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An essay by Augustine Birrell


Title:     Actors
Author: Augustine Birrell [More Titles by Birrell]

Most people, I suppose, at one time or another in their lives, have felt the charm of an actor's life, as they were free to fancy it, well-nigh irresistible.

What is it to be a great actor? I say a great actor, because (I am sure) no amateur ever fancied himself a small one. Is it not always to have the best parts in the best plays; to be the central figure of every group; to feel that attention is arrested the moment you come on the stage; and (more exquisite satisfaction still) to be aware that it is relaxed when you go off; to have silence secured for your smallest utterances; to know that the highest dramatic talent has been exercised to invent situations for the very purpose of giving effect to your words and dignity to your actions; to quell all opposition by the majesty of your bearing or the brilliancy of your wit; and finally, either to triumph over disaster, or if you be cast in tragedy, happier still, to die upon the stage, supremely pitied and honestly mourned for at least a minute? And then, from first to last, applause loud and long--not postponed, not even delayed, but following immediately after. For a piece of diseased egotism--that is, for a man--what a lot is this!

How pointed, how poignant the contrast between a hero on the boards and a hero in the streets! In the world's theatre the man who is really playing the leading part--did we but know it--is too often, in the general estimate, accounted but one of the supernumeraries, a figure in dingy attire, who might well be spared, and who may consider himself well paid with a pound a week. His utterances procure no silence. He has to pronounce them as best he may, whilst the gallery sucks its orange, the pit pares its nails, the boxes babble, and the stalls yawn. Amidst, these pleasant distractions he is lucky if he is heard at all; and perhaps the best thing that can befall him is for somebody to think him worth the trouble of a hiss. As for applause, it may chance with such men, if they live long enough, as it has to the great ones who have preceded them, in their old age,

'When they are frozen up within, and quite
The phantom of themselves,
To hear the world applaud the hollow ghost
Which blamed the living man.'

The great actor may sink to sleep, soothed by the memory of the tears or laughter he has evoked, and wake to find the day far advanced, whose close is to witness the repetition of his triumph; but the great man will lie tossing and turning as he reflects on the seemingly unequal war he is waging with stupidity and prejudice, and be tempted to exclaim, as Milton tells us he was, with the sad prophet Jeremy: 'Woe is me, my mother, that thou hast borne me, a man of strife and contention!'

The upshot of all this is, that it is a pleasanter thing to represent greatness than to be great.

But the actor's calling is not only pleasant in itself--it gives pleasure to others. In this respect, how favourably it contrasts with the three learned professions!

Few pleasures are greater than to witness some favourite character, which hitherto has been but vaguely bodied forth by our sluggish imaginations, invested with all the graces of living man or woman. A distinguished man of letters, who years ago was wisely selfish enough to rob the stage of a jewel and set it in his own crown, has addressed to his wife some radiant lines which are often on my lips:

'Beloved, whose life is with mine own entwined,
In whom, whilst yet thou wert my dream, I viewed,
Warm with the life of breathing womanhood,
What Shakespeare's visionary eye divined--
Pure Imogen; high-hearted Rosalind,
Kindling with sunshine the dusk greenwood;
Or changing with the poet's changing mood,
Juliet, or Constance of the queenly mind.'

But a truce to these compliments.

'I come to bury Caesar, not to praise him.'

It is idle to shirk disagreeable questions, and the one I have to ask is this, 'Has the world been wrong in regarding with disfavour and lack of esteem the great profession of the stage?'

That the world, ancient and modern, has despised the actor's profession cannot be denied. An affecting story I read many years ago --in that elegant and entertaining work, Lempriere's 'Classical Dictionary'--well illustrates the feeling of the Roman world. Julius Decimus Laberius was a Roman knight and dramatic author, famous for his mimes, who had the misfortune to irritate a greater Julius, the author of the 'Commentaries,' when the latter was at the height of his power. Caesar, casting about how best he might humble his adversary, could think of nothing better than to condemn him to take a leading part in one of his own plays. Laberius entreated in vain. Caesar was obdurate, and had his way. Laberius played his part--how, Lempriere sayeth not; but he also took his revenge, after the most effectual of all fashions, the literary. He composed and delivered a prologue of considerable power, in which he records the act of spiteful tyranny, and which, oddly enough, is the only specimen of his dramatic art that has come down to us. It contains lines which, though they do not seem to have made Caesar, who sat smirking in the stalls, blush for himself, make us, 1,900 years afterwards, blush for Caesar. The only lines, however, now relevant are, being interpreted, as follow:

'After having lived sixty years with honour, I left my home this morning a Roman knight, but I shall return to it this evening an infamous stage-player. Alas! I have lived a day too long.'

