It was during this engagement in 1902 that a young actor who was watching us coming in at the stage-door at His Majesty's one day is reported to have said: "Look at Mr. Tree between his two 'stars'!"
"You mean Ancient Lights!" answered the witty actress to whom the remark was made.
However, "e'en in our ashes burn our wonted fires," or, to descend from the sublime to the ridiculous, and from the poetry of Gray to the pantomime gag of Drury Lane and Herbert Campbell, "Better to be a good old has-been than a never-was-er!"
But it was long before the "has-been" days that Mrs. Kendal decided not to bring her consummately dexterous and humorous workmanship to the task of playing Portia, and left the field open for me. My fires were only just beginning to burn. Success I had had of a kind, and I had tasted the delight of knowing that audiences liked me, and had liked them back again. But never until I appeared as Portia at the Prince of Wales's had I experienced that awe-struck feeling which comes, I suppose, to no actress more than once in a lifetime—the feeling of the conqueror. In homely parlance, I knew that I had "got them" at the moment when I spoke the speech beginning, "You see me, Lord Bassanio, where I stand."
"What can this be?" I thought. "Quite this thing has never come to me before! This is different! It has never been quite the same before."
It was never to be quite the same again.
Elation, triumph, being lifted on high by a single stroke of the mighty wing of glory—call it by any name, think of it as you like—it was as Portia that I had my first and last sense of it. And, while it made me happy, it made me miserable because I foresaw, as plainly as my own success, another's failure.
Charles Coghlan, an actor whose previous record was fine enough to justify his engagement as Shylock, showed that night the fatal quality of indecision.
A worse performance than his, carried through with decision and attack, might have succeeded, but Coghlan's Shylock was not even bad. It was nothing.
You could hardly hear a word he said. He spoke as though he had a sponge in his mouth, and moved as if paralyzed. The perspiration poured down his face; yet what he was doing no one could guess. It was a case of moral cowardice rather than incompetency. At rehearsals no one had entirely believed in him, and this, instead of stinging him into a resolution to triumph, had made him take fright and run away.
People felt that they were witnessing a great play with a great part cut out, and "The Merchant of Venice" ran for three weeks!
It was a pity, if only because a more gorgeous and complete little spectacle had never been seen on the English stage. Veronese's "Marriage in Cana" had inspired many of the stage pictures, and the expenditure in carrying them out had been lavish.
In the casket scene I wore a dress like almond-blossom. I was very thin, but Portia and all the ideal young heroines of Shakespeare ought to be thin. Fat is fatal to ideality!
I played the part more stiffly and more slowly at the Prince of Wales's than I did in later years. I moved and spoke slowly. The clothes seemed to demand it, and the setting of the play developed the Italian feeling in it, and let the English Elizabethan side take care of itself. The silver casket scene with the Prince of Aragon was preserved, and so was the last act, which had hitherto been cut out in nearly all stage versions.
I have tried five or six different ways of treating Portia, but the way I think best is not the one which finds the heartiest response from my audiences. Has there ever been a dramatist, I wonder, whose parts admit of as many different interpretations as do Shakespeare's? There lies his immortality as an acting force. For times change, and parts have to be acted differently for different generations. Some parts are not sufficiently universal for this to be possible, but every ten years an actor can reconsider a Shakespeare part and find new life in it for his new purpose and new audiences.
The aesthetic craze, with all its faults, was responsible for a great deal of true enthusiasm for anything beautiful. It made people welcome the Bancrofts' production of "The Merchant of Venice" with an appreciation which took the practical form of an offer to keep the performances going by subscription, as the general public was not supporting them. Sir Frederick and Lady Pollock, James Spedding, Edwin Arnold, Sir Frederick Leighton and others made the proposal to the Bancrofts, but nothing came of it.
Short as the run of the play was, it was a wonderful time for me. Everyone seemed to be in love with me! I had sweethearts by the dozen, known and unknown. Most of the letters written to me I destroyed long ago, but the feeling of sweetness and light with which some of them filled me can never be destroyed. The task of reading and answering letters has been a heavy one all my life, but it would be ungrateful to complain of it. To some people expression is life itself. Half my letters begin: "I cannot help writing to tell you," and I believe that this is the simple truth. I, for one, should have been poorer, though my eyes might have been stronger, if they had been able to help it.
There turns up to-day, out of a long-neglected box, a charming note about "The Merchant of Venice" from some unknown friend.
"Playing to such houses," he wrote, "is not an encouraging pursuit; but to give to human beings the greatest pleasure that they are capable of receiving must always be worth doing. You have given me that pleasure, and I write to offer you my poor thanks. Portia has always been my favorite heroine, and I saw her last night as sweet and lovely as I had always hoped she might be. I hope that I shall see you again in other Shakespearean characters, and that nothing will tempt you to withhold your talents from their proper sphere."
The audiences may have been scanty, but they were wonderful. O'Shaughnessy, Watts-Dunton, Oscar Wilde, Alfred Gilbert, and, I think Swinburne were there. A poetic and artistic atmosphere pervaded the front of the house as well as the stage itself.
TOM TAYLOR AND LAVENDER SWEEP
I have read in some of the biographies of me that have been published from time to time, that I was chagrined at Coghlan's fiasco because it brought my success as Portia so soon to an end. As a matter of fact, I never thought about it. I was just sorry for clever Coghlan, who was deeply hurt and took his defeat hardly and moodily. He wiped out the public recollection of it to a great extent by his Evelyn in "Money," Sir Charles Pomander in "Masks and Faces," and Claude Melnotte in "The Lady of Lyons," which he played with me at the Princess's Theater for one night only in the August following the withdrawal of "The Merchant of Venice."
I have been credited with great generosity for appearing in that single performance of "The Lady of Lyons." It was said that I wanted to help Coghlan reinstate himself, and so on. Very likely there was some such feeling in the matter, but there was also a good part and good remuneration! I remember that I played Lytton's proud heroine better then than I did at the Lyceum five years later, and Coghlan was more successful as Melnotte than Henry Irving. But I was never really good. I tried in vain to have sympathy with a lady who was addressed as "haughty cousin," yet whose very pride had so much inconsistency. How could any woman fall in love with a cad like Melnotte? I used to ask myself despairingly. The very fact that I tried to understand Pauline was against me. There is only one way to play her, and to be bothered by questions of sincerity and consistency means that you will miss that way for a certainty!
I missed it, and fell between two stools. Finding that it was useless to depend upon feeling, I groped after the definite rules which had always governed the delivery of Pauline's fustian, and the fate that commonly overtakes those who try to put old wine into new bottles overtook me.
I knew for instance, exactly how the following speech ought to be done, but I never could do it. It occurs in the fourth act, where Beauseant, after Pauline has been disillusioned, thinks it will be an easy matter to induce the proud beauty to fly with him:
"Go! (White to the lips.) Sir, leave this house! It is humble; but a husband's roof, however lowly, is, in the eyes of God and man, the temple of a wife's honor. (Tumultuous applause.) Know that I would rather starve—aye, starve—with him who has betrayed me than accept your lawful hand, even were you the prince whose name he bore. (Hurrying on quickly to prevent applause before the finish.) Go!"
It is easy to laugh at Lytton's rhetoric, but very few dramatists have had a more complete mastery of theatrical situations, and that is a good thing to be master of. Why the word "theatrical" should have come to be used in a contemptuous sense I cannot understand. "Musical" is a word of praise in music; why not "theatrical" in a theater? A play in any age which holds the boards so continuously as "The Lady of Lyons" deserves more consideration than the ridicule of those who think that the world has moved on because our playwrights write more naturally than Lytton did. The merit of the play lay, not in its bombast, but in its situation.
Before Pauline I had played Clara Douglas in a revival of "Money," and I found her far more interesting and possible. To act the balance of the girl was keen enjoyment; it foreshadowed some of that greater enjoyment I was to have in after years when playing Hermione—another well-judged, well-balanced mind, a woman who is not passion's slave, who never answers on the spur of the moment, but from the depths of reason and divine comprehension. I didn't agree with Clara Douglas's sentiments but I saw her point of view, and that was everything.
Tom Taylor, like Charles Reade, never hesitated to speak plainly to me about my acting, and, after the first night of "Money," wrote me a letter full of hints and caution and advice:
"As I expected, you put feeling into every situation which gave you the opportunity, and the truth of your intention and expression seemed to bring a note of nature into the horribly sophisticated atmosphere of that hollow and most claptrappy of all Bulwerian stage offenses. Nothing could be better than the appeal to Evelyn in the last act. It was sweet, womanly and earnest, and rang true in every note.
"But you were nervous and uncomfortable in many parts for want of sufficient rehearsal. These passages you will, no doubt, improve in nightly. I would only urge on you the great importance of studying to be quiet and composed, and not fidgeting. There was especially a trick of constantly twiddling with and looking at your fingers which you should, above all, be on your guard against.... I think, too, you showed too evident feeling in the earlier scene with Evelyn. A blind man must have read what you felt—your sentiment should be more masked.
"Laura (Mrs. Taylor) absolutely hates the play. We both thought—detestable in his part, false in emphasis, violent and coarse. Generally the fault of the performance was, strange to say for that theater, overacting, want of repose, point, and finish. With you in essentials I was quite satisfied, but quiet—not so much movement of arms and hands. Bear this in mind for improvement; and go over your part to yourself with a view to it.
"The Allinghams have been here to-day. They saw you twice as Portia, and were charmed. Mrs. Allingham wants to paint you. Allingham tells me that Spedding is going to write an article on your Portia, and will include Clara Douglas. I am going to see Salvini in 'Hamlet' to-morrow morning, but I would call in Charlotte Street between one and two, on the chance of seeing you and talking it over, and amplifying what I have said.
