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The Drama
Four Great Actors
by Irving, Henry

26 JUNE 1886

When I was honored by the request of your distinguished Vice-Chancellor to deliver an address before the members of this great University, I told him I could only say something about my own calling, for that I knew little or nothing about anything else. I trust, however, that this confession of the limitations of my knowledge will not prejudice me in your eyes, members as you are—privileged members I may say—of this seat of learning. In an age when so many persons think they know everything, it may afford a not unpleasing variety to meet with some who know that they know nothing.

I cannot discourse to you, even if you wished me to do so, of the respective merits of Æschylus, Sophocles, and Euripides; for if I did, I should not be able to tell you anything that you do not know already. I have not had the advantage—one that very few of the members of my profession in past, or even in present times have enjoyed—of an University education. The only Alma Mater I ever knew was the hard stage of a country theatre.

In the course of my training, long before I had taken, what I may call, my degree in London, I came to act in your city. I have a very pleasant recollection of the time I passed here, though I am sorry to say that, owing to the regulation which forbade theatrical performances during term time, I saw Oxford only in vacation, which is rather like—to use the old illustration—seeing Hamlet with the part of Hamlet left out. There was then no other building available for dramatic representations than the Town Hall. I may, perhaps, be allowed to congratulate you on the excellent theatre which you now possess—I do not mean the Sheldonian—and at the same time to express a hope that, as a more liberal, and might I say a wiser, régime allows the members of the University to go to the play, they will not receive any greater moral injury, or be distracted any more from their studies, than when they were only allowed the occasional relaxation of hearing comic songs. Macready once said that "a theatre ought to be a place of recreation for the sober-minded and intelligent." I trust that, under whatsoever management the theatre in Oxford may be, it will always deserve this character.

You must not expect any learned disquisition from me; nor even in the modified sense in which the word is used among you will I venture to style what I am going to say to you a lecture. You may, by the way, have seen a report that I was cast for four lectures; but I assure you there was no ground for such an alarming rumor; a rumor quite as alarming to me as it could have been to you. What I do propose is, to say to you something about four of our greatest actors in the past, each of whom may be termed the representative of an important period in the Annals of our National Drama. In turning over the leaves of a history of the life of Edmund Kean, I came across the following sentence (the writer is speaking of Edmund Kean as having restored Nature to the stage): "There seems always to have been this alternation between the Schools of Nature and Art (if we may so term them) in the annals of the English Theatre." Now if for Art I may be allowed to substitute Artificiality, which is what the author really meant, I think that his sentence is an epitome of the history of our stage; and it struck me at once that I could not select anything more appropriate—I will not say as a text, for that sounds as if I were going to deliver a sermon—but as the motif, or theme of the remarks I am about to address to you. The four actors of whom I shall attempt to tell, you something—Burbage, Betterton, Garrick, and Kean—were the four greatest champions, in their respective times, on the stage of Nature in contradistinction to Artificiality.

When we consider the original of the Drama, or perhaps I should say of the higher class of Drama, we see that the style of acting must necessarily have been artificial rather than natural. Take the Greek Tragedy, for instance: the actors, as you know, wore masks, and had to speak, or rather intone, in a theatre more than half open to the air, and therefore it was impossible they could employ facial expression, or much variety of intonation. We have not time now to trace at length the many vicissitudes in the career of the Drama, but I may say that Shakespeare was the first dramatist who dared to rob Tragedy of her stilts; and who successfully introduced an element of comedy which was not dragged in by the neck and heels, but which naturally evolved itself from the treatment of the tragic story, and did not violate the consistency of any character.

It was not only with regard to the writing of his plays that Shakespeare sought to fight the battle of Nature against Artificiality. However naturally he might write, the affected or monotonous delivery of his verse by the actors would neutralize all his efforts. The old rhyming ten-syllable lines could not but lead to a monotonous style of elocution, nor was the early blank verse much improvement in this respect; but Shakespeare fitted his blank verse to the natural expression of his ideas, and not his ideas to the trammels of blank verse.

In order to carry out these reforms, in order to dethrone Artifice and Affectation, he needed the help of actors in whom he could trust, and especially of a leading actor who could interpret his greatest dramatic creations; such a one he found in Richard Burbage.

Shakespeare came to London first in 1585. Whether on this, his first visit, he became connected with the theatres is uncertain. At any rate it is most probable that he saw Burbage in some of his favorite characters, and perhaps made his acquaintance; being first employed as a kind of servant in the theatre, and afterwards as a player of inferior parts. It was not until about 1591-1592, that Shakespeare began to turn his attention seriously to dramatic authorship. For five years of his life we are absolutely without any evidence as to what were his pursuits. But there can be little doubt that during this interval he was virtually undergoing a special form of education, consisting rather of the study of human nature than that of books, and was acquiring the art of dramatic construction—learnt better in a theatre than anywhere else. Unfortunately, we have no record of the intercourse between Shakespeare and Burbage; but there can be little doubt that between the dramatist, who was himself an actor, and the actor, who gave life to the greatest creations of his imagination, and who, probably, amazed no less than delighted the great master by the vividness and power of his impersonations, there must have existed a close friendship. Shakespeare, unlike most men of genius, was no bad man of business; and, indeed, a friend of mine, who prides himself upon being a practical man, once suggested that he selected the part of the Ghost in Hamlet because it enabled him to go in front of the house between the acts and count the money. Burbage was universally acknowledged as the greatest tragic actor of his time. In Bartholomew Fair, Ben Jonson uses Burbage's name as a synonym for "the best actor"; and Bishop Corbet, in his Iter Boreale, tells us that his host at Leicester—
"when he would have said King Richard died,
And call'd, 'A horse! A horse!' he, Burbage, cried,"
In a scene, in which Burbage and the comedian Kemp (the J.L. Toole of the Shakespearean period) are introduced in The Return from Parnassus—a satirical play, as you may know, written by some of the Members of St. John's College, Cambridge, for performance by themselves on New Year's Day, 1602—we have proof of the high estimation in which the great tragic actor was held. Kemp says to the scholars who are anxious to try their fortunes on the stage: "But be merry, my lads, you have happened upon the most excellent vocation in the world for money; they come north and south to bring it to our playhouse; and for honors, who of more report than Dick Burbage and Will Kempe; he is not counted a gentleman that knows not Dick Burbage and Will Kempe; there's not a country wench that can dance 'Sellenger's Round,' but can talke of Dick Burbage and Will Kempe."

