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the heart of the British public. If the average British playgoer were gifted with Pepys's frankness, I have little doubt that he would echo the diarist's condemnation of Shakespeare in his poetic purity, of Shakespeare as the mere interpreter of human nature, of Shakespeare without flying machines, of Shakespeare without song and dance; he would characterise undiluted Shakespearean drama as “a mean thing," or the most tedious entertainment that ever he was at in his life.
But the situation in Pepys's day had, despite all the perils that menaced it, a saving grace. Great acting, inspired acting, is an essential condition to any general appreciation in the theatre of Shakespeare's dramatic genius. However seductive may be the musico - scenic ornamentation, Shakespeare will never justly affect the mind of the average playgoer unless great or inspired actors are at hand to interpret him. Luckily for Pepys, he was the contemporary of at least one inspired Shakespearean actor. The exaltation of spirit to which he confesses, when he witnessed Betterton in the rôle of Hamlet, is proof that the prosaic multitude for whom he speaks will always respond to Shakespeare's magic touch when genius wields the actor's wand. One could wish nothing better for the playgoing public of to-day than that the spirit of Betterton, Shakespeare's guardian angel in the theatre of the Restoration, might renew its earthly career in our own time in the person of some contemporary actor.
MR BENSON AND SHAKESPEAREAN
DRAMATIC criticism in the daily press of London often resembles that method of conversation of which Bacon wrote that it seeks "rather commendation of wit, in being able to hold argument, than of judgment, in discerning what is true." For four-andtwenty years, Mr F. R. Benson has directed an acting company which has achieved a reputation in English provincial cities, in Ireland, and in Scotland, by its exclusive devotion to Shakespearean and classical drama. Mr Benson's visits to London have been rare. There he has too often made sport for the journalistic censors who aim at "commendation of wit."
Even the best-intentioned of Mr Benson's critics in London have fallen into the habit of concentrating attention on unquestionable defects in Mr Benson's practice, to the neglect of the vital principles which are the justification of his policy. Mr Benson's principles have been largely ignored by the newspapers; but they are not wisely disregarded. They are matters of urgent public interest. They point
1 This paper was first printed in the Cornhill Magazine, May, 1900.
the right road to the salvation of Shakespearean drama on the modern stage. They cannot be too often pressed on public notice.
These, in my view, are the five points of the charter which Mr Benson is and has long been championing with a persistency which claims national recognition.
Firstly, it is to the benefit of the nation that Shakespeare's plays should be acted constantly and in their variety.
Secondly, a theatrical manager who undertakes to produce Shakespearean drama should change his programme at frequent intervals, and should permit no long continuous run of any single play.
Thirdly, all the parts, whatever their significance, should be entrusted to exponents who have been trained in the delivery of blank verse, and have gained some knowledge and experience of the range of Shakespearean drama.
Fourthly, no play should be adapted by the manager so as to give greater prominence than the text invites to any single rôle.
Fifthly, the scenic embellishments should be simple and inexpensive, and should be subordinated to the dramatic interest.
There is no novelty in these principles. The majority of them were accepted unhesitatingly in the past by Betterton, Garrick, Edmund Kean, the Kembles, and notably by Phelps. They are recognised principles to-day in the leading theatres of France and Germany. But by some vagary of fate or public taste they have been reckoned in London, for a generation at any rate, to be out of date.
In the interest of the manager, the actor, and
MR BENSON'S PRINCIPLES
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?
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.1 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,