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The Theory of the Theatre and Other Principles of Dramatic Criticism
The Actor and the Dramatist
by Hamilton, Clayton


We have already agreed that the dramatist works ever under the sway of three influences which are not felt by exclusively literary artists like the poet and the novelist. The physical conditions of the theatre in any age affect to a great extent the form and structure of the drama; the conscious or unconscious demands of the audience, as we have observed in the preceding chapter, determine for the dramatist the themes he shall portray; and the range or restrictions of his actors have an immediate effect upon the dramatist's great task of character-creation. In fact, so potent is the influence of the actor upon the dramatist that the latter, in creating character, goes to work very differently from his literary fellow-artists,—the novelist, the story-writer, or the poet. Great characters in non-dramatic fiction have often resulted from abstract imagining, without direct reference to any actual person: Don Quixote, Tito Melema, Leatherstocking, sprang full-grown from their creators' minds and struck the world as strange and new. But the greatest characters in the drama have almost always taken on the physical, and to a great extent the mental, characteristics of certain great actors for whom they have been fashioned. Cyrano is not merely Cyrano, but also Coquelin; Mascarille is not merely Mascarille, but also Molière; Hamlet is not merely Hamlet, but also Richard Burbage. Closet-students of the plays of Sophocles may miss a point or two if they fail to consider that the dramatist prepared the part of Oedipus in three successive dramas for a certain star-performer on the stage of Dionysus. The greatest dramatists have built their plays not so much for reading in the closet as for immediate presentation on the stage; they have grown to greatness only after having achieved an initial success that has given them the freedom of the theatre; and their conceptions of character have therefore crystallised around the actors that they have found waiting to present their parts. A novelist may conceive his heroine freely as being tall or short, frail or firmly built; but if a dramatist is making a play for an actress like Maude Adams, an airy, slight physique is imposed upon his heroine in advance.

Shakespeare was, among other things, the director of the Lord Chamberlain's men, who performed in the Globe, upon the Bankside; and his plays are replete with evidences of the influence upon him of the actors whom he had in charge. It is patent, for example, that the same comedian must have created Launce in Two Gentlemen of Verona and Launcelot Gobbo in the Merchant of Venice; the low comic hit of one production was bodily repeated in the next. It is almost as obvious that the parts of Mercutio and Gratiano must have been intrusted to the same performer; both characters seem made to fit the same histrionic temperament. If Hamlet were the hero of a novel, we should all, I think, conceive of him as slender, and the author would agree with us; yet, in the last scene of the play, the Queen expressly says, "He's fat, and scant of breath." This line has puzzled many commentators, as seeming out of character; but it merely indicates that Richard Burbage was fleshy during the season of 1602.

The Elizabethan expedient of disguising the heroine as a boy, which was invented by John Lyly, made popular by Robert Greene, and eagerly adopted by Shakespeare and Fletcher, seems unconvincing on the modern stage. It is hard for us to imagine how Orlando can fail to recognise his love when he meets her clad as Ganymede in the forest of Arden, or how Bassanio can be blinded to the figure of his wife when she enters the court-room in the almost feminine robes of a doctor of laws. Clothes cannot make a man out of an actress; we recognize Ada Rehan or Julia Marlowe beneath the trappings and the suits of their disguises; and it might seem that Shakespeare was depending over-much upon the proverbial credulity of theatre audiences. But a glance at histrionic conditions in Shakespeare's day will show us immediately why he used this expedient of disguise not only for Portia and Rosalind, but for Viola and Imogen as well. Shakespeare wrote these parts to be played not by women but by boys. Now, when a boy playing a woman disguised himself as a woman playing a boy, the disguise must have seemed baffling, not only to Orlando and Bassanio on the stage, but also to the audience. It was Shakespeare's boy actors, rather than his narrative imagination, that made him recur repeatedly in this case to a dramatic expedient which he would certainly discard if he were writing for actresses to-day.

If we turn from the work of Shakespeare to that of Molière, we shall find many more evidences of the influence of the actor on the dramatist. In fact, Molière's entire scheme of character-creation cannot be understood without direct reference to the histrionic capabilities of the various members of the Troupe de Monsieur. Molière's immediate and practical concern was not so much to create comic characters for all time as to make effective parts for La Grange and Du Croisy and Magdeleine Béjart, for his wife and for himself. La Grange seems to have been the Charles Wyndham of his day,—every inch a gentleman; his part in any of the plays may be distinguished by its elegant urbanity. In Les Précieuses Ridicules the gentlemanly characters are actually named La Grange and Du Croisy; the actors walked on and played themselves; it is as if Augustus Thomas had called the hero of his best play, not Jack Brookfield, but John Mason. In the early period of Molière's art, before he broadened as an actor, the parts that he wrote for himself were often so much alike from play to play that he called them by the same conventional theatric name of Mascarille or Sganarelle, and played them, doubtless, with the same costume and make-up. Later on, when he became more versatile as an actor, he wrote for himself a wider range of parts and individualised them in name as well as in nature. His growth in depicting the characters of young women is curiously coincident with the growth of his wife as an actress for whom to devise such characters. Molière's best woman—Célimène, in Le Misanthrope—was created for Mlle. Molière at the height of her career, and is endowed with all her physical and mental traits.

