Arthur Symons.

Plays, Acting and Music A Book Of Theory online

. (page 8 of 13)
Online LibraryArthur SymonsPlays, Acting and Music A Book Of Theory → online text (page 8 of 13)
Font size
QR-code for this ebook

danger of the French conception of poetry, and M. Silvain's method
brings out the worst faults of that conception.

Now in speaking verse to musical notes, as Mr. Yeats would have us do,
we are at least safe from this danger. Mr. Yeats, being a poet, knows
that verse is first of all song. In purely lyrical verse, with which he
is at present chiefly concerned, the verse itself has a melody which
demands expression by the voice, not only when it is "set to music," but
when it is said aloud. Every poet, when he reads his own verse, reads it
with certain inflections of the voice, in what is often called a
"sing-song" way, quite different from the way in which he would read
prose. Most poets aim rather at giving the musical effect, and the
atmosphere, the vocal atmosphere, of the poem, than at emphasising
individual meanings. They give, in the musician's sense, a "reading" of
the poem, an interpretation of the poem as a composition. Mr. Yeats
thinks that this kind of reading can be stereotyped, so to speak, the
pitch noted down in musical notes, and reproduced with the help of a
simple stringed instrument. By way of proof, Miss Farr repeated one of
Mr. Yeats' lyrics, as nearly as possible in the way in which Mr. Yeats
himself is accustomed to say it. She took the pitch from certain notes
which she had written down, and which she struck on Mr. Dolmetsch's
psaltery. Now Miss Farr has a beautiful voice, and a genuine feeling for
the beauty of verse. She said the lines better than most people would
have said them, but, to be quite frank, did she say them so as to
produce the effect Mr. Yeats himself produces whenever he repeats those
lines? The difference was fundamental. The one was a spontaneous thing,
profoundly felt; the other, a deliberate imitation in which the fixing
of the notes made any personal interpretation, good or bad, impossible.

I admit that the way in which most actors speak verse is so deplorable
that there is much to be said for a purely mechanical method, even if it
should turn actors into little more than human phonographs. Many actors
treat verse as a slightly more stilted kind of prose, and their main aim
in saying it is to conceal from the audience the fact that it is not
prose. They think of nothing but what they take to be the expression,
and when they come to a passage of purely lyric quality they give it as
if it were a quotation, having nothing to do with the rest of the
speech. Anything is better than this haphazard way of misdoing things,
either M. Silvain's oratory or the intoning into which Mr. Yeats' method
would almost certainly drift. But I cannot feel that it is possible to
do much good by a ready-made method of any kind. Let the actor be taught
how to breathe, how to articulate, let his voice be trained to express
what he wants to express, and then let him be made to feel something of
what verse means by being verse. Let him, by all means, study one of Mr.
Yeats' readings, interpreted to him by means of notes; it will teach
him to unlearn something and to learn something more. But then let him
forget his notes and Mr. Yeats' method, if he is to make verse live on
the stage.


Why is it that we have at the present moment no great acting in England?
We can remember it in our own time, in Irving, who was a man of
individual genius. In him it was the expression of a romantic
temperament, really Cornish, that is, Celtic, which had been cultivated
like a rare plant, in a hothouse. Irving was an incomparable orchid, a
thing beautiful, lonely, and not quite normal. We have one actress now
living, an exception to every rule, in whom a rare and wandering genius
comes and goes: I mean, of course, Mrs. Patrick Campbell. She enchants
us, from time to time, with divine or magical improvisations. We have
actresses who have many kinds of charm, actors who have many kinds of
useful talent; but have we in our whole island two actors capable of
giving so serious, so intelligent, so carefully finished, so vital an
interpretation of Shakespeare, or, indeed, of rendering any form of
poetic drama on the stage, as the Englishman and Englishwoman who came
to us in 1907 from America, in the guise of Americans: Julia Marlowe and
Edward Sothern?

