19th Century Actor Autobiographies
By George Iles, Editor
Public Domain Books
Tommaso Salvini as King Lear
[During his American tour of 1882-1883, Salvini played in Boston. One of his auditors, Henry James, the distinguished novelist, in the Atlantic Monthly for March, 1883, gave a detailed criticism of the performances. Of Salvini’s Othello he said:
... “What an immense impression–simply as an impression–the actor makes on the spectator who sees him for the first time as the turbaned and deep-voiced Moor! He gives us his measure as a man: he acquaints us with that luxury of perfect confidence in the physical resources of the actor which is not the most frequent satisfaction of the modern play-goer. His powerful, active, manly frame, his noble, serious, vividly expressive face, his splendid smile, his Italian eye, his superb, voluminous voice, his carriage, his ease, the assurance he instantly gives that he holds the whole part in his hands and can make of it exactly what he chooses,–all this descends upon the spectator’s mind with a richness which immediately converts attention into faith, and expectation into sympathy. He is a magnificent creature, and you are already on his ride. His generous temperament is contagious; you find yourself looking at him, not so much as an actor, but as a hero.... The admirable thing in this nature of Salvini’s is that his intelligence is equal to his material powers, so that if the exhibition is, as it were, personal, it is not simply physical. He has a great imagination: there is a noble intention in all he does.
The pages which now follow, taken from Salvini’s Autobiography, are presented with the permission of his publishers, the Century Company, New York.–ED.]
The Bon and Berlaffa Company, in which my father was engaged, alternated in its repertory between the comedies of Goldoni and the tragedies of Alfieri.
One evening the “Donne Curiose” by Goldoni was to be given, but the actor who was to take the harlequin’s part, represented in that piece by a stupid slave called Pasquino, fell sick a few hours before the curtain was to rise. The company had been together for a few days only, and it was out of the question to substitute another play. It had been decided to close the theatre for that night, when Berlaffa asked:
“Why couldn’t your Tom take the part?” My father said that there was no reason why he shouldn’t, but that Tom had never appeared in public, and he didn’t know whether he had the courage.
The proposition was made to me, and I accepted on the spot, influenced to no little extent by a desire to please the managers, who in my eyes were people of great importance. Within three hours, with my iron memory, I had easily mastered my little part of Pasquino, and, putting on the costume of the actor who had fallen ill, I found myself a full-fledged if a new performer. I was to speak in the Venetian dialect; that was inconvenient for me rather than difficult, but at Forte, where we were, any slip of pronunciation would hardly be observed.
It was the first time that I was to go on the stage behind the dazzling footlights, the first time that I was to speak in an unaccustomed dialect, dressed up in ridiculous clothes which were not my own; and I confess that I was so much frightened that I was tempted to run back to my dressing-room, to take off my costume, and to have nothing more to do with the play. But my father, who was aware of my submissive disposition toward him, with a few words kept me at my post.
“For shame!” said he; “a man has no right to be afraid.” A man! I was scarce fourteen, yet I aspired to that title.
The conscript who is for the first time under fire feels a sense of fear. Nevertheless, if he has the pride of his sex, and the dignity of one who appreciates his duty, he stands firm, though it be against big will. So it was with me when I began my part. When I perceived that some of Pasquino’s lines were amusing the audience, I took courage, and, like a little bird making its first flight, I arrived at the goal, and was eager to try again. As it turned out, my actor’s malady grew worse, so that he was forced to leave the company, and I was chosen to take his place.
I must have had considerable aptitude for such comic parts as those of stupid servants, for everywhere that we went I became the public’s Benjamin. I made the people laugh, and they asked for nothing better. All were surprised that, young and inexperienced as I was, I should have so much cleverness of manner and such sureness of delivery. My father was more surprised than anybody, for he had expected far less of my immaturity and total lack of practice. It is certain that from that time I began to feel that I was somebody. I had become useful, or at least I thought I had, and, as a consequence, in my manner and bearing I began to affect the young man more than was fitting in a mere boy. I sought to figure in the conversation of grown people, and many a time I had the pain of seeing my elders smile at my remarks. It was my great ambition to be allowed to walk alone in the city streets; my father was very loath to grant this boon, but he let me go sometimes, perhaps to get a sample of my conduct. I don’t remember ever doing anything at these times which could have displeased him; I was particularly careful about it, since I saw him sad, pensive, and afflicted owing to the misfortune which had befallen him, and soon be began to accord me his confidence, which I was most anxious to gain.