Turning to the modern world, and to England, we find it here the popular belief that actors are by statute rogues, vagabonds, and sturdy beggars. This, it is true, is founded on a misapprehension of the effect of 39 Eliz. chap. 4, which only provides that common players wandering abroad without authority to play, shall be taken to be 'rogues and vagabonds;' a distinction which one would have thought was capable of being perceived even by the blunted faculties of the lay mind.[*]

[* Footnote: See note at end of Essay.]
But the fact that the popular belief rests upon a misreading of an Act of Parliament three hundred years old does not affect the belief, but only makes it exquisitely English, and as a consequence entirely irrational.

Is there anything to be said in support of this once popular prejudice?

It may, I think, be supported by two kinds of argument. One derived from the nature of the case, the other from the testimony of actors themselves.

A serious objection to an actor's calling is that from its nature it admits of no other test of failure or success than the contemporary opinion of the town. This in itself must go far to rob life of dignity. A Milton may remain majestically indifferent to the 'barbarous noise' of 'owls and cuckoos, asses, apes, and dogs,' but the actor can steel himself to no such fortitude. He can lodge no appeal to posterity. The owls must hoot, the cuckoos cry, the apes yell, and the dogs bark on his side, or he is undone. This is of course inevitable, but it is an unfortunate condition of an artist's life.

Again, no record of his art survives to tell his tale or account for his fame. When old gentlemen wax garrulous over actors dead and gone, young gentlemen grow somnolent. Chippendale the cabinet-maker is more potent than Garrick the actor. The vivacity of the latter no longer charms (save in Boswell); the chairs of the former still render rest impossible in a hundred homes.

This, perhaps, is why no man of lofty genius or character has ever condescended to remain an actor. His lot pressed heavily even on so mercurial a trifler as David Garrick, who has given utterance to the feeling in lines as good perhaps as any ever written by a successful player:

'The painter's dead, yet still he charms the eye,
While England lives his fame shall never die;
But he who struts his hour upon the stage
Can scarce protract his fame thro' half an age;
Nor pen nor pencil can the actor save--
Both art and artist have one common grave.'

But the case must be carried farther than this, for the mere fact that a particular pursuit does not hold out any peculiar attractions for soaring spirits will not justify us in calling that pursuit bad names. I therefore proceed to say that the very act of acting, i. e., the art of mimicry, or the representation of feigned emotions called up by sham situations, is, in itself, an occupation an educated man should be slow to adopt as the profession of a life.

I believe--for we should give the world as well as the devil its due-- that it is to a feeling, a settled persuasion of this sort, lying deeper than the surface brutalities and snobbishnesses visible to all, that we must attribute the contempt, seemingly so cruel and so ungrateful, the world has visited upon actors.

I am no great admirer of beards, be they never so luxurious or glossy, yet I own I cannot regard off the stage the closely shaven face of an actor without a feeling of pity, not akin to love. Here, so I cannot help saying to myself, is a man who has adopted a profession whose very first demand upon him is that he should destroy his own identity. It is not what you are, or what by study you may become, but how few obstacles you present to the getting of yourself up as somebody else, that settles the question of your fitness for the stage. Smoothness of face, mobility of feature, compass of voice--these things, but the toys of other trades, are the tools of this one.

Boswellites will remember the name of Tom Davies as one of frequent occurrence in the great biography. Tom was an actor of some repute, and (so it was said) read 'Paradise Lost' better than any man in England. One evening, when Johnson was lounging behind the scenes at Drury (it was, I hope, before his pious resolution to go there no more), Davies made his appearance on his way to the stage in all the majesty and millinery of his part. The situation is picturesque. The great and dingy Reality of the eighteenth century, the Immortal, and the bedizened little player. 'Well, Tom,' said the great man (and this is the whole story), 'well, Tom, and what art thou to-night?' 'What art thou to-night?' It may sound rather like a tract, but it will, I think, be found difficult to find an answer to the question consistent with any true view of human dignity.

Our last argument derived from the nature of the case is, that deliberately to set yourself as the occupation of your life to amuse the adult and to astonish, or even to terrify, the infant population of your native land, is to degrade yourself.

