The London Magazine/1820–1829/Series 1/Volume 9/April/The Ghost-player's Guide
THE GHOST-PLAYER'S GUIDE,
a hint to two great houses.
I have often heard the question proposed, amongst the characters in Shakspeare’s plays, which is the most difficult to be personated adequately? When proposed to me, I have invariably answered,—Hamlet, or the Fool in Lear. Others would perhaps substitute Falstaff or Caliban; but the former is merely a strong portrait, or caricature, of nature, and the latter but a low estate of it. Many men are Falstaffs in Person and disposition; the poet supplies them with wit and words; so that the character may be approximately, if not adequately, represented. Caliban is man in a state of brutality, nor was the old world “exhausted” for his character. I once knew a perfect Caliban; he was a slave to the servants of the school where I was educated; and my recollection of him affords me a practical proof of the wonderful extent of observation which has always been ascribed to the poet. The being of whom I speak, was not an idiot, but was active in body and cunning in mind. His propensities were brutal, his ideas grovelling, his manners and person disagreeable; he was prone to imprecation, conformed himself only to the whip, knew little of language, but was fluent as far as he did know; though indolent, he had none of the listlessness which distinguishes fools and naturals, he was in fact a human brute,—a perfect Caliban. Plebeian life will furnish us with many instances of quà proximè Calibans. So that the only” difficulty in the stage-representation of such a being, is to find a man who has understanding sufficient to perform the character, and presence of mind to dissemble it throughout the performance. But Hamlet is an indefinite character, and the Fool an inconsistent one. I am far from asserting that the character of the Prince of Denmark is untrue to nature: on the contrary, the very uncertainty and unfixedness of his disposition makes him peculiarly mortal. It is an arduous task however to represent the wild variety of his character, and to give an appearance of identity to that which is ever changing from the first act to the last, and is left undetermined by the catastrophe. As to the Fool, no simpleton ever coined such wit, no such wit was ever found in a genuine fool, which the poet manifestly declares his fool to be. Hence the difficulty of the performance; especially in these civilized times, when the office of fool is never professedly sustained, and must therefore appear unintelligible and unnatural to an audience. But however serious the obstacles may be, which both these characters present to the actor, in the ay of perfect delineation, they vanish before those presented by another:—the Ghost in Hamlet is indisputably the true answer to the question proposed, it is by far the most difficult character in all Shakspeare to be adequately personated. Indeed I am surprised at my own obliviousness in not recollecting that this must be the case; for it is evident that such a part being so remote from humanity, the difficulty of adequately representing it, by a human being, must be insurmountable. The particulars which make up the characters of Falstaff and Hamlet, though they may never have existed together in any one man, have severally existed in different men. The same may be said of the Fool, and a due combination of simplicity and satire might perhaps be displayed by an ingenious actor, so as to give a verisimilitude to this inconsistent personage. Even Caliban has a congeniality of nature and disposition, in the lowest degree, with us mortals; it is much easier for an actor to embrutify his manners to the ferodity of a savage, than to refine them to the perfection with which we invest a spirit. But the attributes which we impute to a spirit, are many of them neither to be met with in one, nor in different men, such for instance as ubiquity, or the power of evanescence, impassiveness of stance, &c.; and even those attributes with which all men are invested, such as visible form, voice, &c. when they are imputed to spirits, it is always in such a degree of excellence as never was enjoyed by a human being. I speak of poetical creations. The Ghost in Hamlet, founded on a vulgar and even ludicrous basis, is beyond all doubt the noblest personification of the Spiritual essence afforded in any age or by any writer. The Gods of Homer are very ordinary mortals, most of them very wicked, and many of them very contemptible beings. The Angels in Paradise Lost are cold and characterless: Satan himself wants individuality; we have him not in our "mind's eye;" all we can collect of him is, that he was very bad, very bold, and very big. But in the character of the Ghost, all that is sublime, all that is noble, all that is terrific, unite