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An essay by George William Curtis


Title:     Players
Author: George William Curtis [More Titles by Curtis]

It is no wonder that Longfellow wrote a sonnet to Mrs. Fanny Kemble upon her Readings. Those evenings were indeed "happy," and "too swiftly sped." Mrs. Kemble's ample person draped in gold-colored silk, her flowing black hair folded and braided in some large style about her head, her rich and low and exquisitely modulated voice, her queenly presence, her magnificence of self-possession--all this fascinating personality made her reading memorable, and like a torch which reveals the perfect detail of great sculpture or architecture, her genius gave the whole value to every character and scene of the play. Did Whitfield pronounce the word Mesopotamia like a wind harp sighing exquisite music? So Mrs. Kemble's recitation of the soliloquy of Jaques left one line in the recollection of one hearer, which, like an enchanted fruit, is constantly renewing its freshness and flavor. It is one of the most familiar lines in Shakespeare,

"All the world's a stage,
And all the men and women merely players."

The Easy Chair was introduced to Mr. John Gilbert not very long before the death of that delightful actor. It was in the morning, and Mr. Gilbert was dressed with gentlemanly simplicity and propriety. But as he bowed courteously the good player seemed to have stepped aside for a moment from his real life, and to be not quite at ease when saluted by his own name rather than by that of Sir Peter, or Squire Hardcastle, or Sir Anthony Absolute. Methought, as the sages of the theatre say, that the stage was a more natural life to him. He knew the part of his own personality less familiarly than some other parts. The modest gentleman seemed half anxious to escape, as if he were caught in an undress, and pined for the security of the embroidered coat of a character.

Let us stop for a moment to say how fine he was in that embroidered coat. It is hard to conceive that Mr. Gilbert can have any adequate successor in his own parts. He created the standard, and when living memory can no longer measure the comparative excellence of other performances of them, they will be tested by the traditions of Gilbert. The plain good-breeding of his Hardcastle had a rustic quality, or flavor, rather, which was delicately discriminated from the courtly refinement of his Sir Peter. There was the essential gentleman in both, but it was the country gentleman in one and the city gentleman in the other. The touch of chuckling senility in Hardcastle's pleasure with Diggory's enjoyment of his stories, and the uxorious fondness of Sir Peter, are both of a kind, but they are not the same, and you feel the difference. Neither of these characters can be dissociated from Gilbert by those who have seen him in them, and to know that they will not be seen again under the same conditions and support is to be conscious of a public loss.

Mr. Gilbert was a professional player. But since Mrs. Kemble's voice not only pronounced the words describing us all as players, but suggested to that hearer the various significance of the words, how the universality of the truth becomes more and more apparent! In all the great interests of life--religion, politics, business--we have our exits and our entrances, and, in this, unlike Gilbert, we show ourselves to each other not as the men we are, but as players. Here is Sylvanus, for instance, who may stand for us all, most amiable of men if you could happen upon him in some happy undress moment. But they are few. The poor fellow is cast for many parts, and he plays with little intermission.

One of his characters is the politician. He depicts a furious partisan, and is so lost in his part that while the man Sylvanus speaks the truth and desires it, yet in his character of politician it is not truth or fair play that he wants, but whatever tends to advance and aggrandize his party. He carefully depreciates those with whom he does not agree. He cultivates distrust of every word spoken and every deed done by the other party. Personally he likes many of his opponents. His personal relations show that he does not really think them the rascals and impostors and traitors that in his part of politician he declares them to be. It seems often to a dispassionate observer that when he accuses them as politicians of lying, cheating, and stealing, he estimates them by his knowledge of himself as a politician. He supposes that they would not hesitate to do what, without compunction, he does himself. They are all players together, and this is a kind of stage rant designed to impress the groundlings, who, after all, compose the larger part of the audience.

Sylvanus also plays the part of a religious sectary. As a private person he enjoys greatly the wit and intelligence and stored experience of life which distinguish his neighbor Eugenius. The purity and elevation of his neighbor brighten the days on which they meet, and he is always a better and a wiser man when they part. But these are his off hours, his moments of vacation. He appears on the stage as a sectary, and plays his part with resolute energy. This part again is that of a man not pursuing truth, but so occupied with maintaining his own conception of truth that he has no time to test it. It is a comedy of great humor, because Sylvanus, as a sectary, stands against all comers to protect a spring of deep and clear water, and is so engrossed in guarding the sacred wave from the least pollution that he does not find time to remark that it is not a spring at all, but a dry sand-pit.

In the incessant playing of all these parts to which his life and powers are chiefly devoted the charming personality of Sylvanus is quite lost. The man himself, divested of the stage costume and the text of his parts, is almost unknown. Others could play the politician or the sectary or the trader, but nobody could play Sylvanus. He is a modest, intelligent man, who knows that nobody can pre-empt truth or honesty or urbanity; that good men do not become bad by holding views which he may think to be wrong; and that his friends may be deceived as readily as the friends of others. These things, which he recognizes as the merest commonplaces when he is off the stage, he derides as utter nonsense when he is in the midst of a representation. Then, in the most vehement way, which is the stage tradition of the part, he shouts that everybody who would do well must run to his side, as if we were all passengers on a ship which is capsizing, but would be righted if everybody on board lost his own balance.

It is because even such men as Sylvanus take to the stage that Shakespeare, "sitting pensive and alone, above the hundred-handed play of his imagination," calls all men and women merely players. Like John Gilbert, although we do not play characters so amusing and harmless as his upon the stage, when we are not on it we seem to be a little lost, and secretly crave the theatre. It is remarked that when actors have an off night they go and sit in front at the play.

A charming comedy often arises from forgetfulness of the fact that a play is a play, and not real. One of the finest and not unfamiliar strokes of comedy in this kind is that of a seasoned veteran in the part of a politician who turns upon another veteran with whom he differs upon a question of expediency, and striking an attitude, with an air and tone worthy of the great Folair himself, or Mr. Crummies in his loftier moments, exclaims, "Apostate!" It is conceded that there has been nothing finer on the stage since Dick Turpin pointed his finger at Jonnathan Wild and sneered, impressively, "Thief!"

It is well for the peace of mind of the nervously disposed to remember that if we are all merely players, we must not take the play too seriously. A play is a simulation for entertainment, and as we look at Sylvanus and our other friends playing the politician or the sectary, we must constantly bear in mind that it is a play, and only a play. If we really thought he came hither as a man and not a sectary, for instance, it were pity of our life. If the part is played too really, let Sylvanus heed an earlier wisdom. "Let him name his name, and tell them plainly he is Snug, the joiner."

[The end]
George William Curtis's essay: Players