That Burbage's fame as an actor outlived his life may be seen from the description given by Flecknoe:—

"He was a delightful Proteus, so wholly transforming himself into his part, and putting off himself with his clothes, as he never (not so much as in the 'tiring house) assumed himself again until the play was done.... He had all the parts of an excellent orator, animating his words with speaking, and speech with acting, his auditors being never more delighted than when he spake, nor more sorry than when he held his peace. Yet even then he was an excellent actor still, never failing in his part when he had done speaking, but with his looks and gestures maintaining it still to the height."

It is not my intention, even if time permitted, to go much into the private life of the four actors of whom I propose to speak. Very little is known of Burbage's private life, except that he was married; perhaps Shakespeare and he may have been drawn nearer together by the tie of a common sorrow; for, as the poet lost his beloved son Hamlet when quite a child, so did Burbage lose his eldest son Richard. Burbage died on March 13th, 1617, being then about 50 years of age: Camden, in his Annals of James I., records his death, and calls him a second Roscius. He was sincerely mourned by all those who loved the dramatic art; and he numbered among his friends Shakespeare, Ben Jonson, Beaumont, and Fletcher, and other "common players," whose names were destined to become the most honored in the annals of English literature. Burbage was the first great actor that England ever saw, the original representative of many of Shakespeare's noblest creations, among others, of Shylock, Richard, Romeo, Hamlet, Lear, Othello, and Macbeth. We may fairly conclude Burbage's acting to have had all the best characteristics of Natural, as opposed to Artificial acting. The principles of the former are so clearly laid down by Shakespeare, in Hamlet's advice to the players, that, perhaps, I cannot do better than to repeat them:—
Speak the speech, I pray you, as I pronounced it to you, trippingly on the tongue: but if you mouth it, as many of your players do, I had as lief the town-crier spoke my lines. Nor do not saw the air too much with your hand, thus, but use all gently; for in the very torrent, tempest, and, as I may say, the whirlwind of passion, you must acquire and beget a temperance that may give it smoothness. O, it offends me to the soul to hear a robustious periwig-pated fellow tear a passion to tatters, to very rags, to split the ears of the groundlings, who for the most part are capable of nothing but inexplicable dumb-show and noise: I would have such a fellow whipped for o'erdoing Termagant; it out-herods Herod; pray you, avoid it. Be not too tame neither, but let your own discretion be your tutor; suit the action to the word, the word to the action; with this special observance, that you o'erstep not the modesty of nature: for anything so overdone is from the purpose of playing, whose end, both at the first and now, was and is, to hold, as 'twere, the mirror up to nature; to show virtue her own feature, scorn her own image, and the very age and body of the time his form and pressure. Now this overdone, or come tardy off, though it make the unskilful laugh, cannot but make the judicious grieve; the censure of the which one must in your allowance o'erweigh a whole theatre of others. O, there be players that I have seen play, and heard others praise, and that highly, not to speak it profanely, that, neither having the accent of Christians nor the gait of Christian, pagan, nor man, have so strutted and bellowed that I have thought some of Nature's journeymen had made men and not made them well, they imitated humanity so abominably.
When we try to picture what the theatre in Shakespeare's time was like, it strikes us that it must have been difficult to carry out those principles. One would think it must have been almost impossible for the actors to keep up the illusion of the play, surrounded as they were by such distracting elements. Figure to yourselves a crowd of fops, chattering like a flock of daws, carrying their stools in their hands, and settling around, and sometimes upon the stage itself, with as much noise as possible. To vindicate their importance in their own eyes they kept up a constant jangling of petty, carping criticism on the actors and the play. In the intervals of repose which they allowed their tongues, they ogled the ladies in the boxes, and made a point of vindicating the dignity of their intellects by being always most inattentive during the most pathetic portions of the play. In front of the house matters were little better: the orange girls going to and fro among the audience, interchanging jokes—not of the most delicate character—with the young sparks and apprentices, the latter cracking nuts or howling down some unfortunate actor who had offended their worships; sometimes pipes of tobacco were being smoked. Picture all this confusion, and add the fact that the female characters of the play were represented by shrill-voiced lads or half-shaven men. Imagine an actor having to invest such representatives with all the girlish passion of a Juliet, the womanly tenderness of a Desdemona, or the pitiable anguish of a distraught Ophelia, and you cannot but realize how difficult under such circumstances great acting must have been. In fact, while we are awe-struck by the wonderful intellectuality of the best dramas of the Elizabethan period, we cannot help feeling that certain subtleties of acting, elaborate by-play, for instance, and the finer lights and shades of intonation, must have been impossible. Recitation rather than impersonation would be generally aimed at by the actors.

