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An essay by Richard Le Gallienne

The Forbes-Robertson: An Appreciation

Title:     The Forbes-Robertson: An Appreciation
Author: Richard Le Gallienne [More Titles by Le Gallienne]

The voluntary abdication of power in its zenith has always fascinated and "intrigued" the imagination of mankind. We are so accustomed to kings and other gifted persons holding on to their sceptres with a desperate tenacity, even through those waning years when younger men, beholding their present feebleness, wonder whether their previous might was not a fancy of their fathers, whether, in fact, they were ever really kings or gifted persons at all. In so many cases we have to rely on a legend of past accomplishment to preserve our reverence. Therefore, when a Sulla or a Charles V. or a Mary Anderson, leave their thrones at the moment when their sway over us is most assured and brilliant, we wonder--wonder at a phenomenon rare in humanity, and suggestive of romantic reserves of power which seal not only our allegiance to them, but that of posterity. The mystery which resides in all greatness, in all charm, is not violated by the cynical explanations of decay. They remain fortunate as those whom the gods loved, wearing the aureoles of immortal promise.

Few artists have been wise in this respect; poets, for example, very seldom. Thus we find the works of most of them encumbered with the debris of their senility. Coventry Patmore was a rare example of a poet who laid down his pen deliberately, not merely as an artist in words, but as an artist in life, having, as he said in the memorable preface to the collected edition of his poems, completed that work which in his youth he had set before him. His readers, therefore, are not saddened by any pathetic gleanings from a once-rich harvest-field, or the carefully picked-up shakings of November boughs.

Forbes-Robertson is one of those artists who has chosen to bid farewell to his art while he is still indisputably its master. One or two other distinguished actors before him have thus chosen, and a greater number have bade us, those professional "farewells" that remind one of that dream of De Quincey in which he heard reverberated "Everlasting farewells! and again and yet again reverberated--everlasting farewells!" In Forbes-Robertson's case, however, apart from our courteous taking the word of his management, we know that the news is sadly true. There is a curious personal honour and sincerity breathing through all his impersonations that make us feel, so to say, that not only would we take the ghost's word for a thousand pounds, but that between him and his art is such an austere compact that he would be incapable of humiliating it by any mere advertising devices; and beyond that, those who have seen him play this time (1914) in New York must have been aware that in the very texture of all his performances was woven like a sigh the word "farewell." His very art, as I shall have later to emphasize, is an art of farewell; but, apart from that general quality, it seemed to me, though, indeed, it may have been mere sympathetic fancy, that in these last New York performances, as in the performances last spring in London, I heard a personal valedictory note. Forbes-Robertson seemed to be saying good-by at once to his audience and to his art.

In doing this, along with the inevitable sadness that must accompany such a step, one cannot but think there will be a certain private whimsical satisfaction for him in being able to go about the world in after years with his great gift still his, hidden away, but still his to use at any moment, and to know not only that he has been, but still is, as it were, in secret, the supreme Hamlet of his time. Something like that, one may imagine, must be the private fun of abdication. Forbes-Robertson, as he himself has told us, lays down one art only to take up another to which he has long been devoted, and of his early affiliation to which the figure of Love Kissing Beatrice in Rossetti's "Dante's Dream" bears illustrious and significant witness. As, one recalls that he was the model for that figure one realizes that even then he was the young lord Hamlet, born to be _par excellence_ the actor of sorrow and renunciation.

It is not my province to write here of Forbes-Robertson from the point of view of the reminiscent playgoer or of the technical critic of acting. Others, obviously, are far better qualified to undertake those offices for his fame. I would merely offer him the tribute of one to whom for many years his acting has been something more than acting, as usually understood, something to class with great poetry, and all the spiritual exaltation which "great poetry" implies. From first to last, however associated with that whimsical comedy of which, too, he is appropriately a master, he has struck for me that note of almost heartbreaking spiritual intensity which, under all its superficial materialism and cynicism, is the key-note of the modern world.

