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words,—especially in a country where the notes of a prima donna are synonymous with bank-notes.
The first play I remember to have seen was in a barn— tragedy of course—the tragedy dear to heroes of the buskin, and no less dear to their youthful auditors, "Richard the Third." Ah! I should have asked nothing better than to see Richard murdered in that barn every night! Then came other play-goings more legitimate; and readings of Shakspeare by bits, and here and there, I scarcely know how or when. For it may be reckoned among the best and dearest of our English privileges, that we are all more or less educated in Shakspeare; that the words and thoughts of the greatest of poets are, as it were, engrafted into our minds, and must, to a certain extent, enrich and fructify the most barren stock. Shakspeare came to me I can not tell how. But my first great fit of dramatic reading was, I am ashamed to say, of very questionable origin; a stolen pleasure; and therefore—alas! for our poor sinful human nature !—therefore by very far more dear.
This is the story.
My childhood was, as I have elsewhere said, a very happy one ; scarcely less happy in the great London school where I passed the five years between ten years old and fifteen, than at home: to tell the truth, I was well nigh as much spoilt in one place as in the other; but as I was a quiet and orderly little girl, and fell easily into the rules of the house, there was no great harm done, either to me or to the school discipline.
One exception, however, did exist, both to my felicity and to my obedience, and that one might be comprised in the single word—Music. »
How my father, who certainly never knew the tune of " God save the King" from that of the other national air "Rule Britannia," came to take into his head so strong a fancy to make me an accomplished musician, I could never rightly understand, but that such a fancy did possess him I found to my sorrow! From the day I was five years old, he stuck me up to the piano, and although teacher after teacher had discovered that I had neither ear, nor taste, nor application, he continued fully bent upon my learning it. By the time my London education commenced, it had assumed the form of a fixed idea.
The regular master employed in the school was Mr. Hook (father of Theodore), then a popular composer of Vauxhall songs, and an instructor of average ability. A large smooth-faced man he was, good-natured, and civil spoken; but failing, as in my case every body else had failed, to produce the slightost improvement, my father, not much struck by his appearance or manner, decided, as usual, that the fault lay with the teacher; and happening one day to fall in with a very clever little German professor, who was giving lessons to two of my school-fellows, he at once took me from the tuition of Mr. Hook, and placed me under that of Herr Schuberl, who, an impatient, irritable man of genius, very speedily avenged the cause of his rival music-master, by dismissing in her turn the unlucky pupil.
Things being in this unpromising state, I began to entertain some hope that my musical education would be given up altogether. In this expectation I did injustice to my father's pertinacity. This time he threw the blame upon the instrument; and because I could make nothing after eight years' thumping upon the piano-forte, resolved that I should become a great performer upon the harp.
It so happened that our school-house (the same, by the way, in which poor Miss Landon passed the greater part of her life), forming one angle of an irregular octagon place, was so built that the principal reception-room was connected with the entrance-hall by a long passage and two double doors. This room, fitted up with nicely bound books, contained, among other musical instruments, the harp, upon which I was sent to practice every morning; sent alone, most comfortably out of sight and hearing of every individual in the house, the only means of approach being through two resounding green baize doors, swinging to with a heavy bang, the moment they were let go; so that as the change from piano to harp, and from the impulsive Herr Schuberl to the prim, demure little Miss Essex, my new musicmistress, had by no means worked the miracle of producing in me any love of that detestable art, I very shortly betook myself to the book-shelves, and seeing a row of octavo volumes lettered "Theatre de Voltaire," I selected one of them, and had deposited it in front of the music-stand, and perched myself upon the stool to read it in less time than an ordinary pupil would have consumed in getting through the first three bars of" Ar Hyd y Nos."
The play upon which I opened was " Zaire.'' "Zaire" is not "Richard the Third," any more than M. de Voltaire is Shakspeare; nevertheless, the play has its merits. There is a certain romance in the situation; an interest in the story; a mixture of Christian piety and Oriental fervor, which strikes the imagination. So I got through "Zaire;" and when I had finished " Zaire," I proceeded to other plays—" jEdipe," " Merope," "Alzire," " Mahomet," plays well worth reading, but not so absorbing as to prevent my giving due attention to the warning doors, and putting the book in its place, and striking the chords of "Ar Hyd y Nos," as often as I heard a step approaching; or gathering up myself and my music, and walking quietly back to the schoolroom as soon as the hour for practice had expired.