Three-fourths of the acted drama is, and always must be, comedy, farce, and burlesque. We are bored to death by the huge inanities of life. We observe with horror that our interest in our dinner becomes languid. We consult our doctor, who simulates an interest in our stale symptoms, and after a little talk about Dr. Diet, Dr. Quiet, and Dr. Merriman, prescribes Toole. If we are very innocent we may inquire what night we are to go, but if we do we are at once told that it doesn't in the least matter when we go, for it is always equally funny. Poor Toole! to be made up every night as a safe prescription for the blues! To make people laugh is not necessarily a crime, but to adopt as your trade the making people laugh by delivering for a hundred nights together another man's jokes, in a costume the author of the jokes would blush to be seen in, seems to me a somewhat unworthy proceeding on the part of a man of character and talent.

To amuse the British public is a task of herculean difficulty and danger, for the blatant monster is, at times, as whimsical and coy as a maiden, and if it once makes up its mind not to be amused, nothing will shake it. The labour is enormous, the sacrifice beyond what is demanded of saints. And if you succeed, what is your reward? Read the lives of comedians, and closing them, you will see what good reason an actor has for exclaiming with the old-world poet:

'Odi profanum vulgus!'
We now turn to the testimony of actors themselves.

Shakespeare is, of course, my first witness. There is surely significance in this. 'Others abide our question,' begins Arnold's fine sonnet on Shakespeare--'others abide our question; thou art free.' The little we know about our greatest poet has become a commonplace. It is a striking tribute to the endless loquacity of man, and a proof how that great creature is not to be deprived of his talk, that he has managed to write quite as much about there being nothing to write about as he could have written about Shakespeare, if the author of Hamlet had been as great an egoist as Rousseau. The fact, however, remains that he who has told us most about ourselves, whose genius has made the whole civilized world kin, has told us nothing about himself, except that he hated and despised the stage. To say that he has told us this is not, I think, any exaggeration. I have, of course, in mind the often quoted lines to be found in that sweet treasury of melodious verse and deep feeling, the 'Sonnets of Shakespeare.' The 110th begins thus:

'Alas! 'tis true I have gone here and there,
And made myself a motley to the view,
Gor'd my own thoughts, sold cheap what is most dear,
Made old offences of affections new.'

And the 111th:

'O for my sake do thou with Fortune chide,
The guilty goddess of my harmful deeds,
That did not better for my life provide
Than public means, which public manners breeds.
Thence comes it that my name receives a brand,
And almost thence my nature is subdued
To what it works on, like the dyer's hand.
Pity me, then, and wish I were renewed.'

It is not much short of three centuries since those lines were written, but they seem still to bubble with a scorn which may indeed be called immortal.

'Sold cheap what is most dear.'
There, compressed in half a line, is the whole case against an actor's calling.

But it may be said Shakespeare was but a poor actor. He could write Hamlet and As You Like It; but when it came to casting the parts, the Ghost in the one and old Adam in the other were the best he could aspire to. Verbose biographers of Shakespeare, in their dire extremity, and naturally desirous of writing a big book about a big man, have remarked at length that it was highly creditable to Shakespeare that he was not, or at all events that it does not appear that he was, jealous, after the true theatrical tradition, of his more successful brethren of the buskin.

It surely might have occured, even to a verbose biographer in his direst need, that to have had the wit to write and actually to have written the soliloquies in Hamlet, might console a man under heavier afflictions than the knowledge that in the popular estimate somebody else spouted those soliloquies better than he did himself. I can as easily fancy Milton jealous of Tom Davies as Shakespeare of Richard Burbage. But--good, bad, or indifferent--Shakespeare was an actor, and as such I tender his testimony.

I now--for really this matter must be cut short--summon pell-mell all the actors and actresses who have ever strutted their little hour on the stage, and put to them the following comprehensive question: Is there in your midst one who had an honest, hearty, downright pride and pleasure in your calling, or do not you all (tell the truth) mournfully echo the lines of your great master (whom nevertheless you never really cared for), and with him

'Your fortunes chide,
That did not better for your lives provide
Than public means, which public manners breeds.'

They all assent: with wonderful unanimity.

But, seriously, I know of no recorded exception, unless it be Thomas Betterton, who held the stage for half a century--from 1661 to 1708-- and who still lives, as much as an actor can, in the pages of Colley Cibber's Apology. He was a man apparently of simple character, for he had only one benefit-night all his life.

