In the 1870’s acclaimed novelist and essayist Henry James wrote a piece for American periodical The Galaxy about London Theatre.
And he is is pretty scathing! – from purchasing a ticket, to the performance itself. And actors don’t get off lightly, with a very honest assessment of acting greats of the time including Sir Henry Irving, and Ellen Terry (John Gielgud was her great nephew).
But this entertaining piece sheds a little light on West End theatregoing at the end of the 19th Century. It appeared in the May 1877 issue of The Galaxy.
The London Theatres by Henry James
A PERSON taking up his residence in a foreign city is apt, I think, to become something of a playgoer. In the first place he is usually more or less isolated, and in the absence of complex social ties the theatres help him to pass his evenings. But more than this, they offer him a good deal of interesting evidence upon the manners and customs of the people among whom he has come to dwell. They testify to the civilization around him, and throw a great deal of light upon the ways of thinking, feeling, and behaving of the community. If this exotic spectator to whom I allude is a person of a really attentive observation, he may extract such evidence in very large quantities. It is furnished not by the stage alone, but by the theatre in a larger sense of the word: by the audience, the attendants, the arrangements, the very process of getting to the playhouse. The English stage of to-day, of which I more particularly speak, certainly holds the mirror as little as possible up to nature—to any nature, at least, usually recognized in the British islands. Nine-tenths of the plays performed upon it are French originals, subjected to the mysterious process of “adaptation”; marred as French pieces and certainly not mended as English; transplanted from the Gothic soil into a chill and neutral region where they bloom hardly longer than a handful of cut flowers stuck into moist sand. They cease to have any representative value as regards French manners, and they acquire none as regards English; they belong to an order of things which has not even the merit of being “conventional,” but in which barbarism, chaos, and crudity hold undisputed sway. The English drama of the last century deserved the praise, in default of any higher, of being “conventional”; for there was at least a certain method in its madness; it had its own ideal, its own foolish logic and consistency. But he would be wise who should be able to indicate the ideal, artistic and intellectual, of the English drama of today. It is violently and hopelessly irresponsible. When one says “English drama” one uses the term for convenience’ sake; one means simply the plays that are acted at the London theatres and transferred thence to the American. They are neither English nor a drama; they have not that minimum of ponderable identity at which appreciation finds a starting-point. As the metaphysicians say, they are simply not cognizable. And yet in spite of all this, the writer of these lines has ventured to believe that the London theatres are highly characteristic of English civilization. The plays testify indirectly if not directly to the national manners, and the whole system on which play-going is conducted completes the impression which the pieces make upon the observer. One can imagine, indeed, nothing more characteristic than such a fact as that a theatre-going people is hopelessly destitute of a drama.
I ventured a month ago to record in these pages a few reminiscences of the Comédie Française; and I have a sort of feeling that my readers may, in the light of my present undertaking, feel prompted to accuse me of a certain levity. There is a want of delicacy, they may say, in speaking of the first theatre in the world one day and of the London stage the next. You must choose, and if you talk about one, you forfeit the right to talk about the other. But I think there is something to be done in the way of talking about both, and at all events there are few things it is not fair to talk about if one does so with a serious desire to understand. Removing lately from Paris to the British metropolis, I received a great many impressions—a sort of unbroken chain, in which the reflections passing through my fancy as I tried the different orchestra-stalls were the concluding link. The impressions of which I speak were impressions of outside things—the things with which in a great city one comes first into contact. I supposed that I had gathered them once for all in earlier years; but I found that the edge of one’s observation, unlike that of other trenchant instruments, grows again if one leaves it alone. Remain a long time in any country, and you come to accept the manners and customs of that country as the standard of civilization—the normal type. Other manners and customs, even if they spring from the same soil from which you yourself have sprung, acquire by contrast an unreasonable, a violent, but often a picturesque relief. To what one may call a continentalized vision the aspect of English life seems strange and entertaining; while an Anglicized perception finds, beyond the narrow channel, even greater matter for wonderment.
