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.

Back to Johnson

I have lost count of the number of times that I have read Samuel Johnson’s Preface to his edition of Shakespeare (1765). This time, however, I came to it with some pretty sharp questions, and this post will offer a brief look at what this approach led me to in the text. The questions were, simply enough, one: ‘what role is played by French culture here?’ and two: ‘what is Johnson’s attitude to the stage?’ The French question produced little of interest: Voltaire is a part of a trinity of “petty minds”, along with Dennis and Rymer; criticisms of love plots replay debates held in France over Corneille’s intrigues; and Johnson is – unsurprisingly – well read in French literature, glossing obscure words via their French analogues, using Voltaire as a source of unjust criticisms against Shakespeare, and – perhaps – echoing Fontenelle’s thoughts on dramatic illusion.

Samuel Johnson by Joshua Reynolds (1775)

As for the theatre, there is no way I can fit it all into a single list. First, let us begin with those passages where Johnson refers to the theatre of Shakespeare’s day. The general idea here is that the past condition of the theatre had an important effect on Shakespeare. At several points, Johnson observes that the dynamics of the theatre Shakespeare wrote for no longer exist, so that while “He has scenes of undoubted and perpetual excellence, but perhaps not one play, which, if it were now exhibited as the work of a contemporary writer, would be heard to the conclusion.” This is a controversial point in the mid-eighteenth century, given that Wilkes is prepared to argue that all the best theatre comes from skilled revivals and not from contemporaries’ pens. Elsewhere in the preface, Johnson makes his opinion clear about Shakespeare’s original audiences and their impact on his writing, being obliged to create “incidents by which the attention of a rude people was more easily caught than by sentiment or argumentation”. As well, however, as Shakespeare’s pandering to an audience, we have the Elizabethan and Jacobean theatre to blame for something else, namely the corruption of Shakespeare’s text. In the Proposals for his edition of Shakespeare, Johnson justifies the editor’s work by pointing out that it was common practice for plays to be “immediately copied for the actors, and multiplied by transcript after transcript, vitiated by the blunders of the penman, or changed by the affectation of the player”. In a similar vein, Johnson also denigrates the first publishers of Shakespeare, Heminge and Condell, by calling them “The players,who in their edition divided our author’s works into comedies, histories, and tragedies, [and who] seem not to have distinguished the three kinds, by any very exact or definite ideas.”

From this brief list of all the bad Johnson finds in the theatre, be it unfortunate influence over Shakespeare’s art or corruption of his text, it is not surprising that there is much in Johnson that seeks to detach Shakespeare from the stage. When establishing Shakespeare’s reputation, it is pointed out that he is “read without any other reason than the desire of pleasure”. Further on, Johnson even goes so far as to rewrite Hamlet into praise of the author. Whereas Hamlet calls holding “a mirror up to nature” “the purpose of playing”, Johnson writes “Shakespeare is above all writers, at least above all modern writers, the poet of nature; the poet that holds up to his readers a faithful mirror of manners and of life.” The poet has replaced the player. Less dramatically, Johnson clearly has readers in mind throughout this text: he talks of passages left “to be disentanbled and evolved by those who have more leisure to bestow upon [them]”, something impossible in a theatre, and suggests that comedy pleases by “thoughts and language” rather than the skill of its performance.

This is all a reasonable enough approach, and indeed one well suited to the opening pages of a book purveying edited and annotated versions of Shakespeare’s plays. Nevertheless, it does seem to be doing Shakespeare something of an injustice, not least because some of Johnson’s own criticisms of the playwright don’t hold water if you think about how they would be staged.
If Shakespeare’s “precepts and axioms drop casually from him” on the page, they need not do so on the stage; if, in comedy, “neither his gentlemen nor his ladies have much delicacy, nor are sufficiently distinguished from his clowns by any appearance of refined manners” when reading, different actors can still create distinction and delicacy; if “his declamations or set pieces are commonly cold and weak”, why then were plays like Henry VIII so popular on the stage of the time?

One last point here about the theatre, albeit rather different from all this talk of actors, stages and audiences. A famous part of the preface defends Shakespeare from the accusation of breaking the unities by pointing out that if an audience is able to delude themselves into believing that the stage is Egypt, then they should have no problem conceiving that the action has moved from Egypt to Rome. Johnson then flips the argument on its head, and points out that the breaking of the unities is also possible since “The truth is, that the spectators are always in their senses, and know, from the first act to the last, that the stage is only a stage, and that the players are only players.” This passage was attacked by William Kenrick in a review of Johnson’s Preface.

We do not pretend to say that the spectators are not always in their senses; or that they do not know (if the question were put to them) that the stage is only a stage, and the players are only players. But we will venture to say, they are often so intent on the scene as to be absent with regard to everything else. A spectator makes, properly assisted by dramatic representation, makes no reflections about the fiction or reality of it, so long as the action proceeds without grossly offending, or palpably imposing on the senses.

