The Adventures of Peregrine Pickle, by Tobias Smollett

Chapter LI.

Pickle engages with a Knight of Malta, in a Conversation upon the English Stage, which is followed by a Dissertation on the Theatres of the Ancients, by the Doctor.

The rest of the company proceeded to the arsenal, which having viewed, together with some remarkable churches, they, in their return, went to the comedy, and saw the Cid of Corneille tolerably well represented. In consequence of this entertainment, the discourse at supper turned upon dramatic performances; and all the objections of Monsieur Scudery to the piece they had seen acted, together with the decision of the French Academy, were canvassed and discussed. The knight was a man of letters and taste, and particularly well acquainted with the state of the English stage; so that when the painter boldly pronounced sentence against the French manner of acting, on the strength of having frequented a Covent Garden club of critics, and been often admitted, by virtue of an order, into the pit; a comparison immediately ensued, not between the authors, but the actors of both nations, to whom the chevalier and Peregrine were no strangers. Our hero, like a good Englishman, made no scruple of giving the preference to the performers of his own country, who, he alleged, obeyed the genuine impulses of nature, in exhibiting the passions of the human mind; and entered so warmly into the spirit of their several parts, that they often fancied themselves the very heroes they represented; whereas, the action of the Parisian players, even in their most interesting characters, was generally such an extravagance in voice and gesture, as is nowhere to be observed but on the stage. To illustrate this assertion, he availed himself of his talent, and mimicked the manner and voice of all the principal performers, male and female, belonging to the French comedy, to the admiration of the chevalier, who, having complimented him upon this surprising modulation, begged leave to dissent in some particulars from the opinion he had avowed.

“That you have good actors in England,” said he, “it would be unjust and absurd in me to deny; your theatre is adorned by one woman, whose sensibility and sweetness of voice is such as I have never observed on any other stage; she has besides, an elegance of person and expression of features, that wonderfully adapt her for the most engaging characters of your best plays; and I must freely own that I have been as highly delighted and as deeply affected by a Monimia and Belvidera at London, as ever I was by Cornelia and Cleopatra at Paris. Your favourite actor is a surprising genius. You can, moreover, boast of several comic actors who are perfect masters of buffoonery and grimace; though, to be free with you, I think in these qualifications you are excelled by the players of Amsterdam. Yet one of your graciosos I cannot admire, in all the characters he assumes. His utterance is a continual sing-song, like the chanting of vespers; and his action resembles that of heaving ballast into the hold of a ship. In his outward deportment he seems to have confounded the ideas of insolence and the dignity of mien; acts the crafty cool, designing Crookback, as a loud, shallow, blustering Hector; in the character of the mild patriot Brutus, loses all temper and decorum; nay, so ridiculous is the behaviour of him and Cassius at their interview, that, setting foot to foot, and grinning at each other, with the aspect of two cobblers engaged, they thrust their left sides together, with repeated shoots, that the hilts of their swords may clash for the entertainment of the audience; as if they were a couple of merry andrews, endeavouring to raise the laugh of the vulgar, on some scaffold of Bartholomew Fair. The despair of a great man, who falls a victim to the infernal practices of a subtle traitor who enjoyed his confidence, this English Aesopus represents, by beating his own forehead, and beating like a bull; and, indeed, in almost all his most interesting scenes, performs such strange shakings of the head, and other antic gesticulations, that when I first saw him act, I imagined the poor man laboured under the paralytical disorder, which is known by the name of St. Vitus’s dance. In short, he seems to be a stranger to the more refined sensations of the soul, consequently his expression is of the vulgar kind, and he must often sink under the idea of the poet; so that he has recourse to such violence of affected agitation, as imposes upon the undiscerning spectator; but to the eye of taste, evinces him a mere player of that class whom your admired Shakespeare justly compares to Nature’s journeyman tearing a passion to rags. Yet this man, in spite of all these absurdities, is an admirable Falstaff, exhibits the character of the eighth Henry to the life, is reasonably applauded in the Plain Dealer, excels in the part of Sir John Brute, and would be equal to many humorous situations in low comedy, which his pride will not allow him to undertake. I should not have been so severe upon this actor, had I not seen him extolled by his partisans with the most ridiculous and fulsome manifestations of praise, even in those very circumstances wherein (as I have observed) he chiefly failed.”

Peregrine, not a little piqued to hear the qualifications of such a celebrated actor in England treated with such freedom and disrespect, answered, with some asperity, that the chevalier was a true critic, more industrious in observing the blemishes than in acknowledging the excellence of those who fell under his examination.

