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figure; and but one among the creations which we owe to this "comic
singer," whose comedy is, for the most part, so serious and so tragic.

For the art of Yvette Guilbert is of that essentially modern kind which,
even in a subject supposed to be comic, a subject we are accustomed to
see dealt with, if dealt with at all, in burlesque, seeks mainly for the
reality of things (and reality, if we get deep enough into it, is never
comic), and endeavour to find a new, searching, and poignant expression
for that. It is an art concerned, for the most part, with all that part
of life which the conventions were intended to hide from us. We see a
world where people are very vicious and very unhappy; a sordid,
miserable world which it is as well sometimes to consider. It is a side
of existence which exists; and to see it is not to be attracted towards
it. It is a grey and sordid land, under the sway of "Eros vanné"; it is,
for the most part, weary of itself, without rest, and without escape.
This is Yvette Guilbert's domain; she sings it, as no one has ever sung
it before, with a tragic realism, touched with a sort of grotesque
irony, which is a new thing on any stage. The _rouleuse_ of the Quartier
Bréda, praying to the one saint in her calendar, "Sainte Galette"; the
_soûlarde_, whom the urchins follow and throw stones at in the street;
the whole life of the slums and the gutter: these are her subjects, and
she brings them, by some marvellous fineness of treatment, into the
sphere of art.

It is all a question of _métier_, no doubt, though how far her method is
conscious and deliberate it is difficult to say. But she has certain
quite obvious qualities, of reticence, of moderation, of suspended
emphasis, which can scarcely be other than conscious and deliberate. She
uses but few gestures, and these brief, staccato, and for an immediate
purpose; her hands, in their long black gloves, are almost motionless,
the arms hang limply; and yet every line of the face and body seems
alive, alive and repressed. Her voice can be harsh or sweet, as she
would have it, can laugh or cry, be menacing or caressing; it is never
used for its own sake, decoratively, but for a purpose, for an effect.
And how every word tells! Every word comes to you clearly, carrying
exactly its meaning; and, somehow, along with the words, an emotion,
which you may resolve to ignore, but which will seize upon you, which
will go through and through you. Trick or instinct, there it is, the
power to make you feel intensely; and that is precisely the final test
of a great dramatic artist.


As I watched, at the Lyceum, the sad and eager face of Duse, leaning
forward out of a box, and gazing at the eager and gentle face of Irving,
I could not help contrasting the two kinds of acting summed up in those
two faces. The play was "Olivia," W.G. Wills' poor and stagey version of
"The Vicar of Wakefield," in which, however, not even the lean
intelligence of a modern playwright could quite banish the homely and
gracious and tender charm of Goldsmith. As Dr. Primrose, Irving was
almost at his best; that is to say, not at his greatest, but at his most
equable level of good acting. All his distinction was there, his
nobility, his restraint, his fine convention. For Irving represents the
old school of acting, just as Duse represents the new school. To Duse,
acting is a thing almost wholly apart from action; she thinks on the
stage, scarcely moves there; when she feels emotion, it is her chief
care not to express it with emphasis, but to press it down into her
soul, until only the pained reflection of it glimmers out of her eyes
and trembles in the hollows of her cheeks. To Irving, on the contrary,
acting is all that the word literally means; it is an art of sharp,
detached, yet always delicate movement; he crosses the stage with
intention, as he intentionally adopts a fine, crabbed, personal, highly
conventional elocution of his own; he is an actor, and he acts, keeping
nature, or the too close resemblance of nature, carefully out of his

With Miss Terry there is permanent charm of a very natural nature, which
has become deliciously sophisticated. She is the eternal girl, and she
can never grow old; one might say, she can never grow up. She learns her
part, taking it quite artificially, as a part to be learnt; and then, at
her frequent moments of forgetfulness, charms us into delight, though
not always into conviction, by a gay abandonment to the self of a
passing moment. Irving's acting is almost a science, and it is a science
founded on tradition. It is in one sense his personality that makes him
what he is, the only actor on the English stage who has a touch of
genius. But he has not gone to himself to invent an art wholly personal,
wholly new; his acting is no interruption of an intense inner life, but
a craftsmanship into which he has put all he has to give. It is an art
wholly of rhetoric, that is to say wholly external; his emotion moves to
slow music, crystallises into an attitude, dies upon a long-drawn-out
word. He appeals to us, to our sense of what is expected, to our
accustomed sense of the logic, not of life, but of life as we have
always seen it on the stage, by his way of taking snuff, of taking out
his pocket-handkerchief, of lifting his hat, of crossing his legs. He
has observed life in order to make his own version of life, using the
stage as his medium, and accepting the traditional aids and limitations
of the stage.

