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for Sarah Bernhardt, and it contains the usual ingredients of that
particular kind of sorcery: a Russian tigress, an assassination, a
suicide, exotic people with impulses in conflict with their intentions,
good working evil and evil working good, not according to a
philosophical idea, but for the convenience of a melodramatic plot. As
artificial, as far from life on the one hand and poetry on the other, as
a jig of marionettes at the end of a string, it has the absorbing
momentary interest of a problem in events. Character does not exist,
only impulse and event. And Duse comes into this play with a desperate
resolve to fill it with honest emotion, to be what a woman would really
perhaps be if life turned melodramatic with her. Visibly, deliberately,
she acts: "Fédora" is not to be transformed unawares into life. But her
acting is like that finest kind of acting which we meet with in real
life, when we are able to watch some choice scene of the human comedy
being played before us. She becomes the impossible thing that Fédora is,
and, in that tour de force, she does some almost impossible things by
the way. There is a scene in which the blood fades out of her cheeks
until they seem to turn to dry earth furrowed with wrinkles. She makes
triumphant point after triumphant point (her intelligence being free to
act consciously on this unintelligent matter), and we notice, more than
in her finer parts, individual movements, gestures, tones: the attitude
of her open hand upon a door, certain blind caresses with her fingers as
they cling for the last time to her lover's cheeks, her face as she
reads a letter, the art of her voice as she almost deliberately takes us
in with these emotional artifices of Sardou. When it is all over, and we
think of the Silvia of "La Gioconda," of the woman we divine under Magda
and under Paula Tanqueray, it is with a certain sense of waste; for even
Paula can be made to seem something which Fédora can never be made to
seem. In "Fédora" we have a sheer, undisguised piece of stagecraft,
without even the amount of psychological intention of Mr. Pinero, much
less of Sudermann. It is a detective story with horrors, and it is far
too positive and finished a thing to be transformed into something not
itself. Sardou is a hard taskmaster; he chains his slaves. Without
nobility or even coherence of conception, without inner life or even a
recognisable semblance of exterior life, the piece goes by clockwork;
you cannot make the hands go faster or slower, or bring its mid-day into
agreement with the sun. A great actress, who is also a great
intelligence, is seen accepting it, for its purpose, with contempt, as a
thing to exercise her technical skill upon. As a piece of technical
skill, Duse's acting in "Fédora" is as fine as anything she has done. It
completes our admiration of her genius, as it proves to us that she can
act to perfection a part in which the soul is left out of the question,
in which nothing happens according to nature, and in which life is
figured as a long attack of nerves, relieved by the occasional interval
of an uneasy sleep.




ANNOTATIONS BY THE WAY

I. "PELLÉAS AND MÉLISANDE"


"Pelléas and Mélisande" is the most beautiful of Maeterlinck's plays,
and to say this is to say that it is the most beautiful contemporary
play. Maeterlinck's theatre of marionettes, who are at the same time
children and spirits, at once more simple and more abstract than real
people, is the reaction of the imagination against the wholly prose
theatre of Ibsen, into which life comes nakedly, cruelly, subtly, but
without distinction, without poetry. Maeterlinck has invented plays
which are pictures, in which the crudity of action is subdued into misty
outlines. People with strange names, living in impossible places, where
there are only woods and fountains, and towers by the sea-shore, and
ancient castles, where there are no towns, and where the common crowd of
the world is shut out of sight and hearing, move like quiet ghosts
across the stage, mysterious to us and not less mysterious to one
another. They are all lamenting because they do not know, because they
cannot understand, because their own souls are so strange to them, and
each other's souls like pitiful enemies, giving deadly wounds
unwillingly. They are always in dread, because they know that nothing is
certain in the world or in their own hearts, and they know that love
most often does the work of hate and that hate is sometimes tenderer
than love. In "Pelléas and Mélisande" we have two innocent lovers, to
whom love is guilt; we have blind vengeance, aged and helpless wisdom;
we have the conflict of passions fighting in the dark, destroying what
they desire most in the world. And out of this tragic tangle Maeterlinck
has made a play which is too full of beauty to be painful. We feel an
exquisite sense of pity, so impersonal as to be almost healing, as if
our own sympathy had somehow set right the wrongs of the play.

