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Vol. I. Part II.
Art. I. An Apology for the Life of Mr. Colley Cibber, Comedian, and late Patentee of the Theatre Royal, with an Historical View of the Stage in his own Time, written by Himself. The Second Edition. London, 1740.
There are perhaps few individuals, of intense personal feeling, whose lives, written by themselves, would be destitute of interest or of value. Works of this description enlarge the number of our intimacies without inconvenience, awaken, with a peculiar vividness, pleasant recollections of our own past career, and excite that fond and gentle sympathy with the little sorrows, cares, hopes, and enjoyments of others, which infuses new tenderness into all the pulses of individual joy. The qualification which is most indispensable to the writer of such auto-biographies, is vanity. If he does not dwell with gusto on his own theme, he will communicate no gratification to his reader. He must not, indeed, fancy himself too outrageously what he is not, but should have the highest sense of what he is, the happiest relish for his own peculiarities, and the most blissful assurance that they are matters of great interest to the world. He who feels thus, will not chill us by cold generalities, but trace with an exquisite minuteness all the felicities of his life, all the well remembered moments of gratified vanity, from the first beatings of hope and first taste of delight, to the time when age is gladdened by the reflected tints of young enterprize and victory. Thus it was with Colley Cibber; and, therefore, his Apology for his own life is one of the most amusing books that have ever been written. He was not, indeed, a very wise or lofty character —nor did he affect great virtue or wisdom—but openly derided gravity, bade defiance to the serious pursuits of life, and honest
VOL. I. PART II. N
ly preferred his own lightness of heart and of head, to knowledge the most extensive or thought the most profound. He was vain even of his vanity. At the very commencement of his work, he avows his determination not to repress it, because it is part of himself, and therefore will only increase the resemblance of the picture. Rousseau did not more clearly lay open to the world the depths and inmost recesses of his soul, than Cibber his little foibles and minikin weaknesses. The philosopher dwelt not more intensely on the lone enthusiasm of his spirit, on the alleviations of his throbbing soul, on the long draughts of rapture which he eagerly drank in from the loveliness of the universe, than the player on his early aspirings for scenic applause, and all the petty triumphs and mortifications of his passion for the favour of the town. How real and speaking is the description which he gives of his fond desires for the bright course of an actor—of his light-hearted pleasure, when, in the little part of the Chaplain in The Orphan, he received his first applause—and of his higher transport, when the next day Goodman, a retired actor of note, clapping him on the shoulder at a rehearsal, exclaimed, with an oath, that he must make a good actor, which almost took away his breath, and fairly drew tears into his eyes! The spirit of gladness which gave such exquisite keenness to his youthful appetite for praise, sustained him through all the changes of his fortune, enabling him to make a jest of penury, assisting him to gather fresh courage from every slight, adding zest to every success, until he arrived at the high dignity of " Patentee of the Theatre Royal." When "he no revenue had but his good spirits to feed and clothe him," these were ample. His vanity was to him a kingdom. The airiest of town butterflies, he sipped of the sweets of pleasure wherever its stray gifts were found; sometimes in the tavern among the wits, but chiefly in the golden sphere of the theatre,—that magic circle whose majesties do not perish with the chances of the world, and whose glories never grow dim. In reading his life, we become possessed of his own feathery lightness, and seem to follow the course of the gayest and the emptiest of all the bubbles, that, in his age of happy trifling, floated along the shallow but glittering stream of existence.
The Life of Cibber is peculiarly a favorite with us, not only by reason of the superlative coxcombry which it exhibits, but of the due veneration which it yields to an art too frequently under-rated, even among those to whose gratification it ministers. If the degree of enjoyment and of benefit produced by an art be any test of its excellence, there are few indeed which will yield to that of the actor. His exertions do not, indeed, often excite emotions so deep or so pure as those which the noblest poetry inspires, but their genial influences are far more widely extended.
The tenderest beauties of the most gifted of bards, find in the bosoms of a very small number an answering sympathy. Even of those who talk familiarly of Spenser and Milton, there are few who have fairly read, and still fewer who truly feel, their divinest effusions. It is only in the theatre, that any image of the real grandeur of humanity—any picture of generous heroism and noble self-sacrifice—is poured on the imaginations, and sent warm to the hearts of the vast body of the people. There, are eyes, familiar through months and years only with mechanic toil, suffused with natural tears, engendered by sacred pity. There, are the deep fountains of hearts, long encrusted by narrow cares, burst open, and a holy light is sent in on the long sunken forms of the imagination, which shone fair and goodly in boyhood by their own light, but have since been sealed and forgotten in their " sunless treasuries." There,, do the lowliest and most ignorant catch their only glimpse of that poetic radiance which is the finest glory of our being. While they gaze on the wondrous spectacle, they forget the petty concerns of their own individual lot, and recognize and rejoice in their kindred with a nature capable of high emprise, of meekest suffering, and of defiance to the mortal powers of agony and the grave. They are elevated and softened into men. They are carried beyond the ignorant
E resent time; feel the past and the future on the instant, and indie as they gaze on the massive realities of human virtue, or on those fairy visions which are the gleaming fore-shadows of golden years, which hereafter shall bless the world. Their horizon is suddenly extended from the narrow circle of low anxieties and selfish joys, to the farthest and most sacred hills which bound our moral horizon; and they perceive, in clear vision, the eternal rocks of defence for their nature, which the noblest spirits of their fellow men have been privileged to raiseWhile .they feel that "which gives an awe of things above them," their souls are expanded in the heartiest sympathy with the vast body of their fellows. A thousand hearts are swayed at once by the same emotion, as the high grass of the meadow yields, as a single blade, to the breeze which sweeps over it. Distinctions of fortune, rank, talent, age, all give way to the warm tide of emotion, and every class feel only as partakers in one primal sympathy, "made of one blood," and equal in the mysterious sanctities of their being. Surely the art that produces an effect like this—which separates, as by a divine alchemy, the artificial from the real in humanity—which supplies to the artisan in the capital, the place of those woods and free airs and mountain streams, which insensibly harmonize the peasant's character—which gives the poorest to feel the old grandeur of tragedy, sweeping by with sceptred pall—which makes the heart of the child leap with strange joy, and enables the old man to fancy himself again a child—is worthy of no mean place among the arts which refine our manners by exalting our conceptions!