"Ever your true old friend,
A true old friend indeed he was! I have already tried to convey how much I owed to him—how he stood by me and helped me in difficulties, and said generously and unequivocally, at the time of my separation from my first husband, that "the poor child was not to blame."
I was very fond of my own father, but in many ways Tom Taylor was more of a father to me than my father in blood. Father was charming, but Irish and irresponsible. I think he loved my sister Floss and me most because we were the lawless ones of the family! It was not in his temperament to give wise advice and counsel. Having bequeathed to me light-heartedness and a sanguine disposition, and trained me splendidly for my profession in childhood, he became in after years a very cormorant for adulation of me!
"Duchess, you might have been anything!" was his favorite comment, when I was not living up to his ideas of my position and attainments. And I used to answer: "I've played my cards for what I want."
Years afterwards, when he and mother used to come to first nights at the Lyceum, the grossest flattery of me after the performance was not good enough for them.
"How proud you must be of her!" someone would say. "How well this part suits her!"
"Yes," father would answer, in a sort of "is-that-all-you-have-to-say" tone. "But she ought to play Rosalind!"
To him I owe the gaiety of temperament which has enabled me to dance through the most harsh and desert passages of my life, just as he used to make Kate and me dance along the sordid London streets as we walked home from the Princess's Theater. He would make us come under his cloak, partly for warmth, partly to hide from us the stages of the journey home. From the comfortable darkness one of us would cry out:
"Oh, I'm so tired! Aren't we nearly home? Where are we, father?"
"You know Schwab, the baker?"
"Well, we're not there yet!"
As I grew up, this teasing, jolly, insouciant Irish father of mine was relieved of some of his paternal duties by Tom Taylor. It was not Nelly alone whom Tom Taylor fathered. He adopted the whole family.
At Lavender Sweep, with the horse-chestnut blossoms strewing the drive and making it look like a tessellated pavement, all of us were always welcome, and Tom Taylor would often come to our house and ask mother to grill him a bone! Such intimate friendships are seldom possible in our busy profession, and there was never another Tom Taylor in my life.
When we were not in London and could not go to Lavender Sweep to see him, he wrote almost daily to us. He was angry when other people criticised me, but he did not spare criticism himself.
"Don't be Nelly Know-all," I remember his saying once. "I saw you floundering out of your depth to-night on the subject of butterflies! The man to whom you were talking is one of the greatest entomologists in Europe, and must have seen through you at once."
When William Black's "Madcap Violet" was published, common report said that the heroine had been drawn for Ellen Terry, and some of the reviews made Taylor furious.
"It's disgraceful! I shall deny it. Never will I let it be said of you that you could conceive any vulgarity. I shall write and contradict it. Indiscreet, high-spirited, full of surprises, you may be, but vulgar—never! I shall write at once."
"Don't do that," I said. "Can't you see that the author hasn't described me, but only me in 'New Men and Old Acres'?" As this was Tom Taylor's own play, his rage against "Madcap Violet" was very funny! "There am I, just as you wrote it. My actions, manners, and clothes in the play are all reproduced. You ought to feel pleased, not angry."
When his play "Victims" was being rehearsed at the Court Theater, an old woman and old actress who had, I think, been in the preceding play was not wanted. The day the management gave her her dismissal, she met Taylor outside the theater, and poured out a long story of distress. She had not a stocking to her foot, she owed her rent, she was starving. Wouldn't Mr. Taylor tell the management what dismissal meant to her? Wouldn't he get her taken back? Mr. Taylor would try, and Mr. Taylor gave her fifteen pounds in the street then and there!
Mrs. Taylor wasn't surprised. She only wondered it wasn't thirty!
"Tom the Adapter" was the Terry dramatist for many years. Kate played in many of the pieces which, some openly, some deviously, he brought into the English stage from the French. When Kate married, my turn came, and the interest that he had taken in my sister's talent he transferred in part to me, although I don't think he ever thought me her equal. Floss made her first appearance in the child's part in Taylor's play "A Sheep in Wolf's Clothing," and Marion her first appearance as Ophelia in his version of "Hamlet"—perhaps "perversion" would be an honester description! Taylor introduced a "fool" who went about whacking people, including the Prince, by way of brightening up the tragedy.
I never saw my sister's Ophelia, but I know it was a fine send-off for her and that she must have looked lovely. Oh, what a pretty young girl she was! Her golden-brown eyes exactly matched her hair, and she was the winsomest thing imaginable! From the first she showed talent.
From Taylor's letters I find—and, indeed, without them I could not have forgotten—that the good, kind friend never ceased to work in our interests. "I have recommended Flossy to play Lady Betty in the country." "I have written to the Bancrofts in favor of Forbes-Robertson for Bassanio." (Evidently this was in answer to a request from me. Naturally, the Bancrofts wanted someone of higher standing, but was I wrong about J. Forbes-Robertson? I think not!) "The mother came to see me the other day. I was extremely sorry to hear the bad news of Tom." (Tom was the black sheep of our family, but a fascinating wretch, all the same.) "I rejoice to think of your coming back," he writes another time, "to show the stage what an actress should be." "A thousand thanks for the photographs. I like the profile best. It is most Paolo Veronesish and gives the right notion of your Portia, although the color hardly suggests the golden gorgeousness of your dress and the blonde glory of the hair and complexion.... I hope you have seen the quiet little boxes at ——'s foolish article." (This refers to an article which attacked my Portia in Blackwood's Magazine.) "Of course, if —— found his ideal in —— he must dislike you in Portia, or in anything where it is a case of grace and spontaneity and Nature against affectation, over-emphasis, stilt, and false idealism—in short, utter lack of Nature. How can the same critic admire both? However, the public is with you, happily, as it is not always when the struggle is between good art and bad."
I quote these dear letters from my friend, not in my praise, but in his. Until his death in 1880, he never ceased to write to me sympathetically and encouragingly; he rejoiced in my success the more because he had felt himself in part responsible for my marriage and its unhappy ending, and had perhaps feared that my life would suffer. Every little detail about me and my children, or about any of my family, was of interest to him. He was never too busy to give an attentive ear to my difficulties. "'Think of you lovingly if I can'!" he writes to me at a time when I had taken a course for which all blamed me, perhaps because they did not know enough to pardon enough—savoir tout c'est tout pardonner. "Can I think of you otherwise than lovingly? Never, if I know you and myself!"
Tom Taylor got through an enormous amount of work. Dramatic critic and art critic for the Times, he was also editor of Punch and a busy playwright. Everyone who wanted an address written or a play altered came to him, and his house was a kind of Mecca for pilgrims from America and from all parts of the world. Yet he all the time occupied a position in a Government office—the Home Office, I think it was—and often walked from Whitehall to Lavender Sweep when his day's work was done. He was an enthusiastic amateur actor, his favorite part being Adam in "As You Like It," perhaps because tradition says this was a part that Shakespeare played; at any rate, he was very good in it. Gilbert and Sullivan, in very far-off days, used to be concerned in these amateur theatricals. Their names were not associated then, but Kate and I established a prophetic link by carrying on a mild flirtation, I with Arthur Sullivan, Kate with Mr. Gilbert!
Taylor never wasted a moment. He pottered, but thought deeply all the time; and when I used to watch him plucking at his gray beard, I realized that he was just as busy as if his pen had been plucking at his paper. Many would-be writers complain that the necessity of earning a living in some other and more secure profession hinders them from achieving anything. What about Taylor at the Home Office, Charles Lamb at East India House, and Rousseau copying music for bread? It all depends on the point of view. A young lady in Chicago, who has written some charming short stories, told me how eagerly she was looking forward to the time when she would be able to give up teaching and devote herself entirely to a literary career. I wondered, and said I was never sure whether absolute freedom in such a matter was desirable. Perhaps Charles Lamb was all the better for being a slave at the desk for so many years.
"Ah, but then, Charles Lamb wrote so little!" was the remarkable answer.
Taylor did not write "so little." He wrote perhaps too much, and I think his heart was too strong for his brain. He was far too simple and lovable a being to be great. The atmosphere of gaiety which pervaded Lavender Sweep arose from his generous, kindly nature, which insisted that it was possible for everyone to have a good time.
Once, when we were rushing to catch a train with him, Kate hanging onto one arm and I onto the other, we all three fell down the station steps. "Now, then, none of your jokes!" said a cross man behind us, who seemed to attribute our descent to rowdyism. Taylor stood up with his soft felt hat bashed over one eye, his spectacles broken, and laughed, and laughed, and laughed!
Lavender Sweep was a sort of house of call for everyone of note. Mazzini stayed there some time, and Steele Mackaye, the American actor who played that odd version of "Hamlet" at the Crystal Palace with Polly as Ophelia. Perhaps a man with more acute literary conscience than Taylor would not have condescended to "write up" Shakespeare; perhaps a man of more independence and ambition would not have wasted his really fine accomplishment as a playwright for ever on adaptations. That was his weakness—if it was a weakness. He lived entirely for his age, and so was more prominent in it than Charles Reade, for instance, whose name, no doubt, will live longer.
He put himself at the mercy of Whistler, once, in some Velasquez controversy of which I forget the details, but they are all set out, for those who like mordant ridicule, in "The Gentle Art of Making Enemies."
When Tom Taylor criticised acting he wrote as an expert, and he often said illuminating things to me about actors and actresses which I could apply over again to some of the players with whom I have been associated since. "She is a curious example," he said once of an actress of great conscientiousness, "of how far seriousness, sincerity, and weight will supply the place of almost all the other qualities of an actress." When a famous classic actress reappeared as Rosalind, he described her performance as "all minute-guns and minauderies, ... a foot between every word, and the intensity of the emphasis entirely destroying all the spontaneity and flow of spirits which alone excuse and explain; ... as unlike Shakespeare's Rosalind, I will stake my head, as human personation could be!"
