Mrs Kendal (1849-1931)
(The Brisbane Courier [Queensland, AUS] - 14th October, 1889)
MRS. KENDAL'S REMINISCENCES
In "Murray's Magazine" for September Mrs. Kendal commences whut she terms her "Dramatic Opinions." They are a mixture of causerie and reminiscence, and promise to be very interesting. Everybody knows that Mrs, Kendal is a sister of Tom Robertson, but it may not be so generally known that she was the twenty-second child of her parents. She comes of a family of actors pur sang. Both my father and mother, she says, were on the stage; so were my grandfather and grandmother; so were my great-grandfather and great grandmother; so were my great-aunts and uncles, my simple aunts and uncles, my brothers, my sisters, my nephews, my nieces. I hardly have a relation in the world that hasn't been on the stage, except the new-made knight, Sir William Tindal Robertson, the member for Brighton (and he has cut his throat); but his father, my uncle, was an actor for some years.
My brother Tom, the author, was my father's eldest son. I am sorry to say I did not play in any of his comedies, in none of what is considered his best work. I played in "Dreams" at the Gaiety. I often hear my brother's work spoken of as "The Bread and Butter School." Bread and butter! but what good bread and butter! How fine the Hour! How carefully kneaded, and always served hot from the bakehouse! Then the butter! How fresh and sweet, what an excellent colour, what delicate pretty pats, with just enough salt to give it a rich, delicious flavour! And then, again, how well the butter was spread over the bread - just enough, no more. And this bread, like all good home-made loaves, was all the better for the keeping. Everybody must eat bread and butter, then how necessary these commodities should be wholesome and pure! We Robertsons never speak of Tom without calling him "Napoleon" for his "Bread and Butter School" was the coup d'etat to many things.
MRS. KENDAL'S FIRST APPEARANCE
It was at Mr. Chate's theatre, at Bristol where her mother was acting, that Madge Robertson made her first appearance on the stage, as Eva in "Uncle Tom's Cabin," "At the end of the play I used to be carried up to heaven with Uncle Tom. I was put in a kind of machine, something was put round my waist, and I went up in a sort of apotheosis, as in 'Faust and Marguerite.' I remember too that all my hair was let down my back. I was very fair when I was a child. You can imagine that as one grows older, hair gets darker if nature is not interfered with. When I was about 15 Mr. Wild, who was a partner of Mr. Buckstone at Bradford, came and heard me sing, and insisted on engaging me for the burlesque boy's part of Rasselas. Mr. John O'Connor was the scenic artist. He used to do painting on his own account. I said to him one day, Mr. O'Connor, when I am rich I shall buy a picture from you' and the first five pounds I ever spent on a picture was in buying a bit of still life of his, which now hangs in my drawing-room. At this time I used to play parts in the first piece, the burlesque boy's part in the second, and then I sang, and nobody could discover whether I was going to be an actress or a singer, or what my future was to be. I was told I was 'going to be something,' and perhaps the most tangible result of the prediction was that during this period of my life I began to earn £10 a week. I was very glad and happy, because I then took my father and mother off the stage, and never allowed them to act again. I had for some time been very anxious to do this. One day an old actor had come off the stage and said, 'God bless my soul, Robertson has forgotten his lines again!' I thought 'They shall work no more.' From that time my father and mother never acted again."
BLACK HANDS AND WHITE.
After leaving Bradford, I came to London, and played for six weeks at the Haymarket Theatre with Mr. Walter Montgomery. During the time that I was there Mr. Ira Aldridge was engaged to act. Mr. Ira Aldridge was a man who, being black, always picked out the fairest woman he could to play Desdemona with him, not because she was capable of acting the part, but because she had a fair head. One of the great bits of "business" that he used to do was where in one of the scenes he bad to say, "Your hand, Desdemona." He made a very great point of opening his hand and making you place yours in it, and the audience used to see the contrast. He always made a point of it, and got a round of applause: how, I do not know. Although a genuine black, he was quite preux chevalier in his manners to women. The fairer, you were the more obsequious he was to you. In the last act he used to take Desdemona out of bed by her hair, and drag her round the stage before be smothered her. You had to wear sandals and toed stockings to produce the effect of being undressed.
