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! Hélas! 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 théâtre 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 £2!
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."
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 £30,000. 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 £5 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 £700 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 répertoire 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 crêpe 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.
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 Camélias," 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!"
In the last act of "Butterfly," as we called the English version of "Frou-Frou," where the poor woman is dying, her husband shows her a locket with a picture of her child in it. Night after night we used a "property" locket, but on my birthday, when we happened to be playing the piece, Charles Kelly bought a silver locket of Indian work and put inside it two little colored photographs of my children, Edy and Teddy, and gave it to me on the stage instead of the "property" one. When I opened it, I burst into very real tears! I have often wondered since if the audience that night knew that they were seeing real instead of assumed emotion! Probably the difference did not tell at all.
At Leeds we produced "Much Ado About Nothing." I never played Beatrice as well again. When I began to "take soundings" from life for my idea of her, I found in my friend Anne Codrington (now Lady Winchilsea) what I wanted. There was before me a Beatrice--as fine a lady as ever lived, a great-hearted woman--beautiful, accomplished, merry, tender. When Nan Codrington came into a room it was as if the sun came out. She was the daughter of an admiral, and always tried to make her room look as like a cabin as she could. "An excellent musician," as Benedick hints Beatrice was, Nan composed the little song that I sang at the Lyceum in "The Cup," and very good it was, too.
When Henry Irving put on "Much Ado About Nothing"--a play which he may be said to have done for me, as he never really liked the part of Benedick--I was not the same Beatrice at all. A great actor can do nothing badly, and there was so very much to admire in Henry Irving's Benedick. But he gave me little help. Beatrice must be swift, swift, swift! Owing to Henry's rather finicking, deliberate method as Benedick, I could never put the right pace into my part. I was also feeling unhappy about it, because I had been compelled to give way about a traditional "gag" in the church scene, with which we ended the fourth act. In my own production we had scorned this gag, and let the curtain come down on Benedick's line: "Go, comfort your cousin; I must say she is dead, and so farewell." When I was told that we were to descend to the buffoonery of:
Beatrice: Benedick, kill him--kill him if you can.
Benedick: As sure as I'm alive, I will!
I protested, and implored Henry not to do it. He said that it was necessary: otherwise the "curtain" would be received in dead silence. I assured him that we had often had seven and eight calls without it. I used every argument, artistic and otherwise. Henry, according to his custom, was gentle, would not discuss it much, but remained obdurate. After holding out for a week, I gave in. "It's my duty to obey your orders, and do it," I said, "but I do it under protest." Then I burst into tears. It was really for his sake just as much as for mine. I thought it must bring such disgrace on him! Looking back on the incident, I find that the most humorous thing in connection with it was that the critics, never reluctant to accuse Henry of "monkeying" with Shakespeare if they could find cause, never noticed the gag at all!
Such disagreements occurred very seldom. In "The Merchant of Venice" I found that Henry Irving's Shylock necessitated an entire revision of my conception of Portia, especially in the trial scene, but here there was no point of honor involved. I had considered, and still am of the same mind, that Portia in the trial scene ought to be very quiet. I saw an extraordinary effect in this quietness. But as Henry's Shylock was quiet, I had to give it up. His heroic saint was splendid, but it wasn't good for Portia.
Of course, there were always injudicious friends to say that I had not "chances" enough at the Lyceum. Even my father said to me after "Othello":
"We must have no more of these Ophelias and Desdemonas!"
"Father!" I cried out, really shocked.
"They're second fiddle parts--not the parts for you, Duchess."
"Father!" I gasped out again, for really I thought Ophelia a pretty good part, and was delighted at my success with it.
But granting these were "second fiddle" parts, I want to make quite clear that I had my turn of "first fiddle" ones. "Romeo and Juliet," "Much Ado About Nothing," "Olivia," and "The Cup" all gave me finer opportunities than they gave Henry. In "The Merchant of Venice" and "Charles I." they were at least equal to his.
I have sometimes wondered what I should have accomplished without Henry Irving. I might have had "bigger" parts, but it doesn't follow that they would have been better ones, and if they had been written by contemporary dramatists my success would have been less durable. "No actor or actress who doesn't play in the 'classics'--in Shakespeare or old comedy--will be heard of long," was one of Henry Irving's sayings, by the way, and he was right.
It was a long time before we had much talk with each other. In the "Hamlet" days, Henry Irving's melancholy was appalling. I remember feeling as if I had laughed in church when he came to the foot of the stairs leading to my dressing-room, and caught me sliding down the banisters! He smiled at me, but didn't seem able to get over it.
"Lacy," he said some days later, "what do you think! I found her the other day sliding down the banisters!"
Some one says--I think it is Keats, in a letter--that the poet lives not in one, but in a thousand worlds, and the actor has not one, but a hundred natures. What was the real Henry Irving? I used to speculate!
