« PreviousContinue »
will seem entitled to our respect, when we consider that more than a century has elapsed in England without producing any thing like such a triad of dramatic names.
I am glad to find that the poet Gray was a great admirer of Southerne. Critics of far less authority have contemned this very tragedy of “ Isabella” for heavy and confused incidents. I confess, curtailed as it now is of the comic underplot,* which Southerne threw in only in compliance with the grotesque taste of the time, that there seems to me to be not the slightest redundancy of business or dialogue in the piece. On the contrary, the action advances with a beguiling rapidity, and the deeply affecting story has an air of fatalism that always reminds me of the Greek stage. Perhaps in all powerful tragedies this air is to be traced. It is a cold, dramatic achievement, to show us only the ordinary and necessary connexion between the passions and the misfortunes of our species. The poetic invention that affects us to the deepest degree is that which teaches us by what surprising coincidences the passions of the bad may work more misery than even they themselves intend; and how the shafts of cruelty may strike the innocent with more than their natural force, coming like arrows impelled by the wind. My greatest objection to the tragedy of “ Isabella" is, that old Biron moralizes most unnecessarily at the end of it ; for, when poetry affects us, the heart will find its own moral. Speaking of her first appearance on this occasion, Mrs.
"For a whole fortnight before this (to me) memorable day, I suffered, from nervous agitation, more than can be imagined. No wonder ! for my own fate and that of my little family hung upon it. I had quitted Bath, where all my efforts had been successful, and I feared lest a second failure in London might influence the public mind greatly to my prejudice, in the event of my return from Drury Lane, disgraced as I formerly had been. In due time I was summoned to the rehearsal of Isabella. Who can imagine my terror ?
Gray, with all his admiration of Southerne, inveighs severely against his comic intermixtures in this tragedy ; and, in fact, in its original state there was a complete comic underplot, some of which seems to have been borrowed from Boccaccio. A jealous old fellow gets a sleeping potion, is put into a tomb, and made to believe that he has been dead. When he awakes he is reconciled to his wife, and promises never more to be jealous of her. When the play was revived at Drury Lane, in 1757, this comic stuff was omitted, but the original name was not changed from that of the “Fatal Marriage, or Innocent Adultery," to " Isabella,” till several years after.
I feared to utter a sound above an audible whisper ; but by degrees enthusiasm cheered me into a forgetfulness of my fears, and I unconsciously threw out my voice, which failed not to be heard in the remotest part of the house, by a friend who kindly undertook to ascertain the happy circumstance. The countenances, no less than tears and flattering encouragements, of my companions imboldened me more and more; and the second rehearsal was even more affecting than the first. Mr. King, who was then manager, was loud in his applauses. This second rehearsal took place on the 8th of October, 1782, and on the evening of that day I was seized with a nervous hoarseness, which made me extremely wretched; for I dreaded being obliged to defer my appearance on the 10th, longing, as I most earnestly did, at least to know the worst. I went to bed, therefore, in a state of dreadful suspense. Awaking the next morning, however, though out of restless, unrefreshing sleep, I found, upon speaking to my husband, that my voice was very much clearer. This, of course, was a great comfort to me; and, moreover, the sun, which had been completely obscured for many days, shone brightly through my curtains. I hailed it, though tearfully, yet thankfully, as a happy omen; and even now I am not ashamed of this (as it may perhaps be called) childish superstition. On the morning of the 10th, my voice was, most happily, perfectly restored ; and again. The Blessed sun shone brightly on me.'
On this eventful day my father arrived to comfort me, and to be a witness of my trial. He accompanied me to my dressing-room at the theatre. There he left me ; and I, in one of what I call my desperate tranquillities, which usually impress me under terrific circumstances, there completed my dress, to the astonishment of my attendants, without uttering one word, though often sighing most profoundly.
“ At length I was called to my fiery trial. I found my venerable father behind the scenes, little less agitated than myself. The awful consciousness that one is the sole object of attention to that immense space, lined as it were with human intellect from top to bottom, and all around, may perhaps be imagined, but can never be described, and by me can never be forgotten. *
“Of the general effect of this night's performance I need not speak: it has already been publicly recorded. I reached my
* The other parts of the play were thus cast : Biron, Smith ; Villeroy, Palmer ; Carlos, Farren ; Count Baldwin, Packer ; Nurse, Mrs. Love.
own quiet fireside on retiring from the scene of reiterated shouts and plaudits. I was half-dead; and my joy and thankfulness were of too solemn and overpowering a nature to admit of words, or even tears. My father, my husband, and myself sat down to a frugal neat supper, in a silence uninterrupted, except by exclamations of gladness from Mr. Siddons. My father enjoyed his refreshments; but occasionally stopped short, and, laying down his knife and fork, lifting up his venerable face, and throwing back his silver hair, gave way to tears of happiness. We soon parted for the night; and I, worn out with continually broken rest and laborious exertion, after an hour's retrospection, (who can conceive the intenseness of that revery ?) fell into a sweet and profound sleep, which lasted to the middle of the next day. I arose alert in mind and body.
“I should be afraid to say,” she continues, “how many times. •Isabella' was repeated successively with still increasing favour. I was now highly gratified by a removal from my very indifferent and inconvenient dressing-room to one on the stage-floor, instead of climbing a long staircase; and this room (oh, unexpected happiness !) had been Garrick's dressing-room. It is impossible to conceive my gratification, when I saw my own figure in the self-same glass which had so often reflected the face and form of that unequalled genius : not perhaps without some vague fanciful hope of a little degree of inspiration from it. About this time I was honoured by the whole body of the Law with a present of a purse of one hundred guineas.
