8 MAY 1886, Page 40


IF any one desires to hear how Helen Faucit became RR actress, if any one desires to hear a thousand and one details of her career upon the stage,—to hear what dress she wore, for instance, when she played Pauline in the first per- formance of the Lady of Lyons ; how, when she played the Lady in Comas, she so sat in her chair, that those who were near it were "struck with awe," and "would not have been amazed if the chair, with the Lady in it, had been swept upwards out of sight to some holier sphere,"—if any one desires, in short, to hear in full what Lady Martin has to say about Helen Faucit, then this—to use a very homely phrase —this is indeed the book for his money. But we warn our imaginary reader that be must approach this book even then in the spirit of a true enthusiast. "Give me," says Browning, "give me of Nelson only a touch. And be it little or be it much," I will receive it with thanks and gratitude. Our imaginary reader, too, must be prepared to say, "Give me of Helen Faucit only a touch," Fzc., or all will not be well with him. Helen Faucit gossips—and to do her justice she is aware of the fact—when Helen Fancit is her theme ; and she gossips when she is scribbling her summaries of the sayings and doings of "some of Shakespeare's female characters." We are judging her, of course, by a rather high standard, and we are bound to say that her gossip is clothed in language that is always correct and ladylike. But her book lacks the wit and fire which alone can give zest to theatrical reminiscences and Shakespearian speculations ; yet as there are readers and readers, we make no doubt whatever that it will find a large and appre- ciative audience. It is adorned with three fine portraits, and is, if we may use the phrase, "got up" in a style for which "magnificent" is the only epithet.

Two questions, at all events, not novel indeed, but not yet worn quite threadbare, are raised in a debateable form by Lady Martin. She claims, in her treatment of Shakespeare's female characters, that as an actress she has had the great advantage of throwing her own nature into theirs, and of being moved by their emotions ; that she has, as it were, thought their thoughts and spoken their words straight from her own living heart ; she knows that this has been an exceptional privilege, and she has striven to communicate to less fortunate people something of what she has learned in the exercise of her potent art. We have heard this claim before, and we fancy that it is one which very few professors of the "potent art" are not prepared to make ; and it might, perhaps, be sufficient to reply that it will be time enough to entertain it when any actor or actress shall have written anything in elucidation of Shakespeare that will bear comparison with what has been written on the same subject by men or women of letters. At present, the latter have the field to themselves. But we are willing to appeal from Lady Martin to Helen Faucit on this point, and for this pur- pose shall quote two passages from her "gossip," and these passages could be corroborated by many others. "I read once in Punch," she says, "that they supposed Mr. Mac- ready thought that Miss Helen Faucit bad a very handsome back, for when on the stage with her, he always managed that the audience should see it and little else. But I must say that I was never so conscious of this unfairness with him as with his very inadequate successor, Mr. Phelps, who always took his stand about two feet behind you, so that no face should be seen and no voice be distinctly heard by the audience but his own."

• Oa Some of Shakespeare's Female Characters. By Helena Panoit, Lady Martin. London and Edinburgh: William Blackwood and Bons. 1885. Again, she is speaking of a Romeo of too mature an age to act with so young a Juliet as herself,—" he was an excellent actor in his way, but very vehement—so much so that, when he played Romeo, my sister would never trust me in the tomb alone. Oh, if I had not had a very different Romeo in my imagination, it would have been hard indeed to make one out of such an unromantic, spluttering lover !" Now, the inference which we venture to draw from these passages, and from the corroborative passages referred to above, is that acting a charac- ter on the stage—and that is all that we are now concerned with —is, as a rule, exposed to so many distractions, that it cannot be considered in itself an advantage when the object in view is "to do fuller justice [with the pen] to the exquisite creations of Shakespeare's genius." At all events—for we find ourselves driven back, by want of space, to our original contention—we shall hold it quite other than an advantage, till some actor or actress has proved scribendo that it is one.