There was some talk at that time (the early 'seventies) of my playing Rosalind at Manchester for Mr. Charles Calvert, and Tom Taylor urged me to do it. "Then," he said charmingly, "I can sing my stage Nunc Dimittis." The whole plan fell through, including a project for me to star as Juliet to the Romeo of a lady!
I have already said that the Taylors' home was one of the most softening and culturing influences of my early life. Would that I could give an impression of the dear host at the head of his dinner-table, dressed in black silk knee-breeches and velvet cutaway coat—a survival of a politer time, not an affectation of it—beaming on his guests with his very brown eyes!
Lavender is still associated in my mind with everything that is lovely and refined. My mother nearly always wore the color, and the Taylors lived at Lavender Sweep! This may not be an excellent reason for my feelings on the subject, but it is reason good enough.
"Nature repairs her ravages," it is said, but not all. New things come into one's life—new loves, new joys, new interests, new friends—but they cannot replace the old. When Tom Taylor died, I lost a friend the like of whom I never had again.
A YEAR WITH THE BANCROFTS
My engagement with the Bancrofts lasted a little over a year. After Portia there was nothing momentous about it. I found Clara Douglas difficult, but I enjoyed playing her. I found Mabel Vane easy, and I enjoyed playing her, too, although there was less to be proud of in my success here. Almost anyone could have "walked in" to victory on such very simple womanly emotion as the part demanded. At this time friends who had fallen in love with Portia used to gather at the Prince of Wales's and applaud me in a manner more vigorous than judicious. It was their fault that it got about that I had hired a claque to clap me! Now, it seems funny, but at the time I was deeply hurt at the insinuation, and it cast a shadow over what would otherwise have been a very happy time.
It is the way of the public sometimes, to keep all their enthusiasm for an actress who is doing well in a minor part, and to withhold it from the actress who is playing the leading part. I don't say for a minute that Mrs. Bancroft's Peg Woffington in "Masks and Faces" was not appreciated and applauded, but I know that my Mabel Vane was received with a warmth out of all proportion to the merits of my performance, and that this angered some of Mrs. Bancroft's admirers, and made them the bearers of ill-natured stories. Any unpleasantness that it caused between us personally was of the briefest duration. It would have been odd indeed if I had been jealous of her, or she of me. Apart from all else, I had met with my little bit of success in such a different field, and she was almost another Madame Vestris in popular esteem.
When I was playing Blanche Hayes in "Ours," I nearly killed Mrs. Bancroft with the bayonet which it was part of the business of the play for me to "fool" with. I charged as usual; either she made a mistake and moved to the right instead of to the left, or I made a mistake. Anyhow, I wounded her in the arm. She had to wear it in a sling, and I felt very badly about it, all the more because of the ill-natured stories of its being no accident.
Miss Marie Tempest is perhaps the actress of the present day who reminds me a little of what Mrs. Bancroft was at the Prince of Wales's, but neither nature nor art succeed in producing two actresses exactly alike. At her best Mrs. Bancroft was unapproachable. I think that the best thing I ever saw her do was the farewell to the boy in "Sweethearts." It was exquisite!
In "Masks and Faces" Taylor and Reade had collaborated, and the exact share of each in the result was left to one's own discernment. I remember saying to Taylor one night at dinner when Reade was sitting opposite me, that I wished he (Taylor) would write me a part like that. "If only I could have an original part like Peg!"
Charles Reade, after fixing me with his amused and very glittering eye, said across the table: "I have something for your private ear, Madam, after this repast!" And he came up with the ladies, sat by me, and, calling me "an artful toad"—a favorite expression of his for me!—told me that he, Charles Reade and no other, had written every line of Peg, and that I ought to have known it. I didn't know, as a matter of fact, but perhaps it was stupid of me. There was more of Tom Taylor in Mabel Vane.
I played five parts in all at the Prince of Wales's, and I think I may claim that the Bancrofts found me a useful actress—ever the dull height of my ambition! They wanted Byron—the author of "Our Boys"—to write me a part in the new play, which they had ordered from him, but when "Wrinkles" turned up there was no part which they felt they could offer me, and I think Coghlan was also not included in the cast. At any rate, he was free to take me to see Henry Irving act. Coghlan was always raving about Irving at this time. He said that one evening spent in watching him act was the best education an actor could have. Seeing other people act, even if they are not Irvings, is always an education to us. I have never been to a theater yet without learning something. It must have been in the spring of 1876 that I received this note:
"Will you come in our box on Tuesday for Queen Mary? Ever yours,
"CHARLES T. COGHLAN.
"P.S.—I am afraid that they will soon have to smooth their wrinkled front of the P. of W. Alas! Helas! Ah, me!"
This postscript, I think, must have referred to the approaching withdrawal of "Wrinkles" from the Prince of Wales's, and the return of Coghlan and myself to the cast.
Meanwhile, we went to see Irving's King Philip.
Well, I can only say that he never did anything better to the day of his death. Never shall I forget his expression and manner when Miss Bateman, as Queen Mary (she was very good, by the way), was pouring out her heart to him. The horrid, dead look, the cruel unresponsiveness, the indifference of the creature! While the poor woman protested and wept, he went on polishing up his ring! Then the tone in which he asked:
"Is dinner ready?"
It was the perfection of quiet malignity and cruelty.
The extraordinary advance that he had made since the days when we had acted together at the Queen's Theater did not occur to me. I was just spellbound by a study in cruelty, which seemed to me a triumphant assertion of the power of the actor to create as well as to interpret, for Tennyson never suggested half what Henry Irving did.
We talk of progress, improvement, and advance; but when I think of Henry Irving's Philip, I begin to wonder if Oscar Wilde was not profound as well as witty when he said that a great artist moves in a cycle of masterpieces, of which the last is no more perfect than the first. Only Irving's Petruchio stops me. But, then, he had not found himself. He was not an artist.
"Why did Whistler paint him as Philip?" some one once asked me. How dangerous to "ask why" about anyone so freakish as Jimmy Whistler. But I answered then, and would answer now, that it was because, as Philip, Henry, in his dress without much color (from the common point of view), his long, gray legs, and Velasquez-like attitudes, looked like the kind of thing which Whistler loved to paint. Velasquez had painted a real Philip of the same race. Whistler would paint the actor who had created the Philip of the stage.
I have a note from Whistler written to Henry at a later date which refers to the picture, and suggests portraying him in all his characters. It is common knowledge that the sitter never cared much about the portrait. Henry had a strange affection for the wrong picture of himself. He disliked the Bastien Lepage, the Whistler, and the Sargent, which never even saw the light. He adored the weak, handsome picture by Millais, which I must admit, all the same, held the mirror up to one of the characteristics of Henry's face—its extreme refinement. Whistler's Philip probably seemed to him not nearly showy enough.
Whistler I knew long before he painted the Philip. He gave me the most lovely dinner-set of blue and white Nanking that any woman ever possessed, and a set of Venetian glass, too good for a world where glass is broken. He sent my little girl a tiny Japanese kimono when Liberty was hardly a name. Many of his friends were my friends. He was with the dearest of those friends when he died.
The most remarkable men I have known were, without a doubt, Whistler and Oscar Wilde. This does not imply that I liked them better or admired them more than the others, but there was something about both of them more instantaneously individual and audacious than it is possible to describe.
When I went with Coghlan to see Henry Irving's Philip I was no stranger to his acting. I had been present with Tom Taylor, then dramatic critic of The Times, at the famous first night at the Lyceum in 1874, when Henry Irving put his fortune, counted not in gold, but in years of scorned delights and laborious days—years of constant study and reflection, of Spartan self-denial, and deep melancholy—I was present when he put it all to the touch "to win or lose it all." This is no exaggeration. Hamlet was by far the greatest part that he had ever played, or was ever to play. If he had failed—but why pursue it? He could not fail.
Yet the success on the first night at the Lyceum in 1874 was not of that electrical, almost hysterical splendor which has greeted the momentous achievements of some actors. The first two acts were received with indifference. The people could not see how packed they were with superb acting—perhaps because the new Hamlet was so simple, so quiet, so free from the exhibition of actors' artifices which used to bring down the house in "Louis XI" and in "Richelieu," but which were really the easy things in acting, and in "Richelieu" (in my opinion) not especially well done. In "Hamlet" Henry Irving did not go to the audience. He made them come to him. Slowly but surely attention gave place to admiration, admiration to enthusiasm, enthusiasm to triumphant acclaim.
I have seen many Hamlets—Fechter, Charles Kean, Rossi, Frederick Haas, Forbes-Robertson, and my own son, Gordon Craig, among them, but they were not in the same hemisphere! I refuse to go and see Hamlets now. I want to keep Henry Irving's fresh and clear in my memory until I die.
When he engaged me to play Ophelia in 1878 he asked me to go down to Birmingham to see the play, and that night I saw what I shall always consider the perfection of acting. It had been wonderful in 1874. In 1878 it was far more wonderful. It has been said that when he had the "advantage" of my Ophelia, his Hamlet "improved." I don't think so. He was always quite independent of the people with whom he acted.
The Birmingham night he knew I was there. He played—I say it without vanity—for me. We players are not above that weakness, if it be a weakness. If ever anything inspires us to do our best it is the presence in the audience of some fellow-artist who must in the nature of things know more completely than any one what we intend, what we do, what we feel. The response from such a member of the audience flies across the footlights to us like a flame. I felt it once when I played Olivia before Eleonora Duse. I felt that she felt it once when she played Marguerite Gauthier for me.