The writer of these lines brought with him, at the outset of a dusky London winter, a continentalized, and perhaps more particularly a Parisianized, fancy. It was wonderful how many things that I should have supposed familiar and commonplace seemed strikingly salient and typical, and how I found, if not sermons in stones and good in everything, at least examples in porter-pots and reflections in coal-scuttles. In writing the other day of the Théatre Français, I spoke of M. Francisque Sarcey, the esteemed dramatic critic; of the serious and deliberate way in which he goes to work—of the distance from which he makes his approaches. During the first weeks I was in London, especially when I had been to the play the night before, I kept saying to myself that M. Francisque Sarcey ought to come over and “do” the English theatres. There are of course excellent reasons why he should not. In the first place, it is safe to assume that he comprehends not a word of English; and in the second, it is obligatory to believe that he would, in the vulgar phrase, not be able to “stand” it. He would probably pronounce the English stage hopelessly and unmitigably bad and beneath criticism, and hasten back to Delaunay and Sarah Bernhardt. But if we could suppose him to fight it out, and give the case a hearing, what a solid dissertation we should have upon it afterward at the bottom of the “Temps” newspaper! How he would go into the causes of the badness, and trace its connections with English civilization! How earnestly he would expatiate and how minutely he would explain; how fervently he would point the moral and entreat his fellow countrymen not to be as the English are lest they should lapse into histrionic barbarism!
I felt, to myself, during these days, in a small way, very much like a Francisque Sarcey; I don’t mean as to the gloominess of my conclusions, but as to the diffusiveness of my method. A spectator with his senses attuned to all those easy Parisian harmonies feels himself, in London, to be in a place in which the drama cannot, in the nature of things, have a vigorous life. Before he has put his feet into a theatre he is willing to bet his little all that the stage will turn out to be weak. If he is challenged for the reasons of this precipitate skepticism, he will perhaps be at loss to give them; he will only say, “Oh, I don’t know, cela se seut. Everything I see is a reason. I don’t look out of the window, I don’t ring the bell for some coals, I don’t go into an eating-house to dine, without seeing a reason.” And then he will begin to talk about the duskiness and oppressiveness of London; about the ugliness of everything that one sees; about beauty and grace being never attempted, or attempted here and there only to be wofully missed; about the visible, palpable Protestantism; about the want of expression in people’s faces; about the plainness and dreariness of everything that is public and the inaccessibility of everything that is private; about the lower classes being too miserable to know the theatre, and the upper classes too “respectable” to understand it.
And here, if the audacious person we are conceiving is very far gone, he will probably begin to talk about English “hypocrisy” and prudery, and to say that these are the great reason of the feebleness of the stage. When he approaches the question of English “hypocrisy” you may know that he is hopelessly Gallicized, or Romanized, or Germanized, or something of that sort; and indeed his state of mind at this point strikes me myself with a certain awe. I don’t venture to follow him, and I discreetly give up the attempt. But up to this point I can see what he may have meant, in the midst of his flippancy, and I remember how to my own imagination at first everything seemed to hang together, and theatres to be what they were because somehow the streets, and shops, and hotels, and eating-houses were what they were. I remember something I said to myself after once witnessing a little drama of real life at a restaurant. The restaurant in question is in Piccadilly, and I am trying to think under which of the categories of our Gallicized observer it would come. The remarkable façade, covered with gilded mosaics and lamps, is certainly a concession to the idea of beauty; though whether it is a successful one is another question. Within it has, besides various other resources, one of those peculiar refectories which are known in England as grill-rooms, and which possess the picturesque feature of a colossal gridiron, astride of a corresponding fire, on which your chops and steaks are toasted before your eyes. A grill-room is a bad place to dine, but it is a convenient place to lunch. It always contains a number of tables, which accommodate not less than half a dozen persons; small tables of the proper dimensions for a tête-â-tête being, for inscrutable reasons, wholly absent from English eating-houses.
