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Mrs. Siddons acts Lady Macbeth—Her 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
unreading spectator would probably for ever consider "The Earl of Warwick" a tragedy as good as any of Shakspeare's.
The most pleasing points, therefore, in Mrs. Siddons's history, are her returns to the plays of Shakspeare. She chose the part of Lady Macbeth for her second benefit this season, February 2, 1785.*
I regard the tragedy of "Macbeth," upon the whole, as the greatest treasure of our dramatic literature. We may look, as Britons, at Greek sculpture and Italian paintings, with a humble consciousness that our native art has never reached their perfection; but, in the drama, we can confront Eschylus himself with Shakspeare: and, of all modern theatres, ours alone can compete with the Greek in the unborrowed nativeness and sublimity of its superstition. In the grandeur of tragedy, "Macbeth" has no parallel, till we go back to the "Prometheus and the Furies" of the Attic stage. I could even produce, if it were not digressing too far from my subject, innumerable instances of striking similarity between the metaphorical mintage of Shakspeare's and of Eschylus's style,a similarity, both in beauty and in the fault of excess, that, unless the contrary had been proved, would lead me to suspect our great dramatist to have been a studious Greek scholar. But their resemblance arose only from the consanguinity of
In one respect, the tragedy of "Macbeth" always reminds me of Eschylus's poetry. It has scenes and conceptions absolutely too bold for representation. What stage could do justice to Eschylus, when the Titan Prometheus makes his appeal to the elements; and when the hammer is heard in the Scythian Desert that rivets his chains? Or when the ghost of Clytemnestra rushes into Apollo's temple, and rouses the sleeping Furies? I wish to imagine these scenes: I should be sorry to see the acting of them attempted.
In like manner, there are parts of "Macbeth" which I delight to read much more than to see in the theatre. When the drum of the Scottish army is heard on the wild heath, and when I fancy it advancing, with its bowmen in front, and its spears and banners in the distance, I am always disappointed with Macbeth's entrance, at the head of a few kilted actors. Perhaps more effect might be given to this scene by stage pre
* Cast of the other parts in the performance of "Macbeth," Feb. 2, 1785. Macbeth, Smith; Macduff, Brereton; Banquo, Bensley; Witches, Parsons, Moody, and Baddely.
paration; though with the science of stage-effect I can pretend to little acquaintance. But, be that as it may, I strongly suspect that the appearance of the Weird Sisters is too wild and poetical for the possibility of its being ever duly acted in a theatre. Even with the exquisite music of Lock, the orgies of the Witches at their boiling caldron is a burlesque and revolting exhibition. Could any stage contrivance make it seem sublime? No! I think it defies theatrical art to render it half so welcome as when we read it by the mere light of our own imaginations. Nevertheless, I feel no inconsistency in reverting from these remarks to my first assertion, that, all in all, "Macbeth" is our greatest possession in dramatic poetry. With the exception of the Weird Sisters, it is not only admirably suited for stage representation, but it has given the widest scope to the greatest powers of British acting. It was restored to our theatre by Garrick, with much fewer alterations than have generally mutilated the plays of Shakspeare. For two-thirds of a century before Garrick's time, "Macbeth" had been worse than banished from the stage: for it had been acted with D'Avenant's alterations, produced in 1672, in which every original beauty was either awkwardly disguised or arbitrarily omitted. Yet, so ignorant were Englishmen, that "The Tatler" quotes Shakspeare's "Macbeth" from D'Avenant's alteration of it; and when Quin heard of Garrick's intention to restore the original, he asked, with astonishment, "Have I not all this time been acting Shakspeare's play?"
Lady Macbeth, though not so intensely impassioned as Constance, is a more important character in the tragedy to which she belongs. She is a larger occupant of our interest on the stage, and a more full and finished poetical creation. The part accordingly proved, as might have been expected, Mrs. Siddons's master-piece. It was an era in one's life to have seen her in it. She was Tragedy personified.
