Charles Lamb.

Charles Lamb's essays : as first published in the London magazine : 1820-1825 online

. (page 13 of 33)
Online LibraryCharles LambCharles Lamb's essays : as first published in the London magazine : 1820-1825 → online text (page 13 of 33)
Font size
QR-code for this ebook

or names of wrong. We bark like
foolish dogs at shadows. We dread

Vol. V.

* Vide No. XXVI. p. 174.
2 A


infection from the scenic representa-
tion of disorder ; and fear a painted
pustule. In our anxiety that our
morality should not take cold, we
wrap it up in a great blanket sur-
tout of precaution against the breeze
and sunshine.

I confess for myseVf that (with no
great delinquencies to answer for) I
am glad for a season to take an airing
beyond the diocese of the strict con-
Bcience,— not to live always in the
precincts of the law courts, — but now
and then^ for a dream- while or so, to
imagine a world with no meddling
restrictions — to get into recesses,
whither the hunter cannot follow
me —

Secret shades

Of woody Ida's inmost grove,

While yet there was no fear of Jove —
I come back to my cage and my
restraint the fresher and more healthy
for it. I wear my shackles more con-
tentedly for having respired the breath
of an imaginary freedom. I do not
know how it is with others, but I
feel the better always for the perusal
of oneofCongreve's — nay, why should
I. not add even of Wycherley's — co-
medies. I am the gayer at least for
it ; and I could never connect those
sports of a witty fancy in any shape
with any resiUt to be drawn from
them to imitation in real life. They
are a world of themselves almost as
much as fairy-land. Take one of
their characters, male or female
(with few exceptions they are alike),
and place it in a modern play, and
my virtuous indignation shall rise
against the profligate wretch as
warmly as the Catos of the pit could
desire ; because in a modern play I
am to judge of right and wrong, and
the standard of jMlice is the measure
of poetical justice. The atmosphere
will blight it. It cannot thrive here.
It is got into a moral world where it
has no business; from which it must
needs fall head-long; aadizzy and in-
capable of keeping its stand, as a
Swedenborgian bad spirit that has
wandered unawares within the sphere
of one of his good men ob angels.
But in its own world do we feel that
the creature is so very bad?

The Fainalls and the Mirabels,
the Dorimants, and Lady Touch-
woods, in their own sphere do not
offend my moral sense — or, in fact,
appeal to it at all. They seem engaged

The Old Actors. Z,^V^'^\

in their proper element. They break
through no laws, or conscientious re-
strahits. They know of none. They
have got out of Christendom into the
land — what shall I call it } — of cuck-
oldry — the Utopia of gallantry, where
pleasure is duty, and the manners
perfect freedom. It is altogether a
speculative scene of things, which
has no reference whatever to the
world that is. No good person can.
be justly offended as a spectator,
because no good person suffers on the
stage. Judged morally, every cha-
racter in these plays— the few excep-
tions only are mistakes — is alike es-
sentially vain and worthless. The
great art of Congreve is especially
shown in this, that he has entirely
excluded from his scenes, — some little
generosities in the part of Angelica
perhaps excepted, — not only any thing
like a faultless character, but any
pretensions to goodness or good feel-
ings whatsoever. Whether he did
this designedly, or instinctively, the
effect is as happy, as the design (if
design) was bold. I used to wonder
at the strange power which his Way
of the World in particular possesses
of interesting you all along in the
pursuits of characters, for whom you
absolutely care nothing — for you nei-
ther hate nor love his personages—and
I think it is owing to this very indif-
ference for any, that you endure the
whole. He has spread a privatioa
of moral light, I will call it, rather
than by the ugly name of palpable
darkness, over his creations ; and his
shadows flit before you without dis-
tinction or preference. Had he intro-
duced a good character, a single
gush of moral feeling, a revulsion of
the judgment to actual life and ac-
tual duties, the impertinent Goshen
would have only lighted to the dis-
covery of deformities, which now are
none, because we think them none.

