Little Holland House, where Mr. Watts lived, seemed to me a paradise, where only beautiful things were allowed to come. All the women were graceful, and all the men were gifted. The trio of sisters—Mrs. Prinsep—(mother of the painter), Lady Somers, and Mrs. Cameron, who was the pioneer in artistic photography as we know it to-day—were known as Beauty, Dash, and Talent. There were two more beautiful sisters, Mrs. Jackson and Mrs. Dalrymple. Gladstone, Disraeli and Browning were among Mr. Watts' visitors. At Freshwater, where I went soon after my marriage, I first saw Tennyson.
As I write down these great names I feel almost guilty of an imposture! Such names are bound to raise high anticipations, and my recollections of the men to whom some of the names belong are so very humble.
I sat, shrinking and timid, in a corner—the girl-wife of a famous painter. I was, if I was anything at all, more of a curiosity, of a side-show, than hostess to these distinguished visitors. Mr. Gladstone seemed to me like a suppressed volcano. His face was pale and calm, but the calm was the calm of the gray crust of Etna. To look into the piercing dark eyes was like having a glimpse into the red-hot crater beneath. Years later, when I met him again at the Lyceum and became better acquainted with him, this impression of a volcano at rest again struck me. Of Disraeli I carried away even a scantier impression. I remember that he wore a blue tie, a brighter blue tie than most men would dare to wear, and that his straggling curls shook as he walked. He looked the great Jew before everything. But "there is the noble Jew," as George Meredith writes somewhere, "as well as the bestial Gentile." When I first saw Henry Irving made up as Shylock, my thoughts flew back to the garden-party at Little Holland House, and Disraeli. I know I must have admired him greatly, for the only other time I ever saw him he was walking in Piccadilly, and I crossed the road, just to get a good look at him. I even went the length of bumping into him on purpose. It was a very little bump! My elbow just touched his, and I trembled. He took off his hat, muttered, "I beg your pardon," and passed on, not recognizing me, of course; but I had had my look into his eyes. They were very quiet eyes, and didn't open wide.
I love Disraeli's novels—like his tie, brighter in color than any one else's. It was "Venetia" which first made me see the real Lord Byron, the real Lady Byron, too. In "Tancred" I recall a description of a family of strolling players which seems to me more like the real thing than anything else of the kind in fiction. It is strange that Dizzy's novels should be neglected. Can any one with a pictorial sense fail to be delighted by their pageantry? Disraeli was a heaven-born artist, who, like so many of his race, on the stage, in music, and elsewhere, seems to have had an unerring instinct for the things which the Gentile only acquires by labor and training. The world he shows us in his novels is big and swelling, but only to a hasty judgment is it hollow.
Tennyson was more to me than a magic-lantern shape, flitting across the blank of my young experience, never to return. The first time I saw him he was sitting at the table in his library, and Mrs. Tennyson, her very slender hands hidden by thick gloves, was standing on a step-ladder handing him down some heavy books. She was very frail, and looked like a faint tea-rose. After that one time I only remember her lying on a sofa.
In the evenings I went walking with Tennyson over the fields, and he would point out to me the differences in the flight of different birds, and tell me to watch their solid phalanxes turning against the sunset, the compact wedge suddenly narrowing sharply into a thin line. He taught me to recognize the barks of trees and to call wild flowers by their names. He picked me the first bit of pimpernel I ever noticed. Always I was quite at ease with him. He was so wonderfully simple.
A hat that I wore at Freshwater suddenly comes to my remembrance. It was a brown straw mushroom with a dull red feather round it. It was tied under my chin, and I still had my hair down.
It was easy enough to me to believe that Tennyson was a poet. He showed it in everything, although he was entirely free from any assumption of the poetical role. That Browning, with his carefully brushed hat, smart coat, and fine society manners was a poet, always seemed to me far more incomprehensible than his poetry, which I think most people would have taken straightforwardly and read with a fair amount of ease, if certain enthusiasts had not founded societies for making his crooked places plain, and (to me) his plain places very crooked. These societies have terrorized the ordinary reader into leaving Browning alone. The same thing has been tried with Shakespeare, but fortunately the experiment in this case has proved less successful. Coroners' inquests by learned societies can't make Shakespeare a dead man.
At the time of my first marriage, when I met these great men, I had never had the advantage—I assume that it is an advantage!—of a single day's schooling in a real school. What I have learned outside my own profession I have learned from my environment. Perhaps it is this which makes me think environment more valuable than a set education, and a stronger agent in forming character even than heredity. I should have written the externals of character, for primal, inner feelings are, I suppose, always inherited.
Still, my want of education may be partly responsible for the unsatisfactory blankness of my early impressions. As it takes two to make a good talker, so it takes two to make a good hero—in print, at any rate. I was meeting distinguished people at every turn, and taking no notice of them. At Freshwater I was still so young that I preferred playing Indians and Knights of the Round Table with Tennyson's sons, Hallam and Lionel, and the young Camerons, to sitting indoors noticing what the poet did and said. I was mighty proud when I learned how to prepare his daily pipe for him. It was a long churchwarden, and he liked the stem to be steeped in a solution of sal volatile, or something of that kind, so that it did not stick to his lips. But he and all the others seemed to me very old. There were my young knights waiting for me; and jumping gates, climbing trees, and running paper-chases are pleasant when one is young.
It was not to inattentive ears that Tennyson read his poems. His reading was most impressive, but I think he read Browning's "Ride from Ghent to Aix" better than anything of his own, except, perhaps, "The Northern Farmer." He used to preserve the monotonous rhythm of the galloping horses in Browning's poem, and made the words come out sharply like hoofs upon a road. It was a little comic until one got used to it, but that fault lay in the ear of the hearer. It was the right way and the fine way to read this particular poem, and I have never forgotten it.
In after years I met Tennyson again, when with Henry Irving I acted in two of his plays at the Lyceum. When I come to those plays, I shall have more to say of him. Gladstone, too, came into my later life. Browning I saw once or twice at dinner-parties, but knew him no better than in this early period, when I was Nelly Watts, and heedless of the greatness of great men. "To meet an angel and not to be afraid is to be impudent." I don't like to confess to it, but I think I must have been, according to this definition, very impudent!
One charming domestic arrangement at Freshwater was the serving of the dessert in a separate room from the rest of the dinner. And such a dessert it always was!—fruit piled high on great dishes in Veronese fashion, not the few nuts and an orange of some English households.
It must have been some years after the Freshwater days, yet before the production of "The Cup," that I saw Tennyson in his carriage outside a jeweler's shop in Bond Street.
"How very nice you look in the daytime," he said. "Not like an actress!"
I disclaimed my singularity, and said I thought actresses looked very nice in the daytime.
To him and to the others my early romance was always the most interesting thing about me. When I saw them in later times, it seemed as if months, not years, had passed since I was Nelly Watts.
Once, at the dictates of a conscience perhaps over fastidious, I made a bonfire of my letters. But a few were saved from the burning, more by accident than design. Among them I found yesterday a kind little note from Sir William Vernon Harcourt, which shows me that I must have known him, too, at the time of my first marriage and met him later on when I returned to the stage.
"You cannot tell how much pleased I am to hear that you have been as happy as you deserve to be. The longer one lives, the more one learns not to despair, and to believe that nothing is impossible to those who have courage and hope and youth—I was going to add beauty and genius." (This is the sort of thing that made me blush—and burn my letters before they shamed me!)
"My little boy is still the charm and consolation of my life. He is now twelve years old, and though I say it that should not, is a perfect child, and wins the hearts of all who know him."
That little boy, now in His Majesty's Government, is known as the Right Honorable Lewis Harcourt. He married an American lady, Miss Burns of New York.
Many inaccurate stories have been told of my brief married life, and I have never contradicted them—they were so manifestly absurd. Those who can imagine the surroundings into which I, a raw girl, undeveloped in all except my training as an actress, was thrown, can imagine the situation.
Of one thing I am certain. While I was with Signor—the name by which Mr. Watts was known among his friends—I never had one single pang of regret for the theater. This may do me no credit, but it is true.
I wondered at the new life, and worshiped it because of its beauty. When it suddenly came to an end, I was thunderstruck; and refused at first to consent to the separation, which was arranged for me in much the same way as my marriage had been.
The whole thing was managed by those kind friends whose chief business in life seems to be the care of others. I don't blame them. There are cases where no one is to blame. "There do exist such things as honest misunderstandings," as Charles Reade was always impressing on me at a later time. There were no vulgar accusations on either side, and the words I read in the deed of separation, "incompatibility of temper"—a mere legal phrase—more than covered the ground. Truer still would have been "incompatibility of occupation," and the interference of well-meaning friends. We all suffer from that sort of thing. Pray God one be not a well-meaning friend one's self!
"The marriage was not a happy one," they will probably say after my death, and I forestall them by saying that it in many ways was very happy indeed. What bitterness there was effaced itself in a very remarkable way.
