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Salvini's Othello by A. F.

It might have been supposed that whatever the fate of the stage among other races, it would always maintain its position as one of the great instruments of popular culture with the English-speaking nations, linked as it is inseparably with the immortal name of Shakespeare in his double capacity of author and actor, and possessing as it does in his works a body of dramatic literature supreme alike in all intellectual qualities and in fitness for scenic representation. Yet it is but the other day that we were reminded by the announcement of Macready's death of the long interval that had elapsed since the last of the English tragedians had dropped a sceptre which there was no one to take up; and now it is an actor of another race, speaking a different language, who presents himself to fill the vacant place, and to interpret for us anew creations which we study indeed more closely than ever in the printed page, but of which we had ceased to ask for any adequate palpable embodiment. Our impression, however, of a drama is and must be incomplete until we have seen it on the stage: it must be put in action before our eyes ere we can hope fully to understand it. The amount of thoughtful and learned criticism to which Shakespeare's plays have been subjected makes us forget at times that the ultimate test of their excellence is to be found on the boards, and that they were meant, above all things, to be acted.

Taking Othello as Salvini presents him to us, and merely in the light of a dramatic performance, having cast from out our minds the recollection of all that we have ever heard, read or thought about the character—more than this, forgetting our native English and knowing Shakespeare only through the libretto in our hands (of which, however, we must forbear to speak slightingly, for from it, we are told, Salvini himself has gained his knowledge of the part),—putting ourselves in this mental attitude, the performance may safely be said to defy criticism, or rather to be above it, except such criticism as accords with enthusiastic admiration. It is absolutely without a shortcoming, seen from this standpoint. His majestic bearing, his beautiful elocution, his pure voice, his graceful, expressive gestures, and above all his perfect freedom from affectation or self-consciousness, delight us throughout; and when to these qualities are added the marvelous vigor of expression and force of passion with which he shakes his audience from the middle of the play on, one feels as if there were nothing more to ask of acting. No description, in fact, can do justice to the perfect consistency and harmony of his conception, or to the marvelous delicacy of his points, which are yet as penetrating as they are subtle, and which never fail of their effect, whether rendered by a gesture whose power of expression seems to make words superfluous, as when in reply to Iago's hypocritically sympathetic "I see this has a little dashed your spirits," which is answered in the play by "Not a jot, not a jot," Salvini tries to speak, but chokes with the words, and lifting his hand with a motion of denial and deprecation, tells us what he would fain say, but cannot; or by an intonation of voice, as when in answer to Iago's "You would be satisfied?" he replies, marking the difference between conditional and imperative with a tone that would of itself betray him born to command—

Vorrei, che dico—io voglio

(Would?—Nay, I will).

And when in his desperate pain and fury, maddened by the poison working within, he drags Iago to the front of the stage, and holding him by the throat speaks Shakespeare's meaning, if not Shakespeare's words, thick and fast, as if he were not an actor, but Othello himself, and while his audience listen with bated breath and quick-beating hearts, he hurls him to the ground, and in the uncurbed fury of his mood raises his foot to spurn him like a dog,—then he rises far above ordinary dramatic effect: his art does "hold the mirror up to Nature." We feel that we have seen Othello.

Again, in the fourth act, when Iago brings home to him the realization of his wife's infidelity, what can be finer than the sharpening of his voice from stress of pain, changing from the full roundness of its usual masculine robustness to a high womanish key, as he asks the fatal questions, "Che disse? Che? Che fece?" What words could have said so much as the dumb show with which he signifies that terrible fact of which he can neither ask nor hear in words? And who can doubt when he hears that cry of agony that bursts from his lips at Iago's gross confirmation of his suggestion that it is the cry of a man stabbed to the heart? His suffering is as real to us as the agony of a lion would be if we stood by and saw some one drive a knife into the beast up to the hilt. It equals in reality any exhibition of simple unfeigned bodily pain, with all its intensity of violence. The word "rant" never once comes into our minds.

Salvini expresses everything. He demands nothing from his audience but eyes and ears; he acts the part in every detail; he does just what he aims to do. His motion is as unconscious and unfettered as that of a deer or a tiger: whether he paces with a stealthy, restless tread up and down the back of the stage, reminding us irresistibly of a caged wild beast, or whether he half crouches, then drags himself along, and then darts upon Iago in the last scene, it is always plain that his body is the servant of his mind: he moves in harmony with his mood.

Despite, therefore, the natural tendency to scrutinize closely the claims of a foreigner seeking to rule over our hearts as the vicegerent of Shakespeare's sovreignty, there has been, and happily can be, no question in regard to one essential point. That Salvini is a born actor, a great tragedian, none will be bold enough to dispute. In that rare combination of intellectual and physical qualities without which no particular gift would justify his pretensions—intensity of emotion, subtlety of perception, a power of impersonation implying of itself the union of all the natural requirements with a mastery in their display attainable only by consummate art—it is hard to believe that he can ever have been excelled; though doubtless the mingled fire and pathos of Kean transcended in their effect any like exhibition ever witnessed on the stage. Except for the few—if any still survive—who can remember the Othello of Kean, living recollection affords no opportunity for a judgment founded on comparison.

