19th Century Actor Autobiographies
By George Iles, Editor
Public Domain Books
Henry Brodribb Irving
Photograph by Alfred Ellis and Walery, London.
[Henry Brodribb Irving, son of the late Sir Henry Irving, was born in London in 1870. His first appearance on the stage was at the Garrick Theatre, London, in “School,” when twenty-one. In 1906 he toured with success throughout the United States, appearing in plays made memorable by his father, “The Lyons Mail,” “Charles I.,” and “The Bells.” Mr. Irving distinctly inherits Sir Henry Irving’s ability both as an actor and as a thoughtful student of acting as an art. In 1905 he gave a lecture, largely autobiographical, to the Academy of Dramatic Art in London. It appeared in the Fortnightly Review, May, 1905, and is republished by Small, Maynard & Co., Boston, in “Occasional Papers. Dramatic and Historical” by Mr. Irving. By his kindness, and that of his publishers, its pages are here drawn upon.–ED.]
The Calling of an Actor
I received, not very long ago, in a provincial town, a letter from a young lady, who wished to adopt the stage as a profession but was troubled in her mind by certain anxieties and uncertainties. These she desired me to relieve. The questions asked by my correspondent are rather typical questions-questions that are generally asked by those who, approaching the stage from the outside, in the light of prejudice and misrepresentation, believe the calling of the actor to be one morally dangerous and intellectually contemptible; one in which it is equally easy to succeed as an artist and degenerate as an individual. She begins by telling me that she has a “fancy for the stage,” and has “heard a great many things about it.” Now, for any man or woman to become an actor or actress because they have a “fancy for the stage” is in itself the height of folly. There is no calling, I would venture to say, which demands on the part of the aspirant greater searching of heart, thought, deliberation, real assurance of fitness, reasonable prospect of success before deciding to follow it, than that of the actor. And not the least advantage of a dramatic school lies in the fact that some of its pupils may learn to reconsider their determination to go on the stage, become convinced of their own unfitness, recognise in time that they will be wise to abandon a career which must always be hazardous and difficult even to those who are successful, and cruel to those who fail. Let it be something far sterner and stronger than mere fancy that decides you to try your fortunes in the theatre.
My correspondent says she has “heard a great many things about the stage.” If I might presume to offer a piece of advice, it would be this: Never believe anything you hear about actors and actresses from those who are not actually familiar with them. The amount of nonsense, untruth, sometimes mischievous, often silly, talked by otherwise rational people about the theatre, is inconceivable were it not for one’s own personal experience. It is one of the penalties of the glamour, the illusion of the actor’s art, that the public who see men and women in fictitious but highly exciting and moving situations on the stage, cannot believe that when they quit the theatre, they leave behind them the emotions, the actions they have portrayed there. And as there is no class of public servants in whom the public they serve take so keen an interest as actors and actresses, the wildest inventions about their private lives and domestic behaviour pass as current, and are eagerly retailed at afternoon teas in suburban drawing-rooms.
Requirements for the Stage
Now, the first question my correspondent asks me is this: “Does a young woman going on the stage need a good education and also to know languages?” To answer the first part of the question is not, I think, very difficult. The supremely great actor or actress of natural genius need have no education or knowledge of languages; it will be immaterial whether he or she has enjoyed all the advantages of birth and education or has been picked up in the streets; genius, the highest talent, will assert itself irrespective of antecedents. But I should say that any sort of education was of the greatest value to an actor or actress of average ability, and that the fact that the ranks of the stage are recruited to-day to a certain extent from our great schools and universities, from among classes of people who fifty years ago would never have dreamed of entering our calling, is one on which we may congratulate ourselves. Though the production of great actors and actresses will not be affected either one way or the other by these circumstances, at the same time our calling must benefit in the general level of its excellence, in its fitness to represent all grades of society on the stage, if those who follow it are picked from all classes, if the stage has ceased to be regarded as a calling unfit for a man or woman of breeding or education,
The second question this lady asks me is this:
“Does she need to have her voice trained, and about what age do people generally commence to go on the stage?” The first part of this question as to voice training touches on the value of an Academy of Acting. Of the value–the practical value–of such an institution rightly conducted there can be no doubt. That acting cannot be taught is a well-worn maxim and perhaps a true one; but acting can be disciplined; the ebullient, sometimes eccentric and disordered manifestations of budding talent may be modified by the art of the teacher; those rudiments, which many so often acquire painfully in the course of rehearsal, the pupils who leave an academy should be masters of and so save much time and trouble to those whose business it is to produce plays. The want of any means of training the beginner, of coping at all with the floods of men and women, fit and unfit, who are ever clamouring at the doors of the theatre, has been a long-crying and much-felt grievance. The establishment of this academy should go far to remove what has been by no means an unjust reproach to our theatrical system. As to the age at which a person should begin a theatrical career, I do not think there is any actor or actress who would not say that it is impossible to begin too early–at least, as early as a police magistrate will allow. That art is long and life short applies quite as truthfully to the actor’s as to any other art, and as the years go on there must be many who regret that they did not sooner decide to follow a calling which seems to carry one all too quickly through the flight of time.