I saw Mr. Watts but once face to face after the separation. We met in the street at Brighton, and he told me that I had grown! I was never to speak to him again. But years later, after I had appeared at the Lyceum and had made some success in the world, I was in the garden of a house which adjoined Mr. Watt's new Little Holland House, and he, in his garden, saw me through the hedge. It was then that I received from him the first letter that I had had for years. In this letter he told me that he had watched my success with eager interest, and asked me to shake hands with him in spirit. "What success I may have," he wrote, "will be very incomplete and unsatisfactory if you cannot do what I have long been hesitating to ask. If you cannot, keep silence. If you can, one word, 'Yes,' will be enough."
I answered simply, "Yes."
After that he wrote to me again, and for two or three years we corresponded, but I never came into personal contact with him.
As the past is now to me like a story in a book that I once read, I can speak of it easily. But if by doing so I thought that I might give pain or embarrassment to any one else, I should be silent about this long-forgotten time. After careful consideration it does not seem to me that it can be either indiscreet or injurious to let it be known that this great artist honored and appreciated my efforts and strife in my art; that this great man could not rid himself of the pain of feeling that he "had spoiled my life" (a chivalrous assumption of blame for what was, I think, a natural, almost inevitable, catastrophe), and that long after all personal relation had been broken off, he wrote to me gently, kindly,—as sympathetically ignoring the strangeness of the position, as if, to use his own expression, "we stood face to face on the brink of an universal grave."
When this tender kindness was established between us, he sent me a portrait-head that he had done of me when I was his wife. I think it a very beautiful picture. He did not touch it except to mend the edges, thinking it better not to try to improve it by the work of another time.
In one of these letters he writes that "there is nothing in all this that the world might not know." Surely the world is always the better for having a little truth instead of a great deal of idle inaccuracy and falsehood. That is my justification for publishing this, if justification be needed.
If I did not fulfill his too high prophecy that "in addition to your artistic eminence, I feel that you will achieve a solid social position, make yourself a great woman, and take a noble place in the history of your time," I was the better for his having made it.
If I had been able to look into the future, I should have been less rebellious at the termination of my first marriage. Was I so rebellious, after all? I am afraid I showed about as much rebellion as a sheep. But I was miserable, indignant, unable to understand that there could be any justice in what had happened. In a little more than two years I returned to the stage. I was practically driven back by those who meant to be kind—Tom Taylor, my father and mother, and others. They looked ahead and saw clearly it was for my good.
It was a good thing, but at the time I hated it. And I hated going back to live at home. Mother furnished a room for me, and I thought the furniture hideous. Poor mother!
For years Beethoven always reminded me of mending stockings, because I used to struggle with the large holes in my brothers' stockings upstairs in that ugly room, while downstairs Kate played the "Moonlight Sonata." I caught up the stitches in time to the notes! This was the period when, though every one was kind, I hated my life, hated every one and everything in the world more than at any time before or since.
ROSSETTI, BERNHARDT, IRVING
Most people know that Tom Taylor was one of the leading playwrights of the 'sixties as well as the dramatic critic of The Times, editor of Punch, and a distinguished Civil Servant, but to us he was more than this—he was an institution! I simply cannot remember when I did not know him. It is the Tom Taylors of the world who give children on the stage their splendid education. We never had any education in the strict sense of the word, yet, through the Taylors and others, we were educated. Their house in Lavender Sweep was lovely. I can hardly bear to go near that part of London now, it is so horribly changed. Where are its green fields and its chestnut-trees? We were always welcome at the Taylors', and every Sunday we heard music and met interesting people—Charles Reade among them. Mrs. Taylor had rather a hard outside—she was like Mrs. Charles Kean in that respect—and I was often frightened out of my life by her; yet I adored her. She was in reality the most tender-hearted, sympathetic woman, and what an admirable musician! She composed nearly all the music for her husband's plays. Every Sunday there was music at Lavender Sweep—quartet playing with Madame Schumann at the piano.
Tom Taylor was one of the most benign and gentle of men, a good and a loyal friend. At first he was more interested in my sister Kate's career than in mine, as was only natural; for, up to the time of my first marriage, Kate had a present, I only a future. Before we went to Bristol and played with the stock company, she had made her name. At the St. James's Theater, in 1862, she was playing a small part in a version of Sardou's "Nos Intimes," known then as "Friends and Foes," and in a later day and in another version as "Peril."
Miss Herbert—the beautiful Miss Herbert, as she was appropriately called—had the chief part in the play (Mrs. Union), and Kate, although not the understudy, was called upon to play it at a few hours' notice. She had from childhood acquired a habit of studying every part in every play in which she was concerned, so she was as ready as though she had been the understudy. Miss Herbert was not a remarkable actress, but her appearance was wonderful indeed. She was very tall, with pale gold hair and the spiritual, ethereal look which the aesthetic movement loved. When mother wanted to flatter me very highly, she said that I looked like Miss Herbert! Rossetti founded many of his pictures on her, and she and Mrs. "Janie" Morris were his favorite types. When any one was the object of Rossetti's devotion, there was no extravagant length to which he would not go in demonstrating it. He bought a white bull because it had "eyes like Janie Morris," and tethered it on the lawn of his home in Chelsea. Soon there was no lawn left—only the bull! He invited people to meet it, and heaped favors on it until it kicked everything to pieces, when he reluctantly got rid of it.
His next purchase was a white peacock, which, very soon after its arrival, disappeared under the sofa. In vain did Rossetti "shoo" it out. It refused to budge. This went on for days.
"The lovely creature won't respond to me," said Rossetti pathetically to a friend.
The friend dragged out the bird.
"No wonder! It's dead!"
"Bulls don't like me," said Rossetti a few days later, "and peacocks aren't homely."
It preyed on his mind so much that he tried to repair the failure by buying some white dormice. He sat them up on tiny bamboo chairs, and they looked sweet. When the winter was over, he invited a party to meet them and congratulate them upon waking up from their long sleep.
"They are awake now," he said, "but how quiet they are! How full of repose!"
One of the guests went to inspect the dormice more closely, and a peculiar expression came over his face. It might almost have been thought that he was holding his nose.
"Wake up, little dormice," said Rossetti, prodding them gently with a quill pen.
"They'll never do that," said the guest. "They're dead. I believe they have been dead some days!"
Do you think Rossetti gave up live stock after this? Not a bit of it. He tried armadillos and tortoises.
"How are the tortoises?" he asked his man one day, after a long spell of forgetfulness that he had any.
"Pretty well, sir, thank you.... That's to say, sir, there ain't no tortoises!"
The tortoises, bought to eat the beetles, had been eaten themselves. At least, the shells were found full of beetles.
And the armadillos? "The air of Chelsea don't suit them," said Rossetti's servant. They had certainly left Rossetti's house, but they had not left Chelsea. All the neighbors had dozens of them! They had burrowed, and came up smiling in houses where they were far from welcome.
This by the way. Miss Herbert, who looked like the Blessed Damosel leaning out "across the bar of heaven," was not very well suited to the line of parts that she was playing at the St. James's, but she was very much admired. During the run of "Friends and Foes" she fell ill. Her illness was Kate's opportunity. From the night that Kate played Mrs. Union, her reputation was made.
It was a splendid chance, no doubt, but of what use would it have been to any one who was not ready to use it? Kate, though only about nineteen at this time, was a finished actress. She had been a perfect Ariel, a beautiful Cordelia, and had played at least forty other parts of importance since she had appeared as a tiny Robin in the Keans' production of "The Merry Wives of Windsor." She had not had her head turned by big salaries, and she had never ceased working since she was four years old. No wonder that she was capable of bearing the burden of a piece at a moment's notice. The Americans cleverly say that "the lucky cat watches." I should add that the lucky cat works. Reputations on the stage—at any rate, enduring reputations—are not made by chance, and to an actress who has not worked hard the finest opportunity in the world will be utterly useless.
My own opinion of my sister's acting must be taken for what it is worth—and that is very little. I remember how she looked on the stage—like a frail white azalea—and that her acting, unlike that of Adelaide Neilson, who was the great popular favorite before Kate came to the front, was scientific. She knew what she was about. There was more ideality than passionate womanliness in her interpretations. For this reason, perhaps, her Cordelia was finer than her Portia or her Beatrice.
She was engaged at one time to a young actor, called Montagu. If the course of that love had run smooth, where should I have been? Kate would have been the Terry of the age. But Mr. Montagu went to America, and, after five years of life as a matinee idol, died there. Before that, Arthur Lewis had come along. I was glad because he was rich, and during his courtship I had some riding, of which in my girlhood I was passionately fond.
Tom Taylor had an enormous admiration for Kate, and during her second season as a "star" at Bristol he came down to see her play Juliet and Beatrice and Portia. This second Bristol season came in the middle of my time at the Haymarket, but I went back, too, and played Nerissa and Hero. Before that I had played my first leading Shakespeare part, but only at one matinee.
