Beinecke: Performance

This post is dedicated to the various passages found in those papers of David Garrick and William Smith, held at the Beinecke, which deal with the more theoretical side of performance. I already touched on this when writing about attitudes to French actors, so this piece will, in some ways, extend ideas already evoked there.

Along with letters to and from Garrick, the papers I examined also include various figures’ poems in praise of the English actor. One of the most notable of these is by Warren Hastings, the governor-general of Bengal . I won’t quote the text in its entirety, but rather extract the passage that piqued my interest:

Why should our Roscius grieve the want
Of Practice and of art
To bid each pitying bosom pant
To wring each feeling heart?
These found excuses sure degrade
Intrinsic merit here:
Art could have but an actor made
‘Twas nature form’d him Lear!

This short piece is based on the continuing preoccupation of whether technique or inspiration is most central to the actor, which is the theatre’s particular version on the eternal debate of the roles of art and nature in creative endeavour. What I find interesting here is Hasting’s unusual claim that whilst art (i.e. technical skill, “practice”) provides the general qualities an actor needs, it is only nature that provides the specific touches necessary to create the character of King Lear. To my ears (and to theorists such as John Hill or Remond de Saint-Albine), this seems back-to-front in that one would expect nature to have granted the actor the general qualities that make him an actor (sympathy, imagination, physical beauty and strength, etc.) and that art would polish and perfect these qualities into what was appropriate for the role. Instead of this, however, Hastings proposes that Garrick taught himself the general skills and then relied on nature for the authentic recreation of the particular. This reversal depends on a conception of the actor where it is the natural that makes a person unique, something that looks forward to romantic ideas like the egotistic sublime where it is your personal emotional response that counts and not so much your specific use of an established technique.

Quite what Garrick would make of this, I’m not sure. Interestingly, there are very few letters from him about the art of performance. A copy of one of them, sent to the painter Hayman when he was preparing to paint a series of Shakespearean murals, is in the Beinecke, but the main thrust of Garrick’s efforts to describe how the painted figures should be posed so as to express the chosen scenes fully is that a written account cannot possibly do justice to everything involved in the performance and composition of such moments.
Garrick Papers-06-Hayman,F-ShakespearePictures-Transcript-1
Moving from Garrick’s papers to Smith’s (not a large jump, as Smith was often seen as one of the last survivor’s of the ‘Garrick school’), I found a few other scattered thoughts about performance. Some of these pick up things I’ve already seen elsewhere, such as the use of Shakespeare as a theatrical instructor in the epilogue John Byng wrote to mark Smith’s retirement from the stage in 1788, or Smith’s own quotations from Shakespeare to strengthen his satirical prologue on “the intent and business of the stage”. A letter, however, from Capell Loftt to Smith in June 1798 stood out from the rest. I give the relevant section below.

There is much of Mr Grarick’s acting that I think will always live in my remembrance. It is the felicity of very strong impressions, that, depending on the high pleasure they convey to the mind, they serve more forcibly to identify our being, and to give a familiarity, a kind of apparent unity of ideas, to the very remote parts of it. The time when I saw him was that part of my life which was full of hope and of spirits: and if there has been any spirits of any utility in the rest of it, I flatter myself the animation derived from the hearnig and seeing him has had no small share in it.
I do think dramatic representation and specially of the great tragic characters, one of the very powerful exciters of the public mind.

What I find so powerful about this letter is the observation that the actor, whether he is inspired or not, can inspire others, be one of the “exciters of the public mind”. Of course, this is not a new observation (Bacon has a fantastic description of the audience as a violin on which the actor plays), but it is a rare one with regard to Garrick, who is normally seen as resurrecting Shakespeare rather than inspiring contemporaries. Indeed, it is the next generation of actors – Sarah Siddons, Dora Jordan – who are thought of as muses. Here, though, with heavy nostalgia and in a letter to one of Garrick’s inheritors, Loftt makes Garrick (and dramatic representation in general) not into an inspired act but an inspiring one.

