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MR BENSON'S PRINCIPLES

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the student, a return to the discarded methods has become, in the opinion of an influential section of the educated public, imperative. Mr Benson is the only manager of recent date to inscribe boldly and continuously on his banner the old watchwords: “Shakespeare and the National Drama," "Short Runs,” “No Stars," "All-round Competence,” and “Unostentatious Setting.” What better title could be offered to the support and encouragement of the intelligent playgoer?

II

A constant change of programme, such as the old methods of the stage require, causes the present generation of London playgoers, to whom it is unfamiliar, a good deal of perplexity. Londoners have grown accustomed to estimate the merits of a play by the number of performances which are given of it in uninterrupted succession. They have forgotten how mechanical an exercise of the lungs and limbs acting easily becomes; how frequent repetition of poetic speeches, even in the most competent mouths, robs the lines of their poetic temper.

Numbness of intellect, rigidity of tone, artificiality of expression, are fatal alike to the enunciation of Shakespearean language and to the interpretation of Shakespearean character. The system of short runs, of the nightly alterations of the play, such as Mr Benson has revived, is the only sure preservative against maladies so fatal.

Hardly less important is Mr Benson's new-old principle of “casting” a play of Shakespeare. Not only in the leading rôles of Shakespeare's masterpieces, but in subordinate parts throughout the range of his work, the highest abilities of the actor can find some scope for employment. A competent knowledge of the poet's complete work is needed to bring this saving truth home to those who are engaged in presenting Shakespearean drama on the stage. An actor hardly realises the real force of the doctrine until he has had experience of the potentialities of a series of the smaller characters by making practical endeavours to interpret them. Adequate opportunities of the kind are only accessible to members of a permanent company, whose energies are absorbed in the production of the Shakespearean drama constantly and in its variety, and whose programme is untrammelled by the poisonous system of "long runs." Shakespearean actors should drink deep of the Pierian spring. They should be graduates in Shakespeare's university; and, unlike graduates of other universities, they should master not merely formal knowledge, but a flexible power of using it.

Mr Benson's company is, I believe, the only one at present in existence in England which confines almost all its efforts to the acting of Shakespeare. In the course of its twenty-four years' existence its members have interpreted in the theatre no less than thirty of Shakespeare's plays. The natural result

1 Mr Benson, writing to me on 13th January 1906, gives the following list of plays by Shakespeare which he has produced:Antony and Cleopatra, As You Like It, The Comedy of Errors, Coriolanus, Hamlet, Henry IV. (Parts 1 and 2), Henry V., Henry VI. (Parts 1, 2, and 3), Henry VIII., Julius Cæsar, King John, King Lear, Macbeth, The Merchant of Venice, The Merry Wives of Windsor, A Midsummer Night's Dream, Much Ado About Nothing, Othello, Pericles, Richard II., Richard III., Romeo and Juliet, The Taming of the Shrew, The Tempest,

SHAKESPEARE'S MINOR ROLES

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is that Mr Benson and his colleagues have learned in practice the varied calls that Shakespearean drama makes upon actors' capacities.

Members of Mr Benson's company have made excellent use of their opportunities. An actor, like the late Frank Rodney, who could on one night competently portray Bolingbroke in Richard II. and on the following night the clown Feste in Twelfth Night with equal effect, clearly realised something of the virtue of Shakespearean versatility. Mr Benson's leading comedian, Mr Weir, whose power of presenting Shakespeare's humorists shows, besides native gifts, the advantages that come of experienced study of the dramatist, not only interprets, in the genuine spirit, great rôles like Falstaff and Touchstone, but gives the truest possible significance to the comparatively unimportant roles of the First Gardener in Richard II. and Grumio in The Taming of the Shrew.

Nothing could be more grateful to a student of Shakespeare than the manner in which the small part of John of Gaunt was played by Mr Warburton in Mr Benson's production of Richard II. The part includes the glorious panegyric of England which comes from the lips of the dying man, and must challenge the best efforts of every actor of ambition

Timon of Athens, Twelfth Night, and A Winter's Tale. Phelps's record only exceeded Mr Benson's by one. He produced thirty-one of Shakespeare's plays in all, but he omitted Richard II., and the three parts of Henry VI., which Mr Benson has acted, while he included Love's Labour's Lost, The Two Gentlemen of Verona, All's Well that Ends Well, Cymbeline, and Measure for Measure, which Mr Benson, so far, has eschewed. Mr Phelps and Mr Benson are at one in avoiding Titus Andronicus and Troilus and Cressida.

and self-respect. But in the mouth of an actor who lacks knowledge of the true temper of Shakespearean drama, this speech is certain to be mistaken for a detached declamation of patriotism—an error which ruins its dramatic significance. As Mr Warburton delivered it, one listened to the despairing cry of a feeble old man roused for a moment from the lethargy of sickness by despair at the thought that the great country he loved was in peril of decay through the selfish and frivolous temper of its ruler. Instead of a Chauvinist manifesto defiantly declaimed under the limelight, there was offered us the quiet pathos of a dying patriot's lament over his beloved country's misfortunes—an oracular warning from a deathstricken tongue, foreshadowing with rare solemnity and dramatic irony the violent doom of the reckless worker of the mischief. Any other conception of the passage, any conscious endeavour to win a round of applause by elocutionary display, would disable the actor from doing justice to the great and sadly stirring utterance. The right note could only be sounded by one who was acclimatised to Shakespearean drama, and had recognised the wealth of significance to be discovered and to be disclosed (with due artistic restraint) in Shakespeare's minor characters.

III

The benefits to be derived from the control of a trained school of Shakespearean actors were displayed very conspicuously when Mr Benson undertook six years ago the heroic task of performing the play of Hamlet, as Shakespeare wrote it, without any abbreviation. Hamlet is the longest of Shake

HAMLET UNABRIDGED

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speare's plays; it reaches a total of over 3900 lines. It is thus some 900 lines longer than Antony and Cleopatra, which of all Shakespeare's plays most nearly approaches its length. Consequently it is a tradition of the stage to cut the play of Hamlet by the omission of more than a third. Hamlet's part is usually retained almost in its entirety, but the speeches of every other character are seriously curtailed. Mr Benson ventured on the bold innovation of giving the play in full.1

Only he who has witnessed the whole play on the stage can fully appreciate its dramatic capabilities. It is obvious that, in whatever shape the play of Hamlet is produced in the theatre, its success must always be primarily due to the overpowering fascination exerted on the audience by the character of the hero. In every conceivable circumstance the young prince must be the centre of attraction. Nevertheless, no graver injury can be done the play as an acting drama than by treating it as a one-part piece. The accepted method of shortening the tragedy by reducing every part, except that of Hamlet, is to distort Shakespeare's whole scheme, to dislocate or obscure the whole action. The predominance of Hamlet is exaggerated at the expense of the dramatist's artistic purpose.

1 The performance occupied nearly six hours. One half was given in the afternoon, and the other half in the evening of the same day, with an interval of an hour and a half between the two sections. Should the performance be repeated, I would recommend, in the interests of busy men and women, that the whole play be rendered at a single sitting, which might be timed to open at a somewhat earlier hour in the evening than is now customary, and might, if need be, close a little later. There should be no difficulty in restricting the hours occupied by the performance to four and a half.

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