A Father’s Advice
Often he spoke to me of the principles of dramatic art, and of the mission of the artist. He told me that to have the right to call one’s self an artist one must add honest work to talent, and he put before me the example of certain actors who had risen to fame, but who were repulsed by society on account of the triviality of their conduct; of others who were brought by dissipation to die in a hospital, blamed by all; and of still others who had fallen so low as to hold out their hands for alms, or to sponge on their comrades and to cozen them out of their money for unmerited subscriptions–all of which things moved me to horror and deep repugnance. It was with good reason that my father was called “Honest Beppo” by his fellows on the stage. The incorruptibility and firmness of principle which he cultivated in me from the time that I grew old enough to understand have been my spur and guide throughout my career, and it is through no merit of my own that I can count myself among those who have won the esteem of society; I attribute all the merit to my father. He was con scientious and honest to a scruple; so much so that of his own free will he sacrificed the natural pride of the dramatic artist, and denounced the well-earned honour of first place in his own company to take second place with Gustavo Modena, whose artistic merit he recognised as superior to his own, in order that I might profit by the instruction of that admirable actor and sterling citizen. My father preferred his son’s advantage to his own personal profit.
How Salvini Studied His Art
The parts in which I won the most sympathy from the Italian public were those of Oreste in the tragedy of that name, Egisto in “Merope," Romeo in “Giulietta e Romeo,” Paolo in “Francesca da Rimini,” Rinaldo in “Pia di Tolommei,” Lord Bonfield in “Pamela,” Domingo in the “Suonatrice d ’Arpa,” and Gian Galeazzo in “Lodovico il Moro.” In all these my success was more pronounced than in other parts, and I received flattering marks of approval. I did not reflect, at that time, of how great assistance to me it was to be constantly surrounded by first-rate artists; but I soon came to feel that an atmosphere untainted by poisonous microbes promotes unoppressed respiration, and that in such an atmosphere soul and body maintain themselves healthy and vigorous. I observed frequently in the “scratch” companies, which played in the theatres of second rank young men and women who showed very notable artistic aptitude, but who, for lack of cultivation and guidance, ran to extravagance, overemphasis, and exaggeration. Up to that time, while I had a clear appreciation of the reasons for recognising defects in others, I did not know how to correct my own; on the other hand, I recognised that the applause accorded me was intended as an encouragement more than as a tribute which I had earned. From a youth of pleasing qualities (for the moment I quell my modesty), with good features, full of fire and enthusiasm, with a harmonious and powerful voice, and with good intellectual faculties, the public deemed that an artist should develop who would distinguish himself, and perhaps attain eminence in the records of Italian art; and for this reason it sought to encourage me, and to apply the spur to my pride by manifesting its feeling of sympathy. By good fortune I had enough conscience and good sense to receive this homage at its just value. I felt the need of studying, not books alone, but men and things, vice and virtue, love and hate, humility and haughtiness, gentleness and cruelty, folly and wisdom, poverty and opulence, avarice and lavishness, long-suffering and vengeance–in short, all the passions for good and evil which have root in human nature. I needed to study out the manner of rendering these passions in accordance with the race of the men in whom they were exhibited, in accordance with their special customs, principles, and education; I needed to form a conception of the movement, the manner, the expressions of face and voice characteristic of all these cases; I must learn by intuition to grasp the characters of fiction, and by study to reproduce those of history with semblance of truth, seeking to give to every one a personality distinct from every other. In fine, I must become capable of identifying myself with one or another personage to such an extent as to lead the audience into the illusion that the real personage, and not a copy, is before them. It would then remain to learn the mechanism of my art; that is, to choose the salient points and to bring them out, to calculate the effects and keep them in proportion with the unfolding of the plot, to avoid monotony in intonation and repetition in accentuation, to insure precision and distinctness in pronunciation, the proper distribution of respiration, and incisiveness of delivery. I must study; study again; study always. It was not an easy thing to put these precepts into practice. Very often I forgot them, carried away by excitement, or by the superabundance of my vocal powers; indeed, until I had reached an age of calmer reflection I was never able to get my artistic chronometer perfectly regulated; it would always gain a few minutes every twenty-four hours.