Thomas Betterton was the son of one of the cooks of King Charles I. He was born in Tothill Street, Westminster, about 1635, eighteen years after the death of Burbage. He seems to have received a fair education; indeed, but for the disturbing effect of the Civil War, he would probably have been brought up to one of the liberal professions. He was, however, apprenticed to a bookseller, who, fortunately for Betterton, took to theatrical management. Betterton was about twenty-four years old when he began his dramatic career. For upwards of fifty years he seems to have held his position as the foremost actor of the day. It was fortunate, indeed, for the interests of the Drama that so great an actor arose at the very time when dramatic art had, as it were, to be resuscitated. Directly the Puritans (who hated the stage and every one connected with it as heartily as they hated their Cavalier neighbors) came into power, they abolished the theatres, as they did every other form of intellectual amusement; and for many years the Drama only existed in the form of a few vulgar "Drolls." It must have been, indeed, a dismal time for the people of England; with all the horrors of civil war fresh in their memory, the more than paternal government allowed its subjects no other amusement than that of consigning their neighbors to eternal damnation, and of selecting for themselves—by anticipation—all the best reserved seats in heaven. When the Restoration took place, the inevitable reaction followed: society, having been condemned to a lengthened period of an involuntary piety—which sat anything but easily on it—rushed into the other extreme; all who wanted to be in the fashion professed but little morality, and it is to be feared that, for once in a way, their practice did not come short of their profession. Now was the time when, instead of "poor players," "fine gentlemen" condescended to write for the stage; and it may be remarked that as long as the literary interests of the theatre were in their keeping, the tone of the plays represented was more corrupt than it ever was at any other period of the history of the Drama. It is something to be thankful for, that at such a time, when the highly-flavored comedies of Wycherley and Congreve were all the vogue, and when the monotonous profligacy of nearly all the characters introduced into those plays was calculated to encourage the most artificial style of acting—it was something, I say, to be thankful for, that at such a time, Betterton, and one or two other actors, could infuse life into the noblest creations of Shakespeare. Owing, more especially, to Betterton's great powers, the tragedy of Hamlet held its own in popularity, even against such witty productions as Love for Love. It was also fortunate that the same actor who could draw tears as Hamlet, was equally at home in the feigned madness of that amusing rake Valentine, or in the somewhat coarse humor of Sir John Brute. By charming the public in what were the popular novelties of the day, he was able to command their support when he sought it for a nobler form of Drama. He married an actress, Mrs. Saunderson, who was only inferior in her art to her husband. Their married life seems to have been one of perfect happiness. When one hears so much of the profligacy of actors and actresses, and that they are all such a very wicked lot, it is pleasant to think of this couple, in an age proverbial for its immorality, in a city where the highest in rank set an example of shameless licence, living their quiet, pure, artistic life, respected and beloved by all that knew them.

Betterton had few physical advantages. If we are to believe Antony Aston, one of his contemporaries, he had "a short, thick neck, stooped in the shoulders, and had fat, short arms, which he rarely lifted higher than his stomach. His left hand frequently lodged in his breast, between his coat and waistcoat, while with his right hand he prepared his speech." Yet the same critic is obliged to confess that, at seventy years of age, a younger man might have personated but could not have acted, Hamlet better. He calls his voice "low and grumbling," but confesses that he had such power over it that he could enforce attention even from fops and orange-girls. I dare say you all know how Steele and Addison admired his acting, and how enthusiastically they spoke of it in The Tatler. The latter writes eloquently of the wonderful agony of jealousy and the tenderness of love which he showed in Othello, and of the immense effect he produced in Hamlet.

Betterton, like all really great men, was a hard worker. Pepys says of him, "Betterton is a very sober, serious man, and studious, and humble, following of his studies; and is rich already with what he gets and saves." Alas! the fortune so hardly earned was lost in an unlucky moment: he entrusted it to a friend to invest in a commercial venture in the East Indies which failed most signally. Betterton never reproached his friend, he never murmured at his ill-luck. The friend's daughter was left unprovided for; but Betterton adopted the child, educated her for the stage, and she became an actress of merit, and married Bowman, the player, afterwards known as "The Father of the Stage."

In Betterton's day there were no long runs of pieces; but, had his lot been cast in these times, he might have been compelled to perform, say, Hamlet for three hundred or four hundred nights: for the rights of the majority are entitled to respect in other affairs besides politics, and if the theatre-going public demand a play (and our largest theatres only hold a limited number) the manager dare not cause annoyance and disappointment by withdrawing it.

Like Edmund Kean, Betterton may be said to have died upon the stage; for in April, 1710, when he took his last benefit, as Melantius, in Beaumont and Fletcher's Maid's Tragedy (an adaption of which, by the way, was played by Macready under the title of The Bridal,) he was suffering tortures from gout, and had almost to be carried to his dressing-room; and though he acted the part with all his old fire, speaking these very appropriate words:—
                              "My heart
    And limbs are still the same, my will as great,
    To do you service,"
within forty-eight hours he was dead. He was buried in the Cloisters of Westminster Abbey with every mark of respect and honor.

I may here add that the censure said to have been directed against Betterton for the introduction of scenery is the prototype of that cry, which we hear so often nowadays, against over-elaboration in the arrangements of the stage. If it be a crime against good taste to endeavor to enlist every art in the service of the stage, and to heighten the effect of noble poetry by surrounding it with the most beautiful and appropriate accessories, I myself must plead guilty to that charge; but I should like to point out that every dramatist who has ever lived, from Shakespeare downwards, has always endeavored to get his plays put upon the stage with as good effect and as handsome appointments as possible.

