PLAYS ACTING AND MUSIC
A BOOK OF THEORY
BY ARTHUR SYMONS
To Maurice Maeterlinck in friendship and admiration
When this book was first published it contained a large amount of material which is now taken out of it; additions have been made, besides many corrections and changes; and the whole form of the book has been remodelled. It is now more what it ought to have been from the first; what I saw, from the moment of its publication, that it ought to have been: a book of theory. The rather formal announcement of my intentions which I made in my preface is reprinted here, because, at all events, the programme was carried out.
This book, I said then, is intended to form part of a series, on which I have been engaged for many years. I am gradually working my way towards the concrete expression of a theory, or system of aesthetics, of all the arts.
In my book on "The Symbolist Movement in Literature" I made a first attempt to deal in this way with literature; other volumes, now in preparation, are to follow. The present volume deals mainly with the stage, and, secondarily, with music; it is to be followed by a volume called "Studies in Seven Arts," in which music will be dealt with in greater detail, side by side with painting, sculpture, architecture, handicraft, dancing, and the various arts of the stage. And, as life too is a form of art, and the visible world the chief storehouse of beauty, I try to indulge my curiosity by the study of places and of people. A book on "Cities" is now in the press, and a book of "imaginary portraits" is to follow, under the title of "Spiritual Adventures." Side by side with these studies in the arts I have my own art, that of verse, which is, after all, my chief concern.
In all my critical and theoretical writing I wish to be as little abstract as possible, and to study first principles, not so much as they exist in the brain of the theorist, but as they may be discovered, alive and in effective action, in every achieved form of art. I do not understand the limitation by which so many writers on aesthetics choose to confine themselves to the study of artistic principles as they are seen in this or that separate form of art. Each art has its own laws, its own capacities, its own limits; these it is the business of the critic jealously to distinguish. Yet in the study of art as art, it should be his endeavour to master the universal science of beauty.
An Apology for Puppets 3
PLAYS AND ACTING
Nietzsche on Tragedy 11
Sarah Bernhardt 17
Coquelin and Moliere 29
Yvette Guilbert 42
Sir Henry Irving 52
Duse in Some of Her Parts 60
M. Capus in England 93
A Double Enigma 100
Professional and Unprofessional 109
Tolstoi and Others 115
Some Problem Plays 124
"Monna Vanna" 137
The Question of Censorship 143
A Play and the Public 148
The Test of the Actor 152
The Price of Realism 162
On Crossing Stage to Right 167
The Speaking of Verse 173
Great Acting in English 182
A Theory of the Stage 198
The Sicilian Actors 213
On Writing about Music 229
Technique and the Artist 232
Pachmann and the Piano 237
A Reflection at a Dolmetsch Concert 268
The Dramatisation of Song 277
The Meiningen Orchestra 284
Mozart in the Mirabell-Garten 290
Notes on Wagner at Bayreuth 297
Conclusion: A Paradox on Art 315
AN APOLOGY FOR PUPPETS
After seeing a ballet, a farce, and the fragment of an opera performed by the marionettes at the Costanzi Theatre in Rome, I am inclined to ask myself why we require the intervention of any less perfect medium between the meaning of a piece, as the author conceived it, and that other meaning which it derives from our reception of it. The living actor, even when he condescends to subordinate himself to the requirements of pantomime, has always what he is proud to call his temperament; in other words, so much personal caprice, which for the most part means wilful misunderstanding; and in seeing his acting you have to consider this intrusive little personality of his as well as the author's. The marionette may be relied upon. He will respond to an indication without reserve or revolt; an error on his part (we are all human) will certainly be the fault of the author; he can be trained to perfection. As he is painted, so will he smile; as the wires lift or lower his hands, so will his gestures be; and he will dance when his legs are set in motion.
Seen at a distance, the puppets cease to be an amusing piece of mechanism, imitating real people; there is no difference. I protest that the Knight who came in with his plumed hat, his shining sword, and flung back his long cloak with so fine a sweep of the arm, was exactly the same to me as if he had been a living actor, dressed in the same clothes, and imitating the gesture of a knight; and that the contrast of what was real, as we say, under the fiction appears to me less ironical in the former than in the latter. We have to allow, you will admit, at least as much to the beneficent heightening of travesty, if we have ever seen the living actor in the morning, not yet shaved, standing at the bar, his hat on one side, his mouth spreading in that abandonment to laughter which has become from the necessity of his profession, a natural trick; oh, much more, I think, than if we merely come upon an always decorative, never an obtrusive, costumed figure, leaning against the wall, nonchalantly enough, in a corner of the coulisses.
To sharpen our sense of what is illusive in the illusion of the puppets, let us sit not too far from the stage. Choosing our place carefully, we shall have the satisfaction of always seeing the wires at their work, while I think we shall lose nothing of what is most savoury in the feast of the illusion. There is not indeed the appeal to the senses of the first row of the stalls at a ballet of living dancers. But is not that a trifle too obvious sentiment for the true artist in artificial things? Why leave the ball-room? It is not nature that one looks for on the stage in this kind of spectacle, and our excitement in watching it should remain purely intellectual. If you prefer that other kind of illusion, go a little further away, and, I assure you, you will find it quite easy to fall in love with a marionette. I have seen the most adorable heads, with real hair too, among the wooden dancers of a theatre of puppets; faces which might easily, with but a little of that good-will which goes to all falling in love, seem the answer to a particular dream, making all other faces in the world but spoilt copies of this inspired piece of painted wood.
But the illusion, to a more scrupulous taste, will consist simply in that complication of view which allows us to see wood and wire imitating an imitation, and which delights us less when seen at what is called the proper distance, where the two are indistinguishable, than when seen from just the point where all that is crudely mechanical hides the comedy of what is, absolutely, a deception. Losing, as we do, something of the particularity of these painted faces, we are able to enjoy all the better what it is certainly important we should appreciate, if we are truly to appreciate our puppets. This is nothing less than a fantastic, yet a direct, return to the masks of the Greeks: that learned artifice by which tragedy and comedy were assisted in speaking to the world with the universal voice, by this deliberate generalising of emotion. It will be a lesson to some of our modern notions; and it may be instructive for us to consider that we could not give a play of Ibsen's to marionettes, but that we could give them the "Agamemnon."
Above all, for we need it above all, let the marionettes remind us that the art of the theatre should be beautiful first, and then indeed what you will afterwards. Gesture on the stage is the equivalent of rhythm in verse, and it can convey, as a perfect rhythm should, not a little of the inner meaning of words, a meaning perhaps more latent in things. Does not gesture indeed make emotion, more certainly and more immediately than emotion makes gesture? You may feel that you may suppress emotion; but assume a smile, lifted eyebrows, a clenched fist, and it is impossible for you not to assume along with the gesture, if but for a moment, the emotion to which that gesture corresponds. In our marionettes, then, we get personified gesture, and the gesture, like all other forms of emotion, generalised. The appeal in what seems to you these childish manoeuvres is to a finer, because to a more intimately poetic, sense of things than the merely rationalistic appeal of very modern plays. If at times we laugh, it is with wonder at seeing humanity so gay, heroic, and untiring. There is the romantic suggestion of magic in this beauty.
Maeterlinck wrote on the title-page of one of his volumes "Drames pour marionettes," no doubt to intimate his sense of the symbolic value, in the interpretation of a profound inner meaning of that external nullity which the marionette by its very nature emphasises. And so I find my puppets, where the extremes meet, ready to interpret not only the "Agamemnon," but "La Mort de Tintagiles"; for the soul, which is to make, we may suppose, the drama of the future, is content with as simple a mouthpiece as Fate and the great passions, which were the classic drama.
PLAYS AND ACTING
NIETZSCHE ON TRAGEDY
I have been reading Nietzsche on the Origin of Tragedy with the delight of one who discovers a new world, which he has seen already in a dream. I never take up Nietzsche without the surprise of finding something familiar. Sometimes it is the answer to a question which I have only asked; sometimes it seems to me that I have guessed at the answer. And, in his restless energy, his hallucinatory, vision, the agility of this climbing mind of the mountains, I find that invigoration which only a "tragic philosopher" can give. "A sort of mystic soul," as he says of himself, "almost the soul of a Maenad, who, troubled, capricious, and half irresolute whether to cede or fly, stammers out something in a foreign tongue."