Translated into real life, the cha-
racters of his, and his friend Wycher-
ley's dramas, are profligates and
strumpets, — the business of their brief
existence, the undivided pursuit of
lawless gallantry. No other spring-
of action, or possible motive of con-
duct, is recognised ; principles which
universally acted upon must reduce
this frame of things to a chaos. But
we do them wrong in so translating
them. No such effects are produced
in their world. When we are among


The Old Actors.


them, we are amongst a chaotic peo-
ple. We are not to judge them by
our usages. No reverend institutions
are insulted by their proceedings, —
for they have none among them.
No peace of families is violated, — for
no family ties exist among them. No
purity of the marriage bed is stahied,
— for none is supposed to haveabeing.
No deep affections are disquieted, —
no holy wedlock bands are snapped
asunder, — for affection's depth and
wedded faith are not of the growth of
that soil. There is neither right nor
wrong, — gratitude or its opposite, —
claim or duty, — paternity or sonship.
Of what consequence is it to virtue,
or how is she at all concerned about
it, whether Sir Simon, or Dappcrwit,
steal away Miss Martha ; or who is
the father of Lord Froth's, or Sir
Paul riiant's children?

The whole is a passing pageant,
where we should sit as uncon-
cerned at the issues, for life or death,
as at a battle of the frogs and mice.
But, like Don Quixote, we take part
against the puppets, and quite as
impertinently. We dare not con-
template an Atlantis, a scheme, out
of which our coxcombical moral
sense is for a little transitory ease
excluded. We have not the courage
to imagine a state of things for which
there is neitlier reward nor punish-
ment. We cling to the painful ne-
cessities of shame and blame. We
would indict our very dreams.

Amidst the mortifying circum-
stances attendant upon growing old,
it is somethhig to have seen the
School for Scandal in its glory. This
comedy grew out of Congreve and
Wycherley, but gathered some allays
of the sentimental comedy which fol-
lowed theirs. It is impossible that
it should be now acted, though it con-
tinues, at long interv^als, to be an-
nounced in the bills. Its hero, when
Palmer played it at least, was Joseph
Surface. When I remember the gay
boldness, the graceful solemn plau-
sibility, the measured step, the in-
sinuating voice — to express it in a
word— the downright acted villany of
the part, so different from the pres-
sure of conscious actual wickedness, —
the hypocritical assumption of hypo-
crisy, — which made Jack so deserv-
edly a favourite in that character, I
must needs conclude the present ge-

neration of play-goers more virtuous
than myself, or more dense. I freely
confess that he divided the palm with
me with his better brother ; that, in
fact, I liked him quite as well. Not
but there are passages, — like that, for
instance, where Joseph is made to re-
fuse a pittance to a poor relation, —
incongruities which SheiTdan was
forced upon by the attempt to join
the artificia-1' with- the sentimental
comedy, either of whrch- must destroy
the other — but \iv&t thfeSfe febstruci.
tions Jack's manner Abated- -hiW so
lightly, that a refusal from hini no moria
shocked you, than the easyeompliarifcie
of Charles gave you hi reaKty anfy
pleasure ; you got over the paltry-
question as quickly as you could, to
get back into the regions of pure
comedy, where no cold moral reigns.
The highly artificial manner of Pal-
mer in this character counteracted
every disagreeable impression which
you might have received from the
contrast, supposing them real, be-
tween the two brothers. You did not
believe in Joseph with the same faith
with which you believed in Charles.
The latter was a pleasant reality, the
former a no less pleasant poetical foil
to it. The comedy, I have said, is
incongmous ; a mixture of Congreve
with sentimental incompatibilities ;
the gaiety upon the whole is buoyant ;
but it required the consummate art
of Palmer to reconcile the discordant

A player with Jack's talents, if we
had one now, would not dare to do
the part in the same manner. He
would instinctively avoid every turn
which might tend to unrealize, and so
to make the character fascinating.
He must take his cue from his spec-
tators, who would expect a bad man
and a good man as rigidly opposed to
each other, as the death-beds of those
geniuses are contrasted in the prints,
which I am sorry to see have disap-
peared from the windows of my old
friend Carrington Bowles, of St. Paul's
Church-yard memory — ^an exhibi-
tion as venerable as tne adjacent
cathedral, and almost coeval) of the
bad and good man at the hour of
death ; where the ghastly apprehen-
sions of the former, — and truly the
grim phantom with his reality of a
toasting fork is not to be despised,—
so finely contrast with the meek
2 A2


