22 JUNE 1867, Page 12


MOST people have wondered why the criticism of theatrical and musical performances,—by the common admission of all educated persons the most contemptible of all departments of newspaper criticism,—never improves, even in our leading journals, in spite of perpetual complaints and perpetual expressions of desire for better things. You might as well depend on a criticism in the Times to tell you whether you would enjoy a new perform- ance, or a new actor or actress, as on the account of the box- keeper to the theatre in question. Indeed, we have often heard a truer criticism from a box-keeper, derived from his observations on the general demeanour of an audience, and on the " demand" or no demand for stalls than the Times—and occasionally even the usually independent Saturday Review—would have given us. We suppose the reason to be, not so much that men of a lower general calibre of culture than the ordinary reviewers of books or critics of pictures write these stupid and misleading criticisms,—though that is partly the case,—as that the special experience of the stage which is supposed to entitle men to judge ef these per- formances, is rarely obtained except in connection with such personal knowledge of the principal actors, managers, &c., and by the aid of such kindly attentions in the way of free tickets, and the like, that the judgment is utterly warped,—not always in the direction of praise, for the actors and actresses have their cliques, and their cliques are sometimes a little spiteful to opposite cliques. Reviewers of books are apt to be selected for their knowledge of the author's subject, and common dealings with a literary subject usually imply no such local approximation or personal association between author and reviewer as need warp the writer's judg- ment. But habitue's of theatres can scarcely help coming within the range of actors' and managers' attractions. The higher class of theatrical critics are cultivated by the higher class of per- formers, and the literary circle within which these performers move. And the lower class are conciliated by free admissions and occasionally private boxes to give away. We do not say that this sort of influence in any coarse sense corrupts the critic, but that it makes it nearly morally impossible to him to think freely on any performer. And this is particularly true in the case of actresses. A very courageous man will not always object to say that a distinguished actor with whom he supped a day or two previously acted a new part extremely badly, and ranted where he should have shown deep emotion,—but how can he say the same of a lady whom he knows, whom perhaps he has greatly admired, whose brother or husband may be his intimate friend, and whose relations will all feel the remark that her concep- tion of a particular part was a little vulgar, or even only very common-place and flat, as a personal injury? These are some of the causes which make theatrical criticism so worthless, or worse than worthless, so utterly false. But to these may be added that a considerable proportion of the various dramatic criticisms are appa- rently not written by men who care for the literature of the drama at all, but by persons of much less literary education, who, though possessing a great familiarity with theatrical performances, Bel- ' dom, if ever, read a play with the desire to enter imaginatively into the author's conception of the various characters. These, too, usually, concentrate their partialities on a few favourite actresses, into whose rivalries and jealousies they enter as fervently as some devout women in a country town do into the animosities of their favourite preachers. Whatever the cause, the result is that the judgment of the Press is worth something, but not much, as to the dramatic interest of a play, exceedingly little as to the per- formance of the principal actors, and generally lees than nothing, being determined almost wholly by the accident of private influences, as to the performance of the principal actresses. There are two preliminary questions, by the answers to which we should determine entirely the significance of any dramatic criticism.

1. Is the critic one who cares for dramatic literature apart from mere theatrical performances, and is he accustomed to judge cha- racter, as he should judge the rendering of character on the stage, by constant reference to the passions and motives of actual life?

2. Is the critic entirely free from all special" influences," that is, entirely unacquainted with the performers he criticizes, and as indifferent as a humane critic can be whether he pleases or displeases them ? If both questions could be answered in the affirmative we should then attach a considerable value to the criticism, but with either question answered in the negative, we can conceive nothing more utterly valueless than the opinions likely to be given.