When I read "Hamlet" now, everything that Henry did in it seems to me more absolutely right, even than I thought at the time. I would give much to be able to record it all in detail—but it may be my fault—writing is not the medium in which this can be done. Sometimes I have thought of giving readings of "Hamlet," for I can remember every tone of Henry's voice, every emphasis, every shade of meaning that he saw in the lines and made manifest to the discerning. Yes, I think I could give some pale idea of what his Hamlet was if I read the play.
"Words! words! words!" What is it to say, for instance, that the cardinal qualities of his Prince of Denmark were strength, delicacy, distinction? There was never a touch of commonness. Whatever he did or said, blood and breeding pervaded him.
His "make-up" was very pale, and this made his face beautiful when one was close to him, but at a distance it gave him a haggard look. Some said he looked twice his age.
He kept three things going at the same time—the antic madness, the sanity, the sense of the theater. The last was to all that he imagined and thought, what charity is said by St. Paul to be to all other virtues.
He was never cross or moody—only melancholy. His melancholy was as simple as it was profound. It was touching, too, rather than defiant. You never thought that he was wantonly sad and enjoying his own misery.
He neglected no coup de theatre to assist him, but who notices the servants when the host is present?
For instance, his first entrance as Hamlet was, what we call in the theater, very much "worked up." He was always a tremendous believer in processions, and rightly. It is through such means that Royalty keeps its hold on the feeling of the public, and makes its mark as a Figure and a Symbol. Henry Irving understood this. Therefore, to music so apt that it was not remarkable in itself, but merely a contribution to the general excited anticipation, the Prince of Denmark came on to the stage. I understood later on at the Lyceum what days of patient work had gone to the making of that procession.
At its tail, when the excitement was at fever heat, came the solitary figure of Hamlet, looking extraordinarily tall and thin. The lights were turned down—another stage trick—to help the effect that the figure was spirit rather than man.
He was weary—his cloak trailed on the ground. He did not wear the miniature of his father obtrusively round his neck! His attitude was one which I have seen in a common little illumination to the "Reciter," compiled by Dr. Pinches (Henry Irving's old schoolmaster). Yet how right to have taken it, to have been indifferent to its humble origin! Nothing could have been better when translated into life by Irving's genius.
The hair looked blue-black, like the plumage of a crow, the eyes burning—two fires veiled as yet by melancholy. But the appearance of the man was not single, straight or obvious, as it is when I describe it—any more than his passions throughout the play were. I only remember one moment when his intensity concentrated itself in a straightforward, unmistakable emotion, without side-current or back-water. It was when he said:
"The play's the thing With which to catch the conscience of the King."
and, as the curtain came down, was seen to be writing madly on his tablets against one of the pillars.
"Oh, God, that I were a writer!" I paraphrase Beatrice with all my heart. Surely a writer could not string words together about Henry Irving's Hamlet and say nothing, nothing.
"We must start this play a living thing," he used to say at rehearsals, and he worked until the skin grew tight over his face, until he became livid with fatigue, yet still beautiful, to get the opening lines said with individuality, suggestiveness, speed, and power.
Bernardo: Who's there?
Francisco: Nay, answer me; stand, and unfold yourself.
Bernardo: Long live the King!
Francisco: You come most carefully upon your hour.
Bernardo: 'Tis now struck twelve; get thee to bed, Francisco.
Francisco: For this relief much thanks; 'tis bitter cold....
And all that he tried to make others do with these lines, he himself did with every line of his own part. Every word lived.
Some said: "Oh, Irving only makes Hamlet a love poem!" They said that, I suppose, because in the Nunnery scene with Ophelia he was the lover above the prince and the poet. With what passionate longing his hands hovered over Ophelia at her words:
"Rich gifts wax poor when givers prove unkind."
His advice to the players was not advice. He did not speak it as an actor. Nearly all Hamlets in that scene give away the fact that they are actors, and not dilettanti of royal blood. Irving defined the way he would have the players speak as an order, an instruction of the merit of which he was regally sure. There was no patronizing flavor in his acting here, not a touch of "I'll teach you how to do it." He was swift—swift and simple—pausing for the right word now and again, as in the phrase "to hold as 'twere the mirror up to nature." His slight pause and eloquent gesture was the all-embracing word "Nature" came in answer to his call, were exactly repeated unconsciously years later by the Queen of Roumania (Carmen Sylva). She was telling us the story of a play that she had written. The words rushed out swiftly, but occasionally she would wait for the one that expressed her meaning most comprehensively and exactly, and as she got it, up went her hand in triumph over her head. "Like yours in 'Hamlet,'" I told Henry at the time.
I knew this Hamlet both ways—as an actress from the stage, and as an actress putting away her profession for the time as one of the audience—and both ways it was superb to me. Tennyson, I know, said it was not a perfect Hamlet. I wonder, then, where he hoped to find perfection!
James Spedding, considered a fine critic in his day, said Irving was "simply hideous ... a monster!" Another of these fine critics declared that he never could believe in Irving's Hamlet after having seen "part (sic) of his performance as a murderer in a commonplace melodrama." Would one believe that any one could seriously write so stupidly as that about the earnest effort of an earnest actor, if it were not quoted by some of Irving's biographers?
Some criticism, however severe, however misguided, remains within the bounds of justice, but what is one to think of the Quarterly Reviewer who declared that "the enormous pains taken with the scenery had ensured Mr. Irving's success"? The scenery was of the simplest—no money was spent on it even when the play was revived at the Lyceum after Colonel Bateman's death. Henry's dress probably cost him about L2!
My Ophelia dress was made of material which could not have cost more than 2s. a yard, and not many yards were wanted, as I was at the time thin to vanishing point! I have the dress still, and, looking at it the other day, I wondered what leading lady now would consent to wear it.
At all its best points, Henry's Hamlet was susceptible of absurd imitation. Think of this well, young actors, who are content to play for safety, to avoid ridicule at all costs, to be "natural"—oh, word most vilely abused! What sort of naturalness is this of Hamlet's?
"O, villain, villain, smiling damned villain!"
Henry Irving's imitators could make people burst with laughter when they took off his delivery of that line. And, indeed, the original, too, was almost provocative of laughter—rightly so, for such emotional indignation has its funny as well as its terrible aspect. The mad, and all are mad who have, as Socrates put it, "a divine release from the common ways of men," may speak ludicrously, even when they speak the truth.
All great acting has a certain strain of extravagance which the imitators catch hold of and give us the eccentric body without the sublime soul.
From the first I saw this extravagance, this bizarrerie in Henry Irving's acting. I noticed, too, its infinite variety. In "Hamlet," during the first scene with Horatio, Marcellus and Bernardo, he began by being very absent and distant. He exchanged greetings sweetly and gently, but he was the visionary. His feet might be on the ground, but his head was towards the stars "where the eternal are." Years later he said to me of another actor in "Hamlet": "He would never have seen the ghost." Well, there was never any doubt that Henry Irving saw it, and it was through his acting in the Horatio scene that he made us sure.
As a bad actor befogs Shakespeare's meaning, so a good actor illuminates it. Bit by bit as Horatio talks, Hamlet comes back into the world. He is still out of it when he says:
"My father! Methinks I see my father."
But the dreamer becomes attentive, sharp as a needle, with the words:
"For God's love, let me hear."
Irving's face, as he listened to Horatio's tale, blazed with intelligence. He cross-examined the men with keenness and authority. His mental deductions as they answered were clearly shown. With "I would I had been there" the cloud of unseen witnesses with whom he had before been communing again descended. For a second or two Horatio and the rest did not exist for him.... So onward to the crowning couplet:
"... foul deeds will rise, Though all the earth o'erwhelm them to men's eyes."
After having been very quiet and rapid, very discreet, he pronounced these lines in a loud, clear voice, dragged out every syllable as if there never could be an end to his horror and his rage.
I had been familiar with the scene from my childhood—I had studied it; I had heard from my father how Macready acted in it, and now I found that I had a fool of an idea of it! That's the advantage of study, good people, who go to see Shakespeare acted. It makes you know sometimes what is being done, and what you never dreamed would be done when you read the scene at home.
As one of the audience I was much struck by Irving's treatment of interjections and exclamations in "Hamlet." He breathed the line: "O, that this too, too solid flesh would melt," as one long yearning, and, "O horrible, O horrible! most horrible!" as a groan. When we first went to America his address at Harvard touched on this very subject, and it may be interesting to know that what he preached in 1885 he had practiced as far back as 1874.
"On the question of pronunciation, there is something to be said which I think in ordinary teaching is not sufficiently considered. Pronunciation 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 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 dictionary rule. It is said of Edmund Kean that he never spoke such ejaculations, but always sighed or groaned them. Fancy an actor saying:
'My Desdemona! Oh! oh! oh!'
"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 by the laws of pronunciation, then such imperfect laws must be disregarded and nature vindicated!"
It was of the address in which these words occur that a Boston hearer said that it was felt by every one present that "the truth had been spoken by a man who had learned it through living and not through theory."
I leave his Hamlet for the present with one further reflection. It was in courtesy and humor that it differed most widely from other Hamlets that I have seen and heard of. This Hamlet was never rude to Polonius. His attitude towards the old Bromide (I thank you, Mr. Gelett Burgess, for teaching me that word which so lightly and charmingly describes the child of darkness and of platitude) was that of one who should say: "You dear, funny old simpleton, whom I have had to bear with all my life—how terribly in the way you seem now." With what slightly amused and cynical playfulness this Hamlet said: "I had thought some of Nature's journeymen had made men and not made them well; they imitated humanity so abominably."
Hamlet was by far his greatest triumph, although he would not admit it himself—preferring in some moods to declare that his finest work was done in Macbeth, which was almost universally disliked.
