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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 present time; feel the past and the future on the instant, and kindle 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 raise While 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
the loftiest of human emotions. The Homeric poets, who breathed forth their strains to untutored ears and left no visible traces of their genius, could scarcely anticipate the duration of their works. Shakspear seems to have thought little in his life-time of those honors which through all ages will accumulate on his memory. The best benefactors of their race have left the world nothing but their names, and their remembrances in grateful souls. The true poet, perhaps, feels most holily when he thinks only of sharing in the immortality of nature, and “owes no allegiance but the elements.” Some feeling, not unallied to this, may solace the actor for the short-lived remembrance of his exertions. The images which he vivifies are not traced in paper, nor diffused through the press, nor extant in marble; but are engraven on the fleshly tables of the heart, and last till “life's idle business” ceases. To thousands of the young has he given their “first mild touch of sympathy and thought,” their first sense of communion with their kind. As time advances, and the ranks of his living admirers grow thin, the old tell of his feats with a tenderer rapture, and give such vivid hints of his excellence as enable their hearers richly to fancy forth some image of grandeur or delight, which, in their minds at least, is like him. The sweet lustre of his memory thus grows more sacred as it approaches its close, and tenderly vanishes. His name lives still-ever pronounced with happiest feelings and in the happiest hours-and excites us to stretch our thoughts backward into the gladnesses of another age. The grave-maker's work, according to the Clown in Hamlet, outlasts all others even “ till domesday," and the actor's fades away before most others, because it is the very reverse of his gloomy and durable creations. The theatrical picture does not endure because it is the warmest, the most living of the works of art; it is short as human life, because it is as genial. Those are the intensest enjoyments which soonest wither. The fairest graces of nature-those touches of the etherial scattered over the universe-pass away while they ravish us. Could we succeed in giving permanence to the rainbow, to the delicate shadow, or to the moon-beam on the waters, their light and unearthly charm would be lost for ever. The tender hues of youth would ill exchange their evanescent bloom for an enamel which ages would not destroy. And if “ these our actors” must “melt into air, thin air,” leaving but soft tracings in the hearts of living admirers—if their images of beauty must fade into the atmosphere of town gaiety, until they only lend some delicate graces to those airy clouds which gleam in its distance, and which are not recognized as theirs, they can scarcely complain of a transitoriness which is nécessarily connected with the living grace which belongs to no other order of artists.
The work before us, however, may afford better consolation than we can render to actors; for it redeems not the names, but the vivid images of some of the greatest artists of a century ago, from oblivion. Here they are not embalmed, but kept aliveand breathe, in all the glory of their meridian powers, before us. Here Betterton's tones seem yet to melt on the entranced hearerNokes yet convulses the full house with laughter on his first appearance-and Mrs. Monfort sinks with her dainty, diving body to the ground, beneath the conscious load of her own attractions. The theatrical portraits in this work are drawn with the highest gusto, and set forth with the richest coloring. The author has not sought, like some admirable critics of this age of criticism, to say as many witty or eloquent things on each artist as possible, but simply to form the most exact likeness, and to give to the drapery the most vivid and appropriate hues. We seem to listen to the prompter's bell—to see the curtain rise and behold on the scene the goodly shapes of the actors and actresses of another age, in their antique costume, and with all the stately airs and high graces which the town knows no longer.
Betterton is the chief object of our author's admiration; but the account of his various excellencies is too long to extract entire, and perhaps, on account of the spirit of boundless eulogy in which it is written, has less of that nicety of touch, which gives so complete an individuality to his pictures of other performers.
The following are perhaps the most interesting parts of the description:
“You have seen a Hamlet perhaps, who, on the first appearance of his father's spirit, has thrown himself into all the straining vociferation requisite to express rage and fury, and the house has thunder'd with applause; tho' the mis-guided actor was all the while (as Shakespear terms it) tearing a passion into rags.—I am the more bold to offer you this particular instance, because the late Mr. Addison, while I sate by him, to see this scene acted, made the same observation, asking me with some surprize, if I thought Hamlet should be in so violent a passion with the Ghost, which tho' it might have astonish'd, it had not provok'd him? for you may observe that in this beautiful speech, the passion never rises beyond an almost breathless astonishment, or an impatience, limited by filial reverence, to enquire into the suspected wrongs that may have rais'd him from his peaceful tomb! and a desire to know what a spirit so seemingly distrest, might wish or enjoin a sorrowful son to execute towards his future quiet in the grave? This was the light into which Betterton threw this scene; which he open'd with a pause of mute amazement! then rising slowly, to solemn, trembling voice, he made the Ghost equally terrible to the spectator, as to himself! and in the descriptive part of the natural emotions which the ghastly vision gave him, the boldness of his expostulation was still govern'd by decency, manly, but not braving; his voice never rising into that seeming outrage, or wild defiance of what