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Impressions In The Theatre Post by :moneysence Category :Essays Author :Carl Van Vechten Date :October 2011 Read :3125

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Impressions In The Theatre


The Land of Joy

"Dancing is something more than an amusement in Spain. It
is part of that solemn ritual which enters into the whole
life of the people. It expresses their very spirit."

Havelock Ellis.

An idle observer of theatrical conditions might derive a certain ironic pleasure from remarking the contradiction implied in the professed admiration of the constables of the playhouse for the unconventional and their almost passionate adoration for the conventional. We constantly hear it said that the public cries for novelty, and just as constantly we see the same kind of acting, the same gestures, the same Julian Mitchellisms and George Marionisms and Ned Wayburnisms repeated in and out of season, summer and winter. Indeed, certain conventions (which bore us even now) are so deeply rooted in the soil of our theatre that I see no hope of their being eradicated before the year 1999, at which date other conventions will have supplanted them and will likewise have become tiresome.

In this respect our theatre does not differ materially from the theatres of other countries except in one particular. In Europe the juxtaposition of nations makes an interchange of conventions possible, which brings about slow change or rapid revolution. Paris, for example, has received visits from the Russian Ballet which almost assumed the proportions of Tartar invasions. London, too, has been invaded by the Russians and by the Irish. The Irish playwrights, indeed, are continually pounding away at British middle-class complacency. Germany, in turn, has been invaded by England (we regret that this sentence has only an artistic and figurative significance), and we find Max Reinhardt well on his way toward giving a complete cycle of the plays of Shakespeare; a few years ago we might have observed Deutschland groveling hysterically before Oscar Wilde's Salome, a play which, at least without its musical dress, has not, I believe, even yet been performed publicly in London. In Italy, of course, there are no artistic invasions (nobody cares to pay for them) and even the conventions of the Italian theatre themselves, such as the Commedia del' Arte, are quite dead; so the country remains as dormant, artistically speaking, as a rag rug, until an enthusiast like Marinetti arises to take it between his teeth and shake it back into rags again.

Very often whisperings of art life in the foreign theatre (such as accounts of Stanislavski's accomplishments in Moscow) cross the Atlantic. Very often the husks of the realities (as was the case with the Russian Ballet) are imported. But whispers and husks have about as much influence as the "New York Times" in a mayoralty campaign, and as a result we find the American theatre as little aware of world activities in the drama as a deaf mute living on a pole in the desert of Sahara would be. Indeed any intrepid foreign investigator who wishes to study the American drama, American acting, and American stage decoration will find them in almost as virgin a condition as they were in the time of Lincoln.

A few rude assaults have been made on this smug eupepsy. I might mention the coming of Paul Orleneff, who left Alla Nazimova with us to be eventually swallowed up in the conventional American theatre. Four or five years ago a company of Negro players at the Lafayette Theatre gave a performance of a musical revue that boomed like the big bell in the Kremlin at Moscow. Nobody could be deaf to the sounds. Florenz Ziegfeld took over as many of the tunes and gestures as he could buy for his Follies of that season, but he neglected to import the one essential quality of the entertainment, its style, for the exploitation of which Negro players were indispensable. For the past two months Mimi Aguglia, one of the greatest actresses of the world, has been performing in a succession of classic and modern plays (a repertory comprising dramas by Shakespeare, d'Annunzio, and Giacosa) at the Garibaldi Theatre, on East Fourth Street, before very large and very enthusiastic audiences, but uptown culture and managerial acumen will not awaken to the importance of this gesture until they read about it in some book published in 1950....

All of which is merely by way of prelude to what I feel must be something in the nature of lyric outburst and verbal explosion. A few nights ago a Spanish company, unheralded, unsung, indeed almost unwelcomed by such reviewers as had to trudge to the out-of-the-way Park Theatre, came to New York, in a musical revue entitled The Land of Joy. The score was written by Joaquin Valverde, fils, whose music is not unknown to us, and the company included La Argentina, a Spanish dancer who had given matinees here in a past season without arousing more than mild enthusiasm. The theatrical impressarii, the song publishers, and the Broadway rabble stayed away on the first night. It was all very well, they might have reasoned, to read about the goings on in Spain, but they would never do in America. Spanish dancers had been imported in the past without awakening undue excitement. Did not the great Carmencita herself visit America twenty or more years ago? These impressarii had ignored the existence of a great psychological (or more properly physiological) truth: you cannot mix Burgundy and Beer! One Spanish dancer surrounded by Americans is just as much lost as the great Nijinsky himself was in an English music hall, where he made a complete and dismal failure. And so they would have been very much astonished (had they been present) on the opening night to have witnessed all the scenes of uncontrollable enthusiasm--just as they are described by Havelock Ellis, Richard Ford, and Chabrier--repeated. The audience, indeed, became hysterical, and broke into wild cries of Ole! Ole! Hats were thrown on the stage. The audience became as abandoned as the players, became a part of the action.

You will find all this described in "The Soul of Spain," in "Gatherings from Spain," in Chabrier's letters, and it had all been transplanted to New York almost without a whisper of preparation, which is fortunate, for if it had been expected, doubtless we would have found the way to spoil it. Fancy the average New York first-night audience, stiff and unbending, sceptical and sardonic, welcoming this exhibition! Havelock Ellis gives an ingenious explanation for the fact that Spanish dancing has seldom if ever successfully crossed the border of the Iberian peninsula: "The finest Spanish dancing is at once killed or degraded by the presence of an indifferent or unsympathetic public, and that is probably why it cannot be transplanted, but remains local." Fortunately the Spaniards in the first-night audience gave the cue, unlocked the lips and loosened the hands of us cold Americans. For my part, I was soon yelling Ole! louder than anybody else.