Faults in Acting
In my assiduous reading of the classics, the chief places were held among the Greeks by the masculine and noble figures of Hector, Achilles, Theseus, Oedipus; among the Scots by Trenmor, Fingal, Cuchullin; and among the Romans by Caesar, Brutus, Titus, and Cato. These characters influenced me to incline toward a somewhat bombastic system of gesticulation and a turgid delivery. My anxiety to enter to the utmost into the conceptions of my authors, and to interpret them clearly, disposed me to exaggerate the modulations of my voice like some mechanism which responds to every touch, not reflecting that the abuse of this effort would bring me too near to song. Precipitation in delivery, too, which when carried too far destroys all distinctness and incisiveness, was due to my very high impressionability, and to the straining after technical scenic effects. Thus, extreme vehemence in anger would excite me to the point of forgetting the fiction, and cause me to commit involuntarily lamentable outbursts. Hence I applied myself to overcome the tendency to singsong in my voice, the exuberance of my rendering of passion, the exclamatory quality of my phrasing, the precipitation of my pronunciation, and the swagger of my motions.
I shall be asked how the public could abide me, with all these defects; and I answer that the defects, though numerous, were so little prominent that they passed unobserved by the mass of the public, which always views broadly and could be detected only by the acute and searching eye of the intelligent critic. I make no pretence that I was able to correct myself all at once. Sometimes my impetuosity would carry me away, and not until I had come to mature age was I able to free myself to any extent from this failing. Then I confirmed myself in my opinion that the applause of the public is not all refined gold, and I became able to separate the gold from the dross in the crucible of intelligence. How many on the stage are content with the dross!
The Desire to Excel in Everything
My desire to improve in my art had its origin in my instinctive impulse to rise above mediocrity–an instinct that must have been born in me, since, when still a little boy, I used to put forth all my energies to eclipse what I saw accomplished by my companions of like age. When I was sixteen, and at Naples, there were in the boarding-house, at two francs and a half a day, two young men who were studying music and singing, and to surpass them in their own field I practised the scales until I could take B natural. Later on, when the tone of my voice; had lowered to the barytone, impelled always by my desire to accomplish something, I took lessons in music from the Maestro Terziani, and appeared at a benefit with the famous tenor Boucarde, and Signora Monti, the soprano, and sang in a duet from “Belisaria,” the aria from “Maria di Rohan,"and “La Settimana d’Amore,” by Niccolai; and I venture to say that I was not third best in that triad. But I recognised that singing and declamation were incompatible pursuits, since the method of producing the voice is totally different, and they must therefore be mutually harmful. Financially, I was not in a condition to be free to choose between the two careers, and I persevered of necessity in the dramatic profession. Whether my choice was for the best I do not know; it is certain that if my success had been in proportion to my love of music, and I have reason to believe that it might have been, I should not have remained in obscurity.
A Model for Othello
[In 1871, Salvini organised a company for a tour in South America, On his way thither he paused at Gibraltar, and gainfully.]