The book is a study in the origin of tragedy among the Greeks, as it arose out of music through the medium of the chorus. We are apt to look on the chorus in Greek plays as almost a negligible part of the structure; as, in fact, hardly more than the comments of that "ideal spectator" whom Schlegel called up out of the depths of the German consciousness. We know, however, that the chorus was the original nucleus of the play, that the action on which it seems only to comment is no more than a development of the chorus. Here is the problem to which Nietzsche endeavours to find an answer. He finds it, unlike the learned persons who study Greek texts, among the roots of things, in the very making of the universe. Art arises, he tells us, from the conflict of the two creative spirits, symbolised by the Greeks in the two gods, Apollo and Dionysus; and he names the one the Apollonian spirit, which we see in plastic art, and the other the Dionysiac spirit, which we see in music. Apollo is the god of dreams, Dionysus the god of intoxication; the one represents for us the world of appearances, the other is, as it were, the voice of things in themselves. The chorus, then, which arose out of the hymns to Dionysus, is the "lyric cry," the vital ecstasy; the drama is the projection into vision, into a picture, of the exterior, temporary world of forms. "We now see that the stage and the action are conceived only as vision: that the sole 'reality' is precisely the chorus, which itself produces the vision, and expresses it by the aid of the whole symbolism of dance, sound, and word." In the admirable phrase of Schiller, the chorus is "a living rampart against reality," against that false reality of daily life which is a mere drapery of civilisation, and has nothing to do with the primitive reality of nature. The realistic drama begins with Euripides; and Euripides, the casuist, the friend of Socrates (whom Nietzsche qualifies as the true decadent, an "instrument of decomposition," the slayer of art, the father of modern science), brings tragedy to an end, as he substitutes pathos for action, thought for contemplation, and passionate sentiments for the primitive ecstasy. "Armed with the scourge of its syllogisms, an optimist dialectic drives the music out of tragedy: that is to say, destroys the very essence of tragedy, an essence which can be interpreted only as a manifestation and objectivation of Dionysiac states, as a visible symbol of music, as the dream-world of a Dionysiac intoxication." There are many pages, scattered throughout his work, in which Pater has dealt with some of the Greek problems very much in the spirit of Nietzsche; with that problem, for instance, of the "blitheness and serenity" of the Greek spirit, and of the gulf of horror over which it seems to rest, suspended as on the wings of the condor. That myth of Dionysus Zagreus, "a Bacchus who had been in hell," which is the foundation of the marvellous new myth of "Denys l'Auxerrois," seems always to be in the mind of Nietzsche, though indeed he refers to it but once, and passingly. Pater has shown, as Nietzsche shows in greater detail and with a more rigorous logic, that this "serenity" was but an accepted illusion, and all Olympus itself but "intermediary," an escape, through the aesthetics of religion, from the trouble at the heart of things; art, with its tragic illusions of life, being another form of escape. To Nietzsche the world and existence justify themselves only as an aesthetic phenomenon, the work of a god wholly the artist; "and in this sense the object of the tragic myth is precisely to convince us that even the horrible and the monstrous are no more than an aesthetic game played with itself by the Will in the eternal plenitude of its joy." "The Will" is Schopenhauer's "Will," the vital principle. "If it were possible," says Nietzsche, in one of his astonishing figures of speech, "to imagine a dissonance becoming a human being (and what is man but that?), in order to endure life, this dissonance would need some admirable illusion to hide from itself its true nature, under a veil of beauty." This is the aim of art, as it calls up pictures of the visible world and of the little temporary actions of men on its surface. The hoofed satyr of Dionysus, as he leaps into the midst of these gracious appearances, drunk with the young wine of nature, surly with the old wisdom of Silenus, brings the real, excessive, disturbing truth of things suddenly into the illusion; and is gone again, with a shrill laugh, without forcing on us more of his presence than we can bear.
I have but touched on a few points in an argument which has itself the ecstatic quality of which it speaks. A good deal of the book is concerned with the latest development of music, and especially with Wagner. Nietzsche, after his change of sides, tells us not to take this part too seriously: "what I fancied I heard in the Wagnerian music has nothing to do with Wagner." Few better things have been said about music than these pages; some of them might be quoted against the "programme" music which has been written since that time, and against the false theory on which musicians have attempted to harness music in the shafts of literature. The whole book is awakening; in Nietzsche's own words, "a prodigious hope speaks in it."
I am not sure that the best moment to study an artist is not the moment of what is called decadence. The first energy of inspiration is gone; what remains is the method, the mechanism, and it is that which alone one can study, as one can study the mechanism of the body, not the principle of life itself. What is done mechanically, after the heat of the blood has cooled, and the divine accidents have ceased to happen, is precisely all that was consciously skilful in the performance of an art. To see all this mechanism left bare, as the form of the skeleton is left bare when age thins the flesh upon it, is to learn more easily all that is to be learnt of structure, the art which not art but nature has hitherto concealed with its merciful covering.
The art of Sarah Bernhardt has always been a very conscious art, but it spoke to us, once, with so electrical a shock, as if nerve touched nerve, or the mere "contour subtil" of the voice were laid tinglingly on one's spinal cord, that it was difficult to analyse it coldly. She was Phedre or Marguerite Gautier, she was Adrienne Lecouvreur, Fedora, La Tosca, the actual woman, and she was also that other actual woman, Sarah Bernhardt. Two magics met and united, in the artist and the woman, each alone of its kind. There was an excitement in going to the theatre; one's pulses 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. And the acting was like a passionate declaration, offered to some one unknown; it was as if the whole nervous force of the audience were sucked out of it and flung back, intensified, upon itself, as it encountered the single, insatiable, indomitable nervous force of the woman. And so, in its way, this very artificial acting seemed the mere instinctive, irresistible expression of a temperament; it mesmerised one, awakening the senses and sending the intelligence to sleep.
After all, though Rejane skins emotions alive, and Duse serves them up to you on golden dishes, it is Sarah Bernhardt who prepares the supreme feast. In "La Dame aux Camelias," still, she shows herself, as an actress, the greatest actress in the world. It is all sheer acting; there is no suggestion, as with Duse, there is no canaille attractiveness, as with Rejane; the thing is plastic, a modelling of emotion before you, with every vein visible; she leaves nothing to the imagination, gives you every motion, all the physical signs of death, all the fierce abandonment to every mood, to grief, to delight, to lassitude. When she suffers, in the scene, for instance, where Armand insults her, she is like a trapped wild beast which some one is torturing, and she wakes just that harrowing pity. One's whole flesh suffers with her flesh; her voice caresses and excites like a touch; it has a throbbing, monotonous music, which breaks deliciously, which pauses suspended, and then resolves itself in a perfect chord. Her voice is like a thing detachable from herself, a thing which she takes in her hands like a musical instrument, playing on the stops cunningly with her fingers. Prose, when she speaks it, becomes a kind of verse, with all the rhythms, the vocal harmonies, of a kind of human poetry. Her whisper is heard across the whole theatre, every syllable distinct, and yet it is really a whisper. She comes on the stage like a miraculous painted idol, all nerves; she runs through the gamut of the sex, and ends a child, when the approach of death brings Marguerite back to that deep infantile part of woman. She plays the part now with the accustomed ease of one who puts on and off an old shoe. It is almost a part of her; she knows it through all her senses. And she moved me as much last night as she moved me when I first saw her play the part eleven or twelve years ago. To me, sitting where I was not too near the stage, she might have been five-and-twenty. I saw none of the mechanism of the art, as I saw it in "L'Aiglon"; here art still concealed art. Her vitality was equal to the vitality of Rejane; it is differently expressed, that is all. With Rejane the vitality is direct; it is the appeal of Gavroche, the sharp, impudent urchin of the streets; Sarah Bernhardt's vitality is electrical, and shoots its currents through all manner of winding ways. In form it belongs to an earlier period, just as the writing of Dumas fils belongs to an earlier period than the writing of Meilhac. It comes to us with the tradition to which it has given life; it does not spring into our midst, unruly as nature.
But it is in "Phedre" that Sarah Bernhardt must be seen, if we are to realise all that her art is capable of. In writing "Phedre," Racine anticipated Sarah Bernhardt. If the part had been made for her by a poet of our own days, it could not have been brought more perfectly within her limits, nor could it have more perfectly filled those limits to their utmost edge. It is one of the greatest parts in poetical drama, and it is written with a sense of the stage not less sure than its sense of dramatic poetry. There was a time when Racine was looked upon as old-fashioned, as conventional, as frigid. It is realised nowadays that his verse has cadences like the cadences of Verlaine, that his language is as simple and direct as prose, and that he is one of the most passionate of poets. Of the character of Phedre Racine tells us that it is "ce que j'ai peut-etre mis de plus raisonnable sur le theatre." The word strikes oddly on our ears, but every stage of the passion of Phedre is indeed reasonable, logical, as only a French poet, since the Greeks themselves, could make it. The passion itself is an abnormal, an insane thing, and that passion comes to us with all its force and all its perversity; but the words in which it is expressed are never extravagant, they are always clear, simple, temperate, perfectly precise and explicit. The art is an art exquisitely balanced between the conventional and the realistic, and the art of Sarah Bernhardt, when she plays the part, is balanced with just the same unerring skill. She seems to abandon herself wholly, at times, to her "fureurs"; she tears the words with her teeth, and spits them out of her mouth, like a wild beast ravening upon prey; but there is always dignity, restraint, a certain remoteness of soul, and there is always the verse, and her miraculous rendering of the verse, to keep Racine in the right atmosphere. Of what we call acting there is little, little change in the expression of the face. The part is a part for the voice, and it is only in "Phedre" that one can hear that orchestra, her voice, in all its variety of beauty. In her modern plays, plays in prose, she is condemned to use only a few of the instruments of the orchestra: an actress must, in such parts, be conversational, and for how much beauty or variety is there room in modern conversation? But here she has Racine's verse, along with Racine's psychology, and the language has nothing more to offer the voice of a tragic actress. She seems to speak her words, her lines, with a kind of joyful satisfaction; all the artist in her delights in the task. Her nerves are in it, as well as her intelligence; but everything is coloured by the poetry, everything is subordinate to beauty.