The reason why so many of the Queen Anne dramatists in England wrote comedies setting forth a dandified and foppish gentleman is that Colley Cibber, the foremost actor of the time, could play the fop better than he could play anything else. The reason why there is no love scene between Charles Surface and Maria in The School for Scandal is that Sheridan knew that the actor and the actress who were cast for these respective roles were incapable of making love gracefully upon the stage. The reason why Victor Hugo's Cromwell overleaped itself in composition and became impossible for purposes of stage production is that Talma, for whom the character of Cromwell was designed, died before the piece was finished, and Hugo, despairing of having the part adequately acted, completed the play for the closet instead of for the stage. But it is unnecessary to cull from the past further instances of the direct dependence of the dramatist upon his actors. We have only to look about us at the present day to see the same influence at work.

For example, the career of one of the very best endowed theatrical composers of the nineteenth century, the late Victorien Sardou, has been molded and restricted for all time by the talents of a single star performer, Mme. Sarah Bernhardt. Under the influence of Eugène Scribe, Sardou began his career at the Théatre Français with a wide range of well-made plays, varying in scope from the social satire of Nos Intimes and the farcical intrigue of Les Pattes de Mouche (known to us in English as The Scrap of Paper) to the tremendous historic panorama of Patrie. When Sarah Bernhardt left the Comédie Française, Sardou followed in her footsteps, and afterwards devoted most of his energy to preparing a series of melodramas to serve successively as vehicles for her. Now, Sarah Bernhardt is an actress of marked abilities, and limitations likewise marked. In sheer perfection of technique she surpasses all performers of her time. She is the acme of histrionic dexterity; all that she does upon the stage is, in sheer effectiveness, superb. But in her work she has no soul; she lacks the sensitive sweet lure of Duse, the serene and starlit poetry of Modjeska. Three things she does supremely well. She can be seductive, with a cooing voice; she can be vindictive, with a cawing voice; and, voiceless, she can die. Hence the formula of Sardou's melodramas.

His heroines are almost always Sarah Bernhardts,—luring, tremendous, doomed to die. Fédora, Gismonda, La Tosca, Zoraya, are but a single woman who transmigrates from play to play. We find her in different countries and in different times; but she always lures and fascinates a man, storms against insuperable circumstance, coos and caws, and in the outcome dies. One of Sardou's latest efforts, La Sorcière, presents the dry bones of the formula without the flesh and blood of life. Zoraya appears first shimmering in moonlight upon the hills of Spain,—dovelike in voice, serpentining in seductiveness. Next, she is allowed to hypnotise the audience while she is hypnotising the daughter of the governor. She is loved and she is lost. She curses the high tribunal of the Inquisition,—a dove no longer now. And she dies upon cathedral steps, to organ music. The Sorceress is but a lifeless piece of mechanism; and when it was performed in English by Mrs. Patrick Campbell, it failed to lure or to thrill. But Sarah Bernhardt, because as an actress she is Zoraya, contrived to lift it into life. Justly we may say that, in a certain sense, this is Sarah Bernhardt's drama instead of Victorien Sardou's. With her, it is a play; without her, it is nothing but a formula. The young author of Patrie promised better things than this. Had he chosen, he might have climbed to nobler heights. But he chose instead to write, year after year, a vehicle for the Muse of Melodrama, and sold his laurel crown for gate-receipts.

If Sardou suffered through playing the sedulous ape to a histrionic artist, it is no less true that the same practice has been advantageous to M. Edmond Rostand. M. Rostand has shrewdly written for the greatest comedian of the recent generation; and Constant Coquelin was the making of him as a dramatist. The poet's early pieces, like Les Romanesques, disclosed him as a master of preciosity, exquisitely lyrical, but lacking in the sterner stuff of drama. He seemed a new de Banville— dainty, dallying, and deft—a writer of witty and pretty verses—nothing more. Then it fell to his lot to devise an acting part for Coquelin, which in the compass of a single play should allow that great performer to sweep through the whole wide range of his varied and versatile accomplishment. With the figure of Coquelin before him, M. Rostand set earnestly to work. The result of his endeavor was the character of Cyrano de Bergerac, which is considered by many critics the richest acting part, save Hamlet, in the history of the theatre.