Beinecke: The French

This post concentrates on one element of the material I was looking through in the Beinecke library. Although not frequent, nor completely central to the current direction of my thesis, I couldn’t help but notice the odd reference to the French stage in both the William Smith and David Garrick papers.

In the second folder of the David Garrick papers lies a letter from Richard Berenger to the English Roscius. Berenger, now best known for his books about horsemanship, was living in Paris at the time and writes to Garrick with a view of the French stage. Before he gets round to this, Berenger’s preliminary remarks suggest that Garrick’s plans to come to Paris were public knowledge well before his departure later in 1751; that said, Berenger wittily says that Garrick should rather wait until “two-thirds of the French actors have first made a pilgrimage to Drury Lane, and can speak good English”. Such bantering disparagement then sets the tone for his critique of various French performers – views which echo many of those expressed by Garrick when he did eventually visit the Comédie française. Mme Dumesnil “has her degree of merit, but it is not the superlative”, while Mlle Clairon “gains great applause and yet not more than she deserves”.

Berenger's thoughts about acting (click to enlarge).
Berenger’s thoughts about acting (click to enlarge).

Berenger, however, does more than review the great performers of the day. He also offers his opinion on the well-known question of whether actors felt emotion when the were on the stage. In Berenger’s case, it is a resounding yes, since, without feeling, everything “is but a bare repetition of so many times, […] as different from true acting as the dead carcass from the living body”. Curiously, though, the letter does not stop here, but rather makes the observation, based on the widespread belief in a female propensity for strong feeling, that “women have eclipsed the men in my opinion”, even if “both the sexes excel in comedy rather than in tragedy.”

Berenger prefers comedy to tragedy as he finds an “affected formality and stiffness” on the French stage which vitiates “the tender sentiments of Tragedy”. Indeed, the technical rigour of the French stage, what this letter names as “general exactness”, is also evoked by other figures as a way of lambasting foreign practice. In the William Smith Papers, one finds a letter to Smith from Thomas Coutts accusing Kemble of a “false taste” as a result of having “form’d himself on the French stage”. Similarly, Smith himself writes a poem to Sarah Siddons warning her of (amongst other things) the dangers of being influenced by the French:

Let not a Barker’s false and Gallic Taste
Lay all your former well-earn’d harvest waste;
Tutor’d in France plain Nature HE defies,
Misleads your judgment and deceives your Eyes.

The idea that the French defied ‘nature’ is interesting as it is, to a certain extent, the reversal of the praise for French ‘refinement’ one finds earlier in the period. Indeed, both in the Berenger letter arguing that actors should feel and here in attacks on what is perceived as a ‘French’ calculation, the expression or restraint of human nature is the crucial motif.

Beinecke: Introduction and Various

I have spent the last week or so in New Haven, Connecticut, alternately attending the NEASECS and delving into manuscript material at the Beinecke Library. I’m going to publish a few posts bringing together the various things I discovered there, but this time I want to offer a kind of preface.

The Beinecke from the outside, apparently floating.

The Beinecke Library was built in 1963, and, to be frank, is not a particularly beautiful building when seen from the outside, putting one in mind of a spaceship from a rather uninventive alien civilisation. This is a slightly unfair judgement, though. On the outside, the play of light over the polygonal façade is nice (if there’s enough sun) and, unlike many other buildings of this era, it does not clash too horribly with the architectural styles of its neighbours. Further, the interior of the building is extraordinary. Although it’s not immediately evident, the walls of the library are made of marble, so that sunlight can penetrate through and cause the walls to glow. This faint luminescence is beautiful, and forms a great backdrop to what immediately draws the eye as you go through the door: a giant cube made of glass and filled with thousands of ancient books. Electric lights illuminate the cube’s interior and cause the edges of the glass to sparkle; at the same time, the warm colours of the leather bindings and yellowing pages soften the otherwise harsh impression of the glass, light and marble. The overall effect put me in mind of Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey.

Inside the Beinecke, with a view of the translucent marble and glass book cube.