The only question therefore which it is possible to raise relates to Salvini's conception of the character—a question such as must always exist in the case of any representation of Shakespeare, with whose creations no actor can ever hope to identify himself, however he may modify our former impressions. Let it be remembered, too, that an actor's conception of a character must never be vague, undefined or shadowy, as that of a mere reader may well be, and probably will be in the exact degree in which he is a keen and appreciative student. The actor must not strive to suggest all possible solutions, but must hold firmly to one, and that the most dramatic; he must seize upon the salient points; his subtleties must not be too subtle for gesture, glance and tone to express; he must choose which meaning out of many meanings he shall enforce, which mood out of many moods he shall make predominate.

The exceptions which have been taken to Salvini's performance all rest upon the notion that he has misconceived the character. It is superb, we are told, but it is not Shakespeare. It is a representation not of Othello the Moor, but of a Moor named Othello. The idea that dominates throughout is that of race: the character loses its individuality and becomes a mere type, an embodiment of the tropical nature, an illustration of Byron's lines:

Africa is all the sun's,

And as her earth her human clay is kindled.

The unbridled passion, the revengeful fury, is that of a savage. The anguish and indignation of a noble spirit believing itself outraged and wronged are transformed into the blind rage and capricious fury of a wild beast.

This objection seems to us to spring from the state of mind often induced by long familiarity with a subject, in which the gain of minute knowledge is accompanied by a loss of the force and vividness of the first impression. People study Shakespeare as they study the Bible, softening whatever they find revolting until they have convinced themselves that it does not exist. Actors in general share in this sentiment or strive to gratify it. Othello's complexion is forgotten in the reading, and becomes in the representation such that the spectator feels no repugnance to his marriage with the fair Desdemona. Betrayed through the mere openness and generosity of his nature, he acts only as a sensitive and vehement nature would be compelled to act in so terrible a complication, and the emotions kindled by his demeanor and conduct are never those of horror and repulsion, but only of pity and admiration.

But, however noble and pathetic such a rendering may be, it consorts better with the ideas and demands of the present time than with those of the Elizabethan age. The dramatist who began by writing Titus Andronicus had at least no instinctive distaste to repulsive subjects, no fear of shocking his audience by an exhibition of untamed barbarity. Othello is "of a free and open nature," he is "great of heart," he is above doing wrong without provocation, real or supposed. But his nature admits no possibility of self-control, of reason in the midst of doubts, of patience under injury. His temperament betrays itself in physical exhibitions wild and portentous. "You are fatal then when your eyes roll so," is the suggestive cry of Desdemona. In his perplexity and fury he swoons and foams. He overhears an insult to Venice and slays the traducer. His language to the wife whom he still loves while believing himself dishonored by her is such that "a beggar, in his drink, could not have laid such terms upon his callet." He outrages her kinsman and a throng of attendants by striking her in their presence. Her protestations of innocence serve only to inflame him, and he cuts short her last pleadings with his murderous hand in a way which would have forced M. Dumas fils himself to cry out, "Ne tue la pas!"

How are this fury and this credulity, both equally insensate, to be explained, how are they to be reconciled with traits that compel sympathy and admiration, except as the workings of a nature essentially uncivilized? The object of a great drama is to exhibit men not as they appear in the ordinary affairs of life, but while subject to those fiery tests under which all that is foreign or acquired melts away, and the primal components of the character are revealed in their bareness and in their depths. Othello's race is the hinge on which the tragedy turns. It throws a fatality on that marriage which seems unnatural even to those who yet do not suspect that the discordancy lies deeper than in the complexion. It makes him the easy victim of a plot which would otherwise only have ensnared its concoctor. It sweeps away all impediments to the catastrophe, making it swift, inevitable and dire. And it is by seizing upon this central fact that Salvini has been enabled to render his performance artistically perfect. Were the conception radically false, there could not be the same unity in the execution, the same harmony in the details. We shall not assert that his is the ideal Othello, or that such an Othello is possible. Shakespeare's creations cannot be bounded by the limit of another idiosyncrasy. But we hold that, if he does not put into the character all that belongs to it, he puts nothing into it that does not belong to it. We may miss in the accents of his despair a pathos capable of assuaging our horror; but this latter emotion, equally legitimate, is commonly stifled altogether, leaving us more disposed to linger lovingly beside the dead than to shudder and exclaim with Ludovico, "The object poisons sight;—let it be hid."