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Title: Mrs. Siddons as Lady Macbeth

Creators: Walt Whitman, George Joseph Bell

Annotation Date: After February 1, 1878

Base Document Citation: George Joseph Bell, "Mrs. Siddons as Lady Macbeth: From Contemporary Notes by George Joseph Bell," The Nineteenth Century: A Monthly Review 3 (February 1878), 296–313.

Source: The Charles E. Feinberg Collection of the Papers of Walt Whitman, 1839–1919, Library of Congress, Washington, D.C. Transcribed from our digital image of the original.

Whitman Archive ID: loc.03428

Contributors to digital file: Nicole Gray, Lauren Grewe, Ty Alyea, Matt Cohen, and Brett Barney


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Whitman's Hand | Highlighting | Paste-on | Erasure | Overwrite



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February 1878

296THE NINETEENTH CENTURY.February

MRS. SIDDONS AS LADY MACBETH.

FROM CONTEMPORARY NOTES BY GEORGE JOSEPH BELL.

WHEN any great work of art perishes from among us, we not only grieve, but we rebel against the decree of fate. The wars, the traffic, the mechanical arts of old, nay even the men and women, wither into an oblivion which is not painful but kindly. We sigh and smile and acquiesce—better so, for here was nothing fitted to endure for ever. They had their time, as we have ours, and who would wish that the strife, the bustle, the men of to-day should last for ever? But the destruction of any beautiful thing, whether it be the work of art or nature, fills us, on the contrary, with sickening regret. The temple, statue, picture gone imply a loss of joy to uncounted gene rations. We suffer real pain when we think of lost tragedies by Sophocles, and our whole classical system of education is a protest that though kingdoms, peoples, tongues may die, their works of beauty shall endure.

If this be our feeling as to the more durable works of art, what shall we say of those triumphs which by their very nature last no longer than the action which creates them—the triumphs of the orator, the singer, or the actor? There is an anodyne in the words 'must be so,' 'inevitable,' and there is even some absurdity in longing for the impossible. This anodyne and our sense of humour temper the unhappiness we feel when, after hearing some great performance, we leave the theatre and think, 'Well, this great thing has been, and all that is now left of it is the feeble print upon my brain, the little thrill which memory will send along my nerves, mine and my neighbours'; as we live longer the print and thrill must grow feebler, and when we pass away the impress of the great artist will vanish from the world.' The regret that a great art should in its nature be transitory explains the lively interest which many feel in reading anecdotes or descriptions of a great actor, and it is this feeling which prompts the publication of the following notes on Mrs. Siddons' acting made by an eye-witness of ability and true artistic feeling.

The public of to-day are perhaps hardly aware of the height to which the art of acting may rise. Yet those who have been familiar with the creations of Rachel and Salvini will not only credit the assertion that the genius of Mrs. Siddons in representing the characters


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1878.THE 'INFLEXIBLE.'295

reading them, can be attached to their opinion at page 8 of the report

[illegible]

ROBERT SPENCER ROBINSON.

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In my reading, elocution, I must constantly refer measure every gesture, tone, conception, shade, burst, or radiation, &c. as to its fitness, appropriateness, advantage (or disadvantage) with reference to me, to my personnel & style, & ^ physical & emotional individuality—not be thinking merely of its abstract propriety authority in the as a rule, or in art, merely.


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a really good reader is like [cut away] painter—the latter can take any thing, a[cut away] subject, & so paint it, that it is fine, effective

1878.MRS. SIDDONS AS LADY MACBETH.297

of Murphy, Lillo, Southerne, and Otway, was greatly superior to that of the writers, but that, even when representing Shakespeare, she supplied much which enriched the conceptions of the poet. To-day we often speak of an actor as the mere interpreter of Shakespeare. We are apt to imagine that there is some one Hamlet or Lady Macbeth, a creature of Shakespeare's brain, an eidolon which the actor must of necessity endeavour to represent, his success being measured by the approach which he makes to this unattainable ideal. Those, however, who have seen the acting of the last thirty years in Paris will know that this view of the actor's province is far from true when he interprets even the best modern authors. They know that an actor, when he receives the manuscript, has to create his part in the sense of conceiving a complete human being who, under the given circumstances, employs the words which the author has supplied. They know that no critic could, by reading a play, evolve a portrait of the man whom an original actor will represent as the embodiment of some new part. They know that each new actor of real merit recreates the persons of the older drama, sending traditions to the winds and producing a new person on the stage using the old words, but with marvellous differences of manner, voice, gesture and intention. They know that there is not merely one good way of representing a great part, but as many ways as there are great actors. Each actor is bound so to fashion his conception that his own physical attributes and mental powers will lend themselves to its execution, and thus the great parts on the French stage have bound up with them a long series of portraits each representing the creation of a separate actor—all the creations good and to be judged of on their own merits, not by reference simply to the mind of the author.

