Page images
PDF
EPUB

I believe the present law had its origin partly in asceticism, which delights to deny the pleasures, though innocent, which nature would give us, partly in the love of governing, ordering, directing, and of the influence and power that follow-a characteristic of priests, but which is only more marked in them than in other human beings because they have more opportunity of indulging it. I trust that a right view will be taken of this important matter and the law altered.

BRAMWELL.

MERELY PLAYERS.

All the world's a stage,
And all the men and women merely players,

which accounts for the fact that we all of us-or almost all, especially those of simple, child-like, and imaginative natures-delight in a play, and are apt to get up an ardent enthusiasm for those 'poor players,

Who strut and fret their hour upon the stage,
And then are seen no more.

Nor is this wonderful. To be able to throw oneself completely out of oneself into another's individuality is one of the highest triumphs of intellectual art. The painter does it, in degree, when he invents a face and depicts it, real as life, though it exists only in his own fancy; the novelist does it, by thinking out a character, and making his puppet act and speak according to its nature and its surrounding circumstances. But the actor is both these combined. He must look the picture, he must be the character. Therefore a truly great actor in any line—whether he stirs in us the heroic pain of tragedy, or refreshes us with harmless comedy, or even by the fun of broad farce shoots Folly as it flies,'—is, in his generation, among the best benefactors of society.

All the mcre so, perhaps, because his life-work is of so ephemeral a kind. The artist leaves his pictures, the author his books, behind him, for the world to judge him by, and to profit from, long after he is gone; the actor leaves behind him only a memory. No description can keep alive, even for a single generation, the fame of that fascination which once drove audiences wild with delight. It is gone—vanished !-as completely as an ended song, a forgotten dream. Who now believes in Mrs. Siddons' grace,

John Kemble's dignity, Edmund Kean's pathos and passion ? Nay, the young generation begins to smile when we, who have seen him, praise Macready. They think he was, after all, nothing to compare to Henry Irving. And how can we prove anything? We can only say It was so.'

It is this which makes the underlying pathos of acting, and the actor's life-the feeling of Live while you live, for to-morrow all will have passed away.' Still, while it lasts, the charm is all-powerful, the triumph supreme. No admired author or artist, no victorious general or popular sovereign, ever evokes such universal enthusiasm, or receives such passionate ovations, as a successful actor and actress during their brief day-brief, but still glorious, and great in its power for good or for evil. Those of us who can recall the enthusiasms of our youth, how we used to come home from the play, literally saturated-soaked through and through-with insane admiration; hearing for days the tones of the one voice, imitating and quoting the words and gestures of our idol— must confess that it is a high and a responsible career even to be ' merely players.'

I am led to these remarks by reading through-and it takes a good deal, perhaps a little too much, of reading-a volume entitled * Some of Shakespeare's Female Characters,' by Helen Faucit, Lady Martin. Truly, if any one has a right to say her say on these said characters, and to be listened to, it is Lady Martin.

For forty years, possibly more, since she rose early and set late, Helen Faucit was the star of our English, and especially of our Shakespearian drama. Among the last generation of actresses there was no one to coinpare with her. More refined and cultivated than Miss Glyn, though in genius and passion few could surpass the occasional outbursts of that very remarkable woman ; more original and free from mannerisms than Mrs. Charles Kean and Miss Vandenhoff; while those passing meteors, Fanny Kemble and Mrs. Scott Siddons, can scarcely be counted as rivals-Helen Faucit remains, to all of us who have lived long enough to contrast the present with the past, the best impersonator of Shakespeare's women whom the last generation has ever seen.

Though not beautiful, there was about her an atmosphere of beauty, which made itself felt as soon as ever she came on the stage. Her lightest gesture, the first tone of her voice, suddenly heard through other stage voices like a thrush through a chorus of sparrows, seemed part of a harmonious whole. She had no sharp angles, no accidental outbursts, which may be either pathos or bathos, just as it happens; everything with her was artistically perfect. If, as some alleged, too perfect—that in her care never to 'outstep the modesty of nature' she ignored nature altogether, and substituted art--it was at any rate a very high form of art. And after reading her book, which gives us a glimpse into the soul of the woman, for it is essentially a woman's book, we come to the conclusion that the secret of her success was not art but nature. She felt all she acted. Her cultivated mind, which, if not absolutely a poet’s, had a sympathetic appreciation of poetry, enabled her to take in all the delicate nuances of Shakespeare's characters, while her heart taught her to understand those things which have made 'Shakespeare's women’a proverb for feminine charm. During a whole generation—nay, more, for like Ninon de Vol. XX.–No. 115.

