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energy of the heroine, though neither vulgar nor comic, has a meteoric playfulness and a subtle lubricity in the transition of feelings, that accords with no impression which can be recollected from Mrs. Siddons's acting.
A French critic calls Great Britain the island of the idolators of Shakspeare; yet it so happens, in this same island, that Dryden's “ All for Love” has been acted ten times oftener than Shakspeare's “ Antony and Cleopatra.”
But, because the heroine of the latter drama is a part that probably would not have suited Mrs. Siddons, it by no means follows that she was worthily employed as the Cleopatra of the former. If Dryden's idea of confronting the Egyptian queen with the wife of Antony, and bringing them almost to a scolding match, were not so injudicious, the part of the Roman matron, Octuvia, would have been more appropriate to the Siddons. As it was, she never established " the Siren of the Nile” among
her popular characters. This was her last appearance at Drury Lane for the season. She left town for Mr. Greatheed's, in Warwickshire, and spent several weeks there with her delighted friends. From thence she proceeded to the northern provincial theatres. By Jackson's account of the Scottish stage, it appears that her profits at Edinburgh were far superior even to Mrs. Jordan's, and that in nine nights they amounted to as many hundred pounds. At the conclusion of her engagement, the Faculty of Advocates presented her with a piece of plate, a massive silver teåtray, bearing the following inscription :
" TO MRS. SIDDONS,
The autumn of this year was memorable for the commencement of that first illness of his majesty George III., by which the regency question was brought into agitation. The reader will perhaps ask, with surprise, what connexion Mrs. Siddons's name could have with the afflicting event of the royal malady. It had only this connexion, that she was the first person who observed in the royal personage grounds to suspect his mental aberration. The king, like all his subjects, thought her talents an ornament to his reign, and he had a profound and cordial regard for her personal character. She was often at Buckingham House and at Windsor. But, when she was on a visit at
the latter palace, his majesty one day handed her a sheet of paper, that was blank all but the signature of his name. She judged too highly both of her sovereign and herself to believe that, in his right mind, he could show such extraordinary conduct; and the event proved the justice of her conclusion. She immediately took the paper to the queen, who was duly grateful for this dignified proof of her discretion.
At this period our great actress was the courted favourite of an intellectual circle, whose acquaintance made her prouder than even the notice of royalty. Often have I heard her boast of the times when every other day she had a note or a visit from Sir Joshua Reynolds, from Mrs. Piozzi, or-from Erskine, Burke, Sheridan, or Malone. I fondly hoped to have found among
her papers a good many relics of her correspondence with these distinguished contemporaries, but, to my mortification, there were none, with the exception of one or two, which shall be given.
Season 1788-9-Mrs. Siddons's Health becomes infirm-She meets with
a domestic Calamity—“Henry VIII.” is brought out at Drury LaneHer Queen Katharine-She plays Volumnia, in the Tragedy of “ Coriolanus”—The Princess, in Jephson's “ Lombardy ;" and Shakspeare's Juliet.
(1788.] And yet, in those halcyon days of her ripened fame and meridian beauty, I find that her health was beginning to suffer by her professional fatigues ; for, though her reputation could not well be augmented, it could not be supported without incessant exertion. The daily papers of this period frequently allude to her illness; and in the season 1788-9, she performed less frequently by twenty nights than in any preceding year, at Drury Lane. It was no trifling indisposition that could make Mrs. Siddons relax one day from her professional duty. Never was there any one more above the littleness of either fancying or feigning indisposition. With a family consisting chiefly of daughters, she was too affectionate a mother not to be anxious for the gains that were to secure their independence ; neither was she unambitious of continuing her celebrity. Accordingly, she prided herself on her professional industry. I have heard her boast that she never once disappointed either a manager or the public ; and that, in point of punctuality, she had always been an honest actress.
But her health was tried at this time not only by the toils of her vocation, but by “the grief that passeth speaking ;" for, though death had not yet made his greatest ravages in her family, she lost this year a little daughter, in the bloom of infancy.
During this season, however, she assumed two of her most signal new characters. On the 25th of November, 1788, Shakspeare's “Henry VIII.” after an absence of half a century, was brought forward at Drury Lane, with costly dresses and decorations, and with studious pains on the part of the managers. Palmer was King Henry, John Kemble was Cromwell, and Bensley was Cardinal Wolsey. Our great actress, as if to show that Dr. Johnson's old words had not slept in her ear, took the part of Queen Katharine. This was an era, not only in Mrs. Siddons's history, but in the fortune of the play as an acting piece ; for certainly, in the history of all female performance on the British stage, there is no specific tradition of any excellence at all approaching to hers as Queen Kutharine.
I cannot help imagining that there was a strong moral resemblance between the historical heroine and her illustrious representative. They were both benevolent, great, simple, and straightforward in their integrity; strong and sure, but not prompt in intellect; both religiously humble, yet punctiliously proud. It is true that Hans Holbein paints Henry's consort, and the old English chroniclers also describe her, as much less beautiful than they would have painted and described Mrs. Siddons ; but who that meets Queen Katharine, in Shakspeare, troubles himself about Hans Holbein and the old chroniclers ? We wish and fancy her to be superb; and we see her visage in her mind.
