William Hazlitt

The Distressed Mother

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

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

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

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

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

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

Links: Copy at Hathi Trust

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

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