Chapter 2 - Play Going
( Originally Published Early 1928 )
Now there is no reason why we should expect the English to be temperamental actors. We do not expect a greasy Italian to stand up to fast bowling on a bumpy wicket, but we do ask him to sing, and sing like the bullfinch, canary, or what-ever feathered darling it was that was adjured by Private Ortheris to open its blarsted little beak and pipe like blazes. The English have given the world its greatest dramatist, its greatest novelist, and half-a-dozen lyric poets finer than those of any other country, whereas our musical score is almost blank. (Elgar is a divine fluke, Delius has always lived abroad, and neither has his root here. And in what, pray, should they be rooted—Balfe, Wallace, Sterndale-Bennett, or the composer of "The Roast Beef of Old England"?) But acting is music and not, as the intellectuals would have it, mathematics ; and the English are strictly unmusical as Lord Beaverbrook's community singing has sufficiently proved. Again it is generally admitted that of all classes of mankind your intellectual has the least ear for music. Or you might put it the other way about, and say that musicians have less brain-power than any other type of manual worker. I remember my mother once rebuking a country clergyman for bicycling to a funeral. The poor fellow protested that he hid his machine behind the church and that no-body saw him. "Sir," said my mother, "you cannot twiddle your legs and think upon God." It is certain that no flautist can use both fingers and brains at the same time. Your intellectual is music-blind, and therefore cannot know temperament in an actor. He is aware that some-thing is making him feel uncomfortable, and that is all. In this connection I remember my father's partner, a crack shot, gaunt, humourless and irreproachable, vaguely possessed of county connections, under whose cheerful wing I began life. I remember a Saturday morning when Sarah Bernhardt, on her way from Buenos Aires to Timbuctoo, pro-posed to give Manchester an afternoon taste of the Lady of the Camellias. Recognizing the necessity for posting the letters early, "I suppose, Sir," I said, "you are going to see Sarah Bernhardt?" "You suppose wrong, young man," the graven image replied, "I do not approve of that sort of acting, and should be glad to see it discouraged." I have never forgotten the queasy piety with which, as the poor, dignified fool said this, the whole Non-conformist Conscience overflowed his 'lax= row eyes and dribbled down his thin beard.
Temperament has never come nearer these shores than the porters of Calais or Boulogne. Your baggage is taken from a nation of great actors and handed to the representatives of fog and phlegm. I am as firm for temperament as Hamlet's Aunt was for blood. "There are some low minds," said that lady, "which would bow down before idols, services, intellect, and so on. But these are intangible points. Blood is not so. We see blood in a nose, and we know it. We meet with it in a chin, and we say, `There it is! That's Blood!' It is an actual mat-ter of fact. We point it out. It admits of no doubt." The actor's temperament admits of no doubt. Either he possesses it or he doesn't. We may say about acting what the golf professional said to the duffer: "I looks at it this way, sir.
There's some gents as can play the game, and there's some gents as can't and never will." It takes me less than fifty seconds to recognise in an actor that which, if he is not born with it, he will not acquire in fifty years. Recently, after the first act of a fashionable comedy, I felt a tap on my shoulder and heard a middle-aged voice saying: "Excuse me, Sir, but would that actor be Mr. Dashington Blank?" I said that it would. "I thought so," said the voice, "I was at Cambridge with him, and
he batted like that." You saw the temperament in Irving before, in The Bells, he had shaken the snow from his wraps. And in the case of the greatest player of all time—except possibly Rachel whom I never saw—you recognised temperament even before the artist appeared. What else but Sarah's temperament was it which "made one's pulse beat feverishly before the curtain had risen: there was almost a kind of obscure sensation of peril, such as one feels when the lioness leaps into the cage, on the other side of the bars."
I am aware that with this gift of temperament goes a capacity for stupidity, which should be beyond the scope of man.