His religious upbringing always left its mark on him, though no one could be more "raffish" and mischievous than he when entertaining friends at supper in the Beefsteak Room, or chaffing his valued adjutants, Bram Stoker and Loveday. H.J. Loveday, our dear stage manager, was, I think, as absolutely devoted to Henry as anyone except his fox-terrier, Fussie. Loveday's loyalty made him agree with everything that Henry said, however preposterous, and didn't Henry trade on it sometimes!
Once while he was talking to me, when he was making up, he absently took a white lily out of a bowl on the table and began to stripe and dot the petals with the stick of grease-paint in his hand. He pulled off one or two of the petals, and held it out to me.
"Pretty flower, isn't it?"
"Oh, don't be ridiculous, Henry!" I said.
"You wait!" he said mischievously. "We'll show it to Loveday."
Loveday was sent for on some business connected with the evening's performance. Henry held out the flower obtrusively, but Loveday wouldn't notice it.
"Pretty, isn't it?" said Henry carelessly.
"Very," said Loveday. "I always like those lilies. A friend of mine has his garden full of them, and he says they're not so difficult to grow if only you give 'em enough water."
Henry's delight at having "taken in" Loveday was childish. But sometimes I think Loveday must have seen through these innocent jokes, only he wouldn't have spoiled "the Guv'nor's" bit of fun for the world.
When Henry first met him he was conducting an orchestra. I forget the precise details, but I know that he gave up this position to follow Henry, that he was with him during the Bateman régime at the Lyceum, and that when the Lyceum became a thing of the past, he still kept the post of stage manager. He was literally "faithful unto death," for it was only at Henry's death that his service ended.
Bram Stoker, whose recently published "Reminiscences of Irving" have told, as well as it ever can be told, the history of the Lyceum Theater under Irving's direction, was as good a servant in the front of the theater as Loveday was on the stage. Like a true Irishman, he has given me some lovely blarney in his book. He has also told all the stories that I might have told, and described every one connected with the Lyceum except himself. I can fill that deficiency to a certain extent by saying that he is one of the most kind and tender-hearted of men. He filled a difficult position with great tact, and was not so universally abused as most business managers, because he was always straight with the company, and never took a mean advantage of them.
Stoker and Loveday were daily, nay, hourly, associated for many years with Henry Irving; but, after all, did they or any one else really know him? And what was Henry Irving's attitude. I believe myself that he never wholly trusted his friends, and never admitted them to his intimacy, although they thought he did, which was the same thing to them.
From his childhood up, Henry was lonely. His chief companions in youth were the Bible and Shakespeare. He used to study "Hamlet" in the Cornish fields, when he was sent out by his aunt, Mrs. Penberthy, to call in the cows. One day, when he was in one of the deep, narrow lanes common in that part of England, he looked up and saw the face of a sweet little lamb gazing at him from the top of the bank. The symbol of the lamb in the Bible had always attracted him, and his heart went out to the dear little creature. With some difficulty he scrambled up the bank, slipping often in the damp, red earth, threw his arms round the lamb's neck and kissed it.
The lamb bit him!
Did this set-back in early childhood influence him? I wonder! He had another such set-back when he first went on the stage, and for some six weeks in Dublin was subjected every night to groans, hoots, hisses, and cat-calls from audiences who resented him because he had taken the place of a dismissed favorite. In such a situation an actor is not likely to take stock of reasons. Henry Irving only knew that the Dublin people made him the object of violent personal antipathy. "I played my parts not badly for me," he said simply, "in spite of the howls of execration with which I was received."
The bitterness of this Dublin episode was never quite forgotten. It colored Henry Irving's attitude towards the public. When he made his humble little speeches of thanks to them before the curtain, there was always a touch of pride in the humility. Perhaps he would not have received adulation in quite the same dignified way if he had never known what it was to wear the martyr's "shirt of flame."
This is the worst of my trying to give a consecutive narrative of my first years at the Lyceum. Henry Irving looms across them, reducing all events, all feelings, all that happened, and all that was suggested, to pigmy size.
Let me speak generally of his method of procedure in producing a play.
First he studied it for three months himself, and nothing in that play would escape him. Some one once asked him a question about "Titus Andronicus." "God bless my soul!" he said. "I never read it, so how should I know!" The Shakespearean scholar who had questioned him was a little shocked--a fact which Henry Irving, the closest observer of men, did not fail to notice.
"When I am going to do 'Titus Andronicus,' or any other play," he said to me afterwards, "I shall know more about it than A---- or any other student."
There was no conceit in this. It was just a statement of fact. And it may not have been an admirable quality of Henry Irving's, but all his life he only took an interest in the things which concerned the work that he had in hand. When there was a question of his playing Napoleon, his room at Grafton Street was filled with Napoleonic literature. Busts of Napoleon, pictures of Napoleon, relics of Napoleon were everywhere. Then, when another play was being prepared, the busts, however fine, would probably go down to the cellar. It was not Napoleon who interested Henry Irving, but Napoleon for his purpose--two very different things.
