ON SOME OF THE OLD ACTORS
THE casual sight of an old Play Bill,
which I picked up the other day -- I know not by what chance it
was preserved so long -- tempts me to call to mind a few of the
Players, who make the principal figure in it. It presents the
cast of parts in the Twelfth Night, at the old Drury-lane Theatre
two-and-thirty years ago. There is something very touching in
these old remembrances. They make us think how we once used to
read a Play Bill -- not, as now peradventure, singling out a favorite
performer, and casting a negligent eye over the rest; but spelling
out every name, down to the very mutes and servants of the scene
when it was a matter of no small moment to us whether Whitfield,
or Packer, took the part of Fabian; when Benson, and Burton, and
Phillimore -- names of small account -- had an importance, beyond
what we can be content to attribute now to the time's best actors.-"
Orsino, by Mr. Barrymore. "What a full Shakspearian sound
it carries! how fresh to memory arise the image, and the manner,
of the gentle actor!
Those who have only
seen Mrs. Jordan within the last ten or fifteen years, can have
no adequate notion of her performance of such parts as Ophelia;
Helena, in All's Well that Ends Well; and Viola in this play.
Her voice had latterly acquired a coarseness, which suited well
enough with her Nells and Hoydens, but in those days it sank,
with her steady melting eye, into the heart. Her joyous parts
-- in which her memory now chiefly lives -- in her youth were
outdone by her plaintive ones. There is no giving an account how
she delivered the disguised story of her love for Orsino. It was
no set speech, that she had foreseen, so as to weave it into an
harmonious period, line necessarily following line, to make up
the music -- yet I have heard it so spoken, or rather read, not
without its grace and beauty -- but, when she had declared her
sister's history to be a "blank," and that she "never
told her love," there was a pause, as if the story had ended
-- and then the image of the "worm in the bud" came
up as a new suggestion -- and the heightened image of Patience
still followed after that, as by some growing (and not mechanical)
process, thought springing up after thought, I would almost say,
as they were watered by her tears. So in those fine lines -
Write loyal cantos of contemned love
Hollow your name to the reverberate hills -
there was no preparation made in the
foregoing image for that which was to follow. She used no rhetoric
in her passion or it was nature's own rhetoric, most legitimate
then, when it seemed altogether without rule or law.
Mrs. Powel (now Mrs.
Renard), then in the pride of her beauty, made an admirable Olivia.
She was particularly excellent in her unbending scenes in conversation
with the Clown. I have seen some Olivias -- and those very sensible
actresses too -- who in these interlocutions have seemed to set
their wits at the jester, and to vie conceits with him in downright
emulation. But she used him for her sport, like what he was, to
trifle a leisure sentence or two with, and then to be dismissed,
and she to be the Great Lady still. She touched the imperious
fantastic humour of the character with nicety. Her fine spacious
person filled the scene.
The part of Malvolio
has in my judgment been so often misunderstood, and the general
merits of the actor, who then played it, so unduly appreciated,
that I shall hope for pardon, if I am a little prolix upon these
Of all the actors who
flourished in my time -- a melancholy phrase if taken aright,
reader -- Bensley had most of the swell of soul, was greatest
in the delivery of heroic conceptions, the emotions consequent
upon the presentment of a great idea to the fancy. He had the
true poetical enthusiasm -- the rarest faculty among players.
None that I remember possessed even a portion of that fine madness
which he threw out in Hotspur's famous rant about glory, or the
transports of the Venetian incendiary at the vision of the fired
city. His voice had the dissonance, and at times the inspiriting
effect of the trumpet. His gait was uncouth and stiff, hut no
way embarrassed by affectation; and the thorough-bred gentleman
was uppermost in every movement. He seized the moment of passion
with the greatest truth; like a faithful clock, never striking
before the time; never anticipating or leading you to anticipate.
He was totally destitute of trick and artifice. He seemed come
upon the stage to do the poet's message simply, and he did it
with as genuine fidelity as the nuncios in Homer deliver the errands
of the gods. He let the passion or the sentiment do its own work
without prop or bolstering. He would have scorned to mountebank
it; and betrayed none of that cleverness which is the bane of
serious acting. For this reason, his Iago was the only endurable
one which I remember to have seen. No spectator from his action
could divine more of his artifice than Othello was supposed to
do. His confessions in soliloquy alone put you in possession of
the mystery. There were no by-intimations to make the audience
fancy their own discernment so much greater than that of the Moor-who
commonly stands like a great helpless mark set up for mine Ancient,
and a quantity of barren spectators, to shoot their bolts at.
