Arthur Symons.

Plays, Acting and Music A Book Of Theory online

. (page 7 of 13)
Online LibraryArthur SymonsPlays, Acting and Music A Book Of Theory → online text (page 7 of 13)
Font size
QR-code for this ebook

silver flutes, so utterly beyond our spell of insight, who of us can
govern the thunder and whirlwind of thy ventages to any utterance of
harmony, or pluck out the heart of thy eternal mystery?" Does Mr. Jones,
I wonder, or the distinguished critic, really hear any "soft proclaim of
silver flutes," or any of the other organ effects which he enumerates,
in "The Princess's Nose"? Does anyone "seriously contest" its right not
to "rank as Literature"? The audience, for once, was unanimous. Mr.
Jones was not encouraged to appear. And yet there had been applause,
prolonged applause, at many points throughout this bewildering evening.
The applause was meant for the actors.

If Mr. Jones had shown as much tact in the construction of his play as
in the selection of his cast, how admirable the play would have been! I
have rarely seen a play in which each actor seemed to fit into his part
with such exactitude. But the play! Well, the play began as a comedy,
continued as a tragedy, and ended as a farce. It came to a crisis every
five minutes, it suggested splendid situations, and then caricatured
them unintentionally, it went shilly-shallying about among the emotions
and sensations which may be drama or melodrama, whichever the handling
makes them. "You see there is a little poetical justice going about the
world," says the Princess, when she hears that her rival, against whom
she has fought in vain, has been upset by Providence in the form of a
motor-car, and the bridge of her nose broken. The broken nose is Mr.
Jones's symbol for poetical justice; it indicates his intellectual
attitude. There are many parts of the play where he shows, as he has so
often shown, a genuine skill in presenting and manipulating humorous
minor characters. As usual, they have little to do with the play, but
they are amusing for their moment. It is the serious characters who will
not be serious. They are meant well, the action hovers about them with
little tempting solicitations, continually offering them an opportunity
to be fine, to be genuine, and then withdrawing it before it can be
grasped. The third act has all the material of tragedy, but the material
is wasted; only the actress makes anything of it. We know how Sullivan
will take a motive of mere farce, such words as the "O Captain Shaw!" of
"Iolanthe," and will write a lovely melody to go with it, fitting his
music to the feeling which the words do but caricature. That is how Miss
Irene Vanbrugh handled Mr. Jones's unshapen material. By the
earnestness, sincerity, sheer nature, power, fire, dignity, and gaiety
of her acting, she made for us a figure which Mr. Jones had not made.
Mr. Jones would set his character in some impossible situation, and Miss
Vanbrugh would make us, for the moment, forget its impossibility. He
would give her a trivial or a grotesque or a vulgar action to do, and
she would do it with distinction. She had force in lightness, a vivid
malice, a magnetic cheerfulness; and she could suffer silently, and be
sincere in a tragedy which had been conceived without sincerity. If
acting could save a play, "The Princess's Nose" would have been saved.
It was not saved.

And the reason is that even the best of actors cannot save a play which
insists on defeating them at every turn. Yet, as we may realise any day
when Sarah Bernhardt acts before us, there is a certain kind of frankly
melodramatic play which can be lifted into at all events a region of
excited and gratified nerves. I have lately been to see a melodrama
called "The Heel of Achilles," which Miss Julia Neilson has been giving
at the Globe Theatre. The play was meant to tear at one's
susceptibilities, much as "La Tosca" tears at them. "La Tosca" is not a
fine play in itself, though it is a much better play than "The Heel of
Achilles." But it is the vivid, sensational acting of Sarah Bernhardt
which gives one all the shudders. "The Heel of Achilles" did not give me
a single shudder, not because it was not packed with the raw material of
sensation, but because Miss Julia Neilson went through so many trying
experiences with nerves of marble.

