Table Talk : Essays on Men and Manners, by William Hazlitt

Essay xii.

Whether Actors Ought to Sit in the Boxes?

I think not; and that for the following reasons, as well as I can give them:—

Actors belong to the public: their persons are not their own property. They exhibit themselves on the stage: that is enough, without displaying themselves in the boxes of the theatre. I conceive that an actor, on account of the very circumstances of his profession, ought to keep himself as much incognito as possible. He plays a number of parts disguised, transformed into them as much as he can ‘by his so potent art,’ and he should not disturb this borrowed impression by unmasking before company more than he can help. Let him go into the pit, if he pleases, to see — not into the first circle, to be seen. He is seen enough without that: he is the centre of an illusion that he is bound to support, both, as it appears to me, by a certain self-respect which should repel idle curiosity, and by a certain deference to the public, in whom he has inspired certain prejudices which he is covenanted not to break. He represents the majesty of successive kings; he takes the responsibility of heroes and lovers on himself; the mantle of genius and nature falls on his shoulders; we ‘pile millions’ of associations on him, under which he should be ‘buried quick,’ and not perk out an inauspicious face upon us, with a plain-cut coat, to say, ‘What fools you all were! — I am not Hamlet the Dane!’

It is very well and in strict propriety for Mr. Mathews, in his AT HOME, after he has been imitating his inimitable Scotchwoman, to slip out as quick as lightning, and appear in the side-box shaking hands with our old friend Jack Bannister. It adds to our surprise at the versatility of his changes of place and appearance, and he had been before us in his own person during a great part of the evening. There was no harm done — no imaginary spell broken — no discontinuity of thought or sentiment. Mr. Mathews is himself (without offence be it spoken) both a cleverer and more respectable man than many of the characters he represents. Not so when

  O’er the stage the Ghost of Hamlet stalks,

Othello rages, Desdemona mourns,

And poor Monimia pours her soul in love.

A different feeling then prevails:— close, close the scene upon them, and never break that fine phantasmagoria of the brain. Or if it must be done at all, let us choose some other time and place for it: let no one wantonly dash the Cirecan cup from our lips, or dissolve the spirit of enchantment in the very palace of enchantment. Go, Mr. ——— and sit somewhere else! What a thing it is, for instance, for any part of an actor’s dress to come off unexpectedly while he is playing! What a cut it is upon himself and the audience! What an effort he has to recover himself, and struggle through this exposure of the naked truth! It has been considered as one of the triumphs of Garrick’s tragic power, that once, when he was playing Lear, his crown of straw came off, and nobody laughed or took the least notice, so much had he identified himself with the character. Was he, after this, to pay so little respect to the feelings he had inspired, as to tear off his tattered robes, and take the old crazed king with him to play the fool in the boxes?

No; let him pass. Vex not his parting spirit,

Nor on the rack of this rough world

Stretch him out farther!

Some lady is said to have fallen in love with Garrick from being present when he played the part of Romeo, on which he observed, that he would undertake to cure her of her folly if she would only come and see him in Abel Drugger. So the modern tragedian and fine gentleman, by appearing to advantage, and conspicuously, in propria persona, may easily cure us of our predilection for all the principal characters he shines in. ‘Sir! do you think Alexander looked o’ this fashion in his lifetime, or was perfumed so? Had Julius Caesar such a nose? or wore his frill as you do? You have slain I don’t know how many heroes “with a bare bodkin,” the gold pin in your shirt, and spoiled all the fine love speeches you will ever make by picking your teeth with that inimitable air!’

An actor, after having performed his part well, instead of courting farther distinction, should affect obscurity, and ‘steal most guilty-like away,’ conscious of admiration that he can support nowhere but in his proper sphere, and jealous of his own and others’ good opinion of him, in proportion as he is a darling in the public eye. He cannot avoid attracting disproportionate attention: why should he wish to fix it on himself in a perfectly flat and insignificant part, viz. his own character? It was a bad custom to bring authors on the stage to crown them. Omne Ignotum pro magnifico est. Even professed critics, I think, should be shy of putting themselves forward to applaud loudly: any one in a crowd has ‘a voice potential’ as the press: it is either committing their pretensions a little indiscreetly, or confirming their own judgment by a clapping of hands. If you only go and give the cue lustily, the house seems in wonderful accord with your opinions. An actor, like a king, should only appear on state occasions. He loses popularity by too much publicity; or, according to the proverb, familiarity breeds contempt. Both characters personate a certain abstract idea, are seen in a fictitious costume, and when they have ‘shuffled off this more than mortal coil,’ they had better keep out of the way — the acts and sentiments emanating from themselves will not carry on the illusion of our prepossessions. Ordinary transactions do not give scope to grace and dignity like romantic situations or prepared pageants, and the little is apt to prevail over the great, if we come to count the instances.

