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Ask the generality of players why their art has declined, and the reply received will convey an impression that the dejected spirit of the Stage entirely results from low living. Unfortunately, the records of the theatres declare, that in the good old times the manager looked on bread and cheese savoured with first parts as a luxurious diet, which most of “ the profession” were happy to obtain ; and many a metropolitan heroine then has quitted the scene of her sensibilities to hide a lovely countenance in a pewter pot. The present race are better paid ; consequently, it may be conjectured, better fed than their predecessors; and a fair investigation of the matter would lead to the conclusion, that the decay of power might, with greater show of reason, be rather attributed to repletion, than to abstinence. Others will assert the falling off is accounted for by the absence of present opportunity. The facilities were not greater in former days; and the captious among the public say, talents unequal to the space afforded are not deserving of a larger scope. Another set stoutly abuse the press, maintaining it crushes genius. The poor public, however, as in melancholy chorus, bewail the absence of critics, on whose opinions they might stake a little time and a trifle of silver, with the certainty of being amused. Persevering in the inquiry, a host of lamentations will be called forth, about late dinners, Mechanic Institutes, evening parties, music, and ballet dancers. All which serves only to perplex the question ; for no other meaning can be extracted from these complaints, than that, owing to a combination of circumstances, patronage is withheld, which would close up the theatres were the conviction well founded. That it is a mistake, the support which has enriched so many actors and some managers, while it, as this is written, tempts more theatres to be contemplated as profitable speculations, will surely be sufficient proof, There seems to be no want of patronage when there is anything to patronize; but there may be, owing to the absence of good performers, no temptation to visit the playhouse, as our grandfather used to do, merely to “ see the players.”
The modern actor, denying all the advantages derived from, overlooks the many evils he escapes by, the circumstances of the age in which he lives. The probationary trials of the present race are as nothing weighed against those hardships their ancestors endured. Where is that living performer who has encountered a tithe of the privation Macklin or Cooke were obliged to suffer while working their way through the provinces to London? The entrance to the Stage is now easythe escape from it no longer opposed by the opinion of mankind. The stigma that once attached to the calling is forgotten in good society, only remembered among the vulgar when in ill-temper; and, in truth, players were never so well received in private life, so much respected by the public, so amply remunerated, so eagerly sought after by the managers, or so enthusiastically applauded on the stage, as at the present time; whence the hope is more than warranted, that as education progresses, an art demanding all the graces and intelligences that can ennoble the highest pursuit, will ultimately be esteemed as honourable as other professions; and the first real step towards so desirable an end has been taken in the purification of the saloon at the principal theatre; for let as many fine things as enthusiasm can dictate be written about
the histrionic art, the public generally can never be expected to really regard the Drama as an aid to the pulpit, while its temples are devoted to purposes that must confer ill fame upon a pot-house.
To none of the causes usually assigned can the decay of the Stage be reasonably set down. Yet it must not be hastily assumed the opposite to the false is necessarily the true-or because actors have not been depressed by hardships, they must, therefore, have been enervated by indulgences. Like most artists, their gains are below their deserts, poor as these may be; and their complaints are made with justness, when alluding to the poverty which the majority, even while employed, are subjected to. They are only wrong when they advance it to account for a consequence it can in no way affect. The circumstances of income, social position, and public estimation, have not influenced their art; for these were less when that was more, and the latter will again be high while the former shall keep on advancing. These things, however, must be forgotten for the present, since they promise no satisfactory solution, while in some other direction we seek the key to the problem.
Outward influences being rejected as impotent upon the art-the inquiry is thereby circumscribed to the art itself—its rise and history.
Now, though some sickly bantlings have appeared for a day, and with much fostering have seemed to live, yet it is truth, that no art ever flourished, but in itself contained the principle of life. Art is not a manufacture, lo be created by wealth, but an inspiration born of intelligence. Its strength never yet was given by patronage. Patronage is the homage the less gifted pay to its might when exhibited; but its power is derived from the vital warmth of its own enthusiasm, by which all arts have been impelled,--and only as this has been weakened or destroyed, has any art languished or become extinct.
Then is acting an art? Who will deny it is? If it be, and the principle declared in the foregoing paragraph be the truth it has been assumed to be, what help will it afford to understand the rise, the fall, and the means to be employed for the restoration of the Stage ?
