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“AS YOU LIKE IT,"
This is the age of illustration. We have illustrated editions of old books, and illustrations of every place on the face of the earth, from “ China to Peru ;" and of every age, from the First Ptolemy to “ the French, illustrated by themselves.” The mode has been adopted by the Theatre, and a play is now not only played but illustrated. The scenery, costume and effects, are all sought to be wrought out, and not as heretofore merely intimated to the audience, or the passions and emotions alone developed. Whether this be a genuine application of the dramatic art may admit of a question. The sternly classic might say not, (in spite of the cost expended by the ancients on their stage,) the devotee of the romantic drama might argue that it was. For the latter are many arguments to be found. There is no doubt the old plays in Elizabeth's time were highly illustrated. If any one doubt it, let him read Hall's Chronicle, or Mr. Cunningham's account of “ The Revels at Court in the Reigns of Queen Elizabeth and King James I., from the original of the Masters and Yeomen," as published by the Shakespeare Society. One extract will show sufficiently the lavish expenditure bestowed upon theatrical exhibitions in that age of show and splendour :
“ THE PRYNCES MASKE. Payde to sondrye persons for the chardges of a Maske presented by the Prince before the Kinges matie on Newyeres day at night beinge the first of Januarie 1610. viz. To Mercers
cciiijix viij v Sylkemen
. . cciiijxviij xv vj Haberdashers .
. . lxxiiij viij viij Embroderers
iiijix xvj ix Girdelers and others for skarfes, beltes and gloves Hosyers for silke stockinges, poyntes and rybbons xlix xvj Cutler .
xlij vj Taylors ..
cxliij xiij vj Shoemaker
VjX To Inigoe Jones devyser for the saide Maske
In all M.iijxij vj x” Here we have the immense sum of one thousand four hundred and twelve pounds expended on one masque, which, reckoning the difference of the value of money, is at least equal to seven or eight thousand pounds of the present day.
This superb and gorgeous entertainment was superintended by the first lyric poet of that or almost any time, and the noblest architectBen Jonson and Inigo Jones. All that fancy and invention could
demand was afforded, together with an unlimited supply of the richest material. As it was with this masque, so was it with all others, with either greater or less expense; and so doubtless with the plays produced by the court or great noblemen, or the public bodies, both those of the professional inns of court and the rich corporate bodies, such as the mercers' and other companies. · The Tudor period was one of marked transition as to the habits and formation of society. The feudal and martial spirit still animated it as a sentiment, but the realities were those of modern mercantile societies. The nobles and the crown itself retained only the emblems and empty forms of the feudal power and spirit. The tilt-yard, and not the battlefield, afforded the sentiment of chivalry a place for its display. It was essentially an age of acting. The male aristocracy played at knights and heroes, and the female at “ ladyes bright.” The rest of the population imitated them, and the whole nation joined in one huge masque. This fantastic but superb affectation was manifested in the exercise of every art. The half castellated houses speak of it. The very contortions of the language itself. The costume.—The sports all tell of it. The acts of parliament then, as now, show us legislators endeavouring forcibly to prevent the progress of events, and endeavouring to arrest time by passing laws that neither arts nor sciences should advance. That bows and arrows should be used in spite of gunpowder, and armour worn, though the sword was giving way to the arquebuss. This is not the place to answer at length the question, if it be asked, how came this age to be one so marked in its transition. But it may be briefly said, that it was so chiefly because it was a change from a military and predatory form of society, to one of peace and industry. It was also more marked, because those holding the most powerful situations clung to the forms of a society, the spirit of which had evaporated. Retainers were still retained, houses still half fortresses, men half clad in armour; homage still demanded, gradations scrupulously adhered to because human nature in the gross never knows when to separate the requisite from that which is not the abstract from the concrete. Add to this, the ignorance of the many made the common sense voice of society nearly inaudible.
Perhaps the gentle (or by this time ungentle,) reader may ask, what has all this to do with the production of “ As You Like It," at Drury Lane Theatre. But let him exercise that virtue so particularly necessary to him, patience; and it shall be proved to him that it has, as clearly as Touchstone's statement of the laws of the duello.