And this play, translated with delicate fidelity by Mr. Mackail, has
been acted again by Mrs. Patrick Campbell and Mr. Martin Harvey, to the
accompaniment of M. Fauré's music, and in the midst of scenery which
gave a series of beautiful pictures, worthy of the play. Mrs. Campbell,
in whose art there is so much that is pictorial, has never been so
pictorial as in the character of Mélisande. At the beginning I thought
she was acting with more effort and less effect than in the original
performance; but as the play went on she abandoned herself more and more
simply to the part she was acting, and in the death scene had a kind of
quiet, poignant, reticent perfection. A plaintive figure out of
tapestry, a child out of a nursery tale, she made one feel at once the
remoteness and the humanity of this waif of dreams, the little princess
who does know that it is wrong to love. In the great scene by the
fountain in the park, Mrs. Campbell expressed the supreme
unconsciousness of passion, both in face and voice, as no other English
actress could have done; in the death scene she expressed the supreme
unconsciousness of innocence with the same beauty and the same
intensity. Her palpitating voice, in which there is something like the
throbbing of a wounded bird, seemed to speak the simple and beautiful
words as if they had never been said before. And that beauty and
strangeness in her, which make her a work of art in herself, seemed to
find the one perfect opportunity for their expression. The only actress
on our stage whom we go to see as we would go to see a work of art, she
acts Pinero and the rest as if under a disguise. Here, dressed in
wonderful clothes of no period, speaking delicate, almost ghostly words,
she is herself, her rarer self. And Mr. Martin Harvey, who can be so
simple, so passionate, so full of the warmth of charm, seemed until
almost the end of the play to have lost the simple fervour which he had
once shown in the part of Pelléas; he posed, spoke without sincerity,
was conscious of little but his attitudes. But in the great love scene
by the fountain in the park he had recovered sincerity, he forgot
himself, remembering Pelléas: and that great love scene was acted with
a sense of the poetry and a sense of the human reality of the thing, as
no one on the London stage but Mr. Harvey and Mrs. Campbell could have
acted it. No one else, except Mr. Arliss as the old servant, was good;
the acting was not sufficiently monotonous, with that fine monotony
which is part of the secret of Maeterlinck. These busy actors occupied
themselves in making points, instead of submitting passively to the
passing through them of profound emotions, and the betrayal of these
emotions in a few, reticent, and almost unwilling words.




II. "EVERYMAN"


The Elizabethan Stage Society's performance of "Everyman" deserves a
place of its own among the stage performances of our time. "Everyman"
took one into a kind of very human church, a church in the midst of the
market-place, like those churches in Italy, in which people seem so much
at home. The verse is quaint, homely, not so archaic when it is spoken
as one might suppose in reading it; the metre is regular in heat, but
very irregular in the number of syllables, and the people who spoke it
so admirably under Mr. Poel's careful training had not been trained to
scan it as well as they articulated it. "Everyman" is a kind of
"Pilgrim's Progress," conceived with a daring and reverent imagination,
so that God himself comes quite naturally upon the stage, and speaks out
of a clothed and painted image. Death, lean and bare-boned, rattles his
drum and trips fantastically across the stage of the earth, leading his
dance; Everyman is seen on his way to the grave, taking leave of Riches,
Fellowship, Kindred, and Goods (each personified with his attributes),
escorted a little way by Strength, Discretion, Beauty, and the Five
Wits, and then abandoned by them, and then going down into the grave
with no other attendance than that of Knowledge and Good Deeds. The
pathos and sincerity of the little drama were shown finely and
adequately by the simple cloths and bare boards of a Shakespearean
stage, and by the solemn chanting of the actors and their serious,
unspoilt simplicity in acting. Miss Wynne-Matthison in the part of
Everyman acted with remarkable power and subtlety; she had the complete
command of her voice, as so few actors or actresses have, and she was
able to give vocal expression to every shade of meaning which she had
apprehended.