Who else is there? Read Macready's 'Memoirs'--the King Arthur of the stage. You will find there, I am sorry to say, all the actor's faults --if faults they can be called which seem rather hard necessities, the discolouring of the dyer's hand; greedy hungering after applause, endless egotism, grudging praise--all are there; not perhaps in the tropical luxuriance they have attained elsewhere, but plain enough. But do we not also find, deeply engrained and constant, a sense of degradation, a longing to escape from the stage for ever?

He did not like his children to come and see him act, and was always regretting--heaven help him!--that he wasn't a barrister-at-law. Look upon this picture and on that. Here we have Macbeth, that mighty thane; Hamlet, the intellectual symbol of the whole world of modern thought; Strafford, in Robert Browning's fine play; splendid dresses, crowded theatres, beautiful women, royal audiences; and on the other side, a rusty gown, a musty wig, a fusty court, a deaf judge, an indifferent jury, a dispute about a bill of lading, and ten guineas on your brief--which you have not been paid, and which you can't recover --why, ''tis Hyperion to a satyr!'

Again, we find Mrs. Siddons writing of her sister's marriage:

'I have lost one of the sweetest companions in the world. She has married a respectable man, though of small fortune. I thank God she is off the stage.' What is this but to say, 'Better the most humdrum of existences with the most "respectable of men," than to be upon the stage'?

The volunteered testimony of actors is both large in bulk and valuable in quality, and it is all on my side.

Their involuntary testimony I pass over lightly. Far be from me the disgusting and ungenerous task of raking up a heap of the weaknesses, vanities, and miserablenesses of actors and actresses dead and gone. After life's fitful fever they sleep (I trust) well; and in common candour, it ought never to be forgotten that whilst it has always been the fashion--until one memorable day Mr. Froude ran amuck of it--for biographers to shroud their biographees (the American Minister must bear the brunt of this word on his broad shoulders) in a crape veil of respectability, the records of the stage have been written in another spirit. We always know the worst of an actor, seldom his best. David Garrick was a better man than Lord Eldon, and Macready was at least as good as Dickens.

There is however, one portion of this body of involuntary testimony on which I must be allowed to rely, for it may be referred to without offence.

Our dramatic literature is our greatest literature. It is the best thing we have done. Dante may over-top Milton, but Shakespeare surpasses both. He is our finest achievement; his plays our noblest possession; the things in the world most worth thinking about. To live daily in his company, to study his works with minute and loving care-- in no spirit of pedantry searching for double endings, but in order to discover their secret, and to make the spoken word tell upon the hearts of man and woman--this might have been expected to produce great intellectual if not moral results.

The most magnificent compliment ever paid by man to woman is undoubtedly Steele's to the Lady Elizabeth Hastings. 'To love her,' wrote he, 'is a liberal education.' As much might surely be said of Shakespeare.

But what are the facts--the ugly, hateful facts? Despite this great advantage--this close familiarity with the noblest and best in our literature--the taste of actors, their critical judgment, always has been and still is, if not beneath contempt, at all events far below the average intelligence of their day. By taste, I do not mean taste in flounces and in furbelows, tunics and stockings; but in the weightier matters of the truly sublime and the essentially ridiculous. Salvini's Macbeth is undoubtedly a fine performance; and yet that great actor, as the result of his study, has placed it on record that he thinks the sleep-walking scene ought to be assigned to Macbeth instead of to his wife. Shades of Shakespeare and Siddons, what think you of that?

It is a strange fatality, but a proof of the inherent pettiness of the actor's art, that though it places its votary in the very midst of literary and artistic influences, and of necessity informs him of the best and worthiest, he is yet, so far as his own culture is concerned, left out in the cold--art's slave, not her child.

What have the devotees of the drama taught us? Nothing! it is we who have taught them. We go first, and they come lumbering after. It was not from the stage the voice arose bidding us recognise the supremacy of Shakespeare's genius. Actors first ignored him, then hideously mutilated him; and though now occasionally compelled, out of deference to the taste of the day, to forego their green-room traditions, to forswear their Tate and Brady emendations, in their heart of hearts they love him not; and it is with a light step and a smiling face that our great living tragedian flings aside Hamlet's tunic or Shylock's gaberdine to revel in the melodramatic glories of The Bells and The Corsican Brothers.

Our gratitude is due in this great matter to men of letters, not to actors. If it be asked, 'What have actors to do with literature and criticism?' I answer, 'Nothing;' and add, 'That is my case.'

But the notorious bad taste of actors is not entirely due to their living outside Literature, with its words for ever upon their lips, but none of its truths engraven on their hearts. It may partly be accounted for by the fact that for the purposes of an ambitious actor bad plays are the best.