WANTING TO THROW MR. PHELPS INTO THE HUMBER
At Hull I played Lady Macbeth with Mr. Phelps. "The reason I played Lady Macbeth was that there was nobody else to play it except a very old lady. Mr. Brough told Mr. Phelps that he had better take me, as, whether I could do it or could not, I had at that time so completely got the Hull people to like me that they would forgive me anything. I was put in a garment of my mother's. I went on, and was received tremendously, and, having been taught by my father, I suppose I got through it somehow, and was vociferously cheered. I was called over and over again. Mr. Phelps did not take me before the curtain. Why should he? When he went on again, he was greeted with the most tremendous cries of 'Bring her out!' As my father was standing at the wings he was sent for, and a young man out of the gallery, of enormous size, came round and said to him, 'Ay, Mr. Robertson, if thou sayest t'word, I'll duck him in t'Humber; he's not brought on our Madge.' My father had to take Mr. Phelps out of the front door to avoid the gallery-boy throwing him in t'Humber."
WHY MR, AND MRS. KENDAL ALWAYS ACT TOGETHER.
I have often been asked, I may say by thousands, both in letters and in conversation, as a matter of interest by my friends and from curiosity by others, why my husband and I always act together, and have never been parted. I wish to state to the public why it is so. My father was an actor who said he believed that the greatest amount of domesticity and happiness in a life devoted to art could exist upon the stage, provided husbands and wives never parted. If, on the contrary, a man, because he could earn £10 a week more, went to one theatre, while his wife for a similar reason went to another, their interests tended to become divided; their feelings ran in separate grooves, and gradually a shadow would grow up at home which divided them for ever. On my expressing a wish that I should marry an actor he said that only on this condition would he allow me to marry my husband - that we should never be parted. Mr, and Mrs. Charles Kean always acted together, and she endorsed my father's words. If my husband and I had been separated; if he had played parts to other women; if other women had played parts to him, and I to other men and other men to me, there is no doubt that certain go-ahead people would have preferred it, and we should probably have been worth thousands of pounds more to-day; but on the other hand, there is another section of the public who say they like to see us act together; that the very fact of knowing we are man and wife gives them a certain satisfaction in witnessing our performance which they would not otherwise feel. That, however, I must leave for the public to decide; as far as we are concerned, however, it was a vow made to my father, from which my husband has never departed; and if, when we are dead, we leave our children less money, let us hope they will respect what we have done. Letters have been written to me, and friends have come to me and argued the point, saying it would be more interesting to see another man embracing me. Where the interest comes in, I do not know. Also that it would be infinitely more fascinating if somebody else acted with my husband. I believe there is a little sort of story going forth that the reason of all this is to be found in the existence of a peculiar green-eyed monster in Mrs. Kendal's heart. Poor lady! It is a blessed gift that her shoulders are broad, because I have found that, if a woman has lived many years happily and creditably with her husband, some reason or reasons must be given.
(The Westminster Budget [London, UK] - 26th May, 1889)
STAGE STUDIES - II (FROM AN ACTOR'S POINT OF VIEW) BY GEORGE C. MILN
Therefore to be possess'd with double pomp,
To guard a title that was rich before,
To gild refined gold, to paint the lily,
To throw a perfume on the violet,
To smooth the ice, or to add another hue
Unto the rainbow, or with taper-light
To seek the beauteous eye of heaven to garnish,
Is wasteful, and ridioulous excess.
"I owe what I am largely to heredity," said this charming and skilful artist in a recent summing up of her own professional life. But we cannot permit her to in any way belittle what she is by this ambuscade of modesty. We all owe what we are most largely to heredity; and how small the part played by training and environment is in shaping destiny, only those who have tried, by carefully selected environment and laborious education, to make artistic bricks without the straw of adequate individuality, thoroughly realise.