His concentration during his three months' study of the play which he had in view was marvelous. When, at the end of the three-months, he called the first rehearsal, he read the play exactly as it was going to be done on the first night. He knew exactly by that time what he personally was going to do on the first night, and the company did well to notice how he read his own part, for never again until the first night, though he rehearsed with them, would he show his conception so fully and completely.
These readings, which took place sometimes in the greenroom or Beefsteak Room at the Lyceum, sometimes at his house in Grafton Street, were wonderful. Never were the names of the characters said by the reader, but never was there the slightest doubt as to which was speaking. Henry Irving swiftly, surely, acted every part in the piece as he read. While he read, he made notes as to the position of the characters and the order of the crowds and processions. At the end of the first reading he gave out the parts.
The next day there was the "comparing" of the parts. It generally took place on the stage, and we sat down for it. Each person took his own character, and took up the cues to make sure that no blunder had been made in writing them out. Parts at the Lyceum were written, or printed, not typed.
These first two rehearsals--the one devoted to the reading of the play, and the other to the comparing of the parts, were generally arranged for Thursday and Friday. Then there was two days' grace. On Monday came the first stand-up rehearsal on the stage.
We then did one act straight through, and, after that, straight through again, even if it took all day. There was no luncheon interval. People took a bite when they could, or went without. Henry himself generally went without. The second day exactly the same method was pursued with the second act. All the time Henry gave the stage his personal direction, gave it keenly, and gave it whole. He was the sole superintendent of his rehearsals, with Mr. Loveday as his working assistant, and Mr. Allen as his prompter. This despotism meant much less wasted time than when actor-manager, "producer," literary adviser, stage manager, and any one who likes to offer a suggestion are all competing in giving orders and advice to a company.
Henry Irving never spent much time on the women in the company, except in regard to position. Sometimes he would ask me to suggest things to them, to do for them what he did for the men. The men were as much like him when they tried to carry out his instructions as brass is like gold; but he never grew weary of "coaching" them, down to the most minute detail. Once during the rehearsals of "Hamlet" I saw him growing more and more fatigued with his efforts to get the actors who opened the play to perceive his meaning. He wanted the first voice to ring out like a pistol shot.
"Do give it up," I said. "It's no better!"
"Yes, it's a little better," he answered quietly, "and so it's worth doing."
From the first the scenery or substitute scenery was put upon the stage for rehearsal, and the properties or substitute properties were to hand.
After each act had been gone through twice each day, it came to half an act once in a whole day, because of the development of detail. There was no detail too small for Henry Irving's notice. He never missed anything that was cumulative--that would contribute something to the whole effect.
The messenger who came in to announce something always needed a great deal of rehearsal. There were processions, and half processions, quiet bits when no word was spoken. There was timing. Nothing was left to chance.
In the master carpenter, Arnott, we had a splendid man. He inspired confidence at once through his strong, able personality, and, as time went on, deserved it through all the knowledge he acquired and through his excellence in never making a difficulty.
"You shall have it," was no bluff from Arnott. You did "have it."
We could not find precisely the right material for one of my dresses in "The Cup." At last, poking about myself in quest of it, I came across the very thing at Liberty's--a saffron silk with a design woven into it by hand with many-colored threads and little jewels. I brought a yard to rehearsal. It was declared perfect, but I declared the price prohibitive.
"It's twelve guineas a yard, and I shall want yards and yards!"
In these days I am afraid they would not only put such material on to the leading lady, but on to the supers too! At the Lyceum wanton extravagance was unknown.
"Where can I get anything at all like it?"
"You leave it to me," said Arnott. "I'll get it for you. That'll be all right.
"But, Arnott, it's a hand-woven Indian material. How can you get it?"
"You leave it to me," Arnott repeated in his slow, quiet, confident way. "Do you mind letting me have this yard as a pattern?"
He went off with it, and before the dress rehearsal had produced about twenty yards of silk, which on the stage looked better than the twelve-guinea original.
"There's plenty more if you want it," he said dryly.
He had had some raw silk dyed the exact saffron. He had had two blocks made, one red and the other black, and the design had been printed, and a few cheap spangles had been added to replace the real jewels. My toga looked beautiful.
This was but one of the many emergencies to which Arnott rose with talent and promptitude.
With the staff of the theater he was a bit of a bully--one of those men not easily roused, but being vexed, "nasty in the extreme!" As a craftsman he had wonderful taste, and could copy antique furniture so that one could not tell the copy from the original.
The great aim at the Lyceum was to get everything "rotten perfect," as the theatrical slang has it, before the dress rehearsal. Father's test of being rotten perfect was not a bad one. "If you can get out of bed in the middle of the night and do your part, you're perfect. If you can't, you don't really know it!"
Henry Irving applied some such test to every one concerned in the production. I cannot remember any play at the Lyceum which did not begin punctually and end at the advertised time, except "Olivia," when some unwise changes in the last act led to delay.
He never hesitated to discard scenery if it did not suit his purpose. There was enough scenery rejected in "Faust" to have furnished three productions, and what was finally used for the famous Brocken scene cost next to nothing.
