With a Frontispiece By Whistler
I. The Stage as it is
II. The Art of Acting
III. Four Great Actors
IV. The Art of Acting
8 NOVEMBER 1881
THE STAGE AS IT IS.
LADIES AND GENTLEMEN,
You will not be surprised that, on this interesting occasion, I have selected as the subject of the few remarks I propose to offer you, "The Stage as it is." The stage—because to my profession I owe it that I am here, and every dictate of taste and of fidelity impels me to honor it; the stage as it is—because it is very cheap and empty honor that is paid to the drama in the abstract, and withheld from the theatre as a working institution in our midst. Fortunately there is less of this than there used to be. It arose partly from intellectual superciliousness, partly from timidity as to moral contamination. To boast of being able to appreciate Shakespeare more in reading him than in seeing him acted used to be a common method of affecting special intellectuality. I hope this delusion—a gross and pitiful one as to most of us—has almost absolutely died out. It certainly conferred a very cheap badge of superiority on those who entertained it. It seemed to each of them an inexpensive opportunity of worshipping himself on a pedestal. But what did it amount to? It was little more than a conceited and feather-headed assumption that an unprepared reader, whose mind is usually full of far other things, will see on the instant all that has been developed in hundreds of years by the members of a studious and enthusiastic profession. My own conviction is, that there are few characters or passages of our great dramatists which will not repay original study. But at least we must recognize the vast advantages with which a practised actor, impregnated by the associations of his life, and by study—with all the practical and critical skill of his profession up to the date at which he appears, whether he adopts or rejects tradition—addresses himself to the interpretation of any great character, even if he have no originality whatever. There is something still more than this, however, in acting. Every one who has the smallest histrionic gift has a natural dramatic fertility; so that as soon as he knows the author's text, and obtains self-possession, and feels at home in a part without being too familiar with it, the mere automatic action of rehearsing and playing it at once begins to place the author in new lights, and to give the personage being played an individuality partly independent of, and yet consistent with, and rendering more powerfully visible, the dramatist's conception. It is the vast power a good actor has in this way which has led the French to speak of creating a part when they mean its being first played; and French authors are so conscious of the extent and value of this co-operation of actors with them, that they have never objected to the phrase, but, on the contrary, are uniformly lavish in their homage to the artists who have created on the boards the parts which they themselves have created on paper.
I must add, as an additional reason for valuing the theatre, that while there is only one Shakespeare, and while there are comparatively few dramatists who are sufficiently classic to be read with close attention, there is a great deal of average dramatic work excellently suited for representation. From this the public derive pleasure. From this they receive—as from fiction in literature—a great deal of instruction and mental stimulus. Some may be worldly, some social, some cynical, some merely humorous and witty, but a great deal of it, though its literary merit is secondary, is well qualified to bring out all that is most fruitful of good in common sympathies. Now, it is plain that if, because Shakespeare is good reading, people were to give the cold shoulder to the theatre, the world would lose all the vast advantage which comes to it through the dramatic faculty in forms not rising to essentially literary excellence. As respects the other feeling which used to stand more than it does now in the way of the theatre—the fear of moral contamination—it is due to the theatre of our day, on the one hand, and to the prejudices of our grandfathers on the other, to confess that the theatre of fifty years ago or less did need reforming in the audience part of the house. All who have read the old controversy as to the morality of going to the theatre are familiar with the objection to which I refer. But the theatre of fifty years ago or less was reformed. If there are any, therefore, as I fear there are a few, who still talk on this point in the old vein, let them rub their eyes a bit, and do us the justice to consider not what used to be, but what is. But may there be moral contamination from what is performed on the stage? Well, there may be. But so there is from books. So there may be at lawn tennis clubs. So there may be at dances. So there may be in connection with everything in civilized life and society. But do we therefore bury ourselves? The anchorites secluded themselves in hermitages. The Puritans isolated themselves in consistent abstinence from everything that anybody else did. And there are people now who think that they can keep their children, and that those children will keep themselves in after life, in cotton wool, so as to avoid all temptation of body and mind, and be saved nine-tenths of the responsibility of self-control. All this is mere phantasy. You must be in the world, though you need not be of it; and the best way to make the world a better community to be in, and not so bad a place to be of, is not to shun, but to bring public opinion to bear upon its pursuits and its relaxations. Depend upon two things—that the theatre, as a whole, is never below the average moral sense of the time; and that the inevitable demand for an admixture, at least, of wholesome sentiment in every sort of dramatic production brings the ruling tone of the theatre, whatever drawback may exist, up to the highest level at which the general morality of the time can truly be registered. We may be encouraged by the reflection that this is truer than ever it was before, owing to the greater spread of education, the increased community of taste between classes, and the almost absolute divorce of the stage from mere wealth and aristocracy. Wealth and aristocracy come around the stage in abundance, and are welcome, as in the time of Elizabeth; but the stage is no longer a mere appendage of court-life, no longer a mere mirror of patrician vice hanging at the girdle of fashionable profligacy as it was in the days of Congreve and Wycherley. It is now the property of the educated people. It has to satisfy them or pine in neglect And the better their demands the better will be the supply with which the drama will respond. This being not only so, but seen to be so, the stage is no longer proscribed. It is no longer under a ban. Its members are no longer pariahs in society. They live and bear their social part like others—as decorously observant of all that makes the sweet sanctities of life—as gracefully cognizant of its amenities—as readily recognized and welcomed as the members of any other profession. Am I not here your grateful guest, opening the session of this philosophical and historic institution? I who am simply an actor, an interpreter, with such gifts as I have, and such thought as I can bestow, of stage plays. And am I not received here with perfect cordiality on an equality, not hungrily bowing and smirking for patronage, but interchanging ideas which I am glad to express, and which you listen to as thoughtfully and as kindly as you would to those of any other student, any other man who had won his way into such prominence as to come under the ken of a distinguished institution such as that which I have the honor to address? I do not mince the matter as to my personal position here, because I feel it is a representative one, and marks an epoch in the estimation in which the art I love is held by the British world. You have had many distinguished men here, and their themes have often been noble, but with which of those themes has not my art immemorial and perpetual associations? Is it not for ever identified with the noblest instincts and occupations of the human mind? If I think of poetry, must I not remember how to the measure of its lofty music the theatre has in almost all ages set the grandest of dramatic conceptions? If I think of literature, must I not recall that of all the amusements by which men in various states of society have solaced their leisure and refreshed their energies, the acting of plays is the one that has never yet, even for a day, been divorced from literary taste and skill? If I meditate on patriotism, can I but reflect how grandly the boards have been trod by personifications of heroic love of country? There is no subject of human thought that by common consent is deemed ennobling that has not ere now, and from period to period, been illustrated in the bright vesture, and received expression from the glowing language of theatrical representation. And surely it is fit that, remembering what the stage has been and must be, I should acknowledge eagerly and gladly that, with few exceptions, the public no longer debar themselves from the profitable pleasures of the theatre, and no longer brand with any social stigma the professors of the histrionic art. Talking to an eminent bishop one day, I said to him, "Now, my Lord, why is it, with your love and knowledge of the drama, with your deep interest in the stage and all its belongings, and your wide sympathy with all that ennobles and refines our natures—why is it that you never go to the theatre?" "Well," said he, "I'll tell you. I'm afraid of the Rock and the Record." I hope soon we shall relieve even the most timid bishop—and my right reverend friend is not the most timid—of all fears and tremors whatever that can prevent even ministers of religion from recognizing the wisdom of the change of view which has come over even the most fastidious public opinion on this question. Remember, if you please, that the hostile public opinion which has lately begun so decisively to disappear, has been of comparatively modern growth, or at least revival. The pious and learned of other times gave their countenance and approbation to the stage of their days, as the pious and learned of our time give their countenance and approbation to certain performances in this day. Welcome be the return of good sense, good taste, and charity, or rather justice. No apology for the stage. None is needed. It has but to be named to be honored. Too long the world talked with bated breath and whispering humbleness of "the poor player." There are now few poor players. Whatever variety of fortune and merit there may be among them, they have the same degrees of prosperity and respect as come to members of other avocations. There never was so large a number of theatres or of actors. And their type is vastly improved by public recognition. The old days when good-for-nothings passed into the profession are at an end; and the old Bohemian habits, so far as they were evil and disreputable, have also disappeared. The ranks of the art are being continually recruited by deeply interested and earnest young men of good education and belongings. Nor let us, while dissipating the remaining prejudices of outsiders, give quarter to those which linger among players themselves. There are some who acknowledge the value of improved status to themselves and their art, but who lament that there are now no schools for actors. This is a very idle lamentation. Every actor in full employment gets plenty of schooling, for the best schooling is practice, and there is no school so good as a well-conducted playhouse. The truth is, that the cardinal secret of success in acting are found within, while practice is the surest way of fertilizing these germs. To efficiency in the art of acting there should come a congregation of fine qualities. There should be considerable, though not necessarily systematic, culture. There should be delicate instincts of taste cultivated, consciously, or unconsciously, to a degree of extreme and subtle nicety. There should be a power, at once refined and strong, of both perceiving and expressing to others the significance of language, so that neither shades nor masses of meaning, so to speak, may be either lost or exaggerated. Above all, there should be a sincere and abounding sympathy with all that is good and great and inspiring. That sympathy, most certainly, must be under the control and manipulation of art, but it must be none the lest real and generous, and the artist who is a mere artist will stop short of the highest moral effects of his craft. Little of this can be got in a mere training school, but all of it will come forth more or less fully armed from the actor's brain in the process of learning his art by practice. For the way to learn to do a thing is to do it; and in learning to act by acting, though there is plenty of incidental hard drill and hard work, there is nothing commonplace or unfruitful.