In small parts, and in the lower walks of the art, the English public will admit this truth readily. No one can suppose that the writer of Rip van Winkle conceived his man with the tones and gestures which we find so admirable in Mr. Jefferson; but the majesty of Shakespeare's name overawes us when we hear that a Mrs.

Siddons created a part which Shakespeare wrote—when we are told that an actor's first business is not to think how Shakespeare conceived his character as standing or looking, but how he, the actor, can make a real human being stand and look while speaking Shakespeare's words. Yet the words of the part do not by themselves supply the actor with one-hundredth part of the actions he has to perform. Every single

word has to be spoken with just intonation and emphasis, while not a single intonation or emphasis is indicated by the printed copy. The actor must find the expression of face, the attitude of body, the action of the limbs, the pauses, the hurries—the life, in fact. There is no logical process by which all these things can be evolved out of the mere words of a part. The actor must go direct to nature and

his own heart
for the tones and action by which he is to move his


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298THE NINETEENTH CENTURY.February

audience; these his author cannot give him, and in creating these, if

he be a great actor, his art may be supremely great.

The distinction between the mechanical arts and what are commonly called the fine arts lies in the creation or invention required by the artist as compared with the skill or dexterity which are alone required by the craftsman. The one copies or executes; the other creates, invents, or finds the treasure which he gives to the world.

Arts are great or small as the thing created is noble or petty; the artist is true or false as he possesses more or less of this creative power, for the exercise of which he in all cases requires skill more or less mechanical, which technical skill is often called 'art' as if there were no other. This technical skill can be taught and must be learned by every artist. The poetic creative power can never be taught, though in a sense it is learned from every sight, sound, and feeling; but this greater art is learned unconsciously, and few have the power to learn the lesson.

Judged by this canon, the art of the actor may claim high rank whenever its scope is the presentment of the highest human types. To truly great actors, the words they have to speak are but opportunities of creating these types—opportunities in the sense that a beautiful model, a fine landscape, are opportunities to the painter. In these he finds his picture, in those the actor finds his person; but the dramatist does less for the actor than nature for the painter. It is the involuntary unconscious perception of this truth which makes men accord a generous recognition to artists such as Mrs. Siddons while treating, not without justice, the rank and file of the profession as mere skilled workmen.

It is probable, nay certain, that in writing the words to be uttered by each character, a great author has vividly present to his mind an ideal man or woman speaking these with natural and effective tones and gestures—perhaps in Shakespeare's case, though not in others, the best tones and gestures possible; perhaps, however, with tones and gestures so old-fashioned that they would not move us now; what is certain is that we have no means of discovering these; indeed, he could not himself have imparted them to a fellow-actor. Moreover, when writing the words of Macbeth, he cannot have had present to his mind all the gestures and expressions of Lady Macbeth as she listened. Yet this by-play of the great actress was such that the

audience, looking at her, forgot to listen to Macbeth. Corneille never thought of how Camille would listen to the account of the death of her lover in Les Horaces, or, if he thought of it, his conception must have been a mere sketch as compared with the long and marvellous scene which Rachel, playing the part, showed to the astonished audience.

In truth, the spectators do not know the marvellous study which a great actor applies to every word of a speech. Some think that


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Perhaps the time will come when it will not be so much Shakspere and the ^ great poets artists as the reader-artists and the great actors and actresses

