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half of them lovers, without a suspected favourite among them: and though she might be said to have been the universal passion, and under the highest temptations, her constancy in resisting them served but to increase the number of her admirers. And this perhaps you will more easily believe, when I extend not my encomiums on her person beyond a sincerity that can be suspected; for she had no greater claim to beauty than what the most desirable brunette might pretend 10. But her youth and lively aspect threw out such a glow of health and cheerfulness, that on the stage few spectators that were not past it could behold her without desire. It was even a fashion among the gay and young to have a taste or tendre for Mrs Bracegirdle. She inspired the best authors to write for her; and two of them, when they gave her a lover in a play, seemed palpably to plead their own passion, and make their private court to her in fictitious characters. In all the chief parts she acted, the desirable was so predominant that no judge could be cold enough to consider from what other particular excellence she became delightful. To speak critically of an actress that was extremely good, were as hazardous as to be positive in one's opinion of the best opera singer. People often judge by comparison where there is no similitude in the performance. So that in this case we have only taste to appeal to, and of taste there can be no disputing. I shall therefore only say of Mrs Bracegirdle, that the most eminent authors always chose her for their favourite character, and shall leave that uncontestable proof of her merit to its own value. Yet let me say there were two very different characters in which she acquitted herself with uncommon applause; if any thing could excuse that desperate extravagance of love, that almost frantic passion, of Lee's “ Alexander the Great," it must have been when Mrs Bracegirdle was his Statira : as when she acted Millamant, all the faults, follies, and affectation, of that agreeable tyrant, were venially melted down into so many charms and attractions of a conscious beauty. In other characters, where singing was a necessary part of them, her voice and action gare a pleasure which good sense in those days was not ashamed to give praise to.
She retired from the stage in the height of her favour from the public, when most of her contemporaries whom sh had been bred up with were declining, in the year 1710; nor could she be persuaded to return to it under new masters, upon the most advantageous terms that were offered her; excepting one day about a year after, to assist her good friend Mr Betterton, when she played Angelica, in “ Love for Love,” for his benefit. She has still the happiness to retain her usual cheerfulness, and to be, without the transitory charm of youth, agreeable.
If in my account of these memorable actors I have not deviated from truth, which in the least article I am not conscious of, may we not venture to say they had not their equals at any one time upon any theatre in Europe ? Or if we confine the comparison to that of France alone, I believe no other stage can be much disparaged by being left out of the question, which cannot properly be decided by the single merit of any one actor; whether their Baron or our Betterton might be the superior (take which side you please) that point reaches either way but to a thirteenth part of what I contend for, viz. that no stage at any one period could show thirteen actors standing all in equal lights of excellence in their profession; and I am the bolder in this challenge to any other nation, because no theatre, having so extended a variety of natural characters as the English, can have a demand for actors of such various capacities; why then, where they could not be equally wanted, should we suppose them at any one time to have existed ?
How imperfect soever this copious account of them may be, I am not without hope at least it may in some degree show what talents are requisite to make actors valuable; and if that may any ways inform, or assist the judgment of future spectators, it may as often be of service to their public entertainments; for as their
hearers are, so will actors be, worse or better as the false or true taste applauds or discommends them. Hence only can our theatres improve or must degenerate.
There is another point relating to the bard condition of those who write for the stage, which I would recommend to the consideration of their hearers; which is, that the extreme severity with which they damn a bad play, seems too terrible a warning to those whose untried genius might hereafter give them a good one; whereas it might be a temptation to a latent author to make the experiment, could he be sure that though not approved, his muse might at least be dismissed with decency; but the vivacity of our modern critics is of late grown so riotous, that an unsuccessful author has no more mercy shown him than a notorious cheat in a pillory; every fool, the lowest member of the mob, becomes a wit, and will have a fling at him. They come now to a new play like hounds to a carcass, and are all in a full cry, sometimes for an hour together, before the curtain rises, to throw it amongst them. Sure those gentlemen cannot but allow, that a play condemned after a fair hearing falls with thrice the ignominy as when it is refused that common justice.
But when their critical interruptions grow so loud, and of so long a continuance, that the attention of quiet people (though not so complete critics) is terrified, and the skill of the actors quite disconcerted by the tumult, the play then seems rather to fall by assassins than by a lawful sentence. Is it possible that such auditors can receive delight or think it any praise to them, to prosecute so injurious, so unmanly a treatment? And though perhaps the compassionate on the other side (who know they have as good a right to clap and support, as others have to catcall, damn, and destroy) may oppose this oppression, their good-nature, alas ! con. tributes little to the redress; for in this sort of civil war the unhappy author, like a good prince while hi. subjects are at mortal variance, is sure to be a loser by a victory on either side; for still the commonwealth, his play, is during the conflict torn to pieces. While this is the case, while the theatre is so turbulent a sea, and so infested with pirates, what poetical merchant of any substance will venture to trade in it? If these valiant gentlemen pretend to be lovers of plays, why will they deter gentlemen from giving them such as are fit for gentlemen to see? In a word, this new race of critics seem to me like the lion whelps in the Tower, who are so boisterously gamesome at their meals, that they dash down the bowls of milk ught for their own breakfast.
As a good play is certainly the most rational and the highest entertainment that human invention can produce, let that be my apology (if I need any) for having thus freely delivered my mind in behalf of those gentlemen who under such calamitous hazards may hereafter be reduced to write for the stage, whose case I shall compassionate from the same motive that prevailed on Dido to assist the Trojans in distress. Non ignara mali miseris succurrere disco.
Virg. Or, as Dryden has it,
I learn to pity woes so like my own. If those particular gentlemen have sometimes made me the humbled object of their wit and humour, their triumph at least has done me this involuntary service, that it has driven me a year or two sooner into a quiet life, than otherwise my own want of judgment might have led me to. I left the stage before my strength left me; and though I came to it again for some few days a year or two after, my reception there not only turned to iny account, but seemed a fair invitation that I would make my visits more frequent; but give over a win ner, can be no very imprudent resolution.
But as you
The author's first step upon the stage.—His discouragements.
The best actors in Europe ill used.-A revolution in their favour.-King William grants them a license to act in Lincoln's-inn- fields. The author's distress, in being thougbt a worse actor than a poet.—Reduced to write a part for himself.—His success.-More remarks upon Theatrical action.-Some upon himself.
Having given you the state of the theatre at my first admission to it, I am now drawing towards the several revolutions it suffered in my own time. find, by the setting out of my history, that I always intended myself the hero of it, it may be necessary to let you know me in my obscurity, as well as in my higher light, when I became one of the theatrical triumvirate.
The patentees, who were now masters of this united and only company of comedians, seemed to make it a rule that no young persons desirous to be actors should be admitted into pay under at least half a year's probation; wisely knowing, that how early soever they might be approved of, there could be no great fear of losing them, while they had then no other market to go to. But alas! pay was the least of my concern; the joy and privilege of every day seeing plays for nothing, I thought was a sufficient consideration for the best of my services. So that it was no pain to my patience, that I waited full three quarters of a year before I was taken into a salary of ten shillings per week; which, with the assistance of food and raiment at my father's house, I then thought a most plentiful accession, and myself the happiest of mortals.
The first thing that enters into the head of a young actor is that of being a hero: in this ambition I was soon snubbed, by the insufficiency of my voice; to which might be added, an uninformed meagre person (though then not ill made) with a dismal pale complexion. Under these disadvantages, I had but a melancholy. prospect of ever playirg a lover with Mrs Bracegirdle,