We have a curious illustration of the first sort of incapacity for

dramatic criticism in a printed letter now before us, signed "An Old Stager," which appears to have been sent to some newspaper or other, but by whom written, and whether published or not, we have not any means of telling. After bitterly condemning a very just remark in the Daily News, that Mr. Walter Montgomery is " a sixth-rate actor," and censuring some sincere praise in these columns of Miss Kate Terry, the best actress now on the English stage, as ignorant and " fulsome," this gentleman, who has evidently had a really long familiarity with theatres and actors, asks :— " Who, I wonder, is the theatrical critic of the Spectator? He cannot. have much experience in histrionic matters, to overlook the great actresses I have named, and place at the top of the tree (some Kean person may take this for a pun) one who I allow is a sensible, pains- taking, stock actress. I find in. the Spectator for March 18th, 1865, m 'Lord Brougham is not a great man.' If the veteran nobleman is not great, will the writer of this remark name who is? Lord Brougham (now in his 90th year) is not only a great man, but the greatest actor (politically, educationally, &c., &c.) that the present generation has seen. —Claiming a corner for the above, I am yours, &c., " Art OLD STAGER."

We have great satisfaction not only in " finding a corner for the above," but in answering "An Old Stager's" question. The. " theatrical critic of the Spectator" does not exist. We hold that every cultivated man, with a love for dramatic literature, and no fettering relations with the theatres and leading performers, will give a better conception of the merits or demerits of any actor, or actress, or any piece, than the class of critics represented by " Aft Old Stager,"—the men of wide experience in " histrionic matters," —are ever likely to give. What that class of critics is, the extraordi- nary satisfaction taken by this gentleman in his pun on Mr. Kean's name and Mrs. Kean's maiden name, and the remark about Lord Brougham, may sufficiently indicate. It seems that Miss Mar- riott, whom we have never had the pleasure of seeing, and whom we fear we never shall see till we find a better voucher for her acting than that of a critic who considers Mr. Sheridan. Knowles's sentimental and melodramatic Hunchback "an original and exquisite play," is " An Old Stager's " favourite actress. We do not mean that the Hunchback has not some very effective dramatic situations. But as literary work it is some of the worst trash ever produced, and we would as soon accept the dramatic criticism of any one who thinks it an " original and exquisite play," as we would that of a gentleman whom we once heard maintain, during its performance, that it was written by Shakespeare,—his wife, who knew better, soothingly remarking, " No, my dear, not Shakespeare, but quite good enough for Shakespeare." "An Old Stager," in his great wrath with us for praising the perfect realism of Miss Kate Terry's acting, remarks that " Mrs. Hermann Vezin, Miss Helen Faucit, Mrs.. Stirling, Mrs. Kean, Miss Woolgar, Miss Glyn, are far superior in most respects, to Miss Terry,"—a curious mixture of preferences, which would alone prove how little the judgment of this critic,— who is in no respects worse than the critics of many of the daily papers, — is affected by the naturalness or want of nature of various actresses. Miss Helen Faucit is always graceful and never unrefined, but on the other hand, never real, never life-like;, always self-conscious of her own artistic efforts. No one who has seen her lately in Imogen or Rosalind, could for a moment forget Miss Faucit and live in the character she is trying to render. She is. always studying poses, and in Cymbeline, in the scene at the door of the cave, her starts backwards and her elaborate gestures of dumb show verge on the ridiculous. And this self-consciousness, with this study of ideal elegancies, is the vital fault of all her act- ing, which is never by any chance like real life. Mrs. Stirling, on the contrary, within a very contracted range of modern drawing, room comedy, is nearly perfect after her kind. She is thoroughly lady-like, thoroughly real, thoroughly lively, but beyond the lively woman of fashion there is little that she can do. So Miss Woolgar, too, in certain parts, and only in certain parts, is admirable. She has made the character of the ragged, ignorant, tomboy girl in Good for Nothing, and all characters at all approaching to that rough type, completely her own, and acts them with a great power of humour and even pathos. But this is an excessively limited range of character, and when she allows herself,, as she too often does, to take a part in such silly and idiotic burlesques as the Greek play recently acted at the Adelphi, it is impossible not to feel that she has no sufficient respect for either her art or herself. An actress with so small a range of character as Miss Woolgar,—admir- able as she is within it,—cannot possibly be called a first-rate actress. Mrs. Hermann Vezin, on the other hand, attempts a considerable range of character, and is entirely unaware how little a great deal of

beracting will bear criticism. As Gretchen in Faust, for instance, she is wholly unequal to the innocence and unconsciousness of the part.