The business of the manager, who in most cases is also the chief actor,
is to produce a concerted action between his separate players, as the
conductor does between the instruments in his orchestra. If he does not
bring them entirely under his influence, if he (because, like the
conductor of a pot-house band, he himself is the first fiddle) does not
subordinate himself as carefully to the requirements of the composition,
the result will be worthless as a whole, no matter what individual
talents may glitter out of it. What should we say if the first fiddle
insisted on having a cadenza to himself in the course of every dozen
bars of the music? What should we say if he cut the best parts of the
'cellos, in order that they might not add a mellowness which would
slightly veil the acuteness of his own notes? What should we say if he
rearranged the composer's score for the convenience of his own
orchestra? What should we say if he left out a beautiful passage on the
horn because he had not got one of the two or three perfectly
accomplished horn-players in Europe? What should we say if he altered
the time of one movement in order to make room for another, in which he
would himself be more prominent? What should we say if the conductor of
an orchestra committed a single one of these criminal absurdities? The
musical public would rise against him as one man, the pedantic critics
and the young men who smoke as they stand on promenade floors. And yet
this, nothing more nor less, is done on the stage of the theatre
whenever a Shakespeare play, or any serious work of dramatic art, is
presented with any sort of public appeal.

In the case of music, fortunately, something more than custom forbids:
the nature of music forbids. But the play is at the mercy of the
actor-manager, and the actor-manager has no mercy. In England a serious
play, above all a poetic play, is not put on by any but small,
unsuccessful, more or less private and unprofessional people with any
sort of reverence for art, beauty, or, indeed, for the laws and
conditions of the drama which is literature as well as drama. Personal
vanity and the pecuniary necessity of long runs are enough in themselves
to account for the failure of most attempts to combine Shakespeare with
show, poetry with the box-office. Or is there in our actor-managers a
lack of this very sense of what is required in the proper rendering of
imaginative work on the stage?

It is in the staging and acting, the whole performance and management,
of such typical plays of Shakespeare as "Hamlet," "Romeo and Juliet,"
and "Twelfth Night" that Mr. Sothern and Miss Marlowe have shown the
whole extent of their powers, and have read us the lesson we most
needed. The mission of these two guests has been to show us what we have
lost on our stage and what we have forgotten in our Shakespeare. And
first of all I would note the extraordinary novelty and life which they
give to each play as a whole by their way of setting it in action. I
have always felt that a play of Shakespeare, seen on the stage, should
give one the same kind of impression as when one is assisting at "a
solemn music." The rhythm of Shakespeare's art is not fundamentally
different from that of Beethoven, and "Romeo and Juliet" is a suite,
"Hamlet" a symphony. To act either of these plays with whatever
qualities of another kind, and to fail in producing this musical rhythm
from beginning to end, is to fail in the very foundation. Here the music
was unflawed; there were no digressions, no eccentricities, no sacrifice
to the actor. This astonishing thing occurred: that a play was presented
for its own sake, with reverence, not with ostentation; for
Shakespeare's sake, not for the actor-manager's.