What is true of the art is true also of the social life of the artist. No sensational change has been found necessary to alter his status though great changes have come. The stage has literally lived down the rebuke and reproach under which it formerly cowered, while its professors have been simultaneously living down the prejudices which excluded them from society. The stage is now seen to be an elevating instead of a lowering influence on national morality, and actors and actresses receive in society, as do the members of other professions, exactly the treatment which is earned by their personal conduct. And so I would say of what we sometimes hear so much about—dramatic reform. It is not needed; or, if it is, all the reform that is wanted will be best effected by the operation of public opinion upon the administration of a good theatre. That is the true reforming agency, with this great advantage, that reforms which come by public opinion are sure, while those which come without public opinion cannot be relied upon. The dramatic reformers are very well-meaning people. They show great enthusiasm. They are new converts to the theatre, most of them, and they have the zeal of converts. But it is scarcely according to knowledge. These ladies and gentlemen have scarcely studied the conditions of theatrical enterprise, which must be carried on as a business or it will fail as an art. It is an unwelcome, if not an unwarrantable intrusion to come among our people with elaborate advice, and endeavor to make them live after different fashions from those which are suitable to them, and it will be quite hopeless to attempt to induce the general body of a purely artistic class to make louder and more fussy professions of virtue and religion than other people. In fact, it is a downright insult to the dramatic profession to exact or to expect any such thing. Equally objectionable, and equally impracticable, are the attempts of Quixotic "dramatic reformers" to exercise a sort of goody-goody censorship over the selection and the text of the plays to be acted. The stage has been serving the world for hundreds, yes, and thousands of years, during which it has contributed in pure dramaturgy to the literature of the world its very greatest master-pieces in nearly all languages, meanwhile affording to the million an infinity of pleasure, all more or less innocent. Where less innocent, rather than more, the cause has lain, not in the stage, but in the state of society of which it was the mirror. For though the stage is not always occupied with its own period, the new plays produced always reflect in many particulars the spirit of the age in which they are played. There is a story of a traveller who put up for the night at a certain inn, on the door of which was the inscription—"Good entertainment for man and beast." His horse was taken to the stable and well cared for, and he sat down to dine. When the covers were removed he remarked, on seeing his own sorry fare, "Yes, this is very well; but where's the entertainment for the man?" If everything were banished from the stage except that which suits a certain taste, what dismal places our theatres would be! However fond the play-goer may be of tragedy, if you offer him nothing but horrors, he may well ask—"Where's the entertainment for the man who wants an evening's amusement?" The humor of a farce may not seem over-refined to a particular class of intelligence; but there are thousands of people who take an honest pleasure in it. And who, after seeing my old friend J.L. Toole in some of his famous parts, and having laughed till their sides ached, have not left the theatre more buoyant and light-hearted than they came? Well, if the stage has been thus useful and successful all these centuries, and still is productive; if the noble fascination of the theatre draws to it, as we know that it does, an immortal poet such as our Tennyson, whom, I can testify from my own experience, nothing delights more than the success of one of the plays which, in the mellow autumn of his genius, he has contributed to the acting theatre; if a great artist like Tadema is proud to design scenes for stage plays; if in all departments of stage production we see great talent, and in nearly every instance great good taste and sincere sympathy with the best popular ideals of goodness; then, I say, the stage is entitled to be let alone—that is, it is entitled to make its own bargain with the public without the censorious intervention of well-intentioned busybodies. These do not know what to ban or to bless. If they had their way, as of course they cannot, they would license, with many flourishes and much self-laudation, a number of pieces which would be hopelessly condemned on the first hearing, and they would lay an embargo for very insufficient reasons on many plays well entitled to success. It is not in this direction that we must look for any improvement that is needed in the purveying of material for the stage. Believe me, the right direction is public criticism and public discrimination. I say so because, beyond question, the public will have what they want. So far, that managers in their discretion, or at their pleasure, can force on the public either very good or very bad dramatic material is an utter delusion. They have no such power. If they had the will they could only force any particular sort of entertainment just as long as they had capital to expend without any return. But they really have not the will. They follow the public taste with the greatest keenness. If the people want Shakespeare—as I am happy to say they do, at least at one theatre in London, and at all the great theatres out of London, to an extent unprecedented in the history of the stage—then they get Shakespeare. If they want our modern dramatists—Albery, Boucicault, Byron, Burnand, Gilbert, or Wills—these they have. If they want Robertson, Robertson is there for them. If they desire opera-bouffe, depend upon it they will have it, and have it they do. What then do I infer? Simply this: that those who prefer the higher drama—in the representation of which my heart's best interests are centred—instead of querulously animadverting on managers who give them something different, should, as Lord Beaconsfield said, "make themselves into a majority." If they do so, the higher drama will be produced. But if we really understand the value of the drama, we shall not be too rigid in our exactions. The drama is the art of human nature in picturesque or characteristic action. Let us be liberal in our enjoyment of it. Tragedy, comedy, historical-pastoral, pastoral-comical—remember the large-minded list of the greatest-minded poet—all are good, if wholesome—and will be wholesome if the public continue to take the healthy interest in theatres which they are now taking. The worst times for the stage have been those when play-going was left pretty much to a loose society, such as is sketched in the Restoration dramatists. If the good people continue to come to the theatre in increasing crowds, the stage, without losing any of its brightness, will soon be good enough, if it is not as yet, to satisfy the best of them. This is what I believe all sensible people in these times see. And if, on the one hand, you are ready to laugh at the old prejudices which have been so happily dissipated; on the other hand, how earnestly must you welcome the great aid to taste and thought and culture which comes to you thus in the guise of amusement. Let me put this to you rather seriously; let me insist on the intellectual and moral use, alike to the most and least cultivated of us, of this art "most beautiful, most difficult, most rare," which I stand here to-day, not to apologize for, but to establish in the high place to which it is entitled among the arts and among the ameliorating influences of life. Grant that any of us understand a dramatist better for seeing him acted, and it follows, first, that all of us will be most indebted to the stage at the point where the higher and more ethereal faculties are liable in reading to failure and exhaustion, that is, stage-playing will be of most use to us where the mind requires help and inspiration to grasp and revel in lofty moral or imaginative conceptions, or where it needs aid and sharpening to appreciate and follow the niceties of repartee, or the delicacies of comic fancy. Secondly, it follows that if this is so with the intellectual few, it must be infinitely more so with the unimaginative many of all ranks. They are not inaccessible to passion and poetry and refinement, but their minds do not go forth, as it were, to seek these joys; and even if they read works of poetic and dramatic fancy, which they rarely do, they would miss them on the printed page. To them, therefore, with the exception of a few startling incidents of real life, the theatre is the only channel through which are ever brought the great sympathies of the world of thought beyond their immediate ken. And thirdly, it follows from all this that the stage is, intellectually and morally, to all who have recourse to it, the source of some of the finest and best influences of which they are respectively susceptible. To the thoughtful and reading man it brings the life, the fire, the color, the vivid instinct, which are beyond the reach of study. To the common indifferent man, immersed, as a rule, in the business and socialities of daily life, it brings visions of glory and adventure, of emotion and of broad human interest. It gives glimpses of the heights and depths of character and experience, setting him thinking and wondering even in the midst of amusement. To the most torpid and unobservant it exhibits the humorous in life and the sparkle and finesse of language, which in dull ordinary existence is stupidly shut out of knowledge or omitted from particular notice. To all it uncurtains a world, not that in which they live and yet not other than it—a world in which interest is heightened whilst the conditions of truth are observed, in which the capabilities of men and women are seen developed without losing their consistency to nature, and developed with a curious and wholesome fidelity to simple and universal instincts of clear right and wrong. Be it observed—and I put it most uncompromisingly—I am not speaking or thinking of any unrealizable ideal, not of any lofty imagination of what might be, but of what is, wherever there are pit and gallery and foot-lights. More or less, and taking one evening with another, you may find support for an enthusiastic theory of stage morality and the high tone of audiences in most theatres in the country; and if you fancy that it is least so in the theatres frequented by the poor you make a great mistake, for in none is the appreciation of good moral fare more marked than in these.