Take him in one of his typical parts, in "Louis XI." His Louis XI. is a
masterpiece of grotesque art. It is a study in senility, and it is the
grotesque art of the thing which saves it from becoming painful. This
shrivelled carcase, from which age, disease, and fear have picked all
the flesh, leaving the bare framework of bone and the drawn and cracked
covering of yellow skin, would be unendurable in its irreverent copy of
age if it were not so obviously a picture, with no more malice than
there is in the delicate lines and fine colours of a picture. The figure
is at once Punch and the oldest of the Chelsea pensioners; it distracts
one between pity, terror, and disgust, but is altogether absorbing; one
watches it as one would watch some feeble ancient piece of mechanism,
still working, which may snap at any moment. In such a personation,
make-up becomes a serious part of art. It is the picture that magnetises
us, and every wrinkle seems to have been studied in movement; the hands
act almost by themselves, as if every finger were a separate actor. The
passion of fear, the instinct of craft, the malady of suspicion, in a
frail old man who has power over every one but himself: that is what Sir
Henry Irving represents, in a performance which is half precise
physiology, half palpable artifice, but altogether a unique thing in

See him in "The Merchant of Venice." His Shylock is noble and sordid,
pathetic and terrifying. It is one of his great parts, made up of pride,
stealth, anger, minute and varied picturesqueness, and a diabolical
subtlety. Whether he paws at his cloak, or clutches upon the handle of
his stick, or splutters hatred, or cringes before his prey, or shakes
with lean and wrinkled laughter, he is always the great part and the
great actor. See him as Mephistopheles in "Faust." The Lyceum
performance was a superb pantomime, with one overpowering figure
drifting through it and in some sort directing it, the red-plumed devil
Mephistopheles, who, in Sir Henry Irving's impersonation of him, becomes
a kind of weary spirit, a melancholy image of unhappy pride, holding
himself up to the laughter of inferior beings, with the old
acknowledgment that "the devil is an ass." A head like the head of
Dante, shown up by coloured lights, and against chromolithographic
backgrounds, while all the diabolic intelligence is set to work on the
cheap triumph of wheedling a widow and screwing Rhenish and Tokay with a
gimlet out of an inn table: it is partly Goethe's fault, and partly the
fault of Wills, and partly the lowering trick of the stage.
Mephistopheles is not really among Irving's great parts, but it is among
his picturesque parts. With his restless strut, a blithe and aged
tripping of the feet to some not quite human measure, he is like some
spectral marionette, playing a game only partly his own. In such a part
no mannerism can seem unnatural, and the image with its solemn mask
lives in a kind of galvanic life of its own, seductively, with some
mocking suggestion of his "cousin the snake." Here and there some of the
old power may be lacking; but whatever was once subtle and insinuating

Shakespeare at the Lyceum is always a magnificent spectacle, and
"Coriolanus," the last Shakespearean revival there, was a magnificent
spectacle. It is a play made up principally of one character and a
crowd, the crowd being a sort of moving background, treated in
Shakespeare's large and scornful way. A stage crowd at the Lyceum always
gives one a sense of exciting movement, and this Roman rabble did all
that was needed to show off the almost solitary splendour of Coriolanus.
He is the proudest man in Shakespeare, and Sir Henry Irving is at his
best when he embodies pride. His conception of the part was masterly; it
had imagination, nobility, quietude. With opportunity for ranting in
every second speech, he never ranted, but played what might well have
been a roaring part with a kind of gentleness. With every opportunity
for extravagant gesture, he stood, as the play seemed to foam about him,
like a rock against which the foam beats. Made up as a kind of Roman
Moltke, the lean, thoughtful soldier, he spoke throughout with a slow,
contemptuous enunciation, as of one only just not too lofty to sneer.
Restrained in scorn, he kept throughout an attitude of disdainful pride,
the face, the eyes, set, while only his mouth twitched, seeming to chew
his words, with the disgust of one swallowing a painful morsel. Where
other actors would have raved, he spoke with bitter humour, a humour
that seemed to hurt the speaker, the concise, active humour of the
soldier, putting his words rapidly into deeds. And his pride was an
intellectual pride; the weakness of a character, but the angry dignity
of a temperament. I have never seen Irving so restrained, so much an
artist, so faithfully interpretative of a masterpiece. Something of
energy, no doubt, was lacking; but everything was there, except the
emphasis which I most often wish away in acting.