An actor named Walter Montgomery was giving a matinee of "Othello" at the Princess's (the theater where I made my first appearance) in the June of 1863, and he wanted a Desdemona. The agents sent for me. It was Saturday, and I had to play it on Monday! But for my training, how could I have done it? At this time I knew the words and had studied the words—a very different thing—of every woman's part in Shakespeare. I don't know what kind of performance I gave on that memorable afternoon, but I think it was not so bad. And Walter Montgomery's Othello? Why can't I remember something about it? I only remember that the unfortunate actor shot himself on his wedding-day!
Any one who has come with me so far in my life will realize that Kate Terry was much better known than Ellen at the time of Ellen's first retirement from the stage. From Bristol my sister had gone to London to become Fechter's "leading lady," and from that time until she made her last appearance in 1867 as Juliet at the Adelphi, her career was a blaze of triumph.
Before I came back to take part in her farewell tour (she became engaged to Mr. Arthur Lewis in 1866), I paid my first visit to Paris. I saw the Empress Eugenie driving in the Bois, looking like an exquisite waxwork. Oh, the beautiful slope of women at this period! They sat like lovely half-moons, lying back in their carriages. It was an age of elegance—in France particularly—an age of luxury. They had just laid down asphalt for the first time in the streets of Paris, and the quiet of the boulevards was wonderful after the rattling London streets. I often went to three parties a night; but I was in a difficult position, as I could not speak a word of the language. I met Tissot and Gambard, who had just built Rosa Bonheur's house at Nice.
I liked the Frenchmen because they liked me, but I didn't admire them.
I tried to learn to smoke, but I never took kindly to it and soon gave it up.
What was the thing that made me homesick for London? Household Words. The excitement in the 'sixties over each new Dickens can be understood only by people who experienced it at the time. Boys used to sell Household Words in the streets, and they were often pursued by an eager crowd, for all the world as if they were carrying news of the "latest winner."
Of course I went to the theater in Paris. I saw Sarah Bernhardt for the first time, and Madame Favart, Croisette, Delaunay, and Got. I never thought Croisette—a superb animal—a "patch" on Sarah, who was at this time as thin as a harrow. Even then I recognized that Sarah was not a bit conventional, and would not stay long at the Comedie. Yet she did not put me out of conceit with the old school. I saw "Les Precieuses Ridicules" finely done, and I said to myself then, as I have often said since: "Old school—new school? What does it matter which, so long as it is good enough?"
Madame Favart I knew personally, and she gave me many useful hints. One was never to black my eyes underneath when "making up." She pointed out that although this was necessary when the stage was lighted entirely from beneath, it had become ugly and meaningless since the introduction of top lights.
The friend who took me everywhere in Paris landed me one night in the dressing-room of a singer. I remember it because I heard her complain to a man of some injustice. She had not got some engagement that she had expected.
"It serves you damn right!" he answered. "You can't sing a bit." For the first time I seemed to realize how brutal it was of a man to speak to a woman like that, and I hated it.
Long afterwards, in the same city, I saw a man sitting calmly in a fiacre, a man of the "gentlemanly" class, and ordering the cocher to drive on, although a woman was clinging to the side of the carriage and refusing to let go. She was a strong, splendid creature of the peasant type, bareheaded, with a fine open brow, and she was obviously consumed by resentment of some injustice—mad with it. She was dragged along in one of the busiest streets in Paris, the little Frenchman sitting there smiling, easy. How she escaped death I don't know. Then he became conscious that people were looking, and he stopped the cab and let her get in. Oh, men!
Paris! Paris! Young as I was, I fell under the spell, of your elegance, your cleanness, your well-designed streets, your nonchalant gaiety. I drank coffee at Tortoni's. I visited the studio of Meissonier. I stood in the crowd that collected round Rosa Bonheur's "Horse Fair," which was in the Salon that year. I grew dead sick of the endless galleries of the Louvre. I went to the Madeleine at Easter time, all purple and white lilies, and fainted from trying to imagine ecstasy when the Host was raised.... I never fainted again in my life, except once from anger, when I heard some friends whom I loved slandering another friend whom I loved more.
Good-bye to Paris and back to London, where I began acting again with only half my heart. I did very well, they said, as Helen in "The Hunchback," the first part I played after my return; but I cared nothing about my success. I was feeling wretchedly ill, and angry too, because they insisted on putting my married name on the bills.
After playing with Kate at Bristol and at the Adelphi in London, I accepted an engagement to appear in a new play by Tom Taylor, called "The Antipodes." It was a bad play, and I had a bad part, but Telbin's scenery was lovely. Telbin was a poet, and he has handed on much of his talent to his son, who is alive now, and painted most of our Faust scenery at the Lyceum—he and dear Mr. Hawes Craven, who so loved his garden and could paint the flicker of golden sunshine for the stage better than any one. I have always been friendly with the scene-painters, perhaps because I have always taken pains about my dresses, and consulted them beforehand about the color, so that I should not look wrong in their scenes, nor their scenes wrong with my dresses.
Telbin and Albert Moore together did up the New Queen's Theater, Long Acre, which was opened in October, 1867, under the ostensible management of the Alfred Wigans. I say "ostensible," because Mr. Labouchere had something to do with it, and Miss Henrietta Hodson, whom he afterwards married, played in the burlesques and farces without which no theater bill in London at that time was complete. The Wigans offered me an engagement, and I stayed with them until 1868, when I again left the stage. During this engagement I acted with Charles Wyndham and Lionel Brough, and, last but not least, with Henry Irving.
Mrs. Wigan, nee Leonora Pincott, did me the honor to think that I was worth teaching, and took nearly as much pains to improve me as Mrs. Kean had done at a different stage in my artistic growth. Her own accomplishments as a comedy actress impressed me more than I can say. I remember seeing her as Mrs. Candour, and thinking to myself, "This is absolutely perfect." If I were a teacher I would impress on young actresses never to move a finger or turn the eye without being quite certain that the movement or the glance tells something. Mrs. Wigan made few gestures, but each one quietly, delicately indicated what the words which followed expressed. And while she was speaking she never frittered away the effect of that silent eloquence.
One of my besetting sins was—nay, still is—the lack of repose. Mrs. Wigan at once detected the fault, and at rehearsals would work to make me remedy it. "Stand still!" she would shout from the stalls. "Now you're of value!" "Motionless! Just as you are! That's right."
A few years later she came to see me at the Court Theater, where I was playing in "The House of Darnley," and afterwards wrote me the following very kind and encouraging letter:
"December 7, 1877.
"Dear Miss Terry,—
"You have a very difficult part in 'The House of Darnley.' I know no one who could play it as well as you did last night—but you could do it much better. You would vex me much if I thought you had no ambition in your art. You are the one young actress of my day who can have her success entirely in her own hands. You have all the gifts for your noble profession, and, as you know, your own devotion to it will give you all that can be learned. I'm very glad my stage direction was useful and pleasant to you, and any benefit you have derived from it is overpaid by your style of acting. You cannot have a 'groove'; you are too much of an artist. Go on and prosper, and if at any time you think I can help you in your art, you may always count on that help from your most sincere well-wisher
Another service that Mrs. Wigan did me was to cure me of "fooling" on the stage. "Did she?" I thought I heard some one interrupt me unkindly at that point! Well, at any rate, she gave me a good fright one night, and I never forgot it, though I will not say I never laughed again. I think it was in "The Double Marriage," the first play put on at the New Queen's. As Rose de Beaurepaire, I wore a white muslin Directoire dress and looked absurdly young. There was one "curtain" which used to convulse Wyndham. He had a line, "Whose child is this?" and there was I, looking a mere child myself, and with a bad cold in my head too, answering: "It's bine!" The very thought of it used to send us off into fits of laughter. We hung on to chairs, helpless, limp, and incapable. Mrs. Wigan said if we did it again, she would go in front and hiss us, and she carried out her threat. The very next time we laughed, a loud hiss rose from the stagebox. I was simply paralyzed with terror.
Dear old Mrs. Wigan! The stories that have been told about her would fill a book! She was exceedingly plain, rather like a toad, yet, perversely, she was more vain of her looks than of her acting. In the theater she gave herself great airs and graces, and outside it hobnobbed with duchesses and princesses.
This fondness for aristocratic society gave additional point to the story that one day a blear-eyed old cabman in capes and muffler descended from the box of a disreputable-looking growler, and inquired at the stage-door for Leonora Pincott.
"Any lady 'ere of that name?"
"Well, I think she's married, and changed her name, but she's 'ere right enough. Tell 'er I won't keep 'er a minute. I'm 'er—old father!"