It was not to be supposed that one actor could shine equally in all characters; and though his observations were undoubtedly very judicious, he himself could not help wondering that some of them had always escaped his notice, though he had been an assiduous frequenter of the playhouse. “The player in question,” said he, “has, in your own opinion, considerable share of merit in the characters of comic life; and as to the manners of the great personages in tragedy, and the operation of the grand passions of the soul, I apprehend they may be variously represented, according to the various complexion and cultivation of different men, A Spaniard, for example, though impelled by the same passion, will express it very differently from a Frenchman; and what is looked upon as graceful vivacity and address by the one, would be considered as impertinence and foppery by the other; nay, so opposite is your common deportment from that of some other nations, that one of our own countrymen, in the relation of his travels, observes, that the Persians even of this age, when they see any man perform unnecessary gestures, says he is either a fool or Frenchman. The standard of demeanour being thus unsettled, a Turk, a Moor, an Indian, or inhabitant of my country whose customs and dress are widely different from ours, may, in his sentiments, possess all the dignity of the human heart, and be inspired by the noblest passion that animates the soul, and yet excite the laughter rather than the respect of an European spectator.

“When I first beheld your famous Parisian stage heroine in one of her principal parts, her attitudes seemed so violent, and she tossed her arms around with such extravagance, that she put me in mind of a windmill under the agitation of a hard gale; while her voice and features exhibited the lively representation of an English scold. The action of your favourite male performer was, in my opinion, equally unnatural: he appeared with the affected airs of a dancing-master; at the most pathetic junctures of his fate he lifted up his hands above his head, like a tumbler going to vault, and spoke as if his throat had been obstructed by a hair-brush: yet, when I compared their manners with those of the people before whom they performed, and made allowance for that exaggeration which obtains on all theatres, I was insensibly reconciled to their method of performance, and I could distinguish abundance of merit beneath that oddity of appearance.”

The chevalier, perceiving Peregrine a little irritated at what he had said, asked pardon for the liberty he had taken in censuring the English players; assuring him that he had an infinite veneration for the British learning, genius, and taste, which were so justly distinguished in the world of letters; and that, notwithstanding the severity of his criticism, he thought the theatre of London much better supplied with actors than that of Paris. The young gentleman thanked him for his polite condescension, at which Pallet excited, saying, with a shake of the head, “I believe so, too, Monsieur;” and the physician, impatient of the dispute in which he had borne no share, observed, with a supercilious air, that the modern stage was altogether beneath one who had an idea of ancient magnificence and execution; that plays ought to be exhibited at the expense of the state, as those of Sophocles were by the Athenians; and that proper judges should be appointed for receiving or rejecting all such performances as are offered to the public.

He then described the theatre at Rome, which contained eighty thousand spectators; gave them a learned disquisition into the nature of the persona, or mask, worn by the Roman actors, which, he said, was a machine that covered the whole head, furnished on the inside with a brazen concavity, that, by reverberating, the sound, as it issued from the mouth, raised the voice, so as to render it audible to such an extended audience. He explained the difference between the saltator and declamator, one of whom acted, while the other rehearsed the part; and from thence took occasion to mention the perfection of their pantomimes, who were so amazingly distinct in the exercise of their art, that a certain prince of Pontus, being at the court of Nero, and seeing one of them represent a story, begged him of the emperor, in order to employ him as an interpreter among barbarous nations, whose language he did not understand. Nay, divers cynic philosophers, who had condemned this entertainment unseen, when they chanced to be eye-witnesses of their admirable dexterity, expressed their sorrow for having so long debarred themselves of such national enjoyment.

He dissented, however, from the opinion of Peregrine, who, as a proof of their excellence, had advanced that some of the English actors fancied themselves the very thing they represented; and recounted a story from Lucian, of a certain celebrated pantomime, who, in, acting the part of Ajax in his frenzy, was transported into a real fit of delirium, during which he tore to pieces the clothes of that actor who stalked before him, beating the stage with iron shoes, in order to increase the noise; snatched an instrument from one of the musicians, and broke it over the head of him who represented Ulysses; and, running to the consular bench, mistook a couple of senators for the sheep which were to be slain. The audience applauded him to the skies: but so conscious was the mimic of his own extravagance when he recovered the use of his reason, that he actually fell sick with mortification; and being afterwards desired to re-act the piece, flatly refused to appear in any such character, saying that the shortest follies were the best, and that it was sufficient for him to have been a madman once in his life.

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