Indeed, the Globe Theatre was burned down during the first performance of King Henry VIII., through the firing off of a cannon which announced the arrival of King Henry. Perhaps, indeed, some might regard this as a judgment against the manager for such an attempt at realism.

It was seriously suggested to me by an enthusiast the other day, that costumes of his own time should be used for all Shakespeare's plays. I reflected a little on the suggestion, and then I put it to him whether the characters in Julius Cæsar or in Antony and Cleopatra dressed in doublet and hose would not look rather out of place. He answered, "He had never thought of that." In fact, difficulties almost innumerable must invariably crop up if we attempt to represent plays without appropriate costume and scenery, the aim of which is to realize the locale of the action. Some people may hold that paying attention to such matters necessitates inattention to the acting; but the majority think it does not, and I believe that they are right. What would Alma-Tadema say, for instance, if it were proposed to him that in a picture of the Roman Amphitheatre the figures should be painted in the costume of Spain? I do not think he would see the point of such a noble disregard of detail; and why should he, unless what is false in art is held to be higher than what is true?

Little more than thirty years were to elapse between the death of the honored Betterton and the appearance of David Garrick, who was to restore Nature once more to the stage. In this comparatively short interval progress in dramatic affairs had been all backward. Shakespeare's advice to the actors had been neglected; earnest passion, affecting pathos, ever-varying gestures, telling intonation of voice, and, above all, that complete identification of themselves in the part they represented—all these qualities, which had distinguished the acting of Betterton, had given way to noisy rant, formal and affected attitudes, and a heavy stilted style of declamation. Betterton died in 1710, and six years after, in 1716, Garrick was born. About twenty years after, in 1737, Samuel Johnson and his friend and pupil, David Garrick, set out from Lichfield on their way to London. In spite of the differences in their ages, and their relationship of master and pupil, a hearty friendship had sprung up between them, and one destined, in spite of Johnson's occasional resentment at the actor's success in life, to last till it was ended by the grave. Much of Johnson's occasional harshness and almost contemptuous attitude towards Garrick was, I fear, the result of the consciousness that his old pupil had thoroughly succeeded in life, and had reached the highest goal possible in the career which he had chosen; while he himself, though looked up to as the greatest scholar of his time, was conscious, as he shows us in his own diary, of how much more he might have done but for his constitutional indolence.

Garrick's family was of French origin, his father having come over to England during the persecution of the Huguenots in 1687, and on his mother's side he had Irish blood in his veins; so that by descent he was a combination of French, English, and Irish, a combination by no means unpromising for one who was going to be an actor.

On reaching London, Garrick enrolled his name in Lincoln's Inn, and was looking about him to see what would turn up, when the news of his father's death reached him. There is no doubt that, if Garrick had consulted his own wishes only, he would at once have gone upon the stage. But fortunately, perhaps, for his future career, he could not bear to grieve his mother's heart by adopting at once, and at such a time when she was crushed with some sorrow for her great loss, a calling which he knew she detested so heartily.

Within a year Mrs. Garrick followed to the grave the husband whom she never ceased to mourn, and David had nothing more to face than the prejudice of his brother, Peter, and of his sisters, if he should resolve ultimately to adopt the profession on which his heart was fixed.

It was not, however, till nearly three years after, in 1741, that Garrick, determined to take the decisive step, first feeling his way by playing Chamont in The Orphan, and Sir Harry Wildair, at Ipswich, where he appeared under the name of Mr. Lydall; and under this same name, in the same year, he made his first appearance at Goodman's Fields Theatre, in the part of Richard III. His success was marvellous. Considering the small experience he had had, no actor ever made such a successful début. No doubt by waiting and exercising his powers of observation, and by studying many parts in private, he had to a certain extent, matured his powers. But making allowance for all his great natural gifts, there is no denying that Garrick, in one leap, gained a position which, in the case of most other actors, has only been reached through years of toil. He seems to have charmed all classes: the learned and the ignorant, the cultured and the vulgar; great statesmen, poets, and even the fribbles of fashion were all nearly unanimous in his praise. The dissentient voices were so few that they were drowned in the clamor of applause. Quinn might snarl and growl; and Horace Walpole, who seems to have grown alarmed at so much of the incense of praise finding its way to the nostrils of another, might give vent to a few feeble sneers; such as when he said, "I do not mention the things written in his praise because he writes most of them himself." But the battle was won. Nature in the place of Artificiality, Originality in the place of Conventionality, had triumphed on the stage once more.

Consternation reigned in the home at Lichfield when the news arrived that brother David had become a play-actor; but ultimately the family were reconciled to such degradation by the substantial results of the experiment. Such reconcilements are not uncommon. Some young man of good birth and position has taken to the stage; his family, who could not afford to keep him, have been shocked, and in pious horror have cast him out of their respectable circle; but at last success has come, and they have managed to overcome their scruples and prejudices and to profit by the harvest which the actor has reaped.

Garrick seems to have continued playing under the name of Lydall for two months, though the secret must have been an open one. It was not till December the second, the night of his benefit, that he was at last announced under his own name; and henceforward his career was one long triumph, checkered, indeed, by disagreements, quarrels and heart-burnings (for Garrick was extremely sensitive), caused, for the most part, by the envy and jealousy which invariably dog the heels of success.

