« PreviousContinue »
his life, he displayed this self-confidence in a singular degree. He nourished nothing less ambitious, than an idea of revolutionizing Falstaff by acting the fat knight on a new principle, and he used to enlarge, with all the skilful sophistry his profound acquaintance with the drama could supply, on the points which he would assume differing from those presented by Henderson, to whom, however, he uniformly gave the praise of having presented one of the richest and most glowing portraits which the stage in his time had afforded. At one time, when we were ourselves listening to him on this subject, an incident took place which those who were present can scarcely fail to recollect, and which served to show the strength of Kemble's nerves, and at the same time, the deep and overwhelming interest which he took in professional discussion.
It was at the entertainment annually given by the Royal Academy, on the day before the opening of the exhibition of paintings in Somerset House, on which occasion we need not tell most of our readers invitations are sent by the academicians to all the persons of rank and quality who are supposed to love and encourage the arts, to those who may be considered as the pillars of literature, and as some readers may think, to the caterpillars also, since we, the critics, were honoured with a summons.
The scene, splendid as usual from the beauty and brilliancy of the works of art which hung around us, was rendered venerable by the presence of old West, in his capacity of president, and he was supported by one of the princes of the blood, and a brilliant array of nobility and quality, intermingled with artists and literary men of eminence. The apartment was illuminated by an immeasurably large and ponderous bronze chandelier, a gift from his present Majesty to the Royal Academy. It exhibited many hundred lamps, and might weigh two or three tons. It had been recently suspended, and this was the first time of its being used. Beneath this huge and splendid chandelier was placed a sort of gigantic dumbwaiter, on which were arranged the quantity of wine-glasses, decanters, water-glasses, and other things of the sort, necessary for the accommodation of so large a company.
We had the good fortune to sit beside our late lamented friend, and were listening to the ingenious distinctions which he was pointing out with great earnestness and precision, between Falstaff as Sir John to all Europe,'—as one who jested familiarly with John of Gaunt on his breaking Justice Shallow's head for crowding among the marshal-men- as the companion of the Prince of Wales--and the same Falstaff as the gallant of Doll Tearsheet, in all the coarse indulgence of the Boar's Head, where he himself
was, as it is usually termed, the Cock of the Company – the old boar, in short, feeding in the old freak.'
While we were listening to this with much edification, a roar. was heard behind us like distant thunder—the links of the strong chain which suspended the chandelier were giving way, and became slackened so much, that as it gradually sunk and came into collision with the dumb waiter aforesaid, which was crushed to shivers beneath its weight, while all the garnishing of the beaufet, like Alnaschar's stock in trade, was annihilated, with a crashing scream, which might equal that of the dying elephant. If the absolute fall of the chandelier had taken place, it would have tried Chambers's architecture with a vengeance, and beyond a doubt must have penetrated through the floor to the very cellars of the building, carrying with it princes, dukes, painters, poets, musi-, cians, amateurs-and critics. Fortunately the links of the bronze chain, though they slacked, did not snap, but the momentary. alarm was considerable. We ourselves, though, as may be supposed from our profession, not peculiarly timid, began to think a retreat by the staircase, though less honourable, might have its advantage over the posthumous fame of being recorded among the distinguished victims, as the papers would doubtless have termed them, on the late awful occurrence.' But after one calm glance over his shoulder, our friend, John Kemble, returned back to Falstaff, and had talked for five minutes about the Boar's Head and the Tilt Yard, before we could recover our composure sufficiently to collect what he was saying, and when he chid us for inattention, Charles XII.'s rebuke to his secretary for interrupting a letter at the explosion of a bomb in the next apartment, could not have been more coolly uttered. His acting Falstaff would have given a great treat to those who desired to see one of the first of critics exemplifying his conception of one of the most singular parts in the drama. But that John Kemble could have been Sir John in the genuine jolly and jocund sense of the part, is what we can never conceive,
We must cut short our history of Kemble as an actor, by brief mention of those Roman characters, Cato, Brutus, and Coriolanus, by means of which he transported us to the Capitol, so completely had he made the habits, manners and mode of thinking of the ancients identically his own. They were, indeed, peculiarly suited to his noble and classical form, his dignified and stately gesture, his regulated yet commanding eloquence.
* Pride in each port, defiance in each eye,
You saw the lords of human kind pass by.' To his peculiar art of acting also, the Roman character in its various shades afforded great facilities. There was almost always
connected with it an assumed character, which qualified, if it did not master, that which nature had assigned to the individual. The aristocratic pride of Coriolanus, the patriotic ardour and stoical philosophy of Brutus and Cato, form each a shade of adventitious and adopted character, which seems to controul the natural feelings of the heart, and hide, or at least colour, what cannot be altogether suppressed. The temperament of Brutus, for example, is naturally warm, as appears in his quarrel with Cassius; naturally affectionate, as is displayed in his scene with Portia. But his stoic mien, arising out of rules of thought and conduct long since adopted, draws a veil over both feelings, and his affections are subdued, though not hidden, by sufferance enjoined by his philosophy. Other performers might excel Kemble in the full burst of instant and agitating passion to which the person represented is supposed to give the reins upon any direct natural im, pulse; but we cannot conceive of any one delineating, with any thing approaching to the same felicity, those lofty Romans, feels ing and partly exhibiting, yet on the whole conquering the passions of nature by the mental discipline to which they had trained themselves. Those who have seen Kemble as Cato bend over the body of his slain son, and subdue the father to assume the patriot, or have heard him pronounce the few words in Brutus,
'No man bears sorrow better--Portia's deady' will at once understand our meaning—to others we almost despair of explaining it. We would further remark, that whatever might in some characters appear tardy, and even stiff in Kemble's mode of acting, was here natural and proper. The pause showed the time, whịch philosophy claimed to obtain her victory over nature; the delay, elsewhere censured, was in these parts not merely appropriate: the suspense itself agonized the audience.