The Iago of Bensley did not go to work so grossly. There was a
triumphant tone about the character, natural to a general consciousness
of power; but none of that petty vanity which chuckles and cannot
contain itself upon any little successful stroke of its knavery
-- as is common with your small villains, and green probationers
in mischief. It did not clap or crow before its time. It was not
a man setting his wits at a child, and winking all the while at
other children who are mightily pleased at being let into the
secret; but a consummate villain entrapping a noble nature into
toils, against which no discernment was available, where the manner
was as fathomless as the purpose seemed dark, and without motive.
The part of Malvolio, in the Twelfth Night, was performed by Bensley,
with a richness and a dignity, of which (to judge from some recent
castings of that character) the very tradition must be worn out
from the stage. No manager in those days would have dreamed of
giving it to Mr. Baddeley, or Mr. Parsons: when Bensley was occasionally
absent from the theatre, John Kemble thought it no derogation
to succeed to the part. Malvolio is not essentially ludicrous.
He becomes comic but by accident. He is cold, austere, repelling;
but dignified, consistent, and, for what appears, rather of an
over-stretched morality. Maria describes him as a sort of Puritan;
and he might have worn his gold chain with honour in one of our
old round-head families, in the service of a Lambert, or a lady
Fairfax. But his morality and his manners are misplaced in Illyria.
He is opposed to the proper levities of the piece, and falls in
the unequal contest. Still his pride, or his gravity, (call it
which you will) is inherent, and native to the man, not mock or
affected, which latter only are the fit objects to excite laughter.
His quality is at the best unlovely, but neither buffoon nor contemptible.
His bearing is lofty, a little above his station, but probably
not much above his deserts. We see no reason why he should not
have been brave, honourable, accomplished. His careless committal
of the ring to the ground (which he was commissioned to restore
to Cesario), bespeaks a generosity of birth and feeling. His dialect
on all occasions is that of a gentleman, and a man of education.
We must not confound him with the eternal old, low steward of
comedy. He is master of the household to a great Princess; a dignity
probably conferred upon him for other respects than age or length
of service. Olivia, at the first indication of his supposed madness,
declares that she "would not have him miscarry for half of
her dowry." Does this look as if the character was meant
to appear little or insignificant? Once, indeed, she accuses him
to his face -- of what ? -- of being "sick of self-love,"
-- but with a gentleness and considerateness which could not have
been, if she had not thought that this particular infirmity shaded
some virtues. His rebuke to the knight, and his sottish revellers,
is sensible and spirited; and when we take into consideration
the unprotected condition of his mistress, and the strict regard
with which her state of real or dissembled mourning would draw
the eyes of the world upon her house-affairs, Malvolio might feel
the honour of the family in some sort in his keeping; as it appears
not that Olivia had any more brothers, or kinsmen, to look to
it -- for Sir Toby had dropped all such nice respects at the buttery
hatch. That Malvolio was meant to be represented as possessing
estimable qualities, the expression of the Duke in his anxiety
to have him reconciled, almost infers. "Pursue him, and entreat
him to a peace." Even in his abused state of chains and darkness,
a sort of greatness seems never to desert him. He argues highly
and well with the supposed Sir Topas, and philosophises gallantly
upon his straw.* There must have been some shadow of worth about
the man; he must have been something more than a mere vapour --
a thing of straw, or Jack in office -- before Fabian and Maria
could have ventured sending him upon a courting-errand to Olivia.
There was some consonancy (as he would say) in the undertaking,
or the jest would have been too bold even for that house of misrule.
threw over the part an air of Spanish loftiness. He looked, spake,
and moved like an old Castilian. He was starch, spruce, opinionated,
but his superstructure of pride seemed bottomed upon a sense of
worth. There was something in it beyond the coxcomb. It was big
and swelling, but you could not be sure that it was hollow. You
might wish to see it taken down, but you felt that it was upon
an elevation. He was magnificent from the outset; but when the
decent sobrieties of the character began to give way, and the
poison of self-love, in his conceit of the countess's affection,
gradually to work, you would have thought that the hero of La
Mancha in person stood before you. How he went smiling to himself
with what ineffable carelessness would he twirl his gold chain!
what a dream it was! you
*Clown. What is the opinion of Pythagoras
concerning wild fowl?
Mal. That the soul of our grandam might haply inhabit a bird.
Clown. What thinkest thou of his opinion?