Even the best scene-painters sometimes think more of their pictures than of scenic effects. Henry would never accept anything that was not right theatrically as well as pictorially beautiful. His instinct in this was unerring and incomparable.
I remember that at one scene-rehearsal every one was fatuously pleased with the scenery. Henry sat in the stalls talking about everything but the scenery. It was hard to tell what he thought.
"Well, are you ready?" he asked at last.
"My God! Is that what you think I am going to give the public?"
Never shall I forget the astonishment of stage manager, scene-painter, and staff! It was never safe to indulge in too much self-satisfaction beforehand with Henry. He was always liable to drop such bombs!
He believed very much in "front" scenes, seeing how necessary they were to the swift progress of Shakespeare's diverging plots. These cloths were sometimes so wonderfully painted and lighted that they constituted scenes of remarkable beauty. The best of all were the Apothecary scene in "Romeo and Juliet" and the exterior of Aufidius's house in "Coriolanus."
We never had electricity installed at the Lyceum until Daly took the theater. When I saw the effect on the faces of the electric footlights, I entreated Henry to have the gas restored, and he did. We used gas footlights and gas limes there until we left the theater for good in 1902.
To this I attribute much of the beauty of our lighting. I say "our" because this was a branch of Henry's work in which I was always his chief helper. Until electricity has been greatly improved and developed, it can never be to the stage what gas was. The thick softness of gaslight, with the lovely specks and motes in it, so like natural light, gave illusion to many a scene which is now revealed in all its naked trashiness by electricity.
The artificial is always noticed and recognized as art by the superficial critic. I think this is what made some people think Irving was at his best in such parts as Louis XI, Dubosc, and Richard III. He could have played Louis XI three times a day "on his head," as the saying is. In "The Lyons Mail," Dubosc the wicked man was easy enough--strange that the unprofessional looker-on always admires the actor's art when it is employed on easy things!--but Lesurques, the good man in the same play ("The Lyons Mail"), was difficult. Any actor, skillful in the tricks of the business, can play the drunkard; but to play a good man sincerely, as he did here, to show that double thing, the look of guilt which an innocent man wears when accused of crime, requires great acting, for "the look" is the outward and visible sign of the inward and spiritual emotion--and this delicate emotion can only be perfectly expressed when the actor's heart and mind and soul and skill are in absolute accord.
In dual parts Irving depended little on make-up. Make-up was, indeed, always his servant, not his master. He knew its uselessness when not informed by the spirit. "The letter" (and in characterization grease-paint is the letter) "killeth--the spirit giveth life." His Lesurques was different from his Dubosc because of the way he held his shoulders, because of his expression. He always took a deep interest in crime (an interest which his sons have inherited), and often went to the police-court to study the faces of the accused. He told me that the innocent man generally looked guilty and hesitated when asked a question, but that the round, wide-open eyes corrected the bad impression. The result of this careful watching was seen in his expression as Lesurques. He opened his eyes wide. As Dubosc he kept them half closed.
Our plays from 1878 to 1887 were "Hamlet," "The Lady of Lyons," "Eugene Aram," "Charles I.," "The Merchant of Venice," "Iolanthe," "The Cup," "The Belle's Stratagem," "Othello," "Romeo and Juliet," "Much Ado About Nothing," "Twelfth Night," "Olivia," "Faust," "Raising the Wind," and "The Amber Heart." I give this list to keep myself straight. My mental division of the years at the Lyceum is before "Macbeth," and after. I divide it up like this, perhaps, because "Macbeth" was the most important of all our productions, if I judge it by the amount of preparation and thought that it cost us and by the discussion which it provoked.
Of the characters played by Henry Irving in the plays of the first division--before "Macbeth," that is to say--I think every one knows that I considered Hamlet to be his greatest triumph. Sometimes I think that was so because it was the only part that was big enough for him. It was more difficult, and he had more scope in it than in any other. If there had been a finer part than Hamlet, that particular part would have been his finest.
When one praises an actor in this way, one is always open to accusations of prejudice, hyperbole, uncritical gush, unreasoned eulogy, and the rest. Must a careful and deliberate opinion always deny a great man genius? If so, no careful and deliberate opinions from me!
I have no doubt in the world of Irving's genius--no doubt that he is with David Garrick and Edmund Kean, rather than with other actors of great talents and great achievements--actors who rightly won high opinions from the multitude of their day, but who have not left behind them an impression of that inexplicable thing which we call genius.
Since my great comrade died I have read many biographies of him, and nearly all of them denied what I assert. "Now, who shall arbitrate?" I find no contradiction of my testimony in the fact that he was not appreciated for a long time, that some found him like olives, an acquired taste, that others mocked and derided him.
My father, who worshiped Macready, put Irving above him because of Irving's originality. The old school were not usually so generous. Fanny Kemble thought it necessary to write as follows of one who had had his share of misfortune and failure before he came into his kingdom and made her jealous, I suppose, for the dead kings among her kindred:
"I have seen some of the accounts and critics of Mr. Irving's acting, and rather elaborate ones of his Hamlet, which, however, give me no very distinct idea of his performance, and a very hazy one indeed of the part itself as seen from the point of view of his critics. Edward Fitzgerald wrote me word that he looked like my people, and sent me a photograph to prove it, which I thought much more like Young than my father or uncle. I have not seen a play of Shakespeare's acted I do not know when. I think I should find such an exhibition extremely curious as well as entertaining."