At Gibraltar I spent my time studying the Moors. I was much struck by one very fine figure, majestic in walk, and Roman in face, except for a slight projection of the lower lip. The man’s colour was between copper and coffee, not very dark, and he had a slender moustache, and scanty curled hair on his chin. Up to that time I had always made up Othello simply with my moustache, but after seeing that superb Moor I added the hair on the chin, and sought to copy his gestures, movements, and carriage. Had I been able I should have imitated his voice also, so closely did that splendid Moor represent to me the true type of the Shakespearian hero. Othello must have been a son of Mauritania, if we can argue from Iago’s words to Roderigo: “He goes into Mauritania"; for what else could the author have intended to imply but that the Moor was returning to his native land?
First Trip to the United States
After a few months of rest [after the South American tour], I resolved to get together a new company, selecting those actors and actresses who were best suited to my repertory. The excellent Isolina Piamonti was my leading lady; and my brother Alessandro, an experienced, conscientious, and versatile artist, supported me. An Italian theatrical speculator proposed to me a tour in North America, to include the chief cities of the United States, and although I hesitated not a little on account of the ignorance of the Italian language prevailing in that country, I accepted, influenced somewhat by my desire to visit a region which was wholly unknown to me. Previous to crossing the ocean I had several months before me, and these served me to get my company in training.
My first impressions of New York were most favourable. Whether it was the benefit of a more vivifying atmosphere, or the comfort of the national life, or whether it was admiration for that busy, industrious, work-loving people, or the thousands of beautiful women whom I saw in the streets, free and proud in carriage, and healthy and lively in aspect, or whether it was the thought that these citizens were the great-grandchildren of those high-souled men who had known how to win with their blood the independence of their country, I felt as if I had been born again to a new existence. My lungs swelled more freely as I breathed the air impregnated with so much vigour and movement, and so much liberty, and I could fancy that I had come back to my life of a youth of twenty, and was treading the streets of republican Rome. With a long breath of satisfaction I said to myself: “Ah, here is life!” Within a few days my energy was redoubled. A lively desire of movement, not a usual thing with me, had taken possession of me in spite of myself. Without asking myself why, I kept going here and there, up and down, to see everything, to gain information; and when I returned to my rooms in the evening, I could have set out again to walk still more. This taught me why Americans are so unwearied and full of business. Unfortunately I have never mastered English sufficiently to converse in that tongue; had I possessed that privilege, perhaps my stay in North America would not have been so short, and perhaps I might have figured on the English stage. What an enjoyment it would have been to me to play Shakespeare in English! But I have never had the privilege of the gift of tongues, and I had to content myself with my own Italian, which is understood by but few in America. This, however, mattered little; they understood me all the same, or, to put it better, they caught by intuition my ideas and my sentiments.
My first appearance was in “Othello.” The public received a strong impression, without discussing whether or not the means which I used to cause it were acceptable, and without forming a clear conception of my interpretation of that character, or pronouncing openly upon its form. The same people who had heard it the first night returned on the second, on the third, and even on the fourth, to make up their minds whether the emotions they experienced resulted from the novelty of my interpretation, or whether in fact it was the true sentiment of Othello’s passions which was transmitted to them–in short, whether it was a mystification or a revelation. By degrees the public became convinced that those excesses of jealousy and fury were appropriate to the son of the desert, and that one of Southern blood must be much better qualified to interpret them than a Northerner. The judgment was discussed, criticised, disputed; but in the end the verdict was overwhelmingly in my favour. When the American has once said “Yes," he never weakens; he will always preserve for you the same esteem, sympathy, and affection. After New York I travelled through a number of American cities–Philadelphia, Baltimore, Pittsburg, Washington, and Boston, which is rightly styled the Athens of America, for there artistic taste is most refined. In Boston I had the good fortune to become intimately acquainted with the illustrious poet, Longfellow, who talked to me in the pure Tuscan. I saw, too, other smaller cities, and then I appeared again in New York, where the favour of the public was confirmed, not only for me, but also for the artists of my company, and especially for Isolina Piamonti, who received no uncertain marks of esteem and consideration. We then proceeded to Albany, Utica, Syracuse, Rochester, Buffalo, Toledo, and that pleasant city, Detroit, continuing to Chicago, and finally to New Orleans.