Second-rate actors, like Theophilus Gibber, or gnats such as Murphy, and others, easily stung him. He was lampooned as "The Sick Monkey" on his return to the stage after having taken a much needed rest. But discretion and audacity seemed to go hand-in-hand, and the self-satisfied satirizer generally over-shoots the mark. Garrick was ever ready with a reply to his assailants; when Dr. Hill attacked his pronunciation, saying that he pronounced his "i's" as if they were "u's," Garrick answered—
"If 'tis true, as you say, that I've injured a letter,
I'll change my note soon, and I hope for the better.
May the just right of letters as well as of men,
Hereafter be fixed by the tongue and the pen.
Most devoutly I wish that they both have their due,
And that I may be never mistaken for U."
Comparing Garrick with Betterton, it must be remembered that he was more exposed to the attacks of envy from the very universality of his success. Never, perhaps, was there a man in any profession who combined so many various qualities. A fair poet, a most fluent correspondent, an admirable conversationalist, possessing a person of singular grace, a voice of marvellous expressiveness, and a disposition so mercurial and vivacious as is rarely found in any Englishman, he was destined to be a great social as well as a great artistic success. He loved the society of men of birth and fashion; he seems to have had a more passionate desire to please in private even than in public, and almost to have justified the often quoted couplet in Goldsmith's "Retaliation."
"On the stage he was natural, simple, affecting,
'Twas only that when he was off he was acting."
Some men, envious of the substantial fortune which he realized by almost incessant hard work, by thorough good principle with regard to money, and by a noble, not a paltry, economy, might call him mean; though many of them knew well, from their own experience, that his nature was truly generous—his purse, as well as his heart, ever open to a friend, however little he might deserve it. Yet they sneered at his want of reckless extravagance, and called him a miser. The greatest offender in this respect was Samuel Foote, a man of great accomplishments, witty, but always ill-natured. It is difficult to speak of Foote's conduct to Garrick in any moderate language. Mr. Forster may assert that behind Foote's brutal jests there always lurked a kindly feeling; but what can we think of the man who, constantly receiving favors from Garrick's hand, could never speak of him before others without a sneer; who the moment he had received the loan of money or other favor for which he had cringed, snarled—I will not say like a dog, for no dog is so ungrateful—and snapped at the hand which had administered to him of its bounty. When this man, who had never spared a friend, whose whole life had been passed in maligning others, at last was himself a victim of a vile and cruel slander, Garrick forgot the gibes and sneers of which Foote had made him so often the victim, and stood by him with a noble devotion as honorable to himself as it was ill-deserved by its object. Time would not suffice, had I as many hours as I have minutes before me, to tell you of all the acts of generosity that this mean man, this niggardly actor, performed in his lifetime. One characteristic anecdote will suffice. When Whitfield was building his Tabernacle in Tottenham Court Road, he employed one of the carpenters who worked for Garrick at Drury Lane. Subscriptions for the Tabernacle do not seem to have come in as fast as they were required to pay the workmen, so that the carpenter had to go to Garrick to ask for an advance. When pressed for his reason he confessed that he had not received any wages from Mr. Whitfield. Garrick made the advance asked for, and soon after quietly set out to pay a visit to Mr. Whitfield, when, with many apologies for the liberty he was taking, he offered him a five hundred pound bank note as his subscription towards the Tabernacle. Considering that Garrick had no particular sympathy with Nonconformists, this action speaks as much for his charity as a Christian as it does for his liberality as a man.

Perhaps Richard III. remained Garrick's best Shakesperean character. Of course he played Cibber's version and not Shakespeare's. In fact, many of the Shakesperean parts were not played from the poet's own text, but Garrick might have doubted whether even his popularity would have reconciled his audiences to the unadulterated poetry of our greatest dramatist.

Next to Richard, Lear would seem to have been his best Shakesperean performance. In Hamlet and Othello he did not equal Betterton; and in the latter, certainly from all one can discover, he was infinitely surpassed by Edmund Kean. In fact Othello was not one of his great parts. But in the wide range of characters which he undertook, Garrick was probably never equalled. A poor actor named Everard, who was first brought out as a boy by Garrick, says: "Such or such an actor in their respective fortes have been allowed to play such or such a part equally well as him; but could they perform Archer and Scrub like him? and Abel Drugger, Ranger, and Bayes, and Benedick; speak his own prologue to Barbarossa, in the character of a country-boy, and in a few minutes transform himself in the same play to Selim? Nay, in the same night he has played Sir John Brute and the Guardian, Romeo and Lord Chalkstone, Hamlet and Sharp, King Lear and Fribble, King Richard and the Schoolboy! Could anyone but himself attempt such a wonderful variety, such an amazing contrast of character, and be equally great in all? No, no, no! Garrick, take the chair."

Garrick was, without doubt, a very intense actor; he threw himself most thoroughly into any part that he was playing. Certainly we know that he was not wanting in reverence for Shakespeare; in spite of the liberties which he ventured to take with the poet's text, he loved and worshipped him. To Powell, who threatened to be at one time a formidable rival, his advice was, "Never let your Shakespeare be out of your hands; keep him about you as a charm; the more you read him, the more you will like him, and the better you will act." As to his yielding to the popular taste for pantomime and spectacle, he may plead a justification in the words which his friend Johnson put into his mouth in the Prologue that he wrote for the inauguration of his management at Drury Lane:—
"The Drama's laws the Drama's patrons give,
And we, who live to please, must please to live."
We must remember how much he did for the stage. Though his alterations of Shakespeare shock us, they are nothing to those outrages committed by others, who deformed the poet beyond recognition. Garrick made Shakespeare's plays once more popular. He purged the actors, for a time at least, of faults that were fatal to any high class of drama, and, above all, he gradually got rid of those abominable nuisances (to which we have already alluded), the people who came and took their seats at the wings, on the stage itself, while the performance was going on, hampering the efforts of the actors and actresses. The stage would have had much to thank Garrick for if he had done nothing more than this—if only that he was the first manager who kept the audience where they ought to be, on the other side of the footlights.