The point here, and one unsurprisingly ignored by Johnson given his efforts to detach Shakespeare from the stage, is that his blunt arguing has skirted past nuances which Kenrick lays out (at length – this is a small chunk of it). Chief among these nuances is that a spectator can still be intent, and, to all intents and purposes, deeply involved in something, even if the “players are only players”. There are degrees of delusion, and it is striking that much theorising about theatrical illusion occurs in works around Shakespeare: Montagu, Wilkes, and even – read a certain way – those texts interested in the psychology of Shakespeare’s characters, since verisimilitude is seen to underwrite the play’s ability to enthral.

I guess I may be rereading Johnson again.

A Brief Response to A General View of the Stage

Thomas Wilkes’s A General View of the Stage (1759) is an enormous and rich mine of information about the eighteenth-century stage. An attempt at raising the profile of the stage, defending it from its many detractors is both the book’s starting point and its over-arching theme. What I hope to do here is sketch out a few of the more curious places that Wilkes’s defence of the theatre leads him to, not least since many of them have wider implications for literary criticism of the period.

Garrick and Mrs Pritchard performing Macbeth, by Zoffany (1768). Note Garrick’s height.

Wilkes begins his defence with a commonplace, that the theatre offers a moral education to those who watch a play.

the bard and the player happily hold up the mirror to nature, in which each man may behold his own portrait at length; the shades of vice, and lights of virtue being so happily blended as to force the human heart to acknowledge the likeness, and the audience are obliged from their own feeling to applaud.

What caught my eye here was the use of Hamlet’s advice to the players from 3.2 as a means of defending the utility of the theatre. It can be tempting to read “mirror” here as something purely aesthetic, a way of expressing precise mimesis, but – as Wilkes and Hamlet use the word – “mirror” can also carry moral import since its function is all about revealing oneself to oneself. Hence such popular Tudor titles as The Mirror for Magistrates. Once Wilkes has made this point about the stage as educational mirror, he returns to this argument throughout, analysing, for example, Lady Macbeth as Shakespeare’s way of “correcting” minds in which one would find “the seeds of a passion so very hateful”.

As well as the reference to Hamlet, this quote about mirrors also does something else quite interesting: it makes no distinction between “bard” and “player”, both of whom “happily hold up the mirror to nature”. This is something of a running theme in Wilkes’s text, perhaps because he wishes to elevate the stage by shackling the actor to the more respectable figure of the successful author. Sometimes the relationship between writer and player is collaborative, where, for example, “The poet presents a correct drawing; the actor enlivens with colouring and finishes the piece.” Other times, the actor seems to have the edge, not least because there were no contemporary authors to rival dramatists of the past.

So that were not Shakespeare, Rowe and Otway sometimes to step forth with uncontroulable dignity, we should be apt to think the end of tragedy no longer subsisted in Britain; not all the varieties of the Roman Father could be able to preserve it a footing on the Stage, but for the exquisite feeling of a Garrick, which we once remember to have been finely supported by the tenderness of a Cibber, the noble deportment of a Barry […]

This passage argues that great actors have the ability to maintain the moral benefit of tragedy when they take up parts in the revivals of the great works of Shakespeare, Rowe and Otway. This point is made again later on, once more in the actor’s favour since the actor, more than the creator of immutable texts that is the author, is able to respond to contemporary conditions.

where the men dismiss shame, the women forget modesty, the Stage will first be touched with, and sink under the infection; the Music will be loose and enervate, the Theatre will be no more considered as the school of wisdom, but both tragic and comic energy dwindle into lightness and buffoonery. This period has Garrick, with giant-force, repelled.

Here Garrick is not just a reviver of past plays, but rather a bulwark against contemporary dangers of moral decline.

Having raised the profile of the actor to the skies, Wilkes then begins a second section on what a great actor requires. Of course, this part is also a continuation of his general theme, since the more an actor requires to succeed, the more such successful actors deserve a high rank in society. This logic is behind such passages on the actor’s skills:

[…] life and motion are derived from the actor: he unites all the beauties of the poet’s fancy, the Painter’s pencil, the Musician’s art; he graces them with elocution action, and a proper expression, as well as impressions of the various passions necessary to the character he assumes.

As well as such eulogies, two other passages mark out this section. One is Wilkes’s take on the perennial debate about what occurs when an actor acts. His description of the process sees the performer as someone who consciously renounces his own identity, and thus comes to act from feeling.

He must put on the character with the habit, and assume the air, look language, and action of the person he represents, till his imagination, quite absorpt in the extensive idea, influences his whole frame; is visible in every glance of the eye, every air of his countenance. Thus all his powers will sometimes swell with the most violent transports of rage, and again dissolve away by an insensible gradation into the most placid calm and serenity. This is not so much acting as being an original; and the Actor who has attained this has reached the summit of his art.

