Page images
PDF
EPUB

At this time, when Mrs. Siddons acted in the “Runaway,” Miss Younge was the great magnet in comedy. Yet the part allotted to Mrs. Siddons bespeaks no intention of keeping her back from public attention. On the contrary, while Miss Younge in the piece acted Bella, whose fortune is rather in the side-plot, Mrs. Siddons appeared as Emily, the lovely fugitive, who may be called the heroine of the play. The part is tender and dignified, and was peculiarly suited to the beauty of Mrs. Siddons. But the comedy, though in some respects pleasant, fails to concentrate much interest in the principal character. In one of the last scenes, the heroine's distress consists in being accused of having been a strolling player, a somewhat mortifying part for our young actress to personate. Mrs. Siddons, according to Mr. Boaden, was to sound the very bass-string of humility, by performing in a farce, by T. Vaughan, called “ Love's Metamorphoses ;" but Mr. Boaden seems to have condemned the piece without having read it, for he gives it not even its real title, which is “Love's Vagaries," not " Metamorphoses," and it is very passable. The author was clerk of the peace for Westminster. He is canonized in the “Rosciad," by the name of Dapper.

Garrick was now about to leave the stage, and was deter. mined to leave the parting impression of his comic excellence by playing his favourite character of Ranger, in “The Suspicious Husband." To Mrs. Siddons he allotted the part of Mrs. Strickland; and, as far as beauty could give attraction in comedy, no one could better represent the young and lovely wife. On this occasion Mrs. Siddons's type was enlarged on the bills of the play, and she had a whole line to herselfm " Mrs. Strickland, Mrs. Siddons." Hitherto she had played no part that was strictly tragic on the London boards, but Ġarrick now revived “ Richard III.,” which had been discontinued for several years, and he assigned the part of Lady Anne to our

She here met Roscius in all his terrors.-Garrick's acting that night must have been startling. From what his contemporaries have said of it, we may guess that his impressiveness bordered upon excess. He made the galleries often laugh when he intended that they should shudder. By his force, approaching to wildness, and the fire of his eyes, he dismayed the young actress. He had directed her, in speaking to him, always to turn her back to the audience, in order that he might keep his own face towards them; and her forgetfulness of this direction was punished by Garrick with a glance of displeasure that unnerved her powers. Of this performance the following account is given in the theatrical report of “ The London Magazine" for May, 1776. After declaring that Garrick's appearance beggared all description, the writer adds : “As to most of the other characters, particularly the female ones, they were wretchedly performed. Mrs. Hopkins was an ungracious Queen, Mrs. Johnston a frightful Duchess, and Mrs. Siddons a lamentable Lady Anne.”

actress.

A week afterward she had an opportunity to attempt reinstating herself in Garrick's good graces, as “Richard III.” was again performed, by command of their majesties, on the 5th of June. Whether she succeeded or not, I know not ; but Garrick closed his own brilliant career five days afterward, and left Mrs. Siddons to receive from the managers a dismissal, to which, if he had not prospectively consented, he had at least offered no opposition.

Altogether, though this first failure of the greatest of actresses evinces nothing like positive or acute discernment in the public taste; and though the criticism which I have quoted was most heartlessly uncandid; yet I am not prepared to blame her audiences implicitly for wilful blindness to her merit. By her own confession, she was infirm in her health, and fearfully nervous. It is true she was the identical Mrs. Siddons who, a year afterward, electrified the provincial theatres, and who, in 1782, eclipsed all rivalship whatsoever ; but it does not follow that she was the identical actress. Her case adds but one to the many instances in the history of great actors and orators, of timidity obscuring the brightest powers at their outset ; like chilling vapours awhile retarding the beauty of a day in spring. But the day of her fame, when it rose, well repaid her for the lateness of its rising, and its splendour more than atoned for its morning shade : indeed, it renders her history more interesting by the contrast. *

* It is remarkable, that Mrs. Elizabeth Barry, the greatest of Mrs. Siddons's stage predecessors, and Mrs. Oldfield, the most beautiful, were both, like herself, unsuccessful debutantes. “ The fame,” says Colley Cibber, " to which Mrs. Barry arrived is a particular proof of the difficulty there is of judging with certainty, from their first trials, whether young people will ever make any great figure on a theatre. There was, it seems, so little hope of her at her first setting out, that she was, at the end of the first year, discharged the company. I take it for granted, that the objection to Mrs. Barry must have been a defective ear, or some una skilful dissonance in her manner of pronouncing ; but where there is a proper voice and person, with the addition of a good understanding, experience tells us that such a defect is not always invincible, of which both Mrs. Barry and the late Mrs. Oldfield are eminent instances. Mrs. Oldfield had been a year in the Theatre Royal before she gave any tolerablo In her Autograph Memoranda, she says that, after her dismissal by letter from the prompter of Drury Lane, she made an engagement at Bath. I imagine she means, that her first important engagement was at Bath, for I find that her first performance after she quitted London was at Birmingham; and there, while she had an engagement for the whole summer season of 1776, she was allowed the highest characters. It was there that she acted with Henderson, who was so struck by her merits, that he wrote immediately to Palmer, the manager of the Bath theatre, urging him in the strongest terms to engage her. The Bath manager could not for the present engage her, but he kept Henderson's advice in his mind.