The motto of a great actor should be aut Caesar aut nihil. I do not see how with his crown, or plume of feathers, he can get through those little box-doors without stooping and squeezing his artificial importance to tatters. The entrance of the stage is arched so high ‘that players may get through, and keep their gorgeous turbans on, without good-morrow to the gods!’

The top-tragedian of the day has too large and splendid a train following him to have room for them in one of the dress-boxes. When he appears there, it should be enlarged expressly for the occasion; for at his heels march the figures, in full costume, of Cato, and Brutus, and Cassius, and of him with the falcon eye, and Othello, and Lear, and crook-backed Richard, and Hamlet, Prince of Denmark, and numbers more, and demand entrance along with him, shadows to which he alone lends bodily substance! ‘The graves yawn and render up their dead to push us from our stools.’ There is a mighty bustle at the door, a gibbering and squeaking in the lobbies. An actor’s retinue is imperial, it presses upon the imagination too much, and he should therefore slide unnoticed into the pit. Authors, who are in a manner his makers and masters, sit there contented — why should not he? ‘He is used to show himself.’ That, then, is the very reason he should conceal his person at other times. A habit of ostentation should not be reduced to a principle. If I had seen the late Gentleman Lewis fluttering in a prominent situation in the boxes, I should have been puzzled whether to think of him as the Copper Captain, or as Bobadil, or Ranger, or Young Rapid, or Lord Foppington, or fifty other whimsical characters; then I should have got Munden and Quick and a parcel more of them in my head, till ‘my brain would have been like a smoke-jack’: I should not have known what to make of it; but if I had seen him in the pit, I should merely have eyed him with respectful curiosity, and have told every one that that was Gentleman Lewis. We should have concluded from the circumstance that he was a modest, sensible man: we all knew beforehand that he could show off whenever he pleased!

There is one class of performers that I think is quite exempt from the foregoing reasoning, I mean retired actors. Come when they will and where they will, they are welcome to their old friends. They have as good a right to sit in the boxes as children at the holidays. But they do not, somehow, come often. It is but a melancholy recollection with them:—

  Then sweet,

Now sad to think on!

Mrs. Garrick still goes often, and hears the applause of her husband over again in the shouts of the pit. Had Mrs. Pritchard or Mrs. Clive been living, I am afraid we should have seen little of them-it would have been too home a feeling with them. Mrs. Siddons seldom if ever goes, and yet she is almost the only thing left worth seeing there. She need not stay away on account of any theory that I can form. She is out of the pale of all theories, and annihilates all rules. Wherever she sits there is grace and grandeur, there is tragedy personified. Her seat is the undivided throne of the Tragic Muse. She had no need of the robes, the sweeping train, the ornaments of the stage; in herself she is as great as any being she ever represented in the ripeness and plenitude of her power! I should not, I confess, have had the same paramount abstracted feeling at seeing John Kemble there, whom I venerate at a distance, and should not have known whether he was playing off the great man or the great actor:—

A little more than kin, and less than kind.