to strike the imagination; his misfortunes, his injuries, and his sufferings, combine to throw an air of interest over his person; majestic yet melancholy, impassioned yet subdued, his human attributes are all grand and imposing, his supernatural those which inspire the most awful ideas. The noblest creation of sublunary fancy will, I acknowledge, relish of mortality; the poet was obliged to invest this imaginary being with some human qualities; but our notions are more refined and purified from earthly dregs in this, than in any other character I have ever met with. From these circumstances arises the superior difficulty of adequate personation; it is from hence I conclude that this character most transcends the powers of histrionic art. Of course, I am to be understood as speaking of characters representable all; Ariel, who lies in the bell of a cowslip, and flies on the back of a bat, together with the little people of Fairy-land, Oberon, Titania, Puck, &c. are out of the question. To re present the Ghost in Hamlet, with anything like an approach to effect, would demand far higher qualifications than are to be met with in Ghost-players in general; it would require all the slender majesty of the elder Kemble's figure, all his imperatorial dignity of movement and gesture, all the scrupulous attention to costume for which that judicious actor was so remarkable,-yet, after all, leave the greatest difficulties unsubdued. Where shall we find the unearthly, heart-thrilling voice, which the fancy imputes to these supernatural beings,-the aerial, tremulous, half-formed syllables, melting into the winds, and passing over the ear as if they were breathed, not spoken? Where shall we find the shrill sweetness and piercing melody of utterance, in which the Spirit of the unfortunate monarch must be supposed to pour forth his complaints, in tones at once melancholy and impressive? It is not to be attained by any human power of articulation; here, as well as in the outward visible form, the human attributes are refined to a degree of excellence, to which no actor could ever hope to arrive, however suaviloquent in voice and majestic in person. The elder Kemble was the only man who could have approached the character; had his voice been more harmonious, and his manner less artificial, less unpoetic (for the Ghost is essentially a poetic creation), he might have realized in a great measure the poet's conception. So that, independent of the superhuman attributes, power of evanescence and impassiveness of substance (displayed in the first scene), it is impossible for any actor so to discipline his actions and modulate his voice, as to personify with success our idea of the Ghost in Hamlet; no art can teach him to assume its surpassing majesty of form, its mild sublimity of manner, and above all its voice, in which the tones of earthly passion and the music of the spheres should mingle. There is nothing superhuman in the character of Hamlet himself, no "virtue" in him which might not be assumed by the actor; he is fat, cogitabund, and asthmatic.
The difficulty of personating imaginary characters has been augmented tenfold since the age of Shakespeare, when the existence of Spirits was scarcely doubted and by no means disbelieved. Astrology, Demonology, and the doctrine of Apparitions, were popular and general. By the advance of knowledge, these visionary systems have been overthrown: at the light of true philosophy, spirits, demons, and apparitions, disappeared. Few play-goers believe, now-a-days, in the existence of ghosts; in our sceptical times, the appearance of such airy beings has become quite a rarity. They scarcely durst even show their faces in their old haunts, the nursery, the kitchen, or the cottage; church-yards are beginning to be considered as little better than green fields with broad stones scattered over them, shrouds as nothing but sheets, and coffins but clumsy compositions of deal boards, tin, and twelve-penny nails. This change of public opinion has rendered what was never very easy to the performer, superlatively difficult. It has now become a matter of exquisite delicacy to prevent the Ghost in Hamlet or Macbeth (especially the former, who is vocal), from exciting feelings either of offence or risibility in the audience. More so, even, than with respect to the Witches; for any ugly old ill-tempered woman has nothing to do but get a-stride of a broomstick, and she may still be esteemed as a witch if she chooses. A dead man, on the other hand, has to break through six feet of mother earth, before we can be induced to set him down for a ghost. The appearance of a Witch is therefore not so obnoxious to splenetic remark as that of a ghost. Both are, however, very apt to excite merriment in an audience; I have frequently heard those around me