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formed now, would not, it is likely, though we were perfect masters of the language, arouse our feelings more than the simple reading. It was strictly national, and the taste for it must have been acquired by education. It appears to me that our stage performances are of a much higher order, and the performers also, because they are more universally interesting, and the scene is kept nearer to nature. Poetry should speak a universal language, and the stage should speak it too. Let us suppose the insanity of Orestes exhibited by a performer in a mask, who recites the character with a well-regulated tone and emphasis : it is obvious that he would add but little comparative effect to the poetry of the author. Suppose the same piece performed by Garrick or Kean, their acting would be felt and understood, wherever the language was comprehended, because nature shews the same emotions every where under similar causes of excitement. There is a poetical feeling necessary for a modern actor. He must be imaginative, and have an acquaintance with the deep secrets of the mind, which cannot be taught him by art. The actor of the ancients was, perhaps, more the being of study and artifice. Such we may conjecture, for we can conjecture only, is the difference between the two; and if so, the advantage is certainly on the side of the moderns.
In Catholic countries, actors have always been treated with great contumely. The priests and monks formerly promoted the performance of mysteries and other superstitious representations, because it supported the influence of their doctrines, and tended to rivet more firmly the bonds of mental slavery; but they refused acts of common charity, and even burial rites, to the unhappy performers in return, Such is priestcraft: they who reprobated stage-players on the score of a vicious profession, preached the holiness and infallibility of Popes who committed incest and sealed their crimes with blasphemy.* The latest instance of bigot zeal exerted against the inanimate body of a performer in France, was after the return of the Bourbons in Jan. 1815, when the funeral of Madame Raucourt, on arriving at the buryingground of Père La Chaise, at Paris, was refused the rite of burial by the minister, who wished to restore, with the temporal, the spiritual customs of old times. The indignant populace, highly to its honour, compelled the priest to do his duty by force; and such was the popular effervescence, that the experiment of a second refusal will hardly be ventured on again in that city.
We may congratulate ourselves on the increase of our stock of “ harmless amusement," and the superior excellence of our actors, from the liberal view we now take of the profession. Since Garrick appeared, a theatrical race, fostered by the public, of honourable lives and highly talented, have unfolded to us, better than a thousand commentators could do it, the noble conceptions of our dramatic writers. Theatrical talent has increased with the consideration it has received in society. We are now in a third era of histrionic excellence within fourscore years: the first beginning with Garrick, the second with Kemble, Cooke, and Mrs. Siddons, and the third with Kean, Young, and others. In no era of our stage history has the aggregate of
Por example, Pope Alexander VI. who lived in a state of incest with his sister, and had her painted as a Madonna ! VOL. VIII. NO. XXXI.
talent on the boards surpassed the present. Of this, Drury-lane is a sufficient proof. An actress like Mrs. Siddons is, perhaps, wanting, and may never be supplied; but from Kean and Young to the most inferior characters, there is, at Drury-lane, power and matériel such as none of our theatres have before exhibited at the same moment. The tragedies of Shakspeare, that we have been told would not half fill a house during the rage for the “gorgons, hydras, and chimeras dire,” of melodrama, have been played to overflowing benches. Othello and Iago have not cloyed the public taste, which, it now clearly appears, is not so vicious as some blundering managers have been interested in representing it, to cover their own deficiencies.
I confess I love the theatre, for I have received impressions there which no words from human lips have ever produced any where else. I have leaned on the benches, in forgetfulness of all around me but the scene, and, wrapped in a world of ideality, stored up sensations that will
, by and by, feed the thoughts of declining years. The tones of the actor's voice blended themselves with the words of the poet so forcibly, that his name has become associated with them, and I can scarcely remember the one without recalling the other. Kemble's unequalled delivery of certain passages when playing Penruddock, his pathos and heart-thrilling tones, softened into mellowness by intervening time, still come over my mind like a romantic music. It may be, therefore, that I am somewhat prejudiced in favour of the profession, but it is clear to me that I have no attachment for it which is not grounded in reason and reflection; and it demands very much more than what is understood in the term “worldly custom," to convince me I am erroneous in my view of the subject. In all professions there are worthy and unworthy members; but the tragedian, who ranks high in public favour, must be a gifted man, and is therefore entitled to respect. If of unimpeachable character, hard indeed is his lot if he be not equal to a shopkeeper or an attorney in estimation-he who must unite judgment with personal and intellectual qualifications—he who must be a student of the works of genius and the expounder of them to the world, whose pursuit calls into exercise the most vigorous faculties of the mind, and is neither mean and pettifogging on the one hand, nor a tame retailing of ledger-accounts and sordid bargaining on the other. The preference bestowed on riches, the meanest but most influential of possessions, must not be suffered to contravene the truth. The actor who instructs and amuses the public, and who stands well in public opinion, is a being far higher in the intellectual scale than the stockjobber with his plum, or the city gripeall who has amassed his million for the future dissipation of his heirs. There is, too, a reason why actors should be duly estimated in society, arising from a claim on our sympathies. They who delight us through life, leave no marks behind of all their toils to please, of their peculiar excellences and the attractions that commanded the applauses of thousands. The poet, the author, the sculptor, dies and leaves unperishable records of his labours; the soldier's achievement is preserved in history; but the actor consigns no legacy to posterity. His glory is as evanescent as the clap of the multitude, and perishes with himself; he is, therefore, on the score of generosity, entitled to the more consideration when living, in proportion as his lot in this respect is unfelicitous.