In reading actors' lives, nothing strikes you more than their delight in making a hit in some part nobody ever thought anything of before. Garrick was proud past all endurance of his Beverley in the Gamester, and one can easily see why. Until people saw Garrick's Beverley, they didn't think there was anything in the Gamester; nor was there, except what Garrick put there. This is called creating a part, and he is the greatest actor who creates most parts.

But genius in the author of the play is a terrible obstacle in the way of an actor who aspires to identify himself once and for all with the leading part in it. Mr. Irving may act Hamlet well or ill--and, for my part, I think he acts it exceedingly well--but behind Mr. Irving's Hamlet, as behind everybody else's Hamlet, there looms a greater Hamlet than them all--Shakespeare's Hamlet, the real Hamlet.

But Mr. Irving's Mathias is quite another kettle of fish, all of Mr. Irving's own catching. Who ever, on leaving the Lyceum, after seeing The Bells, was heard to exclaim, 'It is all mighty fine; but that is not my idea of Mathias'? Do not we all feel that without Mr. Irving there could be no Mathias?

We best like doing what we do best: and an actor is not to be blamed for preferring the task of making much of a very little to that of making little of a great deal.

As for actresses, it surely would be the height of ungenerosity to blame a woman for following the only regular profession commanding fame and fortune the kind consideration of man has left open to her. For two centuries women have been free to follow this profession, onerous and exacting though it be, and by doing so have won the rapturous applause of generations of men, who are all ready enough to believe that where their pleasure is involved, no risks of life or honour are too great for a woman to run. It is only when the latter, tired of the shams of life, would pursue the realities, that we become alive to the fact--hitherto, I suppose, studiously concealed from us-- how frail and feeble a creature she is.

Lastly, it must not be forgotten that we are discussing a question of casuistry, one which is 'stuff o' the conscience,' and where consequently words are all important.

Is an actor's calling an eminently worthy one?--that is the question. It may be lawful, useful, delightful; but is it worthy?

An actor's life is an artist's life. No artist, however eminent, has more than one life, or does anything worth doing in that life, unless he is prepared to spend it royally in the service of his art, caring for nought else. Is an actor's art worth the price? I answer, No!


The Statute Law on this subject is not without interest. Stated shortly it stands thus: By 39 Eliz. c. 4, it was enacted, 'That all persons calling themselves Schollers going abroad begging ... all idle persons using any subtile craft or fayning themselves to have knowledge in Phisiognomye, Palmestry, or other like crafty science; or pretending that they can tell Destyneyes, Fortunes, or such other like fantasticall Ymagynaeons; all Fencers, Bearwards, common players of Interludes and Minstrels wandering abroad (other than players of Interludes belonging to any Baron of this realm, or any honourable personage of greater degree to be auctorised to play under the hand and seale of Arms of such Baron or Personage); all Juglers, Tinkers, Pedlars, and Petty Chapmen wandering abroad ... shall be taken, adjudged, and deemed Rogues, Vagabonds, and Sturdy Beggars, and shall sustain such payne and punyshment as by this Act is in that behalf appointed.'

Such 'payne and punyshment' was as follows:

'To be stripped naked from the middle upwards, and shall be openly whipped until his or her body be bloudye, and shall be forthwith sent from parish to parish by the officers of every the same the next streghte way to the parish where he was borne. After which whipping the same person shall have a Testimonyall testifying that he has been punyshed according to law.'

This statute was repealed by 13 Anne c. 26, which, however, includes within its new scope 'common players of Interludes,' and names no exceptions. The whipping continues, but there is an alternative in the House of Correction: 'to be stript naked from the middle, and be openly whipped until his or her body be bloody, or may be sent to the House of Correction.' 17 Geo. II. c. 5 repeals a previous statute of the same king which had repealed the statute of Anne, and provides that 'all common players of Interludes and all persons who shall for Hire, Gain, or Reward act, represent, or perform any Interlude, Tragedy, Comedy, Opera, Play, Farce, or other Entertainment of the Stage, not being authorized by law, shall be deemed Rogues and Vagabonds within the true meaning of the Act.' The punishment was to be 'publicly whipt,' or to be sent to the House of Correction. This Act has been repealed, and the law is regulated by 5 Geo. IV. c. 83, which makes no mention of actors, who are therefore now wholly quit of this odious imputation.

[The end]
Augustine Birrell's essay: Actors