laugh, positively laugh, at the entrée of the Ghost in Hamlet, the noblest, the most pathetic character ever delineated by a poet. It is but one step from the sublime to the ridiculous; this which is terrifically grand and in the closet, becomes often highly ludicrous on the stage. But as if the natural difficulties of this character were not enough; as if the advance of knowledge, and consequent change of public opinion to which I have alluded, had not rendered the introduction of ghosts upon the stage sufficiently hazardous to the gravity of the play, and an affair of the utmost nicety to the performer;—by the force of mismanagement, and the liberal exercise of bad taste, if it be not rather the effect of unpardonable neglect, the Ghost is converted into a stumbling-block, over which the genius of Shakspeare himself does not enable the actor to ride triumphant. Yet I cannot persuade myself but that a very little judgement, and a very little attention bestowed this matter by the managers of our theatres and the gentlemen upon whom ghost-playing usually devolves—would remedy the evil I complain of in a great degree. Although it may be impossible to do the character complete justice, it is certainly capable of a much more adequate representation than it ever obtains upon the modern stage. Under this impression, I beg leave to subjoin a hint for the consideration of our two great Houses in Drury Lane and Covent Garden, which I think they might improve to their own and the public advantage. A new discipline might be introduced with considerable effect and very little trouble, as far as regards ghost-playing, which would, I think, be found of equal benefit to the author, manager, performer, and spectator. I must premise that with respect to the physical qualifications of the performers themselves, however, the nostrums I am about to submit boast no secret plastic power whatever; they will not enable a dwarf to stretch himself into a giant, nor a rosy prelatical pot-bellied son of Thalia to reduce himself to a fine cadaverous, ghost-playing condition of person; they will not endue leathern lungs and brazen thorax with the power of emitting the harmonious, shrill-sweet, vanishing voice which belongs to the spiritual tribe: but where the qualifications for ghost-playing are not absolutely of a negative description, the following remarks may perhaps be of some service. They chiefly relate to the Ghost in Hamlet, but may easily be rendered of general application; and I expect that no gentleman will hereafter think of treading the boards in a white sheet, crustaceous panoply, or flesh-coloured pantaloons, without having previously consulted the Ghost-player's Guide, by which title I have chosen to designate the discipline prescribed in the following paragraphs.
In the first place: under the present regime, the ghost marches in a mathematical right line across the stage, within truncheon’s length of the foot-lights. Now this is about as ill-judged a proceeding as it is an unnecessary one. By this means, whatever unhappy defects the body corporal of the ghost may labour under, whether it be redundant in point of flesh, or curtailed in point of stature, whether it besupported on pins or pillars,—whatever be its defects, they are sure to be glaringly exhibited. While thus paraded before the audience, wantonly paraded, in the full blaze of the burners, and for the whole breadth of the stage. Besides, any lapse in the gait, a trip or a faux-pas, any flaw or fissure in the panoply, an ill-fitting greave, or a basin-shaped helmet, nay the very crackling of the buckram, can be recognized with the utmost facility, whilst the Apparition thus stalks, upon the very brow, I may say, of the orchestra, near enough to shake hands if he chose it with his sublunary acquaintances in the pit, and at a pace funereal, as if to invite an inquisition which he is seldom prepared to defy. Now there is not the smallest necessity that the Ghost should expose himself, with so much danger to the solemnity of the scene, in this barefaced manner; there is nothing in the part which calls upon him to display his person and accoutrements (both of which are generally of such a description as should court the shade) like a peripatetic brother at Bartholomew Fair. The first rule, then, to be observed by the judicious Ghost-player, is,—never to let his desire for admiration tempt him to the front of the stage, unless the mechanism of the piece compel him to transgress this salutary precept. Let the ghost always appear in the back ground; or if necessary, let him walk down the stage by the side scenes, disappearing as distantly from the proscenium as possible. In short,—let him always be the most distant point of visibility, and be as dim, as shadowy, and indefinite, as is compatible with being seen.
