19th Century Actor Autobiographies
By George Iles, Editor
Public Domain Books
[Richard Mansfield, one of the great actors of his time, was born in Heligoland, then a British Possession, in 1857. He prepared himself for the East Indian civil service, then studied art, and opened a studio in Boston. He was soon attracted to the stage, and began playing minor parts in comic opera, displaying marked ability from the first. His versatility took him all the way from the role of Koko in the “Mikado,” to Beau Brummel and Richard III. His success soon enabled him to assemble a company of his own; as its manager he produced with memorable effect “Cyrano de Bergerac,” “Henry V.,” and “Julius Caesar.” He died in 1907, a few weeks after a striking creation of “Peer Gynt.” A biography of Mr. Mansfield by Mr. Paul Wilstach is published by C. Scribner’s Sons, New York.
Mr. Mansfield’s article on “Man and the Actor,” which appeared in the Atlantic Monthly, May, 1906, copyright by Houghton, Mifflin & Co., Boston, is here given almost in full by the kind permission of the publishers and of Mrs. Richard Mansfield. It is in effect an autobiographical revelation of the artist and the man.–ED.]
Man and the Actor
I hold the world but as the world, Gratiano, A stage where every man must play a part.
Shakespeare does not say “may” play a part, or “can” play a part, but he says must play a part; and he has expressed the conviction of every intelligent student of humanity then and thereafter, now and hereafter. The stage cannot be held in contempt by mankind; because all mankind is acting, and every human being is playing a part. The better a man plays his part, the better he succeeds. The more a man knows of the art of acting, the greater the man; for, from the king on his throne to the beggar in the street, every man is acting. There is no greater comedian or tragedian in the world than a great king. The knowledge of the art of acting is indispensable to a knowledge of mankind, and when you are able to pierce the disguise in which every man arrays himself, or to read the character which every man assumes, you achieve an intimate knowledge of your fellow men, and you are able to cope with the man, either as he is, or as he pretends to be. It was necessary for Shakespeare to be an actor in order to know men. Without his knowledge of the stage, Shakespeare could never have been the reader of men that he was. And yet we are asked, “Is the stage worth while?”
Napoleon as Actor
Napoleon and Alexander were both great actors–Napoleon perhaps the greatest actor the world has ever seen. Whether on the bridge of Lodi, or in his camp at Tilsit; whether addressing his soldiers in the plains of Egypt; whether throwing open his old gray coat and saying, “Children, will you fire on your general?” whether bidding farewell to them at Fontainebleau; whether standing on the deck of the Bellerophon, or on the rocks of St. Helena–he was always an actor. Napoleon had studied the art of acting, and he knew its value. If the power of the eye, the power of the voice, the power of that all-commanding gesture of the hand, failed him when he faced the regiment of veterans on his return from Elba, he was lost. But he had proved and compelled his audience too often for his art to fail him then. The leveled guns fell. The audience was his. Another crown had fallen! By what? A trick of the stage! Was he willing to die then? to be shot by his old guard? Not he! Did he doubt for one moment his ability as an actor. Not he! If he had, he would have been lost. And that power to control, that power to command, once it is possessed by a man, means that that man can play his part anywhere, and under all circumstances and conditions. Unconsciously or consciously, every great man, every man who has played a great part, has been an actor. Each man, every man, who has made his mark has chosen his character, the character best adapted to himself, and has played it, and clung to it, and made his impress with it. I have but to conjure up the figure of Daniel Webster, who never lost an opportunity to act; or General Grant, who chose for his model William of Orange, surnamed the Silent. You will find every one of your most admired heroes choosing early in life some admired hero of his own to copy. Who can doubt that Napoleon had selected Julius Caesar? For, once he had founded an empire, everything about him was modelled after the Caesarean regime. Look at his coronation robes, the women’s gowns–the very furniture! Actors, painters, musicians, politicians, society men and women, and kings and queens, all play their parts, and all build themselves after some favourite model. In this woman of society you trace the influence of the Princess Metternich. In another we see her admiration (and a very proper one) for Her Britannic Majesty. In another we behold George Eliot, or Queen Louise of Prussia, or the influence of some modern society leader. But no matter who it is, from the lowest to the highest, the actor is dominant in the human being, and this trait exhibits itself early in the youngest child. Everywhere you see stage-craft in one form or another. If men loved not costumes and scenery, would the king be escorted by the lifeguards, arrayed in shining helmets and breastplates, which we know are perfectly useless in these days when a bullet will go through fifty of them with ease? The first thing a man thinks of when he has to face any ordeal, be it a coronation or an execution, is, how am I going to look? how am I to behave? what manner shall I assume? shall I appear calm and dignified, or happy and pleased? shall I wear a portentous frown or a beaming smile? how shall I walk? shall I take short steps or long ones? shall I stoop as if bowed with care, or walk erect with courage and pride? shall I gaze fearlessly on all about me, or shall I drop my eyes modestly to the ground? If man were not always acting, he would not think of these things at all, he would not bother his head about them, but would walk to his coronation or his execution according to his nature. In the last event this would have to be, in some cases, on all fours.