The acting of Duse is a criticism; poor work dissolves away under it, as
under a solvent acid. Not one of the plays which she has brought with
her is a play on the level of her intelligence and of her capacity for
expressing deep human emotion. Take "The Second Mrs. Tanqueray." It is a
very able play, it is quite an interesting glimpse into a particular
kind of character, but it is only able, and it is only a glimpse. Paula,
as conceived by Mr. Pinero, is a thoroughly English type of woman, the
nice, slightly morbid, somewhat unintelligently capricious woman who has
"gone wrong," and who finds it quite easy, though a little dull, to go
right when the chance is offered to her. She is observed from the
outside, very keenly observed; her ways, her surface tricks of emotion,
are caught; she is a person whom we know or remember. But what is
skin-deep in Paula as conceived by Mr. Pinero becomes a real human
being, a human being with a soul, in the Paula conceived by Duse. Paula
as played by Duse is sad and sincere, where the Englishwoman is only
irritable; she has the Italian simplicity and directness in place of
that terrible English capacity for uncertainty in emotion and huffiness
in manner. She brings profound tragedy, the tragedy of a soul which has
sinned and suffered, and tries vainly to free itself from the
consequences of its deeds, into a study of circumstances in their ruin
of material happiness. And, frankly, the play cannot stand it. When this
woman bows down under her fate in so terrible a spiritual loneliness,
realising that we cannot fight against Fate, and that Fate is only the
inevitable choice of our own natures, we wait for the splendid words
which shall render so great a situation; and no splendid words come. The
situation, to the dramatist, has been only a dramatic situation. Here is
Duse, a chalice for the wine of imagination, but the chalice remains
empty. It is almost painful to see her waiting for the words that do
not come, offering tragedy to us in her eyes, and with her hands, and in
her voice, only not in the words that she says or in the details of the
action which she is condemned to follow.

See Mrs. Patrick Campbell playing "The Second Mrs. Tanqueray," and you
will see it played exactly according to Mr. Pinero'a intention, and
played brilliantly enough to distract our notice from what is lacking in
the character. A fantastic and delightful contradiction, half gamine,
half Burne-Jones, she confuses our judgment, as a Paula in real life
might, and leaves us attracted and repelled, and, above all, interested.
But Duse has no resources outside simple human nature. If she cannot
convince you by the thing in itself, she cannot disconcert you by a
paradox about it. Well, this passionately sincere acting, this one real
person moving about among the dolls of the piece, shows up all that is
mechanical, forced, and unnatural in the construction of a play never
meant to withstand the searchlight of this woman's creative
intelligence. Whatever is theatrical and obvious starts out into sight.
The good things are transfigured, the bad things merely discovered. And
so, by a kind of naïveté in the acceptance of emotion for all it might
be, instead of for the little that it is, by an almost perverse
simplicity and sincerity in the treatment of a superficial and insincere
character, Duse plays "The Second Mrs. Tanqueray" in the grand manner,
destroying the illusion of the play as she proves over again the
supremacy of her own genius.