In the second place: our Ghost-players, instead of sweeping over the stage in a suit comporting with the dignity and darkness of the scene, generally choose to flaunt it in a crimson scarf, or a blanket cloak tastily suspended from the shoulder after the manner of an hussar’s hanging-jacket, or falling over the corslet like a waggoner’s smock-frock. I speak of such as I have lately seen at our two great houses: if others of the fraternity show a better judgment in the choice of their wardrobe, they are to consider themselves as not affected by this criticism. But as for those gentlemen-ghosts who dress themselves out as if they were going to a masque or a fancy-ball, in garments foreign to their character, it is proper that I should inform them,—they quite mistake the matter. The second rule promulgated by the Ghost-player’s Guide, in allusion to this circumstance, is this, videlicet: that a ghost should wear no flaring colours whatever, but (if he must wear clothes at all) be as dark, and as dismal as an alchemist or an undertaker, as muffled and mysterious as a monk or a mourner. This hint should be directed perhaps rather to the managers than to performers, as it is not always in the power of a ghost to choose his own clothes. And I would earnestly beseech the managers of the two houses aforesaid, to convert a little of the superfluous bullion which blazes upon their scenery, and flickers upon the tops, tails, and toes, of their dancers, into a suit of apparel fit for a gentleman-ghost to appear in. They owe this much at least to Shakspeare, whose divine works exalt them from masters of puppet-shows to managers of theatres. If it were requisite for a pantomime knight to appear in a suit of mail, how the anvils of Drury would ring, and the bellows of Covent Garden roar, to furnish out the doughty hero of a few nights’ entertainment! What burnishing, clattering, riveting, and lacquering! the helmet alone would gild the dome of St. Paul’s, and its crest equip a stud of Arabians or an aviary of ostriches with fresh tails, if they were wanted. But alas! the King of Denmark and the noble Banquo are fain to make shift with a suit of buckram and a wooden visor, a red handkerchief or a blanket! O England! England! you are unworthy of a Shakspeare. If you deserved such a son, your indignation would sacrifice at a blow the gaudy insolence of those pageants who dare profane the stage where King Hamlet has just appeared in panoply that would disgrace a suttler,—a suit of buckram and a blanket! Let me ask you this, ye self-sufficient Britons! What guerdon would the nation you have the arrogance to despise, what guerdon would France bestow upon a Gallic Shakspeare? Why she would cast his image in solid gold, and fall down on her knees, and worship it as a god, as surely as the curtain unveiled it each night in its proper temple. She would all but drink the blood of him who dared to play King Hamlet in buckram and a blanket. I firmly trust you will never see a tragedy worth three hours’ eye-sight, till you make the ghost of Hamlet fit to be looked at; for it is you who keep the key of the wardrobe, not the manager. Only show one tithe of the ill-humour and destructiveness that you exhibit on every frivolous occasion, and King Hamlet will doff both blanket and buckram in a much greater hurry than he ever assumed them. The Ghost ought to appear in a complete suit of armour: I should not contend that it be “steel,” though the text so advises us, because this would be herhaps superfluous on account of the distance; but it should be a splendid and entire suit of warlike panoply,—burnished tin we will say. The effect might be heightened, if necessary, by a thin, gauzy, sombre raiment thrown over the armour, which would give a cloudy, indefined to the figure; but by attending to the first of always keeping in the back ground, this part of the paraphernalia might be dispensed with. A crest of black and waving plumes would confer altitude and majesty where these qualifications rarely exist, scilicet, in the persons of ghost-players in general, who are for the most part fat little fellows of about five feet and an inch, with Canopus bellies and bandy legs.
To the above remarks I have but this to add, with a particular view to the play of Hamlet,—that the manner in which I have sometimes heard the Ghost utter the word “Swear!” when the prince invites Horatio and Marcellus to swear upon his sword, is a gross infraction of the decorum which should always be observed on the stage; it is bellowed the side-scene by some fellow or other with a throat like a trombone, or in the tone of an enraged alderman.” The voice should come from under the stage, as the text plainly expresses, and the greatest possible care should be taken to manage this scene, so as that the audience shall not laugh, instead of quake, through its representation.
This work was published before January 1, 1928, and is in the public domain worldwide because the author died at least 100 years ago.
- ↑ Queen. He's fat, and scant of breath.—Act 5, Sc. last.