It has sometimes been objected to the theatrical artist, that he merely repeats the language and embodies the conceptions of the poet. But the allegation, though specious, is unfounded. It has been completely established, by a great and genial critic of our own time, that the deeper beauties of poetry cannot be shaped forth by the actor,* and it is equally true, that the poet has little share in the highest triumphs of the performer. It may, at first, appear a paradox, but is nevertheless proved by experience, that the fanciful cast of the language has very little to do with the effect of an acted tragedy. Mrs. Siddons would not have been less than she is, though Shakespear had never written. She displayed genius as exalted in the characters drawn by Moore, Southern, Otway, and Rowe, as in those of the first of human bards. Certain great situations are all the performer needs, and the grandest emotions of the soul all that he can embody. He can derive little aid from the noblest imaginations or the richest fantasies of the author. He may, indeed, by his own genius,—like the matchless artist to whom we have just alluded—consecrate sorrow, dignify emotion, and kindle the imagination as well as awaken the sympathies. But this will be accomplished, not by the texture of the words spoken, but by the living magic of the eye, of the tone, of the action; by all those means which belong exclusively to the actor. When Mrs. Siddons cast that unforgotten gaze of blank horror on the corpse of Beverley, was she indebted to the play-wright for the conception? When, as Arpasia in Tamerlane, she gave that look of inexpressible anguish, in which the breaking of the heart might be seen, and the cold and rapid advances of death traced —and fell without a word, as if struck by the sudden blow of destiny—in that moment of unearthly power, when she astonished and terrified even her oldest admirers, and after which, she lay herself really senseless from the intensity of her own emotion —where was the marvellous stage-direction, the pregnant hint in the frigid declamatory text, from which she wrought this amazing picture, too perilous to be often repeated? Do the words "I'm satisfied," in Cato, convey the slightest image of that high struggle—that contest between nature long repressed and stoic pride—which Mr. Kemble in an instant embodied to the senses, and impressed on the soul for ever? Or, to descend
* See Mr. Lamb's Essay on the Tragedies of Shakespear, as adapted to representation on the stage—a piece, which combines more of profound thought with more of deep feeling and exquisite beauty, than any criticism with which we are acquainted.
into the present time and the lowlier drama, does the perusal of The School of Reform convey any vestige of that rough sublimity which breathes in the Tyke of Emery? Are Mr. Liston's looks out of book, gotten by heart, invented for him by writers of farces? Is there any fancy of invention in its happiest mood —any tracings of mortal hand in books—like to the marvellous creations which Munden multiplies at will? These are not to be "constrained by mastery" of the pen, and defy not only the power of an author to conceive, but to describe them. The best actors indeed, in their happiest efforts, are little more indebted to the poet, than he is to the graces of nature which he seizes, than the sculptor to living forms, or the grandest painters to history.
Still less weight is there in the objection, that part of the qualities of an actor, as his form and voice, are gifts of nature which imply no merit in their possessor. They are no more independant of will, than the sensibility and imagination of the bard. Our admiration is not determined by merit, but by beauty; we contemplate angelic purity of soul with as tender a love as virtue, which has been reared with intense labour among clouds and storms, and follow with as delighted a wonder the quick glances of intuition as the longest and most difficult researches. The actor exhibits as high a perception of natural grace, as fine an acquaintance with the picturesque in attitude, as the sculptor. If the forms of his imagination do not stand for ages in marble, they live and breathe before us while they last—change with all the variations of passion—and "discourse most eloquent music." They sometimes, as in the case of Mr. Kemble's Roman characters, supply the noblest illustrations of history. The story of Coriolanus is to us no dead letter; the nobleness of Cato is an abstract idea no longer. We seem to behold even now the calm approaches of the mighty stoic to his end—to look on him, maintaining the forms of Roman liberty to the last, as though he would grasp its trembling relics in his dying hands—and to listen to those solemn tones, now the expiring accents of liberty passing away, and anon the tremulous breathings of uncertain hope for the future. The reality with which these things have been presented to our youthful eyes is a possession for ever—quickening our sympathy with the most august instances of human virtue, and enriching our souls with palpable images of the majesty of old.
It may be said, that if a great actor carries us into times that are past, he rears up no monument which will last in those which are to come. But there are many circumstances to counterbalance and alleviate the shortness of his fame. The anxiety for posthumous renown, though there is something noble in it as abstracted from mere personal desires, is scarcely