Mrs. Siddons has left, in her Memoranda, the following
"Remarks on the Character of Lady Macbeth.
"In this astonishing creature one sees a woman in whose bosom the passion of ambition has almost obliterated all the characteristics of human nature; in whose composition are associated all the subjugating powers of intellect, and all the charms and graces of personal beauty. You will probably not agree with me as to the character of that beauty; yet, perhaps, this difference of opinion will be entirely attributable to the difficulty of your imagination disengaging itself from that idea
of the person of her representative which you have been so long accustomed to contemplate. According to my notion, it is of that character which I believe is generally allowed to be most captivating to the other sex,-fair, feminine, nay, perhaps even fragile
'Fair as the forms that, wove in Fancy's loom,
Such a combination only, respectable in energy and strength of mind, and captivating in feminine loveliness, could have composed a charm of such potency as to fascinate the mind of a hero so dauntless, a character so amiable, so honourable as Macbeth,-to seduce him to brave all the dangers of the present and all the terrors of a future world; and we are constrained, even while we abhor his crimes, to pity the infatuated victim of such a thraldom. His letters, which have informed her of the predictions of those preternatural beings who accosted him on the heath, have lighted up into daring and desperate determinations all those pernicious slumbering fires which the enemy of man is ever watchful to awaken in the bosoms of his unwary victims. To his direful suggestions she is so far from offering the least opposition, as not only to yield up her soul to them, but moreover to invoke the sightless ministers of remorseless cruelty to extinguish in her breast all those compunctious visitings of nature which otherwise might have been mercifully interposed to counteract, and perhaps eventually to overcome, their unholy instigations. But having impiously delivered herself up to the excitements of hell, the pitifulness of heaven itself is withdrawn from her, and she is abandoned to the guidance of the demons whom she has invoked.
"Here I cannot resist a little digression, to observe how sweetly contrasted with the conduct of this splendid fiend is that of the noble, single-minded Banquo. He, when under the same species of temptation, having been alarmed, as it appears, by some wicked suggestions of the Weird Sisters in his last night's dream, puts up an earnest prayer to heaven to have these cursed thoughts restrained in him, which nature gives way to in repose.' Yes, even as to that time when he is not accountable either for their access or continuance, he remembers the precept, Keep thy heart with all diligence; for out of it are the issues of life.'
"To return to the subject. Lady Macbeth, thus adorned with every fascination of mind and person, enters for the first time, reading a part of one of those portentous letters from
her husband. They met me in the day of success; and I have learned by the perfectest report they have more in them than mortal knowledge. When I burned with desire to question them further, they made themselves into thin air, into which they vanished. While I stood wrapped in the wonder of it, came missives from the king, who all hailed me 'Thane of Cawdor,' by which title, before these sisters had saluted me, and referred me to the coming on of time with Hail, king that shall be! This I have thought good to deliver thee, my dearest partner of greatness, that thou mightst not lose the dues of rejoicing, by being ignorant of what greatness is promised. Lay it to thy heart, and farewell.' Now vaulting ambition and intrepid daring rekindle in a moment all the splendours of her dark blue eyes. She fatally resolves that Glamis and Cawdor shall be also that which the mysterious agents of the Evil One have promised. She then proceeds to the investigation of her husband's character.
'Yet I do fear thy nature, It is too full of the milk of human kindness
To catch the nearest way. Thou wouldst be great,
Art not without ambition, but without
The illness should attend it.
What thou wouldst highly,
That thou wouldst holily.
"In this development, we find that, though ambitious, he is yet amiable, conscientious, nay, pious; and yet of a temper so irresolute and fluctuating as to require all the efforts, all the excitement which her uncontrollable spirit and her unbounded influence over him can perform. She continues—
'Hie thee hither,
Shortly Macbeth appears. He announces the king's approach; and she, insensible it should seem to all the perils which he has encountered in battle, and to all the happiness of his safe return to her,-for not one kind word of greeting or congratulation does she offer,-is so entirely swallowed up