In reference to the poorer classes, we all lament the wide prevalence of intemperate drinking. Well, is it not an obvious reflection that the worst performance seen on any of our stages cannot be so bad as drinking for a corresponding time in a gin-palace? I have pointed this contrast before, and I point it again. The drinking we deplore takes place in company—bad company; it is enlivened by talk—bad talk. It is relished by obscenity. Where drink and low people come together these things must be. The worst that can come of stage pandering to the corrupt tastes of its basest patrons cannot be anything like this, and, as a rule, the stage holds out long against the invitation to pander; and such invitations, from the publicity and decorum that attend the whole matter, are neither frequent nor eager. A sort of decency sets in upon the coarsest person in entering even the roughest theatre. I have sometimes thought that, considering the liability to descend and the facility of descent, a special Providence watches over the morals and tone of our English stage. I do not desire to overcharge the eulogy. There never was a time when the stage had not conspicuous faults. There never was a time when these were not freely admitted by those most concerned for the maintenance of the stage at its best. In Shakespeare, whenever the subject of the theatre is approached, we perceive signs that that great spirit, though it had a practical and business-like vein, and essayed no impossible enterprises, groaned under the necessities, or the demands of a public which desired frivolities and deformities which jarred upon the poet-manager's feelings. As we descend the course of time we find that each generation looked back to a supposed previous period when taste ranged higher, and when the inferior and offensive peculiarities of the existing stage were unknown. Yet from most of these generations we inherit works as well as traditions and biographical recollections which the world will never let die. The truth is that the immortal part of the stage is its nobler part. Ignoble accidents and interludes come and go, but this lasts on forever. It lives, like the human soul, in the body of humanity—associated with much that is inferior, and hampered by many hindrances—but it never sinks into nothingness, and never fails to find new and noble work in creations of permanent and memorable excellence. Heaven forbid that I should seem to cover, even with a counterpane of courtesy, exhibitions of deliberate immorality. Happily this sort of thing is not common, and although it has hardly been practised by any one who, without a strain of meaning can be associated with the profession of acting, yet public censure, not active enough to repress the evil, is ever ready to pass a sweeping condemnation on the stage which harbors it. Our cause is a good one. We go forth, armed with the luminous panoply which genius has forged for us, to do battle with dulness, with coarseness, with apathy, with every form of vice and evil. In every human heart there gleams a bright reflection of this shining armor. The stage has no lights or shadows that are not lights of life and shadows of the heart. To each human consciousness it appeals in alternating mirth and sadness, and will not be denied. Err it must, for it is human; but, being human, it must endure. The love of acting is inherent in our nature. Watch your children play, and you will see that almost their first conscious effort is to act and to imitate. It is an instinct, and you can no more repress it than you can extinguish thought. When this instinct of all is developed by cultivation in the few, it becomes a wonderful art, priceless to civilization in the solace it yields, the thought it generates, the refinement it inspires. Some of its latest achievements are not unworthy of their grandest predecessors. Some of its youngest devotees are at least as proud of its glories and as anxious to preserve them as any who have gone before. Theirs is a glorious heritage! You honor it. They have a noble but a difficult, and sometimes a disheartening, task. You encourage it. And no word of kindly interest or criticism dropped in the public ear from friendly lips goes unregarded or is unfertile of good. The universal study of Shakespeare in our public schools is a splendid sign of the departure of prejudice, and all criticism is welcome; but it is acting chiefly that can open to others, with any spark of Shakespeare's mind, the means of illuminating the world. Only the theatre can realize to us in a life-like way what Shakespeare was to his own time. And it is, indeed, a noble destiny for the theatre to vindicate in these later days the greatness which sometimes it has seemed to vulgarize. It has been too much the custom to talk of Shakespeare as nature's child—as the lad who held horses for people who came to the play—as a sort of chance phenomenon who wrote these plays by accident and unrecognized. How supremely ridiculous! How utterly irreconcilable with the grand dimensions of the man! How absurdly dishonoring to the great age of which he was, and was known to be, the glory! The noblest literary man of all time—the finest and yet most prolific writer—the greatest student of man, and the greatest master of man's highest gift of language—surely it is treason to humanity to speak of such an one as in any sense a commonplace being! Imagine him rather, as he must have been, the most notable courtier of the Court—the most perfect gentleman who stood in the Elizabethan throng—the man in whose presence divines would falter and hesitate lest their knowledge of the Book should seem poor by the side of his, and at whom even queenly royalty would look askance, with an oppressive sense that here was one to whose omnipotent and true imagination the hearts of kings and queens and peoples had always been an open page! The thought of such a man is an incomparable inheritance for any nation, and such a man was the actor—Shakespeare. Such is our birthright and yours. Such the succession in which it is ours to labor and yours to enjoy. For Shakespeare belongs to the stage for ever, and his glories must always inalienably belong to it. If you uphold the theatre honestly, liberally, frankly, and with wise discrimination, the stage will uphold in future, as it has in the past, the literature, the manners, the morals, the fame, and the genius of our country. There must have been something wrong, as there was something poignant and lacerating, in prejudices which so long partly divorced the conscience of Britain from its noblest pride, and stamped with reproach, or at least depreciation, some of the brightest and world-famous incidents of her history. For myself, it kindles my heart with proud delight to think that I have stood to-day before this audience—known for its discrimination throughout all English-speaking lands—a welcome and honored guest, because I stand here for justice to the art to which I am devoted—because I stand here in thankfulness for the justice which has begun to be so abundantly rendered to it. If it is metaphorically the destiny of humanity, it is literally the experience of an actor, that one man in his time plays many parts. A player of any standing must at various times have sounded the gamut of human sensibility from the lowest note to the top of its compass. He must have banqueted often on curious food for thought as he meditated on the subtle relations created between himself and his audiences, as they have watched in his impersonations the shifting tariff—the ever gliding, delicately graduated sliding-scale of dramatic right and wrong. He may have gloated, if he be a cynic, over the depths of ghastly horror, or the vagaries of moral puddle through which it may have been his duty to plash. But if he be an honest man, he will acknowledge that scarcely ever has either dramatist or management wilfully biassed the effect of stage representation in favor of evil, and of his audiences he will boast that never has their mind been doubtful—never has their true perception of the generous and just been known to fail, or even to be slow. How noble the privilege to work upon these finer—these finest—feelings of universal humanity! How engrossing the fascination of those thousands of steady eyes, and sound sympathies, and beating hearts which an actor confronts, with the confidence of friendship and co-operation, as he steps upon the stage to work out in action his long-pent comprehension of a noble master-piece! How rapturous the satisfaction of abandoning himself, in such a presence and with such sympathizers, to his author's grandest flights of thought and noblest bursts of emotional inspiration! And how perpetually sustaining the knowledge that whatever may be the vicissitudes and even the degradations of the stage, it must and will depend for its constant hold on the affection and attention of mankind upon its loftier work; upon its more penetrating passion; upon its themes which most deeply search out the strong affections and high hopes of men and women; upon its fit and kindling illustration of great and vivid lives which either have been lived in noble fact or have deserved to endure immortally in the popular belief and admiration which they have secured.
