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Chapter 3 - Play Going

( Originally Published Early 1928 )

A PLAYER may possess every imaginable quality of mind and temperament and all possible powers of mimicry and impersonation. Yet all will be unavailing if he possess a high-pitched, unmusical voice, if his features are undistinguished, or his inches too few. A great actor is one, therefore, who possesses not only the mind and the temper but also those physical attributes which make the body the perfect instrument. Let me take a single example of what I mean. There is a quality which all actors know as "tears in the voice." This is a purely physical matter; Nature either gives the actor this quality, or withholds it. No amount of study will give it, though a working simulation can sometimes be achieved. An actor who has not this faculty may be drenching his soul with tears, weeping buckets-full inside, as it were, but he will not move his audience. On the other hand, an actor who is so fortunate as to be endowed by Nature with this gift can achieve most heartrending effects of pathos, though his mind remain as dry as the Sahara. I remember sitting opposite a comedian at supper, and saying something complimentary about his performance in a highly emotional part. "Oh, that's nothing," he said. "Anybody can cry. Wait till I've swallowed this bit of toast and I'll show you." And having swallowed it he began: "Eyes, look your last ! Arms, take your last embrace!" And before he had got to Romeo's sea sick, weary barque the tears were rolling down his cheeks and splashing into his soup.

The mechanical gift alone does not make the great player, and the player who lacks the mechanical gift cannot be great. There is a good deal of luck about the business, luck in the sense that if you are Garrick and Kean, Talma and Salvini rolled into one, a squint will still ruin you. God-like apprehension cannot survive a hare-lip. A Romeo who has to look up to a Juliet, a Macbeth who should

say, "My dearest chuck!" to a giantess capable of chucking him out of the window—these would be absurd. In the old days the critic "went over" an actor as a horse-owner goes over an intended purchase. Is he sound in wind and limb? Is his cast of features noble, his voice agree-able, and his manner imposing? Satisfied with the actor on these essential points the critic then asked him to act, just as the buyer pleased with his animal on the floor asks to see him trot. But does the modern critic approach the modern player so? If he did, would his editor print him? And in any case, what view would a jury take of it? To clinch the matter I shall quote here the dictum of a great actress as to the necessity for bodily perfection:

"Pen importe qu'un peintre, qu'un sculpteur, qu'un musicien soient gigantesques ou petits. Its peuvent avoir la stature de David ou celle de Goliath, etre demesurement gros ou infiniment minces, etre dotes de toutes les infirmites de la nature, s'appuyer sur des bequilles ou boiter, sans que leurs merites en soient le mains du monde diminues. Beethoven et Berlioz, Michel Ange et Raphael avaient le droit d'etre piedsbots: nul ne s'en souviendrait. L'artiste dramatique est infiniment plus desherite: it faut que le Comedien soft grand, bien pris dans sa taille, de visage expressif et agreable, que rien ne vienne deformer l'harmonie generale de son corps. Si sa taille est au-dessous de la moyenne, it lui est a peu pres interdit de paraitre en scene, moins d'un extraordinaire genie qui effacerait aux yeux du spectateur le plus exigeant, ce defaut contre lequel rien ne saurait prevaloir. Ici, l'etude, la volonte la plus tenace sont impuissantes, et it peut arriver qu'un homme remarquablement doue pour la scene, qui aver quelques pouces de plus eut laisse un nom glorieux, soit oblige d'abandonner fart qui lui etait le plus cher.

"Le spectateur reclame encore davantage de la Comedienne. Pour elle, l'agrement physique, le charme, la seduction qui se degage de la femme, ne sauraient titre remplaces par la science la plus accomplie. Certes . force de volonte, de travail, elle peut prolonger sa jeunesse, donner, bien apres l'age mur, l'illusion de la fraicheur et de l'adolescence. Mais si elle manque de la taille necessaire, si elle ne dispose pas d'un minimum de grace, on defaut d'originalite, si la nature l'a si mal dotee qu'elle ne puisse parattre a la scene sans deplaire a premiere rue, elle fera sagement en abandonnant toute pretention.

"Le conseil a dormer d'ici aux artistes consiste done bien a mesurer leurs forces, a ne pas assumer un role s'ils ne sont pas predisposes par leurs qualites naturelles s'exposer en public, it renoncer an theatre si le theatre n'est pas fait pour eux."

Who now stands up for intellect and well-meaning? Let me pass on.

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