Well, and she seems still to be the same Phedre that she was eleven or twelve years ago, as she is the same "Dame aux Camelias." Is it reality, is it illusion? Illusion, perhaps, but an illusion which makes itself into a very effectual kind of reality. She has played these pieces until she has got them, not only by heart, but by every nerve and by every vein, and now the ghost of the real thing is so like the real thing that there is hardly any telling the one from the other. It is the living on of a mastery once absolutely achieved, without so much as the need of a new effort. The test of the artist, the test which decides how far the artist is still living, as more than a force of memory, lies in the power to create a new part, to bring new material to life. Last year, in "L'Aiglon," it seemed to me that Sarah Bernhardt showed how little she still possessed that power, and this year I see the same failure in "Francesca da Rimini."
The play, it must be admitted, is hopelessly poor, common, melodramatic, without atmosphere, without nobility, subtlety, or passion; it degrades the story which we owe to Dante and not to history (for, in itself, the story is a quite ordinary story of adultery: Dante and the flames of his hell purged it), it degrades it almost out of all recognition. These middle-aged people, who wrangle shrewishly behind the just turned back of the husband and almost in the hearing of the child, are people in whom it is impossible to be interested, apart from any fine meanings put into them in the acting. And yet, since M. de Max has made hardly less than a creation out of the part of Giovanni, filling it, as he has, with his own nervous force and passionately restrained art, might it not have been possible once for Sarah Bernhardt to have thrilled us even as this Francesca of Mr. Marion Crawford? I think so; she has taken bad plays as willingly as good plays, to turn them to her own purpose, and she has been as triumphant, if not as fine, in bad plays as in good ones. Now her Francesca is lifeless, a melodious image, making meaningless music. She says over the words, cooingly, chantingly, or frantically, as the expression marks, to which she seems to act, demand. The interest is in following her expression-marks.
The first thing one notices in her acting, when one is free to watch it coolly, is the way in which she subordinates effects to effect. She has her crescendos, of course, and it is these which people are most apt to remember, but the extraordinary force of these crescendos comes from the smooth and level manner in which the main part of the speaking is done. She is not anxious to make points at every moment, to put all the possible emphasis into every separate phrase; I have heard her glide over really significant phrases which, taken by themselves, would seem to deserve more consideration, but which she has wisely subordinated to an overpowering effect of ensemble. Sarah Bernhardt's acting always reminds me of a musical performance. Her voice is itself an instrument of music, and she plays upon it as a conductor plays upon an orchestra. One seems to see the expression marks: piano, pianissimo, largamente, and just where the tempo rubato comes in. She never forgets that art is not nature, and that when one is speaking verse one is not talking prose. She speaks with a liquid articulation of every syllable, like one who loves the savour of words on the tongue, giving them a beauty and an expressiveness often not in them themselves. Her face changes less than you might expect; it is not over-possessed by detail, it gives always the synthesis. The smile of the artist, a wonderful smile which has never aged with her, pierces through the passion or languor of the part. It is often accompanied by a suave, voluptuous tossing of the head, and is like the smile of one who inhales some delicious perfume, with half-closed eyes. All through the level perfection of her acting there are little sharp snaps of the nerves; and these are but one indication of that perfect mechanism which her art really is. Her finger is always upon the spring; it touches or releases it, and the effect follows instantaneously. The movements of her body, her gestures, the expression of her face, are all harmonious, are all parts of a single harmony. It is not reality which she aims at giving us, it is reality transposed into another atmosphere, as if seen in a mirror, in which all its outlines become more gracious. The pleasure which we get from seeing her as Francesca or as Marguerite Gautier is doubled by that other pleasure, never completely out of our minds, that she is also Sarah Bernhardt. One sometimes forgets that Rejane is acting at all; it is the real woman of the part, Sapho, or Zaza, or Yanetta, who lives before us. Also one sometimes forgets that Duse is acting, that she is even pretending to be Magda or Silvia; it is Duse herself who lives there, on the stage. But Sarah Bernhardt is always the actress as well as the part; when she is at her best, she is both equally, and our consciousness of the one does not disturb our possession by the other. When she is not at her best, we see only the actress, the incomparable craftswoman openly labouring at her work.
COQUELIN AND MOLIERE: SOME ASPECTS
To see Coquelin in Moliere is to see the greatest of comic actors at his best, and to realise that here is not a temperament, or a student, or anything apart from the art of the actor. His art may be compared with that of Sarah Bernhardt for its infinite care in the training of nature. They have an equal perfection, but it may be said that Coquelin, with his ripe, mellow art, his passion of humour, his touching vehemence, makes himself seem less a divine machine, more a delightfully faulty person. His voice is firm, sonorous, flexible, a human, expressive, amusing voice, not the elaborate musical instrument of Sarah, which seems to go by itself, caline, cooing, lamenting, raging, or in that wonderful swift chatter which she uses with such instant and deliberate effect. And, unlike her, his face is the face of his part, always a disguise, never a revelation.
I have been seeing the three Coquelins and their company at the Garrick Theatre. They did "Tartuffe," "L'Avare," "Le Bourgeois Gentilhomme," "Les Precieuses Ridicules," and a condensed version of "Le Depit Amoureux," in which the four acts of the original were cut down into two. Of these five plays only two are in verse, "Tartuffe" and "Le Depit Amoureux," and I could not help wishing that the fashion of Moliere's day had allowed him to write all his plays in prose. Moliere was not a poet, and he knew that he was not a poet. When he ventured to write the most Shakespearean of his comedies, "L'Avare," in prose, "le meme prejuge," Voltaire tells us, "qui avait fait tomber 'le Festin de Pierre,' parce qu'il etait en prose, nuisit au succes de 'l'Avare.' Cependant le public qui, a la longue, se rend toujours au bon, finit par donner a cet ouvrage les applaudissements qu'il merite. On comprit alors qu'il peut y avoir de fort bonnes comedies en prose." How infinitely finer, as prose, is the prose of "L'Avare" than the verse of "Tartuffe" as verse! In "Tartuffe" all the art of the actor is required to carry you over the artificial jangle of the alexandrines without allowing you to perceive too clearly that this man, who is certainly not speaking poetry, is speaking in rhyme. Moliere was a great prose writer, but I do not remember a line of poetry in the whole of his work in verse. The temper of his mind was the temper of mind of the prose-writer. His worldly wisdom, his active philosophy, the very mainspring of his plots, are found, characteristically, in his valets and his servant-maids. He satirises the miser, the hypocrite, the bas-bleu, but he chuckles over Frosine and Gros-Rene; he loves them for their freedom of speech and their elastic minds, ready in words or deeds. They are his chorus, if the chorus might be imagined as directing the action.
But Moliere has a weakness, too, for the bourgeois, and he has made M. Jourdain immortally delightful. There is not a really cruel touch in the whole character; we laugh at him so freely because Moliere lets us laugh with such kindliness. M. Jourdain has a robust joy in life; he carries off his absurdities by the simple good faith which he puts into them. When I speak of M. Jourdain I hardly know whether I am speaking of the character of Moliere or of the character of Coquelin. Probably there is no difference. We get Moliere's vast, succulent farce of the intellect rendered with an art like his own. If this, in every detail, is not what Moliere meant, then so much the worse for Moliere.
Moliere is kind to his bourgeois, envelops him softly in satire as in cotton-wool, dandles him like a great baby; and Coquelin is without bitterness, stoops to make stupidity heroic, a distinguished stupidity. A study in comedy so profound, so convincing, so full of human nature and of the art-concealing art of the stage, has not been seen in our time. As Mascarille, in "Les Precieuses Ridicules," Coquelin becomes delicate and extravagant, a scented whirlwind; his parody is more splendid than the thing itself which he parodies, more full of fine show and nimble bravery. There is beauty in this broadly comic acting, the beauty of subtle detail. Words can do little to define a performance which is a constant series of little movements of the face, little intonations of the voice, a way of lolling in the chair, a way of speaking, of singing, of preserving the gravity of burlesque. In "Tartuffe" we get a form of comedy which is almost tragic, the horribly serious comedy of the hypocrite. Coquelin, who remakes his face, as by a prolonged effort of the muscles, for every part, makes, for this part, a great fish's face, heavy, suppressed, with lowered eyelids and a secret mouth, out of which steals at times some stealthy avowal. He has the movements of a great slug, or of a snail, if you will, putting out its head and drawing it back into its shell. The face waits and plots, with a sleepy immobility, covering a hard, indomitable will. It is like a drawing of Daumier, if you can imagine a drawing which renews itself at every instant, in a series of poses to which it is hardly necessary to add words.
I am told that Coquelin, in the creation of a part, makes his way slowly, surely, inwards, for the first few weeks of his performance, and that then the thing is finished, to the least intonation or gesture, and can be laid down and taken up at will, without a shade of difference in the interpretation. The part of Maitre Jacques in "L'Avare," for instance, which I have just seen him perform with such gusto and such certainty, had not been acted by him for twenty years, and it was done, without rehearsal, in the midst of a company that required prompting at every moment. I suppose this method of moulding a part, as if in wet clay, and then allowing it to take hard, final form, is the method natural to the comedian, his right method. I can hardly think that the tragic actor should ever allow himself to become so much at home with his material; that he dare ever allow his clay to become quite hard. He has to deal with the continually shifting stuff of the soul and of the passions, with nature at its least generalised moments. The comic actor deals with nature for the most part generalised, with things palpably absurd, with characteristics that strike the intelligence, not with emotions that touch the heart or the senses. He comes to more definite and to more definable results, on which he may rest, confident that what has made an audience laugh once will make it laugh always, laughter being a physiological thing, wholly independent of mood.