The grill-room in question is decorated in that style of which the animus is to be agreeable to Mr. William Morris, though I suspect that in the present application of his charming principles he would find a good deal of base alloy. At any rate, the apartment contains a number of large medallions in blue pottery, pieced together, representing the heathen gods and goddesses, whose names are inscribed in crooked letters in an unexpected part of the picture. This is quite the thing that one would expect to find in one of those cloisters or pleasances, or “pleached gardens,” in which Mr. Morris’s Gothic heroines drag their embroidered petticoats up and down, as slow-pacedly as their poet sings. Only, in these pretty, dilettantish cloisters there would probably be no large tickets suspended alongside of the pictorial pottery, inscribed with the monstrous words, Tripe! Suppers! This is one of those queer eruptions of plainness and homeliness which one encounters at every turn in the midst of the massive luxury and general expensiveness of England—like the big, staring announcement, Beds, in the coffee-house windows, or Well-aired Beds painted on the side walls of taverns; or like a list of labels which I noticed the other day on a series of japanned boxes in a pastry-cook’s shop. They seemed to me so characteristic that I made a note of them.
The reason of my being in the pastry-cook’s shop was my having contracted in Paris the harmless habit of resorting to one of these establishments at the luncheon hour, for the purpose of consuming a little gateau. Resuming this innocent practice on English soil, I found it attended with serious difficulties—the chief of which was that there were no gateaux to consume. An appreciative memory of those brightly mirrored little shops on the Paris boulevards, in which tender little tarts, in bewildering variety, are dispensed to you by a neat-waisted patissière, cast a dusky shadow over the big buns and “digestive biscuits” which adorn the counter of an English bakery. But it takes a good while to eat a bun, and while you stand there solemnly disintegrating your own, you may look about you in search of the characteristic. In Paris the pastry-cooks’ shops are, as the French say, coquettish—as coquettish as the elegant simplicity of plate glass, discreet gilding, polished brass, and a demonstrative dame de comptoir can make them. In London they are not coquettish—witness the grim nomenclature alluded to above; it was distributed over a series of green tin cases, ranged behind the counters: Tops and bottoms—royal digestives—arrow-root—oat-cake—rice biscuit—ratafias.
I took my seat in the grill-room at a table at which three gentlemen were sitting: two of them sleek British merchants, of a familiar and highly respectable type, the other a merchant too, presumably, but neither sleek nor British. He was evidently an American. He was a good-looking fellow and a man of business, but I inferred from the tentative, experimental, and even mistrustful manner with which he addressed himself to the operation of lunching, and observed the idiosyncrasies of the grill-room, that he found himself for the first time in England. His experiment, however, if experiment it was, was highly successful; he made a copious lunch and departed. He had not had time to reach the door when I perceived one of the British merchants of whom I just now spoke beginning to knock the table violently with his knife-handle, and to clamor, “Waiter, waiter! Manager, manager!” The manager and the waiter hastened to respond, while I endeavored to guess the motive of his agitation, without connecting it with our late companion. As I then saw him pointing eagerly to the latter, however, who was just getting out of the door, I was seized with a mortifying apprehension that my innocent compatriot was a dissembler and a pickpocket, and that the English gentleman, next whom he had been sitting, had missed his watch or his purse. “He has taken one of these—one of these!” said the British merchant. “I saw him put it into his pocket.” And he held up a bill of fare of the establishment, a printed card, bearing on its back a colored lithograph of the emblazoned façade that I have mentioned. I was reassured; the poor American had pocketed this light document with the innocent design of illustrating his day’s adventures to a sympathetic wife awaiting his return in some musty London lodging. But the manager and the waiter seemed to think the case grave, and their informant continued to impress upon them that he had caught the retiring visitor in the very act. They were at a loss to decide upon a course of action; they thought the case was bad, but they questioned whether it was bad enough to warrant them in pursuing the criminal. While this weighty point was being discussed the criminal escaped, little suspecting, I imagine, the perturbation he had caused. But the British merchant continued to argue, speaking in the name of outraged morality. “You know he oughtn’t to have done that—it was very wrong in him to do it. That mustn’t be done, you know, and you know I ought to tell you—it was my duty to tell you—I couldn’t but tell you. He oughtn’t to have done it, you know. I thought I must tell you.” It is not easy to point out definitely the connection between this little episode, for the triviality of which I apologize, and the present condition of the English stage; but—it may have been whimsical—I thought I perceived a connection. These people are too highly moral to be histrionic, I said; they have too stern a sense of duty.
