Elia and The Last Essays of Elia / Charles Lamb, by Charles Lamb

Ellistoniana

My acquaintance with the pleasant creature, whose loss we all deplore, was but slight.

My first introduction to E., which afterwards ripened into an acquaintance a little on this side of intimacy, was over a counter of the Leamington Spa Library, then newly entered upon by a branch of his family. E., whom nothing misbecame — to auspicate, I suppose, the filial concern, and set it a going with a lustre — was serving in person two damsels fair, who had come into the shop ostensibly to inquire for some new publication, but in reality to have a sight of the illustrious shopman, hoping some conference. With what an air did he reach down the volume, dispassionately giving his opinion upon the worth of the work in question, and launching out into a dissertation on its comparative merits with those of certain publications of a similar stamp, its rivals! his enchanted customers fairly hanging on his lips, subdued to their authoritative sentence. So have I seen a gentleman in comedy acting the shopman. So Lovelace sold his gloves in King Street. I admired the histrionic art, by which he contrived to carry clean away every notion of disgrace, from the occupation he had so generously submitted to; and from that hour I judged him, with no after repentance, to be a person, with whom it would be a felicity to be more acquainted.

To descant upon his merits as a Comedian would be superfluous. With his blended private and professional habits alone I have to do; that harmonious fusion of the manners of the player into those of every day life, which brought the stage boards into streets, and dining-parlours, and kept up the play when the play was ended. —“I like Wrench,” a friend was saying to him one day, “because he is the same natural, easy creature, on the stage, that he is off.” “My case exactly,” retorted Elliston — with a charming forgetfulness, that the converse of a proposition does not always lead to the same conclusion —“I am the same person off the stage that I am on.” The inference, at first sight, seems identical; but examine it a little, and it confesses only, that the one performer was never, and the other always, acting.

And in truth this was the charm of Elliston’s private deportment. You had a spirited performance always going on before your eyes, with nothing to pay. As where a monarch takes up his casual abode for a night, the poorest hovel which he honours by his sleeping in it, becomes ipso facto for that time a palace; so where-ever Elliston walked, sate, or stood still, there was the theatre. He carried about with him his pit, boxes, and galleries, and set up his portable playhouse at corners of streets, and in the market-places. Upon flintiest pavements he trod the boards still; and if his theme chanced to be passionate, the green baize carpet of tragedy spontaneously rose beneath his feet. Now this was hearty, and showed a love for his art. So Apelles always painted — in thought. So G.D. always poetises. I hate a lukewarm artist. I have known actors — and some of them of Elliston’s own stamp — who shall have agreeably been amusing you in the part of a rake or a coxcomb, through the two or three hours of their dramatic existence; but no sooner does the curtain fall with its leaden clatter, but a spirit of lead seems to seize on all their faculties. They emerge sour, morose persons, intolerable to their families, servants, &c. Another shall have been expanding your heart with generous deeds and sentiments, till it even beats with yearnings of universal sympathy; you absolutely long to go home, and do some good action. The play seems tedious, till you can get fairly out of the house, and realise your laudable intentions. At length the final bell rings, and this cordial representative of all that is amiable in human breasts steps forth — a miser. Elliston was more of a piece. Did he play Ranger? and did Ranger fill the general bosom of the town with satisfaction? why should he not be Ranger, and diffuse the same cordial satisfaction among his private circles? with his temperament, his animal spirits, his good-nature, his follies perchance, could he do better than identify himself with his impersonation? Are we to like a pleasant rake, or coxcomb, on the stage, and give ourselves airs of aversion for the identical character presented to us in actual life? or what would the performer have gained by divesting himself of the impersonation? Could the man Elliston have been essentially different from his part, even if he had avoided to reflect to us studiously, in private circles, the airy briskness, the forwardness, and ‘scape goat trickeries of his prototype?

“But there is something not natural in this everlasting acting; we want the real man.”

Are you quite sure that it is not the man himself, whom you cannot, or will not see, under some adventitious trappings, which, nevertheless, sit not at all inconsistently upon him? What if it is the nature of some men to be highly artificial? The fault is least reprehensible in players. Cibber was his own Foppington, with almost as much wit as Vanburgh could add to it.

“My conceit of his person,”— it is Ben Jonson speaking of Lord Bacon — “was never increased towards him by his place or honours. But I have, and do reverence him for the greatness, that was only proper to himself; in that he seemed to me ever one of the greatest men, that had been in many ages. In his adversity I ever prayed that heaven would give him strength; for greatness he could not want.”