In thinking of some excellent comic actors of our own, I am struck by the much greater effort which they seem to make in order to drive their points home, and in order to get what they think variety. Sir Charles Wyndham is the only English actor I can think of at the moment who does not make unnecessary grimaces, who does not insist on acting when the difficult thing is not to act. In "Tartuffe" Coquelin stands motionless for five minutes at a time, without change of expression, and yet nothing can be more expressive than his face at those moments. In Chopin's G Minor Nocturne, Op. 15, there is an F held for three bars, and when Rubinstein played the Nocturne, says Mr. Huneker in his instructive and delightful book on Chopin, he prolonged the tone, "by some miraculous means," so that "it swelled and diminished, and went singing into D, as if the instrument were an organ." It is that power of sustaining an expression, unchanged, and yet always full of living significance, that I find in Coquelin. It is a part of his economy, the economy of the artist. The improviser disdains economy, as much as the artist cherishes it. Coquelin has some half-dozen complete variations of the face he has composed for Tartuffe; no more than that, with no insignificances of expression thrown away; but each variation is a new point of view, from which we see the whole character.
The genius of Rejane is a kind of finesse: it is a flavour, and all the ingredients of the dish may be named without defining it. The thing is Parisian, but that is only to say that it unites nervous force with a wicked ease and mastery of charm. It speaks to the senses through the brain, as much as to the brain through the senses. It is the feminine equivalent of intellect. It "magnetises our poor vertebrae," in Verlaine's phrase, because it is sex and yet not instinct. It is sex civilised, under direction, playing a part, as we say of others than those on the stage. It calculates, and is unerring. It has none of the vulgar warmth of mere passion, none of its health or simplicity. It leaves a little red sting where it has kissed. And it intoxicates us by its appeal to so many sides of our nature at once. We are thrilled, and we admire, and are almost coldly appreciative, and yet aglow with the response of the blood. I have found myself applauding with tears in my eyes. The feeling and the critical approval came together, hand in hand: neither counteracted the other: and I had to think twice, before I could remember how elaborate a science went to the making of that thrill which I had been almost cruelly enjoying.
The art of Rejane accepts things as they are, without selection or correction; unlike Duse, who chooses just those ways in which she shall be nature. What one remembers are little homely details, in which the shadow, of some overpowering impulse gives a sombre beauty to what is common or ugly. She renders the despair of the woman whose lover is leaving her by a single movement, the way in which she wipes her nose. To her there is but one beauty, truth; and but one charm, energy. Where nature has not chosen, she will not choose; she is content with whatever form emotion snatches for itself as it struggles into speech out of an untrained and unconscious body. In "Sapho" she is the everyday "Venus toute entiere a sa proie attachee," and she has all the brutality and all the clinging warmth of the flesh; vice, if you will, but serious vice, vice plus passion. Her sordid, gluttonous, instructed eyes, in which all the passions and all the vices have found a nest, speak their own language, almost without the need of words, throughout the play; the whole face suffers, exults, lies, despairs, with a homely sincerity which cuts more sharply than any stage emphasis. She seems at every moment to throw away her chances of effect, of ordinary stage-effect; then, when the moment seems to have gone, and she has done nothing, you will find that the moment itself has penetrated you, that she has done nothing with genius.
Rejane can be vulgar, as nature is vulgar: she has all the instincts of the human animal, of the animal woman, whom man will never quite civilise. There is no doubt of it, nature lacks taste; and woman, who is so near to nature, lacks taste in the emotions. Rejane, in "Sapho" or in "Zaza" for instance, is woman naked and shameless, loving and suffering with all her nerves and muscles, a gross, pitiable, horribly human thing, whose direct appeal, like that of a sick animal, seizes you by the throat at the instant in which it reaches your eyes and ears. More than any actress she is the human animal without disguise or evasion; with all the instincts, all the natural cries and movements. In "Sapho" or "Zaza" she speaks the language of the senses, no more; and her acting reminds you of all that you may possibly have forgotten of how the senses speak when they speak through an ignorant woman in love. It is like an accusing confirmation of some of one's guesses at truth, before the realities of the flesh and of the affections of the flesh. Scepticism is no longer possible: here, in "Sapho," is a woman who flagellates herself before her lover as the penitent flagellates himself before God. In the scene where her lover repulses her last attempt to win him back, there is a convulsive movement of the body, as she lets herself sink to the ground at his feet, which is like the movement of one who is going to be sick: it renders, with a ghastly truth to nature, the abject collapse of the body under overpowering emotion. Here, as elsewhere, she gives you merely the thing itself, without a disturbing atom of self-consciousness; she is grotesque, she is what you will: it is no matter. The emotion she is acting possesses her like a blind force; she is Sapho, and Sapho could only move and speak and think in one way. Where Sarah Bernhardt would arrange the emotion for some thrilling effect of art, where Duse would purge the emotion of all its attributes but some fundamental nobility, Rejane takes the big, foolish, dirty thing just as it is. And is not that, perhaps, the supreme merit of acting?
She is tall, thin, a little angular, most winningly and girlishly awkward, as she wanders on to the stage with an air of vague distraction. Her shoulders droop, her arms hang limply. She doubles forward in an automatic bow in response to the thunders of applause, and that curious smile breaks out along her lips and rises and dances in her bright light-blue eyes, wide open in a sort of child-like astonishment. Her hair, a bright auburn, rises in soft masses above a large, pure forehead. She wears a trailing dress, striped yellow and pink, without ornament. Her arms are covered with long black gloves. The applause stops suddenly; there is a hush of suspense; she is beginning to sing.
And with the first note you realise the difference between Yvette Guilbert and all the rest of the world. A sonnet by Mr. Andre Raffalovich states just that difference so subtly that I must quote it to help out my interpretation:
If you want hearty laughter, country mirth— Or frantic gestures of an acrobat, Heels over head—or floating lace skirts worth I know not what, a large eccentric hat And diamonds, the gift of some dull boy— Then when you see her do not wrong Yvette, Because Yvette is not a clever toy, A tawdry doll in fairy limelight set ... And should her song sound cynical and base At first, herself ungainly, or her smile Monotonous—wait, listen, watch her face: The sufferings of those the world calls vile She sings, and as you watch Yvette Guilbert, You too will shiver, seeing their despair.
Now to me Yvette Guilbert was exquisite from the first moment. "Exquisite!" I said under my breath, as I first saw her come upon the stage. But it is not merely by her personal charm that she thrills you, though that is strange, perverse, unaccountable.
It is not merely that she can do pure comedy, that she can be frankly, deliciously, gay. There is one of her songs in which she laughs, chuckles, and trills a rapid flurry of broken words and phrases, with the sudden, spontaneous, irresponsible mirth of a bird. But where she is most herself is in a manner of tragic comedy which has never been seen on the music-hall stage from the beginning. It is the profoundly sad and essentially serious comedy which one sees in Forain's drawings, those rapid outlines which, with the turn of a pencil, give you the whole existence of those base sections of society which our art in England is mainly forced to ignore. People call the art of Forain immoral, they call Yvette Guilbert's songs immoral. That is merely the conventional misuse of a conventional word. The art of Yvette Guilbert is certainly the art of realism. She brings before you the real life-drama of the streets, of the pot-house; she shows you the seamy side of life behind the scenes; she calls things by their right names. But there is not a touch of sensuality about her, she is neither contaminated nor contaminating by what she sings; she is simply a great, impersonal, dramatic artist, who sings realism as others write it.
Her gamut in the purely comic is wide; with an inflection of the voice, a bend of that curious long thin body which seems to be embodied gesture, she can suggest, she can portray, the humour that is dry, ironical, coarse (I will admit), unctuous even. Her voice can be sweet or harsh; it can chirp, lilt, chuckle, stutter; it can moan or laugh, be tipsy or distinguished. Nowhere is she conventional; nowhere does she resemble any other French singer. Voice, face, gestures, pantomime, all are different, all are purely her own. She is a creature of contrasts, and suggests at once all that is innocent and all that is perverse. She has the pure blue eyes of a child, eyes that are cloudless, that gleam with a wicked ingenuousness, that close in the utter abasement of weariness, that open wide in all the expressionlessness of surprise. Her naivete is perfect, and perfect, too, is that strange, subtle smile of comprehension that closes the period. A great impersonal artist, depending as she does entirely on her expressive power, her dramatic capabilities, her gift for being moved, for rendering the emotions of those in whom we do not look for just that kind of emotion, she affects one all the time as being, after all, removed from what she sings of; an artist whose sympathy is an instinct, a divination. There is something automatic in all fine histrionic genius, and I find some of the charm of the automaton in Yvette Guilbert. The real woman, one fancies, is the slim bright-haired girl who looks so pleased and so amused when you applaud her, and whom it pleases to please you, just because it is amusing. She could not tell you how she happens to be a great artist; how she has found a voice for the tragic comedy of cities; how it is that she makes you cry when she sings of sordid miseries. "That is her secret," we are accustomed to say; and I like to imagine that it is a secret which she herself has never fathomed.