GG

l'Enclos she seemed to have perpetual youth-she so enchained the public that the children of her first worshippers were her worshippers too. And she retired with scarcely even physical graces lost. Her Portia and Rosalind, acted when youth was no more, were as young' and as delightful as ever. Such an actress cannot but have had as the key to her popularity, the only key which unlocks the wide heart of humanity,' a heart of her own.

This book shows it, and makes interesting what as a literary production might have been superfluous, for Shakespeare has had only too many commentators and analysers. But here we have an individual study, not of the whole play but of the one character in it which the actress impersonated. In a very simple and feminine way, autobiographical without being egotistic, she lets us into the secrets of that impersonation. We see how she must have penetratedfor herself and not another, since she tells us she had never seen them acted by any other-into the very nature of Juliet, Rosalind, Desdemona, Imogen, and caught the bright spirit of Beatricethough she owns she never cared for this last as she did for the more womanly women. If, in truth, she takes too feminine a view of her poet, if in the minuteness of her criticism she attributes to Shakespeare's women certain nineteenth century qualities which Shakespeare never thought of, and embellishes them with preceding and subsequent episodes wholly imaginary, such as Ophelia's motherless childhood, and Portia’s consolatory visit to the dying Shylock, we forgive her, since she has made a contribution to Shakespearian literature quite original of its kind, and which could have been done thus by no other

person. The book has one more characteristic. It is for an actress whose personality must ever be before her, indeed forced upon her, strangely impersonal. We wish it had been a little more of an autobiography. So many players are merely players, with no literary capacity at all, no means of expressing their feeling about their art or their method of study, that such revelations from a woman of Lady Martin's intellectual calibre would have been not only pleasant but profitable. Now that we see her no more, it is interesting to an almost pathetic degree to hear that in her first girlish performance of Juliet, her nervousness was such that she crushed the phial in her hand, and never discovered this till she saw the blood-drops staining her white dress; how Macready complained that she was so hard to kill 'as Desdemona ; and how, when writing about Imogen, the remembered agony seemed still to fill her mind, as it used to do on the stage.

As a whole this book, and the light it throws both upon the individuality and the professional history of the writer, are to us who remember what Helen Faucit was, and the sort of plays she acted in, a curious contrast to the stage and the actors of to-day. Then Browning, Westland Marston, Milman, G. W. Lovell, Bulwer Lytton, were, if not all poets, at least very capable dramatists, who had no need to steal from the French, but could invent actable plays, which intelligent audiences eagerly listened to, and went home the better for it. The writing might have been a little stilted, lengthy and didactic, and the acting more conventional than realistic, but the tone was always pure and high. No confusion of right and wrong made you doubt whether it was criminal, or only “ funny, to make love to your neighbour's wife; or whether, instead of the old-fashioned stage morality, when virtue was rewarded and vice punished, there was not now a system of things much more interesting, in which a lady of no virtue to speak of, and a gentleman who prided himself on breaking all the ten commandments, were the hero and heroine with whom you were expected to sympathise. Is it so now? To how many—or rather how few-London theatres can one take one's

young daughters and sons without blushing for them-and ourselves ?

All the worse because over the foulness is thrown a certain veneer of refinement. Shakespeare, though often coarse in language, as was the fashion of his time, is always pure at heart-pure as the Bible itself, which is perhaps the plainest-spoken book of that date now admitted into general reading. His women too, spite of our ultrarealistic modern actresses—one of whom as Juliet appears on the stage en robe de nuit, and another sings an interpolated song which Shakespeare never would have put in the mouth of his maidenly and pureminded Rosalind—his women are and always will be the ideal of all feminine purity. Except the historical Cleopatra, there is not among all bis diverse heroines one unchaste woman. Imagine the creator of Imogen, Desdemona, Portia, inventing a Dame aux Camélias, a Fédora, or a Théodora !

Such a book as this of Lady Martin's awakes in us, with a regretful memory of what the stage was, a longing for what it ought to be and might be. Not exactly by returning to old traditions; the world is for ever advancing, and we must accommodate ourselves to this fact. Even lately a charming little comedy of Westland Marston's, Under Fire, which for wit and grace of diction, and delicate sketches of character, was worth a dozen ephemeral and immoral French vaudevilles, fell flat after two or three nights. And not even its admirable mise en scène and the perfect acting of Wilson Barrett could save the public from discovering that Bulwer's Junius was an essentially false diamond, which the most splendid setting could never rescue from deserved oblivion. No! “The old order changeth, yielding place to new,' and it is right it should be so. Only, let us try that the new 'order' be as good as the old.

Dramatic art at present may be roughly divided into three sections: the Shakespearian and poetic drama, melodrama, and adaptations from the French. A few stray variations, English and

« PreviousContinue »