Tommaso Salvini.

Leaves from the autobiography of Tommaso Salvini online

. (page 11 of 12)
Online LibraryTommaso SalviniLeaves from the autobiography of Tommaso Salvini → online text (page 11 of 12)
Font size
QR-code for this ebook

Havre, and went on to Paris, where I took a
good week of rest relative rest, that is, for
in that city it is not easy to do nothing. I
did not fail to frequent the Comedie Frangaise
to hear some of those excellent society come-
dies which are played there with so much
taste, delicacy, and truth; and after having
myself recited such a vast quantity of verse
during seven months, that pure and beautiful
prose appeared to me a most savory change,
seasoned as it was with the most delicate
sauces and spices by the most expert of


cooks. When I reached Florence my first
thought was to retire at once to my country
house, to enjoy that calm which one cannot
find except at home and in the bosom of his
family. However, offers of new theatrical en-
terprises came to disturb my repose, and I
was constrained to accept a proposition that
I should go to Egypt for the months of
December, 1881, and January, 1882. I
formed, for these two months only, an Italian
company, and on December 3 I opened in
Alexandria. Theatrical methods there are
regulated upon the Italian principles, and it
is necessary to change the play every night ;
so besides my accustomed tragedies I gave
dramas and comedies, as, for example, "Le
Lapidaire," by Alexandre Dumas; "Fasma,"
by Dall' Ongaro; "La Calomnie," by Scribe;
and "La Suonatrice d'Arpa," by Chiossone.

I need not say how much pleasure the
people of Alexandria took in these plays.
The Italian colony overwhelmed me with
generous demonstrations, and the Boat Club
invited me to name after myself a new ac-
quisition of their navy not, it is true, a
Duilio. After playing fourteen times in
Alexandria, we went to Cairo, and I lost no


time in visiting those tremendous monuments
the Pyramids, glorious and imposing relics of
a greatness the idea of which we cannot now
even conceive.


AT the end of January I went back to
Italy, and was invited to go to Russia. I got
together fresh actors and actresses, and on
February 24, 1882, I presented myself on the
stage of the Maria Theater in St. Petersburg.
I thus passed quickly from a land of suffocat-
ing heat to one of bitter cold, but changes of
temperature have never affected me much.
I confess that when I first entered that em-
pire I had a vague apprehension, the cause
of which I did not fully explain to myself.
I had been invited by the Direction of the
Imperial Theaters, I came in the quality of
a foreign artist, and no harm could possi-
bly come to me ; nevertheless, after the vex-
ations inflicted by the customs officers at the
Russian frontier on the members of my com-
pany, an indescribable disgust developed in
my mind. My imagination is naturally fer-


vid, and in my fancy I saw the poor exiles in
Siberia, the knout administered in the public
streets to disrespectful subjects, the tortures
of the prisons, the summary confiscations of
the property of the suspected, the arrogance
of the soldiery, the extreme rigor of the laws,
the servile obsequiousness obligatory toward
the Czar, the despotism of the great, and the
extreme degradation of the humble ; and all
this seemed to me so dark as in fact to be
wholly black. The Nihilists had only a little
before laid their inexorable hand on their
prey, and all were still palpitating with the
tragic end of the Emperor Alexander II.
You can imagine how the Government stood
to its arms, and how the people constantly
trembled with dread. The theater was a per-
mitted and innocent distraction, and there,
freed from fear, and laying aside the pertur-
bation of politics, the public worked off its ex-
citement in clamorous enthusiasm, sometimes
to the point of disturbing the course of the
play and disconcerting the unlucky actor. I
have never had experience with a public so
systematically persistent in applause as the
Russian. After the artist has gone through
a very fatiguing part, and, panting, pros-


trated, in a bath of perspiration, hopes to
be able to retire to his room to rest, he is
obliged to stand for a full half-hour, exhausted
and perspiring as he is, to receive the inter-
minable ovations of the people ; and he must
go before the curtain fifteen, twenty, or even
thirty times. Not content with that, they
wait for you at the door, no matter how long
you take to dress, and stand in lines for you
to pass between, begging a look or a touch
of your hand ; and if you live so near by as
not to need a carriage, they accompany you
on foot to the door of your lodgings, with
open manifestations of sympathy. The Rus-
sian is courteous, hospitable, liberal to the
actor; but, like all those whose enthusiasm
exceeds due bounds, he forgets easily.