From New Orleans we sailed to Havana, but found in Cuba civil war, and a people that had but small appetite for serious things, and was moreover alarmed by a light outbreak of yellow fever. One of my company was taken down with the disease, but I had the pleasure of seeing him recover, Luckily he had himself treated by Havanese physicians, who are accustomed to combat that malady, which they know only too well. Perhaps my comrade would have lost his life under the ministrations of an Italian doctor. In the city of sugar and tobacco, too, it was “Othello” which carried off the palm. Those good manufacturers of cigars presented me on my benefit with boxes of their wares, which were made expressly for me, and which I dispatched to Italy for the enjoyment of my friends. In spite of the many civilities which were tendered to me, in spite of considerable money profit, and of the ovations of its kind-hearted people, I did not find Cuba to my taste. Sloth and luxury reign there supreme.
Appearance in London
In Paris I found a letter from the Impresario Mapleson, who proposed that I should go to London with an Italian company, and play at Drury Lane on the off-nights of the opera. I was in doubt for a considerable time whether to challenge the verdict of the British public; but in two weeks after reaching Italy, by dint of telegrams I had got together the force of artists necessary, and I presented myself with arms and baggage in London, in the spring of 1875.
Hardly had I arrived, when I noticed the posting, on the bill-boards of the city, of the announcement of the seventy-second night of “Hamlet” at the Lyceum Theatre, with Henry Irving in the title-role. I had contracted with Mapleson to give only three plays in my season, “Othello,” “The Gladiator,” and “Hamlet,” the last having been insisted upon by Mapleson himself, who, as a speculator, well knew that curiosity as to a Comparison would draw the public to Drury Lane.
Impressions of Irving’s “Hamlet”
I was very anxious to see the illustrious English artist in that part, and I secured a box and went to the Lyceum. I was recognised by nobody, and remaining as it were concealed in my box, I had a good opportunity to satisfy my curiosity. I arrived at the theatre a little too late, so that I missed the scene of Hamlet in presence of the ghost of his father, the scene which in my judgment contains the clue to that strange character, and from which all the synthetic ideas of Hamlet are developed. I was in time to hear only the last words of the oath of secrecy. I was struck by the perfection of the stage-setting. There was a perfect imitation of the effect of moonlight, which at the proper times flooded the stage with its rays or left it in darkness. Every detail was excellently and exactly reproduced. The scene was shifted, and Hamlet began his allusions, his sallies of sarcasm, his sententious sayings, his points of satire with the courtiers, who sought to study and to penetrate the sentiments of the young prince. In this scene Irving was simply sublime. His mobile face mirrored his thoughts. The subtle penetration of his phrases, so perfect in shading and incisiveness, showed him to be a master of art. I do not believe there is an actor who can stand beside him in this respect, and I was so much impressed by it, that at the end of the second act I said to myself, “I will not play Hamlet! Mapleson can say what he likes, but I will not play it"; and I said it with the fullest resolution. In the monologue, “To be or not to be,” Irving was admirable; in the scene with Ophelia he was deserving of the highest praise; in that of the Players he was moving, and in all this part of the play he appeared to my eyes to be the most perfect interpreter of that eccentric character. But further on it was not so, and for the sake of art I regretted it. From the time when the passion assumes a deeper hue, and reasoning moderates impulses which are forcibly curbed, Irving seemed to me to show mannerism, and to be lacking in power, and strained, and it is not in him alone that I find this fault, but in nearly all foreign actors. There seems to be a limit of passion within which they remain true in their rendering of nature; but beyond that limit they become transformed, and take on conventionality in their intonations, exaggeration in their gestures, and mannerism in their bearing. I left my box saying to myself: “I too can do Hamlet, and I will try it!” In some characters Irving is exceptionally fine. I am convinced that it would be difficult to interpret Shylock or Mephistopheles better than he. He is most skilful in putting his productions on the stage; and in addition to his intelligence he does not lack the power to communicate his counsels or his teachings. Withal he is an accomplished gentleman in society, and is loved and respected by his fellow-citizens, who justly look upon him as a glory to their country. He should, however, for his own sake, avoid playing such pants as Romeo and Macbeth, which are not adapted to his somewhat scanty physical and vocal power.
