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Miss Neilson by M. M.

 

The story of La Giulietta was told, in the beginning of the sixteenth century, by Luigi da Porto, a gentleman of Vicenza who had served in the army, and to whom it was narrated by one of his archers to beguile a solitary night-march. After passing through various translations the story was taken by Shakespeare as the groundwork of his wonderful tragedy, Romeo and Juliet, one of his earliest plays, and one of the most varied in passion and sentiment. Schlegel says of it: "It shines with the colors of the dawn of morning, but a dawn whose purple clouds already announce the thunder of a sultry day."

The stormy acting of the elder Kean in Richard III.—that epitome of ambition and bloodshed—was said to produce the effect of reading Shakespeare by flashes of lightning: in Romeo and Juliet the first two acts are illumined only by the soft moonlight of love, and we are not startled by the lightning of tragedy until it gleams upon the bloody blade of Tybalt in the beginning of the third act: then Love and Death join hands, and move for a time with equal step across the stage. Finally come the poisoning and self-slaughters, and in the representation the curtain falls upon a corse-strewn graveyard, where Death reigns alone. Sad contrast to the lighted ball-room where the lovers first looked into each other's eyes—to the fair garden that lay at midnight "all Danaë to the stars"—to the moon-silvered balcony from which Juliet leaned in her loveliness as she exchanged with Romeo her earliest vows!

Beneath Italian skies girls spring with sudden leap to womanhood, and the seed of the tender passion hardly drops into the heart before it buds and blooms, a perfect flower. Though the actual lapse of time represented in the play occupies only a few days, Juliet in that brief period must assume several distinct characters. We see her first the coy, heart-whole maiden, the cherished heiress of a patrician house: soon the blind bow-boy launches his shaft, and, quick as thought, she is passionately, impulsively, enduringly in love; then we see her but a few hours a bride, with black sorrow creeping already to darken her happiness; her kinsman is slain, Romeo banished, and the coy maiden is changed at once to the devoted wife, capable of any sacrifice that will enable her to rejoin her husband, then follow the fearful drinking of the philter, the miscarriage of the Friar's scheme, and the death of the lovers, who seek in the grave that union denied them on earth. What varied qualities and acts are clustered here!—simplicity, love, hope, fear, courage, despair, suicide. In the whole range of Shakespeare's female characters there is none so difficult to portray—none requiring such a combination of beauty and talent; and we need not marvel that the part of Juliet is rarely attempted, and still more rarely with success.

That Miss Neilson was successful during her recent short engagement at the Walnut Street Theatre may be inferred, not alone from the great audiences that thronged the theatre night after night—for people will often throng to see a very unworthy performance—but from the intellectual character of those audiences, and the manifest pleasure they derived from seeing the fair English actress.

In every criticism it should be borne in mind that she played under great disadvantage. She was unfortunately, with some few exceptions, very badly supported. It seems ungracious, therefore, to search for any flaw in the performance of such an admirable actress, who has left behind her so many charming memories; yet it must be admitted that her acting is not always as faultless as her face. In her Juliet there are striking inequalities perceptible: sometimes she seems to have just grasped perfection, then again she makes one wonder that she does no better. In portraying love-scenes she is unsurpassed: she is graceful and beautiful, has studied her parts thoroughly, has a sweet, penetrating voice, and seems herself to feel the sentiments she would convey to others. Her enunciation is remarkably distinct, and she has the power of mingling more or less pathos with the tones to express sorrow in greater or less degree: in one scene, where she thinks that Romeo has been murdered, her cheeks are wet with actual tears. At the close of the ball, when she learns that the fascinating young pilgrim is a Montague, the hereditary enemy of her house, she gives her first touch of pathos to the words—

My only love sprung from my only hate!
Too early seen unknown, and known too late!

But it is a pathos entirely different from that which later tinges her sad good-night to her mother and nurse when she has determined to counterfeit death:

Farewell!—God knows when we shall meet again.

Miss Neilson also possesses, in an eminent degree, the power to portray that sly humor without malice known as archness. In the earlier phases of Juliet's career, and throughout the whole impersonation of Rosalind in As You Like It, this accomplishment stands the actress in good stead: she undoubtedly owes to it much of her power to charm. It strikes one when she first comes on the stage as Juliet and gently checks the garrulous old Nurse, taking up the thread of the discourse—

And stint thou too, I pray thee, nurse, say I

again, in her witty word-fencing with the mock palmer at the ball—

For saints have hands that pilgrims' hands do touch,
And palm to palm is holy palmers' kiss;

so too in the garden-scene, when she half rebukes herself, and all encourages her lover—

O gentle Romeo,
If thou dost love, pronounce it faithfully;
Or if thou think'st I am too quickly won,
I'll frown, and be perverse, and say thee nay,
So thou wilt woo; but else, not for the world.

