« PreviousContinue »
the Dramatic school of acting.
Reports may be circulated about genius in the country, but reason declares the spring of its inspiration to be dried up.
To make clear that this opinion is a truth, (which, if not well founded, would be open to the severest reprobation-many gentlemen, now provincial performers, being anxious to essay their powers on the London stage,) let us look calmly at the general style of those who bave of late years appeared, and, knowing the system in which the future debutters must be tutored to be the same as or worse than that which the established actors were formed by, infer what may be anticipated as the products of the source, by investigating the qualities which the melodramatic spirit inculcales.
Melodrama symbolizes its characters. Thus a white wig on a parent, or a white gown on a daughter, denotes every virtue; and a black dress on an uncle, or an absence of rouge in a domestic, insinuates all possible crimes and vices. It depends for success on the accessories it employs ; scenery and dresses, machinery and decorations, being the foremost of its attractions. It strives after “effects," which are mostly “surprises," or practical jokes; and in its notion of nature it regards' fact as the sole authority. Thus, what has been done by one, it argues to be natural to all; and the unnatural is thus made its element.
The consequence on an art which is sensitive to impressions, and quick of impulse, is the loss of all ability to personate, and the incapability even to conceive ideal characterization. The actors separately engage to do the virtuous or the villanous, and are much annoyed if wanted “to go out of their line ; ” and it would not be reasonable to expect they should be observant of nature, who are taught to shut their eyes upon it. Mauner is more important to their object; and they are mostly well drilled in particular activities, and practised in certain modes of expression. Their excellences are frivolous, and aim no higher than “effect," as they miscall a result which is never sought through causes; the low, small, and mechanical results they attain, being in the nature of “surprises.” Thus a sudden change of voice which can startle, is a “point ; ” and an instantaneous gesticulation of sufficient violence to shock the audience, is a “splendid burst." “ Points” and “bursts” were wholly unknown to the elder performers, and are first noticed in the lives of Siddons and of Kemble,the time as well as the nature of these practices leaving no doubt as to their derivation. Equally certain is it where the love and faith placed in costume, which Kemble has been admired for encouraging, was inspired. If a player in a peculiar dress enter the Green Room, he is immediately surrounded by a crowd of admirers; but if the same player, when in the scene, exhibit any intensity of purpose, he is, on quitting the stage, told he is “ down a pit,” “ coaling it," “ nutty on himself," and subjected to remarks calculated to suppress all fervour in his future attempts. To be imaginative has become ridiculous in the opinion of the art which now belongs to the theatre, or appears to have left the stage; for if a speech were suggested to a modern player in a room, he would sneer at the ignorance of the supposition,asserting the absence of theatrical accessories-lights, scenery, dress, stage and distance-as a good reason for his refusal. The confidence is not in the art, but in the trappings--and is shown only where the art ceases; for the constant insisting on reality, which Melodrama, discarding the ideal, vainly endeavours, by magnifying the lower attributes of the Stage, to produce—with the players, indicates an ignorance alike of the Elizabethan purpose of the intention of their calling, and of the true interest of the art. The nearer the actual is approached, the further the artistical is deserted; and the Stage would, by realization being perfected, sink from a profession to a trade-the distinction between the two being made by the material and the mental.
The expectation of an actor being produced while such habits and opinions prevail, will never be answered by his appearance. The motive power which began with the first establishment of the Drama, and strengthened with its growth, till, crowned and sanctified by Shakspere with perfection, it was handed down to succeeding generations—treasured as a belief-gloried in as a religion-suffered for as a faith-is lost and gone. The spirit of the art has vanished; who can expect more than the material to remain ? To revive, we must not deck the corse, but re-vivify the substance. A new life must be communicated, and whence this must be drawn experience points—to the Drama. To attempt to resuscitate the Stage through the stage is to labour an impossibility. Had it been possible, it had been accomplished; for great efforts have been made, and all hope hitherto placed on attainment in this direction ; but though a treasure be expended, the result can be no other than disappointment. The Stage has no existence of itself; and what folly is it to persist in experiments which would give life from that which of itself has none !
