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Chapter 4 - Play Going

( Originally Published Early 1928 )



I WOULD like to say something on the old question as to whether the player who subjugates his part to the romantic splendour of his own personality is as great an actor as the player who can abstract his personality, and build himself up into a new man with each new part. Is the "great" actor really an actor at all? And should we not find another name for his serene and magnoperatative highness? For what else but the finest actors in the best and strictest sense of the word, were and are Coquelin, whose disguises as Monsieur Jourdain and Cyrano de Bergerac would have defeated Scotland Yard; Tree, each of whose metamorphoses had a separate fingerprint; Laurence Irving, who could be more Japanese than the Japs, yet make the perfect English Justice of Shakespeare's time; Matheson Lang, who can ruffle it with the Borgias or take tea with Celestials ; Martin Harvey, whose Burgomaster is as far from his Pelleas as dwellers upon earth are from the people of the moon; Frank Cellier, filling both the mental and the physical eye with his Falstaff yet dwindling to a Peter Quince whose skin hangs about shrunk limbs? But the finest performance in this line is still mere miming, and, to my mind, unless something of the heroic quality of the great actor accompanies it, an achievement of no greater significance than that of the "Protean" performer, who presents—God save us !—Uriah Heep with the aid of a red wig and Micawber by means of cardboard dome. But I agree that the "great" actor must have some admixture of the mime. A pair of legs and a voice will not bring us to the end of both Coriolanus and Shylock. The point is one which every play-goer must decide for himself. Would you rather say : "Here's that splendid actor again. I wonder what character he is supposed to be this time?" or "That's the best Mercutio or Torvald Helmer I've seen. I wonder who the actor is ?"

My own feeling is that the heroic "swell of soul" is only to be obtained in the first category. To give maximum point and beauty to Hamlet's soliloquies even in your own person is a greater thing, me judice, than to gum a convincing beard to a downless chin, or at ninety simulate the lover.

I am not going to pretend that the "great" actor is not sometimes led by his own romantic splendour into some mighty queer difficulties. He can never be, or al-low himself to pretend to be, at anything less than his maximum magnificence. He must inhabit the mountain top, and know nothing of the slopes. He is the sun at high noon, and in his world it can never be four o'clock. His smallest offerings take on the air of princely largesse, and if he have a trifling favour to ask he will bend a princely knee. He will even carry this into his private life, in Elliston's manner. Hence the naughty story about our noblest actor and an invitation to lunch. The guest invited said he would come. "God bless you," replied the actor in his deepest voice, and with the unction of Charles the First taking leave of Bishop Juxon.

Consider for a moment the question of personality in actresses. Take Mrs. Campbell's Hedda Gabler and compare Ibsen's stage direction for the presentment of this under-sexed, Northern heroine with Mrs. Campbell's temperamental, Southern beauty. Hedda's complexion is "pale and opaque," her steel grey eyes "express a cold, unruffled repose," whereas Mrs. Campbell's eyes were the twin craters of a volcanic temperament, never less than ruffled and knowing nothing about repose. Hedda's hair is "of an agreeable medium brown, but not particularly abundant." Compare our beauty's raven locks, the wear of some flaunting gipsy. Could that Hedda have endured Tesman, his fearsome aunt and still more fearsome slippers? Would she not have thrown these latter at Tesman's silly head and herself at hand-some, unscrupulous Judge Brack, leaving her husband to the aunt, the slippers, and that History of Civilisation? Yes, Mrs. Pat's Hedda would have quickly shaken Christiania's dust off her shoes, affirming, good feminine Coriolanus that she was, the existence of a world elsewhere. This Hedda was a glorious performance by one who could never, by any possibility, be Hedda. But, frankly, I would rather see a play spoiled by Mrs. Pat, than made by a lesser actress. After all, one can go home and read Ibsen. The bigger is greater than the less, and conversely, a thick ear is among the minor shocks that flesh is heir to. If it were not so, then Sir Gerald du Maurier could be ranked with the biggest of the shining ones who have used their stardom to eclipse their parts. Du Maurier is a king of infinite space; the plays in which he appears are nut-shells; and to the modern preference for Raffles over Richard the kingdom of this actor owes its shrinkage. His virtuosity is a cadenza upon one note, but it is a fine cadenza finely played.

And now I have finished with the subject of temperament. To those who do not know temperament when they see it all explanation is unavailing; you might as well describe scarlet to the blind, or trumpets to the deaf. If I must put temperament in a phrase I would cite Sarah's "Moi, moi, et moil" from Pelleas et Melisande! Caruso's singing of "Questa o guella" from Rigoletto! the madcap pantomime of Seymour Hicks. Critics barely out of their 'teens dispensing greatness with the glib facility born of ignorance may pursue temperament "with forks and hope." Their pursuit will be vain ; for them the Snark must ever remain a Boojum. Let this be said finally-if ever the great, that is to say, the tempera-mental, actor appears again on our stage he will disperse as chaff before the wind that latest fad, the Theatre of Expressionism, the Theatre in which the producer is first, the author second, and the actor no-where at all, the Theatre of decor with-out anything to decorate, of posture with-out plot, of symbol without humanity.

That temperament may upon occasion lead its owner astray, is not denied. I am reminded here to take my leave of Garcia where I last saw him. It was a hot afternoon in the summer towards the close of which he died, and I met the old boy, then turned eighty, making brave, belated acquaintance with Lord's Cricket Ground. "What scoundrels they are!" he said, with a wave of the arm which included the players, the crowd, and the world at large.

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