« AnteriorContinuar »
CLAIMS OF THE DRAMATIC PROFESSION.
BY MATTHEW CAREY.
It cannot be doubted or denied, that the illiberal prejudices against players, which many of us imbibed in our early days, retain over us an unreasonable and lasting influence. But surely, as we have emancipated ourselves from many other absurd and contemptible European prejudices, we ought to regard this subject more correctly. It requires but a very moderate exercise of the reasoning faculty, to see, that there is nothing necessarily disreputable or dishonourable in the profession of a player. Properly conducted, it is not only harmless, but laudable. Its objects are, by an exhibition of natural and probable events, to raise our abhorrence of vice and our love of virtue. That these objects are sometimes lost sight of, and that the tendency of many dramatic performances, is pernicious, cannot be questioned. But the poorest sciolist must know, that it is the extreme of absurdity to argue against the use, from the abuse of any thing whatever. To form a perfect player requires a rare combination of talents, which fall to the lot of so very few, that there are not many more first-rate players than first-rate poets, painters, or historians. This view of the subject should rescue the profession from the undeserved obloquy under which it has laboured.
The fate of those persons concerned in the theatre, whether managers or performers, is very far from envi
able, even when there is not an additional portion of bitterness infused into it by unfeeling spectators. A new piece, of intrinsic merit, is very frequently brought forward at a vast expense for new scenery, decorations, &c. Unfavourable weather, the caprice of fashion, the malice of critics, or other circumstances, will often destroy all chance of success. I have seen Mrs. Siddons, who was engaged, at an enormous salary, to play in Crowstreet theatre, Dublin, perform several nights successively, to empty pit and boxes, owing to political squabbles, which rendered it for a time unfashionable to appear at the theatre.
The remuneration which the greater part of the performers receive, is but moderate. Their dress and appearance must be genteel, and require considerable expense. They rarely accumulate wealth. Their application must be intense. Their time and talents are obsequiously devoted to promote the entertainment of the public, in those hours snatched from the fatigues and pressure of business. All these circumstances combined, entitle them to be treated with politeness and decency, until they forfeit their claim by misconduct. But when an audience makes no return for their best endeavours, but the most mortifying neglect, or even insult and abuse, all stimulus to arrive at excellence is destroyed , and the rational enjoyment which the theatre is so well calculated to afford, is by these means extremely diminished.
To no profession whatever is there less justice or impartiality observed than to players. A few of them, who have, by accident, or by the advantage of particular patronage, as often perhaps as by real talents, crept into public favor, are invariably welcomed on and ushered off the stage with re-echoing plaudits, and this in many instances, when they are deserving of reproach ; while the
remainder, be their exertions, industry, or judiciousness of performance what they may, are treated with chilling neglect, or even grossly abused and hissed to furnish sport for a thoughtless or unfeeling audience.
When an actor performs his part characteristically and appropriately, he is entitled to approbation, whatever may be its grade. We may justly say with the poet,
“ Act well your part, there all the honour lies.”
In the same manner as we cannot expect the talents of a general from a common soldier, nor that the history of the latter can be as important as that of the former, it would be injustice to expect as much interest given to the character of a Tybalt, as to that of a Romeo ; or as much abilities displayed by those actors who generally perform the first, as by those who represent the second. But Tybalt may be so correctly and justly performed, as to merit praise, when Romeo may richly earn castigation.
The effort to excel, even when unattended with complete success, ought to be regarded with indulgence and lenity-Modest unassuming merit ought always to be taken under the protection of the generous. Many a timid performer, whose debut promised but little in his favour, has, by kindness and fostering encouragement, been elevated to a very high degree of respectability in his profession, to which he never would have attained, had he been treated with rudeness and severity. This has been remarkably the case with some of the brightest ornaments of the British stage. Nothing but incorrigible impudence, vanity, or gross neglect of the audience ought to experience the merciless severity which we sometimes see exercised in newspaper criticisms, and exhibited in the uproar too often witnessed in the theatre.
When a performer, after due time for preparation, makes his appearance on the stage, depending almost wholly on the prompter's assistance, he deserves no mercy: and were Roscius or Garrick themselves restored to life, and guilty of such insolent conduct, they ought to be hissed. This displays so total an indifference for the audience, and such a dereliction of duty, as admits of no apology, and unquestionably deserves the most caustic criticism.
Those who attend dramatic representations, ought to cherish a sincere disposition to be gratified. This is the dictate of sound policy, as it respects themselves, wholly independent of all regard for the performers. They thus multiply their enjoyments. Duly considering their own imperfection, and the difficulty of attaining complete excellence in the theatrical line, they ought invariably to lean to the side of lenity and indulgence, unless to repress and mortify overweening arrogance, or to punish and confound insolent neglect. These are not entitled to mercy. They should receive none. To bestow applause, when truly earned, they ought to regard not merely as an act of generosity, but a real incumbent duty. Every grade of performers, from the highest to the lowest, will invariably act better and with more spirit, under the cheering and joy-inspiring effects of bursts of applause, than when the audience regard them as frigidly and unfeelingly as if they were delivering lectures on Euclid's Elements, or on the ethics of the Stoic philosophers. The tameness and sang froid of an audience communicates itself by sympathy to the performers.
By pursuing the plan here recommended, the audience will inspire the players with confidence, give respectability to the theatre, and more completely attain the end they propose by visiting it, than by the present wretched system of paralyzing indifference, or revolting insult.
Will the formidable host of newspaper critics allow me to address a few words to them on this subject, with all due deference? The object of theatrical criticism is not, as some seem to believe, merely to expose faults, and deal forth censure. This is a most egregious error, and, to say no worse of it, implies great defect of judgment at least. There is more true taste and infinitely more goodness evinced, by an ingenious and accurate discovery of excellence, and by appropriate and just encomium, than by the detection and display of imperfection and deformity. Even when censure is really necessary, it ought to be delivered with delicacy. The critic ought to consider what would be his own sensations, were he dragged forward and abused without the power of defence. All the purposes of criticism may be effectually answered without wounding the feelings of performers, even of mediocre talents. On such, praise may be very frequently bestowed without violating truth ; and opportunities of doing this, ought to be seized, when they
Over occasional errors, arising from the imperfection inherent in human nature, a veil may be sometimes drawn without impropriety. Let the critic bear in eternal remembrance, that he wages a very unequal war with the performer, who, however his superior in other points, may be totally unaccustomed to write, or, even if he be not, is debarred of the advantage of newspapers to make his defence, or to retort the attack—and is even totally ignorant of his persecutors. This consideration would disarm a truly generous assailant. Such a man would scorn to attack an enemy on unfair terms. Let the critic, too, reflect, that however elegantly he rounds off his periods, and however sportively he may write, his labours tend to dry up the source which supplies sustenance to a considerable number of people. While he is thinning