"Is it, perhaps, that I have eaten too much macaroni?" was the thought uppermost in the mind of Balzac's tenor as he fretted the cathedral vault with sound. The women are worse. You have only to consider the programme of any mistress of bel canto sunning herself in the arc-lights of the Albert Hall to realise the depth of the witless abyss, a chasm to make the listener yawn. (It is a moot point whether the coloratura singer or the fashionable fiddler is the bigger fool. To be compelled to decide between the broken melodies of Vieuxtemps and Wieniawski and the unbroken insipidity of Shadow Song and Mad Scena is like having to choose between the rescue of wife or mother. There is no choice.) It is fortunate that one cannot argue by analogy; otherwise a likening of the old-fashioned opera-singer to the temperamental actor might defeat my argument. But the cases are not on all fours. Give me an actor who can act in any sense of the word, and let there be nothing but vanity in his head, and I will yet get out of his pose and voice and gesture and even the jut of his thigh a Hamlet which will bear some resemblance to the original. You, on the other hand, shall be at liberty to produce your intellectual darling, steeped in Pirandello to the very lips, and set him mooning upon the stage; and the best he will achieve will be to resemble a well-laid fire to which the housemaid has forgotten to apply the match. Temperament, and not intellectuality, sent Bernhardt on the rampage over the habitable and uninhabitable globe, set Duse sighing for more woes to suffer, and made Rejane the habit of the civilised world. It was temperament, and not self-analysis, which dictated Sarah's reply to the clergyman who deplored her probable effect on Chicago's moral uplift: "Cher ami, entre cabotins it faut s'entendre." It was temperament, and not a capacity for finding her way in the Norwegian fog, which enabled Janet Achurch to quell drill-halls by the single power of her eye. It was Irving's temperament which at the words "I had a lime-kiln once," sent a shudder through the house and brought to present sight that cremation of twenty years earlier.
Intellect cannot manifest itself through the body, whereas temperament has no other means. The actor of temperament may achieve his effect before he has begun to speak, whereas your intellectual actor requires an infinity of words. (Incident-ally, that is what Mr. Shaw's plays are for.) Consider the famous entry of Mrs. Siddons in Franklin's wearisome tragedy,
The Earl of Warwick. At the back of the stage was a large archway, through which appeared the captive Marguerite of Anjou, preceded by four Guards, who divided two by, two on each side, leaving the opening clear. Instantly on their separating the giantess burst upon the view and stood in the centre of the arch, motionless. "So electrifying was the unexpected impression," writes George Bar-clay, who played the King, "that I stood for a moment breathless. But the effect extended beyond me; the audience had full participation of its power; and the continued applause that followed gave me time to recover and speculate upon the manner in which such an extraordinary effect had been made. I could not but gaze upon her attentively. Her head was erect, and the fire of her brilliant eyes darted directly upon mine. Her wrists were bound with chains, which hung suspended from her arms, that were dropped loosely on each side; nor had she, on her entrance, used any action beyond her rapid walk and sudden stop, within the extensive archway, which she really seemed to fill. This, with the flashing eyes and fine smile of appalling triumph which over-spread her magnificent features, constituted all the effort which usually produced an effect upon actors and audience never surpassed, if ever equalled." Does the reader think that it was intellect or temperament which enabled Grimaldi in his Clown's dress to terrify the house with the Dagger Scene from Macbeth? When he sang, "An Oyster Crossed in Love," seated between a cod's head and a huge oyster that opened and shut its shell in time to the music, was it a quality of the brain, or a simple note in the voice, which shot the grotesque with touches of real pathos, and dissolved the children in tears? What but the actor in Robson enabled him to introduce into a farrago of clog dancing, nigger melodies, mummery and buffoonery an impersonation of Medea couched in doggerel and slang yet so terrifying that the great original, Ristori herself, felt the shadow of eclipse and went away saying: "Uomo straordinario ! Uomo straordinario !" Praise of the victor by the vanquished is praise indeed. I see Kean's genius most clearly in a sentence of the defeated Junius Brutus Booth. Jealous of Booth's success, Kean lured the young man away from Covent Garden to the Lane, and having invited him to play lago to his Othello put forth all his powers to overwhelm him. Talking of the performance to his son, Booth said that no mortal man could have equalled that rendering of despair and rage, and that Kean's "Farewell—Othello's occupation's gone," sounded like the moan of ocean or the soughing of wind through cedars.