Thankfully, the above-ground parts of the Beinecke serve as an exhibition space, and the reading rooms, nicely carpeted and with plenty of natural light are found underground, gathered around a light well. To these rooms, and with the help of the wonderfully nice Beinecke staff (who even remembered my name), I ordered three sets of manuscript material:

  1. OSB MSS 57: The William Smith Papers
  2. OSB MSS 125: David Garrick Papers from the Thomas Rackett Collection
  3. OSB c442: Richard Warner, Glossary Notes for an Edition of Shakespeare

These items will provide the material for the next few posts, so I thought I’d finish this one with a few snippets of things that won’t make it into the thematic accounts I’m preparing.

First, I wanted to mention the lists of characters I found in the William Smith and David Garrick papers. They provide an interesting overview of each actor’s particular ‘line’, and, while this isn’t enormously useful for such a protean actor as Garrick, it does help one grasp what kind of a performer Smith was. One notes that he graduated from young male lovers (Florizel, Romeo) to statesmen and monarchs (Leontes, Coriolanus, Lear), but that he never played the clown. This fits well with his nickname of “Gentleman” Smith. One can also, however, reverse the process and consider the casting of the actor as an interpretative act: if ‘Gentleman Smith’ plays Leontes, for example, it would suggest that Leontes’s madness is not going to degenerate too far in the throes of jealousy. This is even clearer, and more suggestive with a cast list for Mrs Lovemore, included in the Garrick papers. Lovemore seems to have stuck to noble ladies, playing Cordelia in Lear, Queen Anne in Richard III and Gertrude in Hamlet. This trio is curious in that it suggests that Gertrude was played sympathetically at Drury Lane, more naïve, more like Cordelia than modern interpretations. Of course, it could equally suggest that Cordelia was more like Gertrude, but I find this less likely.

A photo of Mrs Lovemore's cast list.
A photo of Mrs Lovemore’s cast list (click for a larger version).

On a completely different level, I stopped halfway through reading the correspondence of William Smith when I saw a reference to footpads operating around Puckeridge. This small and entertainingly named village is where I grew up, and it was very strange to see an account of it in a letter sent over two hundred years ago. I reproduce the section in question here, and add it to my small collection of literary references to my childhood home, the others being in Samuel Pepys’ Diary and The Knight of the Burning Pestle.

Coutts refers to Smith's adventure with footpads near Puckeridge.
Coutts refers to Smith’s adventure with footpads near Puckeridge (click for a larger version).

One final miscellaneous thing, which is connected to the previous item by the way in which archival work can occasionally trigger emotional responses. Folder 84 of the William Smith papers was unusually fat, and, on opening it, I discovered that it was because it contained locks of Smith’s hair, each cut and carefully wrapped at various points in his theatrical career. I didn’t remove the wrappings (I don’t think I was meant to), but I still felt a chill to be holding such an ephemeral part of the body of a performer, preserved when all but his bones will now have rotted. Keeping locks of hair was nothing unusual at the time (there are locks of Keats’ hair in the Fitzwilliam Museum at Cambridge), but the fact that we no longer really do this made the moment all the stranger. At one other time, I felt something similar to this, which was when I found a manuscript epitaph for the actor Gibson, in the hand of David Garrick. It reads as follows:

Gibson from Sorrow rests beneath this Stone,
An Honest Man, belov’d as soon as known;
Howe’er defective in the mimic art,
In real Life he justly play’d his part;
The noblest character he acted well,
And Heaven applauded when the Curtain fell.

Of course, the power of this passage is that Garrick himself was an actor, and so in writing for Gibson may well have thought of himself and how he wished to be remember. He was certainly preoccupied with what we would now call his image whilst he lived.

Not to end on too sad a note, here’s another manuscript poem by Garrick, evidently dashed off to amuse his friends. It’s called ‘Upon Mrs Hale calling Hampton Paradise’, ‘Hampton’ being Garrick’s country retreat.

Throw off, dear Hale, in paradise,
The coverings of mode & vice,
They are not worth the keeping,
In Eve’s first purity be seen,
Nor let a figleaf intervene
To spoil your Adam’s keeping.