L'Aiglon was also devised under the immediate influence of the same actor. The genesis of this latter play is, I think, of peculiar interest to students of the drama; and I shall therefore relate it at some length. The facts were told by M. Coquelin himself to his friend Professor Brander Matthews, who has kindly permitted me to state them in this place. One evening, after the extraordinary success of Cyrano, M. Rostand met Coquelin at the Porte St. Martin and said, "You know, Coq, this is not the last part I want to write for you. Can't you give me an idea to get me started—an idea for another character?" The actor thought for a moment, and then answered, "I've always wanted to play a vieux grognard du premier empire—un grenadier à grandes moustaches."... A grumpy grenadier of Napoleon's army—a grenadier with sweeping moustaches—with this cue the dramatist set to work and gradually imagined the character of Flambeau. He soon saw that if the great Napoleon were to appear in the play he would dominate the action and steal the centre of the stage from the soldier-hero. He therefore decided to set the story after the Emperor's death, in the time of the weak and vacillating Duc de Reichstadt. Flambeau, who had served the eagle, could now transfer his allegiance to the eaglet, and stand dominant with the memory of battles that had been. But after the dramatist had been at work upon the play for some time, he encountered the old difficulty in a new guise. At last he came in despair to Coquelin and said, "It isn't your play, Coq; it can't be; the young duke is running away with it, and I can't stop him; Flambeau is but a secondary figure after all. What shall I do?" And Coquelin, who understood him, answered, "Take it to Sarah; she has just played Hamlet, and wants to do another boy." So M. Rostand "took it to Sarah," and finished up the duke with her in view, while in the background the figure of Flambeau scowled upon him over grandes moustaches—a true grognard indeed! Thus it happened that Coquelin never played the part of Flambeau until he came to New York with Mme. Sarah Bernhardt in the fall of 1900; and the grenadier conceived in the Porte St. Martin first saw the footlights in the Garden Theatre.

But the contemporary English-speaking stage furnishes examples just as striking of the influence of the actor on the dramatist. Sir Arthur Wing Pinero's greatest heroine, Paula Tanqueray, wore from her inception the physical aspect of Mrs. Patrick Campbell. Many of the most effective dramas of Mr. Henry Arthur Jones have been built around the personality of Sir Charles Wyndham. The Wyndham part in Mr. Jones's plays is always a gentleman of the world, who understands life because he has lived it, and is "wise with the quiet memory of old pain." He is moral because he knows the futility of immorality. He is lonely, lovable, dignified, reliable, and sound. By serene and unobtrusive understanding he straightens out the difficulties in which the other people of the play have wilfully become entangled. He shows them the error of their follies, preaches a worldly-wise little sermon to each one, and sends them back to their true places in life, sadder and wiser men and women. In order to give Sir Charles Wyndham an opportunity to display all phases of his experienced gentility in such a character as this, Mr. Jones has repeated the part in drama after drama. Many of the greatest characters of the theatre have been so essentially imbued with the physical and mental personality of the actors who created them that they have died with their performers and been lost forever after from the world of art. In this regard we think at once of Rip Van Winkle. The little play that Mr. Jefferson, with the aid of Dion Boucicault, fashioned out of Washington Irving's story is scarcely worth the reading; and if, a hundred years from now, any student of the drama happens to look it over, he may wonder in vain why it was so beloved, for many, many years, by all America; and there will come no answer, since the actor's art will then be only a tale that is told. So Beau Brummel died with Mr. Mansfield; and if our children, who never saw his superb performance, chance in future years to read the lines of Mr. Fitch's play, they will hardly believe us when we tell them that the character of Brummel once was great. With such current instances before us, it ought not to be so difficult as many university professors find it to understand the vogue of certain plays of the Elizabethan and Restoration eras which seem to us now, in the reading, lifeless things. When we study the mad dramas of Nat Lee, we should remember Betterton; and properly to appreciate Thomas Otway, we must imagine the aspect and the voice of Elizabeth Barry.

It may truthfully be said that Mrs. Barry created Otway, both as dramatist and poet; for The Orphan and Venice Preserved, the two most pathetic plays in English, would never have been written but for her. It is often thus within the power of an actor to create a dramatist; and his surest means of immortality is to inspire the composition of plays which may survive his own demise. After Duse is dead, poets may read La Città Morta, and imagine her. The memory of Coquelin is, in this way, likely to live longer than that of Talma. We can merely guess at Talma's art, because the plays in which he acted are unreadable to-day. But if M. Rostand's Cyrano is read a hundred years from now, it will be possible for students of it to imagine in detail the salient features of the art of Coquelin. It will be evident to them that the actor made love luringly and died effectively, that he was capable of lyric reading and staccato gasconade, that he had a burly humor and that touch of sentiment that trembles into tears. Similarly we know to-day, from the fact that Shakespeare played the Ghost in Hamlet, that he must have had a voice that was full and resonant and deep. So from reading the plays of Molière we can imagine the robust figure of Magdeleine Béjart, the grace of La Grange, the pretty petulance of the flighty fair Armande.

Some sense of this must have been in the mind of Sir Henry Irving when he strove industriously to create a dramatist who might survive him and immortalise his memory. The facile, uncreative Wills was granted many chances, and in Charles I lost an opportunity to make a lasting drama. Lord Tennyson came near the mark in Becket; but this play, like those of Wills, has not proved sturdy enough to survive the actor who inspired it. For all his striving, Sir Henry left no dramatist as a monument to his art.

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