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T was at the Queen's Theatre, on one very foggy night in
I forget the month and even the year, that Mr. Irving and I acted together for the first time. The play was Katherine and Petruchio—a hashed-up version of The Taming of the Shrew. I fancy we neither of us played very well. From the very first I noted that Mr. Irving worked more concentratedly than all the other actors put together, and the most important lesson of my working life I learnt from him, that to do one's work well one must work continually, live a life of constant self-denial for that purpose, and in short keep one's nose upon the grindstone. It is a lesson one had better learn early in stage life, I think, for the bright, glorious, healthy career of a successful actor is but brief at the best. There is an old story told of Mr. Irving being “struck with my talent at this time, and promising that if he ever had a theatre of his own he'd give me an engagement !” But that is all moonshine. As a matter of fact I'm sure he never thought of me at all at that time. I was just then acting very badly, and feeling ill, caring scarcely at all for my work or a theatre or anything belonging to a theatre. Mr. Boucicault had lately offered me an engagement in America on what seemed to me extraordinary terms, but I declined his offer, and after acting in two or three more plays under the Wigan management, I left the stage for many years.
When I returned it was to the same theatre. “The Queen's ” was now under a different management, and my old friend Mr. Charles Reade was at the head of affairs. Dear, lovable, aggravating, childlike, crafty, gentle, obstinate, and entirely delightful
and interesting Charles Reade! His play, The Wandering Heir, was in the middle of a successful run, and Mrs. John Wood, who was playing the principal part, was leaving the theatre for some other engagement. I took her place as Philippa Chester, and from that time until the present have never lost zest for my work. That was a delightful engagement. Mr. Reade used to sit in a private box every night and watch the play and send me round notes between each act, telling me what I had done ill and what well in the preceding act.
I have the letters still, and, were I to give them here, the readers of “Stray Memories” would find very different and very interesting reading ; but since I am of the opinion that to publish private letters intended for one person only is like asking an audience to put their ears to a keyhole and listen to a private conversation, I must ask to be endured for my own sake. I never have met with anybody who possessed so many opposite characteristics as Charles Reade. He was so big-hearted and guileless, and yet for moments as suspicious as Old Nick. One moment, with a friend, it would be “My dearest child,” and the next (under some fancied wrong)—“Madam, you are a rat-you desert a sinking ship.” I have seen him stand up and sing “The girl I left behind me” in the most pathetic manner, with the tears streaming over his kind old cheeks. I've seen him white with rage, and his dark eyes blazing, when some one belonging to me has said lightly and playfully to him,“ Why did poor Nell come home from rehearsal looking so tired yesterday ? you work her too hard.” He thought it was unjust, and simply flamed in his wrath—but oh, it was so sweet, the reconciliations after such little misunderstandings; and the rehearsals were always shorter afterwards. He used to say there should be no such word as quarrel, and one morning he produced mysteriously from his pocket-book a slip of paper with these words written in big letters : “THERE DO EXIST SUCH THINGS AS HONEST
MISUNDERSTANDINGS." “There, my Eleanora Delicia”—he always called me that (my name is Ellen Alicia)—“ stick that up in some place where you will often see it. Better put it on your looking-glass,” he rudely added, “and it will save you a world of unhappiness if you get those words well into your noddle.” I think he was right. Not always so right were his theories about stage management. One idea of his was that everything should be real in the way of properties upon the stage ; and he produced a little play of his own, called Rachel the Reaper, and tried to put into practice some of his pet theories. He had a short real wall built across the stage, but as there was no real sun there were no real shadows, and the absence of the painted shadows made the real wall appear like anything but a wall. There was a real pony, who did his part beautifully; but the real sheep, the real dog, and the real goat really deserved to be fined a week's salary ! As for the real pigs—well, they never appeared at all! Mr. Reade arrived in a four-wheeler one morning at rehearsal with a goat and three wee pigs! The goat was secured, but the instant the cab door was opened away went the pigs helter-skelter, one towards the Strand, another towards the Endell Street Baths, another here and there, and dear old Charles Reade flying after them, and in such deadly earnest, too! for did not the success of his play depend upon those real pigs? But no-not “one little piggie stayed at home,” and Charles Reade, in his rage, declared the pigs should be “cut out”—and cut out they were.