I cannot help wondering at the curious lack of self-knowledge in actors.
Here is a play, which depends for a great deal of its effect on a scene
in which Lady Leslie, a young Englishwoman in Russia, promises to marry
a Russian prince whom she hates, in order to save her betrothed lover
from being sent to Siberia. The lover is shut in between two doors,
unable to get out; he is the bearer of a State secret, and everything
depends on his being able to catch the eleven P.M. train for Berlin. The
Russian prince stands before the young Englishwoman, offering her the
key of the door, the safety of her lover, and his own hand in marriage.
Now, she has to express by her face and her movements all the feelings
of astonishment, horror, suspense, love, hatred, distraction, which such
a situation would call up in her. If she does not express them the scene
goes for nothing. The actress stakes all on this scene. Now, is it
possible that Miss Julia Neilson really imagined herself to be capable
of rendering this scene as it should be rendered? It is a scene that
requires no brains, no subtle emotional quality, none of the more
intellectual merits of acting. It requires simply a great passivity to
feeling, the mere skill of letting horrors sweep over the face and the
body like drenching waves. The actress need not know how she does it;
she may do it without an effort, or she may obtain her spontaneity by an
elaborate calculation. But to do it at all she must be the actress in
every fibre of her body; she must be able to vibrate freely. If the
emotion does not seize her in its own grasp, and then seize us through
her, it will all go for nothing. Well, Miss Neilson sat, and walked, and
started, and became rigid, and glanced at the clock, and knelt, and fell
against the wall, and cast her eyes about, and threw her arms out, and
made her voice husky; and it all went for nothing. Never for an instant
did she suggest what she was trying to suggest, and after the first
moment of disappointment the mind was left calmly free to watch her
attempt as if it were speculating round a problem.

How many English actresses, I wonder, would have been capable of dealing
adequately with such a scene as that? I take it, not because it is a
good scene, but because it affords so rudimentary a test of the capacity
for acting. The test of the capacity for acting begins where words end;
it is independent of words; you may take poor words as well as fine
words; it is all the same. The embodying power, the power to throw open
one's whole nature to an overcoming sensation, the power to render this
sensation in so inevitable a way that others shall feel it: that is the
one thing needful. It is not art, it is not even the beginning of art;
but it is the foundation on which alone art can be built.

The other day, in "Ulysses," there was only one piece of acting that was
quite convincing: the acting of Mr. Brough as the Swineherd. It is a
small part and an easy part, but it was perfectly done. Almost any
other part would have been more striking and surprising if it had been
done as perfectly, but no other part was done as perfectly. Mr. Brough
has developed a stage-personality of his own, with only a limited range
of emotion, but he has developed it until it has become a second nature
with him. He has only to speak, and he may say what he likes; we accept
him after the first word, and he remains what that first word has shown
him to be. Mr. Tree, with his many gifts, his effective talents, all his
taste, ambition, versatility, never produces just that effect: he
remains interestingly aside from what he is doing; you see his brain
working upon it, you enjoy his by-play; his gait, his studied gestures,
absorb you; "How well this is done!" you say, and "How well that is
done!" and, indeed, you get a complete picture out of his representation
of that part: a picture, not a man.

I am not sure that melodrama is not the hardest test of the actor: it
is, at least, the surest. All the human emotions throng noisily
together in the making of melodrama: they are left there, in their naked
muddle, and they come to no good end; but there they are. To represent
any primary emotion, and to be ineffective, is to fail in the
fundamental thing. All actors should be sent to school in melodrama, as
all dramatic authors should learn their trade there.


Modern staging, which has been carried in England to its highest point
of excellence, professes to aim at beauty, and is, indeed, often
beautiful in detail. But its real aim is not at the creation of
beautiful pictures, in subordination to the words and actions of the
play, but at supplementing words and actions by an exact imitation of
real surroundings. Imitation, not creation, is its end, and in its
attempt to imitate the general aspect of things it leads the way to the
substitution of things themselves for perfectly satisfactory indications
of them. "Real water" we have all heard of, and we know its place in the
theatre; but this is only the simplest form of this anti-artistic
endeavour to be real. Sir Henry Irving will use, for a piece of
decoration meant to be seen only from a distance, a garland of imitation
flowers, exceedingly well done, costing perhaps two pounds, where two
or three brushes of paint would have supplied its place more
effectively. When d'Annunzio's "Francesca da Rimini" was put on the
stage in Rome, a pot of basil was brought daily from Naples in order
that it might be laid on the window-sill of the room in which Francesca
and Paolo read of Lancelot and Guinevere. In an interview published in
one of the English papers, d'Annunzio declared that he had all his stage
decorations made in precious metal by fine craftsmen, and that he had
done this for an artistic purpose, and not only for the beauty of the
things themselves. The gesture, he said, of the actor who lifts to his
lips a cup of finely-wrought gold will be finer, more sincere, than that
of the actor who uses a gilded "property."