I stretch my eyes over the wide world, and the people in it, and I can see no one who is not playing a part; therefore respect the art of which you are all devotees, and, if you must act, learn to play your parts well. Study the acting of others, so that you may discover what part is being played by others.
The Gift for Acting is Rare
It is, therefore, not amazing that everybody is interested in the art of acting, and it is not amazing that every one thinks he can act. You have only to suggest private theatricals, when a house party is assembled at some country house, to verify the truth of the statement. Immediately commences a lively rivalry as to who shall play this part or that. Each one considers herself or himself best suited, and I have known private theatricals to lead to lifelong enmities.
It is surprising to discover how very differently people who have played parts all their lives deport themselves before the footlights. I was acquainted with a lady in London who had been the wife of a peer of the realm, who had been ambassadress at foreign courts, who at one time had been a reigning beauty, and who came to me, longing for a new experience, and implored me to give her an opportunity to appear upon the stage. In a weak moment I consented, and as I was producing a play, I cast her for a part which I thought she would admirably suit-that of a society woman. What that woman did and did not do on the stage passes all belief. She became entangled in her train, she could neither sit down nor stand up, she shouted, she could not be persuaded to remain at a respectful distance, but insisted upon shrieking into the actor’s ears, and she committed all the gaucheries you would expect from an untrained country wench. But because everybody is acting in private life, every one thinks he can act upon the stage, and there is no profession that has so many critics. Every individual in the audience is a critic, and knows all about the art of acting. But acting is a gift. It cannot be taught. You can teach people how to act acting–but you can’t teach them to act. Acting is as much an inspiration as the making of great poetry and great pictures. What is commonly called acting is acting acting. This is what is generally accepted as acting. A man speaks lines, moves his arms, wags his head, and does various other things; he may even shout and rant; some pull down their cuffs and inspect their finger nails; they work hard and perspire, and their skin acts. This is all easily comprehended by the masses, and passes for acting, and is applauded, but the man who is actually the embodiment of the character he is creating will often be misunderstood, be disliked, and fail to attract. Mediocrity rouses no opposition, but strong individualities and forcible opinions make enemies. It is here that danger lies. Many an actor has set out with an ideal, but, failing to gain general favour, has abandoned it for the easier method of winning popular acclaim. Inspiration only comes to those who permit themselves to be inspired. It is a form of hypnotism. Allow yourself to be convinced by the character you are portraying that you are the character. If you are to play Napoleon, and you are sincere and determined to be Napoleon, Napoleon will not permit you to be any one but Napoleon, or Richard III. Richard III., or Nero Nero, and so on. He would be a poor, miserable pretence of an actor who in the representation of any historical personage were otherwise than firmly convinced, after getting into the man’s skin (which means the exhaustive study of all that was ever known about him), that he is living that very man for a few brief hours. And so it is, in another form, with the creation or realisation of the author’s, the poet’s, fancy. In this latter case the actor, the poet actor, sees and creates in the air before him the being he delineates; he makes him, he builds him during the day, in the long hours of the night; the character gradually takes being; he is the actor’s genius; the slave of the ring, who comes when he calls him, stands beside him, and envelops him in his ghostly arms; the actor’s personality disappears; he is the character. You, you, and you, and all of you, have the right to object to the actor’s creation; you may say this is not your conception of Hamlet or Macbeth or Iago or Richard or Nero or Shylock–but respect his. And who can tell whether he is right or you are right? He has created them with much loving care; therefore don’t sneer at them–don’t jeer at them–it hurts! If you have reared a rosebush in your garden, and seen it bud and bloom, are you pleased to have some ruthless vandal tear the flowers from their stem and trample them in the mud? And it is not always our most beautiful children we love the best. The parent’s heart will surely warm toward its feeblest child.