The dancer, Doloretes, is indeed extraordinary. The gipsy fascination, the abandoned, perverse bewitchery of this female devil of the dance is not to be described by mouth, typewriter, or quilled pen. Heine would have put her at the head of his dancing temptresses in his ballet of Mephistophela (found by Lumley too indecent for representation at Her Majesty's Theatre, for which it was written; in spite of which the scenario was published in the respectable "Revue de Deux Mondes"). In this ballet a series of dancing celebrities are exhibited by the female Mephistopheles for the entertainment of her victim. After Salome had twisted her flanks and exploited the prowess of her abdominal muscles to perfunctory applause, Doloretes would have heated the blood, not only of Faust, but of the ladies and gentlemen in the orchestra stalls, with the clicking of her heels, the clacking of her castanets, now held high over head, now held low behind her back, the flashing of her ivory teeth, the shrill screaming, electric magenta of her smile, the wile of her wriggle, the passion of her performance. And close beside her the sinuous Mazantinita would flaunt a garish tambourine and wave a shrieking fan. All inanimate objects, shawls, mantillas, combs, and cymbals, become inflamed with life, once they are pressed into the service of these senoritas, languorous and forbidding, indifferent and sensuous. Against these rude gipsies the refined grace and Goyaesque elegance of La Argentina stand forth in high relief, La Argentina, in whose hands the castanets become as potent an instrument for our pleasure as the violin does in the fingers of Jascha Heifetz. Bilbao, too, with his thundering heels and his tauromachian gestures, bewilders our highly magnetized senses. When, in the dance, he pursues, without catching, the elusive Doloretes, it would seem that the limit of dynamic effects in the theatre had been reached.

Here are singers! The limpid and lovely soprano of the comparatively placid Maria Marco, who introduces figurations into the brilliant music she sings at every turn. One indecent (there is no other word for it) chromatic oriental phrase is so strange that none of us can ever recall it or forget it! And the frantically nervous Luisita Puchol, whose eyelids spring open like the cover of a Jack-in-the-box, and whose hands flutter like saucy butterflies, sings suggestive popular ditties just a shade better than any one else I know of.

But The Land of Joy does not rely on one or two principals for its effect. The organization as a whole is as full of fire and purpose as the original Russian Ballet; the costumes themselves, in their blazing, heated colours, constitute the ingredients of an orgy; the music, now sentimental (the adaptability of Valverde, who has lived in Paris, is little short of amazing; there is a vocal waltz in the style of Arditi that Mme. Patti might have introduced into the lesson scene of Il Barbiere; there is another song in the style of George M. Cohan--these by way of contrast to the Iberian music), now pulsing with rhythmic life, is the best Spanish music we have yet heard in this country. The whole entertainment, music, colours, costumes, songs, dances, and all, is as nicely arranged in its crescendos and decrescendos, its prestos and adagios as a Mozart finale. The close of the first act, in which the ladies sweep the stage with long ruffled trains, suggestive of all the Manet pictures you have ever seen, would seem to be unapproachable, but the most striking costumes and the wildest dancing are reserved for the very last scene of all. There these bewildering senoritas come forth in the splendourous envelope of embroidered Manila shawls, and such shawls! Prehistoric African roses of unbelievable measure decorate a texture of turquoise, from which depends nearly a yard of silken fringe. In others mingle royal purple and buff, orange and white, black and the kaleidoscope! The revue, a sublimated form of zarzuela, is calculated, indeed, to hold you in a dangerous state of nervous excitement during the entire evening, to keep you awake for the rest of the night, and to entice you to the theatre the next night and the next. It is as intoxicating as vodka, as insidious as cocaine, and it is likely to become a habit, like these stimulants. I have found, indeed, that it appeals to all classes of taste, from that of a telephone operator, whose usual artistic debauch is the latest antipyretic novel of Robert W. Chambers, to that of the frequenter of the concert halls.

I cannot resist further cataloguing; details shake their fists at my memory; for instance, the intricate rhythms of Valverde's elaborately syncopated music (not at all like ragtime syncopation), the thrilling orchestration (I remember one dance which is accompanied by drum taps and oboe, nothing else!), the utter absence of tangos (which are Argentine), and habaneras (which are Cuban), most of the music being written in two-four and three-four time, and the interesting use of folk-tunes; the casual and very suggestive indifference of the dancers, while they are not dancing, seemingly models for a dozen Zuloaga paintings, the apparently inexhaustible skill and variety of these dancers in action, winding ornaments around the melodies with their feet and bodies and arms and heads and castanets as coloratura sopranos do with their voices. Sometimes castanets are not used; cymbals supplant them, or tambourines, or even fingers. Once, by some esoteric witchcraft, the dancers seemed to tap upon their arms. The effect was so stupendous and terrifying that I could not project myself into that aloof state of mind necessary for a calm dissection of its technique.

What we have been thinking of all these years in accepting the imitation and ignoring the actuality I don't know; it has all been down in black and white. What Richard Ford saw and wrote down in 1846 I am seeing and writing down in 1917. How these devilish Spaniards have been able to keep it up all this time I can't imagine. Here we have our paradox. Spain has changed so little that Ford's book is still the best to be procured on the subject (you may spend many a delightful half-hour with the charming irony of its pages for company). Spanish dancing is apparently what it was a hundred years ago; no wind from the north has disturbed it. Stranger still, it depends for its effect on the acquirement of a brilliant technique. Merely to play the castanets requires a severe tutelage. And yet it is all as spontaneous, as fresh, as unstudied, as vehement in its appeal, even to Spaniards, as it was in the beginning. Let us hope that Spain will have no artistic reawakening.

