A Dinner with
Rossi by L. H. H.
"Come and dine with us next Thursday," said an American
literary lady now residing in Paris to a friend or two
recently. "We expect Rossi on that day, and I think you would
like to meet him."
The company was but a small one, the intention of the
hostess being not to show off her distinguished guest, but to
bring together a few congenial spirits to pass a pleasant hour
in his society. Punctual to the minute, the hero of the
occasion entered, his superb physique and majestic presence
showing to even greater advantage in the irreproachable evening
garb of a finished gentleman than in the velvet and tinsel of
his stage attire. As is the case with almost all really
handsome actors or actresses, Rossi is finer-looking off the
stage than on it. The simplicity and refinement of his manners,
totally free from anything like affectation or posing for
effect, are very noticeable. His head is noble, both in form
and carriage, and he has a way, when eager in conversation, of
pushing back the masses of his profuse chestnut hair which
gives a sort of leonine look to the broad massive brow and
Once seated at table, the conversation naturally turned upon
the dramatic art and upon Shakespeare. Every person present
except the king of the feast was an American, and a Shakespeare
fanatic as well. Rather to the surprise of even his most ardent
admirers, the great tragedian proved to be a keen and
intelligent Shakespearian scholar, not only of the roles that
he has made his own, but also of the whole of the works of the
world's greatest dramatist.
"I date my love for Shakespeare," said Rossi, "from the time
that I was a little child. My grandfather possessed a set of
his plays translated into Italian, and whenever I was restless
and unable to go to sleep he would take me into his arms and
lull me to rest with tales from these treasured volumes.
"It was I who first introduced Shakespeare in his veritable
form on the Italian stage. Up to that time the classic form had
been alone considered admissible for tragedy. The
first play that I produced was Othello. When in the
first scene Brabantio came to the window, the audience began
to laugh. 'Is this a tragedy?' they cried—'a man
talking out of a window!' They laughed all through the first
acts. But," continued Rossi, looking round with a sudden
flash from his expressive eyes, "when the scene with Iago
came they ceased to laugh; and henceforward they laughed no
more. At the present time Shakespeare is thoroughly
appreciated in Italy. Our audiences would not endure the
altered and garbled versions of the French stage.
Rouvière once undertook to play in Italy the version
of Hamlet constructed by the elder Dumas and M.
V——. When, in the last act, the Ghost appeared
to tell Hamlet Tu vivras, the audience rose en
masse and fairly shouted and jeered the performers off
the stage. It is in Germany, however, that Shakespeare is
best known and understood. The very bootblacks in the street
know all about him and his greatest works."
The fact now came out that Rossi is an accomplished
linguist. He reads and understands both English and German,
though he speaks neither language. French he speaks as fluently
as he does Italian, and he is also versed in Spanish. He spoke
rapturously of the German Shakespeare (Schlegel's
translation), declaring that he considered it nearly equal to
"Next to Shakespeare, but at a great distance below him, I
would rank Moliere," said Rossi in answer to a query from one
of the guests. "Moliere has given us real types of character
and real humor. But he was the man of his epoch, not for all
time. He has painted for us the men and manners of his day and
generation: he did not take all humanity for a study.
Therefore, his works appear old-fashioned on the modern stage,
while those of Shakespeare will never seem faded or out of
"What a wonder, what a marvel was Shakespeare! He was an
Englishman born and bred, yet he turns to Italy and paints for
us a picture of Italian life and love such as no Italian hand
has ever drawn. His heart throbs, his imagination glows, with
all the fire and fervor of the South. He depicts for us a Moor,
an African, and the sun of Africa scorches his brain and
inflames his passions."
"And Hamlet," I remarked, "is thoroughly of the
North—a German even, rather than Englishman."
"To me," answered Rossi, "Hamlet represents no nationality
and no one type of character. He is the image of humanity.
Hamlet is to me not a man, but Man. The sufferings, the doubts,
the vague mysteries of life are incarnate in his person. He is
ever checked by the Unknown. He is tortured by the phantasm of
Doubt. Is the spectre indeed his father's shade? has it spoken
truth? is it well to live? is it best to die?—such are
the problems that perplex his brain."
"To be or not to be—that is the question; but it is
only one of the questions that haunt his soul."
"A distinguished English actor who had come to Paris to see
me act once asked me why, in the first scene with the Ghost, I
betray no terror, while in the scene with the Queen I crouch in
affright behind a chair, wild with alarm, the moment the
phantom appears. I answered that in the first scene the Ghost
comes before Hamlet as the image of a beloved and lamented
parent, while in the second-named instance he appears as an
embodiment of conscience. For Hamlet has disobeyed the mandate
of the spectre: he has dared to threaten and upbraid his
"The reason why the Ghost is visible to Marcellus, Bernardo
and Horatio In the first act, and not to the Queen in the
third, has always appeared to me very simple. The phantom
appears only to those who loved and mourned the dead king. Not
to his false wife, not to her who, if not cognizant of his
murder, is yet wedded to his murderer, will the pale Shape
"Hamlet, above all tragedies, is independent of the
accessories of scenery and costume. With a slight change of
surroundings the character might be performed in modern dress
without injury to its marvelous
Rossi was much surprised when he learned that most of the
stage-business in Hamlet which he had studied out for
himself formed part and parcel of the traditions of the play on
the American and English boards. Among the points that he
specified as having been thus thought out was the reference to
the two miniatures in the scene with the Queen—
Look here, upon this picture, and on this;
and he strongly deprecated the idea of two life-sized
portraits hanging against the wall, as is sometimes the
Mention was made of Bulwer's Richelieu by one of the
guests as a part peculiarly fitted to the powers of the great
tragedian, and he was asked if he knew the play.