Now, shall I put on record what Henry Irving thought of Fanny Kemble! If there is a touch of malice in my doing so, surely the passage that I have quoted gives me leave.
Having lived with Hamlet nearly all his life, studied the part when he was a clerk, dreamed of a day when he might play it, the young Henry Irving saw that Mrs. Butler, the famous Fanny Kemble, was going to give a reading of the play. His heart throbbed high with anticipation, for in those days TRADITION was everything--the name of Kemble a beacon and a star.
The studious young clerk went to the reading.
An attendant came on to the platform, first, and made trivial and apparently unnecessary alterations in the position of the reading desk. A glass of water and a book were placed on it.
After a portentous wait, on swept a lady with an extraordinary flashing eye, a masculine and muscular outside. Pounding the book with terrific energy, as if she wished to knock the stuffing out of it, she announced in thrilling tones:
"I suppose this is all right," thought the young clerk, a little dismayed at the fierce and sectional enunciation.
Then the reader came to Act I, Sc. 2, which the old actor (to leave the Kemble reading for a minute), with but a hazy notion of the text, used to begin:
"Although of Hamlet, our dear brother's death, The memory be--memory be--(What is the color?) green"....
When Fanny Kemble came to this scene the future Hamlet began to listen more intently.
Gertrude: Let not thy mother lose her prayers, Ham--a--lette.
Hamlet: I shall in all respects obey you, madam (obviously with a fiery flashing eye of hate upon the King).
When he heard this and more like it, Henry Irving exercised his independence of opinion and refused to accept Fanny Kemble's view of the gentle, melancholy, and well-bred Prince of Denmark.
He was a stickler for tradition, and always studied it, followed it, sometimes to his own detriment, but he was not influenced by the Kemble Hamlet, except that for some time he wore the absurd John Philip feather, which he would have been much better without!
Let me pray that I, representing the old school, may never look on the new school with the patronizing airs of "Old Fitz" and Fanny Kemble. I wish that I could see the new school of acting in Shakespeare. Shakespeare must be kept up, or we shall become a third-rate nation!
[Footnote 1: Edward FitzGerald.]
Henry told me this story of Fanny Kemble's reading without a spark of ill-nature, but with many a gleam of humor. He told me at the same time of the wonderful effect that Adelaide Kemble (Mrs. Sartoris) used to make when she recited Shelley's lines, beginning:
"Good-night--Ah, no, the hour is ill Which severs those it should unite. Let us remain together still-- Then it will be good-night!"
I have already said that I never could cope with Pauline Deschapelles, and why Henry wanted to play Melnotte was a mystery. Claude Melnotte after Hamlet! Oddly enough, Henry was always attracted by fustian. He simply reveled in the big speeches. The play was beautifully staged; the garden scene alone probably cost as much as the whole of "Hamlet." The march past the window of the apparently unending army--that good old trick which sends the supers flying round the back-cloth to cross the stage again and again--created a superb effect. The curtain used to go up and down as often as we liked and chose to keep the army marching! The play ran some time, I suppose because even at our worst the public found something in our acting to like.
As Ruth Meadowes I had very little to do, but what there was, was worth doing. The last act of "Eugene Aram," like the last act of "Ravenswood," gave me opportunity. It was staged with a great appreciation of grim and poetic effect. Henry always thought that the dark, overhanging branch of the cedar was like the cruel outstretched hand of Fate. He called it the Fate Tree, and used it in "Hamlet," in "Eugene Aram," and in "Romeo and Juliet."
In "Eugene Aram," the Fate Tree drooped low over the graves in the churchyard. On one of them Henry used to be lying in a black cloak as the curtain went up on the last act. Not until a moonbeam struck the dark mass did you see that it was a man.
He played all such parts well. Melancholy and the horrors had a peculiar fascination for him--especially in these early days. But his recitation of the poem "Eugene Aram" was finer than anything in the play--especially when he did it in a frock-coat. No one ever looked so well in a frock-coat! He was always ready to recite it--used to do it after supper, anywhere. We had a talk about it once, and I told him that it was too much for a room. No man was ever more willing to listen to suggestion or less obstinate about taking advice. He immediately moderated his methods when reciting in a room, making it all the less theatrical. The play was a good répertoire play, and we did it later on in America with success. There the part of Houseman was played by Terriss, who was quite splendid in it, and at Chicago my little boy Teddy made his second appearance on any stage as Joey, a gardener's boy. He had, when still a mere baby, come on to the stage at the Court in "Olivia," and this must be counted his first appearance, although the chroniclers, ignoring both that and Joey in "Eugene Aram," say he never appeared at all until he played an important part in "The Dead Heart."