And she shows it wonderfully in her coaxing, half-pettish behavior to the provoking old woman—talkative and reticent by fits and starts, now whining and now laughing—who has been to seek out Romeo, and brought back news of him. In As You Like It, Rosalind's bright humor ripples and laughs like a silver brook through the glades of Ardennes, and trickles gently even into the epilogue: in this lively comedy—so much lighter and easier than the heavy tragedy we are discussing too—love and despair never come to overlay and destroy the arch humor. If there be any defect in the performance of the banished princess, it must still remain, like Orlando's verses, tacked to some tree in the forest, but, unlike those verses, still unseen.

To return to the tragedy—for in the discussion of two plays in which the same faculties are exhibited by the same actress it is most convenient to pass at times from one play to the other—who that has seen Miss Neilson tread the stately minuet de la cour at the ball given in the palace of the Capulets will deny her the possession of marvelous grace? The long floating robe and abundant train, the high-heeled, pointed shoe of the period, instead of embarrassing her, seem but to give additional opportunity for displaying elegance of pose and gesture. In the garden-scene, when nightingales are whist, bright moonlight falls upon the balcony, and lights up the face of Juliet who leans there, certainly the fairest flower in that scenic paradise. As yet the course of love runs smooth for her: she does not dream of the dreadful gulf down which she is about to plunge, and her happy tones fall musically upon the air, "smoothing the raven down of darkness till it smiles." This happiness continues till her speedy and clandestine marriage. Soon after the Nurse comes home, and by her incoherent mutterings leads Juliet to suppose that Romeo is slain: then we have the first display of grief, but it is a grief so sudden and so violent that the blow stuns and almost silences the young wife. She is roused from this by learning at last that it is Tybalt who is dead, and that Romeo is exiled; which last causes her far greater grief than the loss of her cousin. Her sorrow, however, is at once displaced by rage when the Nurse speaks against her husband—

Shame come to Romeo!—
Blistered be thy tongue,
For such a wish! he was not born to shame.

The sorrow and anger here are well enacted, being neither overdone nor forced. It is here at least shown that Miss Neilson can, when she pleases, express great passions with that suppressed vehemence which carries the cultivated spectator away far more than violence of voice and gesture. Such suppression, with a view to producing greater effect by leaving much to the excited imagination of the beholder, is not practiced only by the tactful histrionic artist—it pervades all art. To take a single brief example: the greatest sculptors, knowing that the chisel could produce form, not color, have shrunk from indicating the pupil of the eye in their statues, and left the eyeball smooth, because the imagination was more pleased with entire absence of the organ than with its imperfect representation. So with ultra-clamorous passion and wild melodramatic action on the stage: both are better omitted than expressed. These remarks are made here in connection with Miss Neilson's first fair displays of passionate sorrow and sorrowful passion: presently they may be applied again, less favorably, to her Juliet. In her Rosalind, however—to refer to As You Like It once more—she gives another fine example of the power of suppressed, suggestive action accompanying the expression of hot wrath. When the tyrant duke informs her that she is banished from his court, she kneels before him in supplication and begs to know the reason of his harsh decree. But the instant he intimates that her father is a traitor, and she another as his daughter, she springs to her feet, and in an attitude of intense defiance, but without a motion of her folded arms, flings back her scornful retort:

So was I when your highness took his dukedom;
So was I when your highness banished him:
Treason is not inherited, my lord;
Or, if we did derive it from our friends,
What's that to me? my father was no traitor.

Here again is a display of power without distortion or over-acting, such as must give the actress fair title to celebrity.

