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SHAKESPEARE'S ADVICE TO THE ACTOR 45
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."1 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 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 observance, 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.1 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.
illusion, although excess of scenery or scenic machinery may destroy it altogether. Dramatic illusion must ultimately spring from the active and unrestricted exercise of the imaginative faculty by author, actor, and audience in joint-partnership.
What is the moral to be deduced from any examination of the Elizabethan playgoer's attitude to Shakespeare's plays? It is something of this kind. We must emulate our ancestors' command of the imagination. We must seek to enlarge our imaginative sympathy with Shakespeare's poetry. The imaginative faculty will not come to us at our call; it will not come to us by the mechanism of study; it may not come to us at all. It is easier to point out the things that will hinder than the things that will hasten its approach. Absorption in the material needs of life, the concentration of energy on the increase of worldly goods, leave little room for the entrance into the brain of the imaginative faculty, or for its free play when it is there. The best way of seeking it is by reading the greatest of great imaginative literature, by freely yielding the mind to its influence, and by exercising the mind under its sway. And the greatest imaginative literature that was ever penned was penned by Shakespeare. No counsel is wiser than that of those two personal friends of his, who were the first editors of his work and penned words to this effect: "Read him therefore, and again and again, and then if you do not like him, surely you are in some manifest danger" of losing a saving grace of life.
SHAKESPEARE IN ORAL TRADITION 1
BIOGRAPHERS did not lie in wait for men of eminence on their death-beds in Shakespeare's epoch. To the advantage of literature, and to the less than might be anticipated disadvantage of history (for your death-bed biographer, writing under kinsfolk's tearladen eyes, must needs be smoother-tongued than truthful), the place of the modern memoir-writer was filled in Shakespeare's day by friendly poets, who were usually alert to pay fit homage in elegiac. verse to a dead hero's achievements. In that regard, Shakespeare's poetic friends showed at his death exceptional energy. During his lifetime men of letters had bestowed on his "reigning wit," on his kingly supremacy of genius, most generous stores of eulogy. Within two years of the end a sonneteer had justly deplored that something of Shakespeare's own power, to which he deprecated pretension, was needful to those who should praise him aright. But when Shakespeare lay dead in the spring of 1616, when, as one of his admirers topically phrased it, he had withdrawn from the stage of the
1 This paper was first printed in The Nineteenth Century and After, February, 1902.