Mrs. Kendal is facile princeps among English actresses; and whether we credit her ancestry or herself with the fact, to her, so far as we of the moment are concerned, belongs the praise. I enjoy the greater ease in writing of this lady because I have never chanced to meet her; and so the personal equation is happily absent. She may be the most charming of women, or she may be the reverse - to me she is simply a gifted human being who earns a living by acting on the stage.
I had not seen Mrs. Kendal act for some years when I determined to write this article, and so I made a pilgrimage to Denmark Hill to quicken and vitalise my impressions of her work. But the journey was needless. The picture she had left upon my mind in other days was still secure; and I was unable to modify any significant detail of it.
The easiest way out of a difficulty is to face it; and as I am bound to say that I do not think Mrs. Kendal is perfect, let me at once say why, before I make the simple and delightful record of the impression of charm, ease, grace, and feeling which she has left upon my mind. The lighter side of her work suggests, and sometimes too obviously, the presence of artifice. The scaffolding is still up. Or, let me put it in this way -that being so complete a mistress of stagecraft, she exhibits too carelessly how skilful she is in handling her tools of trade. It is a blemish, and a great one for so great an artist. Eleonora Duse - the comparison is quite just - never for an instant creates this impression. I occasionally noticed, also, a quality of aggressive elocution. The playing with inflections, the dallying with pause, the undue lingering upon certain valued vowels, all belong to the formative and experimental period of artistic development. Is it then the luxurious consciousness of having reached a degree "better than senior wrangler" that sometimes betrays Mrs. Kendal into such artificial indulgences?
The third negative note I have set down relates to what is an unavoidable blemish - a peculiarity of voice. The first impression is not altogether pleasant. There is a harshness, a reediness about it, and sometimes an absence of modulation, which jar upon the most fervent admirer. I certainly like Mrs. Kendal better when she is using the method of quiet force, of intense but well controlled passion, than I do when she allows free rein to her emotions and makes use of more strident tones.
Here we have an avowed pupil of Nature who has pored over every leaf of her supreme mistress's text-book, and has graduated at the head of her class. She belongs essentially to the school of stage realists; combines exquisite delicacy and quiet force; is more emotional than intellectual in her dramatic concepts; and is greatest in the middle octave of expression. Of course Mrs. Kendal struck a very true chord in accounting for her own career when she set her success down to heredity; for she possesses a nature sensitively alive to every shade of pathos and every suggestion of humour. And perhaps her greatest stage triumphs are won when she is called upon to simultaneously employ her sense of humour and her appreciation of pathos. When her genial sun of humour shines through the rain of her heartfelt sorrow, she encircles her stage picture with the glories of the artistic rainbow. Then she is great.
Mrs. Kendal exhibits, perhaps too much at times, the habit of thinking before she speaks. It is a reaction against, a protest against, the mere rant and thoughtless declamation of many so called great artists. The protest would be more effective were its method more completely concealed. I take as an illustration of this the passage from "The Elder Miss Blossom" in which she answers her niece's question as to how soon she fell in love with Andrew Quick. The action, the air of mingled embarrassment and joy, is delightful; but the pause before the climax - the thinking pause - impressed me as too long.
This is a great weapon in Mrs. Kendal's hands, the elocutionary pause. She uses it with the greatest skill at times. For example, when she delivers the line describing herself "as a woman whose youth is - past!" the effect is perfect; and that one who can so skilfully use so effective a weapon should be occasionally betrayed into its misuse is not altogether surprising.