Mal. I think nobly of the soul, and no way approve of his opinion.
were infected with the illusion, and
did not wish that it should be removed! you had no room for laughter!
if an unseasonable reflection of morality obtruded itself it was
a deep sense of the pitiable infirmity of man's nature, that can
lay him open to such frenzies -- hut in truth you rather admired
than pitied the lunacy while it lasted -- you felt that an hour
of such mistake was worth an age with the eyes open. Who would
not wish to live but for a day in the conceit of such a lady's
love as Olivia? Why, the Duke would have given his principality
but for a quarter of a minute, sleeping or waking to have been
so deluded. The man seemed to tread upon air, to taste manna,
to walk with his head in the clouds, to mate Hyperion. O! shake
not the castles of his pride -- endure yet for a season bright
moments of confidence -- "stand still ye watches of the element,"
that Malvolio may be still in fancy fair Olivia's lord -- but
fate and retribution say no -- I hear the mischievous titter of
Maria -- the witty taunts of Sir Toby -- the still more insupportable
triumph of the foolish knight -- the counterfeit Sir Topas is
unmasked -- and "thus the whirligig of time," as the
true clown hath it, "brings in his revenges." I confess
that I never saw the catastrophe of this character, while Bensley
played it, without a kind of tragic interest. There was good foolery
too. Few now remember Dodd. What an Aguecheek the stage lost in
him! Lovegrove, who came nearest to the old actors, revived the
character some few seasons ago, and made it sufficiently grotesque;
but Dodd was it, as it came out of nature's hands. It might be
said to remain in puris naturalibus. In expressing slowness of
apprehension this actor surpassed all others. You could see the
first dawn of an idea stealing slowly over his countenance, climbing
up by little and little, with a painful process, till it cleared
up at last to the fulness of a twilight conception -- its highest
meridian. He seemed to keep back his intellect, as some have had
the power to retard their pulsation. The balloon takes less time
in filling than it took to cover the expansion of his broad moony
face over all its quarters with expression. A glimmer of understanding
would appear in a corner of his eye, an for lack of fuel go out
again. A part of his forehead would catch a little intelligence,
and be a long time in communicating it to the remainder
I am ill at dates, but I think it is now better
than five and twenty years ago that walking in the gardens of
Gray's Inn -- they were then far finer than they are now -- the
accursed Verulam Buildings had not encroached upon all the east
side of them, cutting out delicate green crankles, and shouldering
away one of two of the stately alcoves of the terrace -- the survivor
stands gaping and relationless as if it remembered its brother
-- they are still the best gardens of any of the Inns of Court,
my beloved Temple not forgotten have the gravest character, their
aspect being altogether reverend and law-breathing -- Bacon has
left the impress of his foot upon their gravel walks--taking my
afternoon solace on a summer day upon the aforesaid terrace, a
comely sad personage came towards me, whom, from his grave air
and deportment, I judged to he one of the old Benchers of the
Inn. He had a serious thoughtful forehead, and seemed to be in
meditations of mortality. As I have an instinctive awe of old
Benchers, I was passing him with that sort of subindicative token
of respect which one is apt to demonstrate towards a venerable
stranger, and which rather denotes an inclination to greet him,
than any positive motion of the body to that effect -- a species
of humility and will-worship which I observe, nine times out of
ten, rather puzzles than pleases the person it is offered to --
when the face turning full upon me strangely identified itself
with that of Dodd. Upon close inspection I was not mistaken. But
could this sad thoughtful countenance be the same vacant face
of folly which I had hailed so often under circumstances of gaiety;
which I had never seen without a smile, or recognised but as the
usher of mirth; that looked out so formally flat in Foppington,
so frothily pert in Tattle, so impotently busy in Backbite; so
blankly divested of all meaning, or resolutely expressive of none,
in Acres, in Fribble, and a thousand agreeable impertinences?
Was this the face -- still of thought and carefulness -- that
had so often divested itself at will of every trace of either
to give me diversion, to clear my cloudy face for two or three
hours at least of its furrows? Was this the face -- manly, sober,
intelligent, which I had so often despised, made mocks at, made
merry with? The remembrance of the freedoms which I had taken
with it came upon me with a reproach of insult. I could have asked
it pardon. I thought it looked upon me with a sense of injury.
There is something strange as well as sad in seeing actors --
your pleasant fellows particularly -- subjected to and suffering
the common lot -- their fortunes, their casualties, their deaths,
seem to belong to the scene, their actions to be amenable to poetic
justice only. We can hardly connect them with more awful responsibilities.