Among the other great temperamental actors of the past I should most like to have seen Ludwig Devrient, and principally because of his Lear. Devrient's make-up for the mad king was like a head by Caravaggio, except that it had greater nobility. I am reminded, by the way, of a certain young actor of our own epoch who from time to time descends upon Plymouth, Walsall and Gravesend with performances in Shakespearean repertory. He plays Lear with the longest beard the part has known. Which means, his wife informed me, that he must begin to make-up immediately after break-fast. "How about matinees?" I asked. "Before Charles was married he used to make up for matinees the night before," she replied. "But now, to please me, his afternoon Lear wears a half-beard !" The part was beyond Devrient's physical powers. So much so that after his second act he often fell into an epileptic fit, which necessitated either the abandonment of the performance or a modification of effort during the later scenes. If the great German somewhat exceeded here the percept about the modesty of nature he had at least this excuse that Lear overstepped it first. Von Holtei writes of a performance which he saw as a boy of thirteen:
"Devrient played with overwhelming, violent exaltation; it seemed to me that the emptiness of the house spurred him on to exert himself trebly, in sheer de-fiance. After the Second Act there was a long wait. At last the stage-manager came before the curtain, and informed the small audience that Herr Devrient had fallen in a fit, and was quite unable to go on acting. The evening's performance must therefore unavoidably be considered at an end. The audience left quietly. I ran about in the street outside, driven by a deadly fear, keeping my eyes on the door by which the actors went out and in. . At last they brought him out, still dressed, in part, in the old king's costume. It was a strange scene. The disordered clothing, the pale face, the bright daylight—it was in the summer—it was as if they were carrying a dead man from the battlefield." Next after Devrient I should like to have seen Le-maitre. "Elegant as a man of the world," says Joseph Mery, "brutal as a costermonger, bashful as a child, impudent as a valet, naive as a young girl, trustful as a simple townsman, corrupt and crafty as a pasty-faced rascal, taciturn as a conspirator, open and laughter-loving as a good and happy dinner-guest, dark as a thunder-cloud, tumultuous as the thunder itself . . . overwhelming tragedian and sublime clown . . . who makes you weep with his choking tears, who makes you laugh with his laughter, till you roll underneath the benches." I should like to have seen this actor as the gambler in Ducange's Trente Ans, ou la Vie d'un Joueur, to have watched that descent into poverty and crime, till all that remained was the ragged, crookrbacked lazzarone with nothing left except the expressive eyes. I should like to have seen him take the loaf, cut it, put the first slice into his pocket with a "pour ma famine. I should like to have seen him when, after committing a murder, he brought the gold home to his wife, and replied to her anxious questioning: "Je l'ai trouve." I should like to have heard that murmur run through the audience, as the abyss opened before their eyes.
Those who remember their Bronte will know all that they need ever know about Rachel's temperament. Contemporary criticism has left us a picture of what Rachel was like in Phedre—a figure wasting away, consumed by secret fires, standing on the verge of the grave, with pallid face, fevered eyes, emaciated frame, an awful, ghastly apparition. It appears that in the second act, where Phedre de-dares her passion to Hippolyte, Rachel was transcendent. Her brain was in a tumult of madness, and thoughts were uttered upon which she did not dare to dwell. She knew her passion to be diseased, as odious to her who felt it as to him who was its object. The quiver of excitement in which her third act left her audience was said to be comparable only to that occasioned by Kean in the Third Act of Othello, and not even the English actor surpassed in force the terrific exclamation: "Miserable ! et j e vis !" G. H. Lewes writes; "Whoever saw Rachel play Phedre may be pardoned if he doubt whether he will see such acting again."
Since those words were written we have seen Bernhardt's Phedre. Who that ever saw that entry and remembers the in-finite pathos of the opening lines:
"N'allons point plus avant, demeurons, there OEnone.
Je ne me soutiens plus; ma force m'abandonne:
Mes yeux sont eblouis du jour que jer revois;
Et mes genoux tremblants se derobent sous moi.
can believe that Rachel so troubled the heart? It is possible that the older actress had a darker, gloomier passion. The slow, deep, mournful intoning of her apostrophe to the sun, with its magnificent close :
"Soleil ! Je te viens voir pour la derniere fois !"
impressed those who heard it by its immeasurable grandeur. Against this, we must put the terrific spate of frenzied diction with which Sarah used to utter those sixty lines culminating in the wrenching of the sword from Hippolyte:
"Au defaut de ton bras prete-moi ton epee;
It is certain to my mind that Rachel never touched the pathos of Bernhardt's Phedre when she contrasted the innocent loves of Hippolyte and Aricie with her own guilty passion:
"Tous les jours se levoient clairs et sereins pour eux."
And is it seriously suggested that Rachel, at her finest, could have so moved the heart to pity at the end? There must have been awe and to spare in Rachel's dying. But did she breathe out the odour of crushed violets at the words :
"Deja jusqu'a mon cur le venin parvenu Rails ce coeur expirant jette un froid inconnu;
Deja je ne vois plus qu'a travers un nuage;
Et le ciel et l'epoux que ma presence outrage;
Et la mort, a mes yeux derobant la clarte,
Rend au jour qu'ils souilloient toute sa purete."