The first step in the rather arduous enterprise of going to the theatre in London is, I think, another reminder that the arts of the stage are not really in the temperament and the manners of the people. This first step is to go to an agency in an expensive street out of Piccadilly, and there purchase a stall for the sum of eleven shillings. You receive your ticket from the hands of a smooth, sleek, bottle-nosed clerk, who seems for all the world as if he had stepped straight out of a volume of Dickens or of Thackeray. There is almost always an old lady taking seats for the play, with a heavy carriage in waiting at the door; the number of old ladies whom one has to squeeze past in the stalls is in fact very striking. “Is it good?” asks the old lady of the gentleman I have described, with a very sweet voice and a perfectly expressionless face. (She means the play, not the seat.) “It is thought very good, my lady,” says the clerk, as if he were uttering a “response” at church; and my lady being served, I approach with my humbler petition. The dearness of places at the London theatres is a sufficient indication that play-going is not a popular amusement; three dollars is a high price to pay for the privilege of witnessing any London performance that I have seen. (One goes into the stalls of the Théâtre Français for eight francs.) In the house itself everything seems to contribute to the impression which I have tried to indicate—the impression that the theatre in England is a social luxury and not an artistic necessity. The white-cravatted young man who inducts you into your stall, and having put you into possession of a programme, extracts from you, masterly but effectually, the sixpence which, as a stranger, you have wondered whether you might venture to give him, and which has seemed a mockery of his grandeur—this excellent young man is somehow the keynote of the whole affair. An English audience is as different as possible from a French, though the difference is altogether by no means to its disadvantage. It is much more “genteel”; it is less Bohemian, less blasé, more naïf, and more respectful—to say nothing of being made up of handsomer people. It is well dressed, tranquil, motionless; it suggests domestic virtue and comfortable homes; it looks as if it had come to the play in its own carriage, after a dinner of beef and pudding. The ladies are mild, fresh colored English mothers; they all wear caps; they are wrapped in knitted shawls. There are many rosy young girls, with dull eyes and quiet cheeks—an element wholly absent from Parisian audiences. The men are handsome and honorable looking; they are in evening dress; they come with the ladies—usually with several ladies—and remain with them; they sit still in their places, and don’t go herding out between the acts with their hats askew. Altogether they are much more the sort of people to spend a quiet evening with than the clever, cynical, democratic multitude that surges nightly out of the brilliant Boulevards into those temples of the drama in which MM. Dumas, fils, and Sardou are the high priests. But you might spend your evening with them better almost anywhere than at the theatre.
As I said just now, they are much more naïf than Parisian spectators—at least as regards being amused. They cry with much less facility, but they laugh more freely and heartily. I remember nothing in Paris that corresponds with the laugh of the English gallery and pit—with its continuity and simplicity, its deep-lunged jollity and its individual guffaws. But you feel that an English audience is intellectually much less appreciative. A Paris audience, as regards many of its factors, is cynical, skeptical, indifferent; it is so intimately used to the theatre that it doesn’t stand on ceremony; it yawns, and looks away and turns its back; it has seen too much, and it knows too much. But it has the critical and the artistic sense, when the occasion appeals to them; it can judge and discriminate. It has the sense of form and of manner; it heeds and cares how things are done, even when it cares little for the things themselves. Bohemians, artists, critics, connoisseurs—all Frenchmen come more or less under these heads, which give the tone to a body of Parisian spectators. These do not strike one as “nice people” in the same degree as a collection of English patrons of the drama—though doubtless they have their own virtues and attractions; but they form a natural, sympathetic public, while the English audience forms only a conventional, accidental one. It may be that the drama and other works of art are best appreciated by people who are not “nice”; it may be that a lively interest in such matters tends to undermine niceness; it may be that, as the world grows nicer, various forms of art will grow feebler. All this may be; I don’t pretend to say it is; the idea strikes me en passant.
