The Stage: Miss Farren, Mrs Siddons, Miss O'Neill, Kemble, Talma
Editor’s note [a very Victorian note]
The transition from princes and statesmen to actors and actresses, was natural enough in the first quarter of the century, whatever it may appear now. The stage was an important part of the intellectual life of the contemporaries of the Kembles, Kean, and Miss O'Neil. A striking illustration is given by Dr. Doran, who states that, on one evening in 1804, when young Betty played Hamlet, ' the House of Commons, on a motion by Pitt, adjourned and went down to the theatre to see him.
Charles Fox read ' Zanga,' to the little actor, and commented on Young's tragedy with such effect that the young gentleman (then in his 14th year) never undertook the principal character.' * The stage divided the attention of the literary world with poetry and romance. The first representation of Joanna Baillie's ' De Montforf,' Milman's * Fazio,' Maturin's ' Bertram,' or Shiel's ' Evadne,' was an event little inferior in interest to the publication of' Marmion' or ' The Corsair.' In assigning so prominent a place to the acting drama, therefore, Miss Wynn simply reflects the opinion of the time.
Nothing appears to me more difficult than even to preserve an idea of the pleasure one has derived from good acting. I am quite convinced no description can give the least idea of that which one has not seen After having heard and read so much as I have Garrick, I have often looked at the picture in James's Square,** and fancied I had some idea of him; but then, when I saw Mr. Angerstein's picture of Garrick
between Tragedy and Comedy, I found it so different that all my ideas were overturned.
I certainly recollect Miss Farren on the stage, and remember very clearly her taking leave of it, but nothing remains upon my mind which would lead me from my own knowledge to say that she was an excellent actress. I know I was told so; but in the part of Lady Teazle, in which I saw her frequently, I could not point out one prominent part which has left on my mind an impression of excellence. Perhaps the absence of prominent parts may, to a certain degree, be considered as the characteristic of that never-failing elegance and ease which marked her performance.
Perhaps, too, it is just the sort of excellence which is the least likely to strike and captivate the imagination of a very young person. I recollect (not the admirable
acting in the famous screen scene but) the circumstance of seeing Lord Derby leaving his private box to creep to her behind the scene; and, of course, we all looked with impatience for the discovery, hoping the screen would fall a little too soon, and show to the audience Lord Derby as well as Lady Teazle.***
Mrs. Siddons in her prime is certainly a bright recollection, but I did not feel for her acting quite the enthusiasm that most people profess. It was too artificial for my taste : her attitudes were fine and graceful, but they always seemed to me the result of study: not like Miss O'Neil, who always was graceful merely because she could not help it, because it was impossible to throw those beautifully formed limbs, and especially that neck, into any position that was not beautiful. At the same time I must say, in Isabella, and in Jane Shore, Miss O'Neil struck me as very inferior indeed to Mrs Siddons. She never excited that deep thrill of horror which made my blood tingle at my fingers' end. I was melancholy, and that was all.
Miss O'Neil had sense enough to refuse the character of Lady Macbeth, conscious that her powers were inadequate to it. I never saw Mrs. Siddons with a good Macbeth; for Kemble I never reckoned tolerable; nor did I feel I knew what the character was till I heard Mrs. Siddons read the play. Certainly, in that reading, some speeches of Macbeth's, and almost the whole of the witches', were the parts that struck me most.
Probably Lady Macbeth, however excellent, had by frequent petition lost some of her power; certainly (I felt) that part Mrs. Siddons could no longer surprise me. Yes, she did though. I looked with impatience for the grand sleep-walking scene, and thought I would take advantage of my position, which was very near her, to watch the fine, fixed, glassy glare which she contrived to give to her eyes. Alas! that was quite gone: whether the diminution of the natural fire of the eye presented this effect, or whether the muscles were grown less flexible from age and want of constant practice, I know not, but I feel quite certain of the fact.
It struck me when I saw her once more, in one of her frequent re-appearances, act Lady Macbeth on the opera stage. Then, my pleasure in seeing her was increased by my delight in watching the effect she produced on the very eloquent though plain countenance of Madame de Stael, who sat in the stage box, literally wrapped up in the performance.
Mr. Greathead, who had been in the habit of hearing Mrs. Siddons read Macbeth even (he said) from the period of her being his mother's maid,**** before she
had appeared on any stage up to the present moment, told me he was struck with a great difference in her manner of reading the witches' scenes after the appearance of ' Guy Mannering.' ****** He said it was quite clear to him that Meg Merrilies had explained to Mrs Siddons, Shakespeare's idea in the witches. This he told me upon my observing with delight upon their totally altered appearance on Drury Lane Theatre, which I ascribed to the same cause. I consider this as one of the most singular and at the same time the most glorious triumphs of the genius of the Great Unknown, as it is now the fashion to call him.
I can hardly conceive anything finer than the expression which Mrs. Siddon
to the gave simple reply, 'A deed without a name.’****** It seemed full of all the guilty dread belonging to witchcraft; and it is just this idea of guilt which seems to be so difficult to convey to our minds, which are engrossed with the folly of the whole thing that we not recollect it was a sin.
My delight, my astonishment, when I first saw Kean in most of his great parts, I recorded at the time and therefore do not mention here. Miss O'Neil gave me great pleasure, but it was altogether a lighter sensation than that excited by Mrs. Siddons or Kean. There was none of that thrill which more exactly answers the idea of pleasing pain than anything I ever felt, and I can hardly attach any other meaning to the words. She was sometimes very affecting, always graceful, pleasing, but I think never great, and certainly never offensive. I am, upon recollection, inclined to doubt whether her scene with Lord Hastings in ' Jane Shore' might not deserve the epithet of great; in the last scene she fell very far short of Mrs. Siddons.
