Page images
PDF
EPUB

The interest, both of “ Douglas” and the “Carmelite,” lies principally in maternal affection,--that deep source of pathos, by appealing to which Euripides has been more indebted than to any other circumstance for his share in the trine supremacy of Greek dramatic poetry. But Cumberland's mother, it is hardly necessary to say, is an incomparably less interesting being than Lady Randolph. The Matilda of the “ Carmelite” has indeed never lost her son ; but, for no discoverable reason, she educates him as her page, without revealing to him the secret of his parentage in all the years during which she falsely imagines her husband dead. With equal absurdity she sends out this unavowed son as her champion, though he has never couched a lance at tilt or tournament. In one respect, and in one alone, the author of “St. Vallori” can compete with the author of “Douglas," - to wit, in showing more kowledge of Norman castles and of the times of chivalry. Home was probably not profound in Scottish antiquities; but, if he had been so, prudence would have cautioned him not to awaken popish reminiscences among the Scotch. He derives, however, a picturesqueness from nature beyond the charm of antiquarian knowledge, and worth a hundred Norman castles.

Cumberland's Matilda, in the “Carmelite,” owns herself to be a little deranged in her intellects by grief. This was rather unreasonable ; as, though she had lost her youthful husband, she still retained her son. But Lady Randolph's delirium is perfectly natural ; and, in concluding the tragedy with her suicide, it was fortunate that Home merged the Scottish priest in the daring poet.

Amid this modern poverty of the national drama, John Kemble proposed turning back upon its ancient resources. He was much better acquainted than most of his contemporaries with our elder play-writers ; and, among them, he particularly admired Massinger, who, with less rich sensibility than some of the nearest successors of Shakspeare, has perhaps more dignity and judgment. Kemble retouched this poet's tragedy of “ Camiola, or the Maid of Honour,” so as to adapt it to the modern stage, and to produce Mrs. Siddons in the part of its heroine.

Dr. Ireland ranks the “ Maid of Honour" in the higher order of Massinger's dramas. With deference to so good a critic, I should hardly conceive this tragedy to be one that has principally refreshed the old poet's laurels ; at least, it is not one that I should cite in proof of his judgment. Bertoldo, the lover of the Maid of Honour, is a dissappointing hero. He is the

natural brother of the King of Sicily, a knight of Malta, invested at the outset with every attribute that can make us in love with chivalry, and “ with high thoughts seated in a heart of honour.” He wooes Camiola, and wins a confession of her affection; but she cannot consent to wed him, because he is bound to celibacy by the oath of his order, though her refusal is prefaced by praises of the warmest eloquence.

" Truth bear witness for me,
That in the judgment of my soul you are
A man so absolute and circular
In all those wish'd-for rarities that may take
A virgin captive; that, though at this instant
All sceptred monarchs of our Western world
Were rivals with you, and Camiola worthy
Of such a competition, you alone

Should wear the garland.” When Bertoldo answers her objection of his being bound to a single life, by saying,

“A dispensation, lady,
Will easily absolve me :"
she replies,

"O! take heed, sir !
When what is vow'd to heaven is dispens'd with,
To serve our ends on earth, a curse must follow,
And not a blessing."

Bertoldo embarks at the head of a warlike adventure, is overwhelmed by numbers, captured, and chained in a dungeon. When the news of his fate is brought to Sicily, the king refuses to ransom him; but Camiola, sacrificing half her fortune, sends a friend with the price of his release. This friend of hers, Adorni, is also her lover, but unaccepted, and hopelessly devoted to her. She gives him the cruel commission of ransoming his rival; and (still worse) of exacting from him an oath to marry her in return for his ransom,-so much had the Maid of Honour changed her mind as to the curse that inust follow a dispensation.

When poor Adorni, to show that he loves Camiola better than himself, has fulfilled this commission, and sworn-in Bertoldo, the knight of Malta is brought to the court of Aurelia, Duchess of Siena, whose troops had defeated him. She falls in love with him, and, after short hesitation, and a too unexampled lapse of character, all the principles, nay, common feelings of

as a

honour, honesty, and gratitude in Bertoldo, fall down like a house of cards, and the recreant pledges himself to marry Aurelia ; nay, even accompanies her to Sicily, where he is sure to meet with the Maid of Honour. The whole ends in Aurelia giving him up, in Camiola devoting herself to a nunnery, and in the precious knight reswearing to keep his vows bachelor.