When I say "first," I am thinking of the first time I saw him, on the first night of _The Profligate_ by Pinero, in its day one of the plays that blazed the trail for that social, or, rather, I should say, sociological, drama since become even more deadly in earnest, though perhaps less deadly in skill. Incidentally, I remember that Miss Olga Nethersole, then quite unknown, made a striking impression of evil, though playing only a small part. It was Forbes-Robertson, however, for me, and I think for all the playgoing London of the time, that gave the play its chief value by making us startlingly aware, through the poignancy of his personality, of what one might call the voice of the modern conscience. To associate that thrillingly beautiful and profound voice of his with anything that sounds so prosaic as a "modern conscience" may seem unkind, but actually our modern conscience is anything but prosaic, and combines within it something at once poetic and prophetic, of which that something ghostly in Forbes-Robertson's acting is peculiarly expressive. That quality of other-worldliness which at once scared and fascinated the lodgers in _The Passing of the Third Floor Back_ is present in all Forbes-Robertson's acting. It was that which strangely stirred us, that first night of _The Profligate_. We meet it again with the blind Dick Heldar in _The Light That Failed_, and of course we meet it supremely in _Hamlet_. In fact, it is that quality which, chief among others, makes Forbes-Robertson's Hamlet the classical Hamlet of his time.

Forbes-Robertson has of course played innumerable parts. Years before _The Profligate_, he had won distinction as the colleague of Irving and Mary Anderson. He may be said to have played everything under the sun. His merely theatric experience has thus enriched and equipped his temperament with a superb technique. It would probably be impossible for him to play any part badly, and of the various successes he has made, to which his present repertoire bears insufficient witness, others, as I have said, can point out the excellences. My concern here is with his art in its fullest and finest expression, in its essence; and therefore it is unnecessary for me to dwell upon any other of his impersonations than that of Hamlet. When a man can play _Hamlet_ so supremely, it may be taken for granted, I presume, that he can play _Mice and Men_, or even that masterpiece of all masterpieces, _Caesar and Cleopatra_. I trust that it is no disrespect to the distinguished authors of these two plays to say that such plays in a great actor's repertoire represent less his versatility than his responsibilities, that pot-boiling necessity which hampers every art, and that of the actor, perhaps, most of all.

To my thinking, the chief interest of all Forbes-Robertson's other parts is that they have "fed" his Hamlet; and, indeed, many of his best parts may be said to be studies for various sides of Hamlet, his fine _Romeo_, for example, which, unfortunately, he no longer plays. In _Hamlet_ all his qualities converge, and in him the tradition of the stage that all an ambitious actor's experience is only to fit him to play Hamlet is for once justified. But, of course, the chief reason of that success is that nature meant Forbes-Robertson to play Hamlet. Temperament, personality, experience, and training have so worked together that he does not merely play, but _is_, Hamlet. Such, at all events, is the complete illusion he is able to produce.

Of course, one has heard from them of old time that an actor's personality must have nothing to do with the part he is playing; that he only is an actor who can most successfully play the exact opposite of himself. That is the academic theory of "character-acting," and of course the half-truth of it is obvious. It represents the weariness induced in audiences by handsome persons who merely, in the stage phrase, "bring their bodies on"; yet it would go hard with some of our most delightful comedians were it the whole truth about acting. As a matter of fact, of course, a great actor includes a multiplicity of selves, so that he may play many parts, yet always be playing himself. Beyond himself no artist, whatever his art, has ever gone.

What reduplication of personality is necessary for the man who plays Hamlet need hardly be said, what wide range of humanity and variety of accomplishment; for, as Anatole France has finely said of Hamlet, "He is a man, he is man, he is the whole of man."

Time was when _Hamlet_ was little more than an opportunity for some robustious periwig-pated fellow, or it gave the semi-learned actor the chance to conceal his imaginative incapacity by a display of "new readings." For example, instead of saying:

The air bites shrewdly; it is very cold,

you diverted attention from your acting by an appeal to the literary antiquarianism of your audience, and, out of one or other of the quartos, read the line:

The air bites shrewdly; _is_ it very cold?

with the implication that there was a whole world of suggestion in the difference.

One has known actors, far from unillustrious, who staked their whole performance on some such learned triviality or some trifling novelty of business, when, for example, in Hamlet's scene with his mother, the prince comes to:

Look here upon this picture, and on this.

An actor who deserves better than he has yet received in the tradition of the acted _Hamlet_--I mean Wilson Barrett--used to make much of taking a miniature of his father from his bosom to point the contrast.