The Creation of a Character
It is very evident that any man, be he an actor or no actor, can, with money and with good taste, make what is technically termed a production. There is, as an absolute matter of fact, no particular credit to be attached to the making of a production. The real work of the stage, of the actor, does not lie there. It is easy for us to busy ourselves, to pass pleasantly our time, designing lovely scenes, charming costumes, and all the paraphernalia and pomp of mimic grandeur, whether of landscape or of architecture, the panoply of war, or the luxury of royal courts. That is fun–pleasure and amusement. No; the real work of the stage lies in the creation of a character. A great character will live forever, when paint and canvas and silks and satins and gold foil and tinsel shall have gone the way of all rags.
But the long, lone hours with our heads in our hands, the toil, the patient study, the rough carving of the outlines, the dainty, delicate finishing touches, the growing into the soul of the being we delineate, the picture of his outward semblance, his voice, his gait, his speech, all amount to a labour of such stress and strain, of such loving anxiety and care, that they can be compared in my mind only to a mother’s pains. And when the child is born it must grow in a few hours to completion, and be exhibited and coldly criticised. How often, how often, have those long months of infinite toil been in vain! How often has the actor led the child of his imagination to the footlights, only to realise that he has brought into the world a weakling or a deformity which may not live! And how often he has sat through the long night brooding over the corpse of this dear figment of his fancy! It has lately become customary with many actor-managers to avoid these pangs of childbirth. They have determinedly declined the responsibility they owe to the poet and the public, and have instead dazzled the eye with a succession of such splendid pictures that the beholder forgets in a surfeit of the sight the feast that should feed the soul. This is what I am pleased to term talk versus acting. The representative actors in London are much inclined in this direction.
The student may well ask, “What are we to copy, and whom are we to copy?” Don’t copy any one; don’t copy any individual actor, or his methods. The methods of one actor–the means by which he arrives–cannot always be successfully employed by another. The methods and personality of one actor are no more becoming or suitable or adapted to another than certain gowns worn by women of fashion simply because these gowns are the fashion. In the art of acting, like the art of painting, we must study life–copy life! You will have before you the work of great masters, and you will learn very much from them–quite as much what to avoid as what to follow. No painting is perfect, and no acting is perfect. No actor ever played a part to absolute perfection. It is just as impossible for an actor to simulate nature completely upon the stage as it is impossible for the painter to portray on canvas the waves of the ocean, the raging storm clouds, or the horrors of conflagration.
The nearer the artist gets to nature, the greater he is. We may admire Rubens and Rembrandt and Vandyke and Gainsborough and Turner, but who will dare to say that any one of their pictures is faultless? We shall learn much from them all, but quite as much what to avoid as what to emulate. But when you discover their faults, do not forget their virtues. Look, and realise what it means to be able to do so much, And the actor’s art is even more difficult! For its execution must be immediate and spontaneous. The word is delivered, the action is done, and the picture is painted! Can I pause and say, “Ladies and gentlemen, that is not the way I wanted to do this, or to say that; if you will allow me to try again, I think I can improve upon it?”
The most severe critic can never tell me more, or scold me more than I scold myself. I have never left the stage satisfied with myself. And I am convinced that every artist feels as I do about his work. It is the undoubted duty of the critic to criticise, and that means to blame as well as to praise; and it must be confessed that, taking all things into consideration, the critics of this country are actuated by honesty of purpose and kindliness of spirit, and very often their work is, in addition, of marked literary value. Occasionally we will still meet the man who is anxious to impress his fellow citizens with the fact that he has been abroad, and tinctures all his views of plays and actors with references to Herr Dinkelspiegel or Frau Mitterwoorzer; or who, having spent a few hours in Paris, is forced to drag in by the hair Monsieur Popin or Mademoiselle Fifine. But as a matter of fact, is not the interpretation of tragedy and comedy by the American stage superior to the German and French?–for the whole endeavour in this country has been toward a closer adherence to nature. In France and in Germany the ancient method of declamation still prevails, and the great speeches of Goethe and Schiller and Racine and Corneille are to all intents and purposes intoned. No doubt this sounds very fine in German and French, but how would you like it now in English?
