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BOYS IN WOMEN'S PARTS
cast in Elizabethan and Jacobean playhouses was often forced into stronger light.
It was not till the seventeenth century was well advanced that women were permitted to act in public theatres. Then the gracelessness of the masculine method was acknowledged and deplored. It was the character of Desdemona which was first undertaken by a woman, and the absurdity of the old practice was noticed in the prologue written for this revival of Othello, which was made memorable by the innovation. Some lines in the prologue describe the earlier system thus :
For to speak truth, men act, that are between
Profound commiseration seems due to the Elizabethan playgoer, who was liable to have his faith in the tenderness and gentleness of Desdemona rudely shaken by the irruption on the stage of a brawny, broad-shouldered athlete, masquerading in her sweet name. Boys or men of all shapes and sizes squeaking or bawling out the tender and pathetic lines of Shakespeare's heroines, and no joys of scenery to distract the playgoer from the uncouth inconsistency! At first sight it would seem that the Elizabethan playgoer's lot was anything but happy.
The Elizabethan's hard fate strangely contrasts with the situation of the playgoer of the nineteenth or twentieth century. To the latter Shakespeare is presented in a dazzling plenitude of colour.
Music punctuates not merely intervals between scenes and acts, but critical pauses in the speeches of the actors. Pictorial tableaux enthral the most callous onlooker. Very striking is the contrast offered by the methods of representation accepted with enthusiasm by the Elizabethan playgoer and those deemed essential by the fashionable modern manager. There seems a relish of barbarism in the ancient system when it is compared with the one now in vogue.
I fear the final conclusion to be drawn from the contrast is, contrary to expectation, more creditable to our ancestors than to ourselves. The needful dramatic illusion was obviously evoked in the playgoer of the past with an ease that is unknown to the present patrons of the stage. The absence of scenery, the substitution of boys and men for women, could only have passed muster with the Elizabethan spectator because he was able to realise the dramatic potency of the poet's work without any, or any but the slightest, adventitious aid outside the words of the play.
The Elizabethan playgoer needs no pity. It is ourselves who are deserving objects of compassion, because we lack those qualities, the possession of which enabled the Elizabethan to acknowledge in Shakespeare's work, despite its manner of production, “the delight and wonder of his stage.” The imaginative faculty was far from universal among the Elizabethan playgoers. The playgoing mob always includes groundlings who delight exclusively in dumb shows and noise. Many of Shakespeare's contemporaries complained that there were
SHAKESPEARE'S ADVICE TO THE ACTOR
playgoers who approved nothing “but puppetry and loved ridiculous antics," and that there were men who, going to the playhouse only “to laugh and feed fool-fat," "checked at all goodness there.”ı No public of any age or country is altogether free from such infirmities. But the reception accorded to Shakespeare's plays in the theatre of his day, in contemporary theatrical conditions, is proof positive of a signal imaginative faculty in an exceptionally large proportion of the playgoers.
To the Elizabethan actor a warm tribute is due. Shakespeare has declared with emphasis that no amount of scenery can secure genuine success on the stage for a great work of the imagination. He is no less emphatic in the value he sets on competent acting. In Hamlet, as every reader will remember, the dramatist points out the perennial defects of the actor, and shows how they may and must be corrected. He did all he could for the Elizabethan playgoer in the way of insisting that the art of acting must be studied seriously and that the dramatist's words must reach the ears of the audience, clearly and intelligibly enunciated.
“Speak the speech, I pray you,” he tells the actor, “as I pronounce it to you, trippingly on the tongue; but if you mouth it, as many
mouth it, as many of your players do, I had as lief the town-crier spoke my lines. Nor do not saw the air too much with your hand, thus; but use all gently: for in the very torrent, tempest, and—as I may say-whirlwind of passion, you must acquire and beget a temperance, that may give it smoothness.
“Be not too tame neither, but let your own Chapman's Revenge of Bussy D’Ambois, Act I., Sc. i.
discretion be your tutor: suit the action to the word, the word to the action; with this special obseryance, that you o'erstep not the modesty of nature. O! there be players, that I have seen play, and heard others praise, and that highly, not to speak it profanely, that, neither having the accent of Christians nor the gait of Christian, pagan, nor man, have so strutted and bellowed that I have thought some of nature's journeymen had made men and not made them well, they imitated humanity so abominably.”
The player amiably responds: “I hope we have reformed that indifferently with us." Shakespeare in the person of Hamlet retorts in a tone of some impatience: "O! reform it altogether. And let those that play your clowns speak no more than is set down for them.” The applause which welcomed Shakespeare's masterpieces on their first representation is adequate evidence that the leading Elizabethan actors in the main obeyed these instructions.
Nevertheless the final success of a great imaginative play on the stage does not depend entirely on the competence of the actor. Encircling and determining all conditions is the fitness of the audience. A great imaginative play well acted will not achieve genuine success unless the audience has at command sufficient imaginative power to induce in them an active sympathy with the efforts, not only of the actor, but of the dramatist.
It is not merely in the first chorus to Henry V. that Shakespeare has declared his conviction that
THE ACTOR AND THE AUDIENCE
the creation of the needful dramatic illusion is finally due to exercise of the imagination on the part of the audience. Theseus, in A Midsummer Night's Dream, in the capacity of a spectator of a play which is rendered by indifferent actors, makes a somewhat depreciatory reflection on the character of acting, whatever its degree or capacity. But the value of Theseus's deliverance lies in its clear definition of the part which the audience has to play, if it do its duty by great drama.
“The best in this kind,” says Theseus of actors, “are but shadows, and the worst are no worse, if imagination amend them.” To which Hippolyta, less tolerant than Theseus of the incapacity of the players to whom she is listening, tartly retorts: “It must be your imagination (i.e., the spectator's), then, and not theirs” (i.e., the actors').
These sentences mean that at its very best acting is but a shadow or simulation of life, and that acting at its very worst is likewise a shadow or simulation. But the imagination of the audience is supreme controller of the theatre, and can, if it be of adequate intensity, even cause inferior acting to yield effects hardly distinguishable from those of the best.
It would be unwise to press Theseus's words to extreme limits. All that it behoves us to deduce from them is the unimpeachable principle that the success of the romantic drama on the stage depends not merely on the actors' gift of imagination, but to an even larger extent on the possession by the audience of a similar faculty. Good acting is needful. Scenery in moderation will aid the dramatic
1 See pages 20–21 supra.