Puslapio vaizdai

In the collection of C. W. Kraushaar. Color-Tone, engraved for THE CENTURY, by II. Davidson






BY RICHARD LE GALLIENNE Author of "The Quest of the Golden Girl," "Orestes," etc.

HE voluntary abdication of power in its zenith has always fascinated and "intrigued" the imagination of mankind. We are so accustomed to kings and other gifted persons holding on to their scepters with a desperate tenacity, even through those waning years when younger men, beholding their present feebleness, wonder whether their previous might was not a fancy of their fathers, whether, in fact, they were ever really kings or gifted persons at all. In so many cases we have to rely on a legend of past accomplishment to preserve our reverence. fore, when a Sulla or a Charles V or a Mary Anderson leave their thrones at the moment when their sway over us is most assured and brilliant, we wonder-wonder at a phenomenon rare in humanity, and suggestive of romantic reserves of power which seal not only our allegiance. to them, but that of posterity. The mys tery which resides in all greatness, in all charm, is not violated by the cynical explanations of decay. They remain fortunate as those whom the gods loved, wearing the aureoles of immortal promise.


Few artists have been wise in this respect; poets, for example, very seldom. Thus we find the works of most of them encumbered with the debris of their senility. Coventry Patmore was a rare example of a poet who laid down his pen deliberately, not merely as an artist in words, but as an artist in life, having, as he said in the memorable preface to the collected edition of his poems, completed that work which in his youth he had set before him. His readers, therefore, are not saddened by any pathetic gleanings from a once-rich harvest-field, or the carefully picked-up shakings of November boughs.

Forbes-Robertson is one of those artists who has chosen to bid farewell to his art while he is still indisputably its master.

One or two other distinguished actors before him have thus chosen, and a greater number have bade us those professional "farewells" that remind one of that dream of De Quincey in which he heard reverberated "Everlasting farewells! and again and yet again reverberated—everlasting farewells!" In Forbes-Robertson's case, however, apart from our courteous taking the word of his management, we know that the news is sadly true. There is a curious personal honor and sincerity breathing through all his impersonations that make us feel, so to say, that not only would we take the ghost's word for a thousand pounds, but that between him and his art is such an austere compact that he would be incapable of humiliating it by any mere advertising devices; and beyond that, those who have seen him play this time in New York must have been aware that in the very texture of all his performances was woven like a sigh the word "farewell." His very art, as I shall have later to emphasize, is an art of farewell; but, apart from that general quality, it seemed to me, though, indeed, it may have been mere sympathetic fancy, that in these last New York performances, as in the performances last spring in London, I heard a personal valedictory note. Forbes-Robertson seemed to be saying good-by at once to his audience and to his art.

In doing this, along with the inevitable sadness that must accompany such a step, one cannot but think there will be a certain private whimsical satisfaction for him. in being able to go about the world in after years with his great gift still his, hidden away, but still his to use at any moment, and to know not only that he has been, but still is, as it were, in secret, the supreme Hamlet of his time. Something like that, one may imagine, must be the private fun of abdication. Forbes-Rob

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ertson, as he himself has told us, lays down one art only to take up another to which he has long been devoted, and of his early affiliation to which the figure of Dante in Rossetti's "Love Kissing Beatrice" bears illustrious and significant witness. As one recalls that he was the model for that figure, one realizes that even then he was the young lord Hamlet, born to be par excellence the actor of sorrow and renunciation.

It is not my province to write here of Forbes-Robertson from the point of view of the reminiscent playgoer or of the technical critic of acting. Others, obviously, are far better qualified to undertake those offices for his fame. I would merely offer him the tribute of one to whom for many years his acting has been something more than acting, as usually understood, something to class with great poetry, and all the spiritual exaltation which "great poetry" implies. From first to last, however associated with that whimsical comedy of which, too, he is appropriately a master, he has struck for me that note of almost heartbreaking spiritual intensity which, under all its superficial materialism and cynicism, is the keynote of the modern world.

When I say "first," I am thinking of the first time I saw him, on the first night of "The Profligate" by Pinero, in its day one of the plays that blazed the trail for that social, or, rather, I should say, sociological, drama since become even more deadly in earnest, though perhaps less deadly in skill. Incidentally, I remember that Miss Olga Nethersole, then quite unknown, made a striking impression of evil, though playing only a small part. It was Forbes-Robertson, however, for me, and I think for all the playgoing London of the time, that gave the play its chief value by making us startlingly aware, through the poignancy of his personality, of what one might call the voice of the modern conscience. To associate that thrillingly beautiful and profound voice of his with anything that sounds so prosaic as a "modern conscience" may seem unkind, but actually our modern conscience is anything but prosaic, and combines within it something at once poetic and prophetic of which that something ghostly in Forbes-Robertson's acting is peculiarly expressive. That quality of

other-worldliness which at once scared and fascinated the lodgers in "The Passing of the Third Floor Back" is present in all Forbes-Robertson's acting. It was that which strangely stirred us, that first night of "The Profligate." We meet it again with the blind Dick Heldar in "The Light that Failed," and of course we meet it supremely in "Hamlet." In fact, it is that quality which, chief among others, makes Forbes-Robertson's Hamlet the classical Hamlet of his time.