To comprehend this, the nature of the Stage must first be comprehended-whether it is generated of some other art, or self-originated; for out of this the whole argument must proceed. The Stage, then, is an art called into existence by a prior art-the Drama. The one can have no being till the other has necessitated it. To make which clear, be it supposed some Actor presents himself, who undertakes to amuse a company by an extempore personation. In this instance, there seems, at the first glance, to be no Dramatist required or employed. The Actor appears alone. It is not so, however; for as the idea must be prior to the speech which announces it, so, in this case, the rude kind of Drama performed, must, in the mind of the personator, be existent before he could represent it; and though he profess to be only an Actor, he is not that alone-but Actor and Dramatist, in one person combined, and the latter first. So, whether it be present but in idea to one person only, or a published work of some author long deceased familiar to all-duration being unimportant when the question is simply of priority—the Drama, by necessity,
takes precedence of, and calls into action, the Stage, which, of itself, has no being.
Thus the Drama begets the Stage. It is not, however, though the father, to be esteemed the sole parent. It may rather be regarded as the germinative principle of the art: the people, from whom the actors must be taken, being the soil from which the substance is derived; and the audience for whose amusement it is exhibited, the controlling power that shapes it in obedience to the laws of its existence.
In this view, the habits of our nation, when the Drama and the Stage began simultaneously to flourish, must be taken into consideration; and history assures us that personation was practised, formerly, with a success and boldness to which modern customs afford no parallel. It has shaken the stability of the State, and been carried out with an ability that leaves us, even now, half uncertain as to its true character. The polish of the present age is all ways inferior to the finished artifice of the ancient time. Among all classes of society, deception was then studied; and no person, from the Lord Chancellor to the clown, was exempted from its practice, or armed to resist its influence. The laws made to suppress cheats and impostors, prove how common these resorts were among the people; and the cruelties enacted on witches, Jews, and foreigners, show what the general credulity encouraged duplicity to attempt. The plots of the elder Drama introduce personation so frequently, and with so much confidence, that it is impossible, reading them, to resist the conviction that our ancestors had an experience in its possibility; and if the same might be advanced of our present Stage performances, the inference would be negatived—these latter being reflections of the former- the appeals to a faith which in the theatre was established.
The first rude quality of the actor, a power of imitation, is seen to have been natural to the people; and the Drama, therefore, at its commencement, found those elements in existence which were afterward refined into an art by the intensity of its genius.
Looking next at the audience of Elizabeth's time to please whose tastes the actors studied it will be found to have been formed of the noble, the chivalrous, the philosophic, the learned, and the untutoreda mixed assembly, to gain whose applause no one quality essential to the loftiest developments might be dispensed with. The courtier demanded a refined deportment; the soldier exacted a gallant bearing ; the poet (and most were poets then) claimed an ideal embodiment: the philosopher looked for a profound conception; while the ignorant could only be amused by the delineation of nature in its simplicity. That this congregation were severe critics, Hamlet's invectives against bad actors seem to indicate that they were studious and desirous to judge correctly, the treatise on playing, which stops the action of a tragedy as its violence is beginning, may be surely held conclusive. A better education than constant practice, under the guidance of such patrons, cannot be imagined.
The disposition of the people from whom actors were to be chosen having a natural tendency to assume characters foreign to their own, or towards the Stage in its most barbarous form; and the audience being such as would rebuke the grossness while it fostered the graces
of the young player's efforts, the result is depicted in the all but miraculous growth of the histrionic art, under these influences, provoked and impelled by the stimulative principle of the Drama.