In "Still Waters Run Deep" I was rather good as Mrs. Mildmay, and the rest of the cast were admirable. Mrs. Wigan was, of course, Mrs. Sternhold. Wyndham, who was afterwards to be such a splendid Mildmay, played Hawksley, and Alfred Wigan was Mildmay, as he had been in the original production. When the play is revived now, much of it seems very old-fashioned, but the office scene strikes one as freshly and strongly as when it was first acted. I don't think that any drama which is vital and essential can ever be old-fashioned.
MY FIRST IMPRESSION OF HENRY IRVING
One very foggy night in December 1867—it was Boxing Day, I think—I acted for the first time with Henry Irving. This ought to have been a great event in my life, but at the time it passed me by and left "no wrack behind." Ever anxious to improve on the truth, which is often devoid of all sensationalism, people have told a story of Henry Irving promising that if he ever were in a position to offer me an engagement I should be his leading lady. But this fairy story has been improved on since. The newest tale of my first meeting with Henry Irving was told during my jubilee. Then, to my amazement, I read that on that famous night when I was playing Puck at the Princess's, and caught my toe in the trap, "a young man with dark hair and a white face rushed forward from the crowd and said: 'Never mind, darling. Don't cry! One day you will be queen of the stage.' It was Henry Irving!"
In view of these legends, I ought to say all the more stoutly that, until I went to the Lyceum Theater, Henry Irving was nothing to me and I was nothing to him. I never consciously thought that he would become a great actor. He had no high opinion of my acting! He has said since that he thought me at the Queen's Theater charming and individual as a woman, but as an actress hoydenish! I believe that he hardly spared me even so much definite thought as this. His soul was not more surely in his body than in the theater, and I, a woman who was at this time caring more about love and life than the theater, must have been to him more or less unsympathetic. He thought of nothing else, cared for nothing else; worked day and night; went without his dinner to buy a book that might be helpful in studying, or a stage jewel that might be helpful to wear. I remember his telling me that he once bought a sword with a jeweled hilt, and hung it at the foot of his bed. All night he kept getting up and striking matches to see it, shifting its position, rapt in admiration of it.
He had it all in him when we acted together that foggy night, but he could express very little. Many of his defects sprang from his not having been on the stage as a child. He was stiff with self-consciousness; his eyes were dull and his face heavy. The piece we played was Garrick's boiled-down version of "The Taming of the Shrew," and he, as Petruchio, appreciated the humor and everything else far more than I did, as Katherine; yet he played badly, nearly as badly as I did; and how much more to blame I was, for I was at this time much more easy and skillful from a purely technical point of view.
Was Henry Irving impressive in those days? Yes and no. His fierce and indomitable will showed itself in his application to his work. Quite unconsciously I learned from watching him that to do work well, the artist must spend his life in incessant labor, and deny himself everything for that purpose. It is a lesson we actors and actresses cannot learn too early, for the bright and glorious heyday of our success must always be brief at best.
Henry Irving, when he played Petruchio, had been toiling in the provinces for eleven solid years, and not until Rawdon Scudamore in "Hunted Down" had he had any success. Even that was forgotten in his failure as Petruchio. What a trouncing he received from the critics who have since heaped praise on many worse men!
I think this was the peculiar quality in his acting afterwards—a kind of fine temper, like the purest steel, produced by the perpetual fight against difficulties. Socrates, it is said, had every capacity for evil in his face, yet he was good as a naturally good man could never be. Henry Irving at first had everything against him as an actor. He could not speak, he could not walk, he could not look. He wanted to do things in a part, and he could not do them. His amazing power was imprisoned, and only after long and weary years did he succeed in setting it free.
A man with a will like that must be impressive! To quick-seeing eyes he must, no doubt. But my eyes were not quick, and they were, moreover, fixed on a world outside the theater. Better than his talent and his will I remember his courtesy. In those days, instead of having our salaries brought to our dressing-rooms, we used to wait in a queue on Treasury Day to receive them. I was always late in coming, and always in a hurry to get away. Very gravely and quietly Henry Irving used to give up his place to me.
I played once more at the Queen's after Katherine and Petruchio. It was in a little piece called "The Household Fairy," and I remember it chiefly through an accident which befell poor Jack Clayton through me. The curtain had fallen on "The Household Fairy," and Clayton, who had acted with me in it, was dancing with me on the stage to the music which was being played during the wait, instead of changing his dress for the next piece. This dancing during the entr'acte was very popular among us. Many a burlesque quadrille I had with Terriss and others in later days. On this occasion Clayton suddenly found he was late in changing, and, rushing upstairs to his dressing-room in a hurry, he missed his footing and fell back on his head. This made me very miserable, as I could not help feeling that I was responsible. Soon afterwards I left the stage for six years, without the slightest idea of ever going back. I left it without regret. And I was very happy, leading a quiet, domestic life in the heart of the country. When my two children were born, I thought of the stage less than ever. They absorbed all my time, all my interest, all my love.
A SIX-YEAR VACATION
My disappearance from the stage must have been a heavy blow to my father and mother, who had urged me to return in 1866 and were quite certain that I had a great future. For the first time for years they had no child in the theater. Marion and Floss, who were afterward to adopt the stage as a profession, were still at school; Kate had married; and none of their sons had shown any great aptitude for acting. Fred, who was afterwards to do so well, was at this time hardly out of petticoats.
Perhaps it was because I knew they would oppose me that I left the stage quite quietly and secretly. It seemed to outsiders natural, if regrettable, that I should follow Kate's example. But I was troubling myself little about what people were thinking and saying. "They are saying—what are they saying? Let them be saying!"
Then a dreadful thing happened. A body was found in the river,—the dead body of a young woman very fair and slight and tall. Every one thought that it was my body.
I had gone away without a word. No one knew where I was. My own father identified the corpse, and Floss and Marion, at their boarding-school, were put into mourning. Then mother went. She kept her head under the shock of the likeness, and bethought her of "a strawberry mark upon my left arm." (Really I had one over my left knee.) That settled it, for there was no such mark to be found upon the poor corpse. It was just at this moment that the news came to me in my country retreat that I had been found dead, and I flew up to London to give ocular proof to my poor distracted parents that I was alive. Mother, who had been the only one not to identify the drowned girl, confessed to me that she was so like me that just for a second she, too, was deceived. You see, they knew I had not been very happy since my return to the stage, and when I went away without a word, they were terribly anxious, and prepared to believe the first bad tidings that came to hand. It came in the shape of that most extraordinary likeness between me and that poor soul who threw herself into the river.
I was not twenty-one when I left the stage for the second time, and I haven't made up my mind yet whether it was good or bad for me, as an actress, to cease from practicing my craft for six years. Talma, the great French actor, recommends long spells of rest, and says that "perpetual indulgence in the excitement of impersonation dulls the sympathy and impairs the imaginative faculty of the comedian." This is very useful in my defense, yet I could find many examples which prove the contrary. I could never imagine Henry Irving leaving the stage for six months, let alone six years, and I don't think it would have been of the slightest benefit to him. But he had not been on the stage as a child.
If I was able to rest so long without rusting, it was, I am sure, because I had been thoroughly trained in the technique of acting long before I reached my twentieth year—an age at which most students are just beginning to wrestle with elementary principles.
Of course, I did not argue in this way at the time! As I have said, I had no intention of ever acting again when I left the Queen's Theater. If it is the mark of the artist to love art before everything, to renounce everything for its sake, to think all the sweet human things of life well lost if only he may attain something, do some good, great work—then I was never an artist. I have been happiest in my work when I was working for some one else. I admire those impersonal people who care for nothing outside their own ambition, yet I detest them at the same time, and I have the simplest faith that absolute devotion to another human being means the greatest happiness. That happiness was now mine.
I led a most unconventional life, and experienced exquisite delight from the mere fact of being in the country. No one knows what "the country" means until he or she has lived in it. "Then, if ever, come perfect days."
What a sensation it was, too, to be untrammeled by time! Actors must take care of themselves and their voices, husband their strength for the evening work, and when it is over they are too tired to do anything! For the first time I was able to put all my energies into living. Charles Lamb says, I think, that when he left the East India House, he felt embarrassed by the vast estates of time at his disposal, and wished that he had a bailiff to manage them for him, but I knew no such embarrassment.
I began gardening, "the purest of human pleasures"; I learned to cook, and in time cooked very well, though my first essay in that difficult art was rewarded with dire and complete failure.
It was a chicken! Now, as all the chickens had names—Sultan, Duke, Lord Tom Noddy, Lady Teazle, and so forth—and as I was very proud of them as living birds, it was a great wrench to kill one at all, to start with. It was the murder of Sultan, not the killing of a chicken. However, at last it was done, and Sultan deprived of his feathers, floured, and trussed. I had no idea how this was all done, but I tried to make him "sit up" nicely like the chickens in the shops.
He came up to the table looking magnificent—almost turkey-like in his proportions.
"Hasn't this chicken rather an odd smell?" said our visitor.
"How can you!" I answered. "It must be quite fresh—it's Sultan!"
