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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 intelligent features.

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 the original.

"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 date."

"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 mother.

"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 appear.

"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 individuality."

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 usage.

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 myself."

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 least.

"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 deviate.

"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 tragedy?"

"Had Mounet-Sully been able to appreciate Othello" answered Rossi, "he never could have brought himself to personate Orosmane."

Some one then asked Rossi what he thought of the Comédie Frarçaise.

"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.