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But her exquisite gracefulness, and the emotions and plaudits of the house, ere long convinced me that she must be some very great actress, only the notion I had preconceived of her pride and majesty made me think that “this soft, sweet creature could not be the Siddons.” When I asked the person. next me the name of the actress, I felt, or fancied, a tone of rebuke in his answer ; as if he had said, Could you suppose that any other actress could affect the house in this manner?
I remember that what struck me with peculiar astonishment was the familiar, I had almost said playful, persuasiveness, with which she won over the Moor to Cassio's interest. In that scene, it is my belief that no other actress ever softened and sweetened tragedy so originally.
I thank my brother biographer, Mr. Boaden, for saying, with equal truth and felicity of expression, that, in her acting of Desdemona, the very stature of the mighty actress seemed to be lowered. I am also happy to find my friend Mr. Bartley, the actor, enthusiastically fond of recollecting the Siddons's Desdemona. Nor do I value lightly the contemporary testimony of the daily press on this occasion. They unanimously agree as to the fact, that Mrs. Siddons increased her popularity, great as it was, by this performance ; and one of them concludes his account of it by saying, that “in this wonderful transition from Lady Macbeth to the bride of Othello, Mrs. Siddons had shown her genius to be a star of the first magni. tude, that could reach and adorn the most distant and opposite points in the horizon of tragic excellence.”
A circumstance, personally unfortunate to her, occurred in her first representation of the part. They gave her, with criminal negligence, a damp bed to lie upon, in the death-scene, and she contracted from thence a rheumatic fever. Twice in the course of her life she encountered the most serious of stage perils. Desdemona's sheets had nearly killed her with cold ; and afterward, when she played Hermione, in the “ Winter's Tale," from her drapery catching fire, she was in imminent danger of being burnt alive.
[April 14th, 1785.] She appeared in no other new part till Mason's tragedy of “ Elfrida,” which had been admired at Buckingham House, was brought out by command of their majesties.* Its author is mentioned with personal regard by
* Cast of parts : Athelwold, Smith ; Edgar, Brereton ; Orgar, J. Aickin; Edwin, Packer ; Elfrida, Mrs. Siddons ; Albina, Mrs. Brereton.
Mrs. Siddons, in her MS. Recollections. Speaking of her friend Lady Harcourt's country seat, she says, “ When I was on my usual visit to this beautiful place, I have often walked arm-in-arm with the author of Caractacus,' and the amiable Whitehead. The former of these gentlemen, before I made his acquaintance, had conceived an inveterate dislike to me: he was a great humourist ; but, with all his oddities, a benevolent man. He was petted and coaxed by Lord Harcourt, and by all the visiters indeed, like a spoiled child. He hated me, because he could not bear that I should be even compared with his departed friend and favourite, Mrs. Pritchard ; and was so annoyed at the sound of my name, that, in order playfully to humour his prejudice, they sunk it, and always, in his hearing, called me the Lady. I arrived there at tea-time, and found him looking very sulky indeed, wrapped up in his Spanish cloak, which he called being out of humour. We
ppened somehow to be near each other at supper. I found his ice beginning to thaw, and the next morning, to the great amusement of the whole party, we were detected practising a duet in the breakfast room. From that time forth I had the honour of being in his good graces, for the too short period of his pious and valuable existence. When I arrived at his own habitation, on a visit for a few days, they told us he was absent, but would soon return. In the mean time, Mr. Siddons and I strolled to see him ; and, when we entered, we saw the venerable man, the almost adored parish priest, in the organloft, teaching the children some music for the next Sunday. We left him undisturbed in his pious occupation, and returned to his house, where he soon received us with heartfelt cordiality. He spoke broad Yorkshire, and good-naturedly allowed us to accuse him of affectation in so doing ; though, I believe, he was only affecting what was so natural to him
that he could noi avoid it.”
With regard to Mrs. Siddons's Elfrida, I am inclined to believe the journalist's blunt report of her performance, namely, that she had acted every thing in the part which she had to act, and looked the part as perfectly as possible ; but that her powers and graces were exerted in vain in so dull a drama.” She was called to perform it only twice.
There are two sorts of simplicity in the natural history of
* Morning Chronicle for April 18, 1785.—" • Elfrida' was not new to the stage when brought out at this period. It had been three times before tried at Covent Garden.” And, still more strange to say, was tried at that house once more, in 1792.
forgot her part. On the other hand, though Mrs. Siddons was a passable vocalist, yet I can hardly imagine her powers of singing adapted for the wild tenderness of Ophelia ; and, if she succeeded so absolutely in the part, why did she never perform it a second time ?* Her greatness in the characters that formed her true element, forbids our ranging one iota beyond them in search of questionable merits. Her fame disdains all alliance with doubt.
Of all that has been written about Hamlet and Ophelia, I best like the remarks of Mrs. Jameson, in her Characteristics of Women. If the authoress of that charming work had ever seen Mrs. Siddons in this part, I should go far to consult her opinion on the subject. But Ophelia's critic is of a later generation, and I ought not ungallantly to wish a lady to be older than she is.
The same evening that she played Ophelia, Mrs. Siddons performed the Lady, in Milton's " Comus," if the masque can be called Milton's which was mutilated from the original, for stage performance, by Dalton and Colman. The latter of these stage adaptators tells us, that Milton's poetry, unless it caught the audience by singing, was always coldly received. If so, Mrs. Siddons's finest elocution could be of little avail. But the truth is, that Milton's poetry is not theatrical.