It is because of Teddy that "Eugene Aram" is associated in my mind with one of the most beautiful sights upon the stage that I ever saw in my life. He was about ten or eleven at the time, and as he tied up the stage roses, his cheeks, untouched by rouge, put the reddest of them to shame! He was so graceful and natural; he spoke his lines with ease, and smiled all over his face! "A born actor!" I said, although Joey was my son. Whenever I think of him in that stage garden, I weep for pride, and for sorrow, too, because before he was thirty my son had left the stage--he who had it all in him. I have good reason to be proud of what he has done since, but I regret the lost actor always.
Henry Irving could not at first keep away from melancholy pieces. Henrietta Maria was another sad part for me--but I used to play it well, except when I cried too much in the last act. The play had been one of the Bateman productions, and I had seen Miss Isabel Bateman as Henrietta Maria and liked her, although I could not find it possible to follow her example and play the part with a French accent! I constantly catch myself saying of Henry Irving, "That is by far the best thing that he ever did." I could say it of some things in "Charles I."--of the way he gave up his sword to Cromwell, of the way he came into the room in the last act and shut the door behind him. It was not a man coming on to a stage to meet some one. It was a king going to the scaffold, quietly, unobtrusively, and courageously. However often I played that scene with him, I knew that when he first came on he was not aware of my presence nor of any earthly presence: he seemed to be already in heaven.
Much has been said of his "make-up" as Charles I. Edwin Long painted him a triptych of Vandyck heads, which he always had in his dressing-room, and which is now in my possession. He used to come on to the stage looking precisely like the Vandyck portraits, but not because he had been busy building up his face with wig-paste and similar atrocities. His make-up in this, as in other parts, was the process of assisting subtly and surely the expression from within. It was elastic, and never hampered him. It changed with the expression. As Charles, he was assisted by Nature, who had given him the most beautiful Stuart hands, but his clothes most actors would have consigned to the dust-bin! Before we had done with Charles I.--we played it together for the last time in 1902--these clothes were really threadbare. Yet he looked in them every inch a king.
His care of detail may be judged from the fact that in the last act his wig was not only grayer, but had far less hair in it. I should hardly think it necessary to mention this if I had not noticed how many actors seem to think that age may be procured by the simple expedient of dipping their heads, covered with mats of flourishing hair, into a flour-barrel!
Unlike most stage kings, he never seemed to be assuming dignity. He was very, very simple.
Wills has been much blamed for making Cromwell out to be such a wretch--a mean blackguard, not even a great bad man. But in plays the villain must not compete for sympathy with the hero, or both fall to the ground! I think that Wills showed himself a true poet in his play, and in the last act a great playwright. He gave us both wonderful opportunities, yet very few words were spoken.
Some people thought me best in the camp scene in the third act, where I had even fewer lines to speak. I was proud of it myself when I found that it had inspired Oscar Wilde to write me this lovely sonnet:
In the lone tent, waiting for victory, She stands with eyes marred by the mists of pain, Like some wan lily overdrenched with rain; The clamorous clang of arms, the ensanguined sky, War's ruin, and the wreck of chivalry To her proud soul no common fear can bring; Bravely she tarrieth for her Lord, the King, Her soul aflame with passionate ecstasy. O, hair of gold! O, crimson lips! O, face Made for the luring and the love of man! With thee I do forget the toil and stress, The loveless road that knows no resting place, Time's straitened pulse, the soul's dread weariness, My freedom, and my life republican!
That phrase "wan lily" represented perfectly what I had tried to convey, not only in this part but in Ophelia. I hope I thanked Oscar enough at the time. Now he is dead, and I cannot thank him any more.... I had so much bad poetry written to me that these lovely sonnets from a real poet should have given me the greater pleasure. "He often has the poet's heart, who never felt the poet's fire." There is more good heart and kind feeling in most of the verses written to me than real poetry.
"One must discriminate," even if it sounds unkind. At the time that Whistler was having one of his most undignified "rows" with a sitter over a portrait and wrangling over the price, another artist was painting frescoes in a cathedral for nothing. "It is sad that it should be so," a friend said to me, "but one must discriminate. The man haggling over the sixpence is the great artist!"
How splendid it is that in time this is recognized. The immortal soul of the artist is in his work, the transient and mortal one is in his conduct.
Another sonnet from Oscar Wilde--to Portia this time--is the first document that I find in connection with "The Merchant," as the play was always called by the theater staff.
"I marvel not Bassanio was so bold To peril all he had upon the lead, Or that proud Aragon bent low his head, Or that Morocco's fiery heart grew cold; For in that gorgeous dress of beaten gold, Which is more golden than the golden sun, No woman Veronese looked upon Was half so fair as thou whom I behold. Yet fairer when with wisdom as your shield The sober-suited lawyer's gown you donned, And would not let the laws of Venice yield Antonio's heart to that accursed Jew-- O, Portia! take my heart; it is thy due: I think I will not quarrel with the Bond."