But all such things in the end are of no account. New readings, new business, avail less and less. Nor does painstaking archaeology of scenery or dresses any longer throw dust in our eyes. We are for the play, the living soul of the play. Give us that, and your properties may be no more elaborate than those of a _guignol_ in the Champs-Elysees.

Forbes-Robertson's acting is so imaginative, creating the scene about him as he plays, that one almost resents any stage-settings for him at all, however learnedly accurate and beautifully painted.

His soul seems to do so much for us that we almost wish it could be left to do it all, and he act for us as they acted in Elizabeth's day, with only a curtain for scenery, and a placard at the side of the stage saying, "This is Elsinore."

One could hardly say more for one's sense of the reality of Forbes-Robertson's acting, as, naturally, one is not unaware that distressing experiments have been made to reproduce the Elizabethan theatre by actors who, on the other hand, were sadly in need of all that scenery, archaeology, or orchestra could do for them.

With a world overcrowded with treatises on the theme, from, and before, Gervinus, with the commentary of _Wilhelm Meister_ in our minds, not to speak of the starlit text ever there for our reading, there is surely no need to traverse the character of Hamlet. He has meant so much to our fathers--though he can never have meant so much to them as he does to us of today--that he is, so to say, in our blood. He is strangely near to our hearts by sheer inheritance. And perhaps the most beautiful thing Forbes-Robertson's Hamlet does for us is that it commands our love for a great gentleman doing his gentlest and bravest and noblest with a sad smile and a gay humour, in not merely a complicated, wicked, absurd, and tiresome, but, also, a ghostly world.

When we think of Hamlet, we think of him as two who knew him very well thought of him,--Ophelia and Horatio,--and as one who saw him only as he sat at last on his throne, dead, with the crown of Denmark on his knees.


Courtier's, soldier's, scholar's eye, tongue, sword,
The expectancy and rose of the fair state;

the "sweet prince" of Horatio's "good-night"--the soldier for whose passage Fortinbras commanded

The soldier's music and the rites of war.

We think of him, too, as the haunted son of a dear father murdered, a philosophic spectator of the grotesque brutality of life, suddenly by a ghostly summons called on to take part in it; a prince, a philosopher, a lover, a soldier, a sad humourist.

Were one asked what aspects of Hamlet does Forbes-Robertson specially embody, I should say, in the first place, his princeliness, his ghostliness, then his cynical and occasionally madcap humour, as where, at the end of the play-scene, he capers behind the throne in a terrible boyish glee. No actor that I have seen expresses so well that scholarly irony of the Renaissance permeating the whole play. His scene with Rosencrantz and Guildenstern and the recorders is masterly: the silken sternness of it, the fine hauteur, the half-appeal as of lost ideals still pleading with the vulgarity of life, the fierce humour of its disillusion, and behind, as always, the heartbreak--that side of which comes of the recognition of what it is to be a gentleman in such a world.

In this scene, too, as in others, Forbes-Robertson makes it clear that that final tribute of Fortinbras was fairly won.

The soldier--if necessary, the fighter--is there as supple and strong as a Damascus blade. One is always aware of the "something dangerous," for all his princely manners and scholarly ways. One is never left in doubt as to how this Hamlet will play the man. It is all too easy for him to draw his sword and make an end of the whole fantastic business. Because this philosophic swordsman holds the sword, let no one think that he knows not how to wield it. All this gentleness--have a care!--is that of an unusually masculine restraint.

In the scene with Ophelia, Forbes-Robertson's tenderness was almost terrible. It came from such a height of pity upon that little uncomprehending flower!

"I never gave you aught," as Forbes-Robertson said it, seemed to mean: "I gave you all--all that you could not understand." "Yet are not you and I in the toils of that destiny there that moves the arras. _Is_ it your father?"

Along with Forbes-Robertson's spiritual interpretation of Shakespeare goes pre-eminently, and doubtless as a contributive part of it, his imaginative revitalization of the great old lines--lines worn like a highway with the passage of the generations. As a friend of mine graphically phrased it, "How he revives for us the splendour of the text!"

The splendour of the text! It is a good phrase, and how splendid the text is we, of course, all know--know so well that we take it for granted, and so fall into forgetfulness of its significance; forgetting what central fires of soul and intellect must have gone to the creation of such a world of transcendent words.

