MR. IRVING'S CLAIMS FOR THE ACTORS.
MR. IRVING, in his speech on behalf of the Dramatic and Musical Sick Fund, made a complaint that Music is treated as the spoiled child of the Fine Arts, while the Drama is dealt with rather as the Cinderella of the family. As it is Cinderella who eventually marries the king's son, perhaps Mr. Irving's complaint was a boast in disguise. Perhaps he meant to claim for the drama that, though it is neglected now, it will shine forth before long in all the splendour which a fairy god- mother can bestow, though he certainly invoked the coming of that fairy godmother with an air rather of wistfulness than of confidence. For our own part, we think that there is good reason for the comparative favour shown to music as compared with acting,—if it be true that such favour is shown,—by the English people. For music may and should be a popular art, in this sense,—that almost all take pleasure in it, that even a little musical skill and know- ledge is a great addition to the amenities of life, and that at least the greater part of the pleasure taken in music is whole- some and refining. This is a good reason for making music a very important element in popular education ; but it certainly is not true that as much as this can be justly said on behalf of acting. Perhaps almost all take pleasure in acting, but it is quite untrue that a little knowledge and skill in the dramatic art is a great addition to the amenities of life,— on the contrary, without a great deal, dramatic pretensions are apt to be a positive nuisance. And again, it is very far from true that the greater part of the pleasure taken in the drama is wholesome and refining, since a very great deal of it is found to be deteriorating and over-exciting. The difference between the two arts is indeed a wide one. In the first place, music is hedged about by a hedge of technical conditions which effectually forbid any mere dabbler with only a very slight superficial leaning to it, from any serious attempt to practise it. In the next place, it takes a very considerable proficiency before musical skill can minister at all effectually to that vanity which finds so much to feed it even in the most indifferent acting. Perhaps the ultimate subjective difference between music and acting is this,—that while the actor almost necessarily identifies himself with his presentation of his part, no man, however great a musician he may be, can possibly identify himself with the wonderful world of harmony which he reveals. As Cardinal Newman says in that noble passage which has won so great an accession to his fame :—" Is it possible that that inexhaustible evolution and disposition of notes, so rich yet so simple, so intricate yet so regulated, so various yet so majestic, should be a mere sound which is gone and perishes ? Can it be that those mysterious stirrings of heart, and those emotions and strange yearnings after we know not what, and awful impressions from we know not whence, should be wrought in us by what is unsubstantial, and comes and goes, and begins and ends in itself It is not so, it cannot be. No; they have escaped from some higher sphere ; they are the outpourings of eternal harmony in the medium of created sound ; they are echoes from our home ; they are the voices of angels, or the magnificat of saints, or the living laws of the Divine governance, or the Divine attributes ; something are they besides themselves, which we cannot compass, which we cannot utter,—though mortal man, and he, perhaps, not otherwise distinguished above his fellows, has the gift of eliciting them." Music at its highest, and, indeed, short of its highest, undoubtedly takes men out of them- selves. No great composer, not even a great master of execution, is worth anything who does not himself feel, and make all who hear his music feel, that it is not merely his own nature which he is expressing, but something higher and deeper and broader and richer than his own nature, with which he would be ashamed to identify himself. But that is not the feeling of the actor. The greatest actor endeavours to reproduce in himself the passion or sentiment which he expresses, whether in comedy or tragedy, and credits himself with the imaginative compass of all these emotions, if he succeeds. And apart from this, the attention concentrated, and necessarily concentrated, in the drama on the person of the actor or actress, on his start, or her smile, on the motion of his hand, or the raising of her eyebrows, all tends to identify absolutely the actor and actress with the artistic effects which they produce, as it is simply impossible for a musician to be identified. Indeed, we do not think it can be asserted that the study of acting, except in the case of the few who are really born for the art, is a study which will necessarily tend to strengthen and elevate the general calibre
of the intellect. It is a study which must more or leas tend to the development of self-consciousness, and of self-consciousness we have in the present day more than enough. While music, even in its lower levels, takes a man out of himself, acting, except when the actor is a genuine artist of the highest kind, takes a man into himself, and fixes his attention on the distinction between what he is and what he is capable of becoming. The other fine arts have no tendency in this direction. The more a man learns of music, painting, statuary, architecture, or what you will, so long as he is a man of sense and modesty, he is all the better for it. But it is very questionable whether this be true of acting, even though the student be a man of sense. There is so much of excitement in the study, so much of self-consciousness, so much of effort to mould yourself into unnatural attitudes of character, so math straining to achieve the impersonation of states of emotion and purpose which are intrinsically unwholesome, that it is hardly possible for the devotees of acting to keep themselves free from a certain sympathy with, if not even a disposition to palliate, evil passions ; and this weakens the sense of right, and diminishes the sobriety of those who indulge it.
We are well aware that where there is a true genius for drama, men and women may realise very powerfully indeed the difference between the attitude of mind they portray, and that which they themselves approve. But it takes a true genius to discriminate vividly the difference between portray- ing a purpose or passion you abhor, and so entering into it that you feel its fascination without its hatefulness. It is not the great but the small actors who, in order to act fairly well, have to obliterate in their own mind the distinction between what they want to express and what they want to feel. A great actor will delineate the attitude of a passion which he abhors, all the more powerfully for abhorring it. Bat. a second-rate actor has to lose the vividness of the distinction between representing a part and feeling it on his own account, before he can simulate a feeling which is not natural to him ; and so it happens that even a very mild passion for acting, and a very little success in it, will take a man or a woman into a most unreal and yet a very exciting world, in which all the most important distinctions of life are very apt to be blurred or extinguished. We certainly do not desire to see the popularity of amateur acting extended, as we should be very glad to see the popularity of amateur music, or painting, or sculpture extended. The great actors, of course, must get their education somewhere ; and there is no more harm in a theatre for students of the dramatic art, than in a theatre for the students of the anatomical or any other art which is not one for amateurs, but nevertheless is one for those who are deter- mined to devote their life to the subject they are studying. Rutwe confess we should be very sorry to see the number of amateur actors, of dabblers in the art of dramatic representation, very largely increased. The greater the number of those who study the art of feigning to be what they are not, without a very intense insight into the distinction between what they really feel and what they feign to feel, the larger will be the number of persons who are led astray by supposing that they feel what they do not feel, or by imagining that they do not feel what they do feel, and who ascertain only too late that by trifling with unreal feelings, they have lost the strength of their hold of those real feelings which are the best guides of life. The second-rate experts in amateur theatrioals are very apt to find themselves first-rate experts in theatrical renderings of real life, and in the frightful sins and blunders which those theatrical renderings too often entail.