Page images
PDF
EPUB

THE

QUARTERLY REVIEW . .

THE

Art. I.--Mucready's Reminiscences, and Selections from his

Diaries. Edited by Sir Frederick Pollock, Bart., one of his
Executors. 2 Vols. 8vo. London, 1875.
HE condition of a great actor's work is that it dies with

him. Let him have put into it all that life-long observation and study, quickened by the creative energy of genius, can produce, he must still be content to forego the natural yearning of the artist for a hold upon the hearts and minds of a future day. With the kindred spirits, who rule us from their tombs,' he knows he can never rank. As Alfred de Musset has said of them

*Jamais l'affreuse nuit les prend tout entiers.' But with him it is different. Who shall preserve from oblivion that magic of voice, that charm of form, of look, of gesture, through which his soul has spoken to his fellow-men with such resistless eloquence? Yet is he not without his consolations. No noble influence is ever wholly lost ; and he may find compensation for the short-lived doom of his noblest creations in the assurance that the power of his genius, which has been reflected to him in the palpable emotion or ringing plaudits of his audience, has opened up to them a world of poetry and emotion, which but for him they would never have known. His so potent art' has awakened them to a knowledge of their own hearts. It has widened the sphere of their sympathies ; flashed light upon the conceptions of the greatest poets, which has made them living realities, even for the unimaginative; and in doing this it has communicated impulses which may exercise a lasting influence for good on the lives of thousands. Happier, too, than many great poets and artists, the great actor has not to wait for his fame. It meets him face to face in the eager eyes, the hushed breath, the triumphant acclaim of his contemporaries. Not in vain has he lived, who owes such success to having wrought with a pure aim in turning to the highest account the special gift of genius. Even though his work die with him, Vol. 138.–No. 276.

he

X

he may comfort himself with the thought that its excellence lingers long in the traditions of the world, and that he will at least remain—how few even of the greatest do more?— the shadow of a mighty name.

Great actors as a rule have accepted this condition of their existence cheerfully. They have not sought to keep their name and fame before the world by autobiographies or memoirs, but have left themselves and their merits to be dealt with by other pens than their own. In truth, there is little to awaken interest in the story of an actor's life. The successive steps in his career, the long apprenticeship in the practical study of his art, the passage from stage to stage, the gradual rise to eminence and fortune, all so interesting to himself, can have no attraction for any reasonable creature. The mature fruit of his toils, his impersonations, into which he throws himself with all that study and experience have taught him, it is with these alone that the public have any concern. The true artist on the stage, as elsewhere, will, above all, be a gentleman; and as he will shrink in his life from that vulgar curiosity (never more rife than in the present day) which seeks to penetrate into the private history and habits of those who, by the necessity of their vocation, live much in the public eye, he will be no less chary of ministering to this curiosity when he has passed away, and it can no longer wound his feelings or outrage his self-respect.

Hence it is that the greatest actors have added little to biographical literature.

The most illustrious of our own stage, Betterton, Booth, Quin, Garrick, Barry, the Kembles, Young, have all kept silence. Some, if not all of these could write well; and Garrick, the ablest of them all, had, as his letters testify, the very qualities to make him pre-eminent in this branch of literature. It is impossible not to regret that he had not found time to devote himself to it. What memoirs might be not have written! Of himself he would probably have told us little. But what sketches of manners might we not then have had! What anecdotes; what conversations of Beauclerk, of Johnson, of Goldsmith, of Reynolds, of Burke and Chatham ; of Diderot, Maupertuis, of D’Holbach, and all the brilliant society of Paris! What pictures of the leading men and women of his time; and there were few whom he did not know! Above all, how might he have set in all the hues of life before us his great compeers on the stage-Quin, Macklin, Powell, Barry, Mossop, Sheridan, Weston, King, Mrs. Woffington, Mrs. Cibber, Kitty Clive, Mrs. Pritchard, Mrs. Abington,--doing for them what Colley Cibber has done for Betterton, for Mountfort and Bracegirdle. What invaluable lessons should we not then have had

in dramatic criticism! What hints to make the stage, as it ought to be, a school of manners and of high thinking, as well as the most delightful of all amusements !

The great actors of France, it is true—Le Kain, Préville, Molé, Talma, and others—have left written records behind them. But in them little is to be found of their personal history. It is of their art and not of themselves they write; their memoirs being confined almost exclusively to illustrations of what the stage is capable, conveyed either in examples taken from other actors, or in general propositions for the guidance of those who may have to practise or to criticise the actors' art. Nor could better guides to a just appreciation of that art be desired. They were proud of it; for they regarded it from the same high point of view as Voltaire, when he said of a genius for it, that it was le plus beau, le plus rare, et le plus difficile des talents. It was an art which in its perfection could only come of the gifts that God gives. It could not, as the great comedian Préville wrote, be taught : 'A man must be born an actor, and then it is not a master he needs, but a guide. Mlle. Clairon, though herself open to the charge of too artificial a style elle est trop actrice,' was Garrick's comprehensive criticism,—was equally clear on this point. “I am aware of no rules,' she writes, “no traditions, that are capable of imparting all those qualities of mind and sensibility which are indispensable for the production of a great actor; I know of no rule by which one can learn to think, to feel; Nature alone can give those faculties, which study, advice, and time, may serve to develop.'* But, though teaching could not make a fine actor, he was not therefore to dispense with culture and study. “Fill yourselves with knowledge, Clairon says elsewhere ; be unremitting in the search for truth ; by dint of care, of study, make yourselves worthy to educate your public, and constrain them to own that you profess the most difficult of all the arts, and not the most degraded of mechanical crafts.'