1878.MRS. SIDDONS AS LADY MACBETH.299

the study consists in finding out what the author meant the hero to say or express by given words. Sometimes this demands study; more often with great writers it is as plain as can be, requiring no study. When the meaning is understood, next comes the consideration of the feeling which the speech implies or requires in the speaker. The conception of this is far more difficult than the simple interpretation of the words, and will alter with each new actor; not differing toto cælo, but differing in shade, colour, and intensity. Any one of us can understand the reasoning in 'To be or not to be.' Very few of us can form any vivid conception of the state of Hamlet's mind, sentence by sentence, word by word, as he utters them. Of the few who can form any conception beyond a mere colourless, shadeless, pointless impression of gloom or bitterness, each one must of necessity form a distinct and new conception. In order that such a speech may sway a house, it must represent a series of emotions, each intense, natural, and noble—each succeeding the other in a natural sequence. ( After the speech has been understood and the feelings to which it corresponds conceived, comes a task of ineffable difficulty —that of finding tones, look, and action, which shall represent those

feelings. The author gives an outline, which the actor must fill up with colour, light, and shade, so as to show a concrete fact; and no two actors can or ought to do this in one and the same way. Let any reader who doubts this—who thinks, for instance, that there is some one Hamlet, Shakespeare's Hamlet, who could only speak the speech in one attitude, with one set of tones—open the book, and in the solitude of his chamber try first to find out the emotions which Shakespeare meant his Hamlet to feel, and then try to express those emotions in tones which would indicate them to others. If honest and clever, he will find out after half an hour's study how little the author has done for the actor, how much the actor is called upon to do for the author.

These views will find their illustration in the remarkable notes by Professor G. J. Bell on Mrs. Siddons' acting, which are now published for the first time, having been kindly placed at the disposal of the writer by his surviving son, Mr. John Bell, of the Calcutta bar. Written apparently on the spot, and during the red-hot glow of appreciation, they bring the great actress before us in a way which no laboured criticism or description could do. They show how noble an art she practised, and might almost inspire some young and generous mind with the power once more to create heroic men and women on the stage.

Professor G. J. Bell, brother of the great surgeon Sir Charles Bell, was Professor of Scottish Law in the University of Edinburgh, and author of Commentaries on the Law of Scotland, a standard work still in high repute. He was well known by his friends to be a man of fine taste and keen sensibility, as is indeed proved by these


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300THE NINETEENTH CENTURY.February

notes. They were made in 1809, or about that time, and are contained in three volumes, lettered 'Siddons,' which of themselves prove the great interest taken in Mrs. Siddons' acting. They contain acting editions of the plays in which she appeared, edited by Mrs. Inchbald. Professor Bell was himself in the habit of reading aloud, and, besides critical remarks, he has noted in many places the rise or fall of Mrs. Siddons' voice, putting a mark / for a rise, and \ for a fall. The words on which the emphasis fell are underlined. The following is an introductory note on Macbeth:Of Lady Macbeth there is not a great deal in this play, but the wonderful genius of Mrs. Siddons makes it the whole. She makes it tell the whole story of the ambitious project, the disappointment, the remorse, the sickness and despair of guilty ambition, the attainment of whose object is no cure for the wounds of the spirit. Macbeth in Kemble's hand is only a cooperating part. I can conceive Garrick to have sunk Lady Macbeth as much as Mrs. Siddons does Macbeth, yet when you see Mrs. Siddons play this part you scarcely can believe that any acting could make her part subordinate. Her turbulent and inhuman strength of spirit does all. She turns Macbeth to her purpose, makes him her mere instrument, guides, directs, and inspires the whole plot. Like Macbeth's evil genius she hurries him on in the mad career of ambition and cruelty from which his nature would have shrunk. The flagging of her spirit, the melancholy and dismal blank beginning to steal upon her, is one of the finest lessons of the drama. The moral is complete in the despair of Macbeth, the fond regret of both for that state of innocence from which their wild ambition has hurried them to their undoing. The writer of this note obviously, like Milton, considered a tragedy the moralest of poems, as indeed it is; but special attention may be paid to two points. First, Mrs. Siddons did not herself conceive Shakespeare's Lady Macbeth as turbulent and with inhuman strength; she represented her as a woman of this type because this conception

suited her physical powers and appearance. But in her own memoranda, published in her life by Campbell, she speaks thus of Lady Macbeth's beauty:— According to my notion it is of that character which I believe is generally allowed to be most captivating to the other sex—fair, feminine, nay perhaps even fragile—
Fair as the forms that, wove in fancy's loom,
Float in light visions round the poet's head.
Such a combination only, respectable in energy and strength of mind, and captivating in feminine loveliness, could have composed a charm of such potency as to fascinate the mind of a hero so dauntless, a character so amiable, so honourable as Macbeth. There is something to be said for Mrs. Siddons' argument that an overbearing woman could never have guided Macbeth; but this point is for the moment of secondary interest, compared with the light which her remark throws on the statement made above, that there is not one conception which alone the actor must form of a given part. Here we have a great actress forming two distinct conceptions: for


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1878.MRS. SIDDONS AS LADY MACBETH.301

no one can believe that if Mrs. Siddons had been able to appear the fair and fragile beauty she conceived, she would have used a single gesture or one inflection similar to those employed when she was representing turbulent inhuman strength.