If so, I can but answer, the actor is no actor, but an amateur. The true
actor walks in a world as real in its unreality as that which surrounds
the poet or the enthusiast. The bare boards, chairs, and T-light, in the
midst of which he rehearses, are as significantly palaces or meadows to
him, while he speaks his lines and lives himself into his character, as
all the real grass and real woodwork with which the manager will cumber
the stage on the first night. As little will he need to distinguish
between the gilt and the gold cup as between the imaginary characters
who surround him, and his mere friends and acquaintances who are
speaking for them.

This costly and inartistic aim at reality, then, is the vice of the
modern stage, and, at its best or worst, can it be said that it is
really even what it pretends to be: a perfectly deceptive imitation of
the real thing? I said once, to clinch an argument against it, by giving
it its full possible credit, that the modern staging can give you the
hour of the day and the corner of the country with precise accuracy. But
can it? Has the most gradual of stage-moons ever caught the miraculous
lunar trick to the life? Has the real hedgerow ever brought a breath of
the country upon the stage? I do not think so, and meanwhile, we have
been trying our hardest to persuade ourselves that it is so, instead of
abandoning ourselves to a new, strange atmosphere, to the magic of the
play itself.

What Mr. Craig does is to provide a plain, conventional, or darkened
background for life, as life works out its own ordered lines on the
stage; he gives us suggestion instead of reality, a symbol instead of an
imitation; and he relies, for his effects, on a new system of lighting
from above, not from below, and on a quite new kind of drill, as I may
call it, by which he uses his characters as masses and patterns,
teaching them to move all together, with identical gestures. The eye is
carried right through or beyond these horizons of canvas, and the
imagination with it; instead of stopping entangled among real stalks and
painted gables.

I have seen nothing so imaginative, so restful, so expressive, on the
English stage as these simple and elaborately woven designs, in patterns
of light and drapery and movement, which in "The Masque of Love" had a
new quality of charm, a completeness of invention, for which I would
have given all d'Annunzio's golden cups and Mr. Tree's boats on real
Thames water.

Here, for once, we see the stage treated in the proper spirit, as
material for art, not as a collection of real objects, or the imitation
of real objects. Why should not the visible world be treated in the same
spirit as the invisible world of character and temperament? A fine play
is not the copy of an incident or the stenography of a character. A
poetical play, to limit myself to that, requires to be put on the stage
in such a way as to suggest that atmosphere which, if it is a true poem,
will envelop its mental outlines. That atmosphere, which is of its
essence, is the first thing to be lost, in the staging of most poetical
plays. It is precisely what the stage-manager, if he happens to have the
secret of his own art, will endeavour most persistently to suggest. He
will make it his business to compete with the poet, and not, after the
manner of Drury Lane, with the accidents of life and the vulgarities of


If you look into the actors' prompt-books, the most frequent direction
which you will find is this: "Cross stage to right." It is not a mere
direction, it is a formula; it is not a formula only, but a universal
remedy. Whenever the action seems to flag, or the dialogue to become
weak or wordy, you must "cross stage to right"; no matter what is wrong
with the play, this will set it right. We have heard so much of the
"action" of a play, that the stage-manager in England seems to imagine
that dramatic action is literally a movement of people across the stage,
even if for no other reason than for movement's sake. Is the play weak?
He tries to strengthen it, poor thing, by sending it out walking for its

If we take drama with any seriousness, as an art as well as an
improvisation, we shall realise that one of its main requirements is
that it should make pictures. That is the lesson of Bayreuth, and when
one comes away, the impression which remains, almost longer than the
impression of the music itself, is that grave, regulated motion of the
actors. As I have said elsewhere, no actor makes a gesture which has not
been regulated for him; there is none of that unintelligent haphazard
known as being "natural"; these people move like music, or with that
sense of motion which it is the business of painting to arrest. But
here, of course, I am speaking of the poetic drama, of drama which does
not aim at the realistic representation of modern life. Maeterlinck
should be acted in this solemn way, in a kind of convention; but I admit
that you cannot act Ibsen in quite the same way.