A little further on, Wilkes turns to Shakespeare, and argues that the playwright must have been an excellent actor since his writings show the “language of Nature” which all performers must be sensitive to. John Hill makes a similar defence in The Actor, a text whose influence is everywhere in this section.

As Shakespeare’s writings are the very language of Nature, it is probable, that, while he continued an Actor, he suited his voice and action to it; and as we know he did not care to have “a passion torn to tatters,” by this madness of gesture and voice, we may justly infer, that his judicious regulation of both was not relished by the vitiated taste of the audience of his days, and that he was censured as a bad Actor undeservedly.

After these opening sections on the value of the stage and the art of acting, Wilkes offers a historical account of the theatre before turning to a “critical examination of the merits and demerits of the principal performers in england and Ireland”. Here, once more, the actor’s status is elevated, with a truly remarkable piece of praise for Garrick towards the end:

We shall conclude the character of this Aesopian Roscius [i.e. good in tragedy and comedy] with observing, that he gives us not resemblances, but realities; that he does not exhibit, but create; in him we view as actions what we only admire in others as representations. There is in his performance true dignity of expression; his figures, where his subject gives him scope, are noble beyond imagination […]

To conclude this brief and partial (there are interesting points about theatrical illusion I can’t put in here) journey through A General View of the Stage, it’s worth just insisting on the general aim of establishing the cultural importance of the theatre. Following on from this, we see the intertwining of actors and authors, especially in the tropes of praise, and this mixing both offers new ways of thinking about actors (as creators, as educators) and writers (as performers, as weak in their immutability), including Shakespeare.

Reynolds vs Fielding (avec version française)

Joshua Reynolds (1723-1792)

Over the course of his tenure as the first president of the Royal Academy of Arts, Sir Joshua Reynolds gave a series of Discourses, one a year, on the occasion of the annual prizegiving in December. These speeches were not easy to compose for a number of reasons: first, as delivered by the president of a relatively young institution, they tended to be seen as statements of policy; second, his audience would have consisted of artists ranging from the level of neophytes right up to established professionals, and few topics would interest them all. On 11th December 1786 (Discourse XIII), however, Reynolds hit a particularly rich seam of material, with the proposition, ill-expressed, that “To enlarge the boundaries of the Art of Painting, as well as to fix its principles, it will be necessary, that, that art, and those principles, should be considered in their correspondence with the principles of the other arts, which, like this, address themselves primarily and principally to the imagination.”

There is not space to explore at length how Reynolds does this, ranging across poetry, drama, architecture and more; rather, the president’s comments on the theatre will be briefly laid out for analysis here. One  instructive parallel drawn, for example, between the stage and the canvas is that both have ‘high’ and ‘low’ modes, where the latter “follows nature” and the former “departs from it”. In the theatre, you thus have comedy which follows nature by depicting the foibles of everyday life, whilst tragedy departs from nature by being more stylised and excessive than quotidian existence in order to engage with deeper questions of human nature. After making this point, Reynolds then points out that a failure to realise this distinction between the imitations of high and low art is evident in a celebrated passage of Fielding’s Tom Jones (found here)

[…] our late, great actor, Garrick,has been as ignorantly praised by his friend Fielding; who doubtless imagined he had hit upon an ingenious device, by introducing in one of his novels, (otherwise a work of the highest merit) an ignorant man, mistaking Garrick’s representation of a scene in Hamlet, for reality. A very little reflection will convince us, that there is not one circumstance in the whole scene that is of the nature of deception. The merit and excellence of Shakespeare, and of Garrick, when they were engaged in such scenes, is of a different and much higher kind. But what adds to the falsity of this intended compliment, is that the best stage representation appears even more unnatural to a person of such a character, who is supposed never to have seen a play before, than it does to those who have had a habit of allowing for those necessary deviations from nature which art requires.

Reynolds attacks Fielding by showing that it is incorrect to think of acting in terms of ‘deception’. Instead, the real skill of such actors is not that they deceive but that, in high tragic drama at least, they depart from nature and still captivate the theatregoer. After all, it is imperative that, when one is performing, “every thing should be raised and enlarged beyond its natural state; that the full effect may come home to the spectator, which otherwise would be lost in the comparatively extensive space of the Theatre”. Fielding is wrong to show Partridge as the one tricked by Garrick, since Partridge’s ignorance of the stage would have made him supersensible to Garrick’s departures from absolute mimicry that the theatre and traditions of tragedy require. Instead, it is only the more educated members of the audience, those who “have had a habit of allowing for those necessary deviations” that would experience such emotional engagement. Counter-intuitively, only the most sophisticated are subject to delusion, an argument that both justifies the high-class credentials of some of Reynolds’ own fantastical paintings and suggests that the illusions of the actor are less morally-problematic than they might otherwise appear, since those most subject to them are of a class sufficient to look after themselves.

