Morgann, Falstaff and the Stage

Eduard von Grützner's 1921 painting of Falstaff
Eduard von Grützner’s 1921 painting of Falstaff

I’ve already written about Maurice Morgann, but wanted to post another short thing, this time more about the theatre than the French. This also connects rather usefully with my thinking about William Richardson, namely that argument that, although his psychological approach removes characters from the stage, it nevertheless is deeply connected to thinking about the theatre.

As with Richardson’s writings, Morgann’s exploration of the Dramatic Character of Sir John Falstaff (my emphasis), contains many scattered references to the stage. He advises, for example, that audiences be wary of “transferring the censure [meant for a character], in every odious colour, to the actor himself; how much soever our hearts and affections might secretly revolt”. Even when undertaking the extraordinary task of positing a hypothetical biography for Falstaff, Morgann concludes by showing how Falstaff has “become the most perfect Comic Character that perhaps ever was exhibited”, a sentence where words like “exhibited” (also a favourite of Richardson’s) and “Comic” remind us of the stage.

One should be careful of over-emphasis, however, and it is important (not to mention interesting) to look at how ambivalent Morgann is. He takes actors to task for their portrayal of Falstaff, and gives a memorable description of how Falstaff’s panic is misrepresented.

It is also aggravated by the idle tricks of the Player, who practices on this occasion all the attitudes and wild apprehensions of fear; more ambitious, as it should seem, of representing a Caliban than a Falstaff; or indeed rather a poor, unwieldy miserable Tortoise than either. – The painful Comediean lies spread out on his bely, and not only covers himself all over with his robe as with a shell, but forms a kind of round Tortoise-back by I know not what stuffing or contrivance; in addition to which he alternately lifts up, and depresses, and dodges his head, and looks to the one side and to the other, so much with the piteous aspect of that animal, that one would not be sorry to see the ambitious imitator calpashed in his robe, and served up for the entertainment of the gallery. There is no hint for this mummery in the Play: whatever there may be of dishonour in Falstaff’s conduct, he neither does or says any thing on this occasion which indicates terror or disorder of mind.

The actor comes across as a bad reader, and it is tempting to see this as a way of dismissing the stage. Nevertheless, what is really occurring here is Morgann’s despair at an actor not entering into the character of Falstaff, something which (if we read Hill and others) the performer really should do. Indeed, Morgann even points out that actors have a privileged position for the understanding of a character, which makes their failure to exercise the same psychological enquiry as he such a shame.

The very Players, who are, I think, the very worst judges of Shakespeare, have been made sensible, I suppose from long experience, that there is nothing in this transaction [Falstaff running from Gadshill] to excite any extraordinary laughter; but this they take to be a defect in the management of the author, and therefore I imagine it is, that they hold themselves obliged to supply the vacancy, and fill it up with some low buffoonery of their own. Instead of the dispatch necessary on this occasion, they bring Falstaff, stuffing and all, to the very front of the stage; where with much mummery and grimace, he seats himself down, with a canvas money bag in his hand, to divide the spoil. In this situation, he is attacked by the Prince and Poins, whose tin swords hang idly in the air and delay to strike until the Player Falstaff, who seems more troubled with flatulence than fear is able to rise; which is not till after some ineffectual efforts, and with the assistance, (to the best of my memory) of one of the thieves, who lingers behind, in spite of terror, for this friendly purpose [..]

From these passages, it is clear that the stage is not forgotten, and Morgann may even be offering a reminder and example to actors wishing to ‘enter into’ the character of Falstaff.

Along with the potential insights of the actor’s position, there is, of course, Shakespeare’s confirmed insight, the bard’s extraordinary understanding of and empathy for the workings of the human mind, without which Morgann’s essay would not be possible. This is described in a manner strongly reminiscent of eighteenth-century theories about how an actor enters into a character, right down to the use of an ‘in’ / ‘out’ binary.

But it was not enough for Shakespeare to have formed his characters with the most perfect truth and coherence; it was further necessary that he should possess a wonderful facility of compressing, as it were, his own spirit into these images, and of giving alternate animation to the forms. This was not to be done from without; he must have felt every varied situation, and have spoken thro’ the organ he had formed. Such an intuitive comprehension of things and such a facility, must unite to produce a Shakespeare.

This may not be enough to launch hypotheses, but it is worth noting, not least as a connection between performer and creator in the literary critical thought of this period.

But what of Falstaff? There remains one last point to be made about the role of the stage in Morgann’s text, that that stage Falstaff is to be preferred. Having conjured up the biography of a ‘real’ Falstaff, Morgann finds the “Falstaff of Nature” a “disagreeable draught”, out of which the “Falstaff of Stage”, “plump Jack, the life of humour” was produced.

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