Aristotle and Havelock Ellis and Louis Sherwin have taught us that the theatre should be an outlet for suppressed desires. So, indeed, the ideal theatre should. As a matter of fact, in most playhouses (I will generously refrain from naming the one I visited yesterday) I am continually suppressing a desire to strangle somebody or other, but after a visit to the Spaniards I walk out into Columbus Circle completely purged of pity and fear, love, hate, and all the rest. It is an experience.

November 3, 1917.


A Note on Mimi Aguglia

"Art has to do only with the creation of beauty, whether it be in words, or sounds, or colour, or outline, or rhythmical movement; and the man who writes music is no more truly an artist than the man who plays that music, the poet who composes rhythms in words no more truly an artist than the dancer who composes rhythms with the body, and the one is no more to be preferred to the other, than the painter is to be preferred to the sculptor, or the musician to the poet, in those forms of art which we have agreed to recognize as of equal value."

Arthur Symons.

The only George Jean, "witty, wise, and cruel," and the "amaranthine" Louis Sherwin, who understands better than anybody else how to plunge the rapier into the vulnerable spot and twist it in the wound, making the victim writhe, have been having some fun with the art of acting lately, or to be exact, with the art of actors. Now actor-baiting is no new game; as a winter sport it is as popular as making jokes about mothers-in-law, decrying the art of Bouguereau or Howard Chandler Christy, or discussing the methods of Mr. Belasco. Ever so long ago (and George Henry Lewes preceded him) George Moore wrote an article called "Mummer Worship," holding the players up to ridicule, but George really adores the theatre and even acting, goes to the playhouse constantly, and writes a bad play himself every few years. None of these has achieved success on the stage. The list includes Martin Luther, written with a collaborator, The Strike at Arlingford, The Bending of the Bough (Moore's version of a play by Edwin Martyn), a dramatization of "Esther Waters," Elizabeth Cooper, and the fragment, The Apostle, on which "The Brook Kerith," was based. Now he is at work turning the novel back into another play.... When the Sunday editor of a newspaper is at his wit's end he invariably sends a competent reporter to collect data for a symposium on one of two topics, Is the author or the player more important? or Does the stage director make the actor? The amount of amusement this reporter can derive in gathering indignant replies from mountebanks and scribblers is only limited by his own sense of humour. Even the late Sir Henry Irving felt compelled on more than one occasion to defend his "noble calling."

The actor, when he slaps back, usually overlooks the point at issue, but sometimes he has something to say over which we may well ponder. Witness, for example, the following passage, quoted from that justly celebrated compendium of personal opinions and broad-shaft wit called "Nat Goodwin's Book": "The average author and manager of today are prone to advertise themselves as conspicuously as the play (as if the public cared a snap who wrote the play or who 'presents'). I doubt if five per cent of the public know who wrote 'The Second Mrs. Tanqueray,' 'In Mizzoura,' or 'Richelieu,' but they know their stage favourites. I wonder how many mantels are adorned with pictures of the successful dramatist and those who 'present' and how many there are on which appear Maude Adams, Dave Warfield, Billie Burke, John Drew, Bernhardt, Duse, and hundreds of other distinguished players."

It is principally urged against the claims of acting as an art that a young person without previous experience or training can make an immediate (and sometimes lasting) effect upon the stage, whereas in the preparation for any other art (even the interpretative arts) years of training are necessary. This premise is full of holes; nevertheless George Moore, and Messrs. Nathan and Sherwin all cling to it. It is true that almost any young girl, moderately gifted with charm or comeliness, may make an instantaneous impression on our stage, especially in the namby-pamby roles which our playwrights usually give her to play. But she is soon found out. She may still attract audiences (as George Barr McCutcheon and Alma Tadema still attract audiences) but the discerning part of the public will take no joy in seeing her. Charles Frohman said (and he ought to know) that the average life of a female star on the American stage was ten years; in other words, her career continued as long as her youth and physical charms remained potent.

We have easily accounted for the unimportant actors, the rank and file, but what about those who immediately claim positions which they hold in spite of their lack of previous training? These are rarer. At the moment, indeed, I cannot think of any. For while genius often manifests itself early in a career, the great actors, as a rule, have struggled for many years to learn the rudiments of their art before they have given indisputable proof of their greatness, or before they have been recognized. "Real acting," according to Percy Fitzgerald, "is a science, to be studied and mastered, as other sciences are studied and mastered, by long years of training." They may not have had the strenuous Conservatoire and Theatre Francais training of Sarah Bernhardt. As a matter of fact, indeed, the actor may far better learn to handle his tools by manipulating them before an audience, than by practicing with them for too long a time in the closet. The technique of violin playing can best be acquired before the virtuoso appears in public, although no amount of training in itself will make a great violinist, but the basic elements of acting, grace, diction, etc., can just as well be acquired behind the footlights and so many great actors have acquired them, as many of the greatest have ignored them. There can be no hard and fast rules laid down for this sort of thing. Can we thank nine months with Mme. Marchesi for the instantaneous success and subsequent brilliant career of Mme. Melba? Against this training offset the years and years of road playing and the more years of study at home in retirement to account for the career of Mrs. Fiske. The Australian soprano was born with a naturally-placed and flexible voice. Her shake is said to have been perfection when she was a child; her scale was even; her intonation impeccable. She had very little to learn except the roles in the operas she was to sing and her future was very clearly marked from the night she made her debut as Gilda in Rigoletto. Mme. Patti was equally gifted. Mme. Pasta and Mme. Fremstad, on the other hand, toiled very slowly towards fame. The former singer was an absolute failure when she first appeared in London and it took several years of hard work to make her the greatest lyric artist of her day. The great Jenny Lind retired from the stage completely defeated, only to return as the most popular singer of her time. Mischa Elman has told me he never practices; Leo Ornstein, on the other hand, spends hours every day at the piano. Mozart sprang, full-armed with genius, into the world. He began composing at the age of four. No training was necessary for him, but Beethoven and Wagner developed slowly. In the field of writers there are even more happy examples. Hundreds of boys have spent years in theme and literature courses in college preparing in vain for a future which was never to be theirs, while other youths with no educations have taken to writing as a cat takes to cat-nip. Should we assume that the annual output of Professor Baker's class at Harvard produces better playwrights than Moliere or Shakespeare, neither of whom enjoyed Professor Baker's lectures, nor, I think I am safe in conjecturing, anything like them?