III. "FAUST" AT THE LYCEUM


In the version of "Faust" given by Irving at the Lyceum, Wills did his
best to follow the main lines of Goethe's construction. Unfortunately he
was less satisfied with Goethe's verse, though it happens that the verse
is distinctly better than the construction. He kept the shell and threw
away the kernel. Faust becomes insignificant in this play to which he
gives his name. In Goethe he was a thinker, even more than a poet. Here
he speaks bad verse full of emptiness. Even where Goethe's words are
followed, in a literal translation, the meaning seems to have gone out
of them; they are displaced, they no longer count for anything. The
Walpurgis Night is stripped of all its poetry, and Faust's study is
emptied of all its wisdom. The Witches' Kitchen brews messes without
magic, lest the gallery should be bewildered. The part of Martha is
extended, in order that his red livery may have its full "comic relief."
Mephistopheles throws away a good part of his cunning wit, in order that
he may shock no prejudices by seeming to be cynical with seriousness,
and in order to get in some more than indifferent spectral effect.
Margaret is to be seen full length; the little German soubrette does her
best to be the Helen Faust takes her for; and we are meant to be
profoundly interested in the love-story. "Most of all," the programme
assures us, Wills "strove to tell the love-story in a manner that might
appeal to an English-speaking audience."

Now if you take the philosophy and the poetry out of Goethe's "Faust,"
and leave the rest, it does not seem to me that you leave the part which
is best worth having. In writing the First Part of "Faust" Goethe made
free use of the legend of Dr. Faustus, not always improving that legend
where he departed from it. If we turn to Marlowe's "Dr. Faustus" we
shall see, embedded among chaotic fragments of mere rubbish and refuse,
the outlines of a far finer, a far more poetic, conception of the
legend. Marlowe's imagination was more essentially a poetic imagination
than Goethe's, and he was capable, at moments, of more satisfying
dramatic effects. When his Faustus says to Mephistopheles:

One thing, good servant, let me crave of thee,
To glut the longing of my heart's desire:
That I may have unto my paramour
That heavenly Helen which I saw of late;

and when, his prayer being granted, he cries:

Was this the face that launched a thousand ships,
And burned the topless towers of Ilium?

he is a much more splendid and significant person than the Faust of
Goethe, who needs the help of the devil and of an old woman to seduce a
young girl who has fallen in love with him at first sight. Goethe, it is
true, made what amends he could afterwards, in the Second Part, when
much of the impulse had gone and all the deliberation in the world was
not active enough to replace it. Helen has her share, among other
abstractions, but the breath has not returned into her body, she is
glacial, a talking enigma, to whom Marlowe's Faustus would never have
said with the old emphasis:

And none but thou shalt be my paramour!

What remains, then, in Wills' version, is the Gretchen story, in all its
detail, a spectacular representation of the not wholly sincere
witchcraft, and the impressive outer shell of Mephistopheles, with, in
Sir Henry Irving's pungent and acute rendering, something of the real
savour of the denying spirit. Mephistopheles is the modern devil, the
devil of culture and polite negation; the comrade, in part the master,
of Heine, and perhaps the grandson and pupil of Voltaire. On the Lyceum
stage he is the one person of distinction, the one intelligence; though
so many of his best words have been taken from him, it is with a fine
subtlety that he says the words that remain. And the figure, with its
lightness, weary grace, alert and uneasy step, solemnity, grim laughter,
remains with one, after one has come away and forgotten whether he told
us all that Goethe confided to him.