In his private life Garrick was most happy. He was fortunate enough to find for his wife a simple-minded, loyal woman, in a quarter which some people would deem very unpromising. Mrs. Garrick was, as is well-known, a celebrated danseuse, known as Mademoiselle Violette, whose real name was Eva Maria Weigel, a Viennese. A more affectionate couple were never seen; they were not blessed with children, but they lived together in the most uninterrupted happiness, and their house was the scene of many social gatherings of a delightful kind. Mrs. Garrick survived her celebrated husband, and lived to the ripe age of ninety-eight, retaining to the very last much of that grace and charm of expression which had won the actor's heart.

Time will not allow me to dwell on the many points of interest in Garrick's career; all of which are to be found in Mr. Percy Fitzgerald's Life of Garrick. On returning to London after a visit to the Spensers at Althorp in January, 1779, he was struck down by a fatal attack of his old malady, the gout, and died at the age of sixty-three.

He was buried in Westminster Abbey with ceremonies as imposing as ever graced the funeral of a great man. The pall-bearers were headed by the Duke of Devonshire and the Earl Spenser, while round the grave there were gathered such men as Burke and Fox, and last, not least, his old friend and tutor, Samuel Johnson, his rugged countenance streaming with tears, his noble heart filled with the sincerest grief. The words so often quoted, artificial though they may seem, came from that heart when, speaking of his dear Davy's death, he said that it "had eclipsed the gayety of nations."

Garrick's remarkable success in society, which achieved for him a position only inferior to that he achieved on the stage, is the best answer to what is often talked about the degrading nature of the actor's profession. Since the days of Roscius no contempt for actors in general, or for their art, has prevented a great actor from attaining that position which is accorded to all distinguished in what are held to be the higher arts.

Nearly nine years after the death of Garrick, on November 4th, 1787, a young woman, who had run away from home when little more than a child to join a company of strolling players, and who, when that occupation failed, earned a scanty living as a hawker in the streets of London, gave birth, in a wretched room near Gray's Inn, to an illegitimate child. This woman was Nancy Carey, the grand-daughter of Henry Carey, the author of the "National Anthem." She was the great-grand-daughter of George Saville, Marquis of Halifax, whose natural son Henry Carey was. A compassionate actress, Miss Tidswell, who knew the father of the child, Aaron Kean, gave her what assistance she could. Poor Nance was removed to her father's lodgings, near Gray's Inn, and there, on the day before mentioned, Edmund Kean was born.

Three months after his birth his mother deserted him, leaving him, without a word of apology or regret, to the care of the woman who had befriended her in her trouble. When he was but three years old he was brought, amongst a number of other children, to Michael Kelly who was then bringing out the opera of Cymon at the Opera House in the Haymarket, and, thanks to his personal beauty, he was selected for the part of Cupid. Shortly afterwards he found his way to Drury Lane, where the handsome baby—for he was little more—figured among the imps in the pantomime. Taught here the tricks of the acrobat, he had at four years old acquired such powers of contortion that he was fit to rank as an infant phenomenon. But the usual result followed: the little limbs became deformed, and had to be put in irons, by means of which they regained that symmetry with which nature had at first endowed them. Three years afterwards, in March, 1794, John Kemble was acting Macbeth at Drury Lane; and, in the "cauldron scene," he engaged some children to personate the supernatural beings summoned by the witches from that weird vessel. Little Edmund with his irons was the cause of a ridiculous accident, and the attempt to embody the ghostly forms was abruptly abandoned. But the child seems to have been pardoned for his blunder, and for a short time was permitted by the manager to appear in one or two children's parts. Little did the dignified manager imagine that the child—who was one of his cauldron of imps in Macbeth—was to become, twenty years later, his formidable rival—formidable enough to oust almost the representative of the Classical school from the supremacy he had hitherto enjoyed on the Tragic stage. In Orange Court, Leicester Square, where Holcroft, the author of The Road to Ruin, was born, Edmund Kean received his first education. Scanty enough it was, for it had scarcely begun before his wretched mother stepped in and claimed him; and, after her re-appearance, his education seems to have been of a most spasmodic character. Hitherto, the child's experience of life had been hard enough. When only eight years of age he ran away to Portsmouth, and shipped himself on board a ship bound to Madeira. But he found his new life harder than that from which he had escaped, and, by dint of feigning deafness and lameness, he succeeded in procuring his removal to an hospital at Madeira, whence, the doctors finding his case yielded to no remedies, the authorities kindly shipped him again to England. He insisted on being deaf and lame: indeed, so deaf that in a violent thunder-storm he remained perfectly unmoved, explaining his composure by declaring that he could not hear any noise at all. From Portsmouth he made his way on foot to London. On presenting himself at the wretched lodgings where his mother lived, he found that she had gone away with Richardson's troupe. Penniless and half-starving, he suddenly thought of his uncle, Moses Kean, who lived in Lisle Street, Leicester Square, a queer character, who gained a precarious living by giving entertainments as a mimic and ventriloquist. The uncle received his nephew warmly enough, and seems to have cultivated, to the best of his ability, the talent for acting which he recognized at once in the boy. Edmund again enjoyed a kind of desultory education, partly carried on at school and partly at his uncle's home, where he enjoyed the advantage of the kind instructions of his old friend, Miss Tidswell, of D'Egville, the dancing master, of Angelo, the fencing master, and of no less a person than Incledon, the celebrated singer, who seems to have taken the greatest interest in him. But the vagrant, half-gypsy disposition, which he inherited from his mother, could never be subdued, and he was constantly disappearing from his uncle's house for weeks together, which he would pass in going about from one roadside inn to another, amusing the guests with his acrobatic tricks, and his monkey-like imitations. In vain was he locked up in rooms, the height of which from the ground was such as seemed to render escape impossible. He contrived to get out somehow or other, even at the risk of his neck, and to make his escape to some fair, where he would earn a few pence by the exhibition of his varied accomplishments. During these periods of vagabondism he would live on a mere nothing, sleeping in barns, or in the open air, and would faithfully bring back his gains to Uncle Moses. But even this astounding generosity, appealing, as it must have done, to the uncle's sentiments, could not appease him. His uncle went so far, apparently with the concurrence of Miss Tidswell, as to place round the boy's neck a brass collar with the inscription, "This boy belongs to No. 9 Lisle Street; please bring him home." His wandering propensities being for a time subdued, we find the little Edmund again engaged at Drury Lane, and delighting the actors in the green-room by giving recitations from Richard III., probably in imitation of Cooke; and, on one occasion, among his audience was Mrs. Charles Kemble. During this engagement he played Arthur to Kemble's King John and Mrs. Siddon's Constance, and appears to have made a great success. Soon after this, his uncle Moses died suddenly, and young Kean was left to the severe but kindly guardianship of Miss Tidswell. We cannot follow him through all the vicissitudes of his early career. The sketch I have given of his early life—ample details of which may be found in Mrs. Hawkins's Life of Edmund Kean—will give you a sufficient idea of what he must have endured and suffered. When, years afterwards, the passionate love of Shakespeare, which, without exaggeration, we may say he showed almost from his cradle, had reaped its own reward in the wonderful success which he achieved, if we find him then averse to respectable conventionality, erratic, and even dissipated in his habits, let us mercifully remember the bitter and degrading suffering which he passed through in his childhood, and not judge too harshly the great actor. Unlike those whose lives we have hitherto considered, he knew none of the softening influences of a home; to him the very name of mother, instead of recalling every tender and affectionate feeling, was but the symbol of a vague horror, the fountain of that degradation and depravation of his nature, from which no subsequent prosperity could ever redeem it.

