Arthur Symons.

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"L'Aiglon," it seemed to me that Sarah Bernhardt showed how little she
still possessed that power, and this year I see the same failure in
"Francesca da Rimini."

The play, it must be admitted, is hopelessly poor, common,
melodramatic, without atmosphere, without nobility, subtlety, or
passion; it degrades the story which we owe to Dante and not to history
(for, in itself, the story is a quite ordinary story of adultery: Dante
and the flames of his hell purged it), it degrades it almost out of all
recognition. These middle-aged people, who wrangle shrewishly behind the
just turned back of the husband and almost in the hearing of the child,
are people in whom it is impossible to be interested, apart from any
fine meanings put into them in the acting. And yet, since M. de Max has
made hardly less than a creation out of the part of Giovanni, filling
it, as he has, with his own nervous force and passionately restrained
art, might it not have been possible once for Sarah Bernhardt to have
thrilled us even as this Francesca of Mr. Marion Crawford? I think so;
she has taken bad plays as willingly as good plays, to turn them to her
own purpose, and she has been as triumphant, if not as fine, in bad
plays as in good ones. Now her Francesca is lifeless, a melodious
image, making meaningless music. She says over the words, cooingly,
chantingly, or frantically, as the expression marks, to which she seems
to act, demand. The interest is in following her expression-marks.

The first thing one notices in her acting, when one is free to watch it
coolly, is the way in which she subordinates effects to effect. She has
her crescendos, of course, and it is these which people are most apt to
remember, but the extraordinary force of these crescendos comes from the
smooth and level manner in which the main part of the speaking is done.
She is not anxious to make points at every moment, to put all the
possible emphasis into every separate phrase; I have heard her glide
over really significant phrases which, taken by themselves, would seem
to deserve more consideration, but which she has wisely subordinated to
an overpowering effect of ensemble. Sarah Bernhardt's acting always
reminds me of a musical performance. Her voice is itself an instrument
of music, and she plays upon it as a conductor plays upon an orchestra.
One seems to see the expression marks: piano, pianissimo, largamente,
and just where the tempo rubato comes in. She never forgets that art is
not nature, and that when one is speaking verse one is not talking
prose. She speaks with a liquid articulation of every syllable, like one
who loves the savour of words on the tongue, giving them a beauty and an
expressiveness often not in them themselves. Her face changes less than
you might expect; it is not over-possessed by detail, it gives always
the synthesis. The smile of the artist, a wonderful smile which has
never aged with her, pierces through the passion or languor of the part.
It is often accompanied by a suave, voluptuous tossing of the head, and
is like the smile of one who inhales some delicious perfume, with
half-closed eyes. All through the level perfection of her acting there
are little sharp snaps of the nerves; and these are but one indication
of that perfect mechanism which her art really is. Her finger is always
upon the spring; it touches or releases it, and the effect follows
instantaneously. The movements of her body, her gestures, the expression
of her face, are all harmonious, are all parts of a single harmony. It
is not reality which she aims at giving us, it is reality transposed
into another atmosphere, as if seen in a mirror, in which all its
outlines become more gracious. The pleasure which we get from seeing her
as Francesca or as Marguerite Gautier is doubled by that other pleasure,
never completely out of our minds, that she is also Sarah Bernhardt. One
sometimes forgets that Réjane is acting at all; it is the real woman of
the part, Sapho, or Zaza, or Yanetta, who lives before us. Also one
sometimes forgets that Duse is acting, that she is even pretending to be
Magda or Silvia; it is Duse herself who lives there, on the stage. But
Sarah Bernhardt is always the actress as well as the part; when she is
at her best, she is both equally, and our consciousness of the one does
not disturb our possession by the other. When she is not at her best, we
see only the actress, the incomparable craftswoman openly labouring at
her work.


To see Coquelin in Molière is to see the greatest of comic actors at his
best, and to realise that here is not a temperament, or a student, or
anything apart from the art of the actor. His art may be compared with
that of Sarah Bernhardt for its infinite care in the training of nature.
They have an equal perfection, but it may be said that Coquelin, with
his ripe, mellow art, his passion of humour, his touching vehemence,
makes himself seem less a divine machine, more a delightfully faulty
person. His voice is firm, sonorous, flexible, a human, expressive,
amusing voice, not the elaborate musical instrument of Sarah, which
seems to go by itself, câline, cooing, lamenting, raging, or in that
wonderful swift chatter which she uses with such instant and deliberate
effect. And, unlike her, his face is the face of his part, always a
disguise, never a revelation.

