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SHAKESPEARE'S MINOR ROLES
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 rôles 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.
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
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.
To realise completely the motives of Hamlet's conduct, and the process of his fortunes, not a single utterance from the lips of the King, Polonius, or Laertes can be spared. In ordinary acting versions these three parts sink into insignificance. It is only in the full text that they assume their just and illuminating rank as Hamlet's foils.
The King rises into a character almost of the first class. He is a villain of unfathomable infamy, but his cowardly fear of the discovery of his crimes, his desperate pursuit of the consolations of religion, the quick ingenuity with which he plots escape from the inevitable retribution that dogs his misdeeds, excite -in the full text of the play-an interest hardly less intense than those wistful musings of the stormtossed soul which stay his nephew's avenging hand.
Similarly, Hamlet's incisive wit and honesty are brought into the highest possible relief by the restoration to the feebly guileful Polonius of the speeches of which he has long been deprived. Among the reinstated scenes is that in which the meddlesome dotard teaches his servant Reynaldo modes of espionage that shall detect the moral lapses of his son Laertes in Paris. The recovered episode is not only admirable comedy, but it gives new vividness to Polonius's maudlin egotism which is responsible for many windings of the tragic plot.
The story is simplified at all points by such amplifications of the contracted version which holds the stage. The events are evolved with unsuspected naturalness. The hero's character gains by the expansion of its setting. One downright error which infects the standard abridgement is wholly avoided. Ophelia is dethroned. It is recognised that she is
A SCHOOL FOR ACTORS
not entitled to share with Hamlet the triumphal honours of the action. Weak, insipid, destitute of all force of character, she deserves an insignificant place in Shakespeare's gallery of heroines. Hamlet's mother merits as much or more attention. At any rate, there is no justification for reducing the Queen's part in order to increase Ophelia's prominence. Such distortions are impossible in the production of the piece in its entirety. Throughout Hamlet, in the full authorised text, the artistic balance hangs true. Mr Benson recognised that dominant fact, and contrived to illustrate it on the stage. No higher commendation could be allowed a theatrical manager or actor.
Much else could be said of Mr Benson's principles, and of his praiseworthy energy in seeking to familiarise the playgoer with Shakespearean drama in all its fulness and variety, but only one other specific feature of his method needs mention here. Perhaps the most convincing proof that he has given of the value of his principles to the country's dramatic art is his success in the training of actors and actresses. Of late it is his company that has supplied the great London actor-managers with their ablest recruits. Nearly all the best performers of secondary rôles and a few of the best performers of primary rôles in the leading London theatres are Mr Benson's pupils. Their admission to the great London companies is raising the standard of acting in the Metropolis. The marked efficiency of these newcomers is due to a system which is inconsistent