When I went with Coghlan to see Irving's Philip, this "Hamlet" digression may have suggested that I was not in the least surprised at what I saw. Being a person little given to dreaming, and always living wholly in the present, it did not occur to me to wonder if I should ever act with this marvelous man. He was not at this time lessee of the Lyceum—Colonel Bateman was still alive—and I looked no further than my engagement at the Prince of Wales's, although in a few months it was to come to an end.
Although I was now earning a good salary, I still lived in lodgings at Camden Town, took an omnibus to and from the theater, and denied myself all luxuries. I did not take a house until I went to the Court Theater. It was then, too, that I had my first cottage—a wee place at Hampton Court where my children were very happy. They used to give performances of "As You Like It" for the benefit of the Palace custodians—old Crimean veterans, most of them—and when the children had grown up these old men would still ask affectionately after "little Miss Edy" and "Master Teddy," forgetting the passing of time.
My little daughter was a very severe critic! I think if I had listened to her, I should have left the stage in despair. She saw me act for the first time as Mabel Vane, but no compliments were to be extracted from her.
"You did look long and thin in your gray dress."
"When you fainted I thought you was going to fall into the orchestra—you was so long."
In "New Men and Old Acres" I had to play the piano while I conducted a conversation consisting on my side chiefly of haughty remarks to the effect that "blood would tell," to talk naturally and play at the same time. I "shied" at the lines, became self-conscious, and either sang the words or altered the rhythm of the tune to suit the pace of the speech. I grew anxious about it, and was always practicing it at home. After much hard work Edy used to wither me with:
"That's not right!"
Teddy was of a more flattering disposition, but very obstinate when he chose. I remember "wrastling" with him for hours over a little Blake poem which he had learned by heart, to say to his mother:
"When the voices of children are heard on the green, And laughing is heard on the hill, My heart is at rest within my breast, And everything else is still. Then come home, my children, the sun is gone down, And the dews of the night arise, Come, come, leave off play, and let us away, Till morning appears in the skies.
No, no, let us play, for yet it is day, And we cannot go to sleep. Besides, in the sky the little birds fly, And the hills are all covered with sheep...."
All went well until the last line. Then he came to a stop.
Nothing would make him say sheep!
With a face beaming with anxiety to please, looking adorable, he would offer any word but the right one.
"And the hills are all covered with—"
"With what, Teddy?"
"Master Teddy don't know."
"Something white, Teddy."
"No, no—does snow rhyme with 'sleep'?"
"No, no. Now, I am not going to the theater until you say the right word. What are the hills covered with?"
"Teddy, you're a very naughty boy."
At this point he was put in the corner. His first suggestion when he came out was:
"Are grass or trees white?" said the despairing mother with her eye on the clock, which warned her that, after all, she would have to go to the theater without winning.
Meanwhile, Edy was murmuring: "Sheep, Teddy," in a loud aside, but Teddy would not say it, not even when both he and I burst into tears!
At Hampton Court the two children, dressed in blue and white check pinafores, their hair closely cropped—the little boy fat and fair (at this time he bore a remarkable resemblance to Laurence's portrait of the youthful King of Rome), the little girl thin and dark—ran as wild as though the desert had been their playground instead of the gardens of this old palace of kings! They were always ready to show visitors (not so numerous then as now) the sights; prattled freely to them of "my mamma," who was acting in London, and showed them the new trees which they had assisted the gardeners to plant in the wild garden, and christened after my parts. A silver birch was Iolanthe, a maple Portia, an oak Mabel Vane. Through their kind offices many a stranger found it easy to follow the intricacies of the famous Maze. It was a fine life for them, surely, this unrestricted running to and fro in the gardens, with the great Palace as a civilizing influence!
It was for their sake that I was most glad of my increasing prosperity in my profession. My engagement with the Bancrofts was exchanged at the close of the summer season of 1876 for an even more popular one with Mr. John Hare at the Court Theater, Sloane Square.
I had learned a great deal at the Prince of Wales's, notably that the art of playing in modern plays in a tiny theater was quite different from the art of playing in the classics in a big theater. The methods for big and little theaters are alike, yet quite unlike. I had learned breadth in Shakespeare at the Princess's, and had had to employ it again in romantic plays for Charles Reade. The pit and gallery were the audience which we had to reach. At the Prince of Wales's I had to adopt a more delicate, more subtle, more intimate style. But the breadth had to be there just the same—as seen through the wrong end of the microscope. In acting one must possess great strength before one can be delicate in the right way. Too often weakness is mistaken for delicacy.
Mr. Hare was one of the best stage managers that I have met during the whole of my long experience in the theater. He was snappy in manner, extremely irritable if anything went wrong, but he knew what he wanted, and he got it. No one has ever surpassed him in the securing of a perfect ensemble. He was the Meissonier among the theater artists. Very likely he would have failed if he had been called upon to produce "King John," but what better witness to his talent than that he knew his line and stuck to it?
The members of his company were his, body and soul, while they were rehearsing. He gave them fifteen minutes for lunch, and any actor or actress who was foolish or unlucky enough to be a minute late, was sorry afterwards. Mr. Hare was peppery and irascible, and lost his temper easily.
Personally, I always got on well with my new manager, and I ought to be grateful to him, if only because he gave me the second great opportunity of my career—the part of Olivia in Wills's play from "The Vicar of Wakefield." During this engagement at the Court I married again. I had met Charles Wardell, whose stage name was Kelly, when he was acting in "Rachael the Reaper" for Charles Reade. At the Court we played together in several pieces. He had not been bred an actor, but a soldier. He was in the 66th Regiment, and had fought in the Crimean War; been wounded, too—no carpet knight. His father was a clergyman, vicar of Winlaton, Northumberland—a charming type of the old-fashioned parson, a friendship with Sir Walter Scott in the background, and many little possessions of the great Sir Walter's in the foreground to remind one of what had been.
Charlie Kelly, owing to his lack of training, had to be very carefully suited with a part before he shone as an actor. But when he was suited—his line was the bluff, hearty, kindly, soldier-like Englishman—he was better than many people who had twenty years' start of him in experience. This is absurdly faint praise. In such parts as Mr. Brown in "New Men and Old Acres," the farmer father in "Dora," Diogenes in "Iris," no one could have bettered him. His most ambitious attempt was Benedick, which he played with me when I first appeared as Beatrice at Leeds. It was in many respects a splendid performance, and perhaps better for the play than the more polished, thoughtful, and deliberate Benedick of Henry Irving.
Physically a manly, bulldog sort of a man, Charles Kelly possessed as an actor great tenderness and humor. It was foolish of him to refuse the part of Burchell in "Olivia," in which he would have made a success equal to that achieved by Terriss as the Squire. But he was piqued at not being cast for the Vicar, which he could not have played well, and stubbornly refused to play Burchell.
Alas! many actors are just as blind to their true interests.
We were married in 1876; and after I left the Court Theater for the Lyceum, we continued to tour together in the provinces during vacation time when the Lyceum was closed. These tours were very successful, but I never worked harder in my life! When we played "Dora" at Liverpool, Charles Reade, who had adapted the play from Tennyson's poem, wrote:
"What have you to fear from me for such a masterly performance! Be assured nobody can appreciate your value and Mr. Kelley's as I do. It is well played all round."
EARLY DAYS AT THE LYCEUM
It is humiliating to me to confess that I have not the faintest recollection of "Brothers," the play by Coghlan, in which I see by the evidence of an old play-bill that I made my first appearance under Mr. Hare's management. I remember another play by Coghlan, in which Henry Kemble made one of his early appearances in the part of a butler, and how funny he was, even in those days, in a struggle to get rid of a pet monkey—a "property" monkey made of brown wool with no "devil" in it, except that supplied by the comedian's imagination. We trusted to our acting, not to real monkeys and real dogs to bring us through, and when the acting was Henry Kemble's, it was good enough to rely upon!
Charles Coghlan seems to have been consistently unlucky. Yet he was a good actor and a brilliant man. I always enjoyed his companionship; found him a pleasant, natural fellow, absorbed in his work, and not at all the "dangerous" man that some people represented him.
Within less than a month from the date of the production of "Brothers," "New Men and Old Acres" was put into the Court bill. It was not a new play, but the public at once began to crowd to see it, and I have heard that it brought Mr. Hare L30,000. My part, Lilian Vavasour, had been played in the original production by Mrs. Kendal, but it had been written for me by Tom Taylor when I was at the Haymarket, and it suited me very well. The revival was well acted all round. Charles Kelly was splendid as Mr. Brown, and Mr. Hare played a small part perfectly.
H.B. Conway, a young actor whose good looks were talked of everywhere, was also in the cast. He was a descendant of Lord Byron's, and had a look of the handsomest portraits of the poet. With his bright hair curling tightly all over his well-shaped head, his beautiful figure, and charming presence, Conway created a sensation in the 'eighties almost equal to that made by the more famous beauty, Lillie Langtry.
As an actor he belonged to the Terriss type, but he was not nearly as good as Terriss. Of his extraordinary failure in the Lyceum "Faust" I shall say something when I come to the Lyceum productions.
After "New Men and Old Acres," Mr. Hare tried a posthumous play by Lord Lytton—"The House of Darnley." It was not a good play, and I was not good in it, although the pleasant adulation of some of my friends has made me out so. The play met with some success, and during its run Mr. Hare commissioned Wills to write "Olivia."
I had known Wills before this through the Forbes-Robertsons. He was at one time engaged to one of the girls, but it was a good thing it ended in smoke. With all his charm, Wills was not cut out for a husband. He was Irish all over—the strangest mixture of the aristocrat and the sloven. He could eat a large raw onion every night like any peasant, yet his ideas were magnificent and instinct with refinement.
A true Bohemian in money matters, he made a great deal out of his plays—and never had a farthing to bless himself with!