However, when we began to carve, the smell grew more and more potent.
I had cooked Sultan without taking out his in'ards!
There was no dinner that day except bread-sauce, beautifully made, well-cooked vegetables, and pastry like the foam of the sea. I had a wonderful hand for pastry!
My hour of rising at this pleasant place near Mackery End in Hertfordshire was six. Then I washed the babies. I had a perfect mania for washing everything and everybody. We had one little servant, and I insisted on washing her head. Her mother came up from the village to protest.
"Never washed her head in my life. Never washed any of my children's heads. And just look at their splendid hair!"
After the washing I fed the animals. There were two hundred ducks and fowls to feed, as well as the children. By the time I had done this, and cooked the dinner, the morning had flown away. After the midday meal I sewed. Sometimes I drove out in the pony-cart. And in the evening I walked across the common to fetch the milk. The babies used to roam where they liked on this common in charge of a bulldog, while I sat and read.
I studied cookery-books instead of parts—Mrs. Beeton instead of Shakespeare!
Of course, I thought my children the most brilliant and beautiful children in the world, and, indeed, "this side idolatry," they were exceptional, and they had an exceptional bringing up. They were allowed no rubbishy picture-books, but from the first Japanese prints and fans lined their nursery walls, and Walter Crane was their classic. If injudicious friends gave the wrong sort of present, it was promptly burned. A mechanical mouse in which Edy, my little daughter, showed keen interest and delight, was taken away as being "realistic and common." Only wooden toys were allowed. This severe training proved so effective that when a doll dressed in a violent pink silk dress was given to Edy, she said it was "vulgar"!
By that time she had found a tongue, but until she was two years old she never spoke a word, though she seemed to notice everything with her grave dark eyes. We were out driving when I heard her voice for the first time:
"There's some more."
She spoke quite distinctly. It was almost uncanny.
"More what?" I asked in a trembling voice, afraid that having delivered herself once, she might lapse into dumbness.
The nursemaid, Essie, described Edy tersely as "a piece," while Teddy, who was adored by every one because he was fat and fair and angelic-looking, she called "the feather of England."
"The feather of England" was considered by his sister a great coward. She used to hit him on the head with a wooden spoon for crying, and exhort him, when he said, "Master Teddy afraid of the dark," to be a woman!
I feel that if I go maundering on much longer about my children, some one will exclaim with a witty and delightful author when he saw "Peter Pan" for the seventh time: "Oh, for an hour of Herod!" When I think of little Edy bringing me in minute branches of flowers all the morning, with the reassuring intelligence that "there are lots more," I could cry. But why should any one be interested in that? Is it interesting to any one else that when she dug up a turnip in the garden for the first time, she should have come running in to beg me to come quick: "Miss Edy found a radish. It's as big as—as big as God!"
When I took her to her first theater—it was Sanger's Circus—and the clown pretended to fall from the tightrope, and the drum went bang! she said: "Take me away! take me away! you ought never to have brought me here!" No wonder she was considered a dour child! I immediately and humbly obeyed.
It was truly the simple life we led in Hertfordshire. From scrubbing floors and lighting fires, cooking, gardening, and harnessing the pony, I grew thinner than ever—as thin as a whipping-post, a hurdle, or a haddock! I went to church in blue-and-white cotton, with my servant in silk. "I don't half like it," she said. "They'll take you for the cook, and me for the lady!"
We kept a goat, a dear fellow whom I liked very much until I caught him one day chasing my daughter. I seized him by his horns to inflict severe punishment; but then I saw that his eyes were exactly like mine, and it made me laugh so much that I let him go and never punished him at all.
"Boo" became an institution in these days. She was the wife of a doctor who kept a private asylum in the neighboring village, and on his death she tried to look after the lunatics herself. But she wasn't at all successful! They kept escaping, and people didn't like it. This was my gain, for "Boo" came to look after me instead, and for the next thirty years I was her only lunatic, and she my most constant companion and dear and loyal friend.
We seldom went to London. When we did, Ted nearly had a fit at seeing so many "we'els go wound." But we went to Normandy, and saw Lisieux, Mantes, Bayeux. Long afterwards, when I was feeling as hard as sandpaper on the stage, I had only to recall some of the divine music I had heard in those great churches abroad to become soft, melted, able to act. I remember in some cathedral we left little Edy sitting down below while we climbed up into the clerestory to look at some beautiful piece of architecture. The choir were practicing, and suddenly there rose a boy's voice, pure, effortless, and clear.... For years that moment stayed with me. When we came down to fetch Edy, she said:
"Ssh! ssh! Miss Edy has seen the angels!"
Oh, blissful quiet days! How soon they came to an end! Already the shadow of financial trouble fell across my peace. Yet still I never thought of returning to the stage.
One day I was driving in a narrow lane, when the wheel of the pony-cart came off. I was standing there, thinking what I should do next, when a whole crowd of horsemen in "pink" came leaping over the hedge into the lane. One of them stopped and asked if he could do anything. Then he looked hard at me and exclaimed: "Good God! it's Nelly!"
The man was Charles Reade.
"Where have you been all these years?" he said.
"I have been having a very happy time," I answered.
"Well, you've had it long enough. Come back to the stage!"
"You're a fool! You ought to come back."
Suddenly I remembered the bailiff in the house a few miles away, and I said laughingly: "Well, perhaps, I would think of it if some one would give me forty pounds a week!"
"Done!" said Charles Reade. "I'll give you that, and more, if you'll come and play Philippa Chester in 'The Wandering Heir.'"
He went on to explain that Mrs. John Wood, who had been playing Philippa at the New Queen's, of which he was the lessee, would have to relinquish the part soon, because she was under contract to appear elsewhere. The piece was a great success, and promised to run a long time if he could find a good Philippa to replace Mrs. Wood. It was a kind of Rosalind part, and Charles Reade only exaggerated pardonably when he said that I should never have any part better suited to me!
In a very short time after that meeting in the lane, it was announced that the new Philippa was to be an actress who was returning to the stage "after a long period of retirement." Only just before the first night did anyone guess who it was, and then there was great excitement among those who remembered me. The acclamation with which I was welcomed back on the first night surprised me. The papers were more flattering than they had ever been before. It was a tremendous success for me, and I was all the more pleased because I was following an accomplished actress in the part.
It is curious how often I have "followed" others. I never "created" a part, as theatrical parlance has it, until I played Olivia at the Court, and I had to challenge comparison, in turn, with Miss Marie Wilton, Mrs. John Wood and Mrs. Kendal. Perhaps it was better for me than if I had had parts specially written for me, and with which no other names were associated.
The hero of "The Wandering Heir," when I first took up the part of Philippa, was played by Edmund Leathes, but afterward by Johnston Forbes-Robertson. Everyone knows how good-looking he is now, but as a boy he was wonderful—a dreamy, poetic-looking creature in a blue smock, far more of an artist than an actor—he promised to paint quite beautifully—and full of aspirations and ideals. In those days began a friendship between us which has lasted unbroken until this moment. His father and mother were delightful people, and very kind to me always.
Everyone was kind to me at this time. Friends whom I had thought would be estranged by my long absence rallied round me and welcomed me as if it were six minutes instead of six years since I had dropped out of their ken. I was not yet a "made" woman, but I had a profitable engagement, and a delightful one, too, with Charles Reade, and I felt an enthusiasm for my work which had been wholly absent when I had returned to the stage the first time. My children were left in the country at first, but they came up and joined me when, in the year following "The Wandering Heir," I went to the Bancrofts at the Prince of Wales's. I never had the slightest fear of leaving them to their own devices, for they always knew how to amuse themselves, and were very independent and dependable in spite of their extreme youth. I have often thanked Heaven since that, with all their faults, my boy and girl have never been lazy and never dull. At this time Teddy always had a pencil in his hand, when he wasn't looking for his biscuit—he was a greedy little thing!—and Edy was hammering clothes onto her dolls with tin-tacks! Teddy said poetry beautifully, and when he and his sister were still tiny mites, they used to go through scene after scene of "As You Like It," for their own amusement, not for an audience, in the wilderness at Hampton Court. They were by no means prodigies, but it did not surprise me that my son, when he grew up, should be first a good actor, then an artist of some originality, and should finally turn all his brains and industry to new developments in the art of the theater. My daughter has acted also—not enough to please me, for I have a very firm belief in her talents—and has shown again and again that she can design and make clothes for the stage that are both lovely and effective. In all my most successful stage dresses lately she has had a hand, and if I had anything to do with a national theater, I should, without prejudice, put her in charge of the wardrobe at once!
I may be a proud parent, but I have always refrained from "pushing" my children. They have had to fight for themselves, and to their mother their actual achievements have mattered very little. So long as they were not lazy, I have always felt that I could forgive them anything!
And now Teddy and Edy—Teddy in a minute white pique suit, and Edy in a tiny kimono, in which she looked as Japanese as everything which surrounded her—disappear from these pages for quite a long time. But all this time, you must understand, they are educating their mother!