The death of this fine actor took place shortly after this meeting.
He had quitted the stage some months; and, as I learned afterwards,
had been in the habit of resorting daily to these gardens almost
to the day of his decease. In these serious walks probably he
was divesting himself of many scenic and some real vanities --
weaning himself from the frivolities of the lesser and the greater
theatre -- doing gentle penance for a life of no very reprehensible
fooleries, -- taking off by degrees the buffoon mask which he
might feel he had worn too long -- and rehearsing for a more solemn
cast of part. Dying he "put on the weeds of Dominic."
If few can remember
Dodd, many yet living will not easily forget he pleasant creature,
who in those days enacted the part of the clown to Dodd's Sir
Andrew. -- Richard, or rather Dicky Suett -- for so in his life-time
he delighted to be called, and time hath ratified the appellation
-- lieth buried on the north side of the cemetery of Holy Paul,
to whose service his nonage and tender years were dedicated. There
are who do yet remember him at that period -- his pipe clear and
harmonious. He would often speak of his chorister days, when he
was "cherub Dicky."
What clipped his wings,
or made it expedient that he should exchange the holy for the
profane state; whether he had lost his good voice (his best recommendation
to that office), like Sir John, "with hallooing and singing
of anthems;" or whether he was adjudged to lack something,
even in those early years, of the gravity indispensable to an
occupation which professeth to "commerce with the skies "
-- I could never rightly learn; but we find him, after the probation
of a twelvemonth or so, reverting to a secular condition, and
become one of us. I think he was not altogether of that timber,
out of which cathedral seats and sounding boards are hewed. But
if a glad heart -- kind and therefore glad -- be any part of sanctity,
then might the robe of Motley, with which he invested himself
with so much humility after his deprivation, and which he wore
so long with so much blameless satisfaction to himself and to
the public, be accepted for a surplice -- his white stole, and
albe. The first fruits of his secularization was an engagement
upon the boards of Old Drury, at which theatre he commenced, as
I have been told, with adopting the manner of Parsons in old men's
characters. At the period in which most of us knew him, he was
no more an imitator than he was in any true sense himself imitable.
He was the Robin Good-Fellow
of the stage. He came in to trouble all things with a welcome
perplexity, himself no whit troubled for the matter. He was known,
like Puck, by his note -- Ha! Ha! Ha ! -- sometimes deepening
to Ho! Ho! Ho! with an irresistible accession, derived perhaps
remotely from his ecclesiastical education, foreign to his prototype
of, -- O La! Thousands of
*Dodd was a man of reading, and
left at his death a choice collection of old English literature.
I should judge him to have been a man of wit. I know one instance
of an impromptu which no length of study could have bettered.
My merry friend, Jem White, had seen him one evening in Aguecheek,
and recognising Dodd the next day in Fleet Street, was irresistibly
impelled to take off his hat and salute him as the identical Knight
of the preceding evening with a "Save you, Sir Andrew."
Dodd, not at all disconcerted at this unusual address from a stranger,
with a courteous half.rebuking wave of the hand, put him off with
an "Away, Fool."
hearts yet respond to the chuckling
O La! of Dicky Suett, brought back to their remembrance by the
faithful transcript of his friend Mathews's mimicry. The "force
of nature could no further go." He drolled upon the stock
of these two syllables richer than the cuckoo.
Care, that troubles
all the world, was forgotten in his composition. Had he had but
two grains (nay, half a grain) of it, he could never have supported
himself upon those two spiders strings, which served him (in the
latter part of his unmixed existence) as legs. A doubt or a scruple
must have made him totter, a sigh have puffed him down; the weight
of a frown had staggered him, a wrinkle made him lose his balance.
But on he went, scrambling upon those airy stilts of his, with
Robin Good-Fellow, "thorough brake, thorough briar,"
reckless of a scratched face or a torn doublet.
him, when he framed his fools and jesters. They have all the true
Suett stamp, a loose and shambling gait, a slippery tongue, this
last the ready midwife to a without-pain-delivered jest; in words,
light as air, venting truths deep as the centre; with idlest rhymes
tagging conceit when busiest, singing with Lear in the tempest,
or Sir Toby at the buttery-hatch.