While I watch Duse's Magda, I can conceive, for the time, of no other.
Realising the singer as being just such an artist as herself, she plays
the part with hardly a suggestion of the stage, except the natural
woman's intermittent loathing for it. She has been a great artist; yes,
but that is nothing to her. "I am I," as she says, and she has lived.
And we see before us, all through the play, a woman who has lived with
all her capacity for joy and sorrow, who has thought with all her
capacity for seeing clearly what she is unable, perhaps, to help doing.
She does not act, that is, explain herself to us, emphasise herself for
us. She lets us overlook her, with a supreme unconsciousness, a supreme
affectation of unconsciousness, which is of course very conscious art,
an art so perfect as to be almost literally deceptive. I do not know if
she plays with exactly the same gestures night after night, but I can
quite imagine it. She has certain little caresses, the half awkward
caresses of real people, not the elegant curves and convolutions of the
stage, which always enchant me beyond any mimetic movements I have ever
seen. She has a way of letting her voice apparently get beyond her own
control, and of looking as if emotion has left her face expressionless,
as it often leaves the faces of real people, thus carrying the illusion
of reality almost further than it is possible to carry it, only never

I was looking this afternoon at Whistler's portrait of Carlyle at the
Guildhall, and I find in both the same final art: that art of perfect
expression, perfect suppression, perfect balance of every quality, so
that a kind of negative thing becomes a thing of the highest
achievement. Name every fault to which the art of the actor is liable,
and you will have named every fault which is lacking in Duse. And the
art of the actor is in itself so much a compound of false emphasis and
every kind of wilful exaggeration, that to have any negative merit is to
have already a merit very positive. Having cleared away all that is not
wanted, Duse begins to create. And she creates out of life itself an art
which no one before her had ever imagined: not realism, not a copy, but
the thing itself, the evocation of thoughtful life, the creation of the
world over again, as actual and beautiful a thing as if the world had
never existed.


"La Gioconda" is the first play in which Duse has had beautiful words to
speak, and a poetical conception of character to render; and her acting
in it is more beautiful and more poetical than it was possible for it to
be in "Magda," or in "The Second Mrs. Tanqueray." But the play is not a
good play; at its best it is lyrical rather than dramatic, and at its
worst it is horrible with a vulgar material horror. The end of "Titus
Andronicus" is not so revolting as the end of "La Gioconda." D'Annunzio
has put as a motto on his title-page the sentence of Leonardo da Vinci:
"Cosa bella mortal passa, e non d'arte," and the action of the play is
intended as a symbol of the possessing and destroying mastery of art and
of beauty. But the idea is materialised into a form of grotesque horror,
and all the charm of the atmosphere and the grace of the words cannot
redeem a conclusion so inartistic in its painfulness. But, all the same,
the play is the work of a poet, it brings imagination upon the stage,
and it gives Duse an opportunity of being her finest self. All the words
she speaks are sensitive words, she moves in the midst of beautiful
things, her whole life seems to flow into a more harmonious rhythm, for
all the violence of its sorrow and suffering. Her acting at the end, all
through the inexcusable brutality of the scene in which she appears
before us with her mutilated hands covered under long hanging sleeves,
is, in the dignity, intensity, and humanity of its pathos, a thing of
beauty, of a profound kind of beauty, made up of pain, endurance, and
the irony of pitiable things done in vain. Here she is no longer
transforming a foreign conception of character into her own conception
of what character should be; she is embodying the creation of an
Italian, of an artist, and a creation made in her honour. D'Annunzio's
tragedy is, in the final result, bad tragedy, but it is a failure of a
far higher order than such successes as Mr. Pinero's. It is written with
a consciousness of beauty, with a feverish energy which is still energy,
with a sense of what is imaginative in the facts of actual life. It is
written in Italian which is a continual delight to the ear, prose which
sounds as melodious as verse, prose to which, indeed, all dramatic
probability is sacrificed. And Duse seems to acquire a new subtlety, as
she speaks at last words in themselves worthy of her speaking. It is as
if she at last spoke her own language.