Henry Irving's Shylock dress was designed by Sir John Gilbert. It was never replaced, and only once cleaned by Henry's dresser and valet, Walter Collinson. Walter, I think, replaced "Doody," Henry's first dresser at the Lyceum, during the run of "The Merchant of Venice." Walter was a wig-maker by trade--assistant to Clarkson the elder. It was Doody who, on being asked his opinion of a production, said that it was fine--"not a join to be seen anywhere!" It was Walter who was asked by Henry to say which he thought his master's best part. Walter could not be "drawn" for a long time. At last he said Macbeth.
[Footnote 1: A "join" in theatrical wig-makers' parlance is the point where the front-piece of the wig ends and the actor's forehead begins.]
This pleased Henry immensely, for, as I hope to show later on, he fancied himself in Macbeth more than in any other part.
"It is generally conceded to be Hamlet," said Henry.
"Oh, no, sir," said Walter, "Macbeth. You sweat twice as much in that."
In appearance Walter was very like Shakespeare's bust in Stratford Church. He was a most faithful and devoted servant, and was the only person with Henry Irving when he died. Quiet in his ways, discreet, gentle, and very quick, he was the ideal dresser.
The Lyceum production of "The Merchant of Venice" was not so strictly archaeological as the Bancrofts' had been, but it was very gravely beautiful and effective. If less attention was paid to details of costumes and scenery, the play itself was arranged and acted very attractively and always went with a swing. To the end of my partnership with Henry Irving it was a safe "draw" both in England and America. By this time I must have played Portia over a thousand times. During the first run of it the severe attack made on my acting of the part in Blackwood's Magazine is worth alluding to. The suggestion that I showed too much of a "coming-on" disposition in the Casket Scene affected me for years, and made me self-conscious and uncomfortable. At last I lived it down. Any suggestion of indelicacy in my treatment of a part always blighted me. Mr. Dodgson (Lewis Carroll, of the immortal "Alice in Wonderland") once brought a little girl to see me in "Faust." He wrote and told me that she had said (where Margaret begins to undress): "Where is it going to stop?" and that perhaps in consideration of the fact that it could affect a mere child disagreeably, I ought to alter my business!
I had known dear Mr. Dodgson for years and years. He was as fond of me as he could be of any one over the age of ten, but I was furious. "I thought you only knew nice children," was all the answer that I gave him. "It would have seemed to me awful for a child to see harm where harm is; how much more when she sees it where harm is not."
But I felt ashamed and shy whenever I played that scene. It was the Casket Scene over again.
The unkind Blackwood article also blamed me for showing too plainly that Portia loves Bassanio before he has actually won her. This seemed to me unjust, if only because Shakespeare makes Portia say before Bassanio chooses the right casket:
"One half of me is yours--the other half yours--All yours!"
Surely this suggests that she was not concealing her fondness like a Victorian maiden, and that Bassanio had most surely won her love, though not yet the right to be her husband.
"There is a soul of goodness in things evil," and the criticism made me alter the setting of the scene, and so contrive it that Portia was behind and out of sight of the men who made hazard for her love.
Dr. Furnivall, a great Shakespearean scholar, was so kind as to write me the following letter about Portia:
"Being founder and director of the New Shakespeare Society, I venture to thank you most heartily for your most charming and admirable impersonation of our poet's Portia, which I witnessed to-night with a real delight. You have given me a new light on the character, and by your so pretty by-play in the Casket Scene have made bright in my memory for ever the spot which almost all critics have felt dull, and I hope to say this in a new edition of 'Shakespeare.'"
(He did say it, in "The Leopold" edition.)
"Again those touches of the wife's love in the advocate when Bassanio says he'd give up his wife for Antonio, and when you kissed your hand to him behind his back in the Ring bit--how pretty and natural they were! Your whole conception and acting of the character are so true to Shakespeare's lines that one longs he could be here to see you. A lady gracious and graceful, handsome, witty, loving and wise, you are his Portia to the life."
That's the best of Shakespeare, I say. His characters can be interpreted in at least eight different ways, and of each way some one will say: "That is Shakespeare!" The German actress plays Portia as a low comedy part. She wears an eighteenth-century law wig, horn spectacles, a cravat (this last anachronism is not confined to Germans), and often a mustache! There is something to be said for it all, though I should not like to play the part that way myself.
Lady Pollock, who first brought me to Henry Irving's notice as a possible leading lady, thought my Portia better at the Lyceum than it had been at the Prince of Wales's.
"Thanks, my dear Valentine and enchanting Portia," she writes to me in response to a photograph that I had sent her, "but the photographers don't see you as you are, and have not the poetry in them to do you justice.... You were especially admirable in the Casket Scene. You kept your by-play quieter, and it gained in effect from the addition of repose--and I rejoiced that you did not kneel to Bassanio at 'My Lord, my governor, my King.' I used to feel that too much like worship from any girl to her affianced, and Portia's position being one of command, I should doubt the possibility of such an action...."