I know it may be said in answer to all this pretext of keeping the character of the player inviolate, ‘What is there more common, in fact, than for the hero of a tragedy to speak the prologue, or than for the heroine, who has been stabbed or poisoned, to revive, and come forward laughing in the epilogue?’ As to the epilogue, it is spoken to get rid of the idea of the tragedy altogether, and to ward off the fury of the pit, who may be bent on its damnation. The greatest incongruity you can hit upon is, therefore, the most proper for this purpose. But I deny that the hero of a tragedy, or the principal character in it, is ever pitched upon to deliver the prologue. It is always, by prescription, some walking shadow, some poor player, who cannot even spoil a part of any consequence. Is there not Mr. Claremont always at hand for this purpose, whom the late king pronounced three times to be ‘a bad actor’?81 What is there in common between that accustomed wave of the hand and the cocked hat under the arm, and any passion or person that can be brought forward on the stage? It is not that we can be said to acquire a prejudice against so harmless an actor as Mr. Claremont: we are born with a prejudice against a speaker of prologues. It is an innate idea: a natural instinct: there is a particular organ in the brain provided for it. Do we not all hate a manager? It is not because he is insolent or impertinent, or fond of making ridiculous speeches, or a notorious puffer, or ignorant, or mean, or vain, but it is because we see him in a coat, waistcoat, and breeches. The stage is the world of fantasy: it is Queen Mab that has invited us to her revels there, and all that have to do with it should wear motley!

Lastly, there are some actors by profession whose faces we like to see in the boxes or anywhere else; but it is because they are no actors, but rather gentlemen and scholars, and in their proper places in the boxes, or wherever they are. Does not an actor himself, I would ask, feel conscious and awkward in the boxes if he thinks that he is known? And does he not sit there in spite of this uneasy feeling, and run the gauntlet of impertinent looks and whispers, only to get a little by-admiration, as he thinks? It is hardly to be supposed that he comes to see the play — the show. He must have enough of plays and finery. But he wants to see a favourite (perhaps a rival) actor in a striking part. Then the place for him to do this is the pit. Painters, I know, always get as close up to a picture they want to copy as they can; and I should imagine actors would want to do the same, in order to look into the texture and mechanism of their art. Even theatrical critics can make nothing of a part that they see from the boxes. If you sit in the stage-box, your attention is drawn off by the company and other circumstances. If you get to a distance (so as to be out of the reach of notice) you can neither hear nor see well. For myself, I would as soon take a seat on the top of the Monument to give an account of a first appearance, as go into the second or third tier of boxes to do it. I went, but the other day, with a box-ticket to see Miss Fanny Brunton come out in Juliet, and Mr. Macready make a first appearance in Romeo; and though I was told (by a tolerable judge) that the new Juliet was the most elegant figure on the stage, and that Mr. Macready’s Romeo was quite beautiful, I vow to God I knew nothing of it. So little could I tell of the matter that at one time I mistook Mr. Horrebow for Mr. Abbott. I have seen Mr. Kean play Sir Giles Overreach one night from the front of the pit, and a few nights after from the front boxes facing the stage. It was another thing altogether. That which had been so lately nothing but flesh and blood, a living fibre, ‘instinct with fire’ and spirit, was no better than a little fantoccini figure, darting backwards and forwards on the stage, starting, screaming, and playing a number of fantastic tricks before the audience. I could account, in the latter instance, for the little approbation of the performance manifested around me, and also for the general scepticism with respect to Mr. Kean’s acting, which has been said to prevail among those who cannot condescend to go into the pit, and have not interest in the orchestra — to see him act. They may, then, stay away altogether. His face is the running comment on his acting, which reconciles the audience to it. Without that index to his mind, you are not prepared for the vehemence and suddenness of his gestures; his pauses are long, abrupt, and unaccountable, if not filled up by the expression; it is in the working of his face that you see the writhing and coiling up of the passions before they make their serpent-spring; the lightning of his eye precedes the hoarse burst of thunder from his voice.