Dumas fils has put his best work into the novel of "La Dame aux
Camélias," which is a kind of slighter, more superficial, more
sentimental, more modern, but less universal "Manon Lescaut." There is a
certain artificial, genuinely artificial, kind of nature in it: if not
"true to life," it is true to certain lives. But the play lets go this
hold, such as it is, on reality, and becomes a mere stage convention as
it crosses the footlights; a convention which is touching, indeed, far
too full of pathos, human in its exaggerated way, but no longer to be
mistaken, by the least sensitive of hearers, for great or even fine
literature. And the sentiment in it is not so much human as French, a
factitious idealism in depravity which one associates peculiarly with
Paris. Marguerite Gautier is the type of the nice woman who sins and
loves, and becomes regenerated by an unnatural kind of self-sacrifice,
done for French family reasons. She is the Parisian whom Sarah Bernhardt
impersonates perfectly in that hysterical and yet deliberate manner
which is made for such impersonations. Duse, as she does always, turns
her into quite another kind of woman; not the light woman, to whom love
has come suddenly, as a new sentiment coming suddenly into her life, but
the simple, instinctively loving woman, in whom we see nothing of the
demi-monde, only the natural woman in love. Throughout the play she has
moments, whole scenes, of absolute greatness, as fine as anything she
has ever done: but there are other moments when she seems to carry
repression too far. Her pathos, as in the final scene, and at the end of
the scene of the reception, where she repeats the one word "Armando"
over and over again, in an amazed and agonising reproachfulness, is of
the finest order of pathos. She appeals to us by a kind of goodness,
much deeper than the sentimental goodness intended by Dumas. It is love
itself that she gives us, love utterly unconscious of anything but
itself, uncontaminated, unspoilt. She is Mlle. de Lespinasse rather than
Marguerite Gautier; a creature in whom ardour is as simple as breath,
and devotion a part of ardour. Her physical suffering is scarcely to be
noticed; it is the suffering of her soul that Duse gives us. And she
gives us this as if nature itself came upon the boards, and spoke to us
without even the ordinary disguise of human beings in their intercourse
with one another. Once more an artificial play becomes sincere; once
more the personality of a great impersonal artist dominates the poverty
of her part; we get one more revelation of a particular phase of Duse.
And it would be unreasonable to complain that "La Dame aux Camélias" is
really something quite different, something much inferior; here we have
at least a great emotion, a desperate sincerity, with all the
thoughtfulness which can possibly accompany passion.


Dumas, in a preface better than his play, tells us that "La Princesse
Georges" is "a Soul in conflict with Instincts." But no, as he has drawn
her, as he has placed her, she is only the theory of a woman in conflict
with the mechanical devices of a plot. All these characters talk as
they have been taught, and act according to the tradition of the stage.
It is a double piece of mechanism, that is all; there is no creation of
character, there is a kind of worldly wisdom throughout, but not a
glimmer of imagination; argument drifts into sentiment, and sentiment
returns into argument, without conviction; the end is no conclusion, but
an arbitrary break in an action which we see continuing, after the
curtain has fallen. And, as in "Fédora," Duse comes into the play
resolved to do what the author has not done. Does she deliberately
choose the plays most obviously not written for her in order to extort a
triumph out of her enemies? Once more she acts consciously, openly,
making every moment of an unreal thing real, by concentrating herself
upon every moment as if it were the only one. The result is a
performance miraculous in detail, and, if detail were everything, it
would be a great part. With powdered hair, she is beautiful and a great
lady; as the domesticated princess, she has all the virtues, and
honesty itself, in her face and in her movements; she gives herself with
a kind of really unreflecting thoughtfulness to every sentiment which is
half her emotion. If such a woman could exist, and she could not, she
would be that, precisely that. But just as we are beginning to believe,
not only in her but in the play itself, in comes the spying lady's maid,
or the valet who spies on the lady's maid, and we are in melodrama
again, and among the strings of the marionettes. Where are the three
stages, truth, philosophy, conscience, which Dumas offers to us in his
preface as the three stages by which a work of dramatic art reaches
perfection? Shown us by Duse, from moment to moment, yes; but in the
piece, no, scarcely more than in "Fédora." So fatal is it to write for
our instruction, as fatal as to write for our amusement. A work of art
must suggest everything, but it must prove nothing. Bad imaginative work
like "La Gioconda" is really, in its way, better than this unimaginative
and theoretical falseness to life; for it at least shows us beauty,
even though it degrades that beauty before our eyes. And Duse, of all
actresses the nearest to nature, was born to create beauty, that beauty
which is the deepest truth of natural things. Why does she after all
only tantalise us, showing us little fragments of her soul under many
disguises, but never giving us her whole self through the revealing
medium of a masterpiece?


"Fédora" is a play written for Sarah Bernhardt by the writer of plays

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Online LibraryArthur SymonsPlays, Acting and Music A Book Of Theory → online text (page 3 of 13)