The Lion

One reason why this blog has become a bit less regular of late is that I am supervising this term. That said, supervising students this term is also one reason for me to discover and rediscover a lot of new material for this blog. Hence this post, which is born out of a little seminar I did on Addison’s contributions to The Spectator. As undergraduates here in Cambridge are all absurdly busy, I felt that I could only set nine essays, eventually settling on numbers 1 (Mr Spectator), 9 (Clubs), 13 (The Lion), 16 (Charging whole armies only), 19 (The Envious Man), 25 (Letter from a Valetudinarian), 57 (Political Zeal in Women), and 93 (Filling the Empty Spaces of Life). There are some big holes here, notably the sequence on the ‘Pleasures of the Imagination’ (numbers 411-421), so do feel free to post comments on any of your favourites I also left out. I’m sure there’s much I’m still to find.

A real stage lion, uploaded by a brave Flickr user.
This post, as its title indicates, is about Spectator number 13, published Thursday 15th March, 1711 with the epigraph from Martial: “Dic mihi si fueras tu Leo qualis eris?” – ‘Tell me, if you were a lion what kind would you be?’ The article tells the story behind a scene in the opera L’Idapse fedele which had come to fascinate the town by portraying a battle between the work’s hero and a lion. Despite the (no doubt profitable) rumours, the performer Mr Nicolini was not going toe-to-toe with a real lion, but rather someone in a lion’s outfit. Mr Spectator then relates that three different people played the lion. First, a “candle-snuffer, who being a fellow of a testy, cholerick temper over-did his part, and would not suffer himself to be killed so easily as he ought to have done.” Unsurprisingly, this man was soon replaced with a tailor, who “was too sheepish”, and even if “he once gave [his adversary] a rip in his flesh-coloured doublet, … this was only to make work for himself in his private character of tailor.” The final lion is a “country gentleman” who, completely disinterested, “indulges an innocent pleasure” by participating in the opera and has “drawn greater audiences than have been known in the memory of man.”

There’s much to comment on in this article about the stage-lion, not least the emphasis that it, like many Spectator essays, puts on the benefits of disinterestedness. What I want to pick out, though, is the peculiar belief that the character or temper of these actors becomes evident when they play the part of the lion. Surely the tailor could have made more of an effort, the gentleman grown frustrated or the candle-snuffer controlled himself. But they don’t, nor is it suggested that they might. Rather, each of the three men performs according to their own temperament, and so playing the role of the lion allows the clear-eyed Mr Spectator an opportunity to observe the nature of each man’s emotional constitution. This leads to a larger point. If actors act according to their own character (what this story, and much other writing from the period implies), then putting on a role is not so much a disguise as a moment of revealing what you are like. The country gentleman does not stop being gentlemanly as a lion, and indeed his gentlemanly disinterestedness shines through all the more when he is on the stage and concerned with doing simply what is right for the performance.

The idea that playing a role reveals something about who you are is not too counter-logical once you start to question the limits of dramatic illusion in the wider experience of the theatre. After all, our instincts tend to lead us this way anyway. I was shocked to learn, many years ago, that David Tennant was Scottish, having only seen him perform roles in RP; and Matt Damon’s performance as an anxious father in Contagion made me question what his other action-hero parts had given me as a mental image of his ‘real’ character. But all this confusion between an actor’s ‘public face’ (the aggregate of all their roles and other appearances in the public eye) and their ‘private face’ (how they are amongst intimates) is a bit beyond the scope of Addison’s essay, which is making the simpler claim that any actor who acts on feeling must necessarily reveal some of that feeling on the stage.

There’s no clear modern parallel to that. I like to think, though, that an actor, late in his or her career might relish the opportunity to look back over all the roles they’ve played and trace amongst the vagaries of casting decisions the contours of their changing self. To quote T.S. Eliot, some might even realise that:

I am not Prince Hamlet, nor was meant to be…

One thought on “The Lion”

  1. Addison’s conte reminds me strongly of the play-within-a-play in MND. Maybe because of the lion. There too the mechanicals are unable to disguise the broad contours of their everyday characters. Not only do they constantly address the audience (the aspect Anne Righter associated with medieval drama) but they constantly display themselves. It’s like a farce in which the actors are rarely in trousers, except that here the nakedness is a hapless inability to maintain any dramatic illusion. I have the feeling that bad acting is one perennial ingredient of funny stories (bad acting is funny, good acting isn’t) and its presence here does not necessarily tell us much about Addison’s own conceptions of drama. But that’s a snap judgment. Anyhow, I’m enjoying reading your blog!

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