One may go into the boxes, indeed, and criticise acting and actors with Sterne’s stop-watch, but not otherwise —’“And between the nominative case and the verb (which, as your lordship knows, should agree together in number, person, etc.) there was a full pause of a second and two-thirds.”—“But was the eye silent — did the look say nothing?” “I looked only at the stop-watch, my lord.”—“Excellent critic!”’— If any other actor, indeed, goes to see Mr. Kean act, with a view to avoid imitation, this may be the place, or rather it is the way to run into it, for you see only his extravagances and defects, which are the most easily carried away. Mr. Mathews may translate him into an AT HOME even from the slips!— Distinguished actors, then, ought, I conceive, to set the example of going into the pit, were it only for their own sakes. I remember a trifling circumstance, which I worked up at the time into a confirmation of this theory of mine, engrafted on old prejudice and tradition.82 I had got into the middle of the pit, at considerable risk of broken bones, to see Mr. Kean in one of his early parts, when I perceived two young men seated a little behind me, with a certain space left round them. They were dressed in the height of the fashion, in light drab-coloured greatcoats, and with their shirt-sleeves drawn down over their hands, at a time when this was not so common as it has since become. I took them for younger sons of some old family at least. One of them, that was very good-looking, I thought might be Lord Byron, and his companion might be Mr. Hobhouse. They seemed to have wandered from another sphere of this our planet to witness a masterly performance to the utmost advantage. This stamped the thing. They were, undoubtedly, young men of rank and fashion; but their taste was greater than their regard for appearances. The pit was, after all, the true resort of thoroughbred critics and amateurs. When there was anything worth seeing, this was the place; and I began to feel a sort of reflected importance in the consciousness that I also was a critic. Nobody sat near them — it would have seemed like an intrusion. Not a syllable was uttered. — They were two clerks in the Victualling Office!

What I would insist on, then, is this — that for Mr. Kean, or Mr. Young, or Mr. Macready, or any of those that are ‘cried out upon in the top of the compass’ to obtrude themselves voluntarily or ostentatiously upon our notice, when they are out of character, is a solecism in theatricals. For them to thrust themselves forward before the scenes, is to drag us behind them against our will, than which nothing can be more fatal to a true passion for the stage, and which is a privilege that should be kept sacred for impertinent curiosity. Oh! while I live, let me not be admitted (under special favour) to an actor’s dressing-room. Let me not see how Cato painted, or how Caesar combed! Let me not meet the prompt-boys in the passage, nor see the half-lighted candles stuck against the bare walls, nor hear the creaking of machines, or the fiddlers laughing; nor see a Columbine practising a pirouette in sober sadness, nor Mr. Grimaldi’s face drop from mirth to sudden melancholy as he passes the side-scene, as if a shadow crossed it, nor witness the long-chinned generation of the pantomime sit twirling their thumbs, nor overlook the fellow who holds the candle for the moon in the scene between Lorenzo and Jessica! Spare me this insight into secrets I am not bound to know. The stage is not a mistress that we are sworn to undress. Why should we look behind the glass of fashion? Why should we prick the bubble that reflects the world, and turn it to a little soap and water? Trust a little to first appearances — leave something to fancy. I observe that the great puppets of the real stage, who themselves play a grand part, like to get into the boxes over the stage; where they see nothing from the proper point of view, but peep and pry into what is going on like a magpie looking into a marrow-bone. This is just like them. So they look down upon human life, of which they are ignorant. They see the exits and entrances of the players, something that they suspect is meant to be kept from them (for they think they are always liable to be imposed upon): the petty pageant of an hour ends with each scene long before the catastrophe, and the tragedy of life is turned to farce under their eyes. These people laugh loud at a pantomime, and are delighted with clowns and pantaloons. They pay no attention to anything else. The stage-boxes exist in contempt of the stage and common sense. The private boxes, on the contrary, should be reserved as the receptacle for the officers of state and great diplomatic characters, who wish to avoid, rather than court popular notice!

81 Mr. Munden and Mr. Claremont went one Sunday to Windsor to see the king. They passed with other spectators once or twice: at last, his late majesty distinguished Munden in the crowd and called him to him. After treating him with much cordial familiarity, the king said, ‘And, pray, who is that with you?’ Munden, with many congees, and contortions of face, replied, ‘An please your majesty, it’s Mr. Claremont of the Theatre Royal Drury Lane.’ ‘Oh! yes,’ said the king, ‘I know him well — a bad actor, a bad actor, a bad actor!’ Why kings should repeat what they say three times is odd: their saying it once is quite enough. I have always liked Mr. Claremont’s face since I heard this anecdote, and perhaps the telling it may have the same effect on other people.

82 The trunk-maker, I grant, in the Spectator’s time, sat in the two-shilling gallery. But that was in the Spectator’s time, and not in the days of Mr. Smirke and Mr. Wyatt.

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Last updated Tuesday, March 25, 2014 at 21:19