The goat-it was a he, and we called it Rachel !-after the play was taken by Charles Reade to his beautiful garden at Knightsbridge. A little thatched house was built for him, and books “ On Goats" were bought to show how to treat that animal properly. But the ungrateful wretch had no appreciation of the fine food bought him, nor of the velvety lawn ; and even the thatched house failed to touch his heart. He pined away, getting thinner and thinner the better he was fed. Now, the dining-room was on a level with the lawn. One evening the windows were opened, and when the gas was lighted, in frisked Mr. Goat in the highest spirits. All was clear. He had been born and bred in the sawdust (Charles Reade had bought him from a circus), and he pined—not for fresh air, nor for lawns, nor thatched houses, but for the smell of the lamps and the applause of the multitude. He may be alive at this day, for he was sent back as an ungrateful goat who had no more appreciation than a pig of an æsthetic existence.
How many animals (on two and four legs!!) have cause to
remember Charles Reade with reverence and gratitude !—I am one of them!
Talking of realism reminds me that people often express surprise at the real tears I shed when I am acting. Their surprise surprises me. My effort is to keep from tears. When I, as Beatrice in Much Ado About Nothing, listen in the church scene each night to Hero being “done to death by slanderous tongues ”; to her father's agony and grand championship of her; to the sweet, tender words of the Friar, I ask myself, how can anyone hear such words unmoved ? And then, later on in the scene, the winged words of Beatrice in defence of her cousin-can anything be more tearstirring ?
But no! some people can't cry, and yet can feel stirred to the depths of their nature. Of course some, too, have no depths to stir. Some, when they walk in the woods in springtime, cannot see fairies -even in the evening. I remember a sweet, white-faced old man, who used to go round his garden every evening just saying goodnight to his flowers. I blunderingly came upon him one evening, and hearing him talking slunk away again. After that, I sat in the bay window with my work, and watched him each evening. I am sure he saw fairies. Oh, for an audience of many such as he ! He could not read Shakespeare well himself, but he was so simple a gentleman, so single-minded, that any actor, not "a born fool,” would have learned much from him on listening to his reading of King Lear, Othello, the Friar in Much Ado, &c. He would sing a simple ballad, too, with the tears pouring down his face—the beauty of the plain story going straight to his heart, and his eyes just running over with sympathy. That is the kind of people who have been
best teachers. Hold the mirror up to Nature and one can learn so much. Observe a child—a dog! Imitate the unconsciousness of a dog—if you can! A dog going through a crowd of people after his beloved mistress, who is in a cab ahead." Look at it—think of it, dissolute man. Watch it, and imitate, then, if you can!”
To return, however, for a moment to tears. I do not say that the absence of tears shows a lack of feeling. For instance, the greatest of living actresses, Sarah Bernhardt, spoke upon this very subject with me at our first meeting, which was on the Lyceum
6. It is a very
stage, after a performance of Iolanthe (King Rene's Daughter). The scene was still set. It was a garden. Dear me! how she dazzled and interested me! She fitted here and there, pretending to smell the flowers—she rustled and rustled—shimmer—shimmer went her dress—and fit-Ait went she. It made me think the garden was real—my own stage garden that I had been acting in. She seemed to me a butterfly, and I-an elephant! I did feel heavy, dull, and stupid by the side of her. It was the first time I had met her—off the stage. She chattered away all the while in French, since she could not in English, and thereby showed her wit, all the time charming us—or me at all events—and holding the situation most completely. I remember that evening (when she left off flitting, and proved to me she was not really a butterfly by eating some asparagus for supper after the play, she spoke to me about my real tears in King René's Daughter, not with surprise but with interest and sympathy, and told me she could not cry. But I know that she felt crying, though her tears did not come.
“ penurious and sceptical love which must understand before it can sympathise." Although I did not see, “I heard her tears," and knew they were in her soul. No! despite all that Diderot and even M. Coquelin have said to the contrary, I do not believe that an actress can really move her audience unless she is herself affected by certain passages. But to teach the art of shedding tears is as impossible as it is to teach the art of feeling.
These slight sketches, please remember, are supposed to be "stray memories "_not set opinions. So I am very loth to dogmatise on any point. But I have received so many letters lately from people asking me to state my views on Hedda Gabler that I cannot resist the temptation of speaking my mind outright, though it seems to me that everybody has said everything that can be said about Ibsen's plays. Well, to be frank, I should not myself care to act in them. I consider myself very happy and fortunate in having nearly always been called upon to act very noble, clear characters, since I prefer that kind of part, and love Portia and Beatrice better than Hedda, Nora, or any of those silly ladies. Yet Ibsen is attractive to actors and especially actresses. I think it must be that Ibsen is so extraordinarily easy to act. For instance, how much easier it is to ask