In the theater he was charming—from an actor's point of view. He interfered very little with the stage management, and did not care to sit in the stalls and criticise. But he would come quietly to me and tell me things which were most illuminating, and he paid me the compliment of weeping at the wing while I rehearsed "Olivia."
I was generally weeping, too, for Olivia, more than any part, touched me to the heart. I cried too much in it, just as I cried too much later on in the Nunnery scene in "Hamlet," and in the last act of "Charles I." My real tears on the stage have astonished some people, and have been the envy of others, but they have often been a hindrance to me. I have had to work to restrain them.
Oddly enough, although "Olivia" was such a great success at the Court, it has never made much money since. The play could pack a tiny theater; it could never appeal in a big way to the masses. In itself it had a sure message—the love story of an injured woman is one of the cards in the stage pack which it is always safe to play—but against this there was a bad last act, one of the worst I have ever acted in. It was always being tinkered with, but patching and alteration only seems to weaken it.
Mr. Hare produced "Olivia" perfectly. Marcus Stone designed the clothes, and I found my dresses—both faithful and charming as reproductions of the eighteenth century spirit—stood the advance of time and the progress of ideas when I played the part later at the Lyceum. I had not to alter anything. Henry Irving discovered the same thing about the scenery and stage management. They could not be improved upon. There was very little scenery at the Court, but a great deal of taste and care in selection.
Every one was "Olivia" mad. The Olivia cap shared public favor with the Langtry bonnet. That most lovely and exquisite creature, Mrs. Langtry, could not go out anywhere, at the dawn of the 'eighties, without a crowd collecting to look at her! It was no rare thing to see the crowd, to ask its cause, to receive the answer, "Mrs. Langtry!" and to look in vain for the object of the crowd's admiring curiosity.
This was all the more remarkable, and honorable to public taste, too, because Mrs. Langtry's was not a showy beauty. Her hair was the color that it had pleased God to make it; her complexion was her own; in evening dress she did not display nearly as much of her neck and arms as was the vogue, yet they outshone all other necks and arms through their own perfection.
"No worker has a right to criticise publicly the work of another in the same field," Henry Irving once said to me, and Heaven forbid that I should disregard advice so wise! I am aware that the professional critics and the public did not transfer to Mrs. Langtry the actress the homage that they had paid to Mrs. Langtry the beauty, but I can only speak of the simplicity with which she approached her work, of her industry, and utter lack of vanity about her powers. When she played Rosalind (which my daughter, the best critic of acting I know, tells me was in many respects admirable), she wrote to me:
"I bundled through my part somehow last night, a disgraceful performance, and no waist-padding! Oh, what an impudent wretch you must think me to attempt such a part! I pinched my arm once or twice last night to see if it was really me. It was so sweet of you to write me such a nice letter, and then a telegram, too!
"Yours ever, dear Nell,
"P.S.—I am rehearsing, all day—'The Honeymoon' next week. I love the hard work, and the thinking and study."
Just at this time there was a great dearth on the stage of people with lovely diction, and Lillie Langtry had it. I can imagine that she spoke Rosalind's lines beautifully, and that her clear gray eyes and frank manner, too well-bred to be hoydenish, must have been of great value.
To go back to "Olivia." Like all Hare's plays, it was perfectly cast. Where all were good, it will be admitted, I think, by every one who saw the production, that Terriss was the best. "As you stand there, whipping your boot, you look the very picture of vain indifference," Olivia says to Squire Thornhill in the first act, and never did I say it without thinking how absolutely to the life Terriss realized that description!
As I look back, I remember no figure in the theater more remarkable than Terriss. He was one of those heaven-born actors who, like kings by divine right, can, up to a certain point, do no wrong. Very often, like Dr. Johnson's "inspired idiot," Mrs. Pritchard, he did not know what he was talking about. Yet he "got there," while many cleverer men stayed behind. He had unbounded impudence, yet so much charm that no one could ever be angry with him. Sometimes he reminded me of a butcher-boy flashing past, whistling, on the high seat of his cart, or of Phaethon driving the chariot of the sun—pretty much the same thing, I imagine! When he was "dressed up" Terriss was spoiled by fine feathers; when he was in rough clothes, he looked a prince.
He always commanded the love of his intimates as well as that of the outside public. To the end he was "Sailor Bill"—a sort of grown-up midshipmite, whose weaknesses provoked no more condemnation than the weaknesses of a child. In the theater he had the tidy habits of a sailor. He folded up his clothes and kept them in beautiful condition; and of a young man who had proposed for his daughter's hand he said: "The man's a blackguard! Why, he throws his things all over the room! The most untidy chap I ever saw!"
Terriss had had every sort of adventure by land and sea before I acted with him at the Court. He had been midshipman, tea-planter, engineer, sheep-farmer, and horse-breeder. He had, to use his own words, "hobnobbed with every kind of queer folk, and found myself in extremely queer predicaments." The adventurous, dare-devil spirit of the roamer, the incarnate gipsy, always looked out of his insolent eyes. Yet, audacious as he seemed, no man was ever more nervous on the stage. On a first night he was shaking all over with fright, in spite of his confident and dashing appearance.
His bluff was colossal. Once when he was a little boy and wanted money, he said to his mother: "Give me L5 or I'll jump out of the window." And she at once believed he meant it, and cried out: "Come back, come back! and I'll give you anything."
He showed the same sort of "attack" with audiences. He made them believe in him the moment he stepped on to the stage.
His conversation was extremely entertaining—and, let me add, ingenuous. One of his favorite reflections was: "Tempus fugit! So make the most of it. While you're alive, gather roses; for when you're dead, you're dead a d——d long time."
He was a perfect rider, and loved to do cowboy "stunts" in Richmond Park while riding to the "Star and Garter."
When he had presents from the front, which happened every night, he gave them at once to the call-boy or the gas-man. To the women-folk, especially the plainer ones, he was always delightful. Never was any man more adored by the theater staff. And children, my own Edy included, were simply daft about him. A little American girl, daughter of William Winter, the famous critic, when staying with me in England, announced gravely when we were out driving:
"I've gone a mash on Terriss."
There was much laughter. When it had subsided, the child said gravely:
"Oh, you can laugh, but it's true. I wish I was hammered to him!"
Perhaps if he had lived longer, Terriss would have lost his throne. He died as a beautiful youth, a kind of Adonis, although he was fifty years old when he was stabbed at the stage-door of the Adelphi Theater.
Terriss had a beautiful mouth. That predisposed me in his favor at once! I have always been "cracked" on pretty mouths! I remember that I used to say "Naughty Teddy!" to my own little boy just for the pleasure of seeing him put out his under-lip, when his mouth looked lovely!
At the Court Terriss was still under thirty, but doing the best work of his life. He never did anything finer than Squire Thornhill, although he was clever as Henry VIII. His gravity as Flutter in "The Belle's Stratagem" was very fetching; as Bucklaw in "Ravenswood" he looked magnificent, and, of course, as the sailor hero in Adelphi melodrama he was as good as could be. But it is as Thornhill that I like best to remember him. He was precisely the handsome, reckless, unworthy creature that good women are fools enough to love.
In the Court production of "Olivia," both my children walked on to the stage for the first time. Teddy had such red cheeks that they made all the rouged cheeks look quite pale! Little Edy gave me a bunch of real flowers that she had picked in the country the day before.
Young Norman Forbes-Robertson was the Moses of the original cast. He played the part again at the Lyceum. How charming he was! And how very, very young! He at once gave promise of being a good actor and of having done the right thing in following his brother on to the stage. At the present day I consider him the only actor on the stage who can play Shakespeare's fools as they should be played.
Among the girls "walking on" was Kate Rorke. This made me take a special interest in watching what she did later on. No one who saw her fine performance in "The Profligate" could easily forget it, and I shall never understand why the London public ever let her go.
It was during the run of "Olivia" that Henry Irving became sole lessee of the Lyceum Theater. For a long time he had been contemplating the step, but it was one of such magnitude that it could not be done in a hurry. I daresay he found it difficult to separate from Mrs. Bateman and from her daughter, who had for such a long time been his "leading lady." He had to be a little cruel, not for the last time, in a career devoted unremittingly and unrelentingly to his art and his ambition.
It was said by an idle tongue in later years that rich ladies financed Henry Irving's ventures. The only shadow of foundation for this statement is that at the beginning of his tenancy of the Lyceum, the Baroness Burdett-Coutts lent him a certain sum of money, every farthing of which was repaid during the first few months of his management.
The first letter that I ever received from Henry Irving was written on July 20, 1878, from 15A, Grafton Street, the house in which he lived during the entire period of his Lyceum management.
"Dear Miss Terry,—
"I look forward to the pleasure of calling upon you on Tuesday next at two o'clock.
"With every good wish, believe me, sincerely,
The call was in reference to my engagement as Ophelia. Strangely characteristic I see it now to have been of Henry that he was content to take my powers as an actress more or less on trust. A mutual friend, Lady Pollock, had told him that I was the very person for him; that "all London" was talking of my Olivia; that I had acted well in Shakespeare with the Bancrofts; that I should bring to the Lyceum Theater what players call "a personal following." Henry chose his friends as carefully as he chose his company and his staff. He believed in Lady Pollock implicitly, and he did not—it is possible that he could not—come and see my Olivia for himself.
I was living in Longridge Road when Henry Irving first came to see me.
Not a word of our conversation about the engagement can I remember. I did notice, however, the great change that had taken place in the man since I had last met him in 1867. Then he was really almost ordinary looking—with a mustache, an unwrinkled face, and a sloping forehead. The only wonderful thing about him was his melancholy. When I was playing the piano once in the greenroom at the Queen's Theater, he came in and listened. I remember being made aware of his presence by his sigh—the deepest, profoundest, sincerest sigh I ever heard from any human being. He asked me if I would not play the piece again.