If one considers technically Mrs. Kendal's art as an actress, the first conclusion he leaps at is that the finish of her acting is perfect, or as nearly so as we may ever hope to see. It is like a piece of Japanese lacquer polished to the last degree, and with every detailed part so deftly interwoven as to defy detection. Her walk, her gesture, her posings (which are not posings!), her almost unlimited resource in the subtle indication of meanings through facial expression, and by the use of her eyes and of her hands - in all these things Mrs. Kendal, aided by a comely and sinuous physique, has gone as far along the road toward perfection as any actress upon the English stage. As I have intimated already, her greatest moments occur when she is called upon to express hysteria which masters her. When passion and pathos struggle for the mastery, or humour seeks to conceal pain, she rises to Olympian heights. As when she tries to make light of her mortification to Andrew Quick, and exclaims: "Don't go away and laugh at me!" Nothing could be finer than this as laying bare the device of a proud and suffering woman to conceal her own agony.
Mrs. Kendal, in the expose of her methods already referred to, confesses that she is a close and careful student of psychologic phenomena. "I see," she says in M.A.P., "that a certain woman is interested in a certain man - is given either joy or grief through him .... I watch her expression. I follow the play of nerve and muscle in her face, and thus learn how the human face reveals the workings of the human soul; I endeavour to follow what I have learned." Charming confession of scientific process as applied to the histrionic art; and no doubt helpful to so naturally clever a woman. But Mrs. Kendal possesses a surer and more infallible guide in her art-work than all the inductive methods of philosophy can give her. It is the voice of her own heart. I have said that she is more emotional than intellectual in her methods. That is not to say that she is less than a well-brained woman; but it is to say that her heart ever speaks first, and that tutored by the joys and sorrows of wifehood and maternity, educated by the pleasure of victory and the mortification of defeat in the great battle of life, her heart speaks as infallibly as the Vatican itself, and she can never go far wrong in her dramatic ideals if she listens to its prompting.
(The Evening Post [Wellington, NZ] - 13th December, 1884)
A LEADING ACTRESS ON THE BRITISH DRAMA
Mrs. Kendal, who manages the St. James' Theatre conjointly with her husband, lectured before the Social Science Congress at Birmingham, England, on 23rd September. Her subject was the "British Drama." According to Mrs. Kendal's statements, the British drama is in a fair way of going to the dogs, and what there is left of it that is worth saving can only be preserved by energetic measures. The critics, she declared, were both venal and ignorant. They brought to their high task neither the ability to judge fairly of honest efforts nor the desire to do justice. They were governed, first, by the interests of their advertising departments, and, second, by gifts from unscrupulous managers.
Another danger that menaced the drama was found in the ease with which empty-headed sprigs of nobility found their way upon the stage and crowded off those to whom the stage afforded their only means of livelihood, and who were therefore compelled to be faithful and painstaking. "Nowadays" (says Mrs. Kendal) "a fop of fashion consults his tailor and his mirror, and decides that he will go on the stage. That affords him an opportunity to air his masculine graces before some hundreds of women, and is, therefore, the best possible feeder of his vanity. In earlier and better days his ancestors, if he ever had any, showed their skill and courage in the hunt, the chase, or warfare, but our modern heroes are well content to walk through a small part of parlour comedy in a poodle-dog wig."
Mrs. Kendal declared that two of the worst evils that afflicted the stage were the thirst for notoriety on the part of the actors and actresses, aud the over-advertising done by managers under pressure from printers, lithographers, and bill-posters. Among the unworthy advertising dodges of recent days she mentioned the illness of Miss Ellen Terry. That lady, she said, had a sore arm, and ostentatiously displayed it in a bandage and sling while playing the part of Portia. Then she took to her bed toward the end of a dull season with what all her friends knew was but a slight illness, and straw was strewn in front of her house to deaden the noise of traffic while Miss Terry and her friends were feasting inside. Bulletins of her condition were concocted, published, and read as regularly as though the Queen herself had been ill. Mrs. Kendal disclaimed any intention to reflect upon Miss Terry's histrionic ability, but she thought that such advertising claptrap was unworthy of her, either as an actress or as a woman of mature age.