The other day, when Mme. Jeanne Granier's company came over here to give
us some lessons in acting, I watched a little scene in "La Veine," which
was one of the telling scenes of the play: Guitry and Brasseur standing
face to face for some minutes, looking at their watches, and then
waiting, each with a single, fixed expression on his face, in which the
whole temperament of each is summed up. One is inclined to say: No
English actor could have done it. Perhaps; but then, no English
stage-manager would have let them do it. They would have been told to
move, to find "business," to indulge in gesture which would not come
naturally to them. Again, in "Tartuffe," when, at the end, the hypocrite
is exposed and led off to prison, Coquelin simply turns his back on the
audience, and stands, with head sullenly down, making no movement; then,
at the end, he turns half-round and walks straight off, on the nearer
side of the stage, giving you no more than a momentary glimpse of a
convulsed face, fixed into a definite, gross, raging mood. It would have
taken Mr. Tree five minutes to get off the stage, and he would have
walked to and fro with a very multiplication of gesture, trying on one
face, so to speak, after another. Would it have been so effective, that
is to say, so real?

A great part of the art of French acting consists in knowing when and
how not to do things. Their blood helps them, for there is movement in
their blood, and they have something to restrain. But they have realised
the art there is in being quite still, in speaking naturally, as people
do when they are really talking, in fixing attention on the words they
are saying and not on their antics while saying them. The other day, in
the first act of "The Bishop's Move" at the Garrick, there is a Duchess
talking to a young novice in the refectory of a French abbey. After
standing talking to him for a few minutes, with only such movements as
would be quite natural under the circumstances, she takes his arm, not
once only but twice, and walks him up and down in front of the
footlights, for no reason in the world except to "cross stage to right."
The stage trick was so obvious that it deprived the scene at once of any
pretence to reality.

The fact is, that we do not sufficiently realise the difference between
what is dramatic and what is merely theatrical. Drama is made to be
acted, and the finest "literary" play in the world, if it wholly fails
to interest people on the stage, will have wholly failed in its first
and most essential aim. But the finer part of drama is implicit in the
words and in the development of the play, and not in its separate small
details of literal "action." Two people should be able to sit quietly in
a room, without ever leaving their chairs, and to hold our attention
breathless for as long as the playwright likes. Given a good play,
French actors are able to do that. Given a good play, English actors are
not allowed to do it.

Is it not partly the energy, the restless energy, of the English
character which prevents our actors from ever sitting or standing still
on the stage? We are a nation of travellers, of sailors, of business
people; and all these have to keep for ever moving. Our dances are the
most vigorous and athletic of dances, they carry us all over the stage,
with all kinds of leaping and kicking movements. Our music-hall
performers have invented a kind of clowning peculiar to this country, in
which kicking and leaping are also a part of the business. Our
melodramas are constructed on more movable planes, with more formidable
collapses and collisions, than those of any other country. Is not, then,
the persistent English habit of "crossing stage to right" a national
characteristic, ingrained in us, and not only a matter of training? It
is this reflection which hinders me from hoping, with much confidence,
that a reform in stage-management will lead to a really quieter and
simpler way of acting. But might not the experiment be tried? Might not
some stage-manager come forward and say: "For heaven's sake stand still,
my dear ladies and gentlemen, and see if you cannot interest your
audience without moving more than twice the length of your own feet?"


Was there ever at any time an art, an acquired method, of speaking
verse, as definite as the art and method of singing it? The Greeks, it
has often been thought, had such a method, but we are still puzzling in
vain over their choruses, and wondering how far they were sung, how far
they were spoken. Wagner pointed out the probability that these choruses
were written to fixed tunes, perhaps themselves the accompaniment to
dances, because it can hardly be believed that poems of so meditative a
kind could have themselves given rise to such elaborate and not
apparently expressive rhythms. In later times there have been stage
traditions, probably developed from the practice of some particular
actor, many conflicting traditions; but, at the present day, there is
not even a definite bad method, but mere chaos, individual caprice, in
the speaking of verse as a foolish monotonous tune or as a foolishly
contorted species of prose.