"No," answered Rossi, "and I should scarcely care to add it
to my repertoire, which is already rather an extensive one. I
have personated in my time over four hundred characters,
including all the prominent personages of Alfieri,
Molière and Goldoni."
"Then you play comedy as well as tragedy? Have you ever
appeared as Shakespeare's Benedick?"
"Never, but I may perhaps study the character for my
approaching tour in the United States. My other Shakespearian
characters, besides those in which I have already appeared in
Paris, are Coriolanus, Shylock, and Timon of Athens. Once I
began to study Richard III., but chancing to see Bogumil
Dawison in that character, I was so delighted with his
personation that I gave up all thoughts of performing the part
At this juncture our host attempted to fill Rossi's glass
with some peculiarly choice wine, but the tragedian stopped him
with a smile. "I am very temperate in my habits," he said, "and
drink nothing but light claret. I am not one of those that
think that an actor can never play with proper fire unless he
is half drunk, like Kean in Désordre et Genie. I
may have very little genius—"
But here a universal outcry interrupted the speaker. That
proposition was evidently wholly untenable, in that company at
"Well, then," added Rossi laughing, "whatever genius I may
possess, I do not believe in disorder."
This little incident turned the conversation on the modern
French drama, whereof Rossi spoke rather slightingly,
stigmatizing it as mechanical, being composed of plays written
to be performed and not to live. "In Victor Hugo's dramas," he
remarked, "there are some fine lines and noble passages, but
the characters are always Victor Hugo in a mask: they are never
real personages. It is always the author who speaks—never
a new individuality. As to the classic dramatists of France,
they are intolerable. Corneille is perhaps a shade better than
Racine, but both are stiff, pompous and unnatural: their
characters are a set of wooden puppets that are pulled by wires
and work in a certain fixed manner, from which they never
"It was Voltaire that taught the French to despise
Shakespeare. He called him a barbarian, and the French believe
that saying true to the present time. Yet he did not hesitate
to steal Othello when he wanted to write
Zaïre, or, rather, he went out on the boulevards,
picked out the first good-looking barber he could find, dressed
him up in Eastern garments, and then fancied that he had
created a French Othello."
"I saw Mounet-Sully at one of the performances of your
Othello" I remarked. "I wonder what he thought of his
own personation of Orosmane when he witnessed the real
"Had Mounet-Sully been able to appreciate Othello"
answered Rossi, "he never could have brought himself to
Some one then asked Rossi what he thought of the
"The Comédie Française," said Rossi, "like
every school of acting that is founded on art, and not on
Nature, is falling into decadence. It is ruled by tradition,
not by the realities of life and passion. One incident that I
beheld at a rehearsal at that theatre in 1855 revealed the
usual process by which their great performers study their art.
I was then fulfilling an engagement in Paris with
Ristori, and, though only twenty-two years of age, I was her
leading man and stage-manager as well. The Italian troupe
was requested to perform at the Comédie
Française on the occasion of the benefit of which I
have spoken, and we were to give one act of Maria
Stuart, When we arrived at the theatre to commence our
rehearsal the company was in the act of rehearsing a scene
from Tartuffe which was to form part of the programme
on the same occasion. M. Bressant was the Tartuffe, and
Madeleine Brohan was to personate Elmire. They came to the
point where Tartuffe lays his hand on the knee of Elmire.
Thereupon, Mademoiselle Brohan turned to the stage-manager
and asked, 'What am I to do now?' 'Well,' said that
functionary, 'Madame X—— used to bite her lips
and look sideways at the offending hand; Madame
Z—— used to blush and frown, etc.' But neither
of them said, What would a woman like Elmire—a
virtuous woman—do if so insulted by a sneaking
hypocrite? They took counsel of tradition, not of Nature. In
fact, the French stage is given over to sensation dramas and
the opéra bouffe, and such theatres as the
Comédie Française and the Odéon have
but a forced and artificial existence."
"Not a word against the opéra bouffe!" remarked one
of the lady-guests, laughing. "Did I not see you enjoying
yourself immensely at the second representation of La
Boulangère a des Écus?"
Whereupon Rossi assumed an air of conscious guilt most
comical to see.
Some one then asked him at what age and in what character he
had made his début. His reply was: "I was just fourteen,
and I played the soubrette characters in an amateur
company—a line that I could hardly assume with any degree
of vraisemblance now." And he put his head on one side, thrust
his hands into a pair of imaginary apron-pockets and looked
around with a pert, chambermaid-like air so absurdly unsuited
to his noble features and intellectual brow—to say
nothing of his stalwart physique—that all present
shrieked with laughter.
The evening was now drawing to a close, and the guests began
to take their departure. When Rossi came to say farewell his
hostess asked him if he would do her the favor of writing his
autograph in her copy of Shakespeare. He assented at once, and
taking up the pen, he wrote in Italian these lines: "O Master!
would that I could comprehend thee even as I love thee!" and
then appended his name.
A peculiar brightness and geniality of temperament, a
childlike simplicity of manner, united to a keen and cultivated
intellect and to a thorough knowledge of social
conventionalities,—such was the impression left by Signor
Rossi on the minds of those present. There was a total absence
of conceit or of self-assertion that was very remarkable in a
member of his profession, and one, too, of such wide-spread
celebrity. The general verdict of Europe is that he is as great
an actor as Salvini, while his répertoire is far more
important and varied: it remains to be seen whether the United
States will endorse the verdict of Italy and of Paris.