In speaking of what is actually going on at the London theatres I suppose the place of honor, beyond comparison, belongs to Mr. Henry Irving. This gentleman enjoys an esteem and consideration which, I believe, has been the lot of no English actor since Macready left the stage, and he may at the present moment claim the dignity of being a bone of contention in London society second only in magnitude to the rights of the Turks and the wrongs of the Bulgarians. I am told that London is divided, on the subject of his merits, into two fiercely hostile camps; that he has sown dissension in families, and made old friends cease to “speak.” His appearance in a new part is a great event; and if one has the courage of one’s opinion, at dinner tables and elsewhere, a conversational godsend. Mr. Irving has “created,” as the French say, but four Shakespearian parts; his Richard III. has just been given to the world. Before attempting Hamlet, which up to this moment has been his great success, he had attracted much attention as a picturesque actor of melodrama, which he rendered with a refinement of effect not common upon the English stage. Mr. Irving’s critics may, I suppose, be divided into three categories: those who justify him in whatever he attempts, and consider him an artist of unprecedented brilliancy; those who hold that he did very well in melodrama, but that he flies too high when he attempts Shakespeare; and those who, in vulgar parlance, can see nothing in him at all.
I shrink from ranging myself in either of these divisions, and indeed I am not qualified to speak of Mr. Irving’s acting in general. I have seen none of his melodramatic parts; I do not know him as a comedian—a capacity in which some people think him at his best; and in his Shakespearian repertory I have seen only his Macbeth and his Richard. But judging him on the evidence of these two parts, I fall hopelessly among the skeptics. Mr. Henry Irving is a very convenient illustration. To a stranger desiring to know how the London stage stands, I should say, “Go and see this gentleman; then tell me what you think of him.” And I should expect the stranger to come back and say, “I see what you mean. The London stage has reached that pitch of mediocrity at which Mr. Henry Irving overtops his fellows—Mr. Henry Irving figuring as a great man—c’est tout dire.” I hold that there is an essential truth in the proverb that there is no smoke without fire. No reputations are altogether hollow, and no valuable prizes have been easily won. Of course Mr. Irving has a good deal of intelligence and cleverness; of course he has mastered a good many of the mysteries of his art. But I must nevertheless declare that for myself I have not mastered the mystery of his success. His defects seem to me in excess of his qualities and the lessons he has not learned more striking than the lessons he has learned.
That an actor so handicapped, as they say in London, by nature and culture should have enjoyed such prosperity, is a striking proof of the absence of a standard, of the chaotic condition of taste. Mr. Irving’s Macbeth, which I saw more than a year ago and view under the mitigations of time, was not pronounced one of his great successes; but it was acted, nevertheless, for many months, and it does not appear to have injured his reputation. Passing through London, and curious to make the acquaintance of the great English actor of the day, I went with alacrity to see it; but my alacrity was more than equalled by the vivacity of my disappointment. I sat through the performance in a sort of melancholy amazement. There are barren failures and there are interesting failures, and this performance seemed to me to deserve the less complimentary of these classifications. It inspired me, however, with no ill will toward the artist, for it must be said of Mr. Irving that his aberrations are not of a vulgar quality, and that one likes him, somehow, in spite of them. But one’s liking takes the form of making one wish that really he had selected some other profession than the histrionic. Nature has done very little to make an actor of him. His face is not dramatic; it is the face of a sedentary man, a clergyman, a lawyer, an author, an amiable gentleman—of anything other than a possible Hamlet or Othello. His figure is of the same cast, and his voice completes the want of illusion. His voice is apparently wholly unavailable for purposes of declamation. To say that he speaks badly is to go too far; to my sense he simply does not speak at all—in any way that, in an actor, can be called speaking. He does not pretend to declaim or dream of