The difference between Yvette Guilbert and every one else on the music-hall stage is precisely the difference between Sarah Bernhardt and every one else on the stage of legitimate drama. Elsewhere you may find many admirable qualities, many brilliant accomplishments, but nowhere else that revelation of an extraordinarily interesting personality through the medium of an extraordinarily finished art. Yvette Guilbert has something new to say, and she has discovered a new way of saying it. She has had precursors, but she has eclipsed them. She sings, for instance, songs of Aristide Bruant, songs which he had sung before her, and sung admirably, in his brutal and elaborately careless way. But she has found meanings in them which Bruant, who wrote them, never discovered, or, certainly, could never interpret; she has surpassed him in his own quality, the macabre; she has transformed the rough material, which had seemed adequately handled until she showed how much more could be done with it, into something artistically fine and distinguished. And just as, in the brutal and macabre style, she has done what Bruant was only trying to do, so, in the style, supposed to be traditionally French, of delicate insinuation, she has invented new shades of expression, she has discovered a whole new method of suggestion. And it is here, perhaps, that the new material which she has known, by some happy instinct, how to lay her hands on, has been of most service to her. She sings, a little cruelly, of the young girl; and the young girl of her songs (that demoiselle de pensionnat who is the heroine of one of the most famous of them) is a very different being from the fair abstraction, even rosier and vaguer to the French mind than it is to the English, which stands for the ideal of girlhood. It is, rather, the young girl as Goncourt has rendered her in "Cherie," a creature of awakening, half-unconscious sensations, already at work somewhat abnormally in an anaemic frame, with an intelligence left to feed mainly on itself. And Yvette herself, with her bright hair, the sleepy gold fire of her eyes, her slimness, her gracious awkwardness, her air of delusive innocence, is the very type of the young girl of whom she sings. There is a certain malice in it all, a malicious insistence on the other side of innocence. But there it is, a new figure; and but one among the creations which we owe to this "comic singer," whose comedy is, for the most part, so serious and so tragic.
For the art of Yvette Guilbert is of that essentially modern kind which, even in a subject supposed to be comic, a subject we are accustomed to see dealt with, if dealt with at all, in burlesque, seeks mainly for the reality of things (and reality, if we get deep enough into it, is never comic), and endeavour to find a new, searching, and poignant expression for that. It is an art concerned, for the most part, with all that part of life which the conventions were intended to hide from us. We see a world where people are very vicious and very unhappy; a sordid, miserable world which it is as well sometimes to consider. It is a side of existence which exists; and to see it is not to be attracted towards it. It is a grey and sordid land, under the sway of "Eros vanne"; it is, for the most part, weary of itself, without rest, and without escape. This is Yvette Guilbert's domain; she sings it, as no one has ever sung it before, with a tragic realism, touched with a sort of grotesque irony, which is a new thing on any stage. The rouleuse of the Quartier Breda, praying to the one saint in her calendar, "Sainte Galette"; the soularde, whom the urchins follow and throw stones at in the street; the whole life of the slums and the gutter: these are her subjects, and she brings them, by some marvellous fineness of treatment, into the sphere of art.
It is all a question of metier, no doubt, though how far her method is conscious and deliberate it is difficult to say. But she has certain quite obvious qualities, of reticence, of moderation, of suspended emphasis, which can scarcely be other than conscious and deliberate. She uses but few gestures, and these brief, staccato, and for an immediate purpose; her hands, in their long black gloves, are almost motionless, the arms hang limply; and yet every line of the face and body seems alive, alive and repressed. Her voice can be harsh or sweet, as she would have it, can laugh or cry, be menacing or caressing; it is never used for its own sake, decoratively, but for a purpose, for an effect. And how every word tells! Every word comes to you clearly, carrying exactly its meaning; and, somehow, along with the words, an emotion, which you may resolve to ignore, but which will seize upon you, which will go through and through you. Trick or instinct, there it is, the power to make you feel intensely; and that is precisely the final test of a great dramatic artist.
SIR HENRY IRVING
As I watched, at the Lyceum, the sad and eager face of Duse, leaning forward out of a box, and gazing at the eager and gentle face of Irving, I could not help contrasting the two kinds of acting summed up in those two faces. The play was "Olivia," W.G. Wills' poor and stagey version of "The Vicar of Wakefield," in which, however, not even the lean intelligence of a modern playwright could quite banish the homely and gracious and tender charm of Goldsmith. As Dr. Primrose, Irving was almost at his best; that is to say, not at his greatest, but at his most equable level of good acting. All his distinction was there, his nobility, his restraint, his fine convention. For Irving represents the old school of acting, just as Duse represents the new school. To Duse, acting is a thing almost wholly apart from action; she thinks on the stage, scarcely moves there; when she feels emotion, it is her chief care not to express it with emphasis, but to press it down into her soul, until only the pained reflection of it glimmers out of her eyes and trembles in the hollows of her cheeks. To Irving, on the contrary, acting is all that the word literally means; it is an art of sharp, detached, yet always delicate movement; he crosses the stage with intention, as he intentionally adopts a fine, crabbed, personal, highly conventional elocution of his own; he is an actor, and he acts, keeping nature, or the too close resemblance of nature, carefully out of his composition.
With Miss Terry there is permanent charm of a very natural nature, which has become deliciously sophisticated. She is the eternal girl, and she can never grow old; one might say, she can never grow up. She learns her part, taking it quite artificially, as a part to be learnt; and then, at her frequent moments of forgetfulness, charms us into delight, though not always into conviction, by a gay abandonment to the self of a passing moment. Irving's acting is almost a science, and it is a science founded on tradition. It is in one sense his personality that makes him what he is, the only actor on the English stage who has a touch of genius. But he has not gone to himself to invent an art wholly personal, wholly new; his acting is no interruption of an intense inner life, but a craftsmanship into which he has put all he has to give. It is an art wholly of rhetoric, that is to say wholly external; his emotion moves to slow music, crystallises into an attitude, dies upon a long-drawn-out word. He appeals to us, to our sense of what is expected, to our accustomed sense of the logic, not of life, but of life as we have always seen it on the stage, by his way of taking snuff, of taking out his pocket-handkerchief, of lifting his hat, of crossing his legs. He has observed life in order to make his own version of life, using the stage as his medium, and accepting the traditional aids and limitations of the stage.
Take him in one of his typical parts, in "Louis XI." His Louis XI. is a masterpiece of grotesque art. It is a study in senility, and it is the grotesque art of the thing which saves it from becoming painful. This shrivelled carcase, from which age, disease, and fear have picked all the flesh, leaving the bare framework of bone and the drawn and cracked covering of yellow skin, would be unendurable in its irreverent copy of age if it were not so obviously a picture, with no more malice than there is in the delicate lines and fine colours of a picture. The figure is at once Punch and the oldest of the Chelsea pensioners; it distracts one between pity, terror, and disgust, but is altogether absorbing; one watches it as one would watch some feeble ancient piece of mechanism, still working, which may snap at any moment. In such a personation, make-up becomes a serious part of art. It is the picture that magnetises us, and every wrinkle seems to have been studied in movement; the hands act almost by themselves, as if every finger were a separate actor. The passion of fear, the instinct of craft, the malady of suspicion, in a frail old man who has power over every one but himself: that is what Sir Henry Irving represents, in a performance which is half precise physiology, half palpable artifice, but altogether a unique thing in art.
See him in "The Merchant of Venice." His Shylock is noble and sordid, pathetic and terrifying. It is one of his great parts, made up of pride, stealth, anger, minute and varied picturesqueness, and a diabolical subtlety. Whether he paws at his cloak, or clutches upon the handle of his stick, or splutters hatred, or cringes before his prey, or shakes with lean and wrinkled laughter, he is always the great part and the great actor. See him as Mephistopheles in "Faust." The Lyceum performance was a superb pantomime, with one overpowering figure drifting through it and in some sort directing it, the red-plumed devil Mephistopheles, who, in Sir Henry Irving's impersonation of him, becomes a kind of weary spirit, a melancholy image of unhappy pride, holding himself up to the laughter of inferior beings, with the old acknowledgment that "the devil is an ass." A head like the head of Dante, shown up by coloured lights, and against chromolithographic backgrounds, while all the diabolic intelligence is set to work on the cheap triumph of wheedling a widow and screwing Rhenish and Tokay with a gimlet out of an inn table: it is partly Goethe's fault, and partly the fault of Wills, and partly the lowering trick of the stage. Mephistopheles is not really among Irving's great parts, but it is among his picturesque parts. With his restless strut, a blithe and aged tripping of the feet to some not quite human measure, he is like some spectral marionette, playing a game only partly his own. In such a part no mannerism can seem unnatural, and the image with its solemn mask lives in a kind of galvanic life of its own, seductively, with some mocking suggestion of his "cousin the snake." Here and there some of the old power may be lacking; but whatever was once subtle and insinuating remains.