Before proceeding to show in what this stimulative principle consists, or how it acts, it may be better to make clear that a time of such prosperity was in the early age enjoyed by the Stage as has not since been equalled. Here, figures being wanting, inference must, when fairly drawn, be received as proof; and how far the Stage flourished during Elizabeth's reign may be conjectured from its having conformed to regulations practicable only in recognized profession. The fact that the principal performers were accustomed to receive premiums with apprentices, clearly demonstrates that acting had assumed some rank among the honourable and lucrative arts. The perception of the necessity for instruction shows its less obvious requirements were understood; and the power to ask remuneration proves its advantages were appreciated and respected by those who had the means to seek other courses. It had risen above the position which now makes it the refuge of the idle, the profligate, and the necessitous, and had become enrolled among the profitable and respectable pursuits in which men in common may engage,
And a yet further evidence is the impression left upon the art, to be traced in the continuance of customs, the necessity for which no longer is felt. This may be discerned in the play bills of the present time, where the performers term themselves Her Majesty's servants-a title derived from the age of Elizabeth: and also in the habit, to which, when left to their own resources, the actors always return, of sharing the receipts—a usage belonging to the same period. The feelings peculiar to the people are no less traditionary ; thus, they have a love for and a faith in some purity connected with their art, of the purport or the elements of which they are profoundly ignorant. The plays which have been written, the theatres which have been open, or the actors who have lived since the Restoration, were not such as could have generated this sentiment. It remains now only as a superstition, It has no influence on their conduct or power over their opinions. It can be accounted for only by referring to the elder time, when an ideal grandeur and a moral mission were believed to be attached to the Drama, The phrase “legitimate Drama,” which the player constantly uses, without understanding what it represents, clearly points to that form of composition, which, generated by national feeling, nursed by popular affection, is the rightful heir of England's sympathies, and is too graphic and comprehensive for the modern race to have invented it. It carries us back to a day of triumph, and declares the fame of that time yet lives in the affections of the art, though the remembrance of its glories is lost to its professors.
How the fancy glows concerning the vastness of that excellence which could rank a Shakspere among its inferior supporters! How the imagination kindles, picturing the perfection so finely gifted—that a manager's opportunities--a high literary repute-every personal and mental qualification-yet left something wanting! How the reality grows out when we read that the business of some parts was handed down with scrupulous fidelity to Garrick, so that his performance can
- be supposed in outward manner to have differed nothing from the mode of personation in the poet's life-time, and perceive the finer properties, the spirit, the conception, must have suffered by a series of translation, till the certainty comes strong upon the mind that the first of modern players, even where most famed, was not comparable to the actors of the Elizabethan era.
All inferences declare the excellence of the original performers. Yet an art that has no foundation in itself, could not in its own qualities have produced this excellence. It must have been inspired ; and seeing the Drama calls the Stage into being, that it gives the idea to the players, and, as is universally allowed, inculcates the taste of the audience,-supplies one with the conception, the other with the judgment,—that the actor is, in fact, not only put in motion by, but forced to obey the direction of, the Drama,-it is there we must look to understand the cause of this excelling.
A fine Drama necessitates good acting, for without this it cannot succeed. Sublimity becomes ridiculous, if it be delivered with no feeling for its grandeur. Poetry sinks to twaddle, recited with no appreciation of its beauty. Passion grows inflated nonsense, if its exclamations are not developed with energy; so, in proportion to its elevation, the chances of success are dependent on the powers of those performers any Drama may employ; for the genius of the Dramatist must be responded to by the actor, or, he failing, both must fall. The Elizabethan Drama taxed the capabilities of the Stage. It strove to develope them; and, as we know it lived and flourished, therefore we may safely conclude it was rendered in its full magnitude.
Much of this Drama is now cast from the stage, and change of taste in the auditors is advanced to account for its neglect; but human nature must alter before such a reason can be accepted. No! The players, who could conceive it in its spirit and present it in its truth, have passed away, and taste only rejects poetry unpoetically offered. It is the anomaly that offends. The mind revolts when that which is sacred is exposed to vulgar handling. The ancient player came hallowed to his duty. He was filled with his office; he had an enthusiasm for his art. His imagination was excited, and his mind impregnated by the beauties of the Drama in which he lived; so he could catch the sympathies and inflame the passions in all places and at all times without other preparation than the will to do it. The player in Hamlet is put forth as no extraordinary genius. The schooling he receives warrants an opposite assumption. He is the representative of the general actor, and would therefore be gifted with no faculty ; all of his calling were not thought to command: but he, when just alighted off a journey, being asked to recite a speech in a public hall, and the cue being given, is immediately carried out of himself,
“ Tears in his eyes, distraction in's aspect
A broken voice, and his whole function suiting
With forms to his conceit.” Acting is wholly imaginative. In the faculty of readily inciting the imagination to a degree that produces positive self-illusion, the actor is excellent. His is an ideal art entirely; for, living in fiction,