IV. THE JAPANESE PLAYERS


When I first saw the Japanese players I suddenly discovered the meaning
of Japanese art, so far as it represents human beings. You know the
scarcely human oval which represents a woman's face, with the help of a
few thin curves for eyelids and mouth. Well, that convention, as I had
always supposed it to be, that geometrical symbol of a face, turns out
to be precisely the face of the Japanese woman when she is made up. So
the monstrous entanglements of men fighting, which one sees in the
pictures, the circling of the two-handed sword, the violence of feet in
combat, are seen to be after all the natural manner of Japanese warfare.
This unrestrained energy of body comes out in the expression of every
motion. Men spit and sneeze and snuffle, without consciousness of
dignity or hardly of humanity, under the influence of fear, anger, or
astonishment. When the merchant is awaiting Shylock's knife he trembles
convulsively, continuously, from head to feet, unconscious of everything
but death. When Shylock has been thwarted, he stands puckering his face
into a thousand grimaces, like a child who has swallowed medicine. It is
the emotion of children, naked sensation, not yet clothed by
civilisation. Only the body speaks in it, the mind is absent; and the
body abandons itself completely to the animal force of its instincts.
With a great artist like Sada Yacco in the death scene of "The Geisha
and the Knight," the effect is overwhelming; the whole woman dies before
one's sight, life ebbs visibly out of cheeks and eyes and lips; it is
death as not even Sarah Bernhardt has shown us death. There are moments,
at other times and with other performers, when it is difficult not to
laugh at some cat-like or ape-like trick of these painted puppets who
talk a toneless language, breathing through their words as they whisper
or chant them. They are swathed like barbaric idols, in splendid robes
without grace; they dance with fans, with fingers, running, hopping,
lifting their feet, if they lift them, with the heavy delicacy of the
elephant; they sing in discords, striking or plucking a few hoarse notes
on stringed instruments, and beating on untuned drums. Neither they nor
their clothes have beauty, to the limited Western taste; they have
strangeness, the charm of something which seems to us capricious, almost
outside Nature. In our ignorance of their words, of what they mean to
one another, of the very way in which they see one another, we shall
best appreciate their rarity by looking on them frankly as pictures,
which we can see with all the imperfections of a Western
misunderstanding.




V. THE PARIS MUSIC-HALL


It is not always realised by Englishmen that England is really the
country of the music-hall, the only country where it has taken firm
root and flowered elegantly. There is nothing in any part of Europe to
compare, in their own way, with the Empire and the Alhambra, either as
places luxurious in themselves or as places where a brilliant spectacle
is to be seen. It is true that, in England, the art of the ballet has
gone down; the prima ballerina assoluta is getting rare, the primo uomo
is extinct. The training of dancers as dancers leaves more and more to
be desired, but that is a defect which we share, at the present time,
with most other countries; while the beauty of the spectacle, with us,
is unique. Think of "Les Papillons" or of "Old China" at the Empire, and
then go and see a fantastic ballet at Paris, at Vienna, or at Berlin!

And it is not only in regard to the ballet, but in regard also to the
"turns," that we are ahead of all our competitors. I have no great
admiration for most of our comic gentlemen and ladies in London, but I
find it still more difficult to take any interest in the comic gentlemen
and ladies of Paris. Take Marie Lloyd, for instance, and compare with
her, say, Marguerite Deval at the Scala. Both aim at much the same
effect, but, contrary to what might have been expected, it is the
Englishwoman who shows the greater finesse in the rendering of that
small range of sensations to which both give themselves up frankly. Take
Polin, who is supposed to express vulgarities with unusual success.
Those automatic gestures, flapping and flopping; that dribbling voice,
without intonation; that flabby droop and twitch of the face; all that
soapy rubbing-in of the expressive parts of the song: I could see no
skill in it all, of a sort worth having. The women here sing mainly with
their shoulders, for which they seem to have been chosen, and which are
undoubtedly expressive. Often they do not even take the trouble to
express anything with voice or face; the face remains blank, the voice
trots creakily. It is a doll who repeats its lesson, holding itself up
to be seen.

The French "revue," as one sees it at the Folies-Bergère, done somewhat
roughly and sketchily, strikes one most of all by its curious want of
consecution, its entire reliance on the point of this or that scene,
costume, or performer. It has no plan, no idea; some ideas are flung
into it in passing; but it remains as shapeless as an English pantomime,
and not much more interesting. Both appeal to the same undeveloped
instincts, the English to a merely childish vulgarity, the French to a
vulgarity which is more frankly vicious. Really I hardly know which is
to be preferred. In England we pretend that fancy dress is all in the
interests of morality; in France they make no such pretence, and, in
dispensing with shoulder-straps, do but make their intentions a little
clearer. Go to the Moulin-Rouge and you will see a still clearer
object-lesson. The goods in the music-halls are displayed so to speak,
behind glass, in a shop window; at the Moulin-Rouge they are on the open
booths of a street market.




M. CAPUS IN ENGLAND


An excellent Parisian company from the Variétés has been playing "La
Veine" of M. Alfred Capus, and this week it is playing "Les Deux Ecoles"
of the same entertaining writer. The company is led by Mme. Jeanne
Granier, an actress who could not be better in her own way unless she
acquired a touch of genius, and she has no genius. She was thoroughly
and consistently good, she was lifelike, amusing, never out of key;
only, while she reminded one at times of Réjane, she had none of
Réjane's magnetism, none of Réjane's exciting naturalness.