There have been but very few native artists
of celebrity. On the other hand, the Imperial
companies, which play only in St. Petersburg
and Moscow, are meritorious, and distin-
guished for the smoothness of their represen-
tations. In the secondary cities the artistic
contingent is of wretched quality, and may
be compared with the lowest ranks of our
own the so-called guitti; but the Rus-
sian public, particularly in the provinces, is


amiable, tolerant, and ready, for the sake of
amusement of any kind, to accept an alloy for
the pure metal. I made twenty appearances
at St. Petersburg in thirty-eight days, and
then went to Moscow, where I gave eleven
more performances. At Moscow the public
seemed to be much calmer, and, moreover,
our houses were much better. In both cities
splendid gifts were made me, which I pre-
serve as pleasant remembrances of an enjoy-
able experience. By the end of April, 1882,
I was again resting in Florence.


AFTER having given due attention to the
interests of my family, and fulfilled my social
obligations, I employed my time in polishing
my study of Shakspere's King Lear, and
overcoming some difficulties which that
character presented to me, with the in-
tention of bringing it out in the United
States, whither I had arranged to go in the
beginning of October. My work on that
day preoccupied me greatly, and although I
had brought it out in a preliminary appear-


ance at the Teatro Salvini, and it had been
well received by public and press, I did not
feel entirely satisfied with myself, and I pro-
posed to combat my difficulties deliberately
and seriously. I wished to find the way to
make some scenes more effective, while main-
taining the character in its proper relations.
It was necessary to devise means for produc-
ing effects with auxiliaries different from
those to which I had been accustomed, to
move and interest the audience by creating
new combinations and contrasts, and by con-
juring up a type of sentiment in accord with
the character and the age of that grandiose
personage. I do not know whether I was suc-
cessful, but the greeting of the public gave
me assurance that I made at least some ap-
proach to my object. I was thus provided
with a new play for my third venture in the
United States.

I played 109 times in this season as against
95 the time before ; moreover, the last six-
teen representations of the " Morte Civile "
were most lucrative, since I gave them in
company with the famous actress Clara
Morris. It is right that I should pay a
merited tribute to this excellent actress; for


one could not wish for a better interpreter
of the part of Rosalia in the drama I have
named. This season was also more brilliant
than the one before it, because the rumor had
spread that I would not come again to North
America a baseless and absurd rumor, since
the financial results were rather such as to
encourage me to cross the ocean again, as in
fact they did. The public was, however, so
fully persuaded of the sincerity of my alleged
resolution, that several gentlemen associated
themselves to offer me a banquet at the
Hotel Brunswick, at which all classes of New
York society were represented. The distin-
guished German actor Barnay, who was then
in New York, came to the banquet after his
play, and made a speech full of kindly enco-
mium, which aroused sincere enthusiasm.

I again recrossed the ocean, not to rest, as
I might perhaps have been excused for doing,
after so many and continuous fatigues, but
to study the part of Coriolanus in proof of
my unwearied love of my art, which I have
always looked upon as my second mother.
If in the vicissitudes of my life I had not had
this recourse, I do not know what would
have become of me. Art has always received


me, restored me, protected me ; and if it has
not been able to make me forget my mis-
fortunes altogether, it has mitigated them.
I owe to it my moments of comfort, satisfac-
tion, and joy, and now that I am constrained
to abandon it, I do not weep, for I have
never been weak ; but my heart feels the
sting of bitterness.