In regard to moral worth, I believe we have seen as much of it among the professors of the stage as among an equal number in other walks of life ; and there has been this advantage on the side of the most peccable, that their vices have seldom been varnished by hypocrisy. They were for ever in the public gaze, and the smallest speck was magnified in proportion; but it was never their custom to disguise, under the specious veil of canting, any errors into which they had unhappily fallen; and this is of itself almost a redeeming virtue. On the other side, let the conduct of many actors of both sexes that have been public favourites, be scrutinized even by malevolence, and what will be found registered against them? They have in moral worth been equal to other individuals in society that are respected, and their claims on this score have been tacitly allowed, particularly among actresses. Away, then, with what remains of this unworthy prejudice!
Perhaps some grounds for dislike to the profession may have appeared in the tendency of certain pieces brought on the boards, and the passages offensive to good morals which they contain. This is not the fault of the actor, but of the author, censor, and manager. As a whole, the character of our actors is infinitely beyond the morality of our theatre. We owe much to the stage, but it must be allowed that its secondary class of writers have not made it so instructive or moral as they might have done. Some of the lighter pieces which live but for a moment, are the production of authors who write for the galleries, and have nothing in point of reputation to lose. It is not the piece which holds up to admiration certain points of character in a thief or a murderer that will produce an evil effect on society. Public opinion has stamped both the one and the other of these characters with infamy. In spite of what has been said respecting Macheath, for example, it is highly improbable that any one
ever became a robber from seeing the character performed. It is holding up to the admiration of the vulgar, unmingled with reprobation, lesser scoundrels whose vices are not held in equal detestation, being offences against good manners rather than breaches of laws universally recognized, that is to be condemned. “ Tom and Jerry” is a piece of this class. liad its coarse exhibition of low-lived vices been kept to a picture of vice duly satirized and turned into ridicule, it might have done good. But it is easy to see that where blackguardism and folly are exhibited without due reprobation, the ignorant and volgar of every rank in life will admire the hero of the tale, when his habits and opinions are in unison with their own, and he is made an object of admiration rather than contempt. Our guardians of the night and police magistrates can bear testimony to this truth. Next to the author, the censor intervenes, who ought, if such an interference should be tolerated at all, to have an eye on the indecencies and immoral tendencies of the works of obscure stage-writers. His notions of morality, however, are generally merged in his politics. He is, in fact, only a political automaton, and it is difficult to say whether he could be any thing else without much increasing the mischief of his office; for who could set bounds to puritanical curtailments and alterations which would be as likely to exceed reasonable limits as to keep within them? Yet while such an office exists, a little more attention to this subject might not be misplaced. Still he is so much the creature of accident, as to office,
that he may or may not have grasp of mind enough, little as it requires, to comprehend the true drift of a dramatic piece; he may see it free from sentences of constructive sedition, and think his duty executed. I am astonished how such a play as “The Hypocrite” is tolerated in the present day. In a dramatic view it is unnatural and absurd ; morality it has none. It is forced in every way, and it would be worthy the good sense of the managers of the great theatres to consign it to wellmerited oblivion, instead of suffering its disgusting indecencies to flush the cheeks of the better part of their audiences. Its late reappearance was in very bad taste on Mr. Elliston's part. This play was written to satirize Whitfield, who, with his contemporary and friend Wesley, were virtuous, well-meaning, but enthusiastic men, of blameless conduct and irreproachable lives. However erroneous they might be deemed on points where all can be but matter of opinion, they did infinite good in reforming the morals and softening the brutality of the lower classes, from the colliers of Walsall to the miners of the West. Their labours were, as Lord Chatham would say, more those of a college of fishermen than of a conclave of bishops or cardinals. Notwithstanding their aberration from the statute faith, they were just and conscientious men. Are such men fit objects of disgusting satire in the present enlightened times? Ought not the good sound sense of an English audience (the best censor in a free country) to put down that which no excellence of acting can sanction?