complacent kissing of the rod, — tak-
ing it in like honey and butter, — with
which the latter submits to the scythe
of the gentle bleeder. Time, who
wdelds his lancet with the appre-
hensive linger of a popular young
ladies' surgeon. What flesh, like
loving grass, would not covet to
meet half-way the stroke of such
a delicate mower? — John Palmer
was twice an actor in this exquisite
part. He was playing to you all the
while that he was playing upon Sir
Peter and his lady. You had the
first intimation of a sentiment before
it was on his lips. His altered voice
was meant to you, and you were to
suppose that his fictitious co-flutter-
ers on the stage perceived nothing at
all of it. What was it to you if that
half-reality, the husband, was over-
reached by the puppetry — or the thin
thing (Lady Teazle's reputation) was
persuaded it was dying of a plethory ?
The fortunes of Othello and Desde-
mon a were not concerned in it. Poor
Jack has past from the stage — in
good time, that he did not live to this
our age of seriousness. The fidgety
pleasant old Teazle King too is gone
m good time. His manner would
carce have past current in our day.
e must love or hate — acquit or
'condemn — censure or pity — exert our
'detestable coxcombry of moral judg-
inent upon every thing. Joseph Sur-
face, to go down now, must be a
downright revolting villain — no com-
romise — his first appearance must
phock and give horror — his specious
plausibilities, which the pleasurable
faculties of our fathers welcomed
|vith such hearty greetings, knowing
that no harm (dramatic harm even)
could come, or was meant to come
of them, must inspire a cold and
illing aversion. Charles (the real
canting person of the scene— for the
hypocrisy of Joseph has its ulterior
legitimate ends, but his brother's
professions of a good heart centre in
down-right self-satisfactioiV) must be
Jbved, and Joseph hated. To balance
one disagreeable reality with another.
Sir Peter Teazle must be no longer
the comic idea of a fretful old ba-
.chelor bridegroom, whose teazings
.(while King acted it) were evidently
,as much played off* at you, as they
"i^were meant to concern any body on
^the stage, — he must be a real per-

son, capable in law of sustaining an
injury — a person towards whom du-
ties are to be acknowledged — the ge-
nuine crim-con antagonist of the vil-
lanous seducer, Joseph. To realize
him more, his sufferings under his
unfortunate match must have the
downright pungency of life — must
(or should) make you not mirthful
but uncomfortable, just as the same
predicament would move you in a
neighbour or old friend. The deli-
cious scenes which give the play its
name and zest, must affect you in
the same serious manner as if you
heard the reputation of a dear female
friend attacked in your real presence.
Crab tree, and Sir Benjamin — those
poor snakes that lived but in the
sunshine of your mirth — must be
ripened by this hot-bed process of
realization into asps or amphisbae-
nas ; and Mrs. Candour — O ! fright-
ful ! become a hooded serpent. Oh
who that remembers Parsons and
Dodd — the wasp and butterfly of the
School for Scandal — in those two cha-
racters ; and charming natural Miss
Pope, the perfect gentlewoman as
distinguished from the fine lady of
comedy, in this latter part — would
forego the true scenic delight — the
escape from life — the oblivion of con-
sequences — the holiday barring out
of the pedant Reflection — those Sa-
turnalia of two or three brief hours,
well won from the world — to sit in-
stead at one of our modern plays — to
have his coward conscience (that
forsooth must not be left for a mo-
ment) stimulated with perpetual ap-
peals — ^^didled rather, and blunted, as
a faculty without repose must be — ■
and his moral vanity pampered with
images of notional justice, notional
beneficence, lives saved without the
spectators' risk, and fortunes given
away that cost the author nothing ?

No piece was, perhaps, ever so com-
pletely cast in all its parts as this
manager s comedy. Miss Farren had
succeeded to Mrs. Abingdon in Lady
Teazle; and Smith, the original
Charles, had retired, when I first saw
it. The rest of the characters, with
very slight exceptions, remained. I
remember it was then the fashion to
cry down John Kemble, who took
the part of Charles after Smith; but,
I thought, very unjustly. Smith, I
fancy, was more airy, and took the


The Old Actors.