Le Kain, himself an illustrious instance of the power and patience of genius to overcome the disadvantages of face and figure for a vocation where such disadvantages are most feltthat inexpressible something which made · Pritchard genteel and Garrick six-feet high,'— writes eloquently in the same strain. "Soul is the foremost requisite of the actor; intelligence the second ; truth and fervour of utterance the third ; grace and symmetry of person the fourth. To be thoroughly master of his parts, to know the force and significance of every line, never to lose sight of Nature, simple, noble, and affecting ; to be assured that understanding is not to be acquired save by ripe meditation, nor practical skill save by persevering toil; to be always in his part; to use the picturesque with skilful reserve; to be as true in level speaking as in the great movements of passion ; to avoid whatever is trivial ; to make his pauses not too frequent; to let nobility of style be seen even across his lightest moods ; to avoid jerkiness in speaking ; to weep only when the soul is stormed and thrust in upon itself by grief; to show unbroken attention to what is passing on the stage, and to identify himself with the character he represents: these are some, and only some, of the qualities which go, in the estimation of one from whose judgment there could be no appeal, to constitute the claim to be considered a great actor.

* ' Vois-tu' wrote poor Rachel, when sinking under her fatal illness, pour étudier, il est bien inutile de parler, de faire des gestes ; il faut penser, il faut pleurer.' - Madame de Girardin,' par Imbert de St. Arnaud, Paris, 1875, p. 263,

Those who thought so highly of their art were not likely to be otherwise than proud of it. They bore within them that which might well make them indifferent alike to the prejudices that refused them the social status conceded to other artists, and to the Churchman's dogma, which denied to them, when dead, a restingplace in consecrated ground. Loving their pursuit as they did, with the passionate devotion which was one main secret of their excellence, they felt it gave them a rank above conventional distinctions. They would not, if they could, have exchanged it for any other. What could the sneer at the player's craft of some well-born fool, or of some professional pedant, matter to a man who knew he could cope with the best in every honourable quality, and whose business in life was to make his fellows familiar with the high actions and the high passions,' which make a poetical drama the best discipline of humanity? Nor

our English actors behind them in glorying in their vocation. On the Statute-book players might still appear as • vagabonds;' but the profession which our supreme poet had followed, and for which his best works had been written, could not be degraded by the reckless classification of an obsolete law. The opinion of society soon abolished the stigma: the actor who respected himself was sure of its respect. Whom, indeed, was it prepared to welcome more kindly, or to accept in its most intellectual circles upon a footing of more complete equality And if in public any slight were offered to him, he was sure of the support of his audience; just as it is upon record that the house went thoroughly with George Frederick Cooke, in his memorable retort, recorded in these volumes, to a young officer in the stage-box, who had made himself conspicuous by interrupting the play: “You are an ensign? Sir, the King (God

bless

bless him!) can make any fool an officer, but it is only the Almighty that can make an actor!

It naturally, therefore, excited no small surprise, not unmixed with indignation, among the actors of the day, when before the Select Committee on Dramatic Literature in 1832, presided over by Sir E. L. Bulwer, Mr. Macready, who had by this time taken rank with the leaders of his profession, spoke of it as one so unrequiting, that no person who had the power of doing anything better would, unless deluded into it, take it up. In a separate answer he disparaged it still farther by saying, that persons who could find any other occupation would not take to one in which they were dependent entirely upon the humour of the public.' It was an ungracious speech, considering that the public had been kind to him to the full measure of his deserts. But it had a farther and deeper significance, because it showed that the speaker wanted the first element of greatness, a thorough faith in his art, as in itself worthy, without reference to the measure of popular appreciation or of money value. It was obvious from such a reply that Mr. Macready did not view his profession, as we have seen Le Kain do, “en grand. His individual self was more to him than his art. Its followers were exposed to popular caprice. But what artists are not ? Did Gainsborough, Constable, Müller-nay, did even Flaxman,-rise to their true place in their own day? Its returns in pounds, shillings, and pence, were small. The artist in whose thoughts such things are uppermost, may be dexterous, may be popular; but without the inspiration which seeks a vent, that will not be repressed, on the canvas, in the marble, or upon the stage, let the world requite him as it may, he will never be great.

The volumes before us are an instructive commentary on Mr. Macready's 'evidence in 1832. No one can read them without seeing that he had no special genius, in the right sense of the word, for the stage. Accident, not impulse, took him there; and great force of will, and a determined ambition, carried him into a conspicuous place upon it, which his sound intellectual training and high personal character enabled him to maintain with honour. Whatever he had to do, it was his maxim to do thoroughly. The inspiration of genius was not within his command; but hard study and a certain fervour of style gave to many of his impersonations something that seemed to come near it. He worked at acting as he would have worked at jurisprudence or theology, had circumstances taken him to the Bar or to the Church. Under no conditions would he have been content to be lost in the common herd of toilers in the same field. But to the artist's delight in his work for its own sake

these

« PreviousContinue »