Of the efforts made to revive the Stage, through the stage, that of the reproduction of Shakspere's plays is the most commendable. The design is twofold- to create a taste in the public, and to improve the actors; but it is to be feared the idea will be found to be an intellectual mistake. The actors are not in a state of mind to be benefited by these performances. They are ignorant of the Drama, therefore not fitted to be self-instructed by its teaching. Indeed, to such an extent has their ignorance proceeded with regard to Shakspere, that what they most esteem in others' pieces, they have forgotten or paid no attention to in his; thus, some years ago it was remarked by the Press, the business of the scene in one of his Dramas (Much Ado About Nothing) was departed from. This loss is of small importance, save as it denotes the breaking of the last link in the chain-even-tradition fails! The player now undertakes a character in the Shaksperian Drama with a painful sense of his incapacity, oppressed by the fame of former personators, and the want of self-confidence effectually closes the road to improvement. He is injured as an artist by being lessened in his own estimation, though the injury can be but slight, for the real artist glories in comparison. The spirit of the art is dead, and there seems no hope it can be regenerated by such attempts, however laudable the zeal which prompts them to be insisted on. Neither, while our actors continue thus spiritless, can the result of these revivals be expected to be a taste for the pure Drama. That cannot be pure, which is impurely rendered. No pure taste will therefore be called forth by such exhibition; and, could a taste be generated, it would be an evil. Poetry delivered by those who have no appreciation for its beauty, cannot be relished; or, if a taste for the anomaly were possible, its operation must be the contrary to improvement.
What is to be done? Let us survey the circumstances of the present Stage, and by unprejudiced investigation find the truth which will give the answer. The country theatres are no longer in a condition to supply good performers for those of the Metropolis, which therefore of necessity must educate its own. The education required, supposes only the addition of some grace to those activities the player now has, and, as it therefore asks no sacrifice, would consequently meet with no opposition; whence, if it can be done, it may be without scruple undertaken. But for London to rear its own actors, is to return to the original method, or to the beginning of the Drama-to commence the whole again. If this new beginning may lead to the old end, it will be a good speculation, and the old circumstances should be looked into to find how far these may encourage its being tried.
When the Stage began, the nation were great personators. The modern inhabitants are happily not equally distinguished for their deceptions. Something which favoured the birth of the theatre is here lost; but the theatre has not again to be built from its foundation, the walls remain; it is the furniture that has to be supplied ; consequently the quality out of which the first superstructure of a stage was reared is not at present needed. Personation is set aside as of no importance. On the other hand, the theatre has improved ; its accessories are more ornamental-yet these accessories are often pointed to as evils. Scenery, dresses, machinery, and decoration, it is said, engross the Stage. Granted, but is the Stage in a healthy state ? and, if it be not, may not this engrossment be the symptom of its disease? The disorder may denote something to be out of place, and can be no proof positive that anything foreign is present. Accessories, as accessories, cannot be too good; but if they have become principals, it only proves the throne which an insect is permitted to occupy must be vacant. When scenery, &c. is put forward as the Drama, it can only be because the imposition is made possible by ignorance ; for, the qualities of the Drama understood, what is now a fraud would be a folly. Again, the conclusion is, that not the lower but the higher element is wanting ; and comparing the patronage of the periods, perhaps the same response will be received. In Elizabeth's reign the Court frequented the playhouse, and the learned flocked there also. The presence of the Court or the learned does not necessarily cause prosperity. Since the patents were granted, both have frequented the theatres, which, nevertheless, have failed even as money speculations. The Court may have a taste opposed to popular affections, being a limited circle within itself, but no Court can be insensible to national sympathies. It is in these but part of the whole, and no exclusive part to be particularly appealed to. It cannot be excluded from humanity. The fallacy that asserts it to be more, if credited, must propagate a belief that it is less. When the Stage can produce an excellence worthy a national respect, the Crown in the spirit of its institution, and the Court in the love of excitement, will be found united with the people testifying admiration,
Compared with the period of its commencement, the position of the Stage seems not unfavourable to its regaining prosperity; but, on the contrary, it has, as an art, advantages in the improved construction of modern theatres, and the diffusion of intelligence, and the existence of the Press. These matters are, however, external; let the theatre itself be entered and the inquiry pursued. Melodrama is its present inhabitant. This professes to realize; but as reality is definite, and progress must cease so soon as the end has been attained, it is essential to discover whether the space has been travelled over. The eye is soon satisfied-spangles and red fire will ever remain the same things, and the mere change of their position does not render them new objects of contemplation, --so the public, having seen them, show no inclination to pay money simply to look again, nor does the manager's resort of increasing the amount, exhibiting a greater number of spangles, or consuming a larger quantity of fire, “ draw” to a degree that recompenses the outlay.Again, symbols, when comprehended, provoke curiosity no longer; and surprises, also, cannot be continued, but at length the mind will become familiarized and hardened to their effect. Thus Melodrama depends for success on things which require novelty to succeed; and the reason of the approbation it was received with at its birth is understood, through the circumstance that enables the cause of its being no longer admired to be comprehended. The public are initiated in its mysteries, and can be no longer excited by their riddle. The spirit of Melodrama has exhausted itself, which is declared by the interest the players themselves have ceased to take in its exhibition, in the contempt of the public for its frivolities, and in the professions with which managers find it necessary to accompany the announcements of the opening of their theatres. A change is desired, and the desire must be complied with, or the art, wanting attraction, will soon fall into disuse. The desire is evidently for an entertainment of a more intellectual description; and like all'indications directs, let us seek in this line the means for revival of the Stage.