What, after all, constitutes training? For a creative or interpretative genius mere existence seems to be sufficient. Joseph Conrad, Nicholas Rimsky-Korsakov, and Patrick MacGill all were sailors for many years before they began to write. We owe "Youth" and the first section of Scheherazade to this accident. MacGill also had the privilege of digging potatoes; he writes about it in "The Rat-pit." Mrs. Patrick Campbell learned enough about how to move about and how to speak in the country houses she frequented before she began her professional career to enable her immediately to take a position of importance on the stage. It does not seem necessary, indeed, that the training for any career should be prescribed or systematic. Some men get their training one way and some another. A school of acting may be of the greatest benefit to A, while B will not profit by it. Some actors are ruined by stock companies; others are improved by them. The geniuses in this interpretative art as in all the other interpretative and creative arts, seem to rise above obstructions, and to make themselves felt, whatever difficulties are put in their way.

Some great actors, like some great musicians and authors, create out of their fulness. They cannot explain; they do not need to study; they create by instinct. Others, like Beethoven and Olive Fremstad, work and rework their material in the closet until it approaches perfection, when they expose it. To say that there are bad actors following in the footsteps of both these types of geniuses is to be axiomatic and trite. It would be a foregone conclusion. Just as there are musicians who write as easily as Mozart but who have nothing to say, so there are other musicians who write and rewrite, work and rework, study and restudy, and yet what they finally offer the public has not the quality or the force or the inspiration of a common gutter-ballad.

It has also been urged in print that as naturalness is the goal of the actor he should never have to strive for it. The names of Frank Reicher and John Drew are often mentioned as those of men who "play themselves" on the stage. A most difficult thing to do! Also an unfortunate choice of names. Each of these artists has undergone a long and arduous apprenticeship in order to achieve the natural method which has given him eminence in his career. Indeed, of all the qualities of the actor this is the least easy to acquire.

Actors are often condemned because they are not versatile. Versatility is undoubtedly an admirable quality in an actor, valuable, especially to his manager, but hardly an essential one. An artist is not required to do more than one thing well. Vladimir de Pachmann specializes in Chopin playing, but Arthur Symons once wrote that "he is the greatest living pianist, because he can play certain things better than any other pianist can play anything." Should we not allot similar approval to the actor or actress who makes a fine effect in one part or in one kind of part? I should not call Ellen Terry a versatile actress, but I should call her a great artist. Marie Tempest is not versatile, unless she should be so designated for having made equal successes on the lyric and dramatic stages, but she is one of the most satisfying artists at present appearing before our public. Mallarme was not versatile; Cezanne was not versatile; nor was Thomas Love Peacock. Mascagni, assuredly, is not versatile. The da Vincis and Wagners are rare figures in the history of creative art just as the Nijinskys and Rachels are rare in the history of interpretative art.

Someone may say that the great actor dies while the play goes thundering on through the ages on the stage and in everyman's library. This very point, indeed, is made by Mr. Lewes. But this, alas, is the reverse of the truth. We have competent and immensely absorbing records of the lives and art of David Garrick, Mrs. Siddons, Ristori, Clairon, Rachel, Charlotte Cushman, Edwin Booth, and other prominent players, while most of the plays in which they appeared are not only no longer actable, but also no longer readable. The brothers de Goncourt, for example, wrote an account of Clairon which is a book of the first interest, while I defy any one to get through two pages of most of the fustian she was compelled to act! The reason for this is very easily formulated. Great acting is human and universal. It is eternal in its appeal and its memory is easily kept alive while playwrighting is largely a matter of fashion, and appeals to the mob of men and women who never read and who are more interested in police news than they are in poetry. George Broadhurst or Henry Bernstein or Arthur Wing Pinero, or others like them, have always been the popular playwrights; a few names like Sophocles, Terence, Moliere, Shakespeare, and Ibsen come rolling down to us, but they are precious and few.

A great actor, indeed, can put life into perfectly wooden material. In the case of Sarah Bernhardt, who was the creator, the actress or Sardou? In the case of Henry Irving, who was the creator, the actor or the authors of The Bells and Faust (not, in this instance, Goethe)? Is Langdon Mitchell's version of "Vanity Fair" sufficiently a work of art to exist without the co-operation of Mrs. Fiske? When Duse electrified her audiences in such plays as The Second Mrs. Tanqueray and Fedora, were the dramatists responsible for the effect? Arthur Symons says of her in the latter play, "A great actress, who is also a great intelligence, is seen accepting it, for its purpose, with contempt, as a thing to exercise her technical skill upon." One reads of Mrs. Siddone that she could move a roomful of people to tears merely by repeating the word "hippopotamus" with varying stress. Should we thank the behemoth for this miracle?