During this, which was her third season, Mrs. Siddons acted fifty-five times. I think it was in the character of Desdemona alone that she could be said to have acquired fresh fame. In the summer recess, she made her usual tour of the provincial theatres.
* The most interesting performance of Ophelia that I have met with on record, was that of Mrs. Susannah Mountford, the daughter of the celebrated actor whose untimely death has been mentioned in the third chapter of the present work. I quote the anecdote from Mr. Genest's “ ACcount of the English Stage.” It was first given by Mrs. Bellamy, who had it from Colley Cibber. “ Mrs. Mountford, during her last years, became deranged, but, as her disorder was not outrageous, she was not placed under any rigorous confinement, but was suffered to walk about her house. One day, in a lucid interval, she asked what play was to be performed that evening, and was told it was to be · Hamlet. While she was on the stage, she had acted Ophelia with great applause ; the recollection struck her, and, with all that cunning which is so frequently allied to insanity, she found means to elude the care of her attendants, and got to the theatre, where, concealing herself till the scene where Ophelia was to make her appearance in her mad state, she pushed upon the stage before the person appointed to play the character, and exhibited a repre. sentation of it that astonished the performers as well as the audience. She exhausted her vital powers in this effort, was taken home, and died soon after."
Season at Drury Lane, 1786-7—Mrs. Siddons plays Cleone—Imogen
Hortensia, in the “Count of Narbonne"--Lady Restless, in the Comedy of “ All in the Wrong”—Julia, in the “ Italian Lover"-Alicia, in “ Jane Shore.”
[1786.] DRURY LANE was reopened on the 16th of September, 1786. But Mrs. Siddons had no new part till the 22d of November; when Dodsley's tragedy of “Cleone” was brought out, for the first time, at that house.* It had been ofiered to Garrick as early as 1758, and his declining it was ascribed to the piece containing no part in which he could himself appear; though, in my humble opinion, the tragedy itself makes the best apology for his refusal. It was accepted, however, in the same year, at Covent Garden, where Mrs. Bellamy's bewitching screams gave it a run for sixteen nights,-exactly eight times the number of hearings which Mrs. Siddons's acting could ever obtain for it.
It is well known that Robert Dodsley raised himself, by his talents and good conduct, from a humble station to wealth and consequence, and that he was a useful publisher and a most respectable man. He left literature indebted to him on the whole ; though not for this tragedy. Mr. Genest calls it tolerable: but I would rather substitute the words of Dogberry, that “it is most tolerable, and not to be endured.” The hero, Sifroy, is a sort of would-be Othello, with the difference that Othello is of a noble nature, excited to jealousy by skilful villany, while Sifroy is a silly dupe of the shallowest artifice. In short, the dulness of “Cleone" has no relief, except its torpedo-like shocks of improbability.
Having had occasion, in writing the present work, to read over all the dull plays in which Mrs. Siddons was condemned to perform a part, I have endeavoured to indemnify myself by the reperusal of Shakspeare; and I have thus had room to speculate on the nature of dramatic poetry, from the most contrasted impressions it could produce. The word improbability brings to my mind not only the besetting sin of the dra
* Cast of parts. Sifroy, J. Kemble ; Glanville, Bensley; Beaufort, sen. J. Aickin; Beaufort, jun. Barrymore ; Cleone, Mrs. Siddons; Isabella, Mrs. Ward.
matic dunces, but a laughable apology for it which one of them offers, in the preface to his own condemned tragedy, and a protest which he solemnly enters against the injustice of its damnation. “ You" (the critics of the day) says the dolorous author," harp eternally on my improbabilities. You deal rigorously with inferior dramatists on the score of their delinquencies as to the probable ; but, when the same fault is found in some great master, like Shakspeare, oh, then you give the word probability quite a liberal and kindly latitude of interpretation. And is not improbability as great a sin in the richest, as it is in the poorest dramatic genius?"
To this question, which reminds me of the ass in the fable, wondering why he might not fawn upon his master like a lapdog, I trust the reader anticipates my answer, which is flatlyNo! Improbability, for its own sake, we never desire ; but we forgive the fault, in proportion as it is redeemed by wit and genius. In truth, the inspired dramatist softens the aspect of improbability, and causes it to put on a look of the probable. He makes only an initiatory demand on our credulity ; and then he pours in such successive touches of nature, that his picture of it becomes at once more pleasing than reality, and, to our fascinated imagination, equally true.”
In the “ Merchant of Venice,” for instance, though there are one or two stumbling-blocks at the threshold, over which the genius of Shaspeare alone could help us, yet, when we get over these, we find ourselves at home, and in a pleasant mansion. We must forget the difficulty of Portia disguising her sex, and appearing before the judgment-seat, as well as the improbable nature of the contract. But, surmount these obstacles, and the rest all follows like logic, for what can be more lawyer-like than the whole pleading of Portia, and the quibble by which she gets rid of the pound of flesh ?
Here we have a true poet dealing with the daringly improbable ; but, on the other hand, when the ungifted dramatist gets you into unlikely conceptions, he drags you through a slough of them; and he makes his improbabilities breed beyond Malthusian calculation.
In the drama, it is clear we must open our minds to the boldness of fiction, dramatic art being extremely difficult. Its poet cannot, like a narrator, come forth and explain all matters himself, but must speak only through his characters ; yet all the while he is bound to strike and surprise us. Commonplace events will not serve this end : he must give us such as are uncommon. The uncommon borders on the marvellous ;