Shakespeare at the Lyceum is always a magnificent spectacle, and "Coriolanus," the last Shakespearean revival there, was a magnificent spectacle. It is a play made up principally of one character and a crowd, the crowd being a sort of moving background, treated in Shakespeare's large and scornful way. A stage crowd at the Lyceum always gives one a sense of exciting movement, and this Roman rabble did all that was needed to show off the almost solitary splendour of Coriolanus. He is the proudest man in Shakespeare, and Sir Henry Irving is at his best when he embodies pride. His conception of the part was masterly; it had imagination, nobility, quietude. With opportunity for ranting in every second speech, he never ranted, but played what might well have been a roaring part with a kind of gentleness. With every opportunity for extravagant gesture, he stood, as the play seemed to foam about him, like a rock against which the foam beats. Made up as a kind of Roman Moltke, the lean, thoughtful soldier, he spoke throughout with a slow, contemptuous enunciation, as of one only just not too lofty to sneer. Restrained in scorn, he kept throughout an attitude of disdainful pride, the face, the eyes, set, while only his mouth twitched, seeming to chew his words, with the disgust of one swallowing a painful morsel. Where other actors would have raved, he spoke with bitter humour, a humour that seemed to hurt the speaker, the concise, active humour of the soldier, putting his words rapidly into deeds. And his pride was an intellectual pride; the weakness of a character, but the angry dignity of a temperament. I have never seen Irving so restrained, so much an artist, so faithfully interpretative of a masterpiece. Something of energy, no doubt, was lacking; but everything was there, except the emphasis which I most often wish away in acting.
DUSE IN SOME OF HER PARTS
The acting of Duse is a criticism; poor work dissolves away under it, as under a solvent acid. Not one of the plays which she has brought with her is a play on the level of her intelligence and of her capacity for expressing deep human emotion. Take "The Second Mrs. Tanqueray." It is a very able play, it is quite an interesting glimpse into a particular kind of character, but it is only able, and it is only a glimpse. Paula, as conceived by Mr. Pinero, is a thoroughly English type of woman, the nice, slightly morbid, somewhat unintelligently capricious woman who has "gone wrong," and who finds it quite easy, though a little dull, to go right when the chance is offered to her. She is observed from the outside, very keenly observed; her ways, her surface tricks of emotion, are caught; she is a person whom we know or remember. But what is skin-deep in Paula as conceived by Mr. Pinero becomes a real human being, a human being with a soul, in the Paula conceived by Duse. Paula as played by Duse is sad and sincere, where the Englishwoman is only irritable; she has the Italian simplicity and directness in place of that terrible English capacity for uncertainty in emotion and huffiness in manner. She brings profound tragedy, the tragedy of a soul which has sinned and suffered, and tries vainly to free itself from the consequences of its deeds, into a study of circumstances in their ruin of material happiness. And, frankly, the play cannot stand it. When this woman bows down under her fate in so terrible a spiritual loneliness, realising that we cannot fight against Fate, and that Fate is only the inevitable choice of our own natures, we wait for the splendid words which shall render so great a situation; and no splendid words come. The situation, to the dramatist, has been only a dramatic situation. Here is Duse, a chalice for the wine of imagination, but the chalice remains empty. It is almost painful to see her waiting for the words that do not come, offering tragedy to us in her eyes, and with her hands, and in her voice, only not in the words that she says or in the details of the action which she is condemned to follow.
See Mrs. Patrick Campbell playing "The Second Mrs. Tanqueray," and you will see it played exactly according to Mr. Pinero'a intention, and played brilliantly enough to distract our notice from what is lacking in the character. A fantastic and delightful contradiction, half gamine, half Burne-Jones, she confuses our judgment, as a Paula in real life might, and leaves us attracted and repelled, and, above all, interested. But Duse has no resources outside simple human nature. If she cannot convince you by the thing in itself, she cannot disconcert you by a paradox about it. Well, this passionately sincere acting, this one real person moving about among the dolls of the piece, shows up all that is mechanical, forced, and unnatural in the construction of a play never meant to withstand the searchlight of this woman's creative intelligence. Whatever is theatrical and obvious starts out into sight. The good things are transfigured, the bad things merely discovered. And so, by a kind of naivete in the acceptance of emotion for all it might be, instead of for the little that it is, by an almost perverse simplicity and sincerity in the treatment of a superficial and insincere character, Duse plays "The Second Mrs. Tanqueray" in the grand manner, destroying the illusion of the play as she proves over again the supremacy of her own genius.
While I watch Duse's Magda, I can conceive, for the time, of no other. Realising the singer as being just such an artist as herself, she plays the part with hardly a suggestion of the stage, except the natural woman's intermittent loathing for it. She has been a great artist; yes, but that is nothing to her. "I am I," as she says, and she has lived. And we see before us, all through the play, a woman who has lived with all her capacity for joy and sorrow, who has thought with all her capacity for seeing clearly what she is unable, perhaps, to help doing. She does not act, that is, explain herself to us, emphasise herself for us. She lets us overlook her, with a supreme unconsciousness, a supreme affectation of unconsciousness, which is of course very conscious art, an art so perfect as to be almost literally deceptive. I do not know if she plays with exactly the same gestures night after night, but I can quite imagine it. She has certain little caresses, the half awkward caresses of real people, not the elegant curves and convolutions of the stage, which always enchant me beyond any mimetic movements I have ever seen. She has a way of letting her voice apparently get beyond her own control, and of looking as if emotion has left her face expressionless, as it often leaves the faces of real people, thus carrying the illusion of reality almost further than it is possible to carry it, only never quite.
I was looking this afternoon at Whistler's portrait of Carlyle at the Guildhall, and I find in both the same final art: that art of perfect expression, perfect suppression, perfect balance of every quality, so that a kind of negative thing becomes a thing of the highest achievement. Name every fault to which the art of the actor is liable, and you will have named every fault which is lacking in Duse. And the art of the actor is in itself so much a compound of false emphasis and every kind of wilful exaggeration, that to have any negative merit is to have already a merit very positive. Having cleared away all that is not wanted, Duse begins to create. And she creates out of life itself an art which no one before her had ever imagined: not realism, not a copy, but the thing itself, the evocation of thoughtful life, the creation of the world over again, as actual and beautiful a thing as if the world had never existed.
"La Gioconda" is the first play in which Duse has had beautiful words to speak, and a poetical conception of character to render; and her acting in it is more beautiful and more poetical than it was possible for it to be in "Magda," or in "The Second Mrs. Tanqueray." But the play is not a good play; at its best it is lyrical rather than dramatic, and at its worst it is horrible with a vulgar material horror. The end of "Titus Andronicus" is not so revolting as the end of "La Gioconda." D'Annunzio has put as a motto on his title-page the sentence of Leonardo da Vinci: "Cosa bella mortal passa, e non d'arte," and the action of the play is intended as a symbol of the possessing and destroying mastery of art and of beauty. But the idea is materialised into a form of grotesque horror, and all the charm of the atmosphere and the grace of the words cannot redeem a conclusion so inartistic in its painfulness. But, all the same, the play is the work of a poet, it brings imagination upon the stage, and it gives Duse an opportunity of being her finest self. All the words she speaks are sensitive words, she moves in the midst of beautiful things, her whole life seems to flow into a more harmonious rhythm, for all the violence of its sorrow and suffering. Her acting at the end, all through the inexcusable brutality of the scene in which she appears before us with her mutilated hands covered under long hanging sleeves, is, in the dignity, intensity, and humanity of its pathos, a thing of beauty, of a profound kind of beauty, made up of pain, endurance, and the irony of pitiable things done in vain. Here she is no longer transforming a foreign conception of character into her own conception of what character should be; she is embodying the creation of an Italian, of an artist, and a creation made in her honour. D'Annunzio's tragedy is, in the final result, bad tragedy, but it is a failure of a far higher order than such successes as Mr. Pinero's. It is written with a consciousness of beauty, with a feverish energy which is still energy, with a sense of what is imaginative in the facts of actual life. It is written in Italian which is a continual delight to the ear, prose which sounds as melodious as verse, prose to which, indeed, all dramatic probability is sacrificed. And Duse seems to acquire a new subtlety, as she speaks at last words in themselves worthy of her speaking. It is as if she at last spoke her own language.
Dumas fils has put his best work into the novel of "La Dame aux Camelias," which is a kind of slighter, more superficial, more sentimental, more modern, but less universal "Manon Lescaut." There is a certain artificial, genuinely artificial, kind of nature in it: if not "true to life," it is true to certain lives. But the play lets go this hold, such as it is, on reality, and becomes a mere stage convention as it crosses the footlights; a convention which is touching, indeed, far too full of pathos, human in its exaggerated way, but no longer to be mistaken, by the least sensitive of hearers, for great or even fine literature. And the sentiment in it is not so much human as French, a factitious idealism in depravity which one associates peculiarly with Paris. Marguerite Gautier is the type of the nice woman who sins and loves, and becomes regenerated by an unnatural kind of self-sacrifice, done for French family reasons. She is the Parisian whom Sarah Bernhardt impersonates perfectly in that hysterical and yet deliberate manner which is made for such impersonations. Duse, as she does always, turns her into quite another kind of woman; not the light woman, to whom love has come suddenly, as a new sentiment coming suddenly into her life, but the simple, instinctively loving woman, in whom we see nothing of the demi-monde, only the natural woman in love. Throughout the play she has moments, whole scenes, of absolute greatness, as fine as anything she has ever done: but there are other moments when she seems to carry repression too far. Her pathos, as in the final scene, and at the end of the scene of the reception, where she repeats the one word "Armando" over and over again, in an amazed and agonising reproachfulness, is of the finest order of pathos. She appeals to us by a kind of goodness, much deeper than the sentimental goodness intended by Dumas. It is love itself that she gives us, love utterly unconscious of anything but itself, uncontaminated, unspoilt. She is Mlle. de Lespinasse rather than Marguerite Gautier; a creature in whom ardour is as simple as breath, and devotion a part of ardour. Her physical suffering is scarcely to be noticed; it is the suffering of her soul that Duse gives us. And she gives us this as if nature itself came upon the boards, and spoke to us without even the ordinary disguise of human beings in their intercourse with one another. Once more an artificial play becomes sincere; once more the personality of a great impersonal artist dominates the poverty of her part; we get one more revelation of a particular phase of Duse. And it would be unreasonable to complain that "La Dame aux Camelias" is really something quite different, something much inferior; here we have at least a great emotion, a desperate sincerity, with all the thoughtfulness which can possibly accompany passion.