For many years after his boyhood his life was one of continual hardship. With that unsubdued conviction of his own powers, which often is the sole consolation of genius, he toiled on and bravely struggled through the sordid miseries of a strolling player's life. The road to success lies through many a thorny course, across many a dreary stretch of desert land, over many an obstacle, from which the fainting heart is often tempted to turn back. But hope, and the sense of power within, which no discouragements can subdue, inspire the struggling artist still to continue the conflict, till at last courage and perseverance meet with their just reward, and success comes. The only feeling then to which the triumphant artist may be tempted is one of good-natured contempt for those who are so ready to applaud those merits which, in the past, they were too blind to recognize. Edmund Kean was twenty-seven years old before his day of triumph came.

Without any preliminary puffs, without any flourish of trumpets, on the evening of the 26th January, 1814, soaked through with the rain, Edmund Kean slunk more than walked in at the stage-door of Drury Lane Theatre, uncheered by one word of encouragement, and quite unnoticed. He found his way to the wretched dressing-room he shared in common with three or four other actors; as quick as possible he exchanged his dripping clothes for the dress of Shylock; and, to the horror of his companions, took from his bundle a black wig—the proof of his daring rebellion against the great law of conventionality, which had always condemned Shylock to red hair. Cheered by the kindness of Bannister and Oxberry, the latter of whom offered him a welcome glass of brandy and water, he descended to the stage dressed, and peeped through the curtain to see a more than half-empty house. Dr. Drury was waiting at the wings to give him a hearty welcome. The boxes were empty, and there were about five hundred people in the pit, and a few others "thinly scattered to make up a show." Shylock was the part he was playing, and he no sooner stepped upon the stage than the interest of the audience was excited. Nothing he did or spoke in the part was done or spoken in a conventional manner. The simple words, "I will be assured I may," were given with such effect that the audience burst into applause. When the act-drop fell, after the speech of Shylock to Antonio, his success was assured, and his fellow-actors, who had avoided him, now seemed disposed to congratulate him; but he shrank from their approaches. The great scene with Tubal was a revelation of such originality and of such terrible force as had not probably been seen upon those boards before. "How the devil so few of them could kick up such a row was something marvellous!" naïvely remarked Oxberry. At the end of the third act every one was ready to pay court to him; but again he held aloof. All his thoughts were concentrated on the great "trial" scene, which was coming. In that scene the wonderful variety of his acting completed his triumph. Trembling with excitement, he resumed his half-dried clothes, and, glad to escape, rushed home. He was in too great a state of ecstasy at first to speak, but his face told his wife that he had realized his dream—that he had appeared on the stage of Drury Lane, and that his great powers had been instantly acknowledged. With not a shadow of doubt as to his future, he exclaimed, "Mary, you shall ride in your carriage;" and taking his baby boy from the cradle and kissing him, said, "and Charley, my boy, you shall go to Eton,"—and he did.