Charles Reade, having brought me back to the stage, and being my manager into the bargain, was deeply concerned about my progress as an actress. During the run of "The Wandering Heir" he used to sit in a private box every night to watch the play, and would send me round notes between the acts, telling me what I had done ill and what well in the preceding act. Dear, kind, unjust, generous, cautious, impulsive, passionate, gentle Charles Reade. Never have I known anyone who combined so many qualities, far asunder as the poles, in one single disposition. He was placid and turbulent, yet always majestic. He was inexplicable and entirely lovable—a stupid old dear, and as wise as Solomon! He seemed guileless, and yet had moments of suspicion and craftiness worthy of the wisdom of the serpent. One moment he would call me "dearest child"; the next, with indignant emphasis, "Madam!"
When "The Wandering Heir" had at last exhausted its great popularity, I went on a tour with Charles Reade in several of his plays. In spite of his many and varied interests, he had entirely succumbed to the magic of the "irresistible theater," and it used to strike me as rather pathetic to see a man of his power and originality working the stage sea at nights, in company with a rough lad, in his dramatic version of "Hard Cash." In this play, which was known as "Our Seaman," I had a part which I could not bear to be paid twenty-five pounds a week for acting. I knew that the tour was not a financial success, and I ventured to suggest that it would be good economy to get some one else for Susan Merton. For answer I got a fiery "Madam, you are a rat! You desert a sinking ship!" My dear old companion, Boo, who was with me, resented this very much: "How can you say such things to my Nelly?"
"Your Nelly!" said Charles Reade. "I love her a thousand times better than you do, or any puling woman."
Another time he grew white with rage, and his dark eyes blazed, because the same "puling woman" said very lightly and playfully: "Why did poor Nell come home from rehearsal looking so tired yesterday? You work her too hard." He thought this unfair, as the work had to be done, and flamed out at us with such violence that it was almost impossible to identify him with the kind old gentleman of the Colonel Newcome type whom I had seen stand up at the Tom Taylors', on Sunday evenings, and sing "The Girl I Left Behind Me" with such pathos that he himself was moved to tears. But, though it was a painful time for both of us, it was almost worth while to quarrel with him, because when we made it up he was sure to give me some "treat"—a luncheon, a present, or a drive. We both felt we needed some jollification because we had suffered so much from being estranged. He used to say that there should be no such word as "quarrel," and one morning he wrote me a letter with the following postscript written in big letters:
"THERE DO EXIST SUCH THINGS AS HONEST MISUNDERSTANDINGS.
"There, my Eleanora Delicia" (this was his name for me, my real, full name being Ellen Alicia), "stick that up in some place where you will often see it. Better put it on your looking-glass. And if you can once get those words into your noddle, it will save you a world of unhappiness."
I think he was quite right about this. Would that he had been as right in his theories about stage management! He was a rare one for realism. He had preached it in all his plays, and when he produced a one-act play, "Rachael the Reaper," in front of "The Wandering Heir," he began to practice what he preached—jumped into reality up to the neck!
He began by buying real pigs, real sheep, a real goat, and a real dog. Real litter was strewn all over the stage, much to the inconvenience of the unreal farm-laborer, Charles Kelly, who could not compete with it, although he looked as like a farmer as any actor could. They all looked their parts better than the real wall which ran across the stage, piteously naked of real shadows, owing to the absence of the real sun, and, of course, deficient in the painted shadows which make a painted wall look so like the real thing.
Never, never can I forget Charles Reade's arrival at the theater in a four-wheeler with a goat and a lot of little pigs. When the cab drew up at the stage-door, the goat seemed to say, as plainly as any goat could: "I'm dashed if I stay in this cab any longer with these pigs!" and while Charles Reade was trying to pacify it, the piggies escaped! Unfortunately, they didn't all go in the same direction, and poor dear Charles Reade had a "divided duty." There was the goat, too, in a nasty mood. Oh, his serious face, as he decided to leave the goat and run for the pigs, with his loose trousers, each one a yard wide at least, flapping in the wind!
"That's a relief, at any rate," said Charles Kelly, who was watching the flight of the pigs. "I sha'n't have those d——d pigs to spoil my acting as well as the d——d dog and the d——d goat!"
How we all laughed when Charles Reade returned from the pig-hunt to rehearsal with the brief direction to the stage manager that the pigs would be "cut out."
The reason for the real wall was made more evident when the real goat was tied up to it. A painted wall would never have stood such a strain.
On the first night, the real dog bit Kelly's real ankles, and in real anger he kicked the real animal by a real mistake into the orchestra's real drum.
So much for realism as practiced by Charles Reade! There was still something to remind him of the experiment in Rachael, the circus goat. Rachael—he was no she, but what of that?—was given the free run of the garden of Reade's house at Knightsbridge. He had everything that any normal goat could desire—a rustic stable, a green lawn, the best of food. Yet Rachael pined and grew thinner and thinner. One night when we were all sitting at dinner, with the French windows open onto the lawn because it was a hot night, Rachael came prancing into the room, looking happy, lively, and quite at home. All the time, while Charles Reade had been fashing himself to provide every sort of rural joy for his goat, the ungrateful beast had been longing for the naphtha lights of the circus, for lively conversation and the applause of the crowd.
You can't force a goat any more than you can force a child to live the simple life. "N'Yawk's the place," said the child of a Bowery tenement in New York, on the night of her return from an enforced sojourn in Arcady. She hated picking daisies, and drinking rich new milk made her sick. When the kind teacher who had brought her to the country strove to impress her by taking her to see a cow milked, she remarked witheringly to the man who was milking: "Gee! You put it in!"
Rachael's sentiments were of the same type, I think. "Back to the circus!" was his cry, not "Back to the land!"
I hope, when he felt the sawdust under his feet again (I think Charles Reade sent him back to the ring), he remembered his late master with gratitude. To how many animals, and not only four-footed ones, was not Charles Reade generously kind, and to none of them more kind than to Ellen Terry.
THE ACTRESS AND THE PLAYWRIGHT
THE END OF MY APPRENTICESHIP
The relation between author and actor is a very important element in the life of the stage. It is the way with some dramatists to despise those who interpret their plays, to accuse us of ruining their creations, to suffer disappointment and rage because we do not, or cannot, carry out their ideas.
Other dramatists admit that we players can teach them something; but I have noticed that it is generally in "the other fellow's" play that we can teach them, not in their own!
As they are necessary to us, and we to them, the great thing is to reduce friction by sympathy. The actor should understand that the author can be of use to him; the author, on his side, should believe that the actor can be of service to the author, and sometimes in ways which only a long and severe training in the actor's trade can discover.
The first author with whom I had to deal, at a critical point in my progress as an actress, was Charles Reade, and he helped me enormously. He might, and often did, make twelve suggestions that were wrong; but against them he would make one that was so right that its value was immeasurable and unforgettable.
It is through the dissatisfaction of a man like Charles Reade that an actress learns—that is, if she is not conceited. Conceit is an insuperable obstacle to all progress. On the other hand, it is of little use to take criticism in a slavish spirit and to act on it without understanding it. Charles Reade constantly wrote and said things to me which were not absolutely just criticism; but they directed my attention to the true cause of the faults which he found in my performance, and put me on the way to mending them.
A letter which he wrote me during the run of "The Wandering Heir" was such a wonderful lesson to me that I am going to quote it almost in full, in the hope that it may be a lesson to other actresses—"happy in this, they are not yet so old but they can learn"; unhappy in this, that they have never had a Charles Reade to give them a trouncing!
Well, the letter begins with sheer eulogy. Eulogy is nice, but one does not learn anything from it. Had dear Charles Reade stopped after writing "womanly grace, subtlety, delicacy, the variety yet invariable truthfulness of the facial expression, compared with which the faces beside yours are wooden, uniform dolls," he would have done nothing to advance me in my art; but this was only the jam in which I was to take the powder!
Here followed more jam—with the first taste of the powder:
"I prefer you for my Philippa to any other actress, and shall do so still, even if you will not, or cannot, throw more vigor into the lines that need it. I do not pretend to be as good a writer of plays as you are an actress [how naughty of him!], but I do pretend to be a great judge of acting in general. [He wasn't, although in particular details he was a brilliant critic and adviser.] And I know how my own lines and business ought to be rendered infinitely better than any one else, except the Omniscient. It is only on this narrow ground I presume to teach a woman of your gifts. If I teach you Philippa, you will teach me Juliet; for I am very sure that when I have seen you act her, I shall know a vast deal more about her than I do at present.
"No great quality of an actress is absent from your performance. Very often you have vigor. But in other places where it is as much required, or even more, you turn limp. You have limp lines, limp business, and in Act III. limp exits instead of ardent exits."