The old-time actor had peculiar and primitive views as to elocution and its uses. I remember a certain old friend of mine, who, when he recited the opening speech in “Richard III.,” and arrived at the line “In the deep bosom of the ocean buried,” suggested the deep bosom of the ocean by sending his voice down into his boots. Yet these were fine actors, to whom certain young gentlemen, who never saw them, constantly refer. The methods of the stage have completely changed, and with them the tastes of the people. The probability is that some of the old actors of only a few years ago would excite much merriment in their delineation of tragedy. A very great tragedian of a past generation was wont, in the tent scene in “Richard III.,” to hold a piece of soap in his mouth, so that, after the appearance of the ghosts, the lather and froth might dribble down his chin! and he employed, moreover, a trick sword, which rattled hideously; and, what with his foam-flecked face, his rolling eyes, his inarticulate groans, and his rattling blade, the small boy in the gallery was scared into a frenzy of vociferous delight!
Yet, whilst we have discarded these somewhat crude methods, we have perhaps allowed ourselves to wander too far in the other direction, and the critics are quite justified in demanding in many cases greater virility and force. The simulation of suppressed power is very useful and very advisable, but when the fire-bell rings the horses have got to come out, and rattle and race down the street, and rouse the town!
Whilst we are on the subject of these creations of the poets and the actors, do you understand how important is discipline on the stage? How can an actor be away from this earth, moving before you in the spirit he has conjured up, only to be dragged back to himself and his actual surroundings of canvas and paint and tinsel and limelights by some disturbing influence in the audience or on the stage? If you want the best, if you love the art, foster it. It is worthy of your gentlest care and your kindest, tenderest thought. Your silence is often more indicative of appreciation than your applause. The actor does not need your applause in order to know when you are in sympathy with him.
He feels very quickly whether you are antagonistic or friendly. He cares very little for the money, but a great deal for your affection and esteem. Discipline on the stage has almost entirely disappeared, and year after year the exercise of our art becomes more difficult. I am sorry to say some newspapers are, unwittingly perhaps, largely responsible for this. When an editor discharges a member of his force for any good and sufficient reason–and surely a man must be permitted to manage and control his own business–no paper will publish a two-column article, with appropriate cuts, detailing the wrongs of the discharged journalist, and the hideous crime of the editor! Even an editor–and an editor is supposed to be able to stand almost anything–would become weary after a while; discipline would cease, and your newspapers would be ill-served. Booth, Jefferson, and other actors soon made up their minds that the easiest road was the best for them. Mr. Booth left the stage management entirely to Mr. Lawrence Barrett and others, and Mr. Jefferson praised everybody and every thing. But this is not good for the stage. My career on the stage is nearly over, and until, shortly, I bid it farewell, I shall continue to do my best; but we are all doing it under ever-growing difficulties. Actors on the stage are scarce, actors off the stage, as I have demonstrated, I hope, are plentiful. Life insurance presidents–worthy presidents, directors, and trustees–have been so busy acting their several parts in the past, and are in the present so busy trying to unact them, men are so occupied from their childhood with the mighty dollar, the race for wealth is so strenuous and all-entrancing, that imagination is dying out; and imagination is necessary to make a poet or an actor; the art of acting is the crystallisation of all arts. It is a diamond in the facets of which is mirrored every art. It is, therefore, the most difficult of all arts. The education of a king is barely sufficient for the education of the comprehending and comprehensive actor. If he is to satisfy every one, he should possess the commanding power of a Caesar, the wisdom of Solomon, the eloquence of Demosthenes, the patience of Job, the face and form of Antinous, and the strength and endurance of Hercules.