I have been seeing the three Coquelins and their company at the Garrick
Theatre. They did "Tartuffe," "L'Avare," "Le Bourgeois Gentilhomme,"
"Les Précieuses Ridicules," and a condensed version of "Le Dépit
Amoureux," in which the four acts of the original were cut down into
two. Of these five plays only two are in verse, "Tartuffe" and "Le Dépit
Amoureux," and I could not help wishing that the fashion of Molière's
day had allowed him to write all his plays in prose. Molière was not a
poet, and he knew that he was not a poet. When he ventured to write the
most Shakespearean of his comedies, "L'Avare," in prose, "le même
préjugé," Voltaire tells us, "qui avait fait tomber 'le Festin de
Pierre,' parce qu'il était en prose, nuisit au succès de 'l'Avare.'
Cependant le public qui, à la longue, se rend toujours au bon, finit par
donner à cet ouvrage les applaudissements qu'il mérite. On comprit alors
qu'il peut y avoir de fort bonnes comédies en prose." How infinitely
finer, as prose, is the prose of "L'Avare" than the verse of "Tartuffe"
as verse! In "Tartuffe" all the art of the actor is required to carry
you over the artificial jangle of the alexandrines without allowing you
to perceive too clearly that this man, who is certainly not speaking
poetry, is speaking in rhyme. Molière was a great prose writer, but I do
not remember a line of poetry in the whole of his work in verse. The
temper of his mind was the temper of mind of the prose-writer. His
worldly wisdom, his active philosophy, the very mainspring of his plots,
are found, characteristically, in his valets and his servant-maids. He
satirises the miser, the hypocrite, the bas-bleu, but he chuckles over
Frosine and Gros-René; he loves them for their freedom of speech and
their elastic minds, ready in words or deeds. They are his chorus, if
the chorus might be imagined as directing the action.

But Molière has a weakness, too, for the bourgeois, and he has made M.
Jourdain immortally delightful. There is not a really cruel touch in the
whole character; we laugh at him so freely because Molière lets us
laugh with such kindliness. M. Jourdain has a robust joy in life; he
carries off his absurdities by the simple good faith which he puts into
them. When I speak of M. Jourdain I hardly know whether I am speaking of
the character of Molière or of the character of Coquelin. Probably there
is no difference. We get Molière's vast, succulent farce of the
intellect rendered with an art like his own. If this, in every detail,
is not what Molière meant, then so much the worse for Molière.

Molière is kind to his bourgeois, envelops him softly in satire as in
cotton-wool, dandles him like a great baby; and Coquelin is without
bitterness, stoops to make stupidity heroic, a distinguished stupidity.
A study in comedy so profound, so convincing, so full of human nature
and of the art-concealing art of the stage, has not been seen in our
time. As Mascarille, in "Les Précieuses Ridicules," Coquelin becomes
delicate and extravagant, a scented whirlwind; his parody is more
splendid than the thing itself which he parodies, more full of fine
show and nimble bravery. There is beauty in this broadly comic acting,
the beauty of subtle detail. Words can do little to define a performance
which is a constant series of little movements of the face, little
intonations of the voice, a way of lolling in the chair, a way of
speaking, of singing, of preserving the gravity of burlesque. In
"Tartuffe" we get a form of comedy which is almost tragic, the horribly
serious comedy of the hypocrite. Coquelin, who remakes his face, as by a
prolonged effort of the muscles, for every part, makes, for this part, a
great fish's face, heavy, suppressed, with lowered eyelids and a secret
mouth, out of which steals at times some stealthy avowal. He has the
movements of a great slug, or of a snail, if you will, putting out its
head and drawing it back into its shell. The face waits and plots, with
a sleepy immobility, covering a hard, indomitable will. It is like a
drawing of Daumier, if you can imagine a drawing which renews itself at
every instant, in a series of poses to which it is hardly necessary to
add words.