Dumas, in a preface better than his play, tells us that "La Princesse Georges" is "a Soul in conflict with Instincts." But no, as he has drawn her, as he has placed her, she is only the theory of a woman in conflict with the mechanical devices of a plot. All these characters talk as they have been taught, and act according to the tradition of the stage. It is a double piece of mechanism, that is all; there is no creation of character, there is a kind of worldly wisdom throughout, but not a glimmer of imagination; argument drifts into sentiment, and sentiment returns into argument, without conviction; the end is no conclusion, but an arbitrary break in an action which we see continuing, after the curtain has fallen. And, as in "Fedora," Duse comes into the play resolved to do what the author has not done. Does she deliberately choose the plays most obviously not written for her in order to extort a triumph out of her enemies? Once more she acts consciously, openly, making every moment of an unreal thing real, by concentrating herself upon every moment as if it were the only one. The result is a performance miraculous in detail, and, if detail were everything, it would be a great part. With powdered hair, she is beautiful and a great lady; as the domesticated princess, she has all the virtues, and honesty itself, in her face and in her movements; she gives herself with a kind of really unreflecting thoughtfulness to every sentiment which is half her emotion. If such a woman could exist, and she could not, she would be that, precisely that. But just as we are beginning to believe, not only in her but in the play itself, in comes the spying lady's maid, or the valet who spies on the lady's maid, and we are in melodrama again, and among the strings of the marionettes. Where are the three stages, truth, philosophy, conscience, which Dumas offers to us in his preface as the three stages by which a work of dramatic art reaches perfection? Shown us by Duse, from moment to moment, yes; but in the piece, no, scarcely more than in "Fedora." So fatal is it to write for our instruction, as fatal as to write for our amusement. A work of art must suggest everything, but it must prove nothing. Bad imaginative work like "La Gioconda" is really, in its way, better than this unimaginative and theoretical falseness to life; for it at least shows us beauty, even though it degrades that beauty before our eyes. And Duse, of all actresses the nearest to nature, was born to create beauty, that beauty which is the deepest truth of natural things. Why does she after all only tantalise us, showing us little fragments of her soul under many disguises, but never giving us her whole self through the revealing medium of a masterpiece?
"Fedora" is a play written for Sarah Bernhardt by the writer of plays for Sarah Bernhardt, and it contains the usual ingredients of that particular kind of sorcery: a Russian tigress, an assassination, a suicide, exotic people with impulses in conflict with their intentions, good working evil and evil working good, not according to a philosophical idea, but for the convenience of a melodramatic plot. As artificial, as far from life on the one hand and poetry on the other, as a jig of marionettes at the end of a string, it has the absorbing momentary interest of a problem in events. Character does not exist, only impulse and event. And Duse comes into this play with a desperate resolve to fill it with honest emotion, to be what a woman would really perhaps be if life turned melodramatic with her. Visibly, deliberately, she acts: "Fedora" is not to be transformed unawares into life. But her acting is like that finest kind of acting which we meet with in real life, when we are able to watch some choice scene of the human comedy being played before us. She becomes the impossible thing that Fedora is, and, in that tour de force, she does some almost impossible things by the way. There is a scene in which the blood fades out of her cheeks until they seem to turn to dry earth furrowed with wrinkles. She makes triumphant point after triumphant point (her intelligence being free to act consciously on this unintelligent matter), and we notice, more than in her finer parts, individual movements, gestures, tones: the attitude of her open hand upon a door, certain blind caresses with her fingers as they cling for the last time to her lover's cheeks, her face as she reads a letter, the art of her voice as she almost deliberately takes us in with these emotional artifices of Sardou. When it is all over, and we think of the Silvia of "La Gioconda," of the woman we divine under Magda and under Paula Tanqueray, it is with a certain sense of waste; for even Paula can be made to seem something which Fedora can never be made to seem. In "Fedora" we have a sheer, undisguised piece of stagecraft, without even the amount of psychological intention of Mr. Pinero, much less of Sudermann. It is a detective story with horrors, and it is far too positive and finished a thing to be transformed into something not itself. Sardou is a hard taskmaster; he chains his slaves. Without nobility or even coherence of conception, without inner life or even a recognisable semblance of exterior life, the piece goes by clockwork; you cannot make the hands go faster or slower, or bring its mid-day into agreement with the sun. A great actress, who is also a great intelligence, is seen accepting it, for its purpose, with contempt, as a thing to exercise her technical skill upon. As a piece of technical skill, Duse's acting in "Fedora" is as fine as anything she has done. It completes our admiration of her genius, as it proves to us that she can act to perfection a part in which the soul is left out of the question, in which nothing happens according to nature, and in which life is figured as a long attack of nerves, relieved by the occasional interval of an uneasy sleep.
ANNOTATIONS BY THE WAY
I. "PELLEAS AND MELISANDE"
"Pelleas and Melisande" is the most beautiful of Maeterlinck's plays, and to say this is to say that it is the most beautiful contemporary play. Maeterlinck's theatre of marionettes, who are at the same time children and spirits, at once more simple and more abstract than real people, is the reaction of the imagination against the wholly prose theatre of Ibsen, into which life comes nakedly, cruelly, subtly, but without distinction, without poetry. Maeterlinck has invented plays which are pictures, in which the crudity of action is subdued into misty outlines. People with strange names, living in impossible places, where there are only woods and fountains, and towers by the sea-shore, and ancient castles, where there are no towns, and where the common crowd of the world is shut out of sight and hearing, move like quiet ghosts across the stage, mysterious to us and not less mysterious to one another. They are all lamenting because they do not know, because they cannot understand, because their own souls are so strange to them, and each other's souls like pitiful enemies, giving deadly wounds unwillingly. They are always in dread, because they know that nothing is certain in the world or in their own hearts, and they know that love most often does the work of hate and that hate is sometimes tenderer than love. In "Pelleas and Melisande" we have two innocent lovers, to whom love is guilt; we have blind vengeance, aged and helpless wisdom; we have the conflict of passions fighting in the dark, destroying what they desire most in the world. And out of this tragic tangle Maeterlinck has made a play which is too full of beauty to be painful. We feel an exquisite sense of pity, so impersonal as to be almost healing, as if our own sympathy had somehow set right the wrongs of the play.
And this play, translated with delicate fidelity by Mr. Mackail, has been acted again by Mrs. Patrick Campbell and Mr. Martin Harvey, to the accompaniment of M. Faure's music, and in the midst of scenery which gave a series of beautiful pictures, worthy of the play. Mrs. Campbell, in whose art there is so much that is pictorial, has never been so pictorial as in the character of Melisande. At the beginning I thought she was acting with more effort and less effect than in the original performance; but as the play went on she abandoned herself more and more simply to the part she was acting, and in the death scene had a kind of quiet, poignant, reticent perfection. A plaintive figure out of tapestry, a child out of a nursery tale, she made one feel at once the remoteness and the humanity of this waif of dreams, the little princess who does know that it is wrong to love. In the great scene by the fountain in the park, Mrs. Campbell expressed the supreme unconsciousness of passion, both in face and voice, as no other English actress could have done; in the death scene she expressed the supreme unconsciousness of innocence with the same beauty and the same intensity. Her palpitating voice, in which there is something like the throbbing of a wounded bird, seemed to speak the simple and beautiful words as if they had never been said before. And that beauty and strangeness in her, which make her a work of art in herself, seemed to find the one perfect opportunity for their expression. The only actress on our stage whom we go to see as we would go to see a work of art, she acts Pinero and the rest as if under a disguise. Here, dressed in wonderful clothes of no period, speaking delicate, almost ghostly words, she is herself, her rarer self. And Mr. Martin Harvey, who can be so simple, so passionate, so full of the warmth of charm, seemed until almost the end of the play to have lost the simple fervour which he had once shown in the part of Pelleas; he posed, spoke without sincerity, was conscious of little but his attitudes. But in the great love scene by the fountain in the park he had recovered sincerity, he forgot himself, remembering Pelleas: and that great love scene was acted with a sense of the poetry and a sense of the human reality of the thing, as no one on the London stage but Mr. Harvey and Mrs. Campbell could have acted it. No one else, except Mr. Arliss as the old servant, was good; the acting was not sufficiently monotonous, with that fine monotony which is part of the secret of Maeterlinck. These busy actors occupied themselves in making points, instead of submitting passively to the passing through them of profound emotions, and the betrayal of these emotions in a few, reticent, and almost unwilling words.