"For our eyes to see! Sons of wisdom, song, and power, Giving earth her richest dower, And making nations free— A glorious company!
"Call them from the dead For our eyes to see! Forms of beauty, love, and grace, 'Sunshine in the shady place,' That made it life to be— A blessed company!"
TO THE STUDENTS
OF THE UNIVERSITY OF HARVARD
30TH MARCH 1885
THE ART OF ACTING
I am deeply sensible of the compliment that has been paid, not so much to me personally as to the calling I represent, by the invitation to deliver an address to the students of this University. As an actor, and especially as an English actor, it is a great pleasure to speak for my art in one of the chief centres of American culture; for in inviting me here to-day you intended, I believe, to recognize the drama as an educational influence, to show a genuine interest in the stage as a factor in life which must be accepted and not ignored by intelligent people. I have thought that the best use I can make of the privilege you have conferred upon me is to offer you, as well as I am able, something like a practical exposition of my art; for it may chance—who knows?—that some of you may at some future time be disposed to adopt it as a vocation. Not that I wish to be regarded as a tempter who has come among you to seduce you from your present studies by artful pictures of the fascinations of the footlights. But I naturally supposed that you would like me to choose, as the theme of my address, the subject in which I am most interested, and to which my life has been devoted; and that if any students here should ever determine to become actors, they could not be much the worse for the information and counsel I could gather for them from a tolerably extensive experience. This subject will, I trust, be welcome to all of you who are interested in the stage as an institution which appeals to the sober-minded and intelligent; for I take it that you have no lingering prejudice against the theatre, or else I should not be here. Nor are you disposed, like certain good people, to object to the theatre simply as a name. These sticklers for principle would never enter a playhouse for worlds; and I have heard that in a famous city of Massachusetts, not a hundred miles from here, there are persons to whom the theatre is unknown, but who have no objection to see a play in a building which is called a museum, especially if the vestibule leading to the theatre should be decorated with sound moral principles in the shape of statues, pictures, and stuffed objects in glass cases.
When I began to think about my subject for the purpose of this address, I was rather staggered by its vastness. It is really a matter for a course of lectures; but as President Eliot has not proposed that I should occupy a chair of dramatic literature in this University, and as time and opportunity are limited, I can only undertake to put before you, in the simplest way, a few leading ideas about dramatic art which may be worthy of reflection. And in doing this I have the great satisfaction of appearing in a model theatre, before a model audience, and of being the only actor in my own play. Moreover, I am stimulated by the atmosphere of the Greek drama, for I know that on this stage you have enacted a Greek play with remarkable success. So, after all, it is not a body of mere tyros that I am addressing, but actors who have worn the sock and buskin, and declaimed the speeches which delighted audiences two thousand years ago.
Now, this address, like discourses in a more solemn place, falls naturally into divisions. I propose to speak first of the Art of Acting; secondly, of its Requirements and Practice; and lastly of its Rewards. And, at the outset, let me say that I want you to judge the stage at its best. I do not intend to suggest that only the plays of Shakespeare are tolerable in the theatre to people of taste and intelligence. The drama has many forms—tragedy, comedy, historical-pastoral, pastoral-comical—and all are good when their aim is honestly artistic.
THE ART OF ACTING.
Now, what is the art of acting? I speak of it in its highest sense, as the art to which Roscius, Betterton, and Garrick owed their fame. It is the art of embodying the poet's creations, of giving them flesh and blood, of making the figures which appeal to your mind's eye in the printed drama live before you on the stage. "To fathom the depths of character, to trace its latent motives, to feel its finest quiverings of emotion, to comprehend the thoughts that are hidden under words, and thus possess one's-self of the actual mind of the individual man"—such was Macready's definition of the player's art; and to this we may add the testimony of Talma. He describes tragic acting as "the union of grandeur without pomp and nature without triviality." It demands, he says, the endowment of high sensibility and intelligence.
"The actor who possesses this double gift adopts a course of study peculiar to himself. In the first place, by repeated exercises, he enters deeply into the emotions, and his speech acquires the accent proper to the situation of the personage he has to represent. This done, he goes to the theatre not only to give theatrical effect to his studies, but also to yield himself to the spontaneous flashes of his sensibility and all the emotions which it involuntarily produces in him. What does he then do? In order that his inspirations may not be lost, his memory, in the silence of repose, recalls the accent of his voice, the expression of his features, his action—in a word, the spontaneous workings of his mind, which he had suffered to have free course, and, in effect, everything which in the moments of his exaltation contributed to the effects he had produced. His intelligence then passes all these means in review, connecting them and fixing them in his memory to re-employ them at pleasure in succeeding representations. These impressions are often so evanescent that on retiring behind the scenes he must repeat to himself what he had been playing rather than what he had to play. By this kind of labor the intelligence accumulates and preserves all the creations of sensibility. It is by this means that at the end of twenty years (it requires at least this length of time) a person destined to display fine talent may at length present to the public a series of characters acted almost to perfection."
You will readily understand from this that to the actor the well-worn maxim that art is long and life is short has a constant significance. The older we grow the more acutely alive we are to the difficulties of our craft. I cannot give you a better illustration of this fact than a story which is told of Macready. A friend of mine, once a dear friend of his, was with him when he played Hamlet for the last time. The curtain had fallen, and the great actor was sadly thinking that the part he loved so much would never be his again. And as he took off his velvet mantle and laid it aside, he muttered almost unconsciously the words of Horatio, "Good-night, sweet Prince;" then turning to his friend, "Ah," said he, "I am just beginning to realize the sweetness, the tenderness, the gentleness of this dear Hamlet!" Believe me, the true artist never lingers fondly upon what he has done. He is ever thinking of what remains undone: ever striving toward an ideal it may never be his fortune to attain.
We are sometimes told that to read the best dramatic poetry is more educating than to see it acted. I do not think this theory is very widely held, for it is in conflict with the dramatic instinct, which everybody possesses in a greater or less degree. You never met a playwright who could conceive himself willing—even if endowed with the highest literary gifts—to prefer a reading to a playgoing public. He thinks his work deserving of all the rewards of print and publisher, but he will be much more elated if it should appeal to the world in the theatre as a skilful representation of human passions. In one of her letters George Eliot says: "In opposition to most people who love to read Shakespeare, I like to see his plays acted better than any others; his great tragedies thrill me, let them be acted how they may." All this is so simple and intelligible, that it seems scarcely worth while to argue that in proportion to the readiness with which the reader of Shakespeare imagines the attributes of the various characters, and is interested in their personality, he will, as a rule, be eager to see their tragedy or comedy in action. He will then find that very much which he could not imagine with any definiteness presents new images every moment—the eloquence of look and gesture, the by-play, the inexhaustible significance of the human voice. There are people who fancy they have more music in their souls than was ever translated into harmony by Beethoven or Mozart. There are others who think they could paint pictures, write poetry—in short, do anything, if they only made the effort. To them what is accomplished by the practised actor seems easy and simple. But as it needs the skill of the musician to draw the full volume of eloquence from the written score, so it needs the skill of the dramatic artist to develop the subtle harmonies of the poetic play. In fact, to do and not to dream, is the mainspring of success in life. The actor's art is to act, and the true acting of any character is one of the most difficult accomplishments. I challenge the acute student to ponder over Hamlet's renunciation of Ophelia—one of the most complex scenes in all the drama—and say that he has learned more from his meditations than he could be taught by players whose intelligence is equal to his own. To present the man thinking aloud is the most difficult achievement of our art. Here the actor who has no real grip of the character, but simply recites the speeches with a certain grace and intelligence, will be untrue. The more intent he is upon the words, and the less on the ideas that dictated them, the more likely he is to lay himself open to the charge of mechanical interpretation. It is perfectly possible to express to an audience all the involutions of thought, the speculation, doubt, wavering, which reveal the meditative but irresolute mind. As the varying shades of fancy pass and repass the mirror of the face, they may yield more material to the studious playgoer than he is likely to get by a diligent poring over the text. In short, as we understand the people around us much better by personal intercourse than by all the revelations of written words—for words, as Tennyson says, "half reveal and half conceal the soul within," so the drama has, on the whole, infinitely more suggestions when it is well acted than when it is interpreted by the unaided judgment of the student. It has been said that acting is an unworthy occupation because it represents feigned emotions, but this censure would apply with equal force to poet or novelist. Do not imagine that I am claiming for the actor sole and undivided authority. He should himself be a student, and it is his business to put into practice the best ideas he can gather from the general current of thought with regard to the highest dramatic literature. But it is he who gives body to those ideas—fire, force, and sensibility, without which they would remain for most people mere airy abstractions.