The second point of interest in Professor Bell's note is, that the melancholy and dismal blank beginning to steal on Lady Macbeth is more the creation of Siddons than of Shakespeare. There is nothing in the text to contradict it, but little to indicate it. This will become more apparent when we reach the detailed notes.

A second notice in another copy of Macbeth appears as follows:— Mrs. Siddons is not before an audience. Her mind wrought up in high conception of her part, her eye never wandering, never for a moment idle, passion and sentiment continually betraying themselves. Her words are the accompaniments of her thoughts, scarcely necessary, you would imagine, to the expression, but highly raising it, and giving the full force of poetical effect. What a tribute! Shakespeare's words hardly necessary! And this was written by a man who idolised Shakespeare.

Professor Bell elsewhere remarks:— A just observation that it is unhappy when the part of Lady Macbeth is in the hands of a Siddons, and Macbeth (with?) an inferior actor. She then becomes not the affectionate aider of her husband's ambition, but the fell monster who tempts him to transgress, making him the mere instrument of her wild and uncontrollable ambition.

The notes on this play will now be given, only so much of each scene being quoted as is necessary to render the note intelligible. The text of Shakespeare is given as found in the edition annotated by Professor Bell.

ACT I. SCENE 5. Macbeth's castle at Inverness. Enter LADY MACBETH,0 reading a letter.

Lady. 'They met me in the day of success: and I have learned by the perfectest report, they have more in them than mortal knowledge. When I burned in desire to question them further, they made themselves air, into which they vanished. Whiles I stood rapt in the wonder of it, came missives from the king, who all-hailed me "Thane of Cawdor "; by which title, before, these weird sisters saluted me, and referred me to the coming on of time,' with "Hail, king that shalt be!" This have I thought good to deliver thee, my dearest partner of greatness, that thou mightest not lose the dues of rejoicing, by being ignorant of what greatness is promised thee. Lay it to thy heart, and farewell.'

Glamis thou art, and Cawdor, and shalt be1

What thou art promised:2 yet do I fear thy nature;

0 Mrs. Siddons.

1 Exalted prophetic tone, as if the whole future were present to her soul.

2 A slight tincture of contempt throughout.


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314THE NINETEENTH CENTURYFebruary

HOW THE TURKS RULE ARMENIA.

SUPPOSE an English Prime Minister were to persuade himself and a large section of the public that the security of our dominion in India required the sacrifice, once a year, of twenty innocent natives of both sexes, with every circumstance of cruelty and indignity which could add bitterness to death; and suppose a bill were introduced into Parliament for the purpose of giving practical effect to such conclusion. How many members of Parliament would be found to vote for it? Not one, I believe. The most loyal and submissive of the Minister's followers would recoil from participation in the guilt of so great a crime, even though the alternative should be the probable loss of our Indian empire. He would say to himself that the alternative supposed, though possible or even probable, was by no means certain; that the danger was perhaps, after all, not so great as had been supposed, and might perchance be altogether averted by the operation of events as yet unforeseen; but that, in any case, he must decline to have a hand in the commission of a great crime, be the political gain accruing therefrom ever so important.

Now what is the difference, in point of morality, between the policy which I have supposed and that which has found so many advocates in England during the last eighteen months? We have been told on high authority—and the doctrine has been energetically defended in high quarters—that we are bound for the sake of 'our own interests' to 'uphold' a political system of which we know that one of the inevitable fruits is the periodical torture and slaughter of '10,000 or 20,000' innocent human beings, to say nothing of other evils which are not periodical, but chronic. We are not simply to stand aloof and let matters take their course; we are to 'uphold' this periodical sacrifice to the Moloch of 'British interests,' and must accordingly interfere actively 'to prevent changes from occurring' in Turkey which would put an end to the sacrifice, if we think that such changes would be 'detrimental to ourselves.'1 In point of morality there really is no difference at all between upholding a system which now and then massacres 20,000 persons, and committing the massacre ourselves. Yet so inconsistent is human nature that those who do not scruple to defend the one would shrink in horror from the other

1 See Sir Henry Elliot's famous despatch, Blue Book No. 1, for 1877, p. 197.

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