And from this intelligent, unostentatious way of giving Shakespeare
there come to us, naturally, many lessons. Until I saw this performance
of "Romeo and Juliet" I thought there was rhetoric in the play, as well
as the natural poetry of drama. But I see that it only needs to be
acted with genius and intelligence, and the poetry consumes the
rhetoric. I never knew before that this play was so near to life, or
that every beauty in it could be made so inevitably human. And this is
because no one else has rendered, with so deep a truth, with so
beautiful a fidelity, all that is passionate and desperate and an
ecstatic agony in this tragic love which glorifies and destroys Juliet.
The decorative Juliet of the stage we know, the lovely picture, the
_ingenue_, the prattler of pretty phrases; but this mysterious, tragic
child, whom love has made wise in making her a woman, is unknown to us
outside Shakespeare, and perhaps even there. Mr. Sothern's Romeo has an
exquisite passion, young and extravagant as a lover's, and is alive. But
Miss Marlowe is not only lovely and pathetic as Juliet; she is Juliet. I
would not say that Mr. Sothern's Hamlet is the only Hamlet, for there
are still, no doubt, "points in Hamlet's soul unseized by the Germans
yet." Yet what a Hamlet! How majestical, how simple, how much a poet
and a gentleman! To what depth he suffers! How magnificently he
interprets, in the crucifixion of his own soul, the main riddles of the
universe! In "Hamlet," too, I saw deeper meanings than I had ever seen
in the play when it was acted. Mr. Sothern was the only quite sane
Hamlet; his madness is all the outer coverings of wisdom; there was
nothing fantastic in his grave, subdued, powerful, and piteous
representation, in which no symbol, no metaphysical Faust, no figment of
a German brain, loomed before us, but a man, more to be pitied and not
less to be honoured than any man in Elsinore. I have seen romantic,
tragic, exceptional Hamlets, the very bells on the cap of "Fortune's
fool." But at last I have seen the man himself, as Shakespeare saw him
living, a gentleman, as well as a philosopher, a nature of fundamental
sincerity; no melancholy clown, but the greatest of all critics of life.
And the play, with its melodrama and its lyrical ecstasy, moved before
one's eyes like a religious service. How is it that we get from the
acting and management of these two actors a result which no one in
England has ever been able to get? Well, in the first place, as I have
said, they have the odd caprice of preferring Shakespeare to themselves;
the odd conviction that fidelity to Shakespeare will give them the best
chance of doing great things themselves. Nothing is accidental,
everything obeys a single intention; and what, above all, obeys that
intention is the quality of inspiration, which is never absent and never
uncontrolled. Intention without the power of achievement is almost as
lamentable a thing as achievement not directed by intention. Now here
are two players in whom technique has been carried to a supreme point.
There is no actor on our stage who can speak either English or verse as
these two American actors can. It is on this preliminary technique, this
power of using speech as one uses the notes of a musical instrument,
that all possibility of great acting depends. Who is there that can give
us, not the external gesture, but the inner meaning, of some beautiful
and subtle passage in Shakespeare? One of our actors will give it
sonorously, as rhetoric, and another eagerly, as passionate speech, but
no one with the precise accent of a man who is speaking his thoughts,
which is what Shakespeare makes his characters do when he puts his
loveliest poetry into their mouths. Look at Mr. Sothern when he gives
the soliloquy "To be or not to be," which we are accustomed to hear
spoken to the public in one or another of many rhetorical manners. Mr.
Sothern's Hamlet curls himself up in a chair, exactly as sensitive
reflective people do when they want to make their bodies comfortable
before setting their minds to work; and he lets you overhear his
thoughts. Every soliloquy of Shakespeare is meant to be overheard, and
just so casually. To render this on the stage requires, first, an
understanding of what poetry is; next, a perfect capacity of producing
by the sound and intonation of the voice the exact meaning of those
words and cadences. Who is there on our stage who has completely
mastered those two first requirements of acting? No one now acting in
English, except Julia Marlowe and Edward Sothern.

What these two players do is to give us, not the impression which we get
when we see and admire fine limitations, but the impression which we get
from real people who, when they speak in verse, seem to be speaking
merely the language of their own hearts. They give us every character in
the round, whereas with our actors we see no more than profiles. Look,
for contrast, at the Malvolio of Mr. Sothern. It is an elaborate
travesty, done in a disguise like the solemn dandy's head of Disraeli.
He acts with his eyelids, which move while all the rest of the face is
motionless; with his pursed, reticent mouth, with his prim and pompous
gestures; with that self-consciousness which brings all Malvolio's
troubles upon him. It is a fantastic, tragically comic thing, done with
rare calculation, and it has its formal, almost cruel share in the
immense gaiety of the piece. The play is great and wild, a mockery and a
happiness; and it is all seen and not interpreted, but the mystery of
it deepened, in the clown's song at the end, which, for once, has been
allowed its full effect, not theatrical, but of pure imagination.

So far I have spoken only of those first requirements, those elementary
principles of acting, which we ought to be able to take for granted;
only in England, we cannot. These once granted, the individual work of
the actor begins, his power to create with the means at his disposal.
Let us look, then, a little more closely at Miss Marlowe. I have spoken
of her Juliet, which is no doubt her finest part. But now look at her
Ophelia. It is not, perhaps, so great a triumph as her Juliet, and
merely for the reason that there is little in Ophelia but an image of
some beautiful bright thing broken. Yet the mad scene will be remembered
among all other renderings for its edged lightness, the quite simple
poetry it makes of madness; above all, the natural pity which comes into
it from a complete abandonment to what is essence, and not mere
decoration, in the spoiled brain of this kind, loving and will-less
woman. She suffers, and is pitifully unaware of it, there before you,
the very soul naked and shameless with an innocence beyond innocence.
She makes the rage and tenderness of Hamlet towards her a credible