It is often supposed that great actors trust to the inspiration of the moment. Nothing can be more erroneous. There will, of course, be such moments, when an actor at a white heat illumines some passage with a flash of imagination (and this mental condition, by the way, is impossible to the student sitting in his arm-chair); but the great actor's surprises are generally well weighed, studied, and balanced. We know that Edmund Kean constantly practised before a mirror effects which startled his audience by their apparent spontaneity. It is the accumulation of such effects which enables an actor, after many years, to present many great characters with remarkable completeness.
I do not want to overstate the case, or to appeal to anything that is not within common experience, so I can confidently ask you whether a scene in a great play has not been at some time vividly impressed on your minds by the delivery of a single line, or even of one forcible word. Has not this made the passage far more real and human to you than all the thought you have devoted to it? An accomplished critic has said that Shakespeare himself might have been surprised had he heard the "Fool, fool, fool!" of Edmund Kean. And though all actors are not Keans, they have in varying degree this power of making a dramatic character step out of the page, and come nearer to our hearts and our understandings.
After all, the best and most convincing exposition of the whole art of acting is given by Shakespeare himself: "To hold, as 'twere, the mirror up to nature, to show virtue her own feature, scorn her own image, and the very age and body of the time his form and pressure." Thus the poet recognized the actor's art as a most potent ally in the representation of human life. He believed that to hold the mirror up to nature was one of the worthiest functions in the sphere of labor, and actors are content to point to his definition of their work as the charter of their privileges.
PRACTICE OF THE ART.
The practice of the art of acting is a subject difficult to treat with the necessary brevity. Beginners are naturally anxious to know what course they should pursue. In common with other actors, I receive letters from young people many of whom are very earnest in their ambition to adopt the dramatic calling, but not sufficiently alive to the fact that success does not depend on a few lessons in declamation. When I was a boy I had a habit which I think would be useful to all young students. Before going to see a play of Shakespeare's I used to form—in a very juvenile way—a theory as to the working out of the whole drama, so as to correct my conceptions by those of the actors; and though I was, as a rule, absurdly wrong, there can be no doubt that any method of independent study is of enormous importance, not only to youngsters, but also to students of a larger growth. Without it the mind is apt to take its stamp from the first forcible impression it receives, and to fall into a servile dependence upon traditions, which, robbed of the spirit that created them, are apt to be purely mischievous. What was natural to the creator is often unnatural and lifeless in the imitator. No two people form the same conceptions of character, and therefore it is always advantageous to see an independent and courageous exposition of an original ideal. There can be no objection to the kind of training that imparts a knowledge of manners and customs, and the teaching which pertains to simple deportment on the stage is necessary and most useful; but you cannot possibly be taught any tradition of character, for that has no permanence. Nothing is more fleeting than any traditional method of impersonation. You may learn where a particular personage used to stand on the stage, or down which trap the ghost of Hamlet's father vanished; but the soul of interpretation is lost, and it is this soul which the actor has to re-create for himself. It is not mere attitude or tone that has to be studied; you must be moved by the impulse of being; you must impersonate and not recite.
There has always been a controversy as to the province of naturalism in dramatic art. In England it has been too much the custom, I believe, while demanding naturalism in comedy, to expect a false inflation in tragedy. But there is no reason why an actor should be less natural in tragic than in lighter moods. Passions vary in expression according to moulds of character and manners, but their reality should not be lost even when they are expressed in the heroic forms of the drama. A very simple test is a reference to the records of old actors. What was it in their performances that chiefly impressed their contemporaries? Very rarely the measured recitation of this or that speech, but very often a simple exclamation that deeply moved their auditors, because it was a gleam of nature in the midst of declamation. The "Prithee, undo this button!" of Garrick, was remembered when many stately utterances were forgotten. In our day the contrast between artificial declamation and the accents of nature is less marked, because its delivery is more uniformly simple, and an actor who lapses from a natural into a false tone is sure to find that his hold upon his audience is proportionately weakened. But the revolution which Garrick accomplished may be imagined from the story told by Boswell. Dr. Johnson was discussing plays and players with Mrs. Siddons, and he said: "Garrick, madam, was no declaimer; there was not one of his own scene-shifters who could not have spoken 'To be or not to be' better than he did; yet he was the only actor I ever saw whom I could call a master, both in tragedy and comedy, though I liked him best in comedy. A true conception of character and natural expression of it were his distinguished excellences."
To be natural on the stage is most difficult, and yet a grain of nature is worth a bushel of artifice. But you may say—what is nature? I quoted just now Shakespeare's definition of the actor's art. After the exhortation to hold the mirror up to nature, he adds the pregnant warning: "This overdone or come tardy off, though it make the unskilful laugh, cannot but make the judicious grieve, the censure of which one must in your allowance o'erweigh a whole theatre of others." Nature may be overdone by triviality in conditions that demand exaltation; for instance, Hamlet's first address to the Ghost lifts his disposition to an altitude far beyond the ordinary reaches of our souls, and his manner of speech should be adapted to this sentiment. But such exaltation of utterance is wholly out of place in the purely colloquial scene with the Gravedigger. When Macbeth says, "Go, bid thy mistress, when my drink is ready, she strike upon the bell," he would not use the tone of
"Pity, like a naked new-born babe, Striding the blast, or Heaven's cherubim, horsed Upon the sightless couriers of the air, Shall blow the horrid deed in every eye, That tears shall drown the wind."
Like the practised orator, the actor rises and descends with his sentiment, and cannot always be in a fine phrenzy. This variety is especially necessary in Shakespeare, whose work is essentially different from the classic drama, because it presents every mood of mind and form of speech, commonplace or exalted, as character and situation dictate: whereas in such a play as Addison's Cato, everybody is consistently eloquent about everything.
There are many causes for the growth of naturalism in dramatic art, and amongst them we should remember the improvement in the mechanism of the stage. For instance, there has been a remarkable development in stage-lighting. In old pictures you will observe the actors constantly standing in a line, because the oil-lamps of those days gave such an indifferent illumination that everybody tried to get into what was called the focus—the "blaze of publicity" furnished by the "float" or footlights. The importance of this is illustrated by an amusing story of Edmund Kean, who one night played Othello with more than his usual intensity. An admirer who met him in the street next day was loud in his congratulations: "I really thought you would have choked Iago, Mr. Kean—you seemed so tremendously in earnest." "In earnest!" said the tragedian, "I should think so! Hang the fellow, he was trying to keep me out of the focus."