Forbes-Robertson has of course played innumerable parts. Years before "The Profligate," he had won distinction as the colleague of Irving and Mary Anderson. He may be said to have played everything under the sun. His merely theatric experience has thus enriched and equipped his temperament with a superb technic. It would probably be impossible for him to play any part badly, and of the various successes he has made, to which his present repertoire bears insufficient witness, others, as I have said, can point out the excellences. My concern here is with his art in its fullest and finest expression, in its essence; and therefore it is unnecessary for me to dwell upon any other of his impersonations than that of Hamlet. When a man can play Hamlet so supremely, it may be taken for granted, I presume, that he can play "Mice and Men," or even that masterpiece of all masterpieces, "Cæsar and Cleopatra." I trust that it is no disrespect to the distinguished authors of these two plays to say that such plays in a great actor's repertoire represent less his versatility than his responsibilities, that pot-boiling necessity which hampers every art, and that of the actor, perhaps, most of all.

To my thinking, the chief interest of all Forbes-Robertson's other parts is that they have "fed" his Hamlet; and, indeed, many of his best parts may be said to be studies for various sides of Hamlet, his fine Romeo, for example, which, unfortunately, he no longer plays. In Hamlet all his qualities converge, and in him the tradition of the stage that all an ambitious actor's experience is only to fit him to play Hamlet is for once justified. But of course the chief reason of that success is that nature meant Forbes-Robertson to play Hamlet. Temperament, personality, experience, and training have so worked

together that he does not merely play, but is, Hamlet. Such, at all events, is the complete illusion he is able to produce.

Of course one has heard from them of old time that an actor's personality must have nothing to do with the part he is playing; that he only is an actor who can most successfully play the exact opposite of himself. That is the academic theory of "character-acting," and of course the half-truth of it is obvious. It represents the weariness induced in audiences by handsome persons who merely, in the stage phrase, "bring their bodies on"; yet it would go hard with some of our most delightful comedians were it the whole truth about acting. As a matter of fact, of course, a great actor includes a multiplicity of selves, so that he may play many parts, yet always be playing himself. Beyond himself no artist, whatever his art, has ever gone.

What reduplication of personality is necessary for the man who plays Hamlet need hardly be said, what wide range of humanity and variety of accomplishment; for, as Anatole France has finely said of Hamlet, "He is a man, he is man, he is the whole of man."

Time was when Hamlet was little more than an opportunity for some robustious periwig-pated fellow, or it gave the semi-learned actor the chance to conceal his imaginative incapacity by a display of "new readings." For example, instead of saying:

The air bites shrewdly; it is very cold,

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An actor who deserves better than he has yet received in the tradition of the acted Hamlet-I mean Wilson Barrettused to make much of taking a miniature of his father from his bosom to point the


But all such things in the end are of no account. New readings, new business, avail less and less. Nor does painstaking archæology of scenery or dresses any longer throw dust in our eyes. We are for the play, the living soul of the play. Give us that, and your properties may be no more elaborate than those of a guignol in the Champs-Elysées.

Forbes-Robertson's acting is so imaginative, creating the scene about him as he plays, that one almost resents any stagesettings for him at all, however learnedly accurate and beautifully painted.

His soul seems to do so much for us that we almost wish it could be left to do it all, and he act for us as they acted in Elizabeth's day, with only a curtain for scenery, and a placard at the side of the stage saying, "This is Elsinore."

One could hardly say more for one's sense of the reality of Forbes-Robertson's acting, as, naturally, one is not unaware that distressing experiments have been made to reproduce the Elizabethan theater by actors who, on the other hand, were sadly in need of all that scenery, archæology, or orchestra could do for them.

With a world overcrowded with treatises on the theme, from, and before, Gervinus, with the commentary of Wilhelm Meister in our minds, not to speak of the starlit text ever there for our reading, there is surely no need to traverse the character of Hamlet. He has meant so much to our fathers, -though he can never have meant so much to them as he does to us of to-day,-that he is, so to say, in our blood. He is strangely near to our hearts by sheer inheritance. And perhaps the most beautiful thing ForbesRobertson's Hamlet does for us is that it commands our love for a great gentleman doing his gentlest and bravest and noblest with a sad smile and a gay humor in not merely a complicated, wicked, absurd, and tiresome, but, also, a ghostly world.

When we think of Hamlet, we think of him as two who knew him very well thought of him,-Ophelia and Horatio,and as one who saw him only as he sat at

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