Mrs. Siddons performed Isabella eight times between the 10th and 30th of October. The next character that was allotted to her was Euphrasia, in the "Grecian Daughter.”+ In this part, Mrs. Yates, with the aid of Henderson's powerful acting, still maintained a semblance of rivalship with the Siddons : but it was only a semblance; for the querulous remonstrancès which Mrs. Yates's friends put forth in the newspapers against “the infatuated attention that was paid to the rising actress" sorely betrayed to which of the rivals public favour had inclined.
* The high compliment paid by the gentlemen of the Bar to the unrivalled merit of Mrs. Siddons is unexampled in the history of the English theatre, except in the instance of the celebrated Mr. Booth, who, on his first appearance in the character of Addison's Cato, was presented by the Tories with a purse of fifty guineas, for so nobly declaiming against a perpetual Dictator.
On the 30th of October the other parts of the “Grecian Daughter” were thus cast : Evander, Bensley ; Dionysius, Palmer; Philotas, Brereton; Phocion, Farren.
Mrs. Siddons's admirers troubled the press with no lamentations for Mrs. Yates's popularity: they only regretted that the talents of their favourite, instead of being wholly devoted to Shakspeare and other great dramatists, should be wasted on Murphy's tragedy, which the Morning Post, a paper at that time ably conducted, denominated “an abortion of Melpomene."
This was rather hard language; for there must be some merit in a drama that can be made the medium of popular acting; and the “Grecian Daughter" is a practical favourite with players. Since its first appearance, sixty-three years ago, there has been no great tragic actress who has not thought the part of Euphrasia worthy of her ambition. At the same time, the “Grecian Daughter,” though not an abortion of Melpomene, is not one of her loveliest brood. Its merit may be placed on a level with that of our best pantomimes and melodramas. It is a tolerable tragedy in all but the words.
The wonderful power of great players to delight us on the stage with dramatic poetry which we read with indifference, their power, we might rather say, of putting poetry into action where they have little or none of it on the author's page, is a subject of curious interest, and so much worthy of better discussion than I can bring to it, that I hazard with diffidence the most general remarks. I have said that there must be some merit in a drama which can be made the medium of popular acting ; and this truism is so palpable, that I am not afraid of the reader contradicting it, but only of his smiling at being told what might be taken for granted. But, supposing you went a little farther, and were to say that a drama, which good acting can render impressive, must necessarily have a great deal of merit, you would soon find yourself mistaken, and be obliged to draw back into the former vague and trite position : for it is not more certain that the Northern Lights can play upon ice, than that electrifying acting has often irradiated dramas very frigid to the reader. What is the “ Cato” of Addison to our perusal ? and yet how nobly John Kemble performed its hero! The greatest acting, it is true, cannot create a soul under the ribs of death, nor reconcile us to false or insipid views of human nature. A tragedy, to affect us by the best possible acting, must assuredly have some leading conceptions of grandeur, some general outlines of affecting character and situation. Nevertheless, it is astonishing how faint and general those outlines may be, and yet enable, or rather permit, the great stageartist to fill up what he finds a comparative blank into a glow
ing picture. _Mrs. Siddons did this in the “Grecian Daughter ;" and so did Fanny Kemble.
Shakspeare's plays would continue to be read, if there was not a theatre in existence; whereas, if poor Murphy, as a tragedian, were to be banished from the stage to the library, it may be said, in the fullest sense or the phrase, that he would be laid on the shelf. And yet Murphy might affirm with truth, that in playing his heroine, Mrs. Siddons herself increased her reputation. The part of Isabella had developed her strength as well as her tenderness ; but Euphrasia allowed her to assume a royal lostiness still more imposing (at least to the many.), and a look of majesty which she alone could assume. When she rushed on the stage addressing the Grecian patriots, “War on, ye heroes !" she was a picture to every eye, and she spoke passion to every heart. I have seen the countenances of her oldest contemporaries lighten up with pleasure in trying to do justice to their recollections of her Euphrasia. They spoke of the semi-diadem on her brow, and of the veil that flowed so gracefully on her shoulders; but they always concluded by owning that words could not describe “her heroic loveliness.” The finest effect that she produced in the part was at the crisis when Philotas pretends that her father was dead, and that his body had been thrown into the sea. Here she acted filial anxiety with a fidelity so terrible, that the spectators counted the moments of suspense, and felt that a few more of them would have been intolerable.
Nov. 8, 1782. The next part in which she appeared was Jane Shore.* Here she tried her powers in a character as widely as possible contrasted with Euphrasia ; and made a transition from the proudest pomp to the most desolate pathos of tragedy. I am glad that I can recollect the great actress in Jane Shore ; for it was a spectacle that struck me with degree of wonder, of illusion, and of intense commiseration, that neither she nor any other performer ever excited in my mind. I will not say that it is the part in which I should chiefly choose to see her once more, if I had the power, by some miracle, of seeing her again. It was not her most poetical, nay, it was not her most pleasing part: on the contrary, the semblance of her physical suffering was the more appalling for a sort of prosaic closeness to reality. But it
* The other parts were thus cast : Hastings, Smith ; Shore, Bensley; Gloucester, J. Aickin: Alicia, Mrs. Ward.