What is it the actor needs? He has scenery of the best kind, dresses of the most gorgeous description, a theatre of ample dimensions, and a Drama beautiful beyond the power of expression. What is it the actor wants to achieve ?—Prosperity.
Mind to conceive; intelligence to understand ; imagination, faith, in which all great things must be accomplished. He requires to be abstracted from minutely observing the manner of acts, and the habit of mimicking the mode of acting : and to be inspired with a spirit which would enable, nay force, him to act of himself. And where is he to find this inspiration? Whence will the voice come that is to awaken genius ? Whence was it once heard ? Has it not already spoken? The Unacted Drama* has been laughed at, but through sneers it has passed into respect. Like a truth it bas been tested in the fire of ridicule, and remaining uninjured, must be acknowledged to be pure. It is pure in its spirit-grant it is imperfect in form, and no objection is ceded. As “the spirit moves," and it is impossible conception, which is the essence of life, should be stagnant,-it will accept form, or, as is more probable, shape its own voice: for all forms are but the expression of spirit; and as spirit will have a language; where that is, form must follow. The Unacted Drama is pure in its spirit; its purity is testified by the enthusiasm it generates. It lives homeless, and enlarges upon sacrifice. It must have within itself some mighty impulse of sustainment. It must have some inward majesty: for with no outward power it speaks with authority, and is obeyed, having no visible title to obedience. It is the pervading motive power of the present Stage, compelling changes, causing fears, and coercing amendments-assuredly it will be the regenerator of the theatres. It will grow up, for it is the seed of a plant indigenous to our climatenative to our soil. It is the germ of England's legitimate Drama; and as from this source it was plucked, so its parentage is depicted no less in its outward boldness than in its inward humility-ever worshipping the ideal.
* The term Unacted Drama is not here used in an arbitrary sense, but to denote the “poetical'' in contrary distinction to the “real,” in which signification the player generally applies it—and with strict justness, for in the present state of the Stage, no poetical Drama can be truly acted, though several have been gone through at the theatres. The term is a glorious one. The Unacted Drama! How much of the fine old Drama is unacted! It was first invented as a sneer, but truth perceives the taunt to be praise.
This revived Ideal Drama, when it obtains its rightful place, must produce a speedy consequence; and the opening of the theatres to healthful competition, which Lord Mahon in Parliament has so powerfully and nobly insisted on, together with the general distaste for the present class of “real” entertainments, will force it on the Stage. Once there, its effect will be soon perceptible. Aactors do not require ages for their creation ; youth has been famous in an art for which grey hair generally disqualifies. But not arguing as to what new performers it would generate, the present would quickly feel its invigoration ; for as the ideal Drama is alike ignorant of theatrical usages, and disregardful of histrionic predilections, the players, to personate its images, would be forced to abandon those antiquated habits and conventional trammels, by which their ability is now disguised. And further benefit would result from the frequent performance of original characters which a new order of Drama would necessitate for its establishment. The actors thenselves have a reliance on the advantages to be thence received, and confidently speak of the good it does one of their profession with the public, to be the original in any new play. But in the necessity an original character imposes to think-to go alone, as it were to allow his talent an open field-unchecked by the fear of comparison, and hopeless of traditionary aid—the critic discovers a cause more calculated to do the actor good within himself, than with the public. He may become, after such a trial, not so much in popular estimation, as in reality, a better artist, and improvement is, from the date of forced selfreliance, often more marked than the increase of reputation.
To these offices, however, a lower instrument were equal. The recognition of the living Ideal Drama will have a higher duty to fulfil, which will be accomplished through the communication of the author with the actor. This now takes place but at intervals, and the selfsufficiency of ignorance repulses the desire to instruct; but when public admiration shall have given authority, the ignorant will feel