and sentiments are natural, they have sobriety and propriety, they are literature. It is an excellent and hopeful sign to find playwrights capable of writing in this style, actors capable of rendering it, a public capable of enjoying it.

Another excellent sign should be noticed too. As everybody was said to know how the city of the Ephesians was a worshipper of the great goddess Diana, so may we say that everybody knows that, if not the city of the French, yet their modern drama, like their lighter newspapers, their novels, and their art in general, is a worshipper of the great goddess Lubricity. We imitate and adapt French pieces, and whether the adapter wishes it or not, some traces of the goddess can hardly fail to pass into his work. It is refreshing to find a native piece without the vestige of an appeal to her; and to find this piece, too, admirably given by the actors, passionately enjoyed by the audience. So at least it seems to your obedient servant.

December 6, 1882.

Comments: Matthew Arnold (1822-1888) was an English poet, critic and essayist. His ‘Letters of an Old Playgoer’, five short essay-reviews written 1882-1884 for The Pall Mall Gazette. Henry Arthur Jones and Henry Herman‘s The Silver King was a hugely successful melodrama, which opened at the Princess’s Theatre on 16 November 1882 and ran for a year. Actor-manager Wilson Barrett became particularly associated with melodramas, including The Lights o’ London and The Silver King.

Links: Copy at Internet Archive

Ira Aldridge, the Colored Tragedian

Source: Anon. [St. Petersburg correspondent], Le Nord, 5 December 1858, quoted in ‘Ira Aldridge, the Colored Tragedian’, The Anglo-African Magazine, vol. 1 no. 2, February 1859 p. 63

Production: William Shakespeare, Othello, St. Petersburg, November? 1858

Text: The success of the negro actor, Ira Aldridge, has been Wonderful. At his debut, people were curious to see an Othello who needed neither crape nor pomade to blacken his face. Many expected tears of laughter rather than tears of emotion, when they learned that Iago and Desdemona would reply to him in German. (The absence of an English troupe forced him to play with German actors.) Those who counted on this were strangely deceived. From his appearance on the stage the African artist completely captivated his audience by his harmonious and resonant voice, and by a style full of simplicity, nature, and dignity. For the first time we had seen a tragic hero talk and walk like common mortals, without declamations and without exaggerated gestures. We forgot that we were in a theater, and followed the drama as if it had been a real transaction.

The scene in the Third Act, when the sentiment of jealousy is roused in the ferocious Moor, is the triumph of Aldridge. At the first word of the wily insinuation you see his eye kindle; you feel the tears in his voice when he questions Iago, then the deep sobs which stifle it; and finally, when he is persuaded that his wretchedness is complete, a cry of rage, or rather a roar like that of a wild beast starts from his abdomen. I still seem to hear that cry; it chilled us with fear and made every spectator shudder. Tears wet his cheeks; his mouth foamed and his eyes flashed fire. I have never seen an artist identify himself so perfectly with the character which he represents. An actor told me he saw him sob for some moments after his exit from the scene. Everybody, men and women, wept. Boileau was right in saying to actors: ‘Weep yourselves, if you would make other weep.’ Rachel, in the fourth act of Les Horace, is the only artist who ever produced so great an effect. At the first representation the poor Desdemona was so horror-stricken at the terrible expression of the Moor, that she sprang from the bed and fled, shrieking with fright.

In spite of his stony nature, Aldridge can contain himself to those scenes which require calmness and subdued passion. In Shylock, to see him trembling with fear and indignation before the tribunal which is endeavoring to force Christianity upon him, makes one of those impressions which are never effaced. The severest critics find but one fault with him — that when speaking to characters at the back of the stage he has the bad habit of turning his back to the public. The director remonstrated with him about this, but it was of no avail.

Comments: Ira Aldridge (1908-1867) was an American stage actor who was the leading black theatrical figure of the nineteenth century. He specialised in Shakespearean roles, and enjoyed success in London and particularly across Europe and Russia. His first appearance in St Petersburg was in Othello on 10 November 1898. The Anglo-American Magazine was a monthly American journal aimed at a black American and abolitionist audience. It included reproductions from articles published in other journals, such as the above piece from the French newspaper Le Nord.

Links: Copy at Hathi Trust