Except in the actual word used, he was perfectly right. I was not limp, but I was exhausted. By a natural instinct, I had produced my voice scientifically almost from the first, and I had found out for myself many things, which in these days of Delsarte systems and the science of voice-production, are taught. But when, after my six years' absence from the stage, I came back, and played a long and arduous part, I found that my breathing was still not right. This accounted for my exhaustion, or limpness and lack of vigor, as Charles Reade preferred to call it.
As for the "ardent" exits, how right he was! That word set me on the track of learning the value of moving off the stage with a swift rush. I had always had the gift of being rapid in movement, but to have a gift, and to use it, are two very different things.
I never realized that I was rather quick in movement until one day when I was sitting on a sofa talking to the famous throat specialist, Dr. Morell Mackenzie. In the middle of one of his sentences I said: "Wait a minute while I get a glass of water." I was out of the room and back so soon that he said, "Well, go and get it then!" and was paralyzed when he saw that the glass was in my hand and that I was sitting down again!
Consider! That was one of Charles Reade's favorite expressions, and just hearing him say the word used to make me consider, and think, and come to conclusions—perhaps not always the conclusions that he wished, but suggested by him.
In this matter of "ardent" exit, he wrote:
"The swift rush of the words, the personal rush, should carry you off the stage. It is in reality as easy as shelling peas, if you will only go by the right method instead of by the wrong. You have overcome far greater difficulties than this, yet night after night you go on suffering ignoble defeat at this point. Come, courage! You took a leaf out of Reade's dictionary at Manchester, and trampled on two difficulties—impossibilities, you called them. That was on Saturday, Monday you knocked the poor impossibilities down. Tuesday you kicked them where they lay. Wednesday you walked placidly over their prostrate bodies!"
The difficulty that he was now urging me to knock down was one of pace, and I am afraid that in all my stage life subsequently I never quite succeeded in kicking it or walking over its prostrate body!
Looking backward, I remember many times when I failed in rapidity of utterance, and was "pumped" at moments when swiftness was essential. Pace is the soul of comedy, and to elaborate lines at the expense of pace is disastrous. Curiously enough, I have met and envied this gift of pace in actors who were not conspicuously talented in other respects, and no Rosalind that I have ever seen has had enough of it. Of course, it is not a question of swift utterance only, but of swift thinking. I am able to think more swiftly on the stage now than at the time Charles Reade wrote to me, and I only wish I were young enough to take advantage of it. But youth thinks slowly, as a rule.
Vary the pace. Charles Reade was never tired of saying this, and, indeed, it is one of the foundations of all good acting.
"You don't seem quite to realize," he writes in the letter before me, "that uniformity of pace leads inevitably to languor. You should deliver a pistol-shot or two. Remember Philippa is a fiery girl; she can snap. If only for variety, she should snap James' head off when she says, 'Do I speak as if I loved them!'"
My memories of the part of Philippa are rather vague, but I know that Reade was right in insisting that I needed more "bite" in the passages when I was dressed as a boy. Though he complimented me on my self-denial in making what he called "some sacrifice of beauty" to pass for a boy, "so that the audience can't say, 'Why, James must be a fool not to see she is a girl,'" he scolded me for my want of bluntness.
"Fix your mind on the adjective 'blunt' and the substantive 'pistol-shot'; they will do you good service."
They did! And I recommend them to anyone who finds it hard to overcome monotony of pace and languor of diction.
"When you come to tell old Surefoot about his daughter's love," the letter goes on, "you should fall into a positive imitation of his manner: crest, motionless, and hands in front, and deliver your preambles with a nasal twang. But at the second invitation to speak out, you should cast this to the winds, and go into the other extreme of bluntness and rapidity. [Quite right!] When you meet him after the exposure, you should speak as you are coming to him and stop him in mid-career, and then attack him. You should also (in Act II.) get the pearls back into the tree before you say: 'Oh, I hope he did not see me!'"
Yes, I remember that in both these places I used to muddle and blur the effect by doing the business and speaking at the same time. By acting on Reade's suggestion I gained confidence in making a pause.
"After the beating, wait at least ten seconds longer than you do—to rouse expectation—and when you do come on, make a little more of it. You ought to be very pale indeed—even to enter with a slight totter, done moderately, of course; and before you say a single word, you ought to stand shaking and with your brows knitting, looking almost terrible. Of course, I do not expect or desire to make a melodramatic actress of you, but still I think you capable of any effect, provided it is not sustained too long."
A truer word was never spoken. It has never been in my power to sustain. In private life, I cannot sustain a hatred or a resentment. On the stage, I can pass swiftly from one effect to another, but I cannot fix one, and dwell on it, with that superb concentration which seems to me the special attribute of the tragic actress. To sustain, with me, is to lose the impression that I have created, not to increase its intensity.
"The last passage of the third act is just a little too hurried. Break the line. 'Now, James—for England and liberty!'"
I remember that I never could see that he was right about that, and if I can't see a thing I can't do it. The author's idea must become mine before I can carry it out—at least, with any sincerity, and obedience without sincerity would be of small service to an author. It must be despairing to him, if he wants me to say a line in a certain way, to find that I always say it in another; but I can't help it. I have tried to act passages as I have been told, just because I was told and without conviction, and I have failed miserably and have had to go back to my own way.
"Climax is reached not only by rush but by increasing pace. Your exit speech is a failure at present, because you do not vary the pace of its delivery. Get by yourself for one half-hour—if you can! Get by the seaside, if you can, since there it was Demosthenes studied eloquence and overcame mountains—not mole-hills like this. Being by the seaside, study those lines by themselves: 'And then let them find their young gentleman, and find him quickly, for London shall not hold me long—no, nor England either.'
"Study to speak these lines with great volubility and fire, and settle the exact syllable to run at."
I remember that Reade, with characteristic generosity, gave me ten pounds and sent me to the seaside in earnest, as he suggests my doing, half in fun, in the letter. "I know you won't go otherwise," he said, "because you want to insure your life or do something of that sort. Here! go to Brighton—go anywhere by the sea for Sunday! Don't thank me! It's all for Philippa."
As I read these notes of his on anti-climax, monotony of pace, and all the other offenses against scientific principles of acting which I committed in this one part, I feel more strongly than ever how important it is to master these principles. Until you have learned them and practiced them you cannot afford to discard them. There is all the difference in the world between departure from recognized rules by one who has learned to obey them, and neglect of them through want of training or want of skill or want of understanding. Before you can be eccentric you must know where the circle is.
This is accepted, I am told, even in shorthand, where the pupil acquires the knowledge of a number of signs, only for the purpose of discarding them when he is proficient enough to make an individual system. It is also accepted in music, where only the advanced pianist or singer can afford to play tricks with tempo. And I am sure it should be accepted in acting.
Nowadays acting is less scientific (except in the matter of voice-production) than it was when I was receiving hints, cautions, and advice from my two dramatist friends, Charles Reade and Tom Taylor; and the leading principles to which they attached importance have come to be regarded as old-fashioned and superfluous. This attitude is comparatively harmless in the interpretation of those modern plays in which parts are made to fit the actors and personality is everything. But those who have been led to believe that they can make their own rules find their mistake when they come to tackle Shakespeare or any of the standard dramatists in which the actors have to fit themselves to the parts. Then, if ever, technique is avenged!
All my life the thing which has struck me as wanting on the stage is variety. Some people are "tone-deaf," and they find it physically impossible to observe the law of contrasts. But even a physical deficiency can be overcome by that faculty for taking infinite pains which may not be genius but is certainly a good substitute for it.
When it comes to pointing out an example, Henry Irving is the monument, the great mark set up to show the genius of will. For years he worked to overcome the dragging leg, which seemed to attract more attention from some small-minded critics (sharp of eye, yet how dull of vision!) than all the mental splendor of his impersonations. He toiled, and he overcame this defect, just as he overcame his disregard of the vowels and the self-consciousness which in the early stages of his career used to hamper and incommode him. His self was to him on a first night what the shell is to a lobster on dry land. In "Hamlet," when we first acted together after that long-ago Katherine and Petruchio period at the Queen's, he used to discuss with me the secret of my freedom from self-consciousness; and I suggested a more swift entrance on the stage from the dressing-room. I told him that, in spite of the advantage in ease which I had gained through having been on the stage when still a mere child, I should be paralyzed with fright from over-acute realization of the audience if I stood at the wing for ten minutes, as he was in the habit of doing. He did not need me then, nor during the run of our next play, "The Lady of Lyons"; but when it came to Shylock, a quite new part to him, he tried the experiment, and, as he told me, with great comfort to himself and success with the audience.
Only a great actor finds the difficulties of the actor's art infinite. Even up to the last five years of his life, Henry Irving was striving, striving. He never rested on old triumphs, never found a part in which there was no more to do. Once when I was touring with him in America, at the time when he was at the highest point of his fame, I watched him one day in the train—always a delightful occupation, for his face provided many pictures a minute—and being struck by a curious look, half puzzled, half despairing, asked him what he was thinking about.