The Decline of Tragedy
The traditions of the English drama are imposing and glorious! Shakespeare alone has gained the highest pinnacle of fame in dramatic art. He has had to interpret him such great artists as Garrick, Kemble, Kean, Macready, Siddons, and Irving; and the literary and dramatic critics of the whole world have studied and analysed both author and actor. At present, however, tragedy is abandoned on almost all the stages of Europe. Actors who devote themselves to tragedy, whether classical romantic, or historical, no longer exist. Society-comedy has overflowed the stage, and the inundation causes the seed to rot which more conscientious and prudent planters had sown in the fields of art. It is desirable that the feeling and taste for the works of the great dramatists should be revived in Europe, and that England, which is for special reasons, and with justice, proud of enjoying the primacy in dramatic composition, should have also worthy and famous actors. I do not understand why the renown and prestige of the great name of Garrick do not attract modern actors to follow in his footsteps. Do not tell me that the works of Shakespeare are out of fashion, and that the public no longer wants them. Shakespeare is always new–so new that not even yet is he understood by everybody, and if, as they say, the public is no longer attracted by his plays, it is because they are superficially presented. To win the approval of the audience, a dazzling and conspicuous mise-en-scene does not suffice, as some seem to imagine, to make up deficiency in interpretation; a more profound study of the characters represented is indispensable. If in art you can join the beautiful and the good, so much the better for you; but if you give the public the alternative, it will always prefer the good to the beautiful.
Tragedy in Two Languages
In 1880 the agent of an impresario and theatre-owner of Boston came to Florence to make me the proposal that I should go to North America for the second time, to play in Italian supported by an American company. I thought the man had lost his senses. But after a time I became convinced that he was in his right mind, and that no one would undertake a long and costly journey simply to play a joke, and I took his extraordinary proposition into serious consideration and asked him for explanations.
“The idea is this,” the agent made answer; “it is very simple. You found favour the last time with the American public with your Italian company, when not a word that was said was understood, and the proprietor of the Globe Theatre of Boston thinks that if he puts with you English-speaking actors, you will yourself be better understood, since all the dialogues of your supporters will be plain. The audience will concern itself only with following you with the aid of the play-books in both languages, and will not have to pay attention to the others, whose words it will understand.”
“But how shall I take my cue, since I do not understand English? And how will your American actors know when to speak, since they do not know Italian?”
“Have no anxiety about that,” said the agent. “Our American actors are mathematicians, and can memorise perfectly the last words of your speeches, and they will work with the precision of machines.”
“I am ready to admit that,” said I, “although I do not think it will be so easy; but it will in any case be much easier for them, who will have to deal with me alone, and will divide the difficulty among twenty or twenty-four, than for me, who must take care of all.”
The persevering agent, however, closed my mouth with the words, “You do not sign yourself ’Salvini’ for nothing!” He had an answer for everything, he was prepared to convince me at all points, to persuade me about everything, and to smooth over every difficulty, and he won a consent which, though almost involuntary on my part, was legalised by a contract in due form, by which I undertook to be at New York not later than November 05, 1880, and to be ready to open at Philadelphia with “Othello” on the 29th of the same month.
I was still dominated by my bereavement, and the thought was pleasant to me of going away from places which constantly brought it back to my mind. Another sky, other customs, another language, grave responsibilities, a novel and difficult undertaking of uncertain outcome–I was willing to risk all simply to distract my attention and to forget. I have never in my life been a gambler, but that time I staked my artistic reputation upon a single card. Failure would have been a new emotion, severe and grievous, it is true, but still different from that which filled my mind. I played, and I won! The friends whom I had made in the United States in 1873, and with whom I had kept up my acquaintance, when they learned of the confusion of tongues, wrote me discouraging letters. In Italy the thing was not believed, so eccentric did it seem. I arrived in New York nervous and feverish, but not discouraged or depressed.