Any one who understands, great acting knows that it is illumination. There are those who are born to throw light on the creations of the poets, just as there are others born to be poets. These interpreters give a new life to the works of the masters, AEschylus, Congreve, Tchekhov. When, as more frequently happens, they are called upon to play mediocre parts it is with their own personal force, their atmospheric aura that they create something more than the author himself ever intended or dreamed of. How could Joseph Jefferson play Rip Van Winkle for thirty years (or longer) with scenery in tatters and a company of mummers which Corse Payton would have scorned? Was it because of the greatness of the play? If that were true, why is not some one else performing this drama today to large audiences? Has any one read the Joseph Jefferson acting version of Rip Van Winkle? Who wrote it? Don't you think it rather extraordinary that a play which apparently has given so much pleasure, and in which Jefferson was hailed as a great actor by every contemporary critic of note, as is in itself so little known? It is not extraordinary. It was Jefferson's performance of the title role which gave vitality to the play.

Of course, there are few actors who have this power, few great actors. What else could you expect? A critic might prove that playwriting was not an art on the majority of the evidence. Almost all the music composed in America could be piled up to prove that music was not an art. Should we say that there is no art of painting because the Germans have no great painters?

At present, however, it is quite possible for any one in New York with car or taxi-cab fare to see one of the greatest of living actresses. She is not playing on Broadway. This actress has never been to dramatic school; she has not had the advantages of Alla Nazimova, who has worked with at least one fine stage director. She was simply born a genius, that is all; she has perfected her art by appearing in a great variety of parts, the method of Edwin Booth. Most of these parts happen to be in masterpieces of the drama. She is not unaccustomed to playing Zaza one evening and d'Annunzio's Francesca da Rimini the next. Her repertory further includes La Dame aux Camelias, Hamlet, Romeo and Juliet, La Figlia di Iorio, Giuseppe Giacosa's Come le Foglie, Sicilian folk-plays, and plays by Arturo Giovannitti. When I first saw Mimi Aguglia she was little more than a crude force, a great struggling light, that sometimes illuminated, nay often blinded, but which shone in unequal flashes. Experience has made of her an actress who is almost unfailing in her effect. If you asked her about the technique of her art she would probably smile (as Mozart and Schubert might have done before her); if you asked her about her method she would not understand you ... but she understands the art of acting.

Watch her, for instance, in the second act of Zaza, in the scene in which the music hall singer discovers that her lover has a wife and child. No heroics, no shrieks, no conventional posturings and shruggings and sobbing ... something far worse she exposes to us, a nameless terror. She stands with her back against a table, nonchalant and smilingly defiant, unwilling to return to the music hall with her former partner, but pleasantly jocular in her refusal. Stung into anger, he hurls his last bomb. Zaza is smoking. As she listens to the cruel words the corner of her mouth twitches, the cigarette almost falls. That is all. There is a moment's silence unbroken save by the heartbeats of her spectators. Even the babies which mothers bring in abundance to the Italian theatre are quiet. With that esoteric magnetism with which great artists are possessed she holds the audience captive by this simple gesture. I could continue to point out other astounding details in this impersonation, but not one of them, perhaps, would illustrate Aguglia's art as does this one. If no training is necessary to produce effects of this kind, I would pronounce acting the most holy of the arts, for then, surely, it is a direct gift from God.

September 5, 1917.


The New Isadora

"We shift and bedeck and bedrape us,
Thou art noble and nude and antique;"

Swinburne's "Dolores."

I have a fine memory of a chance description flung off by some one at a dinner in Paris; a picture of the youthful Isadora Duncan in her studio in New York developing her ideals through sheer will and preserving the contour of her feet by wearing carpet slippers. The latter detail stuck in my memory. It may or may not be true, but it could have been, should have been true. The incipient dancer keeping her feet pure for her coming marriage with her art is a subject for philosophic dissertation or for poetry. There are many poets who would have seized on this idea for an ode or even a sonnet, had it occurred to them. Oscar Wilde would have liked this excuse for a poem ... even Robert Browning, who would have woven many moral strophes from this text.... It would have furnished Mr. George Moore with material for another story for the volume called "Celibates." Walter Pater might have dived into some very beautiful, but very conscious, prose with this theme as a spring-board. Huysmans would have found this suggestion sufficient inspiration for a romance the length of "Clarissa Harlowe." You will remember that the author of "En Route" meditated writing a novel about a man who left his house to go to his office. Perceiving that his shoes have not been polished he stops at a boot-black's and during the operation he reviews his affairs. The problem was to make 300 pages of this!... Lombroso would have added the detail to his long catalogue in "The Man of Genius" as another proof of the insanity of artists. Georges Feydeau would have found therein enough matter for a three-act farce and d'Annunzio for a poetic drama which he might have dedicated to "Isadora of the beautiful feet." Sermons might be preached from the text and many painters would touch the subject with reverence. Manet might have painted Isadora with one of the carpet slippers half depending from a bare, rosy-white foot.