While I was occupying myself with the
character of that impetuous but valorous war-
rior, it was proposed to me to go to Rome and
Trieste, and to play a few times in Florence.
My fellow-citizens never evinced more affec-
tion and admiration for me than upon this oc-
casion. At Rome my nine appearances were
greeted with hearty interest and enthusiasm.
At Florence the theater was never large
enough to receive those who wished to secure
entrance, and at Trieste I was overwhelmed
with ovations. The same company went
with me for a season at Covent Garden, Lon-
don. The time of the year was not propi-
tious. At the end of February there were
very thick fogs accompanying a humid and
cold atmosphere, and the heating arrange-
ments of the theater were so defective that
it seemed like playing in an ice-house. I


remember that on the night when I played
the " Gladiator," in the fourth act, when I
had to fight in the arena with nothing but
silken tights on my body, before I went on
my teeth chattered with cold. At the end
of that very fatiguing act the perspiration
rolled from me as in a Turkish bath, and
when I reached my dressing-room a heavy
chill came over me, from the effects of which
I suffered long. The audience sat in their
overcoats and furs, the men with their collars
turned up, and the women with their heads
wrapped in shawls and hoods. Our season
had opened with excellent promise, but what-
ever may have been the public's love for the
theater, many were constrained to stay away
in such weather for fear of illness. I made
urgent complaints to my impresario, but the
evil was irremediable. After twenty-one
nights of " Othello," "King Lear," " Mac-
beth," the " Gladiator," and " Hamlet," we
proceeded to Edinburgh, and the weather
having become milder, our business again
rose to its regular level. Our tour included
the cities of Glasgow, Manchester, Newcastle,
Birmingham, Brighton, and Dublin, and closed
with a farewell representation of " Othello "
in London.



IT being out of the question to remain in
London, the only city in which a summer
season is possible, I proposed to my company
that they should continue at my disposition
at half salary from the end of May until
November i of that year (1884), proposing
again to go on the road at the latter date.
They agreed; and on November 4 we began
a series of nine representations at Naples,
whence we went to Messina, Palermo, and
Catania, and thus I ended the year, resolved
to confine myself for the immediate future to
the study of the banished and vindictive hero
Coriolanus. I felt that I could divine that
character, which resembled my own in some
ways not, certainly, in his warlike exploits,
but in his susceptibility, in his spurning of
the arrogance and insolent pretensions of the
ignorant masses, and, above all, in his filial
submissiveness and affection. Unfortunately,
I was not able to submit the results of this
study to the judgment of the Italian public,
as I have done with all my others, since it
demands too costly a stage setting, and it was


impossible to secure in the great number of as-
sistants that artistic discipline without which
the grandiose easily merges in the ridiculous.
I regretted this much, as my compatriots
would have given me an unbiased and intel-
lectual judgment of the work; but for the rea-
sons I have stated I reconciled myself to giv-
ing it for the first time at the Metropolitan
Opera House in New York, where, indeed,
nothing was lacking for an admirable setting
of the tragedy. This, as my reader will not
need to be told, was the fourth time that I
went before the American public, on three of
which times I was supported by an English-
speaking company.

The close of my artistic career approaches,
and with it the end of the anecdotes with
which it has been diversified. The chief
object of these memoirs is to make it known
to any one whom it may aid how a young
man, without inherited resources, and con-
strained to look out for himself from very
early years, can, by upright conduct, firm res-
olution, and assiduous effort, acquire in time
some renown, and the means for enjoying the
comforts of life in his old age without be-
ing dependent on anybody. Those who meet


with misfortune owing to too little applica-
tion to study, or to pretensions out of pro-
portion to their deserts, deserve indulgence
indeed, but not compassion. If my example
can be of utility to those who are born with
artistic instincts, I shall have the reward for
which I hoped in undertaking this sketch of
my life. Moralizing is now out of fashion,
but an example still receives attention, and
may be of service. Art is pure, loyal, honor-
able, uncontaminated. Through these virtues
it exacts, commands, imposes morality upon
whomsoever places himself under its aegis,
and it rejects, condemns, and punishes him
who fails to respect it. It is for this reason
that great artists, with rare exceptions, are
moral and honorable.