The Elizabethan Stage Society's performance of "Everyman" deserves a place of its own among the stage performances of our time. "Everyman" took one into a kind of very human church, a church in the midst of the market-place, like those churches in Italy, in which people seem so much at home. The verse is quaint, homely, not so archaic when it is spoken as one might suppose in reading it; the metre is regular in heat, but very irregular in the number of syllables, and the people who spoke it so admirably under Mr. Poel's careful training had not been trained to scan it as well as they articulated it. "Everyman" is a kind of "Pilgrim's Progress," conceived with a daring and reverent imagination, so that God himself comes quite naturally upon the stage, and speaks out of a clothed and painted image. Death, lean and bare-boned, rattles his drum and trips fantastically across the stage of the earth, leading his dance; Everyman is seen on his way to the grave, taking leave of Riches, Fellowship, Kindred, and Goods (each personified with his attributes), escorted a little way by Strength, Discretion, Beauty, and the Five Wits, and then abandoned by them, and then going down into the grave with no other attendance than that of Knowledge and Good Deeds. The pathos and sincerity of the little drama were shown finely and adequately by the simple cloths and bare boards of a Shakespearean stage, and by the solemn chanting of the actors and their serious, unspoilt simplicity in acting. Miss Wynne-Matthison in the part of Everyman acted with remarkable power and subtlety; she had the complete command of her voice, as so few actors or actresses have, and she was able to give vocal expression to every shade of meaning which she had apprehended.
III. "FAUST" AT THE LYCEUM
In the version of "Faust" given by Irving at the Lyceum, Wills did his best to follow the main lines of Goethe's construction. Unfortunately he was less satisfied with Goethe's verse, though it happens that the verse is distinctly better than the construction. He kept the shell and threw away the kernel. Faust becomes insignificant in this play to which he gives his name. In Goethe he was a thinker, even more than a poet. Here he speaks bad verse full of emptiness. Even where Goethe's words are followed, in a literal translation, the meaning seems to have gone out of them; they are displaced, they no longer count for anything. The Walpurgis Night is stripped of all its poetry, and Faust's study is emptied of all its wisdom. The Witches' Kitchen brews messes without magic, lest the gallery should be bewildered. The part of Martha is extended, in order that his red livery may have its full "comic relief." Mephistopheles throws away a good part of his cunning wit, in order that he may shock no prejudices by seeming to be cynical with seriousness, and in order to get in some more than indifferent spectral effect. Margaret is to be seen full length; the little German soubrette does her best to be the Helen Faust takes her for; and we are meant to be profoundly interested in the love-story. "Most of all," the programme assures us, Wills "strove to tell the love-story in a manner that might appeal to an English-speaking audience."
Now if you take the philosophy and the poetry out of Goethe's "Faust," and leave the rest, it does not seem to me that you leave the part which is best worth having. In writing the First Part of "Faust" Goethe made free use of the legend of Dr. Faustus, not always improving that legend where he departed from it. If we turn to Marlowe's "Dr. Faustus" we shall see, embedded among chaotic fragments of mere rubbish and refuse, the outlines of a far finer, a far more poetic, conception of the legend. Marlowe's imagination was more essentially a poetic imagination than Goethe's, and he was capable, at moments, of more satisfying dramatic effects. When his Faustus says to Mephistopheles:
One thing, good servant, let me crave of thee, To glut the longing of my heart's desire: That I may have unto my paramour That heavenly Helen which I saw of late;
and when, his prayer being granted, he cries:
Was this the face that launched a thousand ships, And burned the topless towers of Ilium?
he is a much more splendid and significant person than the Faust of Goethe, who needs the help of the devil and of an old woman to seduce a young girl who has fallen in love with him at first sight. Goethe, it is true, made what amends he could afterwards, in the Second Part, when much of the impulse had gone and all the deliberation in the world was not active enough to replace it. Helen has her share, among other abstractions, but the breath has not returned into her body, she is glacial, a talking enigma, to whom Marlowe's Faustus would never have said with the old emphasis:
And none but thou shalt be my paramour!
What remains, then, in Wills' version, is the Gretchen story, in all its detail, a spectacular representation of the not wholly sincere witchcraft, and the impressive outer shell of Mephistopheles, with, in Sir Henry Irving's pungent and acute rendering, something of the real savour of the denying spirit. Mephistopheles is the modern devil, the devil of culture and polite negation; the comrade, in part the master, of Heine, and perhaps the grandson and pupil of Voltaire. On the Lyceum stage he is the one person of distinction, the one intelligence; though so many of his best words have been taken from him, it is with a fine subtlety that he says the words that remain. And the figure, with its lightness, weary grace, alert and uneasy step, solemnity, grim laughter, remains with one, after one has come away and forgotten whether he told us all that Goethe confided to him.
IV. THE JAPANESE PLAYERS
When I first saw the Japanese players I suddenly discovered the meaning of Japanese art, so far as it represents human beings. You know the scarcely human oval which represents a woman's face, with the help of a few thin curves for eyelids and mouth. Well, that convention, as I had always supposed it to be, that geometrical symbol of a face, turns out to be precisely the face of the Japanese woman when she is made up. So the monstrous entanglements of men fighting, which one sees in the pictures, the circling of the two-handed sword, the violence of feet in combat, are seen to be after all the natural manner of Japanese warfare. This unrestrained energy of body comes out in the expression of every motion. Men spit and sneeze and snuffle, without consciousness of dignity or hardly of humanity, under the influence of fear, anger, or astonishment. When the merchant is awaiting Shylock's knife he trembles convulsively, continuously, from head to feet, unconscious of everything but death. When Shylock has been thwarted, he stands puckering his face into a thousand grimaces, like a child who has swallowed medicine. It is the emotion of children, naked sensation, not yet clothed by civilisation. Only the body speaks in it, the mind is absent; and the body abandons itself completely to the animal force of its instincts. With a great artist like Sada Yacco in the death scene of "The Geisha and the Knight," the effect is overwhelming; the whole woman dies before one's sight, life ebbs visibly out of cheeks and eyes and lips; it is death as not even Sarah Bernhardt has shown us death. There are moments, at other times and with other performers, when it is difficult not to laugh at some cat-like or ape-like trick of these painted puppets who talk a toneless language, breathing through their words as they whisper or chant them. They are swathed like barbaric idols, in splendid robes without grace; they dance with fans, with fingers, running, hopping, lifting their feet, if they lift them, with the heavy delicacy of the elephant; they sing in discords, striking or plucking a few hoarse notes on stringed instruments, and beating on untuned drums. Neither they nor their clothes have beauty, to the limited Western taste; they have strangeness, the charm of something which seems to us capricious, almost outside Nature. In our ignorance of their words, of what they mean to one another, of the very way in which they see one another, we shall best appreciate their rarity by looking on them frankly as pictures, which we can see with all the imperfections of a Western misunderstanding.
V. THE PARIS MUSIC-HALL
It is not always realised by Englishmen that England is really the country of the music-hall, the only country where it has taken firm root and flowered elegantly. There is nothing in any part of Europe to compare, in their own way, with the Empire and the Alhambra, either as places luxurious in themselves or as places where a brilliant spectacle is to be seen. It is true that, in England, the art of the ballet has gone down; the prima ballerina assoluta is getting rare, the primo uomo is extinct. The training of dancers as dancers leaves more and more to be desired, but that is a defect which we share, at the present time, with most other countries; while the beauty of the spectacle, with us, is unique. Think of "Les Papillons" or of "Old China" at the Empire, and then go and see a fantastic ballet at Paris, at Vienna, or at Berlin!
And it is not only in regard to the ballet, but in regard also to the "turns," that we are ahead of all our competitors. I have no great admiration for most of our comic gentlemen and ladies in London, but I find it still more difficult to take any interest in the comic gentlemen and ladies of Paris. Take Marie Lloyd, for instance, and compare with her, say, Marguerite Deval at the Scala. Both aim at much the same effect, but, contrary to what might have been expected, it is the Englishwoman who shows the greater finesse in the rendering of that small range of sensations to which both give themselves up frankly. Take Polin, who is supposed to express vulgarities with unusual success. Those automatic gestures, flapping and flopping; that dribbling voice, without intonation; that flabby droop and twitch of the face; all that soapy rubbing-in of the expressive parts of the song: I could see no skill in it all, of a sort worth having. The women here sing mainly with their shoulders, for which they seem to have been chosen, and which are undoubtedly expressive. Often they do not even take the trouble to express anything with voice or face; the face remains blank, the voice trots creakily. It is a doll who repeats its lesson, holding itself up to be seen.
The French "revue," as one sees it at the Folies-Bergere, done somewhat roughly and sketchily, strikes one most of all by its curious want of consecution, its entire reliance on the point of this or that scene, costume, or performer. It has no plan, no idea; some ideas are flung into it in passing; but it remains as shapeless as an English pantomime, and not much more interesting. Both appeal to the same undeveloped instincts, the English to a merely childish vulgarity, the French to a vulgarity which is more frankly vicious. Really I hardly know which is to be preferred. In England we pretend that fancy dress is all in the interests of morality; in France they make no such pretence, and, in dispensing with shoulder-straps, do but make their intentions a little clearer. Go to the Moulin-Rouge and you will see a still clearer object-lesson. The goods in the music-halls are displayed so to speak, behind glass, in a shop window; at the Moulin-Rouge they are on the open booths of a street market.