I do not recommend actors to allow their feelings to carry them away like this; but it is necessary to warn you against the theory expounded with brilliant ingenuity by Diderot, that the actor never feels. When Macready played Virginius, after burying his beloved daughter, he confessed that his real experience gave a new force to his acting in the most pathetic situations of the play. Are we to suppose that this was a delusion, or that the sensibility of the man was a genuine aid to the actor? Bannister said of John Kemble that he was never pathetic because he had no children. Talma says that when deeply moved he found himself making a rapid and fugitive observation on the alternation of his voice, and on a certain spasmodic vibration which it contracted in tears. Has not the actor who can thus make his feelings a part of his art an advantage over the actor who never feels, but who makes his observations solely from the feelings of others? It is necessary to this art that the mind should have, as it were, a double consciousness, in which all the emotions proper to the occasion may have full swing, while the actor is all the time on the alert for every detail of his method. It may be that his playing will be more spirited one night than another. But the actor who combines the electric force of a strong personality with a mastery of the resources of his art must have a greater power over his audiences than the passionless actor who gives a most artistic simulation of the emotions he never experiences.
Now, in the practice of acting, a most important point is the study of elocution; and in elocution one great difficulty is the use of sufficient force to be generally heard without being unnaturally loud, and without acquiring a stilted delivery. The advice of the old actors was that you should always pitch your voice so as to be heard by the back row of the gallery—no easy task to accomplish without offending the ears of the front of the orchestra. And I should tell you that this exaggeration applies to everything on the stage. To appear to be natural, you must in reality be much broader than nature. To act on the stage as one really would in a room, would be ineffective and colorless. I never knew an actor who brought the art of elocution to greater perfection than the late Charles Mathews, whose utterance on the stage appeared so natural that one was surprised to find when near him that he was really speaking in a very loud key. There is a great actor in your own country to whose elocution one always listens with the utmost enjoyment—I mean Edwin Booth. He has inherited this gift, I believe, from his famous father, of whom I have heard it said, that he always insisted on a thorough use of the "instruments"—by which he meant the teeth—in the formation of words.
An imperfect elocution is apt to degenerate into a monotonous uniformity of tone. Some wholesome advice on this point we find in the Life of Betterton.
"This stiff uniformity of voice is not only displeasing to the ear, but disappoints the effect of the discourse on the hearers; first, by an equal way of speaking, when the pronunciation has everywhere, in every word and every syllable, the same sound, it must inevitably render all parts of speech equal, and so put them on a very unjust level. So that the power of the reasoning part, the lustre and ornament of the figures, the heart, warmth, and vigor of the passionate part being expressed all in the same tone, is flat and insipid, and lost in a supine, or at least unmusical pronunciation. So that, in short, that which ought to strike and stir up the affections, because it is spoken all alike, without any distinction or variety, moves them not at all."
Now, on the question of pronunciation there is something to be said, which, I think, in ordinary teaching is not sufficiently considered. Pronunciation on the stage should be simple and unaffected, but not always fashioned rigidly according to a dictionary standard. No less an authority than Cicero points out that pronunciation must vary widely according to the emotions to be expressed; that it may be broken or cut, with a varying or direct sound, and that it serves for the actor the purpose of color to the painter, from which to draw his variations. Take the simplest illustration, the formal pronunciation of "A-h" is "Ah," of "O-h" "Oh;" but you cannot stereotype the expression of emotion like this. These exclamations are words of one syllable, but the speaker who is sounding the gamut of human feeling will not be restricted in his pronunciation by the dictionary rule. It is said of Edmund Kean that he never spoke such ejaculations, but always sighed or groaned them. Fancy an actor saying thus, "My Desdemona! Oh, ŏh, ŏh!" Words are intended to express feelings and ideas, not to bind them in rigid fetters. The accents of pleasure are different from the accents of pain, and if a feeling is more accurately expressed, as in nature, by a variation of sound not provided for by the laws of pronunciation, then such imperfect laws must be disregarded and nature vindicated. The word should be the echo of the sense.
The force of an actor depends, of course, upon his physique; and it is necessary, therefore, that a good deal of attention should be given to bodily training. Everything that develops suppleness, elasticity, and grace—that most subtle charm—should be carefully cultivated, and in this regard your admirable gymnasium is worth volumes of advice. Sometimes there is a tendency to train the body at the expense of the mind, and the young actor with striking physical advantages must beware of regarding this fortunate endowment as his entire stock-in-trade. That way folly lies, and the result may be too dearly purchased by the fame of a photographer's window. It is clear that the physique of actors must vary; there can be no military standard of proportions on the stage. Some great actors have had to struggle against physical disabilities of a serious nature. Betterton had an unprepossessing face; so had Le Kain. John Kemble was troubled with a weak, asthmatic voice, and yet by his dignity, and the force of his personality, he was able to achieve the greatest effects. In some cases a super-abundant physique has incapacitated actors from playing many parts. The combination in one frame of all the gifts of mind and all the advantages in person is very rare on the stage; but talent will conquer many natural defects when it is sustained by energy and perseverance.
With regard to gesture, Shakespeare's advice is all-embracing. "Suit the action to the word, the word to the action, with this special observance that you over-step not the modesty of nature." And here comes the consideration of a very material part of the actor's business—by-play. This is of the very essence of true art. It is more than anything else significant of the extent to which the actor has identified himself with the character he represents. Recall the scenes between Iago and Othello, and consider how the whole interest of the situation depends on the skill with which the gradual effect of the poisonous suspicion instilled into the Moor's mind is depicted in look and tone, slight of themselves, but all contributing to the intensity of the situation. One of the greatest tests of an actor is his capacity for listening. By-play must be unobtrusive; the student should remember that the most minute expression attracts attention: that nothing is lost, that by-play is as mischievous when it is injudicious as it is effective when rightly conceived, and that while trifles make perfection, perfection is no trifle. This lesson was enjoined on me when I was a very young man by that remarkable actress, Charlotte Cushman. I remember that when she played Meg Merrilies I was cast for Henry Bertram, on the principle, seemingly, that an actor with no singing voice is admirably fitted for a singing part. It was my duty to give Meg Merrilies a piece of money, and I did it after the traditional fashion by handing her a large purse full of coin of the realm, in the shape of broken crockery, which was generally used in financial transactions on the stage, because when the virtuous maiden rejected with scorn the advances of the lordly libertine, and threw his pernicious bribe upon the ground, the clatter of the broken crockery suggested fabulous wealth. But after the play Miss Cushman, in the course of some kindly advice, said to me: "Instead of giving me that purse don't you think it would have been much more natural if you had taken a number of coins from your pocket, and given me the smallest? That is the way one gives alms to a beggar, and it would have added to the realism of the scene." I have never forgotten that lesson, for simple as it was, it contained many elements of dramatic truth. It is most important that an actor should learn that he is a figure in a picture, and that the least exaggeration destroys the harmony of the composition. All the members of the company should work towards a common end, with the nicest subordination of their individuality to the general purpose. Without this method a play when acted is at best a disjointed and incoherent piece of work, instead of being a harmonious whole like the fine performance of an orchestral symphony. The root of the matter is that the actor must before all things form a definite conception of what he wishes to convey. It is better to be wrong and be consistent, than to be right, yet hesitating and uncertain. This is why great actors are sometimes very bad or very good. They will do the wrong thing with a courage and thoroughness which makes the error all the more striking; although when they are right they may often be superb. It is necessary that the actor should learn to think before he speaks; a practice which, I believe, is very useful off the stage. Let him remember, first, that every sentence expresses a new thought and, therefore, frequently demands a change of intonation; secondly, that the thought precedes the word. Of course there are passages in which thought and language are borne along by the streams of emotion and completely intermingled. But more often it will be found that the most natural, the most seemingly accidental effects are obtained when the working of the mind is seen before the tongue gives it words.