But when the dramas of Voltaire were exhausted, and I had recourse to some neighboring volumes, the state of matters changed at once. The new volumes contained the comedies of Moliere, and, once plunged into the gay realities of his delightful world, all the miseries of this globe of ours—harp, music-books, practicings, and lessons—were forgotten; Miss Essex melted into thin air, "Ar Hyd y Nos" became a nonentity. I never recollected that there was such a thing as time; I never heard the warning doors; the only tribulations that troubled me were the tribulations of " Sganarelle;" the only lessons I thought about the lessons of the " BourgeoisGentilhomme." So I was caught; caught in the very fact of laughing till I cried, over the apostrophes of the angry father to the galley in which he is told his son has been taken captive. "due diable alloit-il faire dans cette galere!" The apostrophe comes true with regard to somebody in a scrape during every moment of every day, and was never more applicable than to myself at that instant.
Luckily, however, the person who discovered my delinquency was one of my chief spoilers, the husband of our good schoolmistress, himself a Frenchman, an adorer of the great dramatist of France, and no worshiper of music. He was also a very clever man, with a strong and just conviction that no proficiency in any art could be gained without natural qualifications and sincere good-will. Accordingly, when he could speak for laughing, what he said sounded far more like a compliment upon my relish for the comic drama, than a rebuke. I suppose that he spoke to the same effect to my father. At all events, the issue of the affaii was the dismissal of the poor little harp-mistress, and a present of a cheap edition of Moliere for my own reading. I have got the set still—twelve little foreign-looking books, unbound, but covered with a gay-looking pink paper, mottled with red, like certain carnations.
Such was my first regular, or rather irregular, introduction to the delightful world of the written drama. Since then I have read in the originals, or in such translations as I could lay my hands upon, the plays of almost every country, from the grand tragedy of the Greeks (perhaps, next to Shakspeare and Moliere, the finest drama that exists), down to Claudie, the charming French pastoral, which fell in my way last month.
Besides the plays themselves, the history of their writers has always had for me a singular attraction, especially when such histories have been written by themselves.
Colley Cibber, one of the earliest of these dramatic autobiogra phers, is also one of the most amusing. He flourished in wig and embroidery, player, poet, and manager, during the Augustan age of Queen Anne, somewhat earlier and somewhat later. A most egregious fop, according to all accounts, he was, but a very pleasant one notwithstanding, as your fop of parts is apt to be. Pope gained but little in the warfare he waged with him, for this plain reason, that the great poet accuses his adversary of dullness, which was not by any means one of his sins, instead of selecting one of the numerous faults, such as pertness, petulance, and presumption, of which he was really guilty.
His best book, the Apology for his Life, shows that he was a keen observer and a pleasant describer of his brother actors. My first extract is taken from a higher stage, and is one of the many graphic touches that give us so complete and personal a knowledge of the Merry Monarch, and make us almost partakers of the kindness which (unjustly, I suppose) was felt toward him by his subjects.
"In February, 1684-5, died King Charles II., who being the only king I had ever seen, I remember, young as I was, his death made a strong impression upon me, as it drew tears from the eyes of multitudes who looked no farther into him than I did. But what, perhaps, gave King Charles this peculiar possession of so many hearts was his affable and easy manner in conversing, which is a quality that goes farther with the greater part of mankind than many higher virtues which in a prince might more immediately regard the public prosperity. Even his indolent amusement of playing with his dogs, and feeding his ducks in St. James's Park (which I have seen him do), made the common people adore him.''
The allusion in the next passage is probably to Titus Oates:"The inferior actors took occasion, whenever they appeared as bravoes or murderers, to make themselves appear as frightful and inhuman figures as possible. In King Charles's time, this low skill was carried to such an extravagance, that the King himself, who was black-browed and of a swarthy complexion, passed a pleasant remark upon his observing the grim looks of the murderers in 'Macbeth,' when turning to his people in the box about him, 'Pray what is the meaning,' said he, 'that we never see a rogue in a play, but odds fish! they always clap him on a black periwig, when it is well known one of the greatest rogues in England always wears a fair one V" Here are some vivid portraits of actors.
"This actor (Sandford) in his manner of speaking varied very much from those I have already mentioned. His voice had an acute and piercing tone, which struck every syllable of his words distinctly upon the ear. He had likewise a peculiar skill in his way of marking out to an audience whatever he judged worth their more than ordinary notice. When he delivered a command, he would sometimes give it more force by seeming to slight the ornament of harmony. * * * Had Sandford lived in Shakspeare's time, I am confident his judgment would have chosen him above all other actors to have played his Richard III. I leave his person out of the question, which though naturally made for it, yet that would have been the least part of his recommendation. Sandford had stronger claims to it. He had sometimes an uncouth stateliness in his motion, a harsh and sullen pride of speech, a meditating brow, a stern aspect, occasionally changing into an almost ludicrous triumph over all goodness and virtue; from thence falling into the most persuasive gentleness and soothing candor of a designing heart. These, I say, must have preferred him to it."
* * *
"Nokes was an actor of a quite different genius from any I have ever read, heard of, or seen, since or before his time; and