19th Century Actor Autobiographies
By George Iles, Editor
Public Domain Books
A good play gives us in miniature a cross-section of life, heightened by plot and characterisation, by witty and compact dialogue. Of course we should honour first the playwright, who has given form to each well knit act and telling scene. But that worthy man, perhaps at this moment sipping his coffee at the Authors’ Club, gave his drama its form only; its substance is created by the men and women who, with sympathy, intelligence and grace, embody with convincing power the hero and heroine, assassin and accomplice, lover and jilt. For the success of many a play their writers would be quick to acknowledge a further and initial debt, both in suggestion and criticism, to the artists who know from experience on the boards that deeds should he done, not talked about, that action is cardinal, with no other words than naturally spring from action. Players, too, not seldom remind authors that every incident should not only be interesting in itself, but take the play a stride forward through the entanglement and unravelling of its plot. It is altogether probable that the heights to which Shakespeare rose as a dramatist were due in a measure to his knowledge of how a comedy, or a tragedy, appears behind as well as in front of the footlights, all in an atmosphere quite other than that surrounding a poet at his desk.
This little volume begins with part of the life story of Joseph Jefferson, chief of American comedians. Then we are privileged to read a few personal letters from Edwin Booth, the acknowledged king of the tragic stage. He is followed by the queen in the same dramatic realm, Charlotte Cushman. Next are two chapters by the first emotional actress of her day in America, Clara Morris. When she bows her adieu, Sir Henry Irving comes upon the platform instead of the stage, and in the course of his thoughtful discourse makes it plain how he won renown both as an actor and a manager. He is followed by his son, Mr. Henry Brodribb Irving, clearly an heir to his father’s talents in art and in observation. Miss Ellen Terry, long Sir Henry Irving’s leading lady, now tells us how she came to join his company, and what she thinks of Sir Henry Irving in his principal roles. The succeeding word comes from Richard Mansfield, whose untimely death is mourned by every lover of the drama. The next pages are from the hand of Tommaso Salvini, admittedly the greatest Othello and Samson that ever trod the boards. A few words, in closing, are from Adelaide Ristori, whose Medea, Myrrha and Phaedra are among the great traditions of the modern stage. From first to last this little book sheds light on the severe toil demanded for excellence on the stage, and reveals that for the highest success of a drama, author and artist must work hand in hand.