And now for a specimen of the criticism which Helen Faucit learned from the exercise of her "potent art ;" and in defence of the line that we are about to take, we crave permission to say that her exuberant eulogies of the beauty, dignity, and grace, the wit, the virtues, and the accomplishments of " some of Shakespeare's (peerless) female characters" seem to us to lie beyond the scope of profitable criticism. We shall have to take, as will be seen, a leaf out of Lady Martin's book, for her views are, like the "habit" which Laertes was not to buy, "expressed in fancy." Let us begin with Queen Gertrude, "the beauteous majesty of Denmark." The woman was fair, we know ; fat, we assume ; and scant of wind, like her son ; scant of brains for certain ; a creature-comfort loving animal, with feeling none too sensitive, and with a conscience as inactive as an alderman's liver at Yuletide. That, "expressed in fancy," is our conception of Hamlet's mother. And Lady Martin's ? Well, in some respects it is worth the listening to. "Pause a moment with me," she exclaims, "and think of the extraordinary attractions of this mother. Another Helen of Troy she seems to me, in the wonderful fascination she exercises on all who come within her influence ; not perhaps designedly, but like the Helena of the second part of Goethe's Faust, by an untoward fate which drew on all insensibly to love her. What a picture is presented of her [uxorious ?] husband's love in Hamlet's words that he would not 'let e'en the winds of heaven visit her cheek too roughly.' Claudius, his successor, perils his soul for her." Claudius ! Why, does Lady Martin really think that to be "almost damned in a fair wife" was all that " damn'd incestuous Dane" was lusting for when he "killed a King"? "She was tenderness itself to her son. The Queen, his mother,' says Claudius, 'lives almost by his looks.'" We refuse to take that scoundrel's word. We hold that there is evidence in abundance to show that Queen Gertrude was not a loving mother. If she bad been, the sight of her beloved son demented and a murderer would have worked like madness in her brain, and would have shaken her existence to its founda- tions. We know that it did nothing of the kind. That awful sight had made her uncomfortable, "only that, and nothing more." She calmly reported that her son was "essentially mad," and not "mad in craft," and complained, without a sign of agitation, that he bad slain an "unseen, good old man." Oh, out upon such motherhood ! Besides, it would have been more germane to Lady Martin's Helen of Troy theory if she could have shown that, in spite of everything, Hamlet's affections were still fixed, however distressfully, upon his mother. But this was impossible. With his dying breath he has nothing more to say to his unnatural mother than, "Wretched Queen, adieu!" and we shall leave Lady Martin to echo that apostrophe at her leisure.

Her " Portia " gives us an opportunity of saying something on - the second question, which we need not formulate after quoting the following words :—" I always maintain," says Lady Martin, "that Shakespeare wrote his plays most distinctly for audiences, and not for closet-readers merely, although_he shows the marvel of his genius in being so fitted for both, that each claims him for his own." We agree with Lady Martin. Shakespeare did write his plays most distinctly for audiences ; but we agree also with Lamb in thinking that " closet-readers " have a right to claim him for their own. When Shylock stood for his bond, Portia's fine description of mercy had naturally no more effect upon him than puff-balls on an alligator's hide. Every one can understand that. But when he, a usurer of usurers, and a Jew to boot, was offered thrice, nay, ten times the amount of his debt, was it in the nature of such a man to refuse such an

offer It was not. Had Shylook's mind been in its normal state, he would have doted ecstatically on the breed of barren metal which his merry jest had brought him. But Shylock's mind was not in its normal state. Maddened by his daughter's treachery, as Shakespeare well foresaw, and powerless to resist the influence of a fixed idea, Shylock, when he refused all com- promise, was literally a furious monomaniac. Was Shakespeare aware of this Undoubtedly. Was it in his intention that his audiences, or that Portia and the rest of his characters should be aware of this ? Undoubtedly not. All that he had as a dramatist to do for them was to see that every loophole for pity for the Jew should be closed. And this he has done most effectually. The baffled wretch has nothing to do but to go home and hang himself like Judas, or turn his face to the wall and die. If news of his death reached Portia—Shakespeare's Portia—she would receive it with indifference, or, perhaps, with satisfaction. Far different would be the conduct of Lady Martin's Portia,—the Portia whom she has learned to know as less fortunate persons cannot know her. She—Lady Martin's Portia — would fly to Shylock's bedside, would pour oil upon his poor, bruised spirit, would woo it gently and irresistibly back to paths of pleasantness,—nay, more, would bring repentant Jessica, and her Christian husband also repentant, to Shylock's feet ; and finally, since even Lady Martin's Shylock was to die soon, would bring her to the edge of the grave in a most edifying state, forgiving all, and forgiven of all, and so an end. Now, this " dream " of Lady Martin's was submitted to some of her friends before it was given to the world. They were polite people ; and instead of telling her point-blank that her " dream " was nonsense, they told her that it was "conceived too much in the spirit of the present century." Their logic was a little at fault, perhaps, for if the present century is to take part in the dance, the Shylock case would have been stopped in limine, and Shylock would have found himself in custody on a very tangible charge. Still, Lady Martin might have done worse than listen to that logic ; but this she refused to do. She " re- considered the matter," but could not give up her first impres- sion. She reinforced it, therefore, with fresh, we will not say arguments, but expressions of feeling. There are plenty of similar " dreams " in her volume ; but if they can be traceable in any way to the exercise of that "potent art" of which she is so naturally proud, then we feel that the people whom she pities as less fortunate than herself are, so far as Shakespearian criti- cism is conceived, more fortunate.