« PreviousContinue »
of the Siddons he could afford me. I am ashamed to say, that, idol as he is of my youthful recollections, I made thus late my personal acquaintance with him. Bannister was certainly not the chief of convulsively droll actors; but he was, to my humble taste, something better,
-one who made you forget that you were looking at a play. He was pure hilarity, and plain English nature. Without a trait of grimace on his comely countenance, he always came in as if he had been breathing the fresh air of the country, and he was more than an actor by seeming to be no actor at all, but a gloriously pleasant sellow, helping you to enjoy a joke.
Bannister spoke of Mrs. Siddons with delightful enthusiasm. Her noble features, he remarked, though large enough to command attention at a distance, were animated by so constant an expression of good sense, that they kept up a respectful feeling still more strongly in the person who was acting with her on the stage than in the far off spectator. A smile, he said, was not habitual to her; but, when it did mantle in her countenance, it came to the heart, not like the sunshine that all could share, but as an individual and flattering compliment. Bannister had at first, I thought, a delicate reserve in touching on the subject of her talents for comedy, and suffered me, without contradiction, to say, that surely some passages of her Rosalind must have been respectable ; but when I requested of his candour to tell me whether her comic acting had, in any character, or in the smallest degree, ever pleased him, he shook his head, and remarked that the burthen of her inspiration was too weighty for comedy.*
Very soon after her experiment as Lady Restless, the pen
* Bannister's anecdotes about himself more than repaid me for his refusal to praise the comedy of Mrs. Siddons. He began his own stage career in tragedy, and played the hero in Voltaire's "Mahomet.” Garrick, who had trained him to the part, met him the next day, after he had acquired some applauses in Mahomet, and asked him, with his usual abundance of gesture and eh, ehs, what character he wished to play next. « Why,” said Bannister, “ I was thinking of Oroonoko."__"Eh," said David, staring at Bannister, who was at that time very thin, "you will look as much like Oroonoko as a chimney-sweeper in a consumption.” Bannister told me, that at these words of Garrick, his knees slackened, and he had almost sunk down on the pavement. At another interview, he ventured to tell the English Roscius that he had some thoughts of attempting comedy. “Eh, eh?” said Garrick, “why no, don't think of that, you may humbug the town for some time longer as a tragedian; but . comedy is a serious thing, so don't try it yet.” Bannister, however, attempted comedy; and his Don Whiskerandos (as he himself says) laughed his tragedy out of fashion.
of Jephson furnished her with a new and original tragic character in his play of “ Julia, or the Italian Lover.” The genius of that writer is just sufficient, in my mind, to excite a moderate partiality ; but I should do injustice io Jephson not to acknowledge, that his tragedy of Julia," and particularly the trial scene, was good enough to give great scope to Mrs. Siddons's acting. The revengeful Montevole, in this play, is an Italian portrait of strong national verisimilitude.
The only other new part which she performed during this season was Alicia, in “ Jane Shore.”—“Why," it will perhaps be asked, “ did she relinquish the comparatively loveable character of Shore's wife, for that of the guilty wretch who betrays her ?” The only answer I can give is, that, wretch as she is, Alicia is an impassioned being; and that none but players can duly estimate the craving of the public for new impressions from performers, or the difficulty of satisfying that avidity. A meritori actor once told me, that no risk new part was so formidable as cloying the public with overfrequency in an old one. A player may recover from experimental damnation ; but the world never forgives the infliction of satiety.
Season at Drury Lane, 1787-8—Mrs. Siddons appears as Cordelia,
in “ King Lear”—as Cleonice, in the “ Fate of Sparta”-as Katherine, in “ Katherine and Petruchio”-as Dionara, in Greatheed's “ Regent” —as Cleopatra, in Dryden's “All for Love"-Visits Scotland—Was at Windsor when the King showed the first Symptoms of his mental Malady.
[1787.] During the recess of 1787, Mrs. Siddons found her health so much affected by her efforts in the preceding season, that she forbore her customary visits to the provincial theatres, and spent the greater part of the summer at the hospitable mansion of her friend, Lady Harcourt.
In the autumn she returned to old Drury; but I find her appearing in no new part till she acted Cordelia, to the King Lear of her brother, John Kemble.
Many are still alive who may remember them in these two characters. Their magnificent acting was always the more acceptable for being conjoined on the stage; though, when comparison was instituted, it leaned almost invariably in favour of the sister's genius. In this play, however, I believe I shall not contradict the general recollection of all surviving spectators, when I say that the brother was a more memorable player than the sister. I have certainly, in my own mind, a more vivid recollection of the Kemble's Lear than of the Siddons's Cordelia. The former, as Lear, was unparalleled among all the actors I ever beheld. Kean, with all his powers, I think, failed in the part as a whole. He absolutely lowered the tone of it, at times, to the whine of an aged beggar. Kenble alone was a touchingly pathetic old man, and, at the same time,“ every
inch a king.' When he awoke in Cordelia's lap, he gave his eyes an expression that seemed inspirel, strangely blending the fire of a fervid mind with the lost look of age ; and he made imbecility and dotage indescribably affecting.