eye with a certain gaiety of person.
He brought with him no sombre re-
collections 0? tragedy. He had not
to expiate the fault of having pleased
before hand in lofty declamation. He
had no sins of Hamlet or of Richard
to atone for. His failure in these
parts was a passport to success in
one of so opposite a tendency. But
as far as I could judge, the Aveighty
sense of Kemble made up for more
personal incapacity than be had to
answer •lor. His harshest tones in
this pavt came steeped and dulcified
in good humour. He made his de-
fects a grace. His exact declama-
tory manner, as he managed it,, only
served to convey the points of his
dialogue with more precision. It
seemed to head the shafts to carry
them deeper. Noi: one of his spark-
Ihig sentences was lost. I remember
minutely how he delivered each in
succession, and cannot by any effort
imagine how any of them could be
altered for the better. No man could
deliver brilliant dialogue — the dia-
logue of Congreve or of Wycherley
— because none understood it — half
so well as John Kemble. His Va-
lenthie, in Love for Love, was, to my
recollection, faultless. He flagged
sometimes in the intervals of tragic
passion. He would slumber over
the level parts of an heroic charac-
ter. His Macbeth has been known
to nod. But he always seemed to
me to be particiUarly alive to point-
ed and witty dialogue. The relaxing
levities of tragedy have not been
touched by any since him — the play-
ful court-bred spirit in which he con-
descended to the players in Hamlet —
the sportive relief which he threw
into the darker shades of Richard —
disappeared with him. Tragedy is
become a uniform dead weight. They
have fastened lead to her buskins.
She never pulls them off for the ease
of a moment. To invert a common-
place from Niobe, she never forgets
herself to liquefaction. John had his
sluggish moods, his torpors — but
they were the halting stones and
resting places of his tragedy — politic
savings, and fetches of the breath —
husbandry of the lungs, where na-
ture pointed him to be an economist
— rather, I think, than errors of the
judgment. They were, at worst, less
painful than the eternal tormenting
unappeasable vigilance, the *^ lidlesi

dragon eyes," of present fashionable
tragedy. The story of his swallow-
ing opium pills to keep him lively
upon the first night of a ce:tain tra-
gedy, we may, presume to be a piece
of retaliatory pleasantry on the part
of the suffering author. But, in-
deed, John had the art of diffusing a
complacent equable dulness (which
you knew not where to quarrel with)
over a piece which he did not like,
beyond any of his contemporaries.
John Kemble had made up his mind
early, that all the good tragedies,
which could be written, had been
written ; and he resented any new
attempt. His shelves were full. The
old standards were scope enough for
his ambition. He ranged in them
absolute — and " fair in Otway, full
in Shakspeare shone." He succeed-
ed to the old lawfid thrones, and did
not care to adventure bottomry with
a Sir Edward Mortimer, or any ca-
sual speculator that offered. I re-
member, too acutely for my peace,
the deadly extinguisher which he put
upon my friend G.'s ^^* Antonio." G.,
satiate with visions of political jus-
tice (possibly not to be realized in
our time), or willing to let the scep-
tical worldlings see, that his antici-
pations of the future did not pre-
clude a warm sympathy for men as
they are and have been — wrote a tra-
gedy. He chose a story, affecting,
romantic, Spanish — the plot simple,
without being naked — the incidents
uncommon, without being overstrain-
ed. Antonio, who gives the name to
the piece, is a sensitive young Casti-
lian, who, in a fit of his country ho-
nour, immolates his sister

But 1 must not anticipate the ca-
tastrophe—the play, reader, is ex-
tant in choice English — and you will
employ a spare half crown not inju-
diciously in the quest of it.

The conception was bold, and the
denouement — the time and place in
which the hero of it existed, consi-
dered — not much out of keeping;
yet it must be confessed, that it re-
quired a delicacy of handling both
from the author and the performer,
so as not much to shock the preju-
dices of a modern English audience.
G., in my opinion, had done his part.
John, who was in familiar habits
with the philosopher, had undertaken
to play Antonio. Great expectations
were formed. A pliilosopher's first


The Old Actors.



play was a new aera. The night ar-
rived. I was favoured with a seat in
an advantageous box, between the
author and his friend INI — . G. sate
cheerful and confident. In his friend
M.'s looks, who had perused the ma-
nuscript, I read some terror. Anto-
nio in the person of John Philip
Kemble at length appeared, starch-
ed out in a ruff which no one could
dispute, and in most irreproachable
mustachios. John always dressed
most provokingly correct on these
occasions. The first act swept by,
solemn and silent. It went off, as
G. assured M., exactly as the opening
act of a piece — the protasis — should
do. The cue of the spectators was
to be mute. The characters were
but in their introduction. The pas-
sions and the incidents would be de-
veloped hereafter. Applause hitherto
would be impertinent. Silent atten-
tion was the effect all-desirable. Poor
M. acquiesced — but in his honest
friendly face I could discern a work-
ing which told how much more ac-
ceptable the plaudit of a single hand
(however misplaced) would have
been than all this reasoning. The
second act (as in duty bound) rose a
little in interest ; but still John kept
his forces under — in policy, as G.
would have it — and the audience
were most complacently attentive.
The protasis, in fact, was scarcely
unfolded. The interest would warm
in the next act, against which a spe-
cial incident was provided. M. wiped
his cheek, flushed with a friendly
perspiration — 'tis M's way of show-
ing his zeal — " from every pore of
him a perfume falls — " 1 honour it
above Alexander's. He had once or
twice during this act joined his palms
in a feeble endeavour to elicit a sound
— they emitted a solitary noise with-
out an echo — there was no deep to
answer to his deep. G. repeatedly
begged him to be quiet. The third
act at length brought on the scene
which was to warm the piece pro-
gressively to the final flaming forth of
the catastrophe. A philosophic calm
settled upon the clear brow of G. as
it approached. The lips of M. qui-
vered. A challenge was held forth
ppon the stage, and there was pro-
mise of a fight. The pit roused
themselves on this extraordinary oc-
casion, and, as their manner is, seem-
ed -disposed to make a ring, — when