You will see that the limits of an actor's studies are very wide. To master the technicalities of his craft, to familiarize his mind with the structure, rhythm, and the soul of poetry, to be constantly cultivating his perceptions of life around him and of all the arts—painting, music, sculpture—for the actor who is devoted to his profession is susceptible to every harmony of color, sound, and form—to do this is to labor in a large field of industry. But all your training, bodily and mental, is subservient to the two great principles in tragedy and comedy—passion and geniality. Geniality in comedy is one of the rarest gifts. Think of the rich unction of Falstaff, the mercurial fancy of Mercutio, the witty vivacity and manly humor of Benedick—think of the qualities, natural and acquired, that are needed for the complete portrayal of such characters, and you will understand how difficult it is for a comedian to rise to such a sphere. In tragedy, passion or intensity sweeps all before it, and when I say passion, I mean the passion of pathos as well as wrath or revenge. These are the supreme elements of the actor's art, which cannot be taught by any system, however just, and to which all education is but tributary.
Now all that can be said of the necessity of a close regard for nature in acting applies with equal or greater force to the presentation of plays. You want, above all things, to have a truthful picture which shall appeal to the eye without distracting the imagination from the purpose of the drama. It is a mistake to suppose that this enterprise is comparatively new to the stage. Since Shakespeare's time there has been a steady progress in this direction. Even in the poet's day every conceivable property was forced into requisition, and his own sense of shortcomings in this respect is shown in Henry V. when he exclaims:—
"Where—O for pity!—we shall much disgrace With four or five most vile and ragged foils The name of Agincourt."
There have always been critics who regarded care and elaboration in the mounting of plays as destructive of the real spirit of the actor's art. Betterton had to meet this reproach when he introduced scenery in lieu of linsey-woolsey curtains; but he replied, sensibly enough, that his scenery was better than the tapestry with hideous figures worked upon it which had so long distracted the senses of play-goers. He might have asked his critics whether they wished to see Ophelia played by a boy of sixteen, as in the time of Shakespeare, instead of a beautiful and gifted woman. Garrick did his utmost to improve the mechanical arts of the stage—so much so, indeed, that he paid his scene-painter, Loutherbourg, L500 a year, a pretty considerable sum in those days—though in Garrick's time the importance of realism in costume was not sufficiently appreciated to prevent him from playing Macbeth in a bagwig. To-day we are employing all our resources to heighten the picturesque effects of the drama, and we are still told that this is a gross error. It may be admitted that nothing is more objectionable than certain kinds of realism, which are simply vulgar; but harmony of color and grace of outline have a legitimate sphere in the theatre, and the method which uses them as adjuncts may claim to be "as wholesome as sweet, and by very much more handsome than fine." For the abuse of scenic decoration, the overloading of the stage with ornament, the subordination of the play to a pageant, I have nothing to say. That is all foreign to the artistic purpose which should dominate dramatic work. Nor do I think that servility to archaeology on the stage is an unmixed good. Correctness of costume is admirable and necessary up to a certain point, but when it ceases to be "as wholesome as sweet," it should, I think, be sacrificed. You perceive that the nicest discretion is needed in the use of the materials which are nowadays at the disposal of the manager. Music, painting, architecture, the endless variations of costume, have all to be employed with a strict regard to the production of an artistic whole, in which no element shall be unduly obtrusive. We are open to microscopic criticism at every point. When Much Ado about Nothing was produced at the Lyceum, I received a letter complaining of the gross violation of accuracy in a scene which was called a cedar-walk. "Cedars!" said my correspondent,—"why, cedars were not introduced into Messina for fifty years after the date of Shakespeare's story!" Well, this was a tremendous indictment, but unfortunately the cedar-walk had been painted. Absolute realism on the stage is not always desirable, any more than the photographic reproduction of Nature can claim to rank with the highest art.
THE REWARDS OF THE ART.
To what position in the world of intelligence does the actor's art entitle him, and what is his contribution to the general sum of instruction? We are often told that the art is ephemeral; that it creates nothing; that when the actor's personality is withdrawn from the public eye he leaves no trace behind. Granted that his art creates nothing; but does it not often restore? It is true that he leaves nothing like the canvas of the painter and the marble of the sculptor, but has he done nought to increase the general stock of ideas? The astronomer and naturalist create nothing, but they contribute much to the enlightenment of the world. I am taking the highest standard of my art, for I maintain that in judging any calling you should consider its noblest and not its most ignoble products. All the work that is done on the stage cannot stand upon the same level, any more than all the work that is done in literature. You do not demand that your poets and novelists shall all be of the same calibre. An immense amount of good writing does no more than increase the gayety of mankind; but when Johnson said that the gayety of nations was eclipsed by the death of Garrick, he did not mean that a mere barren amusement had lost one of its professors. When Sir Joshua Reynolds painted Mrs. Siddons as the Tragic Muse, and said he had achieved immortality by putting his name on the hem of her garment, he meant something more than a pretty compliment, for her name can never die. To give genuine and wholesome entertainment is a very large function of the stage, and without that entertainment very many lives would lose a stimulus of the highest value. If recreation of every legitimate kind is invaluable to the worker, especially so is the recreation of the drama, which brightens his faculties, enlarges his vision of the picturesque, and by taking him for a time out of this work-a-day world, braces his sensibilities for the labors of life. The art which does this may surely claim to exercise more than a fleeting influence upon the world's intelligence. But in its highest developments it does more; it acts as a constant medium for the diffusion of great ideas, and by throwing new lights upon the best dramatic literature, it largely helps the growth of education. It is not too much to say that the interpreters of Shakespeare on the stage have had much to do with the widespread appreciation of his works. Some of the most thoughtful students of the poet have recognized their indebtedness to actors, while for multitudes the stage has performed the office of discovery. Thousands who flock to-day to see a representation of Shakespeare, which is the product of much reverent study of the poet, are not content to regard it as a mere scenic exhibition. Without it Shakespeare might have been for many of them a sealed book; but many more have been impelled by the vivid realism of the stage to renew studies which other occupations or lack of leisure have arrested. Am I presumptuous, then, in asserting that the stage is not only an instrument of amusement, but a very active agent in the spread of knowledge and taste? Some forms of stage work, you may say, are not particularly elevating. True; and there are countless fictions coming daily from the hands of printer and publisher which nobody is the better for reading. You cannot have a fixed standard of value in my art; and though there are masses of people who will prefer an unintelligent exhibition to a really artistic production, that is no reason for decrying the theatre, in which all the arts blend with the knowledge of history, manners, and customs of all people, and scenes of all climes, to afford a varied entertainment to the most exacting intellect. I have no sympathy with people who are constantly anxious to define the actor's position, for, as a rule, they are not animated by a desire to promote his interests. "'Tis in ourselves that we are thus and thus;" and whatever actors deserve, socially or artistically, they are sure to receive as their right. I found the other day in a well-circulated little volume a suggestion that the actor was a degraded being because he has a closely-shaven face. This is, indeed, humiliating, and I wonder how it strikes the Roman Catholic clergy. However, there are actors who do not shave closely, and though, alas! I am not one of them, I wish them joy of the spiritual grace which I cannot claim.
It is admittedly unfortunate for the stage that it has a certain equivocal element, which, in the eyes of some judges, is sufficient for its condemnation. The art is open to all, and it has to bear the sins of many. You may open your newspaper, and see a paragraph headed "Assault by an Actress." Some poor creature is dignified by that title who has not the slightest claim to it. You look into a shop-window and see photographs of certain people who are indiscriminately described as actors and actresses though their business has no pretence to be art of any kind.
I was told in Baltimore of a man in that city who was so diverted by the performance of Tyrone Powar, the popular Irish comedian, that he laughed uproariously till the audience was convulsed with merriment at the spectacle. As soon as he could speak, he called out, "Do be quiet, Mr. Showman; do'ee hold your tongue, or I shall die of laughter!" This idea that the actor is a showman still lingers; but no one with any real appreciation of the best elements of the drama applies this vulgar standard to a great body of artists. The fierce light of publicity that beats upon us makes us liable, from time to time, to dissertations upon our public and private lives, our manners, our morals, and our money. Our whims and caprices are discanted on with apparent earnestness of truth, and seeming sincerity of conviction. There is always some lively controversy concerning the influence of the stage. The battle between old methods and new in art is waged everywhere. If an actor were to take to heart everything that is written and said about him, his life would be an intolerable burden. And one piece of advice I should give to young actors is this: Do not be too sensitive; receive praise or censure with modesty and patience. Good honest criticism is, of course, most advantageous to an actor; but he should save himself from the indiscriminate reading of a multitude of comments, which may only confuse instead of stimulating. And here let me say to young actors in all earnestness: Beware of the loungers of our calling, the camp followers who hang on the skirts of the army, and who inveigle the young into habits that degrade their character, and paralyze their ambition. Let your ambition be ever precious to you, and, next to your good name, the jewel of your souls. I care nothing for the actor who is not always anxious to rise to the highest position in his particular walk; but this ideal cannot be cherished by the young man who is induced to fritter away his time and his mind in thoughtless company.