declaiming. Shakespeare’s finest lines pass from his lips without his paying the scantiest tribute to their quality. Of what the French call diction—of the art of delivery—he has apparently not a suspicion. This forms three-fourths of an actor’s obligations, and in Mr. Irving’s acting these three-fourths are simply cancelled. What is left to him with the remaining fourth is to be “picturesque”; and this even his partisans admit he has made his specialty. This concession darkens Mr. Irving’s prospects as a Shakespearian actor. You can play hop-scotch on one foot, but you cannot cut with one blade of a pair of scissors, and you cannot play Shakespeare by being simply picturesque. Above all, before all, for this purpose you must have the art of utterance; you must be able to give value to the divine Shakespearian line—to make it charm our ears as it charms our mind. It is of course by his picturesqueness that Mr. Irving has made his place; by small ingenuities of “business” and subtleties of action; by doing as a painter does who “goes in” for color when he cannot depend upon his drawing. Mr. Irving’s color is sometimes pretty enough; his ingenuities and subtleties are often felicitous; but his picturesqueness, on the whole, strikes me as dry and awkward, and, at the best, where certain essentials are so strikingly absent, these secondary devices lose much of their power.
Mr. Fechter in Hamlet was preponderantly a “picturesque” actor; but he had a certain sacred spark, a heat, a lightness and suppleness, which Mr. Irving lacks; and though, with his incurable foreign accent, he could hardly be said to declaim Shakespeare in any worthy sense, yet on the whole he spoke his part with much more of the positively agreeable than can possibly belong to the utterance of Mr. Irving. His speech, with all its fantastic Gallicisms of sound, was less foreign and more comprehensible than that strange tissue of arbitrary pronunciations which floats in the thankless medium of Mr. Irving’s harsh, monotonous voice. Richard III. is of all Shakespeare’s parts the one that can perhaps best dispense with declamation, and in which the clever inventions of manner and movement in which Mr. Irving is proficient will carry the actor furthest. Accordingly, I doubt not, Mr. Irving is seen to peculiar advantage in this play; it is certainly a much better fit for him than Macbeth. He has had the good taste to discard the vulgar adaptation of Cibber, by which the stage has so long been haunted, and which, I believe, is played in America to the complete exclusion of the original drama. I believe that some of the tenderest Shakespearians refuse to admit the authenticity of “Richard III.”; they declare that the play has, with all its energy, a sort of intellectual grossness, of which the author of “Hamlet” and “Othello” was incapable. This same intellectual grossness is certainly very striking; the scene of Richard’s wooing of Lady Ann is a capital specimen of it. But here and there occur passages which, when one hears the play acted, have all the vast Shakespearian sense of effect.
——To hear the piteous moans that Edward made
When black-faced Clifford shook his sword at him.
It is hard to believe that Shakespeare did not write that. And when Richard, after putting an end to Clarence, comes into Edward IV.’s presence, with the courtiers ranged about, and announces hypocritically that Providence has seen fit to remove him, the situation is marked by one or two speeches which are dramatic as Shakespeare alone is dramatic. The immediate exclamation of the Queen—
All-seeing heaven, what a world is this!
—followed by that of one of the gentlemen—
Look I so pale, Lord Dorset, as the rest?
—such touches as these, with their inspired vividness, seem to belong to the brushwork of the master. Mr. Irving gives the note of his performance in his first speech—the famous soliloquy upon “the winter of our discontent.” His delivery of these lines possesses little but hopeless staginess and mannerism. It seems indeed like staginess gone mad. The spectator rubs his eyes and asks himself whether he has not mistaken his theatre, and stumbled by accident upon some prosperous burlesque. It is fair to add that Mr. Irving is here at his worst, the scene offering him his most sustained and exacting piece of declamation. But the way he renders it is the way he renders the whole part—slowly, draggingly, diffusively, with innumerable pauses and lapses, and without a hint of the rapidity, the intensity and entrain which are needful for carrying off the improbabilities of so explicit and confidential a villain and so melodramatic a hero.