The incident impressed itself on my mind, inseparably associated with a picture of him as he looked at thirty—a picture by no means pleasing. He looked conceited, and almost savagely proud of the isolation in which he lived. There was a touch of exaggeration in his appearance—a dash of Werther, with a few flourishes of Jingle! Nervously sensitive to ridicule, self-conscious, suffering deeply from his inability to express himself through his art, Henry Irving, in 1867, was a very different person from the Henry Irving who called on me at Longridge Road in 1878.
In ten years he had found himself, and so lost himself—lost, I mean, much of that stiff, ugly, self-consciousness which had encased him as the shell encases the lobster. His forehead had become more massive, and the very outline of his features had altered. He was a man of the world, whose strenuous fighting now was to be done as a general—not, as hitherto, in the ranks. His manner was very quiet and gentle. "In quietness and confidence shall be your strength," says the Psalmist. That was always like Henry Irving.
And here, perhaps, is the place to say that I, of all people, can perhaps appreciate Henry Irving least justly, although I was his associate on the stage for a quarter of a century, and was on the terms of the closest friendship with him for almost as long a time. He had precisely the qualities that I never find likable.
He was an egotist—an egotist of the great type, never "a mean egotist," as he was once slanderously described—and all his faults sprang from egotism, which is in one sense, after all, only another name for greatness. So much absorbed was he in his own achievements that he was unable or unwilling to appreciate the achievements of others. I never heard him speak in high terms of the great foreign actors and actresses who from time to time visited England. It would be easy to attribute this to jealousy, but the easy explanation is not the true one. He simply would not give himself up to appreciation. Perhaps appreciation is a wasting though a generous quality of the mind and heart, and best left to lookers-on, who have plenty of time to develop it.
I was with him when he saw Sarah Bernhardt act for the first time. The play was "Ruy Blas," and it was one of Sarah's bad days. She was walking through the part listlessly, and I was angry that there should be any ground for Henry's indifference. The same thing happened years later, when I took him to see Eleonora Duse. The play was "La Locandiera," in which to my mind she is not at her very best. He was surprised at my enthusiasm. There was an element of justice in his attitude towards the performance which infuriated me, but I doubt if he would have shown more enthusiasm if he had seen her at her very best.
As the years went on he grew very much attached to Sarah Bernhardt, and admired her as a colleague whose managerial work in the theater was as dignified as his own, but of her superb powers as an actress, I don't believe he ever had a glimmering notion!
Perhaps it is not true, but, as I believe it to be true, I may as well state it: It was never any pleasure to him to see the acting of other actors and actresses. All the same, Salvini's Othello I know he thought magnificent, but he would not speak of it.
How dangerous it is to write things that may not be understood! What I have written I have written merely to indicate the qualities in Henry Irving's nature, which were unintelligible to me, perhaps because I have always been more woman than artist. He always put the theater first. He lived in it, he died in it. He had none of what I may call my bourgeois qualities—the love of being in love, the love of a home, the dislike of solitude. I have always thought it hard to find my inferiors. He was sure of his high place. He was far simpler than I in some ways. He would talk, for instance, in such an ingenuous way to painters and musicians that I blushed for him. But I know now that my blush was far more unworthy than his freedom from all pretentiousness in matters of art.
He never pretended. One of his biographers has said that he posed as being a French scholar. Such a thing, and all things like it, were impossible to his nature. If it were necessary in one of his plays to say a few French words, he took infinite pains to learn them and said them beautifully.
Henry once told me that in the early part of his career, before I knew him, he had been hooted because of his thin legs. The first service I did him was to tell him they were beautiful, and to make him give up padding them.
"What do you want with fat, podgy, prize-fighter legs!" I expostulated.
Praise to some people at certain stages of their career is more developing than blame. I admired the very things in Henry for which other people criticized him. I hope this helped him a little.
I brought help, too, in pictorial matters. Henry Irving had had little training in such matters—I had had a great deal. Judgment about colors, clothes and lighting must be trained. I had learned from Mr. Watts, from Mr. Godwin, and from other artists, until a sense of decorative effect had become second nature to me.
Before the rehearsals of "Hamlet" began at the Lyceum I went on a provincial tour with Charles Kelly, and played for the first time in "Dora," and "Iris," besides doing a steady round of old parts. In Birmingham I went to see Henry's Hamlet. (I have tried already, most inadequately, to say what it was to me.) I had also appeared for the first time as Lady Teazle—a part which I wish I was not too old to play now, for I could play it better. My performance in 1877 was not finished enough, not light enough. I think I did the screen scene well. When the screen was knocked over I did not stand still and rigid with eyes cast down. That seemed to me an attitude of guilt. Only a guilty woman, surely, in such a situation would assume an air of conscious virtue. I shrank back, and tried to hide my face—a natural movement, so it seemed to me, for a woman who had been craning forward, listening in increasing agitation to the conversation between Charles and Joseph Surface.
I shall always regret that we never did "The School for Scandal," or any of the other classic comedies, at the Lyceum. There came a time when Henry was anxious for me to play Lady Teazle, but I opposed him, as I thought that I was too old. It should have been one of my best parts.
"Star" performances, for the benefit of veteran actors retiring from the stage, were as common in my youth as now. About this time I played in "Money" for the benefit of Henry Compton, a fine comedian who had delighted audiences at the Haymarket for many years. On this occasion I did not play Clara Douglas as I had done during the revival at the Prince of Wales's, but the comedy part, Georgina Vesey. John Hare, Mr. and Mrs. Kendal, Henry Neville, Mr. and Mrs. Bancroft, and, last but not least, Benjamin Webster, who came out of his retirement to play Graves—"his original part"—were in the cast.
I don't think that Webster ever appeared on the stage again, although he lived on for many years in an old-fashioned house near Kennington Church, and died at a great age. He has a descendant on the stage in Mr. Ben Webster, who acted with us at the Lyceum, and is now well known both in England and America.
Henry Compton's son, Edward, was in this performance of "Money." He was engaged to the beautiful Adelaide Neilson, an actress whose brilliant career was cut off suddenly when she was riding in the Bois. She drank a glass of milk when she was overheated, was taken ill, and died. I am told that she commanded L700 a week in America, and in England people went wild over her Juliet. She looked like a child of the warm South, although she was born, I think, in Manchester, and her looks were much in her favor as Juliet. She belonged to the ripe, luscious, pomegranate type of woman. The only living actress with the same kind of beauty is Maxine Elliott.
Adelaide Neilson had a short reign, but a most triumphant one. It was easy to understand it when one saw her. She was so gracious, so feminine, so lovely. She did things well, but more from instinct than anything else. She had no science. Edward Compton now takes his own company round the provinces in an excellent repertoire of old comedies. He has done as much to make country audiences familiar with them as Mr. Benson has done to make them familiar with Shakespeare.
I come now to the Lyceum rehearsals of November, 1878. Although Henry Irving had played Hamlet for over two hundred nights in London, and for I don't know how many nights in the provinces, he always rehearsed in cloak and rapier. This careful attention to detail came back to my mind years afterwards, when he gave readings of Macbeth. He never gave a public reading without first going through the entire play at home—at home, that is to say, in a miserably uncomfortable hotel.
During the first rehearsal he read every one's part except mine, which he skipped, and the power that he put into each part was extraordinary. He threw himself so thoroughly into it that his skin contracted and his eyes shone. His lips grew whiter and whiter, and his skin more and more drawn as the time went on, until he looked like a livid thing, but beautiful.
He never got at anything easily, and often I felt angry that he would waste so much of his strength in trying to teach people to do things in the right way. Very often it only ended in his producing actors who gave colorless, feeble and unintelligent imitations of him. There were exceptions, of course.
When it came to the last ten days before the date named for the production of "Hamlet," and my scenes with him were still unrehearsed, I grew very anxious and miserable. I was still a stranger in the theater, and in awe of Henry Irving personally; but I plucked up courage, and said:
"I am very nervous about my first appearance with you. Couldn't we rehearse our scenes?"
"We shall be all right!" he answered, "but we are not going to run the risk of being bottled up by a gas-man or a fiddler."
When I spoke, I think he was conducting a band rehearsal. Although he did not understand a note of music, he felt, through intuition, what the music ought to be, and would pull it about and have alterations made. No one was cleverer than Hamilton Clarke, Henry's first musical director, and a most gifted composer, at carrying out his instructions. Hamilton Clarke often grew angry and flung out of the theater, saying that it was quite impossible to do what Mr. Irving required.
"Patch it together, indeed!" he used to say to me indignantly, when I was told off to smooth him down. "Mr. Irving knows nothing about music, or he couldn't ask me to do such a thing."
But the next day he would return with the score altered on the lines suggested by Henry, and would confess that the music was improved. "Upon my soul, it's better! The 'Guv'nor' was perfectly right."
His Danish march in "Hamlet," his Brocken music in "Faust," and his music for "The Merchant of Venice" were all, to my mind, exactly right. The brilliant gifts of Clarke, before many years had passed, "o'er-leaped" themselves, and he ended his days in a lunatic asylum.
The only person who did not profit by Henry's ceaseless labors was poor Ophelia. When the first night came, I did not play the part well, although the critics and the public were pleased. To myself I failed. I had not rehearsed enough. I can remember one occasion when I played Ophelia really well. It was in Chicago some ten years later. At Drury Lane, in 1896, when I played the mad scene for Nelly Farren's benefit, and took farewell of the part for ever, I was just damnable!
Ophelia only pervades the scenes in which she is concerned until the mad scene. This was a tremendous thing for me, who am not capable of sustained effort, but can perhaps manage a cumulative effort better than most actresses. I have been told that Ophelia has "nothing to do" at first. I found so much to do! Little bits of business which, slight in themselves, contributed to a definite result, and kept me always in the picture.