She " gushes " to Faust like an under-bred schoolgirl, instead of a childlike peasant girl, and only in the scene when she discovers the jewels that Faust has left for her, and she has to act the natural vanity of a woman in possession of her first valuable ornaments, is she really equal to her part. We should say that if one or two of these actresses are to be called great, Miss Charlotte Saunders, who is now acting in no doubt a much lower sort of comedy, at the Holborn Theatre, but acting very perfectly after her kind, might fairly be called great too. In the part of groom or tiger, which she acts so cleverly, there is one scene, where her former master, a ruined man at the gold-diggings, takes service also as a groom, and encountering her in his groom's livery, asks her advice as to his demeanour. There was real art—even subtlety—in the look of mingled amusement, embarrassment, and deference with which she corrects his way of touching his " 'at," and teaches him to touch it in the very moment in which he makes his reply to his master. Miss Ellen Terry's lively and completely unaffected performance of her part as an undisciplined child of nature is not better of its kind, though it is, of course, a much higher kind, than Miss Charlotte Saunders' groom in the difficulties of finding himself on an equal social footing with his master. You cannot talk of any actress as great who can only do a very limited range of character, such as this, however well it is done. Miss Ellen Terry (Mrs. Watts), for instance, may turn out nearly equal to her sister. But at present she seems to us strictly limited to vivacious parts. She breaks down in pathos, and gives the impression of a certain hardness and want of elasticity on that side of her art at which it wins its greatest triumphs.

But if the numerous dramatic critics of the " Old Stager" kind are utterly incompetent to dramatic criticism from a radical want of literary taste, that is not the reason why they are so often echoed by critics such as the one who panegyrized Miss Glyn's Cleopatra in the last Saturday Review. There can be no more remarkable instance of the enormous chasm between the dramatic criticism of the day and the real feeling of those who appreciate and enjoy good acting, than the extraordinary chorus of newspaper eulogy over Miss Glyn's Cleopatra, and the absolute want of all social en- thusiasm. The present writer, having heard much of this part, went with considerably raised expectations to the first night of the per- formance, and assuredly on that night no one, as far as he could see, was really stirred by it. Numbers of the stalls finally lost their occupants before the fifth act, and the most audible whispers of weariness were heard on every side. We say this only to confirm the impression produced upon the mind of one who has no claim to boast of any great range of experience in " histrionic matters."

No doubt, the Saturday Review is quite right in saying that Miss Glyn studies to render fully the coquettish side of Cleopatra. And we have no objection to this rendering in itself. Most of Shakes- peare's characters, like most of Nature's, have a great number of aspects, and only actors of the highest possible calibre can grasp all at once. It is not to the coquettish view of Cleopatra that good taste objects, but to the sort of coquetry. Miss Glyn's coquetry is utterly destitute of dignity. She pokes fun at Antony. She almost winks at her attendants when Antony is enraged. She certainly giggles a good deal. Now, whatever truth there may be in the coquettish view of Cleopatra,—and we do not deny that there is a good deal,—the Queen who has to lament Antony, in words of regal grief so splendid and lustrous as the following, should not coquette after the fashion of Miss Glyn :—

"Hest thou no care for me ? Shall I abide

In this dull world, which in thy absence is No better than a stye? 0 see, my women, The crown o' the earth doth melt ! My lord !

Oh! withered is the garland of the war, The soldier's pole is fallen ; young boys and girls Are level now with men ; the odds is gone ; And there is nothing left remarkable Beneath the visiting moon."

That, no doubt, and all else in the character of Cleopatra, is con- sistent with a deep vein of coquetry,—but not quite the coquetry of English bourgeois life. Had any one seen Miss Glyn act who could not catch the words, nothing would have been leas likely to occur to him, except, indeed, through the suggestion of scenery and dress, than that she was acting the part of an Eastern Queen.

No doubt the Saturday reviewer, whoever he may be, is an accomplished man, of a very different order of taste from " An Old Stager," but we confess our utter inability to believe that his criticism was unbiassed by unconscious social influences. The present writer went, fully expecting at least something original and powerful, and was never more utterly disappointed ; or more bewildered in his life than by the chorus of newspaper pane- gyric with which the performance was received. The truth is, that the protection of secret ballot for the independence of politi- cal voters in the closest county of England is not needed one- tenth part as much, as the protection of secret authorship for independent dramatic and operatic criticism.