The quality here commended was scarcely less conspicuous in the subject of these idle reminiscences, than in my Lord Verulam. Those who have imagined that an unexpected elevation to the direction of a great London Theatre, affected the consequence of Elliston, or at all changed his nature, knew not the essential greatness of the man whom they disparage. It was my fortune to encounter him near St. Dunstan’s Church (which, with its punctual giants, is now no more than dust and a shadow), on the morning of his election to that high office. Grasping my hand with a look of significance, he only uttered — “Have you heard the news?”— then with another look following up the blow, he subjoined, “I am the future Manager of Drury Lane Theatre.”— Breathless as he saw me, he stayed not for congratulation or reply, but mutely stalked away, leaving me to chew upon his new-blown dignities at leisure. In fact, nothing could be said to it. Expressive silence alone could muse his praise. This was in his great style.

But was he less great, (be witness, O ye Powers of Equanimity, that supported in the ruins of Carthage the consular exile, and more recently transmuted for a more illustrious exile the barren constableship of Elba into an image of Imperial France), when, in melancholy after-years, again, much near the same spot, I met him, when that sceptre had been wrested from his hand, and his dominion was curtailed to the petty managership, and part proprietorship, of the small Olympic, his Elba? He still played nightly upon the boards of Drury, but in parts alas! allotted to him, not magnificently distributed by him. Waiving his great loss as nothing, and magnificently sinking the sense of fallen material grandeur in the more liberal resentment of depreciations done to his more lofty intellectual pretensions, “Have you heard” (his customary exordium)—“have you heard,” said he, “how they treat me? they put me in comedy.” Thought I— but his finger on his lips forbade any verbal interruption —“where could they have put you better?” Then, after a pause —“Where I formerly played Romeo, I now play Mercutio,”— and so again he stalked away, neither staying, nor caring for, responses.

O, it was a rich scene — but Sir A—— C— — the best of story-tellers and surgeons, who mends a lame narrative almost as well as he sets a fracture, alone could do justice to it — that I was witness to, in the tarnished room (that had once been green) of that same little Olympic. There, after his deposition from Imperial Drury, he substituted a throne. That Olympic Hill was his “highest heaven;” himself “Jove in his chair.” There he sat in state, while before him, on complaint of prompter, was brought for judgment — how shall I describe her? — one of those little tawdry things that flirt at the tails of choruses — a probationer for the town, in either of its senses — the pertest little drab — a dirty fringe and appendage of the lamps’ smoke — who, it seems, on some disapprobation expressed by a “highly respectable” audience, had precipitately quitted her station on the boards, and withdrawn her small talents in disgust.

“And how dare you,” said her Manager — assuming a censorial severity which would have crushed the confidence of a Vestris, and disarmed that beautiful Rebel herself of her professional caprices — I verily believe, he thought her standing before him —“how dare you, Madam, withdraw yourself, without a notice, from your theatrical duties?” “I was hissed, Sir.” “And you have the presumption to decide upon the taste of the town?” “I don’t know that, Sir, but I will never stand to be hissed,” was the subjoinder of young Confidence — when gathering up his features into one significant mass of wonder, pity, and expostulatory indignation — in a lesson never to have been lost upon a creature less forward than she who stood before him — his words were these: “They have hissed me.”

’Twas the identical argument a fortiori, which the son of Peleus uses to Lycaon trembling under his lance, to persuade him to take his destiny with a good grace. “I too am mortal.” And it is to be believed that in both cases the rhetoric missed of its application, for want of a proper understanding with the faculties of the respective recipients.

“Quite an Opera pit,” he said to me, as he was courteously conducting me over the benches of his Surrey Theatre, the last retreat, and recess, of his every-day waning grandeur.

Those who knew Elliston, will know the manner in which he pronounced the latter sentence of the few words I am about to record. One proud day to me he took his roast mutton with us in the Temple, to which I had superadded a preliminary haddock. After a rather plentiful partaking of the meagre banquet, not unrefreshed with the humbler sort of liquors, I made a sort of apology for the humility of the fare, observing that for my own part I never ate but of one dish at dinner. “I too never eat but one thing at dinner”— was his reply — then after a pause —“reckoning fish as nothing.” The manner was all. It was as if by one peremptory sentence he had decreed the annihilation of all the savory esculents, which the pleasant and nutritious-food-giving Ocean pours forth upon poor humans from her watery bosom. This was greatness, tempered with considerate tenderness to the feelings of his scanty but welcoming entertainer.

Great wert thou in thy life, Robert William Elliston! and not lessened in thy death, if report speak truly, which says that thou didst direct that thy mortal remains should repose under no inscription but one of pure Latinity. Classical was thy bringing up! and beautiful was the feeling on thy last bed, which, connecting the man with the boy, took thee back in thy latest exercise of imagination, to the days when, undreaming of Theatres and Managerships, thou wert a scholar, and an early ripe one, under the roofs builded by the munificent and pious Colet. For thee the Pauline Muses weep. In elegies, that shall silence this crude prose, they shall celebrate thy praise.

http://ebooks.adelaide.edu.au/l/lamb/charles/elia/book2.6.html

Last updated Saturday, March 1, 2014 at 20:38