Temptations on the Stage
My correspondent also asks me a question which I shall answer very briefly, but which it is as well should be answered; She writes, “Are there many temptations for a girl on the stage, and need she necessarily fall into them?” Of course there are such temptations on the stage, as there must be in any calling in which men and women are brought into contact on a footing of equality; perhaps these temptations are somewhat intensified in the theatre. At the same time, I would venture to say from my own experience of that branch of theatrical business with which I have been connected–and in such matters one can only speak from personal experience–that any woman yielding to these temptations has only herself to blame, that any well-brought-up, sensible girl will, and can, avoid them altogether, and that I should not make these temptations a ground for dissuading any young woman in whom I might be interested from joining our calling. To say, as a writer once said, that it was impossible for a girl to succeed on the stage without impaired morals, is a statement as untrue as to say that no man can succeed as a lawyer unless he be a rogue, a doctor unless he be a quack, a parson unless be be a hypocrite.
To all who intend to become actors and actresses, my first word of advice would be–Respect this calling you have chosen to pursue. You will often in your experience hear it, see it in print, slighted and contemned. There are many reasons for this. Religious prejudice, fostered by the traditions of a by no means obsolete Puritanism, is one; the envy of those who, forgetting the disadvantages, the difficulties, the uncertainty of the actor’s life, see only the glare of popular adulation, the glitter of the comparatively large salaries paid to a few of us–such unreasoning envy as this is another; and the want of sympathy of some writers with the art itself, who, unable to pray with Goethe and Voltaire, remain to scoff with Jeremy Collier, is a third. There are causes from without that will always keep alive a certain measure of hostility towards the player. As long as the public, in Hazlitt’s words, feel more respect for John Kemble in a plain coat than the Lord Chancellor on the Woolsack, so long will this public regard for the actor provoke the resentment of those whose achievements in art appeal less immediately, less strikingly, to their audience. But if they would only pause to consider, surely they might lay to their souls the unction that the immediate reward of the actor in his lifetime is merely nature’s compensation to him for the comparative oblivion of his achievements when he has ceased to be. Imagine for one moment Shakespeare and Garrick contemplating at the present moment from the heights the spectacle of their fame. Who would grudge the actor the few years of fervid admiration he was privileged to enjoy, some one hundred and fifty years ago, as compared with the centuries of living glory that have fallen to the great poet?
Sometimes you may hear your calling sneered at by those who pursue it. There are few professions that are not similarly girded at by some of their own members, either from disappointment or some ingrained discontent. When you hear such detraction, fix your thoughts not on the paltry accidents of your art, such as the use of cosmetics and other little infirmities of its practice, things that are obvious marks for the cheap sneer, but look rather to what that art is capable of in its highest forms, to what is the essence of the actor’s achievement, what he can do and has done to win the genuine admiration and respect of those whose admiration and respect have been worth the having.
Acting is a Great Art
You will read and hear, no doubt, in your experience, that acting is in reality no art at all, that it is mere sedulous copying of nature, demanding neither thought nor originality. I will only cite in reply a passage from a letter of the poet Coleridge to the elder Charles Mathews, which, I venture to think, goes some way to settle the question. “A great actor,” he writes, “comic or tragic, is not to be a mere copy, a fac-simile, but an imitation of nature; now an imitation differs from a copy in this, that it of necessity implies and demands a difference, whereas a copy aims at identity and what a marble peach on the mantelpiece, that you take up deluded and put down with a pettish disgust, is compared with a fruit-piece of Vanhuysen’s, even such is a mere copy of nature, with a true histrionic imitation. A good actor is Pygmalion’s statue, a work of exquisite art, animated and gifted with motion; but still art, still a species of poetry.” So writes Coleridge. Raphael, speaking of painting, expresses the same thought, equally applicable to the art of acting. “To paint a fair one,” he says, “it is necessary for me to see many fair ones; but because there is so great a scarcity of lovely women, I am constrained to make use of one certain ideal, which I have formed to myself in my own fancy.” So the actor who has to portray Hamlet, Othello, Macbeth–any great dramatic character–has to form an ideal of such a character in his own fancy, in fact, to employ an exercise of imagination similar to that of the painter who seeks to depict an ideal man or woman; the actor certainly will not meet his types of Hamlet and Othello in the street.