It seems to be considered as almost certain, that the play of
Henry VIII.” was brought out in the reign of Elizabeth, and that it was acted before her majesty by her own command. This fact is remarkable, and, at a first and superficial view, it may seem even astonishing; -when we ask how Anna Boleyn's daughter should have desired to look on the stage-death of Queen Katharine, in connexion with the representation of her own mother, whose tragic fate must have been silently in the mind of every spectator.
I have found it repeatedly remarked, that there is a wonderful boldness and dexterity in Shakspeare's management of this
subject; and his adroitness I can readily recognise. But, with regard to his boldness, we may rest assured that he inserted not one word in the drama which would hazard, much less desy Queen Elizabeth's displeasure: and his address seems to have consisted principally in flattering his royal mistress upon no points where the public opinion could not palpably go with him, and where his plain dealing was not a better compliment to her shrewd mind than the subtlest perversion of facts would have been. For instance, the nation perfectly well knew that Henry's only motive for divorcing Katharine was his love of Anna Boleyn ; and Shakspeare makes one of his characters jocosely tell us so. If the poet had hypocritically treated Hal's scruples with respect, Elizabeth would have chidden him for absurd adulation. But Shakspeare keeps Henry VIII. and her mother not only in a true light, but in that exact degree of exposure to the true light which was most favourable to Elizabeth's popularity. Her father is not libelled on the stage. What with a remnant of regard that he shows to Kate, the queen of queens, and his old English bluntness, not unmixed with a certain portion of jocularity, we cannot be said to hate him thoroughly, however secretly we may condemn him; at least, our dislike of him is kept at a moderate temperature. Shakspeare is equally dexterous, in making Anna Boleyn gentle and compassionate towards Queen Katharine ; and I think he plays the courtier a little in contriving to exculpate Anna at the expense of Wolsey.
But it may be asked if it was not weakening our interest in Elizabeth's mother to make us weep over the heart-broken death of Katharine ? I answer, No! for Anna Boleyn's execution was still more fresh in the public recollection than Queen Katharine's death : and the unmerited sufferings of the former could only tend to strengthen in the public breast their conviction of Anna Boleyn having died undeservedly. It is true, Henry VIII. is not libelled in Shakspeare's drama, yet his fickleness is so fully exposed as to make us say to ourselves, if the tyrant could thus atrociously use the noble Katharine, can we harbour the slightest doubts of Anna Boleyn's innocence ? Elizabeth, therefore, witnessed in this play scenes that indirectly, but powerfully vindicated her own mother; and, on the day that she saw it represented, there was not in the whole house a more politic player than the royal spectatress.
Here Mrs. Siddons found a part in which she could promise herself continued popularity, even under increasing years. I cannot say, from my own observation, whether she improved or not in her performance of Queen Katharine, but she used to pride herself in having done so in all her great characters; and I cannot suppose her to have been self-deceived.
I should say something of my remembrance of her Queen Katharine, if I had not beside me some remarks that will be incomparably more than a substitute for any that I could offer. They were printed by my friend James Ballantyne, of Edinburgh, and, I have reason to believe, were written by the actor Terry. They have to me the apparent stamp of a stage artist.
“ Katharine of Arragon, the wife and the daughter of a king ;-majestic alike in her birth, her demeanour, her virtues, and her understanding; the ready defender of the oppressed, and the steadfast enemy of the oppressor ;-the dignified assertor of her own honour, and the strict and affectionate guardian of that of others entrusted to her care ;-the kind and benevolent friend of the humble, and the self-corrected, patient, and religious supporter of worldly sufferings and persecutions : such is Katharine, as drawn by Shakspeare, and exhibited to the life by Mrs. Siddons.
“In the chamber-council, met for the examination of the Duke of Buckingham's surveyor, she is first introduced to us as the humane petitioner, on the part of the people, against the ambitious and extortionate rapacity of Wolsey, of whose selfish politics she throughout shows herself the undaunted opposer ; and as the advocate of Buckingham, against the insidiousness of his persecutor, and the treachery of his surveyor. This is a quiet scene, affording no opportunities for energetic exertions or flashes of effect, but displaying those excellences which Mrs. Siddons alone possesses,-that quiet majesty of deportment, arising from the natural majesty of her form and mind, which imposes reverence and commands subjection; and that clear and intelligent harmony of unlaboured elocution, which unravels all the intricacies of language, illuminates obscurity, and points and unfolds the precise truth of meaning to every apprehension. This unrivalled excellence was illustrated in every speech of the scene. But we feel a pleasure in recalling particular remembrance to the awful and impressive dignity of appeal,-to the searching solemnity of her tone and manner, when she interrupts the wretched instrument of Wol. sey, in his tutored charge against his master, Buckingham :
"If I know you well,