BEFORE telling of my fourth visit to North
America, I must narrate a rather strange ex-
perience which I had in the spring of 1885.
A lady (I say lady to distinguish the sex)
made me an offer to play in Little Russia
with native actors. My knowledge of all


foreign languages is extremely limited, but
of Russian I do not know a single word. I
informed my would-be impresario of this dif-
ficulty, and she diminished my hesitation by
writing me that Italian was more or less
familiar to all in those regions, and particu-
larly at Kharkov, where there is a university,
and that the actors would do their best to
cooperate with me; and she added that she
would provide two prompters speaking the
two languages. Persistence sometimes over-
comes even avarice, and I allowed myself to be
seduced by her pressing arguments. I went
to Kharkov, where the company was as-
sembled, and I was scandalized to behold a
theater entirely of wood, old, ruinous, and
littered with the dirt of a century, which was
enough to make me shiver. The actors,
except the leading lady, who could recognize
French by sight, did not understand a word
outside of their own tongue; there were
indeed two prompters, but the Russian knew
no Italian, and the Italian no Russian. At the
rehearsals the two prompters made a conven-
tional sign to each other to call the attention
of the one upon whom it was incumbent to
speak. The actors, who were Russian pro-


vincials, seemed not to be in the habit of
committing their parts to memory, for even
at the last rehearsal which I made with them,
they were not sure of their lines. The un-
happy prompter had to repeat a phrase two
and three times to get the actor to take it,
and you can imagine what smoothness this
system produced in the representation. I am
naturally patient, and I sought to inculcate
into this band of mountebanks the advantages
of more study, more exactness, more atten-
tion, and I sought to furnish them with an
example by never giving the Italian prompter
occasion to speak; but it profited nothing.
The public representation began, and the
audience, accustomed to that system of acting,
was not at all disturbed by it, but seemed to
look upon it as a surprising phenomenon that,
while the murmur of the prompter formed a
constant accompaniment to the words of the
other actors, when I spoke the murmur ceased.
It seemed, too, that little attention was given
to exactness in costume, for I noticed that
Brabantio in " Othello" wore short breeches
and shoes with buckles, like a priest. In
the "Gladiator," instead of tunic and toga,
the lover came on the stage in trunk-hose


and short Spanish cloak of the time of Philip
II. You can picture to yourself what the
scenery, furniture, and accessories must have
been. But the people did not complain, and
did not even criticize. In their eyes every-
thing was admirable, and they gave vent to
the most exaggerated enthusiasm. During
the rehearsals the prompters occupied stools,
one on each side of the stage, but during the
public performances both crowded into the
little prompter's box, which was covered with
a hood of pasteboard. On the first night I
was so much preoccupied that I thought of
nothing that did not concern the course of the
play itself, but on the second I noticed those
two unfortunates wedged in together, simply
melting with perspiration, each with one arm
out of the box holding the book of the play,
and nudging each other at intervals to indi-
cate whose turn it was to prompt; and, think-
ing of the Siamese twins, such an impulse to
laugh came upon me that with difficulty I
avoided making a scandal.

The University of Kharkov is large and of
much importance, and, as was natural, the
audiences were made up in large part of stu-
dents. Every one knows the characteristics of


that picked class of society, marked by energy,
enthusiasm, goodness of heart, and generous
tendencies, compounded with thoughtless-
ness and disorder. Especially in Russia,
where the students are held in check by
a rigorous Government, which suppresses
every liberal aspiration, whenever an oppor-
tunity offers to give rein to excitement, the
reaction follows, and unbridled demonstra-
tions break out. I refer to this because one
night I had experience of the consequences
of this condition. I do not remember what
the play was, but when I came out of the
theater I found a real mob waiting for me,
and with deafening shouts they lifted me in
the air and carried me above their heads like
a balloon to my carriage, into which they
threw me as if I were a rubber ball. I may
remark that I weigh 250 pounds! As soon
as I felt myself freed from their clutches, I
shouted, " Whip up, driver ! " and the horses
broke into a trot; but the crowd ran be-
hind the carriage shouting and clamoring,
and from time to time I caught the words
" Un souvenir!" It was not easy for me
to satisfy them at that moment, but a happy
idea came to me. When I reached my hotel
I remembered that I had in my portfolio a


number of visiting-cards. I took them all and
threw them into the most fervent group of
manifesters, and while these were busy pick-
ing up the cards, I had time to get out of my
carriage and rush into the hotel, happy in my
deliverance. The Russians are most lavish
in their gifts, and I brought away many as
remembrances of those regions, which I have
not seen since. At Saratov and at Taganrog
there was no lack of demonstrations ; but as
there were no students, enthusiasm did not
become dangerous to life, as in Kharkov.
We were to have gone on to Kazan, but the
manager thought it good to pocket all the
receipts, and to omit to pay the actors, who
justly refused to keep on under these con-
ditions. I gave a performance for their bene-
fit, and took my departure, leaving that
management of little faith the richer by sev-
eral thousands of francs on my account also,
but very glad, nevertheless, to get away
from it.