There are many fables concerning the beginning of Isadora's career. One has it that the original dance in bare feet was an accident.... Isadora was laving her feet in an upper chamber when her hostess begged her to dance for her other guests. Just as she was she descended and met with such approval that thenceforth her feet remained bare. This is a pretty tale, but it has not the fine ring of truth of the story of the carpet slippers. There had been bare-foot dancers before Isadora; there had been, I venture to say, discinct "Greek dancers." Isadora's contribution to her art is spiritual; it is her feeling for the idea of the dance which isolates her from her contemporaries. Many have overlooked this essential fact in attempting to account for her obvious importance. Her imitators (and has any other interpretative artist ever had so many?) have purloined her costumes, her gestures, her steps; they have put the music of Beethoven and Schubert to new uses as she had done before them; they have unbound their hair and freed their feet; but the essence of her art, the spirit, they have left in her keeping; they could not well do otherwise.

Inspired perhaps by Greek phrases, by the superb collection of Greek vases in the old Pinakotheck in Munich, Isadora cast the knowledge she had gleaned of the dancer's training from her. At least she forced it to be subservient to her new wishes. She flung aside her memory of the entrechat and the pirouette, the studied technique of the ballet; but in so doing she unveiled her own soul. She called her art the renaissance of the Greek ideal but there was something modern about it, pagan though it might be in quality. Always it was pure and sexless ... always abstract emotion has guided her interpretations.

In the beginning she danced to the piano music of Chopin and Schubert. Eleven years ago I saw her in Munich in a program of Schubert impromptus and Chopin preludes and mazurkas. A year or two later she was dancing in Paris to the accompaniment of the Colonne Orchestra, a good deal of the music of Gluck's Orfeo and the very lovely dances from Iphigenie en Aulide. In these she remained faithful to her original ideal, the beauty of abstract movement, the rhythm of exquisite gesture. This was not sense echoing sound but rather a very delightful confusion of her own mood with that of the music.

So a new grace, a new freedom were added to the dance; in her later representations she has added a third quality, strength. Too, her immediate interpretations often suggest concrete images.... A passionate patriotism for one of her adopted countries is at the root of her fiery miming of the Marseillaise, a patriotism apparently as deep-rooted, certainly as inflaming, as that which inspired Rachel in her recitation of this hymn during the Paris revolution of 1848. In times of civil or international conflagration the dancer, the actress often play important roles in world politics. Malvina Cavalazzi, the Italian ballerina who appeared at the Academy of Music during the Eighties and who married Charles Mapleson, son of the impressario, once told me of a part she had played in the making of United Italy. During the Austrian invasion the Italian flag was verboten. One night, however, during a representation of opera in a town the name of which I have forgotten, Mme. Cavalazzi wore a costume of green and white, while her male companion wore red, so that in the pas de deux which concluded the ballet they formed automatically a semblance of the Italian banner. The audience was raised to a hysterical pitch of enthusiasm and rushed from the theatre in a violent mood, which resulted in an immediate encounter with the Austrians and their eventual expulsion from the city.

Isadora's pantomimic interpretation of the Marseillaise, given in New York before the United States had entered the world war, aroused as vehement and excited an expression of enthusiasm as it would be possible for an artist to awaken in our theatre today. The audiences stood up and scarcely restrained their impatience to cheer. At the previous performances in Paris, I am told, the effect approached the incredible.... In a robe the colour of blood she stands enfolded; she sees the enemy advance; she feels the enemy as it grasps her by the throat; she kisses her flag; she tastes blood; she is all but crushed under the weight of the attack; and then she rises, triumphant, with the terrible cry, Aux armes, citoyens! Part of her effect is gained by gesture, part by the massing of her body, but the greater part by facial expression. In the anguished appeal she does not make a sound, beyond that made by the orchestra, but the hideous din of a hundred raucous voices seems to ring in our ears. We see Felicien Rops's Vengeance come to life; we see the sans-culottes following the carts of the aristocrats on the way to execution ... and finally we see the superb calm, the majestic flowing strength of the Victory of Samothrace.... At times, legs, arms, a leg or an arm, the throat, or the exposed breast assume an importance above that of the rest of the mass, suggesting the unfinished sculpture of Michael Angelo, an aposiopesis which, of course, served as Rodin's inspiration.

In the Marche Slav of Tschaikovsky Isadora symbolizes her conception of the Russian moujik rising from slavery to freedom. With her hands bound behind her back, groping, stumbling, head-bowed, knees bent, she struggles forward, clad only in a short red garment that barely covers her thighs. With furtive glances of extreme despair she peers above and ahead. When the strains of God Save the Czar are first heard in the orchestra she falls to her knees and you see the peasant shuddering under the blows of the knout. The picture is a tragic one, cumulative in its horrific details. Finally comes the moment of release and here Isadora makes one of her great effects. She does not spread her arms apart with a wide gesture. She brings them forward slowly and we observe with horror that they have practically forgotten how to move at all! They are crushed, these hands, crushed and bleeding after their long serfdom; they are not hands at all but claws, broken, twisted piteous claws! The expression of frightened, almost uncomprehending, joy with which Isadora concludes the march is another stroke of her vivid imaginative genius.

In her third number inspired by the Great War, the Marche Lorraine of Louis Ganne, in which is incorporated the celebrated Chanson Lorraine, Isadora with her pupils, symbolizes the gaiety of the martial spirit. It is the spirit of the cavalry riding gaily with banners waving in the wind; the infantry marching to an inspired tune. There is nothing of the horror of war or revolution in this picture ... only the brilliancy and dash of war ... the power and the glory!