Early in the year 1777 Mrs. Siddons played at Manchester, and became there so celebrated that her fame brought her an invitation to York. By this time her range of characters was considerable, though it included none of the great females of Shakspeare. She excelled in Euphrasia (" The Grecian Daughter”), Alicia (" Jane Shore”), Rosalind (" As You Like It”), and Matilda (in "Douglas”). She was even acceptable as Lady Townley. At Manchester, one of her most applauded characters was Hamlet, which she performed many years afterward in Dublin, though she could never be prevailed upon to play it in London.

At York, she was engaged from Easter to Whitsuntide, in 1777 ; and, on the 15th of April, played the Grecian Daughter. Tate Wilkinson, who acted with her, as Evander, says, in his Memoirs, that though he saw in her every other requisite for great acting, he trembled for fear her wretched health should disable her from sustaining the fatigues of her duty. She had at York at first to encounter some disparagers, among whom, the leading critic of the place, a Mr. Swan, was the most noisy. But she had only performed a few times when all the Yorkists knelt at her shrine, and the swan himself waddled forward to bow his neck in admiration.

“I never remember," says Wilkinson, “ any actress to have been so great a favourite at York as Mrs. Siddons was during that short time. All lifted up their eyes with astonishment, that such a voice, such a judgment, and such acting should have been neglected by a London audience, and by the first actor in the world.” In the mean time, Henderson's advice had not slept in Palmer's ear, and he invited her to Bath,

hope of her being an actress, so unlike to all manner of propriety was her speaking.” How unaccountably then does a genius for the stage make i way towards perfection.

[ocr errors]

where she consummated the reputation that brought her in triumph to the London boards. I now made an engagement at Bath,” she says, in her Memoranda : “there my talents and industry were encouraged by the greatest indulgence, and, I may say, with some admiration. Tragedies, which had been almost banished, again resumed their proper interest ; but still I had the mortification of being obliged to personate many subordinate characters in comedy, the first being, by contract, in the possession of another lady. To this I was obliged to submit, or to forfeit a part of my salary, which was only three pounds a week. Tragedies were now becoming more and more fashionable. This was favourable to my cast of powers; and, while I laboured hard, I began to earn a distinct and flattering reputation. Hard labour indeed it was ; for, after the rehearsal at Bath, and on a Monday morning, I had to go and act at Bristol on the evening of the same day; and reaching Bath again, after a drive of twelve miles, I was obliged to represent some fatiguing part there on the Tuesday evening. Meantime, I was gaining private friends as well as public favour; and my industry and perseverance were indefatigable. When I recollect all this labour of mind and body, I wonder that I had strength and courage to support it, interrupted as I was by the cares of a mother, and by the childish sports of my little ones, who were often most unwillingly hushed to silence for interrupting their mother's studies."

During her residence at Bath, July 1, 1779, she gave birth to her second daughter, Maria.

“I remained at Bath,” she continues, “ about three years, during which time Mr. Henderson came there to act for a few nights. He was most kindly encouraging to me, and, on his return to London, spoke of me most favourably. I acted Beatrice with his Benedick, and he commended my efforts even in comedy. He was a fine actor, with no great personal advantages indeed; but he was the soul of feeling and intelligence.”

Henderson's name has a right to a place in Mrs. Siddons's biography. Within a year after her expulsion from Drury Lane, he pronounced that “ she was an actress who never had had an equal, nor would ever have a superior." He was the only great player of his time who did her early justice ; and if we had nothing more than this to inscribe on his tomb, it would be no ignoble epitaph.

John Henderson was the son of an Irish factor, in London, and was born in Cheapside, 1746. His father died while he was a child, and left his widowed mother with something less

of en

than 10001., to support him and two other children. With these slender means she retired to Newport Pagnell, and in that place Henderson, with no other teacher than his mother, passed the first ten years of his life. She taught him to read, she put the English poets into his hands, and was rewarded by hearing him recite them with the instinctive

grace thusiasm. Shakspeare enraptured his boyish imagination. In his passion for the drama he could not be said to have been stage-struck; for he longed and pined to see a play of Shakspeare's acted before he had seen an actor or a stage, there being at that time not even strollers at Newport Pagnell.

At eleven years of age he went to a school at Hemel Hempstead, where, within little more than a year, he acquired some knowledge of French, and learned the common rules of arithmetic, besides a little Latin. He owns that he never made a regular study of English grammar. If we were all honest, the confession would not seem singular.

From thence he went to London ; and, having shown an early propensity to drawing, he was placed as a house-pupil with a drawing-master of the name of Fournier. But in that artist's employ he was ill-used, and had few opportunities of studying his art. Nevertheless, during his stay with Fournier, he made a pen-and-ink drawing of a fisherman smoking his pipe, which gained him a premium from the Society for the Encouragement of Art.

Leaving this master, he went to live with a Mr. Cripps, a working silversmith, in St. James's-street; but the death of this employer left him at twenty years of age upon the world, with few connections, and with no determinate pursuit. In these circumstances he betook himself to his powers of elocution, and gained considerable popularity by public readings in London. Garrick recommended him to Palmer, at Bath, who gave him an engagement at the theatre there ; and he soon became so distinguished as to be called the Bath Roscius.

From thence, and to requite him for many mortifying rebuffs from the London managers, he might be said to have come, in despite of them, into the Haymarket and Drury Lane theatres ; and, for several years after Garrick's retirement, he was regarded as the first actor on the English stage. He died in 1785, with a distinguished public and an amiable private reputation. Mr. Galt

, in his “Lives of the Players,has made, in my opinion, a harsh and false estimate of his character as an actor. “The elder Colman,” says Mr. Galt, “ objected to the style in which Henderson sometimes dressed himself, and condemned

« PreviousContinue »