We should wish to see all theatrical reform effected by public taste; rather than by any other mode. How often, after being delighted with the exhibition of a noble tragedy, that has elevated the mind to lofty feeling, and roused to mental activity every latent virtue-how often are we disgusted by an afterpiece calculated to eradicate the good impression the tragedy has produced, indebted to double entendre for wit, and to the slang of St. Giles's for phraseology. Now that Drurylane Theatre is all that can be wished as to elegance of building, accommodation of the audience, and excellence of its company-now that it stands once more the first of our histrionic exhibitions-now that the public fill the house to suffocation on the acting of legitimate tragedy by Kean and Young-it becomes the manager to fix on a firm basis a national standard of taste in his department for our other theatres to imitate. We could wish to see there the selection of tragedy and comedy made from among the best-written and inost pure in the language, and a stern rejection of all mawkish trash, under whatever name introduced. The afterpieces should include none but such as have sterling merit in writing, real wit, and a perfect freedom from those indelicacies and jurations resorted to by sterile writers to fill an hiatus or wind up the climax of a stupid sentence. We could wish to see some of our sound old tragedies, and our old genteel comedy, preserved from desuetude. A singleness of object, on the part of a manager possessing freedom of thought, and a bold reliance on common sense rather than on recorded opinion, might effect much good, and complete a theatre that we might justly be proud to array in all things against any in a foreign country-a Théâtre Anglais, where a pure national literature, excellence of acting, and a due regard to decorum, may save us the trouble of apologizing to strangers for faults which they do not tolerate, and give them a clear idea of a drama
adhering to the verity of existing things, and carrying to the summit of perfection the effect of the romantic or Shakspearian school, which must finally, in every country, take the uppermost place as the mirror of nature. Let Mr. Elliston think originally in this respect, and complete the good work he has entered upon ; for he has given us a novel and high treat by uniting the excellences of our two most distinguished actors in one piece—let him purify the stage of every thing objectionable on the score of taste, and leave behind him a name as the perfecter of our theatrical exhibitions, in propriety *, costume, style, judgment, and morals. There is one difficulty, however, for him to overcome, which, it must be confessed, is embarrassing, namely, the subjugation of the gallery audience to a well-regulated conduct. The pit was formerly the place of the critic, affording, from its situation, the greatest facility of hearing and judging. The applause or censure of the pit decided every thing; it was the mean between the aristocracy of the boxes, and the radicalism of the galleries. At present the pit is generally filled with a respectable but uncritical audience. The amateurs of the performance are scattered through the boxes, in solitary observation. The tempered and judicious censure or applause once displayed by the pit is exchanged for the ignorant howlings and noisy interruptions of the galleries. Inferior actors, particularly in the more vulgar parts, play to the galleries, that now possess such a petty sovereignty over the whole house as it would be a slur on the audience to tolerate, were they not without a remedy to help themselves. Many reasonable alterations, for which a manager would be greeted with applause, would be overruled by the rabble. Farcewriters and melodram-compounders interlard their abortive productions with the vilest diction, to catch the never-failing applause of the "gods," as they are styled. Thus the gallery is, at present, nearly the dictator of the house, a state of affairs which it is difficult for a manager to alter. The gallery is vast in size, and its receipts are a great object in an expensive establishment; but its clamours operate against the interest of the other parts of the house, and its subjugation to the rules of good order seems a work indispensable to complete success. To hope better things from an amelioration of manners in the class that frequents the galleries is an idle expectation; to submit to it for ever will be a stigma both on the manager and the other parts of the house. Some have proposed to divide the gallery longitudinally, and thus prevent a concerted system of action. In what mode that good can be effected, which, unless effected, gives no hope of perfecting our theatrical exhibitions, is matter worthy the serious consideration of all who feel the charm of rational entertainment, and hold in estimation the pleasures of imagination and poesy. Thousands now do not visit the theatre at all, who, if these objections were removed, would be frequent visitants. The theatre, they justly observe, should be a school of the purest language, and a scene of decorum and refinement; it should be visited as an intellectual feast, in which “ no crude surfeit reigned." This subject, which involves the real interest of the drama, has not often enough been brought before the
Why will Mr. Kean persist in playing Othello as a sooty woolly-headed negro? -it is no reason for one of his genius that tragedians have erred before him.