I could imagine a person looking at those features, which, though handsome, are certainly very deficient in expression, and asking how could that face succeed on the stage ? She must have painted her eyebrows, for how could there be any expression in a face so entirely without brow as hers ? I should be puzzled to answer these enquiries, but I believe both Miss O'Neil and Kean (in a lesser
degree) may be adduced as instances of expression without features, and may show how much feeling may be betrayed by the human frame, independent of the
Still there certainly was a powerful charm in the evanescent hue of Miss O'Neil's delicate complexion. I saw her once in Mrs. Haller give interest to the dull
scene in which Old Tobias pours forth his tedious gratitude ; her rosy blushes showed how unmerited she felt every commendation bestowed on a creature so guilty. In the whole of this part she appeared to me absolute perfection; one trait of nature enchanted me. In the last scene, after having been pleased by her appearance of deep contrition, her painful consciousness of degradation, I anticipated with pain the sort of disgust. which I had always experienced at the return of jewels. The whole incident seems to me too trifling, becomes ludicrous when Mrs. Haller, looking to see whether they are all right, makes an oration on each article.********
With these feelings what was my delight when Miss O'Neil, who had kept her eyes steadily fixed on the ground ,and appeared really sinking into it, in taking the box from the stranger looked at him for the first time, and by that look told us more than by words how he was altered, her fears, her love, &c. &c, In short, I looked at her face and quite forgot the jewels, which, even the first time the play was ever acted nearly made me disgrace myself by laughing in the midst of the tears and screams which Mrs. Siddons called forth.
Talma has extremely delighted me. I never go to a French tragedy expecting that close and sober imitation of nature which one looks for on the English stage: one might as well look for it in the midst of opera recitative as in the jingle of rhyme. Still it is pleasure, and great pleasure too, though of a different nature.
I think Talma superior to every performer I ever saw in the expression of bitter scorn, especially when it is mixed with irony. Still, I think he never gave me as much pleasure on the stage, as he did in Lady Charleville's drawing-room, where I heard him talk over English and French acting, express his wish to unite the merits of both, and deprecate the horrible accuracy with which the last mortal throes are often represented on our stage.
He spoke of Kemble's Macbeth, wondered at his tameness — especially immediately after the commission of the murder, and said that his whole frame ought to have spoken of the horrid deed. Thus far everybody must have agreed with him ; but when the very natural question, Qu'auriez vous fait ? was put to him, and he
proceeded to act his feelings, I, for one, thought it most absurd, because then my ideas were screwed to the pitch of Macbeth and nature. Probably I might have admired if I had been screwed up to the pitch of Oreste and French rant. Much ought to be allowed for the super-abundance of action which the French bestow on the relation of the common events of life, and in ordinary conversation.
What would I give to have been present at a scene related to me that evening by Sir J. B. Burgess. had, a few days before, introduced Talma to Lady
Charleville.******** After a little commonplace. Talma was drawn on, as if electrified by finding in her a kindred admiration of his hero. Napoleon ; and related all that passed on the last memorable day of departure from Fontainebleau. He gave the speeches of Talleyrand, of Napoleon, of a physician who acted a conspicuous part, with such an accurate imitation of their several manners, that Sir James told me he felt as if he too had been present at the scene.
This evening Talma recited to us Hamlet's soliloquy, in English; he has been for so large a portion of his early life in England, that the thing was upon the whole much less absurd than might have been expected; then was no very striking gallicism, excepting the word consumation.
* Their Majesty's Servants: Annals of the 'English, Stage, vol. ii, p. 416.
** No. 18, the town house of Sir Wattkin Williams Wynn.
*** Dr. Doran states that Miss Farren took her final leave of the stage in Lady Teazle on the 8th April, 1797, and was married to Lord Derby on the May-day following, his countess having died on the 14th of the preceding March. In allusion to the earl's attachment to the actress, Horace Walpole writes to Miss Berry in 1791;
‘I have had no letter from you these ten days, though the east wind has been as constant as Lord Derby.
**** When Mrs. Siddons, then Sarah Kemble, was very young, she left her parents in a pet, 'because they would not let her marry Mr. Siddona, and entered the service of Mr. and Mrs. Greathead, of Guy's Cliff; whether as reader, nursery maid, or lady's maid, has been disputed, and matters little. Mr. Campbell says that her principal employment was to read. to Mrs. Greathead (Life of Mrs. Siddons).
***** Guy Mannering was published in 1816.
****** Macbeth. How now, you secret, black, and midnight hags!
What is 't you do ?
All. A deed without a name.
******* Stranger. And now I may at least desire you to take back what is your own—your jewels. (Gives her the casket)
Mrs. Holier (opens it in violent agitation, and her tears burst upon it). How well I recollect the sweet evening when you gave me these! That evening, my father—joined our hands; and joyful; I pronounced the oath of eternal fidelity. It is broken. Tin', locket you gave me on my birthday. This bracelet I received after William was born. No! take them—take them! I cannot keep these, unless you wish that the sight of them should be an incessant reproach to my almost broken heart. (Gives them back,)
******** Catherine, Countess of Charleville, wife of the first earl, a woman of many and varied accomplishments, and of masculine strength of understanding. She died at an advanced age in 1849. The translation of Voltaire's Pucelle, still frequently ascribed to her in book catalogues, was always indignantly denied by her. It was executed, and printed, for private circulation by her second husband, the Earl of Charleville, prior to their marriage, and was not at all in her style. She delighted in refined wit, and detested coarse humour.