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Mr. Sothern as Garrick by M. M.

1873

One hundred and thirty-five years ago two young men came up to London to try their fortune: half riding, half walking, the young fellows made their journey. One was thick-set, heavy and uncouth, and years afterward became known to men and fame as Samuel Johnson: the other was bright, slender, active, and was called David Garrick. Some ten years later, just before the battle of Culloden, a Dutch vessel, having crossed the Channel, landed at Harwich. There was on board an apparent page, in reality a young Viennese girl disguised in male attire, who journeyed up to London too, where she soon made her appearance as a dancer at the Hay-market Theatre: there she achieved great success, and became talked about as "La Violette." She was under the patronage of the earl and countess of Burlington, and finally became Mrs. Garrick. It is said that she was the daughter of a respectable citizen of Vienna—that she had been engaged to dance at the palace with the children of the empress Maria Teresa, but that, her charms proving too attractive to the emperor, the empress had packed her off to London with letters of recommendation to persons of quality there. It seems more probable, however, that she was am actress at Vienna, and simply crossed the sea to try her fortune in England. Becoming fascinated with Garrick's acting, she married him after refusing several more brilliant offers, and in spite of the opposition of her kind patroness, Lady Burlington, who wished her to marry so as to secure higher social position. This match gave rise to much romantic gossip. It was said that a wealthy young lady had fallen in love with the great actor one night in Romeo—that he had been induced by her father to come to the house and break the charm by feigning intoxication: some versions had it that he came disguised as a physician. A popular German comedy was written upon it, and still later Mr. Robertson dramatized it for the English stage, and produced a play in which we have lately had an opportunity of witnessing the fine acting of Mr. Sothern. Garrick was certainly fortunate among actors: he not only achieved high professional fame, but he accumulated a large private fortune and lived a happy domestic life in a splendid home filled with choice works of art. The traveler abroad who is favored with an invitation to the Garrick Club, may there see the picture of the great actor "in his habit as he lived," looking down nightly on a collection of the most renowned wits and authors of the metropolis; and to crown all, when Mr. Sothern acts—were it not for his moustache—we might suppose we saw the man himself alive before us.

Concerning Mr. Sothern's acting, it affords a fine example of that quality—so very difficult of attainment, it would seem—perfect repose; and by repose we do not mean torpidity or sluggishness or inattention, as opposed to clamorous ranting, but we mean the complete subordination of subordinate parts; so that, if we may use the illustration, the gaudiness of the frame is not allowed to over-power and destroy the effect of the picture. Everything is clear, distinct and well marked: the forcible passages come with double effect in contrast with preceding serenity. The actor's manner is not confined behind the footlights: it diffuses itself, as it were, among his audience until it seems as if they too were acting with him. This arises from the perfection of the picture he presents, and that perfection is the result of careful avoidance of everything that is unnatural. There is no unnecessary exertion put forth, no palpable straining after effect: he strives to hold the mirror up to Nature, not Art, and in Nature there is much repose between the tempests. Old players say that the most difficult thing to teach a tyro is to stand still, and some actors never learn it.

Careful attention to costume is another trait exhibited by Mr. Sothern. He might easily make his first appearance as David Garrick in the wealthy merchant's house in ordinary walking-dress, which could be readily retained when he returns to the dinner-party to which he causes himself to be invited. Instead of that, he appears in the full riding-dress of the period—boots, spurs, whip, overcoat and all. This is rapidly changed in time for the dinner-scene for a full-dress suit, complete in every point—powdered hair, white silk stockings, and a little brette, or walking rapier, peeping out from under the coat skirt, not slung in a belt as heavier swords, but supported by light steel chains fastened to a chatelaine, which slips behind the waistband and can be taken off in a moment. In the last scene, where he goes out to fight the duel, his dress is changed again, and dark silk stockings are donned as more appropriate.

The last point we shall mention here about Mr. Sothern is his scrupulous attention to the minor business of the stage: when he is not speaking himself, his looks act. It is said of Macready that he began to be Cardinal Richelieu at three o'clock in the afternoon, and that it was dangerous to speak to him after that time. When Mr. Sothern plays Lord Dundreary, if he is addressed on any subject during the progress of the play, he answers in his Dundreary drawl, so as not to lose his personality for a minute. The letter from his brother "Tham" he has written out and reads; not that he does not know every word by heart, for he must have read it a hundred times, but because he wants to turn over at the proper place. We all know what he has made of that part. A play in which there is absolutely nothing of a plot, which would fall dead from the hands of an inferior actor, becomes with Mr. Sothern as popular as Rip van Winkle is with Jefferson to play the sleepy hero. It is to be observed that the three essentials for good acting just mentioned—repose of manner, strict attention to dress, and strict attention to minor details of stage-business—may be acquired by any actor of average intellect who will devote proper time and study to the task: they are not, like a fine figure, a handsome face or a sonorous voice, adventitious gifts of Fortune which may be bestowed on one mortal and denied to another. Mr. Sothern owes his success, evidently, to long and careful preparation of his parts. In David Garrick he leaves but two points at which criticism can carp: his pathos somehow lacks sufficient tenderness, his love-making seems too devoid of passion. When young Garrick won the heart of La Violette, he put more fire into his speech and manner than Mr. Sothern exhibits at the close of the last act. He is represented as always loving Ida Ingot, but at first conceals and suppresses his love: when the avowal comes at last, it should be like the bursting forth of a volcano, hot, fiery and irresistible.