When the day of the first rehearsal came, all the theatres were occupied, and I had to make the best of a rather large concert-hall to try to get into touch with the actors who were to support me. An Italian who was employed in a newspaper office served me as interpreter in cooperation with the agent of my Boston impresario. The American artists began the rehearsal without a prompter, and with a sureness to be envied especially by our Italian actors, who usually must have every word suggested to them. My turn came, and the few words which Othello pronounces in the first scene came in smoothly and without difficulty. When the scene with the Council of Ten came, of a sudden I could not recall the first line of a paragraph, and I hesitated; I began a line, but it was not that; I tried another with no better success; a third, but the interpreter told me that I had gone wrong. We began again, but the English was of no assistance to me in recognising which of my speeches corresponded to that addressed to me, which I did not understand. I was all at sea, and I told the interpreter to beg the actors to overlook my momentary confusion, and to say to them that I should be all right in five minutes. I went off to a corner of the hall and bowed my head between my hands, saying to myself, “I have come for this, and I must carry it through.” I set out to number mentally all the paragraphs of my part, and in a short time I said. “Let us begin again.”
During the remainder of the rehearsal one might have thought that I understood English, and that the American actors understood Italian, No further mistake was made by either side; there was not even the smallest hesitation, and when I finished the final scene of the third act between Othello and Iago, the actors applauded, filled with joy and pleasure. The exactitude with which the subsequent rehearsals of “Othello,” and those of “Hamlet,” proceeded was due to the memory, the application, and the scrupulous attention to their work of the American actors, as well as to my own force of will and practical acquaintance with all the parts of the play, and to the natural intuition which helped me to know without understanding what was addressed to me, divining it from a motion, a look, or a light inflection of the voice. Gradually a few words, a few short phrases, remained in my ear, and in course of time I came to understand perfectly every word of all the characters; I became so sure of myself that if an actor substituted one word for another I perceived it. I understood the words of Shakespeare, but not those of the spoken language.
In a few days we went to Philadelphia to begin our representations. My old acquaintances were in despair. To those who had sought to discourage me by their letters others on the spot joined their influence, and tried everything to overthrow my courage. I must admit that the nearer came the hour of the great experiment, the more my anxiety grew and inclined me to deplore the moment when I had put myself in that dilemma. I owe it in a great degree to my cool head that my discouraging forebodings did not unman me so much as to make me abandon myself wholly to despair. Just as I was going on the stage, I said to myself: “After all, what can happen to me? They will not murder me. I shall have tried, and I shall have failed; that is all there will be to it, I will pack up my baggage and go back to Italy, convinced that oil and wine will not mix. A certain contempt of danger, a firm resolution to succeed, and, I am bound to add, considerable confidence in myself, enabled me to go before the public calm, bold, and secure.
The first scene before the palace of Brabantio was received with sepulchral silence. When that of the Council of Ten came, and the narration of the vicissitudes of Othello was ended, the public broke forth in prolonged applause. Then I said to myself, “A good beginning is half the work.” At the close of the first act, my adversaries, who were such solely on account of their love of art, and their belief that the two languages could not be amalgamated, came on the stage to embrace and congratulate me, surprised, enchanted, enthusiastic, happy, that they had been mistaken, and throughout the play I was the object of constant demonstrations of sympathy.