The whole company is one of excellent quality, which goes together like
the different parts of a piece of machinery. There is Mme. Marie
Magnier, so admirable as an old lady of that good, easy-going,
intelligent, French type. There is Mlle. Lavallière, with her brilliant
eyes and her little canaille voice, vulgarly exquisite. There is M.
Numès, M. Guy, M. Guitry. M. Guitry is the French equivalent of Mr. Fred
Kerr, with all the difference that that change of nationality means. His
slow manner, his delaying pantomine, his hard, persistent eyes, his
uninflected voice, made up a type which I have never seen more
faithfully presented on the stage. And there is M. Brasseur. He is a
kind of French Arthur Roberts, but without any of that extravagant
energy which carries the English comedian triumphantly through all his
absurdities. M. Brasseur is preposterously natural, full of aplomb and
impertinence. He never flags, never hesitates; it is impossible to take
him seriously, as we say of delightful, mischievous people in real life.
I have been amused to see a discussion in the papers as to whether "La
Veine" is a fit play to be presented to the English public. "Max" has
defended it in his own way in the _Saturday Review_, and I hasten to say
that I quite agree with his defence. Above all, I agree with him when
he says: "Let our dramatic critics reserve their indignation for those
other plays in which the characters are self-conscious, winkers and
gigglers over their own misconduct, taking us into their confidence, and
inviting us to wink and giggle with them." There, certainly, is the
offence; there is a kind of vulgarity which seems native to the lower
English mind and to the lower English stage. M. Capus is not a moralist,
but it is not needful to be a moralist. He is a skilful writer for the
stage, who takes an amiable, somewhat superficial, quietly humorous view
of things, and he takes people as he finds them in a particular section
of the upper and lower middle classes in Paris, not going further than
the notion which they have of themselves, and presenting that simply,
without comment. We get a foolish young millionaire and a foolish young
person in a flower shop, who take up a collage together in the most
casual way possible, and they are presented as two very ordinary people,
neither better nor worse than a great many other ordinary people, who
do or do not do much the same thing. They at least do not "wink or
giggle"; they take things with the utmost simplicity, and they call upon
us to imitate their bland unconsciousness.

"La Veine" is a study of luck, in the person of a very ordinary man, not
more intelligent or more selfish or more attractive than the average,
but one who knows when to take the luck which comes his way. The few,
quite average, incidents of the play are put together with neatness and
probability, and without sensational effects, or astonishing curtains;
the people are very natural and probable, very amusing in their humours,
and they often say humorous things, not in so many set words, but by a
clever adjustment of natural and probable nothings. Throughout the play
there is an amiable and entertaining common sense which never becomes
stage convention; these people talk like real people, only much more
à-propos.

In "Les Deux Ecoles" the philosophy which could be discerned in "La
Veine," that of taking things as they are and taking them comfortably,
is carried to a still further development. I am prepared to be told that
the whole philosophy is horribly immoral; perhaps it is; but the play,
certainly, is not. It is vastly amusing, its naughtiness is so naïve, so
tactfully frank, that even the American daughter might take her mother
to see it, without fear of corrupting the innocence of age. "On peut
très bien vivre sans être la plus heureuse des femmes": that is one of
the morals of the piece; and, the more you think over questions of
conduct, the more you realise that you might just as well not have
thought about them at all, might be another. The incidents by which
these excellent morals are driven home are incidents of the same order
as those in "La Veine," and not less entertaining. The mounting, simple
as it was, was admirably planned; the stage-pictures full of explicit
drollery. And, as before, the whole company worked with the effortless
unanimity of a perfect piece of machinery.

A few days after seeing "La Veine" I went to Wyndham's Theatre to see a
revival of Sir Francis Burnand's "Betsy." "Betsy," of course, is adapted
from the French, though, by an accepted practice which seems to me
dishonest, in spite of its acceptance, that fact is not mentioned on the


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Online LibraryArthur SymonsPlays, Acting and Music A Book Of Theory → online text (page 4 of 13)