Neither was that slight degree of tardiness, though ridiculed by Sheridan—when, urging Kemble for some novelty, he advised him to play Hamlet with music between the pauses visible; when, in the opinion of the actor, the scene required instant and precipitate exertion. The mode in which he rushed on the stage in Coriolanus, with the half breathless cry,' Am I too late?' is an illustration of what we mean, as well as many similar exertions in Coleman's striking piece of the Mountaineers, and in the grand pantomime of Rolla. He was, indeed, not only a noble figure when moving with the stately grace which he usually maintained, but equally striking when engaged in violent action. When he condescended—we must give it that term-to play the part of Percy in the Castle Spectre, he used, in the scene where Percy drops back on the couch, just as when rising to make his spring from
the window, to discover all the address and activity of the most able pantomimist. The same command of muscle and limb was far more strikingly exemplified when the Volscian assassing approaching him from behind in the very midst of the triumphant vaunt of his repeated victories over their countrymen, seemed to pass their swords through the body of Coriolanus. There was no precaution, no support; in the midst of the exclamation against Tullus Aufidius, he dropped as dead and as flat on the stage as if the swords had really met within his body. We have repeatedly heard screams from the female part of the audience when he presented this scene, which had the most striking resemblance to actual and instant death we ever witnessed, and saved all that rolling, gasping and groaning which generally takes place in our theatres, to the scandal of all foreigners, until at length a stout fellow, exhausted by his apparent efforts and agonies, lies on his back, puffing like a grampus, and is to be received as a heroic corpse.
We must leave John Kemble as a player to consider him in the light of a manager, for the improved taste which he introduced into the drama in that capacity will benefit the admirers of the theatrical art in future times as much as his personal exertions delighted his contemporaries. In 1788-9 King resigned what was called the management of Drury Lane Theatre. Honest Tomwho can remember his Benedict and Lord Ogleby without pleasure, though the last has had an excellent substitute ? Tom loved gambling, and fell of course among thieves, who were rather proud of their trade, as witness the following anecdote:
• After playing all night with a sharper, at a fashionable club, and losing every thing, King discovered that he had been bubbled, and hinted his suspicions to his antagonist; who coolly said to him, “ I always play with marked cards; why don't you?" - Boaden, vol. ii, p. 28.
King seems to have been scarcely used better by his employers, the proprietors, than by his friends the Greeks. He had the name and responsibility of stage-manager, but without power to receive or reject a piece, engage or discharge a performer, command a coat to be cleaned, or add a yard of copperlace to it, though often needed. Kemble refused to undertake the responsible office without the necessary authority for the management of the whole dramatic business. This was promised, and in some degree granted; but it was Sheridan who was the promiser; and though, being then chiefly involved in politics, he was obliged to leave Kemble much greater latitude than he did King, he contrived to give him, from time to time, as much annoyance as a man rigidly true to his engagements could receive from one. whose extraordinary talents were blended with so much negli
gence and inconsistency. Sheridan's cominand over Kemble,
: founded on the respect due to his talents, and the art with which he. Aattered and conciliated after offending, disappointing, and breaking faith with him, was exercised in no creditable manner. fectly guileless-devoid—not of spirit, far from it, but of every thing like implacability-Kemble long struggled under the difficulties which attended every management in which Sheridan was concerned. But he pleased himself with the sense that his authority, however interfered with, gave him still the power of doing much for the improvement of dramatic taste.
Before Kemble's time there was no such thing as regular costume observed in our theatres. The actors represented Macbeth and his wife, Belvidera and Jaffier, and most other parts, whatever the age or country in which the scene was laid, in the cast-off court dresses of the nobility. Kemble used to say that the modern dresses of the characters in the well-known print of a certain dramatic dagger-scene, made them resemble the butler and housekeeper struggling for the carving-knife. Some few characters, by a sort of prescriptive theatrical right, always retained the costume of their times-Falstaff, for example, and Richard III. But such exceptions only rendered the general appearance of the actors more anomalous. We have seen Jane Shore acted, with Richard in the old English cloak, Lord Hastings in a full court dress with his white rod like a lord chamberlain of the last reign, and Jane Shore and Alicia in stays and hoops. We have seen Miss Young act Zara incased in whalebone, to an Osman dressed properly enough as a Turk, while Nerestan, a Christian knight in the time of the crusades, strutted in the white uniform of the old French guards. These incongruities were perhaps owing to the court of Charles II. adopting, after the restoration, the French regulation, that players being considered as in the presence of their sovereign, should wear the dress of the court drawing-room, while in certain parts the old English custom was still retained, which preserved some attempt at dressing in character. Kemble reformed all these anachronisms, and prosecuted with great earnestness a plan of reforming the wardrobe of the stage, collecting with indefatigable diligence from illuminated manuscripts, ancient pictures, and other satisfactory authorities, whatever could be gleaned of ancient costume worthy of being adopted on the theatre. Rigid and pedantic adherence to the dresses of every age was not possible or to be wished for. In the time when Lear is supposed to have lived, the British were probably painted and tattooed, and, to be perfectly accurate, Edgar ought to have stripped his shoulders bare before he assumed the character of poor Tom. Hamlet, VOL. XXXIV. NO. LXVII.