I stumbled across an amazing quotation from Heinrich Heine the other day, as I was busy preparing for a talk in Nice and, beyond that, the writing of my last chapter on how an actor’s Shakespeare was seen from abroad in the long eighteenth century.
It goes like this in German:
Dieser Garrick aber liebte den großen Dichter, und, zum Lohn für solche Liebe, liegt er begraben in Westminster, neben dem Piedestal der Shakespeareschen Statue, wie ein treuer Hund zu Füssen seines Herrn.
And, I think, like this in English:
But this Garrick loved the great poet, and, as a reward for such love, lies buried in Westminster, near the pedestal of the Shakespeare statue, like a faithful dog at the feet of his master.
This is an unpleasant but not an unfamiliar sentiment for nineteenth-century commentators on Shakespeare, and is indeed very close to an essay by Charles Lamb in which he deplores the fact that Garrick – a mere actor – is remembered as a “twin star” to Shakespeare.
However, there is for me more to this passage than meets the eye. I think it has a methodological value. Given the central pairing of my thesis, Shakespeare and eighteenth-century acting, it is all too easy to reduce each element in my efforts to get it to fit with the other. This is particularly likely when I’m writing about actors. All too often, I make Garrick a dog to Shakespeare.
It happens like this: with the best intentions, I argue for Garrick’s literary critical nous and the power of his performances. Yet it is only a small step from here to the hound. Garrick’s analytical mind illuminates Shakespeare and the force of his acting carries Shakespeare to the eighteenth-century masses. The performer serves his master, and I forget Garrick’s revolutionary work as a theatre manager, his influence on painting and on ballet technique, his own writing of plays and farces, and much much more.
What makes this more complicated, however, is that Garrick himself was proud to be seen as a servant to the bard, and even called himself a “missionary” for Shakespeare in a letter he wrote to Voltaire. This is the original sense of the description of the actor as Shakespeare’s “twin star” on his funeral monument.
What Heine has done, and what I must not, is to take the connection between Shakespeare and Garrick and make it hierarchical, transforming the actor from the author’s twin to his pet, and emphasising how much Shakespeare exceeds his theatrical interpreters. Rather, I should, as much as possible, recognise what is really a paradoxical relationship between performer and poet in this period (and indeed, one might say, later too): Shakespeare, both as myth and in his writings, exceeds the world of performance; yet, at the same time, performance also exceeds Shakespeare.