Just now, when a stranger in London asks where the best acting is to be seen, he receives one of two answers. He is told either at the Prince of Wales’s theatre or at the Court. Some people think that the last perfection is to be found at the former of these establishments, others at the latter. I went first to the Prince of Wales’s, of which I had a very pleasant memory from former years, and I was not disappointed. The acting is very pretty indeed, and this little theatre doubtless deserves the praise which is claimed for it, of being the best conducted English stage in the world. It is, of course, not the Comédie Française; but, equally of course, it is absurd talking or thinking of the Comédie Française in London. The company at the Prince of Wales’s play with a finish, a sense of detail, what the French call an ensemble, and a general good grace, which deserve explicit recognition. The theatre is extremely small, elegant, and expensive, the company is very carefully composed, and the scenery and stage furniture lavishly complete. It is a point of honor with the Prince of Wales’s to have nothing that is not “real.” In the piece now running at this establishment there is a representation of a boudoir very delicately appointed, the ceiling of which is formed by festoons of old lace suspended tent fashion or pavilion fashion. This lace, I am told, has been ascertained, whether by strong opera glasses or other modes of inquiry I know not, to be genuine, ancient, and costly. This is the very pedantry of perfection, and makes the scenery somewhat better than the actors. If the tendency is logically followed out, we shall soon be having Romeo drink real poison and Medea murder a fresh pair of babes every night.
The Prince of Wales’s theatre, when it has once carefully mounted a play, “calculates,” I believe, to keep it on the stage a year. The play of the present year is an adaptation of one of Victorien Sardou’s cleverest comedies—”Nos Intimes”—upon which the title of “Peril” has been conferred. Of the piece itself there is nothing to be said; it is the usual hybrid drama of the contemporary English stage—a firm, neat French skeleton, around which the drapery of English conversation has been adjusted in awkward and inharmonious folds. The usual feat has been attempted—to extirpate “impropriety” and at the same time to save interest. In the extraordinary manipulation and readjustment of French immoralities which goes on in the interest of Anglo-Saxon virtue, I have never known this feat to succeed. Propriety may have been saved, in an awkward, floundering, in-spite-of-herself fashion, which seems to do to something in the mind a violence much greater than the violence it has been sought to avert; but interest has certainly been lost. The only immorality I know on the stage is the production of an ill-made play; and a play is certainly ill made when the pointedness of the framework strikes the spectator as a perpetual mockery upon the flatness of the “developments.” M. Sardou’s perfectly improper but thoroughly homogeneous comedy has been flattened and vulgarized in the usual way; the pivot of naughtiness on which the piece turns has been “whittled” down to the requisite tenuity; the wicked little Jack-in-the-Box has popped up his head only just in time to pull it back again. The interest, from being intense, has become light, and the play, from being a serious comedy, with a flavor of the tragic, has become an elaborate farce, salted with a few coarse grains of gravity. It is probable, however, that if “Peril” were more serious, it would be much less adequately played.
The Prince of Wales’s company contains in the person of Miss Madge Robertson (or Mrs. Kendal, as I believe she is nowadays called) the most agreeable actress on the London stage. This lady is always pleasing, and often charming; but she is more effective in gentle gayety than in melancholy or in passion. Another actor at the Prince of Wales’s—Mr. Arthur Cecil—strikes me as an altogether superior comedian. He plays in “Peril” (though I believe he is a young man) the part of a selfish, cantankerous, querulous, jaundiced old East Indian officer, who has come down to a country house to stay, under protest, accompanied by his only son, a stripling in roundabouts, whom he is bringing up in ignorance of the world’s wickedness, and who, finding himself in a mansion well supplied with those books which no gentleman’s library should be without, loses no time in taking down Bocaccio’s “Decameron.” Mr. Arthur Cecil represents this character to the life, with a completeness, an extreme comicality, and at the same time a sobriety and absence of violence which recalls the best French acting. Especially inimitable is the tone with which he tells his host, on his arrival, how he made up his mind to accept his invitation: “So at last I said to Percy, ‘Well, Percy, my child, we’ll go down and have done with it!'”