American Critical Taste
From Philadelphia we went to New York where our success was confirmed. It remained for me to win the suffrages of Boston, and I secured them, first having made stops in Brooklyn, New Haven, and Hartford. When in the American Athens I became convinced that that city possesses the most refined artistic taste. Its theatrical audiences are serious, attentive to details, analytical–I might almost say scientific–and one might fancy that such careful critics had never in their lives done anything but occupy themselves with scenic art. With reference to a presentation of Shakespeare, they are profound, acute, subtle, and they know so well how to clothe some traditional principle in close logic, that if faith in the opposite is not quite unshakable in an artist, he must feel himself tempted to renounce his own tenets. It is surprising that in a land where industry and commerce seem to absorb all the intelligence of the people, there should be in every city and district, indeed in every village, people who are competent to discuss the arts with such high authority. The American nation counts only a century of freedom, yet it has produced a remarkable number of men of high competence in dramatic art. Those who think of tempting fortune by displaying their untried artistic gifts on the American stage, counting on the ignorance or inexperience of their audience, make a very unsafe calculation. The taste and critical faculty of that public are in their fulness of vigour. Old Europe is more bound by traditions, more weary, more blase, in her judgment, not always sincere or disinterested. In America the national pride is warmly felt, and the national artists enjoy high honour. The Americans know how to offer an exquisite hospitality, but woe to the man who seeks to impose on them! They profess a cult, a veneration, for those who practise our art, whether of their own nation or foreign, and their behaviour in the theatre is dignified. I recall one night when upon invitation I went to see a new play in which appeared an actor of reputation. The play was not liked, and from act to act I noticed that the house grew more and more scanty, like a faded rose which loses its petals one by one, until at the last scene my box was the only one which remained occupied. I was more impressed by this silent demonstration of hostility than I should have been if the audience had made a tumultuous expression of its disapproval. The actors were humiliated and confounded, and as the curtain fell an instinctive sentiment of compassion induced me to applaud.
Impressions of Edwin Booth
The celebrated actor Edwin Booth was at this time in Baltimore, a city distant two hours from the capital. I had heard so much about this superior artist that I was anxious to see him, and on one of my off nights I went to Baltimore with my impresario’s agent. A box had been reserved for me without my knowledge, and was draped with the Italian colours. I regretted to be made so conspicuous, but I could not fail to appreciate the courteous and complimentary desire to do me honour shown by the American artist. It was only natural that I should be most kindly influenced toward him, but without the courtesy which predisposed me in his favour he would equally have won my sympathy by his attractive and artistic lineaments, and his graceful and well-proportioned figure. The play was “Hamlet.” This part brought him great fame, and justly; for in addition to the high artistic worth with which he adorned it, his elegant personality was admirably adapted to it, His long and wavy hair, his large and expressive eye, his youthful and flexible movements, accorded perfectly with the ideal of the young prince of Denmark which now obtains everywhere. His splendid delivery, and the penetrating philosophy with which he informed his phrases, were his most remarkable qualities. I was so fortunate as to see him also as Richelieu and Iago, and in all three of these parts, so diverse in their character I found him absolutely admirable. I cannot say so much for his Macbeth, which I saw one night when passing through Philadelphia. The part seemed to me not adapted to his nature. Macbeth was an ambitious man, and Booth was not. Macbeth had barbarous and ferocious instincts, and Booth was agreeable, urbane, and courteous. Macbeth destroyed his enemies traitorously–did this even to gain possession of their goods–while Booth was noble, lofty-minded, and generous of his wealth. It is thus plain that however much art he might expend, his nature rebelled against his portrayal of that personage, and he could never hope to transform himself into the ambitious, venal, and sanguinary Scottish king.
I should say, from what I heard in America, that Edwin Forrest was the Modena of America. The memory of that actor still lives, for no one has possessed equally the power to give expression to the passions, and to fruitful and burning imagery, in addition to which he possessed astonishing power of voice. Almost contemporaneously a number of most estimable actors have laid claim to his mantle; but above them all Edwin Booth soared as an eagle.
After a very satisfactory experience in Baltimore, I returned for the third time to New York, and gave “Othello,” “Macbeth,” and “The Gladiator,” each play twice, and made the last two appearances of my season in Philadelphia. After playing ninety-five times in the new fashion, I felt myself worn out, but fully satisfied with the result of my venturesome undertaking. When I embarked on the steamer which was to take me to Europe, I was escorted by all the artists of the company which had cooperated in my happy success, by my friends, and by courteous admirers, and I felt that if I were not an Italian I should wish to be an American.