Bertoldo's metamorphosis is not dramatic. But are we not disappointed, it may possibly be asked, by daily mutations of human character in real life : and may these not be pictured in the drama ? Yes; but they should be pictured with probability. In real life we know men's hearts but imperfectly, and may be utterly unable to account for their changes; but the poet makes the hearts and natures of his personages; and if he will transmute them from good to bad, he ought to prepare us, by some natural prognostic, for the change. All that is noble in Bertoldo disappears like a phantom ; and he forfeits our esteem like a detected cheat, who ought never to have possessed it.

Kemble, whatever he thought of Bertoldo, could not well alter his character in remodelling Massinger's play. But he removed two other defects from the piece, about which there can be no question, namely, certain gross speeches, and an entire foolish character wholly unnecessary to the plot. Sylli, a creature fatuous with self-conceit, is brought constantly by Massinger into the same scene with Camiola, and spoils the dignity of her impression by our disgust at her endurance of his

presence. Kemble threw this idiot overboard ; and he is a character of most agreeable absence. The old dramatists, all but their chief, seldom fail more egregiously than in their efforts to create jest-makers. They exhibit foolish fellows indeed, but not the arch fools of Shakspeare, who alone knew how to dip their motley coats in the hues of immortality.

The joint powers of Mrs. Siddons and her brother prolonged the reception of this play only for three nights.

CHAPTER VIII.

Mrs. Siddons acts Lady MacbethHer own Remarks on the Character.

No performer was destined oftener than Mrs. Siddons to expend superlative genius on the acting of indifferent dramas, It is true that she sometimes turned this misfortune into the means of creating additional astonishment. Where there was little or no poetry, she made it for herself; and might be said to have become at once both the dramatist and the actress. Where but a hint of a fine situation was given, she caught up the vague conception, and produced it in a shape that was at once' ample and defined ; and, with the sorriest text to justify the outpouring of her own radiant and fervid spirit, she turned into a glowing picture what she had found but a comparative blank.

Much, however, as we may wonder at this high degree of theatrical art, I doubt if its practice would be desirable, as a general advantage, either to the actor's profession or to dramatic poetry. Actors, in parts beneath their powers, are, after all, only like musicians performing on instruments unworthy of their skill. They overcome us, it is true, with wonder and delight. I have heard the inspired Neukomme draw magical sounds from a common parish-church organ, which, under any other touch than his own, was about as musical as the bell overhead that summoned the parishioners. But this did not prevent me from devoutly wishing that I had heard him perform on the Haarlem organ.

The stage-artist's inspiration ought never to depend on shining by its own light: for it never can be perfect, unless it meets and kindles with the correspondent inspiration of poetry. The temporary triumph which this marvellous acting affords to indifferent plays is unjust to the truly poetical drama, and perplexing to popular taste. Mrs. Siddons's Margaret of Anjou, for instance, I dare say, persuaded half her spectators that Franklin's “Earl of Warwick” was a noble poem. The reading man, who had seen the piece at night adorned by her acting, would, no doubt, next morning, on perusal, find that her performance alone had given splendour to the meteor: but the

L

as a

honour, honesty, and gratitude in Bertoldo, fall down like a house of cards, and the recreant pledges himself to marry Aurelia ; nay, even accompanies her to Sicily, where he is sure to meet with the Maid of Honour. The whole ends in Aurelia giving him up, in Camiola devoting herself to a nunnery, and in the precious knight reswearing to keep his vows bachelor.

Bertoldo's metamorphosis is not dramatic. But are we not disappointed, it may possibly be asked, by daily mutations of human character in real life : and may these not be pictured in the drama ? Yes; but they should be pictured with probability. In real life we know men's hearts but imperfectly, and may be utterly unable to account for their changes ; but the poet makes the hearts and natures of his personages; and if he will transmute them from good to bad, he ought to prepare us, by some natural prognostic, for the change. All that is noble in Bertoldo disappears like a phantom ; and he forfeits our esteem like a detected cheat, who ought never to have possessed it.

Kemble, whatever he thought of Bertoldo, could not well alter his character in remodelling Massinger's play. But he removed two other defects from the piece, about which there can be no question, namely, certain gross speeches, and an entire foolisho character wholly unnecessary to the plot. Sylli, a creature fatuous with self-conceit, is brought constantly by Massinger into the same scene with Camiola, and spoils the dignity of her impression by our disgust at her endurance of his presence.

Kemble threw this idiot overboard ; and he is a character of most agreeable absence. The old dramatists, all but their chief, seldom fail more egregiously than in their efforts to create jest-makers. They exhibit foolish fellows indeed, but not the arch fools of Shakspeare, who alone knew how to dip their motley coats in the hues of immortality.

The joint powers of Mrs. Siddons and her brother prolonged the reception of this play only for three nights.

« PreviousContinue »