I am told that Coquelin, in the creation of a part, makes his way
slowly, surely, inwards, for the first few weeks of his performance, and
that then the thing is finished, to the least intonation or gesture, and
can be laid down and taken up at will, without a shade of difference in
the interpretation. The part of Maître Jacques in "L'Avare," for
instance, which I have just seen him perform with such gusto and such
certainty, had not been acted by him for twenty years, and it was done,
without rehearsal, in the midst of a company that required prompting at
every moment. I suppose this method of moulding a part, as if in wet
clay, and then allowing it to take hard, final form, is the method
natural to the comedian, his right method. I can hardly think that the
tragic actor should ever allow himself to become so much at home with
his material; that he dare ever allow his clay to become quite hard. He
has to deal with the continually shifting stuff of the soul and of the
passions, with nature at its least generalised moments. The comic actor
deals with nature for the most part generalised, with things palpably
absurd, with characteristics that strike the intelligence, not with
emotions that touch the heart or the senses. He comes to more definite
and to more definable results, on which he may rest, confident that what
has made an audience laugh once will make it laugh always, laughter
being a physiological thing, wholly independent of mood.

In thinking of some excellent comic actors of our own, I am struck by
the much greater effort which they seem to make in order to drive their
points home, and in order to get what they think variety. Sir Charles
Wyndham is the only English actor I can think of at the moment who does
not make unnecessary grimaces, who does not insist on acting when the
difficult thing is not to act. In "Tartuffe" Coquelin stands motionless
for five minutes at a time, without change of expression, and yet
nothing can be more expressive than his face at those moments. In
Chopin's G Minor Nocturne, Op. 15, there is an F held for three bars,
and when Rubinstein played the Nocturne, says Mr. Huneker in his
instructive and delightful book on Chopin, he prolonged the tone, "by
some miraculous means," so that "it swelled and diminished, and went
singing into D, as if the instrument were an organ." It is that power of
sustaining an expression, unchanged, and yet always full of living
significance, that I find in Coquelin. It is a part of his economy, the
economy of the artist. The improviser disdains economy, as much as the
artist cherishes it. Coquelin has some half-dozen complete variations of
the face he has composed for Tartuffe; no more than that, with no
insignificances of expression thrown away; but each variation is a new
point of view, from which we see the whole character.


The genius of Réjane is a kind of finesse: it is a flavour, and all the
ingredients of the dish may be named without defining it. The thing is
Parisian, but that is only to say that it unites nervous force with a
wicked ease and mastery of charm. It speaks to the senses through the
brain, as much as to the brain through the senses. It is the feminine
equivalent of intellect. It "magnetises our poor vertebrae," in
Verlaine's phrase, because it is sex and yet not instinct. It is sex
civilised, under direction, playing a part, as we say of others than
those on the stage. It calculates, and is unerring. It has none of the
vulgar warmth of mere passion, none of its health or simplicity. It
leaves a little red sting where it has kissed. And it intoxicates us by
its appeal to so many sides of our nature at once. We are thrilled, and
we admire, and are almost coldly appreciative, and yet aglow with the
response of the blood. I have found myself applauding with tears in my
eyes. The feeling and the critical approval came together, hand in hand:
neither counteracted the other: and I had to think twice, before I could
remember how elaborate a science went to the making of that thrill which
I had been almost cruelly enjoying.

The art of Réjane accepts things as they are, without selection or
correction; unlike Duse, who chooses just those ways in which she shall
be nature. What one remembers are little homely details, in which the
shadow, of some overpowering impulse gives a sombre beauty to what is
common or ugly. She renders the despair of the woman whose lover is
leaving her by a single movement, the way in which she wipes her nose.
To her there is but one beauty, truth; and but one charm, energy. Where
nature has not chosen, she will not choose; she is content with whatever
form emotion snatches for itself as it struggles into speech out of an
untrained and unconscious body. In "Sapho" she is the everyday "Venus
toute entière à sa proie attachée," and she has all the brutality and
all the clinging warmth of the flesh; vice, if you will, but serious
vice, vice plus passion. Her sordid, gluttonous, instructed eyes, in
which all the passions and all the vices have found a nest, speak their
own language, almost without the need of words, throughout the play; the
whole face suffers, exults, lies, despairs, with a homely sincerity
which cuts more sharply than any stage emphasis. She seems at every
moment to throw away her chances of effect, of ordinary stage-effect;
then, when the moment seems to have gone, and she has done nothing, you
will find that the moment itself has penetrated you, that she has done
nothing with genius.