Let us return now to Juliet and her approaching doom. There is a sad scene in her chamber at early daybreak, for banished Romeo must leave her and haste to Mantua, lest sunrise betray him still lingering in Verona. Juliet at first lovingly detains him, then fearfully urges him to fly; then as he descends from the balcony would fain recall him, and sinks in a swoon when she finds he is really gone. The parents come in and announce their determination that she must marry Paris forthwith: finding her unwilling to comply, they leave her with fierce threats in case she continue disobedient, and even the time-serving, timid old Nurse, though aware of her marriage with Romeo, urges her to comply with their wishes. Thus left entirely to herself, Juliet determines to die rather than prove false to her husband. She hastens to the Friar who married them, and he gives her the philter, which she accepts joyfully and carries home in her bosom. Up to this point her acting is good, because it is natural. Love, grief, stern determination are here successively and skillfully developed by Miss Neilson. But in the next act, just before she drinks the philter alone in her chamber, she oversteps the modesty of nature. In her attempt to express extreme terror at the fearful visions that her excited imagination conjures up, she loses herself in a wild whirlwind of vociferation, accompanied by frantic looks and gestures. All the loud artillery of old melodrama seems at once to be unlimbered and brought into action, with so much noise and smoke that one can neither hear the signals of the bugle nor see the manœuvring of the guns. Of course, even to this part a superior actress like Miss Neilson can impart a certain dignity and interest which would be lacking in an inferior performer. She strikes a certain horror to the spectator by the very hideousness of her terror displayed. It is natural that a young girl about to be laid out alive in a tomb should be tormented with fearful imaginings; but then that young girl cherishes an all-pervading love for a living husband, whom she hopes to rejoin by means of her entombment: she expects that the gates of the mausoleum will open to admit her to life, not death, and she is urged by fear of a hateful second marriage; therefore it is unlikely—no matter what gloomy, blood-stained phantoms she may see—that she should shriek out her fears with such appalling clamor as would arouse any well-organized household, and thus defeat her prospects of success. As Miss Neilson has shown in former instances, a less violent announcement of her feelings would be far more forcible and far more natural. Besides, the actress has not yet reached the time when she wishes to depict her greatest misery: that climax is reached when she wakes in the vault and finds not only Tybalt "festering in his shroud," but her Romeo, her husband, a bloody corpse at her feet. If ever the ungovernable shriek of dying despair be allowable on the stage, it must be at such a time, when Juliet falls upon the still warm body. Even the effect of such a wild performance at the very climax and end of a tragedy may be questioned; but there can be little doubt that the great violence exerted before in describing her horrible suspicions merely, deprives the actress of power to throw increased stress into her performance as the play moves to its close, and she is confronted with a far more horrible reality.

As though she feels that her power of melodramatic declamation has been weakened, Miss Neilson in the graveyard seems to rely more on melodramatic action. And it is very melodramatic. She rises from Romeo's body, where she has flung herself, where it would be natural she should remain to kill herself, and standing at some distance from the corpse, stabs herself openly with a stage dagger, then falling, drags herself slowly, accompanied by soft music, back to the body, and there at last expires. How much more effective would this part become if more were left to the beholder's imagination! Great artists generally avoid open stabbing on the stage, as it almost invariably produces the impression of trickery. We may see the gleaming blade and the arm descending to strike the blow, but it is best not to see the weapon pretending to enter the victim's body; and this can always be avoided by proper management. When Ristori as Medea murdered her children at the base of Saturn's statue, the other actors grouped around and screened the act from the view of the audience: when the crowd opened again, the bodies were discovered lying on the steps of the pedestal. The death of Juliet, instead of bringing tears to all eyes, as Miss Neilson undoubtedly could make it do, is thus rendered ineffective by over-acting; and when she drags herself six or eight feet along the stage, prostrate and stabbed,

Oh, 'tis dreadful there to see
A lady so richly clad as she,
Beautiful, exceedingly!

On the last evening of her engagement Miss Neilson appeared in the Lady of Lyons, and after the performance recited the following epilogue, suggested by Lord Lytton's recent death:

Fair Ladies and good Sirs: Since last this play
Was acted on this stage, has passed away
Its noble author from the gaze of men,
No more, alas! to wield his facile pen.
In Knébworth's ancient park, across the sea,
Lord Lytton sleeps, but not his witchery.
The dramatist, romancer, poet, still
Can touch our hearts and captivate our will;
For laureled genius has the power to brave
Death's fell advance, and lives beyond the grave:
Bear witness, this grand audience clustered here.
Your plaudits cannot reach dead Lytton's ear,
But no more sweet libation can you pour
To Lytton's memory, on this distant shore,
Than your prolonged applause, which now proclaims,
Though the great author's gone, his fame remains.
M. M.