But in the midst of all this turmoil about the stage, one fact stands out clearly: the dramatic art is steadily growing in credit with the educated classes. It is drawing more recruits from those classes. The enthusiasm for our calling has never reached a higher pitch. There is quite an extraordinary number of ladies who want to become actresses, and the cardinal difficulty in the way is not the social deterioration which some people think they would incur, but simply their inability to act. Men of education who become actors do not find that their education is useless. If they have the necessary aptitude—the inborn instinct for the stage—all their mental training will be of great value to them. It is true that there must always be grades in the theatre, that an educated man who is an indifferent actor can never expect to reach the front rank. If he do no more than figure in the army at Bosworth Field, or look imposing in a doorway; if he never play any but the smallest parts; if in these respects he be no better than men who could not pass an examination in any branch of knowledge—he has no more reason to complain than the highly-educated man who longs to write poetry, and possesses every qualification—save the poetic faculty. There are people who seem to think that only irresistible genius justifies any one in adopting the stage as a vocation. They make it an argument against the profession that many enter it from a low sphere of life, without any particular fitness for acting, but simply to earn a livelihood by doing the subordinate and mechanical work which is necessary in every theatre. And so men and women of refinement—especially women—are warned that they must do themselves injury by passing through the rank and file during their term of probation in the actors' craft. Now, I need not remind you that on the stage everybody cannot be great, any more than students of music can all become great musicians; but very many will do sound artistic work which is of great value. As for any question of conduct, Heaven forbid that I should be dogmatic; but it does not seem to me logical that while genius is its own law in the pursuit of a noble art, all inferior merit or ambition is to be deterred from the same path by appalling pictures of its temptations.
If our art is worth anything at all, it is worth the honest, conscientious self-devotion of men and women who, while they may not achieve fame, may have the satisfaction of being workers in a calling which does credit to many degrees of talent. We do not claim to be any better than our fellows in other walks of life. We do not ask the jester in journalism whether his quips and epigrams are always dictated by the loftiest morality; nor do we insist on knowing that the odor of sanctity surrounds the private lives of lawyers and military men before we send our sons into law and the army. It is impossible to point out any vocation which is not attended by temptations that prove fatal to many; but you have simply to consider whether a profession has in itself any title to honor, and then—if you are confident of your capacity—to enter it with a resolve to do all that energy and perseverance can accomplish. The immortal part of the stage is its nobler part. Ignoble accidents and interludes come and go, but this lasts on forever. It lives, like the human soul, in the body of humanity—associated with much that is inferior, and hampered by many hindrances; but it never sinks into nothingness, and never fails to find new and noble work in creations of permanent and memorable excellence. And I would say, as a last word, to the young men in this assembly who may at any time resolve to enter the dramatic profession, that they ought always to fix their minds upon the highest examples; that in studying acting they should beware of prejudiced comparisons between this method and that, but learn as much as possible from all; that they should remember that art is as varied as nature, and as little suited to the shackles of a school; and, above all, that they should never forget that excellence in any art is attained only by arduous labor, unswerving purpose, and unfailing discipline. This discipline is, perhaps, the most difficult of all tests, for it involves the subordination of the actor's personality in every work which is designed to be a complete and harmonious picture. Dramatic art nowadays is more coherent, systematic, and comprehensive than it has sometimes been. And to the student who proposes to fill the place in this system to which his individuality and experience entitle him, and to do his duty faithfully and well, ever striving after greater excellence, and never yielding to the indolence that is often born of popularity—to him I say, with every confidence, that he will choose a career in which, if it does not lead him to fame, he will be sustained by the honorable exercise of some of the best faculties of the human mind.
And now I can only thank you for the patience with which you have listened while, in a slight and imperfect way, I have dwelt with some of the most important of the actor's responsibilities, I have been an actor for nearly thirty years, and what I have told you is the fruit of my experience, and of an earnest and conscientious belief that the calling to which I am proud to belong is worthy of the sympathy and support of all intelligent people.
AT THE UNIVERSITY OF OXFORD
26 JUNE 1886
ADDRESS AT THE UNIVERSITY OF OXFORD.
When I was honored by the request of your distinguished Vice-Chancellor to deliver an address before the members of this great University, I told him I could only say something about my own calling, for that I knew little or nothing about anything else. I trust, however, that this confession of the limitations of my knowledge will not prejudice me in your eyes, members as you are—privileged members I may say—of this seat of learning. In an age when so many persons think they know everything, it may afford a not unpleasing variety to meet with some who know that they know nothing.
I cannot discourse to you, even if you wished me to do so, of the respective merits of AEschylus, Sophocles, and Euripides; for if I did, I should not be able to tell you anything that you do not know already. I have not had the advantage—one that very few of the members of my profession in past, or even in present times have enjoyed—of an University education. The only Alma Mater I ever knew was the hard stage of a country theatre.
In the course of my training, long before I had taken, what I may call, my degree in London, I came to act in your city. I have a very pleasant recollection of the time I passed here, though I am sorry to say that, owing to the regulation which forbade theatrical performances during term time, I saw Oxford only in vacation, which is rather like—to use the old illustration—seeing Hamlet with the part of Hamlet left out. There was then no other building available for dramatic representations than the Town Hall. I may, perhaps, be allowed to congratulate you on the excellent theatre which you now possess—I do not mean the Sheldonian—and at the same time to express a hope that, as a more liberal, and might I say a wiser, regime allows the members of the University to go to the play, they will not receive any greater moral injury, or be distracted any more from their studies, than when they were only allowed the occasional relaxation of hearing comic songs. Macready once said that "a theatre ought to be a place of recreation for the sober-minded and intelligent." I trust that, under whatsoever management the theatre in Oxford may be, it will always deserve this character.
You must not expect any learned disquisition from me; nor even in the modified sense in which the word is used among you will I venture to style what I am going to say to you a lecture. You may, by the way, have seen a report that I was cast for four lectures; but I assure you there was no ground for such an alarming rumor; a rumor quite as alarming to me as it could have been to you. What I do propose is, to say to you something about four of our greatest actors in the past, each of whom may be termed the representative of an important period in the Annals of our National Drama. In turning over the leaves of a history of the life of Edmund Kean, I came across the following sentence (the writer is speaking of Edmund Kean as having restored Nature to the stage): "There seems always to have been this alternation between the Schools of Nature and Art (if we may so term them) in the annals of the English Theatre." Now if for Art I may be allowed to substitute Artificiality, which is what the author really meant, I think that his sentence is an epitome of the history of our stage; and it struck me at once that I could not select anything more appropriate—I will not say as a text, for that sounds as if I were going to deliver a sermon—but as the motif, or theme of the remarks I am about to address to you. The four actors of whom I shall attempt to tell, you something—Burbage, Betterton, Garrick, and Kean—were the four greatest champions, in their respective times, on the stage of Nature in contradistinction to Artificiality.
When we consider the original of the Drama, or perhaps I should say of the higher class of Drama, we see that the style of acting must necessarily have been artificial rather than natural. Take the Greek Tragedy, for instance: the actors, as you know, wore masks, and had to speak, or rather intone, in a theatre more than half open to the air, and therefore it was impossible they could employ facial expression, or much variety of intonation. We have not time now to trace at length the many vicissitudes in the career of the Drama, but I may say that Shakespeare was the first dramatist who dared to rob Tragedy of her stilts; and who successfully introduced an element of comedy which was not dragged in by the neck and heels, but which naturally evolved itself from the treatment of the tragic story, and did not violate the consistency of any character.