FROM my journey to Russia I returned
to Florence, to await the time of going to
the United States, where the season opened,



as usual, in the month of October. My first
performances were in the new Metropolitan
Opera House. There I first produced " Cori-
olanus," and I was so happy as to meet with
a flattering reception. After the usual tour
through the chief cities, in February, 1886,
we went to California. The weather was un-
usually severe. Along the line beyond Den-
ver was erected an immense penthouse of
wood, many miles long, to carry over the
tracks the frequent avalanches from the
mountains above. To admire this Titanic
work I went out on the platform of my car
before we reached the entrance of the snow-
shed, and for more than half an hour I was
compelled to breathe the damp cloud of smoke
and steam, which was shut in by the shed
and could not escape. I say I was forced to
breathe it, because in the darkness and the
dazed feeling produced by the dense and
black atmosphere, and the undulation of the
swiftly running train, I was afraid to move for
fear of falling on the rails. When we shot
out into the light I was as drenched as if I
had been ducked in a well, and I believe it is
to this that I owe the complete loss of my
voice after our first two or three performances


in San Francisco, a thing which in my
whole career had never happened to me
before. It was a most provoking accident.
Everything promised us at the outset a splen-
did financial success, my artistic success
was won already, when the sudden closing
of the theater, the uncertainty of the people
whether I could go on again, and the con-
temporaneous appearance of several new at-
tractions, all united to divert the public from
us, and we passed a week of interrupted
profit and unlooked-for loss. I tried the
most heroic and disagreeable remedies, but
the disease would not be turned from its
course, and we had to wait until my vocal
organs could resume their sonority. While I
lay in bed trying to get well, out of spirits,
cross, and worried, not only for my own loss,
but for that of my manager, a telegraphic
despatch came from Florence to aggravate
my trouble and grieve me sorely. My bro-
ther Alessandro was dead. This sad news
pained and depressed me so greatly that
when I returned to the stage, not fully cured,
and afflicted by my sudden loss, the public
could not have formed a very favorable
opinion of my artistic merit. Certainly I was


not in condition to make the most of what I
may have had.


FROM California we returned to New
York, where I had an offer to play for three
weeks with the famous artist Edwin Booth,
to give three performances of ''Othello" a
week, with Booth as lago and me as Othello.
The cities selected were New York, Philadel-
phia, and Boston. As the managers had to
hire the theaters by the week, they proposed
that we should give "Hamlet" as a fourth
performance, with Booth as Hamlet and me
as the Ghost. I accepted with the greatest
pleasure, flattered to be associated with so
distinguished and sympathetic an artist. I
cannot find epithets to characterize those
twelve performances ! The word " extraor-
dinary" is not enough, nor is "splendid";
I will call them "unique," for I do not be-
lieve that any similar combination has ever
aroused such interest in North America. To
give some idea of it, I will say that the re-
ceipts for the twelve performances were
$43,500, an average of $3,625 a night. In


Italy such receipts would be something phe-
nomenal ; in America they were very satis-
factory. During this time I came to know
Booth, and I found in him every quality that
can characterize a gentleman. The affability
and modesty of his manners rendered him
justly loved and esteemed, not only by his
countrymen, but by all who had the fortune
to make his acquaintance. For the perform-
ances I have described, the best-known artists
who were then free were engaged ; and my
son Alessandro played Cassia in " Othello"
and Laertes in " Hamlet" with honor to him-
self, as he had also played with credit in more

1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 11

Online LibraryTommaso SalviniLeaves from the autobiography of Tommaso Salvini → online text (page 11 of 12)