Réjane can be vulgar, as nature is vulgar: she has all the instincts of
the human animal, of the animal woman, whom man will never quite
civilise. There is no doubt of it, nature lacks taste; and woman, who is
so near to nature, lacks taste in the emotions. Réjane, in "Sapho" or in
"Zaza" for instance, is woman naked and shameless, loving and suffering
with all her nerves and muscles, a gross, pitiable, horribly human
thing, whose direct appeal, like that of a sick animal, seizes you by
the throat at the instant in which it reaches your eyes and ears. More
than any actress she is the human animal without disguise or evasion;
with all the instincts, all the natural cries and movements. In "Sapho"
or "Zaza" she speaks the language of the senses, no more; and her acting
reminds you of all that you may possibly have forgotten of how the
senses speak when they speak through an ignorant woman in love. It is
like an accusing confirmation of some of one's guesses at truth, before
the realities of the flesh and of the affections of the flesh.
Scepticism is no longer possible: here, in "Sapho," is a woman who
flagellates herself before her lover as the penitent flagellates himself
before God. In the scene where her lover repulses her last attempt to
win him back, there is a convulsive movement of the body, as she lets
herself sink to the ground at his feet, which is like the movement of
one who is going to be sick: it renders, with a ghastly truth to
nature, the abject collapse of the body under overpowering emotion.
Here, as elsewhere, she gives you merely the thing itself, without a
disturbing atom of self-consciousness; she is grotesque, she is what you
will: it is no matter. The emotion she is acting possesses her like a
blind force; she is Sapho, and Sapho could only move and speak and think
in one way. Where Sarah Bernhardt would arrange the emotion for some
thrilling effect of art, where Duse would purge the emotion of all its
attributes but some fundamental nobility, Réjane takes the big, foolish,
dirty thing just as it is. And is not that, perhaps, the supreme merit
of acting?



She is tall, thin, a little angular, most winningly and girlishly
awkward, as she wanders on to the stage with an air of vague
distraction. Her shoulders droop, her arms hang limply. She doubles
forward in an automatic bow in response to the thunders of applause, and
that curious smile breaks out along her lips and rises and dances in her
bright light-blue eyes, wide open in a sort of child-like astonishment.
Her hair, a bright auburn, rises in soft masses above a large, pure
forehead. She wears a trailing dress, striped yellow and pink, without
ornament. Her arms are covered with long black gloves. The applause
stops suddenly; there is a hush of suspense; she is beginning to sing.

And with the first note you realise the difference between Yvette
Guilbert and all the rest of the world. A sonnet by Mr. André
Raffalovich states just that difference so subtly that I must quote it
to help out my interpretation:

If you want hearty laughter, country mirth -
Or frantic gestures of an acrobat,
Heels over head - or floating lace skirts worth
I know not what, a large eccentric hat
And diamonds, the gift of some dull boy -
Then when you see her do not wrong Yvette,
Because Yvette is not a clever toy,
A tawdry doll in fairy limelight set ...
And should her song sound cynical and base
At first, herself ungainly, or her smile
Monotonous - wait, listen, watch her face:
The sufferings of those the world calls vile
She sings, and as you watch Yvette Guilbert,
You too will shiver, seeing their despair.

Now to me Yvette Guilbert was exquisite from the first moment.
"Exquisite!" I said under my breath, as I first saw her come upon the
stage. But it is not merely by her personal charm that she thrills you,
though that is strange, perverse, unaccountable.

It is not merely that she can do pure comedy, that she can be frankly,
deliciously, gay. There is one of her songs in which she laughs,
chuckles, and trills a rapid flurry of broken words and phrases, with
the sudden, spontaneous, irresponsible mirth of a bird. But where she is
most herself is in a manner of tragic comedy which has never been seen
on the music-hall stage from the beginning. It is the profoundly sad and
essentially serious comedy which one sees in Forain's drawings, those
rapid outlines which, with the turn of a pencil, give you the whole
existence of those base sections of society which our art in England is
mainly forced to ignore. People call the art of Forain immoral, they
call Yvette Guilbert's songs immoral. That is merely the conventional
misuse of a conventional word. The art of Yvette Guilbert is certainly
the art of realism. She brings before you the real life-drama of the
streets, of the pot-house; she shows you the seamy side of life behind
the scenes; she calls things by their right names. But there is not a
touch of sensuality about her, she is neither contaminated nor
contaminating by what she sings; she is simply a great, impersonal,
dramatic artist, who sings realism as others write it.