It is necessary to give the reader some idea of the masqueing, revelling, showy, acting age it was. To remind him of the gorgeousness of its banquets, pageants, and feasts. To show that with the realities of one period it was aping the manners of another. It was playing at existence: and this peculiar temperament particularly manifested itself in the drama. There it was mimicry of mimics. And the cleverness and fantasticness of the imitation gave it a double charm. It was indeed a time to say
" All the world 's a stage.” · Let it not be supposed that it is meant to assert that there was no reality in the time, no earnestness of spirit, no truth of feeling. That would be impossible, but only that the prevailing temperament was one of notions, that the young and influential class fed not on realities, but on imaginations. That they acted to an external standard, and not from an inward spirit. The mass of mankind think but little, but that little is generally upon some real proceeding, past or possible.
Seen relatively to this state of national mind and fancy, “ As You Like It," and the numerous plays of the same kind, assume their true position. They are “ the very shadows of the time.” They are not to be taken as representations of realities. They are not to be measured by any such standard. They are the spontaneous productions of the foam of the time, and spring like Aphrodite, all beauty, from the churning of fancies vast and ever changing. They are “ such stuff as dreams are made of.” They are true to themselves, and they contain many absolute truths; but still they are false, if measured by the standard of actuality.
The imaginative spirit of the time, and its peculiar tendency, rendered the audience ripe to receive them. The fancy of the age was strangely mingled. Scriptural allegories and heathen mythology ; every-day life and the fantastic conceits of Arcadian shepherds and shepherdesses were all cast together. Genius, out of this apparent chaos, contrived to make a graceful whole, and the highest genius thus produced “As You Like It.” Beyond approach great, because instinctively endued with a feeling and knowledge of the principles on which Nature works, Shakespeare formed a new world for his new beings; incongruous, if viewed relatively to existing life, but as true and perfect as that life itself if viewed with regard to itself. Shakespeare, however, like the Greek sculptors, when they delineated Gods, formed them on human proportions. So he always kept actual and existing nature in view while shaping his creations, and thus they satisfy and instruct the universal mind, that has in it the same instinctive perception of the true; or rather, of the just relations of the models to the original prototype.
“As You Like It,” thus considered, is a beautiful and perfect vision. Human beings, firmly and clearly delineated, are surrounded or involved in fantastic circumstances, and a graceful blending of the heathen mythology and the fanciful vagaries of the sham-pastoral are mingled with it; all of which is so harmoniously run with delicate half-tones into each other, that we have no opening left to think of reality.
Shakespeare, it must be acknowledged, had so great a capacity to mark and comprehend, and then to note and delineate the actualities of character and life, that he seems to have preferred it to the indulgence of his fancy. In this play the characters are as firm and strongly pourtrayed as in any, but the medium by which they are presented to the audience is highly fanciful. But then it is fancy so beautifully toned to the realities that it blends with them, giving only an exquisite grace and colour to them. If this is so, then it must be acknowledged that this play is one of the finest pieces of art extant.
Thus estimating it, let us consider what must be required to illustrate it. In truth, a fancy almost as ripe and perfect, a sense of its beauty, grace, and just proportions almost as strong as that of its creator.
Has this been manifested at Drury Lane? Perhaps not; but still there are rich gleams of fancy and strong bursts of conception in its illustration that do much to weigh up the vision of the poet. To give it all would almost require the powers of the original poet. To let scene by scene float by in dreamy perfection, noiselessly and perfectly cohering, would be to give the poet again ; but this could be only effected by a fancy of the most ethereal kind being joined to a power of mastery over physical materials that is, perhaps, scarcely possible.
When so much has been done, it is hardly fair to advance an ideal standard to wbich it cannot arrive.