In Juliet Miss Marlowe is ripe humanity, in Ophelia that same humanity
broken down from within. As Viola, in "Twelfth Night" she is the woman
let loose, to be bewitching in spite of herself; and here again her art
is tested, and triumphs, for she is bewitching, and never trespasses
into jauntiness on the one hand, or, on the other, into that modern
sentiment which the theatre has accustomed itself to under the name of
romance. She is serious, with a calm and even simplicity, to which
everything is a kind of child's play, putting no unnecessary pathos into
a matter destined to come right in the end. And so her delicate and
restrained gaiety in masquerade interprets perfectly, satisfies every
requirement, of what for the moment is whimsical in Shakespeare's art.

Now turn from Shakespeare, and see what can be done with the modern
make-believe. Here, in "Jeanne d'Arc," is a recent American melodrama,
written ambitiously, in verse which labours to be poetry. The subject
was made for Miss Marlowe, but the play was made for effect, and it is
lamentable to see her, in scenes made up of false sentiment and
theatrical situations, trying to do what she is ready and able to do;
what, indeed, some of the scenes give her the chance to be: the little
peasant girl, perplexed by visions and possessed by them, and also the
peasant saint, too simple to know that she is heroic. Out of a play of
shreds and patches one remembers only something which has given it its
whole value: the vital image of a divine child, a thing of peace and
love, who makes war angelically.

Yet even in this play there was ambition and an aim. Turn, last of all,
to a piece which succeeded with London audiences better than
Shakespeare, a burlesque of American origin, called "When Knighthood was
in Flower." Here too I seemed to discern a lesson for the English stage.
Even through the silly disguises of this inconceivable production,
which pleased innocent London as it had pleased indifferent New York,
one felt a certain lilt and go, a touch of nature among the fool's
fabric of the melodrama, which set the action far above our steady
practitioners in the same art of sinking. And, above all, a sense of
parody pierced through words and actions, commenting wittily on the
nonsense of romance which so many were so willing to take seriously. She
was a live thing, defiantly and gaily conscious of every absurdity with
which she indulged the babyish tastes of one more public.

An actor or actress who is limited by talent, personality, or preference
to a single kind of _rôle_ is not properly an artist at all. It is the
curse of success that, in any art, a man who has pleased the public in
any single thing is called upon, if he would turn it into money, to
repeat it, as exactly as he can, as often as he can. If he does so, he
is, again, not an artist. It is the business of every kind of artist to
be ceaselessly creative, and, above all, not to repeat himself. When I
have seen Miss Marlowe as Juliet, as Ophelia, and as Viola, I am
content to have seen her also in a worthless farce, because she showed
me that she could go without vulgarity, lightly, safely, through a part
that she despised: she did not spoil it out of self-respect; out of a
rarer self-respect she carried it through without capitulating to it.
Then I hear of her having done Lady Teazle and Imogen, the Fiammetta of
Catulle Mendès and the Salome of Hauptmann; I do not know even the names
of half the parts she has played, but I can imagine her playing them
all, not with the same poignancy and success, but with a skill hardly
varying from one to another. There is no doubt that she has a natural
genius for acting. This genius she has so carefully and so subtly
trained that it may strike you at first sight as not being genius at
all; because it is so much on the level, because there are no fits and
starts in it; because, in short, it has none of the attractiveness of
excess. It is by excess that we for the most part distinguish what seems
to us genius; and it is often by its excess that genius first really
shows itself. But the rarest genius is without excess, and may seem
colourless in his perfection, as Giorgione seems beside Titian. But
Giorgione will always be the greater.