As far as my own recollection goes, Cordelia was not one of the parts in which our great actress made a first-rate impression. Of course, I am now only comparing her with herself. Mrs. Siddons, I also remember, once talked to me of Cordelia being a secondary part, which she would not have performed but for the benefit of her brother. This information will possibly surprise some of my readers, who have resorted to the page of Shakspeare rather than to the theatre. “ How strange it is,” they will say, 66 that Mrs. Siddons should not have doted on the best of Shakspeare's female creations, and felt herself at home in the pathos and hallowedness of his Cordelia.” Yes, the original heroine is a noble being, but Mrs. Siddons was not now playing Shakspeare's Cordelia. I have my own doubts, indeed, whether the real Shaksperian Cordelia, beautiful as the character is, would have given great scope to Mrs. Siddons's powers, as the pious daughter of Lear appears in so few scenes of the tragedy. But, be that as it may, she was now playing a part compounded out of Shakspeare's poetry and the verses of Nahum 'Tate. In this edition of Lear, Cordelia is made to be in love with Edgar, and to receive him as a lover, with his blanket about him, reciting many of the wretched verses of the interpolating poet. I deny not that, in all the unhallowed changes of the tragedy, considerable scope was still left for her talents. The piece, though dese
* On the evening of the day that I wrote the above sentence, I went to see, for the first time, Macready as Lear. I must own that I missed the doce pasivw—the splendid eyes of Kemble, in the old king's appearance ; but still Macready's performance of Lear is that of a masterly actor.
crated, had not lost all its original glory, "nor seemed less than Archangel ruined.” But still, the part of Cordelia was spoiled more than that of Lear, and to that circumstance I ascribe our great actress's seeming inferiority to her brother on this occasion.
The restorers of our stage, in Charles the Second's reign, brought forward the tragedy of “Lear” as it was originally written; but the public had not taste enough to enjoy it, even with Betterton's acting. In the leaden reign of King William, it was endured that Nahum Tate, the psalmist, should re-write “ King Lear,"or, to use his own audacious words, should 6 string the unpolished jewels of Shakspeare." He introduced a love-story between Edgar and Cordelia, and dismissed the audience in good-humour, by making Lear and his pious daughter finally triumphant. Addison's pure taste protested against this change; and Richardson blames it, in his “ Clarissa :” but still the public were so fond of the love-story, and the reprieve, that Garrick durst only make partial alterations on Tate's " Lear.” He would not venture even to reintroduce the Fool, whom Nahum had banished, as if he had wished to have no other fool than himself concerned with the tragedy.
In 1768, the elder Colman brought out “ Lear,” at Covent Garden, strange to say, unsuccessfully, though he rescued the greater part of it from the profanations of Tate. He threw out the love scenes between Edgar and Cordelia, but was unhappily of Dr. Johnson's absurd opinion, that the heroine and her sire could not be dismissed without victory and felicity. With this exception, he adhered pretty fairly to Shakspeare.
The“ King Lear” that was now brought forward, in January, 1788, I suppose, must have been Garrick's edition of the play. I make this conjecture, because Kemble was not Manager of Drury Lane until the October of the same year. But, be that it may,
I am sorry to confess that Kemble, when he became manager, continued an edition of " Lear” upon the stage exceedingly discreditable to his taste, and retaining a great deal of the trash of Nahum Tate. In that vicious edition of his, both he and Mrs. Siddons habitually acted.
Verily, if Shakspeare be the idol of England, he must be called our molten idol ;-we allow him to be cast in so many shapes, and to be adulterated with such base alloy.
On the last night of the same month of January, 1788, Mrs. Siddons had a new part, as Cleonice, in the “Fate of Sparta ;" a tragedy so full of rant that I marvel how she contrived to
keep her audience in a state of gravity. Its authoress, Mrs. Cowley, could be respectable in comedy, but never out of it.
On the 13th of March, Mrs. Siddons performed, for her brother's benefit, certainly not for her own, the part of Katherine, to his Petruchio.
She had a new part within a week after, March 20, as Dionara, in the “ Regent,” a tragedy, by her friend, Bertie Greatheed, now the representative of that family with whom she had lived at Guy's Cliff. Her partiality for this production was naturally bespoken by her friendship for its author ; at the same time, I am happy to find the “ Regent” regarded rather favourably by judges more unlikely to be lenient. The Biographia Britannica allows it considerable merit. * Mr. Genest also thinks it respectable, and commends the natural and simple language of its under characters.
I knew Mr Greatheed very well. He was a courageous liberal, at a time when liberalism was not so safe as at present; a practical philanthropist, and in every respect an estimable man. Bonum virum facile dixeris. But he was not a man of genius.
For her second benefit this season, May 5, Mrs. Siddons performed Cleopatra, in Dryden's “All for Love.”+ Already, I think, her professional history entitles us to regret that she was not oftener in Shakspeare: and who can forget that Shakspeare has given us a far superior tragedy to Dryden's on the same subject ? Dryden's Marc Antony is a weak voluptuary from the first to last. Not a sentence of manly virtue is ever uttered by him that seems to come from himself; and, whenever he expresses a moral feeling, it seems not to have grown up in his own nature, but to have been planted there by the influence of his friend Ventidius, like a flower in a child's garden, only to wither and take no root. Shakspeare's Antony is a very different being. When he hears of the death of his first wife, Fulvia, his exclamation, “ There's a great spirit gone !” and his reflections on his own enthralment by Cleopatra, mark the residue of a noble mind. An ordinary wanton could have enslaved Dryden's hero. A queen, a siren, an enchantress, alone, could have entangled the Marc Antony of Shakspeare, whose Cleopatra is equally superior to Dryden's.
And yet, would Shakspeare's Cleopatra have suited Mrs. Siddons's powers ? I am pretty sure it would not. The
* The Biographia, however, is wrong in stating that the “Regent” was acted only twice. It ran through twelve nights.
† Antony, Kemble ; Ventidius, Palmer; Diobella, Barrymore ; Oc. tavia, Mrs. Ward.