Like all Ophelias before (and after) me, I went to the madhouse to study wits astray. I was disheartened at first. There was no beauty, no nature, no pity in most of the lunatics. Strange as it may sound, they were too theatrical to teach me anything. Then, just as I was going away, I noticed a young girl gazing at the wall. I went between her and the wall to see her face. It was quite vacant, but the body expressed that she was waiting, waiting. Suddenly she threw up her hands and sped across the room like a swallow. I never forgot it. She was very thin, very pathetic, very young, and the movement was as poignant as it was beautiful.
I saw another woman laugh with a face that had no gleam of laughter anywhere—a face of pathetic and resigned grief.
My experiences convinced me that the actor must imagine first and observe afterwards. It is no good observing life and bringing the result to the stage without selection, without a definite idea. The idea must come first, the realism afterwards.
Perhaps because I was nervous and irritable about my own part from insufficient rehearsal, perhaps because his responsibility as lessee weighed upon him, Henry Irving's Hamlet on the first night at the Lyceum seemed to me less wonderful than it had been at Birmingham. At rehearsals he had been the perfection of grace. On the night itself, he dragged his leg and seemed stiff from self-consciousness. He asked me later on if I thought the ill-natured criticism of his walk was in any way justified, and if he really said "Gud" for "God," and the rest of it. I said straight out that he did say his vowels in a peculiar way, and that he did drag his leg.
I begged him to give up that dreadful, paralyzing waiting at the side for his cue, and after a time he took my advice. He was never obstinate in such matters. His one object was to find out, to test suggestion, and follow it if it stood his test.
He was very diplomatic when he meant to have his own way. He never blustered or enforced or threatened. My first acquaintance with this side of him was made over my dresser for Ophelia. He had heard that I intended to wear black in the mad scene, and he intended me to wear white. When he first mentioned the subject, I had no idea that there would be any opposition. He spoke of my dresses, and I told him that as I was very anxious not to be worried about them at the last minute, they had been got on with early and were now finished.
"Finished! That's very interesting! Very interesting. And what—er—what colors are they?"
"In the first scene I wear a pinkish dress. It's all rose-colored with her. Her father and brother love her. The Prince loves her—and so she wears pink."
"Pink," repeated Henry thoughtfully.
"In the nunnery scene I have a pale, gold, amber dress—the most beautiful color. The material is a church brocade. It will 'tone down' the color of my hair. In the last scene I wear a transparent, black dress."
Henry did not wag an eyelid.
"I see. In mourning for her father."
"No, not exactly that. I think red was the mourning color of the period. But black seems to me right—like the character, like the situation."
"Would you put the dresses on?" said Henry gravely.
At that minute Walter Lacy came up, that very Walter Lacy who had been with Charles Kean when I was a child, and who now acted as adviser to Henry Irving in his Shakespearean productions.
"Ah, here's Lacy. Would you mind, Miss Terry, telling Mr. Lacy what you are going to wear?"
Rather surprised, but still unsuspecting, I told Lacy all over again. Pink in the first scene, yellow in the second, black—
You should have seen Lacy's face at the word "black." He was going to burst out, but Henry stopped him. He was more diplomatic than that!
"They generally wear white, don't they?"
"I believe so," I answered, "but black is more interesting."
"I should have thought you would look much better in white."
"Oh, no!" I said.
And then they dropped the subject for that day. It was clever of him!
The next day Lacy came up to me:
"You didn't really mean that you are going to wear black in the mad scene?"
"Yes, I did. Why not?"
"Why not! My God! Madam, there must be only one black figure in this play, and that's Hamlet!"
I did feel a fool. What a blundering donkey I had been not to see it before! I was very thrifty in those days, and the thought of having been the cause of needless expense worried me. So instead of the crepe de Chine and miniver, which had been used for the black dress, I had for the white dress Bolton sheeting and rabbit, and I believe it looked better.
The incident, whether Henry was right or not, led me to see that, although I knew more of art and archaeology in dress than he did, he had a finer sense of what was right for the scene. After this he always consulted me about the costumes, but if he said: "I want such and such a scene to be kept dark and mysterious," I knew better than to try and introduce pale-colored dresses into it.
Henry always had a fondness for "the old actor," and would engage him in preference to the tyro any day. "I can trust them," he explained briefly.
In the cast of "Hamlet" Mr. Forrester, Mr. Chippendale, and Tom Mead worthily repaid the trust. Mead, in spite of a terrible excellence in "Meadisms"—he substituted the most excruciatingly funny words for Shakespeare's when his memory of the text failed—was a remarkable actor. His voice as the Ghost was beautiful, and his appearance splendid. With his deep-set eyes, hawklike nose, and clear brow, he reminded me of the Rameses head in the British Museum.
We had young men in the cast, too. There was one very studious youth who could never be caught loafing. He was always reading, or busy in the greenroom studying by turns the pictures of past actor-humanity with which the walls were peopled, or the present realities of actors who came in and out of the room. Although he was so much younger then, Mr. Pinero looked much as he does now. He played Rosencrantz very neatly. Consummate care, precision, and brains characterized his work as an actor always, but his chief ambition lay another way. Rosencrantz and the rest were his school of stage-craft.
Kyrle Bellew, the Osric of the production, was another man of the future, though we did not know it. He was very handsome, a tremendous lady-killer! He wore his hair rather long, had a graceful figure, and a good voice, as became the son of a preacher who had the reputation of saying the Lord's Prayer so dramatically that his congregation sobbed.
Frank Cooper, a descendant of the Kembles, another actor who has risen to eminence since, played Laertes. It was he who first led me onto the Lyceum stage. Twenty years later he became my leading man on the first tour I took independently of Henry Irving since my tours with my husband, Charles Kelly.
WORK AT THE LYCEUM
When I am asked what I remember about the first ten years at the Lyceum, I can answer in one word: Work. I was hardly ever out of the theater. What with acting, rehearsing, and studying—twenty-five reference books were a "simple coming-in" for one part—I sometimes thought I should go blind and mad. It was not only for my parts at the Lyceum that I had to rehearse. From August to October I was still touring in the provinces on my own account. My brother George acted as my business manager. His enthusiasm was not greater than his loyalty and industry. When we were playing in small towns he used to rush into my dressing-room after the curtain was up and say excitedly:
"We've got twenty-five more people in our gallery than the Blank Theater opposite!"
Although he was very delicate, he worked for me like a slave. When my tours with Mr. Kelly ended in 1880 and I promised Henry Irving that in future I would go to the provincial towns with him, my brother was given a position at the Lyceum, where, I fear, his scrupulous and uncompromising honesty often got him into trouble. "Perks," as they are called in domestic service, are one of the heaviest additions to a manager's working expenses, and George tried to fight the system. He hurt no one so much as himself.
One of my productions in the provinces was an English version of "Frou-Frou," made for me by my dear friend Mrs. Comyns Carr, who for many years designed the dresses that I wore in different Lyceum plays. "Butterfly," as "Frou-Frou" was called when it was produced in English, went well; indeed, the Scots of Edinburgh received it with overwhelming favor, and it served my purpose at the time, but when I saw Sarah Bernhardt play the part I wondered that I had had the presumption to meddle with it. It was not a case of my having a different view of the character and playing it according to my imagination, as it was, for instance, when Duse played "La Dame aux Camelias," and gave a performance that one could not say was inferior to Bernhardt's, although it was so utterly different. No people in their right senses could have accepted my "Frou-Frou" instead of Sarah's. What I lacked technically in it was pace.
Of course, it is partly the language. English cannot be phrased as rapidly as French. But I have heard foreign actors, playing in the English tongue, show us this rapidity, this warmth, this fury—call it what you will—and have just wondered why we are, most of us, so deficient in it.
Fechter had it, so had Edwin Forrest. When strongly moved, their passions and their fervor made them swift. The more Henry Irving felt, the more deliberate he became. I said to him once: "You seem to be hampered in the vehemence of passion." "I am," he answered. This is what crippled his Othello, and made his scene with Tubal in "The Merchant of Venice" the least successful to him. What it was to the audience is another matter. But he had to take refuge in speechless rage when he would have liked to pour out his words like a torrent.
In the company which Charles Kelly and I took round the provinces in 1880 were Henry Kemble and Charles Brookfield. Young Brookfield was just beginning life as an actor, and he was so brilliantly funny off the stage that he was always a little disappointing on it. My old manageress, Mrs. Wigan, first brought him to my notice, writing in a charming little note that she knew him "to have a power of personation very rare in an unpracticed actor," and that if we could give him varied practice, she would feel it a courtesy to her.
I had reason to admire Mr. Brookfield's "powers of personation" when I was acting at Buxton. He and Kemble had no parts in one of our plays, so they amused themselves during their "off" night by hiring bath-chairs and pretending to be paralytics! We were acting in a hall, and the most infirm of the invalids visiting the place to take the waters were wheeled in at the back, and up the center aisle. In the middle of a very pathetic scene I caught sight of Kemble and Brookfield in their bath-chairs, and could not speak for several minutes.
Mr. Brookfield does not tell this little story in his "Random Reminiscences." It is about the only one that he has left out! To my mind he is the prince of storytellers. All the cleverness that he should have put into his acting and his play-writing (of which since those early days he has done a great deal) he seems to have put into his life. I remember him more clearly as a delightful companion than an actor, and he won my heart at once by his kindness to my little daughter Edy, who accompanied me on this tour. He has too great a sense of humor to resent my inadequate recollection of him. Did he not in his own book quote gleefully from an obituary notice published on a false report of his death, the summary: "Never a great actor, he was invaluable in small parts. But after all it is at his club that he will be most missed!"