"I was thinking," he answered slowly, "how strange it is that I should have made the reputation I have as an actor, with nothing to help me—with no equipment. My legs, my voice—everything has been against me. For an actor who can't walk, can't talk, and has no face to speak of, I've done pretty well."
And I, looking at that splendid head, those wonderful hands, the whole strange beauty of him, thought, "Ah, you little know!"
The brilliant story of the Bancroft management of the old Prince of Wales's Theater was more familiar twenty years back than it is now. I think that few of the youngest playgoers who point out, on the first nights of important productions, a remarkably striking figure of a man with erect carriage, white hair, and flashing dark eyes—a man whose eye-glass, manners, and clothes all suggest Thackeray and Major Pendennis, in spite of his success in keeping abreast of everything modern—few playgoers, I say, who point this man out as Sir Squire Bancroft could give any adequate account of what he did for the English theater in the 'seventies. Nor do the public who see an elegant little lady starting for a drive from a certain house in Berkeley Square realize that this is Marie Wilton, afterward Mrs. Bancroft, now Lady Bancroft, the comedienne who created the heroines of Tom Robertson, and, with her husband, brought what is called the cup-and-saucer drama to absolute perfection.
We players know quite well and accept with philosophy the fact that when we have done we are forgotten. We are sometimes told that we live too much in the public eye and enjoy too much public favor and attention; but at least we make up for it by leaving no trace of our short and merry reign behind us when it is over!
I have never, even in Paris, seen anything more admirable than the ensemble of the Bancroft productions. Every part in the domestic comedies, the presentation of which, up to 1875, they had made their policy, was played with such point and finish that the more rough, uneven, and emotional acting of the present day has not produced anything so good in the same line. The Prince of Wales's Theater was the most fashionable in London, and there seemed no reason why the triumph of Robertson should not go on for ever.
But that's the strange thing about theatrical success. However great, it is limited in its force and duration, as we found out at the Lyceum twenty years later. It was not only because the Bancrofts were ambitious that they determined on a Shakespearean revival in 1875: they felt that you can give the public too much even of a good thing, and thought that a complete change might bring their theater new popularity as well as new honor.
I, however, thought little of this at the time. After my return to the stage in "The Wandering Heir" and my tour with Charles Reade, my interest in the theater again declined. It has always been my fate or my nature—perhaps they are really the same thing—to be very happy or very miserable. At this time I was very miserable. I was worried to death by domestic troubles and financial difficulties. The house in which I first lived in London, after I left Hertfordshire, had been dismantled of some of its most beautiful treasures by the brokers. Pressure was being put on me by well-meaning friends to leave this house and make a great change in my life. Everything was at its darkest when Mrs. Bancroft came to call on me and offered me the part of Portia in "The Merchant of Venice."
I had, of course, known her before, in the way that all people in the theater seem to know each other, and I had seen her act; but on this day, when she came to me as a kind of messenger of Fate, the harbinger of the true dawn of my success, she should have had for me some special and extraordinary significance. I could invest that interview now with many dramatic features, but my memory, either because it is bad or because it is good, corrects my imagination.
"May I come in?"
An ordinary remark, truly, to stick in one's head for thirty-odd years! But it was made in such a very pretty voice—one of the most silvery voices I have ever heard from any woman except the late Queen Victoria, whose voice was like a silver stream flowing over golden stones.
The smart little figure—Mrs. Bancroft was, above all things, petite—dressed in black—elegant Parisian black—came into a room which had been almost completely stripped of furniture. The floor was covered with Japanese matting, and at one end was a cast of the Venus of Milo, almost the same colossal size as the original.
Mrs. Bancroft's wonderful gray eyes, examined it curiously. The room, the statue, and I myself must all have seemed very strange to her. I wore a dress of some deep yellow woolen material which my little daughter used to call the "frog dress," because it was speckled with brown like a frog's skin. It was cut like a Viollet-le-Duc tabard, and had not a trace of the fashion of the time. Mrs. Bancroft, however, did not look at me less kindly because I wore aesthetic clothes and was painfully thin. She explained that they were going to put on "The Merchant of Venice" at the Prince of Wales's, that she was to rest for a while for reasons connected with her health; that she and Mr. Bancroft had thought of me for Portia.
Portia! It seemed too good to be true! I was a student when I was young. I knew not only every word of the part, but every detail of that period of Venetian splendor in which the action of the play takes place. I had studied Vecellio. Now I am old, it is impossible for me to work like that, but I never acknowledge that I get on as well without it.
Mrs. Bancroft told me that the production would be as beautiful as money and thought could make it. The artistic side of the venture was to be in the hands of Mr. Godwin, who had designed my dress for Titania at Bristol.
"Well, what do you say?" said Mrs. Bancroft. "Will you put your shoulder to the wheel with us?"
I answered incoherently and joyfully, that of all things I had been wanting most to play in Shakespeare; that in Shakespeare I had always felt I would play for half the salary; that—oh, I don't know what I said! Probably it was all very foolish and unbusinesslike, but the engagement was practically settled before Mrs. Bancroft left the house, although I was charged not to say anything about it yet.
But theater secrets are generally secrets de polichinelle. When I went to Charles Reade's house at Albert Gate on the following Sunday for one of his regular Sunday parties, he came up to me at once with a knowing look and said:
"So you've got an engagement."
"I'm not to say anything about it."
"It's in Shakespeare!"
"I'm not to tell."
"But I know. I've been thinking it out. It's 'The Merchant of Venice.'"
"Nothing is settled yet. It's on the cards."
"I know! I know!" said wise old Charles. "Well, you'll never have such a good part as Philippa Chester!"
"No, Nelly, never!" said Mrs. Seymour, who happened to overhear this. "They call Philippa a Rosalind part. Rosalind! Rosalind is not to be compared with it!"
Between Mrs. Seymour and Charles Reade existed a friendship of that rare sort about which it is easy for people who are not at all rare, unfortunately, to say ill-natured things. Charles Reade worshiped Laura Seymour, and she understood him and sympathized with his work and his whims. She died before he did, and he never got over it. The great success of one of his last plays, "Drink," an adaptation from the French, in which Charles Warner is still thrilling audiences to this day, meant nothing to him because she was not alive to share it. The "In Memoriam" which he had inscribed over her grave is characteristic of the man, the woman, and their friendship:
HERE LIES THE GREAT HEART OF LAURA SEYMOUR
I liked Mrs. Seymour so much that I was hurt when I found that she had instructed Charles Reade to tell Nelly Terry "not to paint her face" in the daytime, and I was young enough to enjoy revenging myself in my own way. We used to play childish games at Charles Reade's house sometimes, and with "Follow my leader" came my opportunity. I asked for a basin of water and a towel and scrubbed my face with a significant thoroughness. The rules of the game meant that everyone had to follow my example! When I had dried my face I powdered it, and then darkened my eyebrows. I wished to be quite frank about the harmless little bit of artifice which Mrs. Seymour had exaggerated into a crime. She was now hoist with her own petard, for, being heavily made up, she could not and would not follow the leader. After this Charles Reade acquitted me of the use of "pigments red," but he still kept up a campaign against "Chalky," as he humorously christened my powder-puff. "Don't be pig-headed, love," he wrote to me once; "it is because Chalky does not improve you that I forbid it. Trust unprejudiced and friendly eyes and drop it altogether."
Although Mrs. Seymour was naturally prejudiced where Charles Reade's work was concerned, she only spoke the truth, pardonably exaggerated, about the part of Philippa Chester. I know no part which is a patch on it for effectiveness; yet there is little in it of the stuff which endures. The play itself was too unbusiness like ever to become a classic.
Not for years afterwards did I find out that I was not the "first choice" for Portia. The Bancrofts had tried the Kendals first, with the idea of making a double engagement; but the negotiations failed. Perhaps the rivalry between Mrs. Kendal and me might have become of more significance had she appeared as Portia at the Prince of Wales's and preferred Shakespeare to domestic comedy. In after years she played Rosalind—I never did, alas!—and quite recently acted with me in "The Merry Wives of Windsor"; but the best of her fame will always be associated with such plays as "The Squire," "The Ironmaster," "Lady Clancarty," and many more plays of that type. When she played with me in Shakespeare she laughingly challenged me to come and play with her in a modern piece, a domestic play, and I said, "Done!" but it has not been done yet, although in Mrs. Clifford's "The Likeness of the Night" there was a good medium for the experiment. I found Mrs. Kendal wonderful to act with. No other English actress has such extraordinary skill. Of course, people have said we are jealous of each other. "Ellen Terry Acts with Lifelong Enemy," proclaimed an American newspaper in five-inch type, when we played together as Mistress Page and Mistress Ford in Mr. Tree's Coronation production of "The Merry Wives of Windsor." But the enmity did not seem to worry us as much as the newspaper men over the Atlantic had represented.