Jack Bannister and he
had the fortune to be more of personal favourites with the town
than any actors before or after. The difference, I take it, was
this : -- Jack was more beloved for his sweet, good-natured, moral
pretensions. Dicky was more liked for his sweet, good-natured,
no pretensions at all. Your whole conscience stirred with Bannister's
performance of Walter in the Children in the Wood -- but Dick
seemed like a thing, as Shakspeare says of love, too young to
know what conscience is. He put us into Vesta's days. Evil fled
before him -- not as from Jack, as from an antagonist, -- but
because it could not touch him, any more than a cannon-ball a
fly. He was delivered from the burthen of that death; and, when
Death came himself, not in metaphor, to fetch Dicky, it is recorded
of him by Robert Palmer, who kindly watched his exit, that he
received the last stroke, neither varying his accustomed tranquillity,
nor tune, with the simple exclamation, worthy to have been recorded
in his epitaph -- O La! O La! Bobby!
The elder Palmer (of
stage-treading celebrity) commonly played Sir Toby in those days;
but there is a solidity of wit in the jests of that half-Falstaff
which he did not quite fill out. He was as much too showy as Moody
(who sometimes took the part) was dry and sottish. In sock or
buskin there was an air of swaggering gentility about Jack Palmer.
He was a gentleman with a slight infusion of the footman. His
brother Bob (of recenter memory) who was his shadow in every thing
while he lived, and dwindled into less than a shadow afterwards
-- was a gentleman with a little stronger infusion of the latter
ingredient; that was all. It is amazing how a little off the more
or less makes a difference in these things. When you saw Bobby
in the Duke's Servant,* you said, what a pity such a pretty fellow
was only a servant. When you saw Jack figuring in Captain Absolute,
you thought you could trace his promotion to some lad of quality
who fancied the handsome fellow in his top-knot, and had bought
him a commission. Therefore Jack in Dick Amlet was insuperable.
[Footnote] * High Life Below Stairs.
Jack had two voices,
-- both plausible, hypocritical, and insinuating; but his secondary
or supplemental voice still more decisively histrionic than his
common one. It was reserved for the spectator; and the dramatis
personae were supposed to know nothing at all about it. The lies
of young Wilding, and the sentiments in Joseph Surface, were thus
marked out in a sort of italics to the audience. This secret correspondence
with the company before the curtain (which is the bane and death
of tragedy) has an extremely happy effect in some kinds of comedy,
in the more highly artificial comedy of Congreve or of Sheridan
especially, where the absolute sense of reality (so indispensable
to scenes of interest) is not required, or would rather interfere
to diminish your pleasure. The fact is, you do not believe in
such characters as Surface -- the villain of artificial comedy
-- even while you read or see them. If you did, they would shock
and not divert you. When Ben, in Love for Love, returns from sea,
the following exquisite dialogue occurs at his first meeting with
his father -
Thou hast been many a weary league, Ben, since I saw thee.
Ben. Ey, ey, been! Been far enough, an
that be all. -- Well, father, and how do all at home? how does
brother Dick, and brother Val?
Sir Sampson. Dick! body o' me, Dick has
been dead these two years. I writ you word when you were at Leghorn.
Ben. Mess, that's true; Marry, I had forgot.
Dick's dead, as you say -- Well, and how ? -- I have a many questions
to ask you -
Here is an instance
of insensibility which in real life would be revolting, or rather
in real life could not have co-existed with the warm-hearted temperament
of the character. But when you read it in the spirit with which
such playful selections and specious combinations rather than
strict metaphrases of nature should be taken, or when you saw
Bannister play it, it neither did, nor does wound the moral sense
at all. For what is Ben -- the pleasant sailor which Bannister
gives us -- but a piece of satire -- a creation of Congreve's
fancy -- a dreamy combination of all the accidents of a sailor's
character -- his contempt of money -- his credulity to women --
with that necessary estrangement from home which it is just within
the verge of credibility to suppose might produce such an hallucination
as is here described. We never think the worse of Ben for it,
or feel it as a stain upon his character. But when an actor comes,
and instead of the delightful phantom -- the creature dear to
half-belief -- which Bannister exhibited -- displays before our
eyes a downright concretion of a Wapping sailor -- a jolly warm-hearted
Jack Tar -- and nothing else -- when instead of investing it with
a delicious confusedness of the head, and a veering undirected
goodness of purpose -- he gives to it a downright daylight understanding,
and a full consciousness of its actions; thrusting forward the
sensibilities of the character with a pretence as if it stood
upon nothing else, and was to be judged by them alone -- we feel
the discord of the thing; the scene is disturbed; a real man has
got in among the dramatis personae, and puts them out. We want
the sailor turned out. We feel that his true place is not behind
the curtain but in the first or second gallery.