The stage is not likely to die of neglect anywhere. But at this moment it cannot be denied that the ship of the stage is drifting somewhat hither and thither, Every breath of air and every current of public opinion impels it first in one direction and then in another, At one moment we may be said to be in the doldrums of the English society drama, or we are sluggishly rolling along in a heavy ground swell, propelled by a passing cat’s paw of revivals of old melodramas. Again we catch a very faint northerly breeze from Ibsen, or a southeaster from Maeterlinck and Hauptmann. Sometimes we set our sails to woo that ever-clearing breeze of Shakespeare, only to be forced out of our course by a sputter of rain, an Irish mist, and half a squall from George Bernard Shaw; but the greater part of the time the ship of the stage is careering wildly under bare poles, with a man lashed to the helm (and let us hope that, like Ulysses, he has cotton wool in his ears), before a hurricane of comic opera. We need a recognised stage and a recognised school. America has become too great, and its influence abroad too large, for us to afford to have recourse to that ancient and easy method of criticism which decries the American and extols the foreign. That is one of those last remnants of colonialism and provincialism which must depart forever.
A National Theatre
What could not be done for the people of this land, were we to have a great and recognised theatre! Consider our speech, and our manner of speech! Consider our voices, and the production of our voices! Consider the pronunciation of words, and the curious use of vowels! Let us say we have an established theatre, to which you come not only for your pleasure, but for your education. Of what immense advantage this would be if behind its presiding officer there stood a board of literary directors, composed of such men as William Winter, Howells, Edward Everett Hale, and Aldrich, and others equally fine, and the presidents of the great universities. These men might well decide how the American language should be spoken in the great American theatre, and we should then have an authority in this country at last for the pronunciation of certain words. It would finally be decided whether to say fancy or fahncy–dance or dahnce–advertisement or advertysement, and so with many other words; whether to call the object of our admiration “real elegant"–whether we should say “I admire” to do this or that, and whether we should say “I guess" instead of “I think.” And the voice! The education of the American speaking voice is, I am sure all will agree, of immense importance. It is difficult to love, or to continue to endure, a woman who shrieks at you; a high-pitched, nasal, stringy voice is not calculated to charm. This established theatre of which we dream should teach men and women how to talk; and how splendid it would be for future generations if it should become characteristic of American men and women to speak in soft and beautifully modulated tones!
These men of whom I have spoken could meet once a year in the great green-room of this theatre of my imagination, and decide upon the works to be produced–the great classics, the tragedies and comedies; and living authors should be invited and encouraged. Here, again, we should have at last what we so badly need, an encouragement for men and women to write poetry for the stage. Nothing by way of the beautiful seems to be written for us to-day, but perhaps the acknowledgment and the hall-mark of a great theatre might prove an incentive.
Training the Actor
The training of the actor! To-day there is practically none. Actors and actresses are not to be taught by patting them on the shoulders and saying, “Fine! Splendid!” It is a hard, hard school, on the contrary, of unmerciful criticism. And he is a poor master who seeks cheap popularity amongst his associates by glossing over and praising what he knows to be condemnable. No good result is to be obtained by this method, but it is this method which has caused a great many actors to be beloved, and the public to be very much distressed.
As for the practical side of an established theatre, I am absolutely convinced that the national theatre could be established in this country on a practical and paying basis; and not only on a paying basis, but upon a profitable basis. It would, however, necessitate the investment of a large amount of capital. In short, the prime cost would be large, but if the public generally is interested, there is no reason why an able financier could not float a company for this purpose. But under no circumstances must or can a national theatre, in the proper use of the term, be made an object of personal or commercial profit. Nor can it be a scheme devised by a few individuals for the exploitation of a social or literary fad. The national theatre must be given by the people to the people, and be governed by the people. The members of the national theatre should be elected by the board of directors, and should be chosen from the American and British stage alike, or from any country where English is the language of the people. Every inducement should be offered to secure the services of the best actors; by actors, I mean actors of both sexes; and those who have served for a certain number of years should be entitled to a pension upon retirement.
It is not necessary to bother with further details; I only mention this to impress the reader with the fact that the national theatre is a practical possibility. From my personal experience I am convinced that serious effort upon the American stage meets with a hearty endorsement.