To return to the attack on Fielding, there is much to be said in defence of this section. One might point out, for instance, that the resemblance between the ignorant Partridge and the theatrical connoisseur may well have been intentional ironic social commentary and not a misunderstanding of the principle that “the truest poetry is the most feigning.” After all, Fielding himself, for all his fame as a novelist, began his literary career as the most successful playwright of the early eighteenth century.

Version française: Reynolds contre Fielding

Tout au long de sa présidence de la Royal Academy of Arts, Sir Joshua Reynolds prononça tous les ans un ‘Discours’ lors de la remise des prix en décembre. Ces discours étaient très difficiles à composer pour plusieurs raisons. D’abord, on avait tendance à considérer les propos tenus publiquement par le président d’une institution relativement jeune comme des déclarations de sa politique. Ensuite, son public était composé d’artistes de tous niveaux et il fallait trouver un sujet qui les intéresserait tous. Le 11 décembre 1786 (Discourse XIII), Reynolds trouva cependant un sujet particulièrement riche dans l’idée (mal exprimée) que “To enlarge the boundaries of the Art of Painting, as well as to fix its principles, it will be necessary, that, that art, and those principles, should be considered in their correspondence with the principles of the other arts, which, like this, address themselves primarily and principally to the imagination.”

Je n’ai pas la place ici d’explorer en détail comment Reynolds réalise cette ambition à travers la poésie, le drame, l’architecture et d’autres disciplines. A la place, je souhaite analyser brièvement les commentaires du président sur le théâtre. Il propose, par exemple; un parallèle instructif entre la scène et la toile, dans la mesure où toutes deux ont des genres hauts et bas, où le bas “follows nature” et le haut “departs from it”. Au théâtre, on a ainsi la comédie qui imite la nature en montrant les manies quotidiennes, tandis que la tragédie s’éloigne de la nature par son style moins naturel pour réfléchir à des questions plus profondes sur la nature humaine. Après avoir établi cela, Reynolds indique un passage de Tom Jones qui échoue à réaliser cette distinction entre style haut et style bas.

[…] our late, great actor, Garrick,has been as ignorantly praised by his friend Fielding; who doubtless imagined he had hit upon an ingenious device, by introducing in one of his novels, (otherwise a work of the highest merit) an ignorant man, mistaking Garrick’s representation of a scene in Hamlet, for reality. A very little reflection will convince us, that there is not one circumstance in the whole scene that is of the nature of deception. The merit and excellence of Shakespeare, and of Garrick, when they were engaged in such scenes, is of a different and much higher kind. But what adds to the falsity of this intended compliment, is that the best stage representation appears even more unnatural to a person of such a character, who is supposed never to have seen a play before, than it does to those who have had a habit of allowing for those necessary deviations from nature which art requires.

Reynolds critique Fielding en montrant qu’il est incorrect de penser le jeu théâtral en termes de ‘deception’ (tromperie). Au contraire, le talent de tels acteurs ne consiste pas dans la tromperie mais, du moins dans la grande tragédie, à s’éloigner de la nature tout en captivant le spectateur. Il est impératif, quand on joue, que “every thing should be raised and enlarged beyond its natural state; that the full effect may come home to the spectator, which otherwise would be lost in the comparatively extensive space of the Theatre”. Fielding a tort de montrer Partridge comme celui qui est trompé par Garrick, puisque l’ignorance de Partridge concernant le théâtre l’aurait rendu très sensible à la manière – requise par la tradition théâtrale – dont Garrick s’éloigne du simple mimétisme. Au lieu de cela, seuls les membres les plus éduqués du public, ceux qui “have had a habit of allowing for those necessary deviations”, se seraient autant investis émotionellement . De façon contre-intuitive, seuls les spectateurs les plus sophistiqués se trompent. Cet argument justifie l’élitisme des toiles non-naturalistes de Reynolds et suggère que les illusions produites par l’acteur sont moins gênantes sur le plan moral qu’elles pourraient le sembler, puisque ceux qui y sont le plus sujets sont suffisamment cultivés pour en avoir conscience.

Pour en revenir à l’attaque contre Fielding, il y aurait beaucoup à dire pour la défense de ce passage. On peut signaler, par exemple, que la ressemblance entre l’ignorant Partridge et le spectateur averti  pourrait bien avoir été intentionnellement ironique, et non pas l’effet d’une mauvaise compréhension du principe selon lequel “the truest poetry is the most feigning.” Après tout, Fielding lui-même aussi célèbre qu’il fût comme romancier, avait commencé sa carrière littéraire comme le dramaturge le plus apprécié  du début du dix-huitième siècle.