I think I received more letters about my Portia than about all my other parts put together. Many of them came from university men. One old playgoer wrote to tell me that he liked me better than my former instructress, Mrs. Charles Kean. "She mouthed it as she did most things.... She was not real--a staid, sentimental 'Anglaise,' and more than a little stiffly pokerish."
Henry Irving's Shylock was generally conceded to be full of talent and reality, but some of his critics could not resist saying that this was not the Jew that Shakespeare drew! Now, who is in a position to say what is the Jew that Shakespeare drew? I think Henry Irving knew as well as most! Nay, I am sure that in his age he was the only person able to decide.
Some said his Shylock was intellectual, and appealed more to the intellect of his audiences than to their emotions. Surely this is talking for the sake of talking. I recall so many things that touched people to the heart! For absolute pathos, achieved by absolute simplicity of means, I never saw anything in the theater to compare with his Shylock's return home over the bridge to his deserted house after Jessica's flight.
A younger actor, producing "The Merchant of Venice" in recent years, asked Irving if he might borrow this bit of business. "By all means," said Henry. "With great pleasure."
"Then, why didn't you do it?" inquired my daughter bluntly when the actor was telling us how kind and courteous Henry had been in allowing him to use his stroke of invention.
"What do you mean?" asked the astonished actor.
My daughter told him that Henry had dropped the curtain on a stage full of noise, and light, and revelry. When it went up again the stage was empty, desolate, with no light but a pale moon, and all sounds of life at a great distance--and then over the bridge came the wearied figure of the Jew. This marked the passing of the time between Jessica's elopement and Shylock's return home. It created an atmosphere of silence, and the middle of the night.
"You came back without dropping the curtain," said my daughter, "and so it wasn't a bit the same."
"I couldn't risk dropping the curtain for the business," answered the actor, "because it needed applause to take it up again!"
Henry Irving never grew tired of a part, never ceased to work at it, just as he never gave up the fight against his limitations. His diction, as the years went on, grew far clearer when he was depicting rage and passion. His dragging leg dragged no more. To this heroic perseverance he added an almost childlike eagerness in hearing any suggestion for the improvement of his interpretations which commended itself to his imagination and his judgment. From a blind man came the most illuminating criticism of his Shylock. The sensitive ear of the sightless hearer detected a fault in Henry Irving's method of delivering the opening line of his part:
"Three thousand ducats--well!"
"I hear no sound of the usurer in that," the blind man said at the end of the performance. "It is said with the reflective air of a man to whom money means very little."
The justice of the criticism appealed strongly to Henry. He revised his reading not only of the first line, but of many other lines in which he saw now that he had not been enough of the money-lender.
In more recent years he made one change in his dress. He asked my daughter--whose cleverness in such things he fully recognized--to put some stage jewels on to the scarf that he wore round his head when he supped with the Christians.
"I have an idea that, when he went to that supper, he'd like to flaunt his wealth in the Christian dogs' faces. It will look well, too--'like the toad, ugly and venomous,' wearing precious jewels on his head!"
The scarf, witnessing to that untiring love of throwing new light on his impersonations which distinguished Henry to the last, is now in my daughter's possession. She values no relic of him more unless it be the wreath of oak-leaves that she made him for "Coriolanus."
We had a beautiful scene for this play--a garden with a dark pine forest in the distance. Henry was not good in it. He had a Romeo part which had not been written by Shakespeare. We played it instead of the last act of "The Merchant of Venice." I never liked it being left out, but people used to say, like parrots, that "the interest of the play ended with the Trial Scene," and Henry believed them--for a time. I never did. Shakespeare never gives up in the last act like most dramatists.
Twice in "Iolanthe" I forgot that I was blind! The first time was when I saw old Tom Mead and Henry Irving groping for the amulet, which they had to put on my breast to heal me of my infirmity. It had slipped on to the floor, and both of them were too short-sighted to see it! Here was a predicament! I had to stoop and pick it up for them.
The second time I put out my hand and cried: "Look out for my lilies," when Henry nearly stepped on the bunch with which a little girl friend of mine supplied me every night I played the part.
Iolanthe was one of Helen Faucit's great successes. I never saw this distinguished actress when she was in her prime. Her Rosalind, when she came out of her retirement to play a few performances, appeared to me more like a lecture on Rosalind, than like Rosalind herself: a lecture all young actresses would have greatly benefited by hearing, for it was of great beauty. I remember being particularly struck by her treatment of the lines in the scene where Celia conducts the mock marriage between Orlando and Ganymede. Another actress, whom I saw as Rosalind, said the words, "And I do take thee, Orlando, to be my husband," with a comical grimace to the audience. Helen Faucit flushed up and said the line with deep and true emotion, suggesting that she was, indeed, giving herself to Orlando. There was a world of poetry in the way she drooped over his hand.
Mead distinguished himself in "Iolanthe" by speaking of "that immortal land where God hath His--His--er--room?--no--lodging?--no--where God hath His apartments!"
The word he could not hit was, I think, "dwelling." He used often to try five or six words before he got the right one or the wrong one--it was generally the wrong one--in full hearing of the audience.