I quoted to an old friend and fervent admirer of Miss Marlowe the words
of Bacon which were always on the lips of Poe and of Baudelaire, about
the "strangeness in the proportions" of all beauty. She asked me, in
pained surprise, if I saw anything strange in Miss Marlowe. If I had
not, she would have meant nothing for me, as the "faultily faultless"
person, the Mrs. Kendal, means nothing to me. The confusion can easily
be made, and there will probably always be people who will prefer Mrs.
Kendal to Miss Marlowe, as there are those who will think Mme. Melba a
greater operatic singer than Mme. Calvé. What Miss Marlowe has is a
great innocence, which is not, like Duse's, the innocence of wisdom, and
a childish and yet wild innocence, such as we might find in a tamed wild
beast, in whom there would always be a charm far beyond that of the
domestic creature who has grown up on our hearth. This wildness comes to
her perhaps from Pan, forces of nature that are always somewhere
stealthily about the world, hidden in the blood, unaccountable,
unconscious; without which we are tame christened things, fit for
cloisters. Duse is the soul made flesh, Réjane the flesh made Parisian,
Sarah Bernhardt the flesh and the devil; but Julia Marlowe is the joy of
life, the plenitude of sap in the tree.

The personal appeal of Mr. Sothern and of Miss Marlowe is very
different. In his manner of receiving applause there is something almost
resentful, as if, being satisfied to do what he chooses to do, and in
his own way, he were indifferent to the opinion of others. It is not the
actor's attitude; but what a relief from the general subservience of
that attitude! In Miss Marlowe there is something young, warm, and
engaging, a way of giving herself wholly to the pleasure of pleasing, to
which the footlights are scarcely a barrier. As if unconsciously, she
fills and gladdens you with a sense of the single human being whom she
is representing. And there is her strange beauty, in which the mind and
the senses have an equal part, and which is full of savour and grace,
alive to the finger-tips. Yet it is not with these personal qualities
that I am here chiefly concerned. What I want to emphasise is the
particular kind of lesson which this acting, so essentially English,
though it comes to us as if set free by America, should have for all who
are at all seriously considering the lamentable condition of our stage
in the present day. We have nothing like it in England, nothing on the
same level, no such honesty and capacity of art, no such worthy results.
Are we capable of realising the difference? If not, Julia Marlowe and
Edward Sothern will have come to England in vain.


Life and beauty are the body and soul of great drama. Mix the two as you
will, so long as both are there, resolved into a single substance. But
let there be, in the making, two ingredients, and while one is poetry,
and comes bringing beauty, the other is a violent thing which has been
scornfully called melodrama, and is the emphasis of action. The greatest
plays are melodrama by their skeleton, and poetry by the flesh which
clothes that skeleton.

The foundation of drama is that part of the action which can be
represented in dumb show. Only the essential parts of action can be
represented without words, and you would set the puppets vainly to work
on any material but that which is common to humanity. The permanence of
a drama might be tested by the continuance and universality of its
appeal when played silently in gestures. I have seen the test applied.
Companies of marionette players still go about the villages of Kent,
and among their stock pieces is "Arden of Feversham," the play which
Shakespeare is not too great to have written, at some moment when his
right hand knew not what his left hand was doing. Well, that great
little play can hold the eyes of every child and villager, as the
puppets enact it; and its power has not gone out of it after three
centuries. Dumb show apes the primal forces of nature, and is
inarticulate, as they are; until relief gives words. When words come,
there is no reason why they should not be in verse, for only in verse
can we render what is deepest in humanity of the utmost beauty. Nothing
but beauty should exist on the stage. Visible beauty comes with the
ballet, an abstract thing; gesture adds pantomime, with which drama
begins; and then words bring in the speech by which life tries to tell
its secret. Because poetry, speaking its natural language of verse, can
let out more of that secret than prose, the great drama of the past has
been mainly drama in verse. The modern desire to escape from form, and
to get at a raw thing which shall seem like what we know of the outside
of nature, has led our latest dramatists to use prose in preference to
verse, which indeed is more within their limits. It is Ibsen who has
seemed to do most to justify the use of prose, for he carries his
psychology far with it. Yet it remains prose, a meaner method, a
limiting restraint, and his drama a thing less fundamental than the
drama of the poets. Only one modern writer has brought something which
is almost the equivalent of poetry out of prose speech: Tolstoi, in "The
Powers of Darkness." The play is horrible and uncouth, but it is
illuminated by a great inner light. There is not a beautiful word in it,
but it is filled with beauty. And that is because Tolstoi has the vision
which may be equally that of the poet and of the prophet. It is often
said that the age of poetry is over, and that the great forms of the

1 2 3 4 5 6 8 10 11 12 13

Online LibraryArthur SymonsPlays, Acting and Music A Book Of Theory → online text (page 8 of 13)