Of late years Isadora has danced (in the conventional meaning of the word) less and less. Since her performance at Carnegie Hall several years ago of the Liebestod from Tristan, which Walter Damrosch hailed as an extremely interesting experiment, she has attempted to express something more than the joy of melody and rhythm. Indeed on at least three occasions she has danced a Requiem at the Metropolitan Opera House.... If the new art at its best is not dancing, neither is it wholly allied to the art of pantomime. It would seem, indeed, that Isadora is attempting to express something of the spirit of sculpture, perhaps what Vachell Lindsay describes as "moving sculpture." Her medium, of necessity, is still rhythmic gesture, but its development seems almost dream-like. More than the dance this new art partakes of the fluid and unending quality of music. Like any other new art it is not to be understood at first and I confess in the beginning it said nothing to me but eventually I began to take pleasure in watching it. Now Isadora's poetic and imaginative interpretation of the symphonic interlude from Cesar Franck's Redemption is full of beauty and meaning to me and during the whole course of its performance the interpreter scarcely rises from her knees. The neck, the throat, the shoulders, the head and arms are her means of expression. I thought of Barbey d'Aurevilly's phrase, "Elle avait l'air de monter vers Dieu les mains toutes pleines de bonnes oeuvres."

* * * * *

Isadora's teaching has had its results but her influence has been wider in other directions. Fokine thanks her for the new Russian Ballet. She did indeed free the Russians from the conventions of the classic ballet and but for her it is doubtful if we should have seen Scheherazade and Cleopatre. Daphnis et Chloe, Narcisse, and L'Apresmidi d'un Faune bear her direct stamp. This then, aside from her own appearances, has been her great work. Of her celebrated school of dancing I cannot speak with so much enthusiasm. The defect in her method of teaching is her insistence (consciously or unconsciously) on herself as a model. The seven remaining girls of her school dance delightfully. They are, in addition, young and beautiful, but they are miniature Isadoras. They add nothing to her style; they make the same gestures; they take the same steps; they have almost, if not quite, acquired a semblance of her spirit. They vibrate with intention; they have force; but constantly they suggest just what they are ... imitations. When they dance alone they often make a very charming but scarcely overpowering effect. When they dance with Isadora they are but a moving row of shadow shapes of Isadora that come and go. Her own presence suffices to make the effect they all make together.... I have been told that when Isadora watches her girls dance she often weeps, for then and then only she can behold herself. One of the griefs of an actor or a dancer is that he can never see himself. This oversight of nature Isadora has to some extent overcome.

Those who like to see pretty dancing, pretty girls, pretty things in general will not find much pleasure in contemplating the art of Isadora. She is not pretty; her dancing is not pretty. She has been cast in nobler mould and it is her pleasure to climb higher mountains. Her gesture is titanic; her mood generally one of imperious grandeur. She has grown larger with the years--and by this I mean something more than the physical meaning of the word, for she is indeed heroic in build. But this is the secret of her power and force. There is no suggestion of flabbiness about her and so she can impart to us the soul of the struggling moujik, the spirit of a nation, the figure on the prow of a Greek bark.... And when she interprets the Marseillaise she seems indeed to feel the mighty moment.

July 14, 1917.


Margaret Anglin Produces As You Like It

Of all the comedies of Shakespeare As You Like It is the one which has attracted to itself the most attention from actresses. No feminine star but what at one time or another has a desire to play Rosalind. Bernard Shaw says, "Who ever failed or could fail as Rosalind?" and I am inclined to think him right, though opinions differ. It would seem, however, that Rosalind is to the dramatic stage what Mimi in La Boheme is to the lyric, a role in which a maximum of effect can be gotten with a minimum of effort.

Opinions differ however. Stung to fury by Mrs. Kendal's playing of the part, George Moore says somewhere, "Mrs. Kendal nurses children all day and strives to play Rosalind at night. What infatuation, what ridiculous endeavour! To realize the beautiful woodland passion and the idea of the transformation a woman must have sinned, for only through sin may we learn the charm of innocence. To play Rosalind a woman must have had more than one lover, and if she has been made to wait in the rain and has been beaten she will have done a great deal to qualify herself for the part." Still another critic considers the role a difficult one. He says: "With the exception of Lady Macbeth no woman in Shakespeare is so much in controversy as Rosalind. The character is thought to be almost unattainable. An ideal that is lofty but at the same time vague seems to possess the Shakespeare scholar, accompanied by the profound conviction that it never can be fulfilled. Only a few actresses have obtained recognition as Rosalind, chief among them being Mrs. Pritchard, Peg Woffington, Mrs. Dancer, Dora Jordan, Louisa Nesbitt, Helen Faucit, Ellen Tree, Adelaide Neilson, Mrs. Scott-Siddons and Miss Mary Anderson."

Of those who have recently played Rosalind perhaps Mary Anderson, Ada Rehan, Henrietta Crosman and Julia Marlowe will remain longest in the memory, although Marie Wainwright, Mary Shaw, Mrs. Langtry and Julia Neilson are among a long list of those who have tried the part. Miss Rehan appeared in the role when Augustin Daly revived the comedy at Daly's Theatre, December 17, 1889. We are told that an effort was made in this production to emphasize the buoyant gaiety of the piece. The scenery displayed the woods embellished in a springtime green, and the acting did away as much as possible with any of the underlying melancholy which flows through the comedy.

William Winter frankly asserts--perhaps not unwittingly giving a staggering blow to the art of acting in so doing--that the reason Rosalind is not more often embodied "in a competent and enthralling manner is that her enchanting quality is something that cannot be assumed--it must be possessed; it must exist in the fibre of the individual, and its expression will then be spontaneous. Art can accomplish much, but it cannot supply the inherent captivation that constitutes the puissance of Rosalind. Miss Rehan possesses that quality, and the method of her art was the fluent method of natural grace."

Fie and a fig for Mr. Moore's theory about being beaten and standing in the rain, implies Mr. Winter!