suddenly Antonio, who was the chal-
lenged, turning the tables upon the
hot challenger Don Gusman (who by
the way should have had his sister)
baulks his humour, and the pit's rea-
sonable expectation at the same time,
with some speeches out of the new
philosophy against duelling. The
audience were here fairly caught —
their courage was up, and on the
alert — a few blows, ding dong, as
R s the dramatist afterwards ex-
pressed it to me, might have done
the business— when their most ex-
quisite moral sense was suddenly
called in to assist in the mortifying
negation of their own pleasure. They
could not applaud, for disappoint-
ment ; they would not condemn, for
morality's sake. The interest stood
stone still; and John's manner was
not at all calculated to unpetrify it.
It was Christmas time, and the at-
mosphere furnished some pretext for
asthmatic affections. One began to
cough — his neighbour sympathised
with him — till a cough became epi-
demical. But when, from being half-
artificial in the pit, the cough got
frightfully naturalised among the fic-
titious persons of the drama ; and
Antonio himself (albeit it was not set
down in the stage directions) seemed
more intent upon relieving his own
lungs than the distresses of the au-
thor and his friends, — then G. " first
knew fear;" and mildly turning to
M., inthnated that he had not been
aware that Mr. K. laboured under a
cold ; and that the performance might
possibly have been postponed with
advantage for some nights further —
still keeping the same serene counte-
nance, v»'hile M. sweat like a bull. It
would be invidious to pursue the fates
of this ill-starred evening. In vain
did the plot thicken in the scenes that
follow^ed, in vain the dialogue wax
more passionate and stirring, and the
progress of the sentiment point more
and more clearly to the ardvious de-
velopement which impended. In vain
the action was accelerated, while the
acting stood still. From the begin-
ning, John had taken his stand ; had
wound himself up to an even tenor of
stately declamation, from which no
exigence of dialogue or person could
make him swerve for an instant. To
dream of his rising with the scene
(the common trick of tragedians)
was preposterous ; for from the onset


he had planted himself, as upon a
terrace, on an eminence vastly above
the audience, and he kept that sub-
lime level to the end. He looked
from his throne of elevated sentiment
upon the under-world of spectators
with a most sovran and becoming-
contempt. There was excellent pa-
thos delivered out to them : an they
would receive it, so ; an they would
not receive it, so. There was no
■offence against decorum in all this ;
nothing to condemn, to damn. Not
an irreverent symptom of a sound
was to be heard. The procession of
verbiage stalked on through four and
iive acts, no one venturing to pre-
dict what would come of it, when to-
wards the winding up of the latter,
Antonio, with an irrelevancy thaft
seemed to stagger Elvira herself — for
she had been coolly arguing the point
of honour with him — suddenly whips
out a poniard, and stabs his sister to
the heart. The effect was, as if a
murder had been committed in cold
blood. The whole house rose up in
<;lamorous indignation demandnig jus-
tice. The feeling rose far above
"hisses. I believe at that instant, if


they could have got him, they would
have torn the unfortunate author to
pieces. Not that the act itself was
so exorbitant, or of a complexion
different from what they themselves
would have applauded upon another
occasion in a Brutus, or an Appius —
but for want of attending to Anto-
nio's words, which palpably led to
the expectation of no less dire an
event, instead of being seduced by
his manner, which seemed to promise
a sleep of a less alarming nature
than it was his cue to inflict upon
Elvira, they found themselves be-
trayed into an accompliceship of
murder, a perfect misprision of par-
ricide, while they dreamed of nothing
less. M., I believe, was the only

Online LibraryCharles LambCharles Lamb's essays : as first published in the London magazine : 1820-1825 → online text (page 13 of 33)