At the Court theatre, where they are playing, also apparently by the year, a “revived” drama of Mr. Tom Taylor—”New Men and Old Acres”—the acting, though very good indeed, struck me as less finished and, as a whole, less artistic. The company contains, however, two exceptionally good actors. One of them is Mr. Hare, who leads it, and who, although nature has endowed him with an almost fatally meagre stage presence, has a considerable claim to be called an artist. Mr. Hare’s special line is the quiet natural, in high life, and I imagine he prides himself upon the propriety and good taste with which he acquits himself of those ordinary phrases and light modulations which the usual English actor finds it impossible to utter with any degree of verisimilitude. Mr. Hare’s companion is Miss Ellen Terry, who is usually spoken of by the “refined” portion of the public as the most interesting actress in London. Miss Terry is picturesque; she looks like a pre-Raphaelitish drawing in a magazine—the portrait of the crop-haired heroine in the illustration to the serial novel. She is intelligent and vivacious, and she is indeed, in a certain measure, interesting. With great frankness and spontaneity, she is at the same time singularly delicate and lady-like, and it seems almost impertinent to criticise her harshly. But the favor which Miss Terry enjoys strikes me, like that under which Mr. Henry Irving has expanded, as a sort of measure of the English critical sense in things theatrical. Miss Terry has all the pleasing qualities I have enumerated, but she has, with them, the defect that she is simply not an actress. One sees it sufficiently in her face—the face of a clever young Englishwoman, with a hundred merits, but not of a dramatic artist. These things are indefinable; I can only give my impression.
Broadly comic acting, in England, is businesslike, and high tragedy is businesslike; each of these extremes appears to constitute a trade—a métier, as the French say—which may be properly and adequately learned. But the acting which covers the middle ground, the acting of serious or sentimental comedy and of scenes that may take place in modern drawing-rooms—the acting that corresponds to the contemporary novel of manners—seems by an inexorable necessity given over to amateurishness. Most of the actors at the Prince of Wales’s—the young lovers, the walking and talking gentlemen, the housekeeper and young ladies—struck me as essentially amateurish, and this is the impression produced by Miss Ellen Terry, as well as (in an even higher degree) by her pretty and sweet-voiced sister, who plays at the Haymarket. The art of these young ladies is awkward and experimental; their very speech lacks smoothness and firmness.
I am not sorry to be relieved, by having reached the limits of my space, from the necessity of expatiating upon one of the more recent theatrical events in London—the presentation, at the St. James’s theatre, of an English version of “Les Danicheff.” This extremely picturesque and effective play was the great Parisian success of last winter, and during the London season the company of the Odéon crossed the channel and presented it with an added brilliancy. But what the piece has been reduced to in its present form is a theme for the philosopher. Horribly translated and badly played, it retains hardly a ray of its original effectiveness. There can hardly have been a better example of the possible infelicities of “adaptation.” Nor have I the opportunity of alluding to what is going on at the other London theatres, though to all of them I have made a conscientious pilgrimage. But I conclude my very desultory remarks without an oppressive sense of the injustice of omission. In thinking over the plays I have listened to, my memory arrests itself with more kindness, perhaps, than elsewhere, at the great, gorgeous pantomime given at Drury Lane, which I went religiously to see in Christmas week. They manage this matter of the pantomime very well in England, and I have always thought Harlequin and Columbine the prettiest invention in the world. (This is an “adaptation” of an Italian original, but it is a case in which the process has been completely successful.) But the best of the entertainment at Drury Lane was seeing the lines of rosy child faces in the boxes, all turned toward the stage in one round-eyed fascination. English children, however, and their round-eyed rosiness, would demand a chapter apart.
Date: 3 June 2021
Written by: Mark Wills
Tags: Henry James, The Galaxy