But, whilst in your hearts you should cherish a firm respect for the calling, the art you pursue, let that respect be a silent and modest regard; it will be all the stronger for that. I have known actors and actresses who were always talking about their art with a big A, their “art-life,” their “life-work,” their careers and futures, and so on. Keep these things to yourselves, for I have observed that eloquence and hyper-earnestness of this kind not infrequently go with rather disappointing achievement. Think, act, but don’t talk about it. And, above all, because you are actors and actresses, for that very reason be sincere and unaffected; avoid rather than court publicity, for you will have quite enough of it if you get on in your profession; the successful actor is being constantly tempted to indiscretion. Do not yield too readily to the blandishments of the photographer, or the enterprising editor who asks you what are the love scenes you have most enjoyed playing on the stage, and whether an actor or actress can be happy though married. Be natural on the stage, and be just as natural off it; regard the thing you have to do as work that has to be done to the best of your power; if it be well done, it will bring its own reward. It may not be an immediate reward, but have faith, keep your purpose serious, so serious as to be almost a secret; bear in mind that ordinary people expect you, just because you are actors and actresses, to be extraordinary, unnatural, peculiar; do your utmost at all times and seasons to disappoint such expectations.
Relations to “Society”
To the successful actor society, if he desire it, offers a warm and cordial welcome. Its members do not, it is true, suggest that he should marry with their daughters, but why should they? An actor has a very unattractive kind of life to offer to any woman who is not herself following his profession. What I mean is that the fact of a man being an actor does not debar him from such gratification as he may find in the pleasures of society. And I believe that the effect of such raising of the actor’s status as has been witnessed in the last fifty years has been to elevate the general tone of our calling and bring into it men and women of education and refinement.
At the same time, remember that social enjoyments should always be a secondary consideration to the actor, something of a luxury to be sparingly indulged in. An actor should never let himself be beguiled into the belief that society, generally speaking, is seriously interested in what he does, or that popularity in drawing-rooms connotes success in the theatre. It does nothing of the kind. Always remember that you can hope to have but few, very few friends or admirers of any class who will pay to see you in a failure; you will be lucky if a certain number do not ask you for free admission to see you in a success.
The Final School is the Audience
It is to a public far larger, far more real and genuine than this, that you will one day have to appeal. It is in their presence that you will finish your education. The final school for the actor is his audience; they are the necessary complement to the exercise of his art, and it is by the impression he produces on them that he will ultimately stand or fall; on their verdict, and on their verdict alone, will his success or failure as an artist depend. But, if you have followed carefully, assiduously, the course of instruction now open to you, when the time has arrived for you to face an audience you will start with a very considerable handicap in your favour. If you have learnt to move well and to speak well, to be clear in your enunciation and graceful in your bearing, you are bound to arrest at once the attention of any audience, no matter where it may be, before whom you appear. Obvious and necessary as are these two acquirements of graceful bearing and correct diction, they are not so generally diffused as to cease to be remarkable. Consequently, however modest your beginning on the stage, however short the part you may be called upon to play, you should find immediately the benefit of your training. You may have to unlearn a certain amount, or rather to mould and shape what you have learnt to your new conditions, but if you have been well grounded in the essential elements of an actor’s education, you will stand with an enormous advantage over such of your competitors as have waited till they go into a theatre to learn what can be acquired just as well, better, more thoroughly, outside it.
It has been my object to deal generally with the actor’s calling, a calling, difficult and hazardous in character, demanding much patience, self-reliance, determination, and good temper. This last is not one of its least important demands on your character. Remember that the actor is not in one sense of the word an independent artist; it is his misfortune that the practice of his art is absolutely dependent on the fulfilment of elaborate external conditions. The painter, the musician, so long as they can find paint and canvas, ink and paper, can work at their art, alone, independent of external circumstances. Not so the actor. Before he can act, the theatre, the play, scenery, company, these requisites, not by any means too easy to find, must be provided. And then it is in the company of others, his colleagues, that his work has to be done. Consequently patience, good temper, fairness, unselfishness are qualities be will do well to cultivate, and he will lose nothing, rather gain, by the exercise of them. The selfish actor is not a popular person, and, in my experience, not as a rule a successful one. “Give and take,” in this little world of the theatre, and you will be no losers by it.
Learn to bear failure and criticism patiently. They are part of the actor’s lot in life. Critics are rarely animated by any personal hostility in what they may write about you, though I confess that when one reads an unfavourable criticism, one is inclined to set it down to anything but one’s own deserving. I heard a great actor once say that we should never read criticisms of ourselves till a week after they were written–admirable counsel–but I confess I have not yet reached that pitch of self-restraint that would enable me to overcome my curiosity for seven days. It is, however, a state of equanimity to look forward to. In the meantime, content yourself with the recollection that ridicule and damning criticism have been the lot at some time in their lives of the most famous actors and actresses, that the unfavourable verdict of to-day may be reversed to-morrow. It is no good resenting failure; turn it to account rather; try to understand it, and learn something from it. The uses of theatrical adversity may not be sweet, but rightly understood they may be very salutary.