Her gamut in the purely comic is wide; with an inflection of the voice,
a bend of that curious long thin body which seems to be embodied
gesture, she can suggest, she can portray, the humour that is dry,
ironical, coarse (I will admit), unctuous even. Her voice can be sweet
or harsh; it can chirp, lilt, chuckle, stutter; it can moan or laugh, be
tipsy or distinguished. Nowhere is she conventional; nowhere does she
resemble any other French singer. Voice, face, gestures, pantomime, all
are different, all are purely her own. She is a creature of contrasts,
and suggests at once all that is innocent and all that is perverse. She
has the pure blue eyes of a child, eyes that are cloudless, that gleam
with a wicked ingenuousness, that close in the utter abasement of
weariness, that open wide in all the expressionlessness of surprise. Her
naïveté is perfect, and perfect, too, is that strange, subtle smile of
comprehension that closes the period. A great impersonal artist,
depending as she does entirely on her expressive power, her dramatic
capabilities, her gift for being moved, for rendering the emotions of
those in whom we do not look for just that kind of emotion, she affects
one all the time as being, after all, removed from what she sings of; an
artist whose sympathy is an instinct, a divination. There is something
automatic in all fine histrionic genius, and I find some of the charm of
the automaton in Yvette Guilbert. The real woman, one fancies, is the
slim bright-haired girl who looks so pleased and so amused when you
applaud her, and whom it pleases to please you, just because it is
amusing. She could not tell you how she happens to be a great artist;
how she has found a voice for the tragic comedy of cities; how it is
that she makes you cry when she sings of sordid miseries. "That is her
secret," we are accustomed to say; and I like to imagine that it is a
secret which she herself has never fathomed.


The difference between Yvette Guilbert and every one else on the
music-hall stage is precisely the difference between Sarah Bernhardt
and every one else on the stage of legitimate drama. Elsewhere you may
find many admirable qualities, many brilliant accomplishments, but
nowhere else that revelation of an extraordinarily interesting
personality through the medium of an extraordinarily finished art.
Yvette Guilbert has something new to say, and she has discovered a new
way of saying it. She has had precursors, but she has eclipsed them. She
sings, for instance, songs of Aristide Bruant, songs which he had sung
before her, and sung admirably, in his brutal and elaborately careless
way. But she has found meanings in them which Bruant, who wrote them,
never discovered, or, certainly, could never interpret; she has
surpassed him in his own quality, the _macabre_; she has transformed the
rough material, which had seemed adequately handled until she showed how
much more could be done with it, into something artistically fine and
distinguished. And just as, in the brutal and _macabre_ style, she has
done what Bruant was only trying to do, so, in the style, supposed to be
traditionally French, of delicate insinuation, she has invented new
shades of expression, she has discovered a whole new method of
suggestion. And it is here, perhaps, that the new material which she has
known, by some happy instinct, how to lay her hands on, has been of most
service to her. She sings, a little cruelly, of the young girl; and the
young girl of her songs (that _demoiselle de pensionnat_ who is the
heroine of one of the most famous of them) is a very different being
from the fair abstraction, even rosier and vaguer to the French mind
than it is to the English, which stands for the ideal of girlhood. It
is, rather, the young girl as Goncourt has rendered her in "Chérie," a
creature of awakening, half-unconscious sensations, already at work
somewhat abnormally in an anæmic frame, with an intelligence left to
feed mainly on itself. And Yvette herself, with her bright hair, the
sleepy gold fire of her eyes, her slimness, her gracious awkwardness,
her air of delusive innocence, is the very type of the young girl of
whom she sings. There is a certain malice in it all, a malicious
insistence on the other side of innocence. But there it is, a new

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Online LibraryArthur SymonsPlays, Acting and Music A Book Of Theory → online text (page 2 of 13)