Open main menu

Hamilton Men I Have Painted 254f Sir Henry Irving.jpg

SIR HENRY IRVING


AT the time that Irving was giving sittings to Onslow Ford, for the Hamlet, I often met the great actor: and at one of these meetings it was suggested that I should make a drawing of him similar to a pastel I had made of Ford.

Irving asked me to come to the Lyceum Theatre and draw him in his dressing-room. For some reason the drawing proceeded badly, and I had to discard the first attempt and begin a second. When it was well advanced, Irving went behind me and, looking over my shoulder for a minute without saying a word, crossed to the door leading down to the stage and called, "Bram! Come here!" In a minute Bram Stoker appeared, and Irving, who was standing behind me, said to him, "Who does that look like?"

"Moses in the city," replied Bram.

Irving's impersonation of Shylock was admirable. I liked him better as Becket; and he could have played Macbeth if he had not misread the intention of the play. To him Macbeth was a poetic villain from birth; and he once, I believe, wrote a magazine article to show that he was right in that interpretation of the thane's character. Lewis Campbell, of St. Andrews, did not agree with him.

I can well remember going to the Lyceum to see his Macbeth. When he appeared on the stage, his expression, attitude, and demeanour indicated so truly the scoundrel, that I wondered how Duncan could address him as "worthy," and I turned to my wife and said, "He takes Macbeth to be a rogue from the first," and that notion was so much in dissonance to my own that the night's entertainment was spoiled for me, and I never saw him again in the rôle.

The play becomes utterly commonplace and meaningless if the assumption be made that Macbeth is an ordinary criminal. What becomes of the witches' prophecies, the wife's "screwing up your courage to the sticking point," the hesitation of the tender-hearted but ambitious Cawdor, the cowardly remorse, followed by the recklessness of despair? All these subtleties were thrown away on a man really bad, and fearless of the consequences of his misdeeds—or was he just trying to fool himself and all the others by pretending to be tempted by ambition, by soothsayers, and a relentlessly ambitious woman?

If the play is not intended to show by degrees how a brave, superstitious, and ambitious man of honourable character can be led astray by occult warnings of the inevitableness of destiny, by the taunts of a contemptuous wife, and by the spurrings of a vaulting ambition, then it was written to small purpose.

The author clearly intended to depict the wavering moods of a weak mind in a brave body, tortured by temptation. To make Macbeth's villainy innate and premeditated is equalled by the attempt of Mrs. Stille of Philadelphia to show that Lady Macbeth is a much misunderstood and maligned woman, whose chief fault lay in her over-devotion to a weak and wicked husband.

When I questioned Irving about his reading of Macbeth, he explained his views without convincing me of their merit.

Ellen Terry was in disagreement with both Coquelin aîné and Irving on the question of "feeling a part." The two latter claimed that the best results were obtained by a cold reasoning performance of a part, while Ellen Terry maintained that anger must be real anger, hate real hate, and love real love.

If she were really mad as Ophelia or Lady Macbeth, it is just as well that the madness is only assumed for the moment. That most polished actor, Coquelin, not only did not feel the passion of his part, but he conveyed no emotion to his hearers, save admiration for his technical skill: laughter might be evoked by his mimicry, but tears refused to flow at the sight of his misfortunes. Tact is the great artist, in life as in music, or in painting or sculpture, or architecture. He who touches you wins your sympathy, even though his handling be not quite perfect.

Sargent, in his painted story of the religions, excites no religious emotion, but Thouron does in the Flaming Heart.

One other point about Irving—was he a great artist despite his mannerisms, or partly because of them? An actor without mannerisms is like a musician without hair. Irving may have assumed his peculiar gait and speech, just as Puvis de Chavannes divested his designs of academic forms and replaced them by archaic inaccuracies, to impress, not only the people, but the connoisseurs. The hero of a drama or a tragedy is not expected to be a conventional or commonplace character, unless Ibsen creates him. There is an extreme range and variety of personalities in Shakespeare's plays, but they are all marked men. If Irving had invented a change in mannerism—one for Lear, one for Becket, and one for Macbeth—he would have freed himself from the criticism of the objectors. But his speech and his gait betrayed his own personality showing through the disguise, and that was his sign-manual and seal of nobility. Without his mannerisms there would not have been the touch of Irving, and by his tact he was greater than the greatest actor of his day.