Do not let failure make you despond. Ours is a calling of ups and downs; it is an advantage of its uncertainty that you never know what may happen next; the darkest hour may he very near the dawn. This is where Bohemianism, in the best sense of the term, will serve the actor. I do not mean by Bohemianism chronic intemperance and insolvency. I mean the gay spirit of daring and enterprise that greets failure as graciously as success; the love of your own calling and your comrades in that calling, a love that, no matter what your measure of success, will ever remain constant and enduring; the recognition of the fact that as an actor you but consult your own dignity in placing your own calling as a thing apart, in leading such a life as the necessities of that calling may demand; and choosing your friends among those who regard you for yourself, not those to whom an actor is a social puppet, to be taken up and dropped as he happens for the moment to be more or less prominent in the public eye. If this kind of Bohemianism has some root in your character, you will find the changes and chances of your calling the easier to endure.
Failure and Success
Do not despond in failure, neither be over-exalted by success. Remember one success is as nothing in the history of an actor’s career; he has to make many before he can lay claim to any measure of fame; and over-confidence, an inability to estimate rightly the value of a passing triumph, has before now harmed incalculably many an actor or actress. You will only cease to learn your business when you quit it; look on success as but another lesson learnt to be turned to account in learning the next. The art of the actor is no less difficult, no less long in comparison with life, than any other art. In the intoxicating hour of success let this chastening thought have some place in your recollection.
When you begin work as actors or actresses, play whenever you can and whatever you can. Remember that the great thing for the actor is to be seen as often as possible, to be before the public as much as he can, no matter how modest the part, how insignificant the production. It is only when an actor has reached a position very secure in the public esteem that he can afford, or that it may be his duty, to be careful as to what he undertakes. But before such a time is reached his one supreme object must be to get himself known to the public, to let them see his work under all conditions, until they find something to identify as peculiarly his own; he should think nothing too small or unimportant to do, too tiresome or laborious to undergo. Work well and conscientiously done must attract attention; there is a great deal of lolling and idleness among the many thoughtless and indifferent persons who drift on to the stage as the last refuge of the negligent or incompetent.
The stage will always attract a certain number of worthless recruits because it is so easy to get into the theatre somehow or other; there is no examination to be passed, no qualification to be proved before a person is entitled to call himself an actor. And then the life of an actor is unfortunately, in these days of long runs, one that lends itself to a good deal of idleness and waste of time, unless a man or woman be very determined to employ their spare time profitably. For this reason, I should advise any actor, or actress, to cultivate some rational hobby or interest by the side of their work; for until the time comes for an actor to assume the cares and labours of management, he must have a great deal of time on his hands that can be better employed than in hanging about clubs or lolling in drawing-rooms. At any rate, the actor or actress who thinks no work too small to do, and to do to the utmost of his or her ability, who neglects no opportunity that may be turned to account–and every line he or she speaks is an opportunity–must outstrip those young persons who, though they may be pleased to call themselves actors and actresses, never learn to regard the theatre as anything but a kind of enlarged back-drawing-room, in which they are invited to amuse themselves at an altogether inadequate salary.
In regard to salary, when you start in your profession, do not make salary your first consideration; do not suffer a few shillings or a pound or two to stand between you and work. This is a consideration you may keep well in mind, even when you have achieved some measure of success. Apart from the natural tendency of the individual to place a higher value on his services than that attached to them by others, it is often well to take something less than you ask, if the work offered you is useful. Remember that the public judge you by your work, they know nothing and care little about what is being paid you for doing it. To some people their own affairs are of such supreme importance that they cannot believe that their personal concerns are unknown to, and unregarded by, the outside world. The intensely personal, individual character of the actor’s work is bound to induce a certain temptation to an exaggerated egotism. We are all egotists, and it is right that we should be, up to a point. But I would urge the young actor or actress to be always on the watch against developing, especially in success, an extreme egotism which induces a selfishness of outlook, an egregious vanity that in the long run weakens the character, induces disappointment and discontent, and bores to extinction other persons.
I would not for one moment advise an actor never to talk “shop"; it is a great mistake to think that men and women should never talk in public or private about the thing to which they devote their lives; people, as a rule, are most interesting on the subject of their own particular business in life. Talk about the affairs of the theatre within reason, and with due regard to the amenities of polite conversation, but do not confuse the affairs of the theatre, broadly speaking, with your own. The one is lasting, general; the other particular and fleeting. “Il n’y a pas de l’homme necessaire” [No man is indispensable]. Many persons would be strangely surprised if they could see how rapidly their place is filled after they are gone, no matter how considerable their achievement. It may not be filled in the same way, as well, as fittingly, but it will be filled, and humanity will content itself very fairly well with the substitute. This is especially true of the work of the actor. He can but live as a memory, and memory is proverbially short.