Yet how living the lines still are, though the generations have almost quoted the life out of them, no man who has spoken them on the stage in our day, except Forbes-Robertson, has had the gift to show.

It is more than elocution, masterly elocution as it is, more than the superbly modulated voice: the power comes of spiritual springs welling up beneath the voice--springs fed from those infinite sources which "lie beyond the reaches of our souls."

Merely to take the phrase I have just quoted, how few actors--or readers of Shakespeare, or members of any Shakespearian audience, for that matter--have any personal conception of what it means! They may make a fine crescendo with it, but that is all. They have never stood, shrinking and appalled, yet drawn with a divine temptation, upon the brink of that vastness along the margin of which, it is evident, that Hamlet often wandered. It is in vain they tell their audiences and Horatio:

There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio,
Than are dreamt of in your philosophy.

We are quite sure that they know nothing of what they are saying; and that, as a matter of fact, there are few things for them in heaven or earth except the theatre they are playing in, their actors' club, and, generally, their genial mundane lives; and, of course, one rather congratulates them on the simplicity of their lives, congratulates them on their ignorance of such haunted regions of the mind. Yet, all the same, that simplicity seems to disqualify them from playing _Hamlet_.

Few Shakespearian actors seem to remember what they are playing--Shakespeare. One would think that to be held a worthy interpreter of so great a dramatist, so mysterious a mind, and so golden a poet, were enough distinction. Oscar Wilde, in a fine sonnet, addressed Henry Irving as

Thou trumpet set for Shakespeare's lips to blow,

and we may be sure that Irving appreciated the honour thus paid him, he who so wonderfully interpreted so many of Shakespeare's moods, so well understood the irony of his intellect, even the breadth of his humanity, yet in _Hamlet_, at all events, so strangely missed his soul.

Most of us have seen many Hamlets die. We have watched them squirming through those scientific contortions of dissolution, to copy which they had very evidently walked the hospitals in a businesslike quest of death-agonies, as certain histrionic connoisseurs of madness in France lovingly haunt the Saltpetriere. As I look back, I wonder how we tolerated their wriggling absurdity. I suppose it was that the hand of tradition was still upon us, as upon them. And, let us not forget, the words were there, the immortal words, and an atmosphere of tragic death and immortality that only such words could create:

Absent thee from felicity awhile,
And in the harsh world draw thy breath in pain
To hear my story ...
The rest is silence....

How different it is when Forbes-Robertson's Hamlet dies! All my life I seem to have been asking my friends, those I loved best, those who valued the dearest, the kindest, the greatest, and the strongest in our strange human life, to come with me and see Forbes-Robertson die in _Hamlet_. I asked them because, as that strange young dead king sat upon his throne, there was something, whatever it meant--death, life, immortality, what you will--of a surpassing loveliness, something transfiguring the poor passing moment of trivial, brutal murder into a beauty to which it was quite natural that that stern Northern warrior, with his winged helmet, should bend the knee. I would not exchange anything I have ever read or seen for Forbes-Robertson as he sits there so still and starlit upon the throne of Denmark.

Forbes-Robertson is not merely a great Shakespearian actor; he is a great spiritual actor. The one doubtless implies the other, though the implication has not always appeared to be obvious.

He is prophetic of what the stage will some day be, and what we can see it here and there preparing to become. In all the welter of the dramatic conditions of the moment there emerges one fact, that of the growing importance of the stage as a vehicle for what one may term general culture. The stage, with its half-sister, the cinema, is strangely, by how long and circuitous a route, returning of course, with an immeasurably developed equipment, to its starting-point, ending curiously where it began as the handmaid of the church. As with the old moralities or miracle-plays, it is becoming once more our teacher. The lessons of truth and beauty, as those of plain gaiety and delight, are relying more and more upon the actor for their expression, and less on the accredited doctors of divinity or literature. Even the dancers are doing much for our souls. Our duties as citizens are being taught us by well-advertised plays, and if we wish to abolish Tammany or change our police commissioner, we enforce our desire by the object-lesson of a play. The great new plays may not yet be here, but the public once more is going to the theatre, as it went long ago in Athens, to be delighted and amused, of course, but also to be instructed in national and civic affairs, and, most important of all, to be purified by pity and terror.

[The end]
Richard Le Gallienne's essay: Forbes-Robertson: An Appreciation