The first great proof that something of a poetical mind had taken the great work in hand, was, that the poet's words were given entire. Thus, at all events, if the material was not about to receive the highest illustration, at least the attempt was made; and this alone will fix Mr. Macready's name amongst the foremost of the reformers of the theatre. It is the first step towards putting the poet in the first position. It is a return to the ideal that has cast the slough of two hundred years away from it. The merit and magnitude of this reform cannot be duly appreciated without considering the difficulties that opposed it. Ever since the Restoration, the French style of drama has prevailed at our theatre; and the principal characteristics of this were striking situations and elaborate speech-making. The managers of our theatres, from the time of Otway, Buckingham, and Mulgrave, have been endeavouring to prune, trim, and squeeze Shakespeare's magnificent poems into this form. Garrick and Kemble, who essayed and effected some reforms, never dared attempt the restoration, and every one of his plays were performed with the mutilations and vile cobbling of the lowest poetical hacks. The audience, thus pampered with a succession of effects, became insensible to higher beauties; till at last no one dared to make the attempt of returning to Shakespeare's authority. The profounder criticism commenced by Schlegel and Coleridge, led the way to a juster notion of the purport of the drama, and the consummate art of Shakespeare's construction. The theatres, as usual, were the last to appreciate this dissemination of a better knowledge of the poet. Mr. Macready, at length, with a taste that will place him high amongst the elevators of the drama, made the attempt. Still he faltered in “Coriolanus;" he could not abandon Thompson, and in no instance gave the naked and entire text. And he was excusable in so doing. To experimentalize in a theatre is to do so at a cost and risk that no other speculation incurs. He has now done so magnanimously, and “ As You Like It," has, for the first time for this two hundred years, been played as he who was equally skilful as profound in knowledge of his art, wrote it. The result has been, what has been always predicted, that it would more and interest an audience; and that Shakespeare knew as well what would charm mankind in the mass as he did singly.
The restoration of the poet involved a self-sacrifice that also does honour to the manager as an actor; and the sacrifice might be more enlarged on, if Mr. Macready did not deserve a higher standard of excellence than that expressed in the noisy approbation of an undiscriminating audience. The part of Jaques has, by all preceding actors, from Garrick to Kemble, been made a spouting character; and so basely covetous of opportunities of thus speechifying were the actors, that all that is so judiciously and beautifully said of Jacques by the First Lord, was, with the most awkward garbling, made to be uttered by Jacques himself; a proceeding which has no analogy to any thing but the conduct of the stone-mason who rubbed down the muscular developments in a Grecian statue as unsightly excrescences. One of the great secrets of the wonderful strength and relief of Shakespeare's plays is, that he makes his characters reflect each other, and thus he gives us not only portraits but sculptures-not only faces but backs. The barbarous jobbers who have thus mutilated Shakespeare have at length been driven out of the temple; and as the lovers of architecture and music are restoring the creations of geniuses in these two arts to their original integrity, so will Mr. Macready have the credit of restoring the greatest writer that ever lived. And this will do more for the poet than all the most industrious commentary in the world could, though that is by no means deserving of the contempt the unthinking are now wont to Aing upon it.
There is still one deviation from the text, in this genuine revival, that is to be regretted, though, perhaps, the stage business may render it absolutely necessary. The first three scenes of the second act are transposed. Now this may appear trifling, but is far from being so. It is quite certain that no true poet ever penned a poem as a whole which could bear any dislocation of its plan. And this is palpably the case here. In the first act much had been said, but nothing seen, of the exiled Duke. The second act was about to be formed of him and his followers, and the dramatist accordingly introduces him and his followers, then returns to the usurper's court, to show that the two princesses had fled, and then goes back to the forest, to introduce the chief man, Orlando, and thus brings the whole group gradually together. As the introductory scene of the exiled duke is now played, it is a useless excrescence, and seems like a mere piece of fine writing, or rather, speechifying, a thing as foreign to Shakespeare as for him to introduce a scene in Chaldaic to show his learning.
This is alluded to to show how dangerous it is to touch the arrangement of a perfect poet. If it be said that the play originally was not divided into acts, that argues nothing, as the order of the scenes is the subject in discussion.
Having endeavoured to show the kind of performance the author intended this beautiful poem to be, let us now see how it has been illustrated at Drury Lane Theatre.
The first scene, “ an Orchard near Oliver's house," is pleasing and natural enough; but the grand scene of this act is the wrestling scene “ on the lawn before the Duke's house.” Here is shown a considerable degree of invention and fancy in the costume of the characters introduced, which, as a whole, harmonizes well; and the excitement and animation of the scene are admirably maintained, giving a glowing representation of the poet's imaginings. The grouping, however, here is not so well managed as in the scene in Acis and Galatea, which precedes the approach of the giant. It is, nevertheless, an excellent scene, and shows, in whoever superintended it, a poetical fancy and true capacity to conceive the poet's ideas.