An attempt has lately been made by Mr. Yeats, with the practical
assistance of Mr. Dolmetsch and Miss Florence Farr, to revive or invent
an art of speaking verse to a pitch sounded by a musical instrument. Mr.
Dolmetsch has made instruments which he calls psalteries, and Miss Farr
has herself learnt and has taught others, to chant verse, in a manner
between speaking and singing, to the accompaniment of the psaltery. Mr.
Yeats has written and talked and lectured on the subject; and the
experiment has been tried in the performances of Mr. Gilbert Murray's
translation of the "Hippolytus" of Euripides. Here, then, is the only
definite attempt which has been made in our time to regulate the speech
of actors in their speaking of verse. No problem of the theatre is more
important, for it is only by the quality of the verse, and by the
clearness, beauty, and expressiveness of its rendering, that a play of
Shakespeare is to be distinguished, when we see it on the stage, from
any other melodrama. "I see no reason," says Lamb, in the profoundest
essay which has ever been written on the acting of drama, "to think that
if the play of Hamlet were written over again by some such writer as
Banks or Lillo, retaining the process of the story, but totally omitting
all the poetry of it, all the divine features of Shakespeare, his
stupendous intellect; and only taking care to give us enough of
passionate dialogue, which Banks or Lillo were never at a loss to
furnish; I see not how the effect could be much different upon an
audience, nor how the actor has it in his power to represent Shakespeare
to us differently from his representation of Banks or Lillo." It is
precisely by his speaking of that poetry, which one is accustomed to
hear hurried over or turned into mere oratory, that the actor might, if
he were conscious of the necessity of doing it, and properly trained to
do it, bring before the audience what is essential in Shakespeare. Here,
in the rendering of words, is the actor's first duty to his author, if
he is to remember that a play is acted, not for the exhibition of the
actor, but for the realisation of the play. We should think little of
the "dramatic effect" of a symphony, in which every individual note had
not been given its precise value by every instrument in the orchestra.
When do we ever, on the stage, see the slightest attempt, on the part of
even the "solo" players, to give its precise value to every word of that
poetry which is itself a not less elaborate piece of concerted music?

The two great dangers in the speaking of verse are the danger of
over-emphasising the meaning and the danger of over-emphasising the
sound. I was never more conscious of the former danger than when I heard
a lecture given in London by M. Silvain, of the Comédie Francaise, on
the art of speaking on the stage.

The method of M. Silvain (who, besides being an actor, is Professor of
Declamation at the Conservatoire) is the method of the elocutionist, but
of the elocutionist at his best. He has a large, round, vibrating voice,
over which he has perfect command. "M. Silvain," says M. Catulle
Mendès, "est de ceux, bien rares au Théâtre Français, qu'on entend même
lorsqu'ils par lent bas." He has trained his voice to do everything that
he wants it to do; his whole body is full of life, energy, sensitiveness
to the emotion of every word; his gestures seem to be at once
spontaneous and calculated. He adores verse, for its own sake, as a
brilliant executant adores his violin; he has an excellent contempt for
prose, as an inferior form. In all his renderings of verse, he never
forgot that it was at the same time speech, the direct expression of
character, and also poetry, a thing with its own reasons for existence.
He gave La Fontaine in one way, Molière in another, Victor Hugo in
another, some poor modern verse in yet another. But in all there was the
same attempt: to treat verse in the spirit of rhetoric, that is to say,
to over-emphasise it consistently and for effect. In a tirade from
Corneille's "Cinna," he followed the angry reasoning of the lines by
counting on his fingers: one, two, three, as if he were underlining the
important words of each clause. The danger of this method is that it is
apt to turn poetry into a kind of bad logic. There, precisely, is the

1 2 3 4 5 7 9 10 11 12 13

Online LibraryArthur SymonsPlays, Acting and Music A Book Of Theory → online text (page 7 of 13)