To Mr. Winter I am also indebted for a description of Mary Anderson in As You Like It: "Miss Anderson, superbly handsome as Rosalind, indicated that beneath her pretty swagger, nimble satire and silver playfulness Rosalind is as earnest of Juliet--though different in temperament and mind--as fond as Viola and as constant as Imogen."

Miss Marlowe's Rosalind, somewhat along the same lines as Miss Anderson's, and Miss Crosman's, a hoydenish, tomboy sort of creature, first cousin to Mistress Nell and the young lady of The Amazons, should be familiar to theatregoers of the last two decades.

Last Monday evening Margaret Anglin exposed her version of the comedy. As might have been expected, it has met with some unfavourable criticism. Preconceived notions of Rosalind are as prevalent as preconceived notions of Hamlet. And yet if As You Like It had been produced Monday night as a "new fantastic comedy," just as Prunella was, for instance, I am inclined to think that everybody who dissented would have been at Miss Anglin's charming heels.

The scenery has been given undue prominence both by the management and by the writers for the newspapers. Its most interesting feature is the arrangement by which it is speedily changed about. There were no long waits caused by the settings of scenes during the acts. To say, however, that it has anything to do with the art of Gordon Craig is to speak nonsense. The scenes are painted in much the same manner as that to which we are accustomed and inured. There is a certain haze over the trees, caused partially by the tints and partially by the lighting, which produces a rather charming effect, but the outlines of the trees are quite definite; no impressionism here.

The acting is quite a different matter. As You Like It is one of the most modern in spirit of the Shakespeare plays. This air of modernity is still further emphasized by the fact that the play, for the most part, is written in prose. I feel certain that Bernard Shaw derived part of his inspiration for Man and Superman from As You Like It. Only in Shakespeare's play Ann Whitefield (Rosalind) pursues Octavius (Orlando) instead of Jack Tanner. I am inclined to believe that Shaw's psychology in this instance is the more sound. It seems incredible that a girl so witty, so beautiful, and so intelligent as Rosalind should waste so much time on that sentimental, uncomprehending creature known as Orlando. Every line of Orlando should have sounded the knell of his fate in her ears. However, it must be remembered that Orlando was young and good-looking, and that, at least in the play, men of the right stamp seemed to be scarce. Of course, it is out of Touchstone that Shaw has evolved his Jack Tanner.

Whether Miss Anglin had this idea in mind or not when she produced the comedy I have no means of ascertaining. It is not essential to my point. At least she has emphasized it, and she has done the most intelligent stage directing that I have observed in the performance of a Shakespeare play for many a long season. There is consistency in the acting. Rosalind, Jaques, Touchstone, Celia, Oliver, the dukes, Charles, Sylvius, the whole lot, in fact, are natural in method and manner. There is no striving for the fantastic. Let that part of the comedy take care of itself, undoubtedly suggested Miss Anglin.

Jaques, finely portrayed by Fuller Mellish, delivers that arrant bit of nonsense "The Seven Ages of Man" in such a manner as a man might tell a rather serious story in a drawing room. "The Seven Ages of Man," of course, is just as much of an aria as La Donna e Mobile. It always awakens applause, but this time the applause was deserved. Mr. Mellish emphasized the cynical side of the role. He smiled in and out of season, and his most "melancholy" remarks were delivered in such a manner as to indicate that they were not too deeply felt. Jaques was a little bored with the forest and his companions, but he would have been quite in his element at Mme. Recamier's. Such was the impression that Fuller Mellish gave. Bravo, Mr. Mellish, for an impression!

Similarly the Touchstone of Sidney Greenstreet. We are accustomed to more physically attractive Touchstones, fools with finer bodies, and yet this keen-minded, stout person spoke his lines with such pertness and spontaneity that they rarely failed of their proper effect. As for Orlando, it seemed to me that Pedro de Cordoba was a little too rhetorical at times to fit in with the spirit of the performance, but Orlando at times does not fit into the play. For instance, when he utters those incredible lines:

"If ever you have looked on better days,
If ever been where bells have knolled to church,
If ever sat at any good man's feast,
If ever from your eyelids wiped a tear...."

I do not know whether Miss Anglin is a disciple of George Moore or William Winter in her acting of Rosalind. How she acquired her charm is not for us to seek into. It is only for us to credit her with having it in great plenty. A charming natural manner which made the masquerading lady seem more than a fantasy. Her warning to Phebe,

"Sell when you can; you are not for all markets,"

was delicious in its effect. I remember no Rosalind who wooed her Orlando so delightfully. For Rosalind, as Woman the Pursuer, driven forward by the Life Force, is convincingly Miss Anglin's conception--a conception which fits the comedy admirably.

As to the objections which have been raised to Miss Anglin's assumption of the masculine garments without any attempt at counterfeiting masculinity, I would ask my reader, if she be a woman, what she would do if she found it necessary to wear men's clothes. If she were not an actress she would undoubtedly behave much as she did in women's, suppressing unnecessary and telltale gestures as much as possible, but not trying to imitate mannish gestures which would immediately stamp her an impostor. There is no internal evidence in Shakespeare's play to prove that Rosalind was an actress. She might have appeared in private theatricals at the palace, but even that is doubtful. Consequently when she donned men's clothes it became evident to her that many men are effeminate in gesture and those that are do not ordinarily affect mannish movements. Her most obvious concealment was to be natural--quite herself. This, I think, is one of the most interesting and well-thought-out points of Miss Anglin's interpretation.

March 20, 1914.

(The end)
Carl Van Vechten's essay: Impressions In The Theatre

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