The time when Edmund Kean made his first appearance in London was certainly favorable for an actor of genius. For a long while the national theatre had been in a bad way; and nothing but failure had hitherto met the efforts of the Committee of Management, a committee which numbered among its members Lord Byron. When the other members of the committee, with a strange blindness to their own interests, proposed that for the present, Kean's name should be removed from the bills, Byron interested himself on his behalf: "You have a great genius among you," he said, "and you do not know it." On Kean's second appearance the house was nearly doubled. Hazlitt's criticism had roused the whole body of critics, and they were all there to sit in judgment upon the newcomer. His utter indifference to the audience won him their respect, and before the piece was half over the sentence of the formidable tribunal was in his favor. From that moment Kean exercised over his audiences a fascination which was probably never exercised by any other actor. Garrick was no doubt his superior in parts of high comedy; he was more polished, more vivacious—his manner more distinguished, and his versatility more striking. In such parts as Coriolanus or Rolla, John Kemble excelled him: but in Shylock, in Richard, in Iago, and, above all, in Othello, it may be doubted whether Edmund Kean ever had an equal. As far as one can judge—not having seen Kean one's-self—from the many criticisms extant, written by the most intellectual men, and from the accounts of those who saw him in his prime, he was, to my mind—be it said without any disparagement to other great actors—the greatest genius that our stage has ever seen. Unequal he may have been, perhaps often so, but there were moments in his acting which were, without exaggeration, moments of inspiration. Coleridge is reported to have said that to see Kean act was "like reading Shakespeare by flashes of lightning." This often-quoted sentence embodies perhaps the main feature of Edmund Kean's greatness as an actor; for, when he was impersonating the heroes of our poet, he revealed their natures by an instant flash of light so searching that every minute feature, which by the ordinary light of day was hardly visible, stood bright and clear before you. The effect of such acting was indeed that of lightning—it appalled; the timid hid their eyes, and fashionable society shrank from such heart-piercing revelations of human passion. Persons who had schooled themselves to control their emotion till they had scarcely any emotion left to control, were repelled rather than attracted by Kean's relentless anatomy of all the strongest feeling of our nature. In Sir Giles Overreach, a character almost devoid of poetry, Kean's acting displayed with such powerful and relentless truth the depths of a cruel, avaricious man, baffled in all his vilest schemes, that the effect he produced was absolutely awful. As no bird but the eagle can look without blinking on the sun, so none but those who in the sacred privacy of their imaginations had stood face to face with the mightiest storms of human passion could understand such a performance. Byron, who had been almost forced into a quarrel with Kean by the actor's disregard of the ordinary courtesies of society, could not restrain himself, but rushed behind the scenes and grasped the hand of the man to whom he felt that he owed a wonderful revelation.

I might discant for hours with an enthusiasm which, perhaps, only an actor could feel on the marvellous details of Kean's impersonations. He was not a scholar in the ordinary sense of the word, though Heaven knows he had been schooled by adversity, but I doubt if there ever was an actor who so thought out his part, who so closely studied with the inward eye of the artist the waves of emotion that might have agitated the minds of the beings whom he represented. One hears of him during those early years of struggle and privation, pacing silently along the road, foot-sore and half-starved, but unconscious of his own sufferings, because he was immersed in the study of those great creations of Shakespeare's genius which he was destined to endow with life upon the stage. When you read of Edmund Kean as, alas! he was later on in life, with mental and physical powers impaired, think of the description those gave of him who knew him best in his earlier years; how amidst all the wildness and half-savage Bohemianism, which the miseries of his life had ensured, he displayed, time after time, the most large-hearted generosity, the tenderest kindness of which human nature is capable. Think of him working with a concentrated energy for the one object which he sought, namely, to reach the highest distinction in his calling. Think of him as sparing no mental or physical labor to attain this end, an end which seemed ever fading further and further from his grasp. Think of the disappointments, the cruel mockeries of hope which, day after day, he had to encounter; and then be harsh if you can to those moral failings for which his misfortunes rather than his faults were responsible. If you are inclined to be severe, you may console yourselves with the reflection that this genius, who had given the highest intellectual pleasure to hundreds and thousands of human beings, was hounded by hypocritical sanctimoniousness out of his native land; and though, two years afterwards, one is glad to say, for the honor of one's country, a complete reaction took place, and his reappearance was greeted with every mark of hearty welcome, the blow had been struck from which neither his mind or his body ever recovered. He lingered upon the stage, and died at the age of forty-six, after five years of suffering—almost a beggar—with only a solitary ten-pound note remaining of the large fortune his genius had realized.

It is said that Kean swept away the Kembles and their Classical school of acting. He did not do that. The memory of Sarah Siddons, tragic queen of the British stage, was never to be effaced, and I would remind you that when Kean was a country actor (assured of his own powers, however unappreciated), resenting with passionate pride the idea of playing second to "the Infant Roscius," who was for a time the craze and idol of the hour, "Never," said he, "never; I will play second to no one but John Kemble!" I am certain that when his better nature had the ascendency no one would have more generously acknowledged the merits of Kemble than Edmund Kean. It is idle to say that because his style was solemn and slow, Kemble was not one of the greatest actors that our stage has produced. It is only those whose natures make them incapable of approbation or condemnation in artistic matters without being partisans, who, because they admire Edmund Kean, would admit no merit in John Kemble. The world of art, thank Heaven, is wide enough for both, and the hearts of those who truly love art are large enough to cherish the memory of both as of men who did noble work in the profession which they adorned. Kean blended the Realistic with the Ideal in acting, and founded a school of which William Charles Macready was, afterwards, in England, the foremost disciple.

Thus have we glanced, briefly enough, at four of our greatest actors whose names are landmarks in the history of the Drama in England, the greatest Drama of the world. We have seen how they all carried out, by different methods perhaps, but in the same spirit, the principle that in acting Nature must dominate Art. But it is Art that must interpret Nature; and to interpret the thoughts and emotions of her mistress should be her first object. But those thoughts, those emotions, must be interpreted with grace, with dignity and with temperance; and these, let us remember, Art alone can teach.


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