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Mr. Fechter

ON MR. FECHTER'S ACTING

The distinguished artist whose name is prefixed to these remarks
purposes to leave England for a professional tour in the United
States. A few words from me, in reference to his merits as an
actor, I hope may not be uninteresting to some readers, in advance
of his publicly proving them before an American audience, and I know
will not be unacceptable to my intimate friend. I state at once
that Mr. Fechter holds that relation towards me; not only because it
is the fact, but also because our friendship originated in my public
appreciation of him. I had studied his acting closely, and had
admired it highly, both in Paris and in London, years before we
exchanged a word. Consequently my appreciation is not the result of
personal regard, but personal regard has sprung out of my
appreciation.

The first quality observable in Mr. Fechter's acting is, that it is
in the highest degree romantic. However elaborated in minute
details, there is always a peculiar dash and vigour in it, like the
fresh atmosphere of the story whereof it is a part. When he is on
the stage, it seems to me as though the story were transpiring
before me for the first and last time. Thus there is a fervour in
his love-making--a suffusion of his whole being with the rapture of
his passion--that sheds a glory on its object, and raises her,
before the eyes of the audience, into the light in which he sees
her. It was this remarkable power that took Paris by storm when he
became famous in the lover's part in the Dame aux Camelias. It is a
short part, really comprised in two scenes, but, as he acted it (he
was its original representative), it left its poetic and exalting
influence on the heroine throughout the play. A woman who could be
so loved--who could be so devotedly and romantically adored--had a
hold upon the general sympathy with which nothing less absorbing and
complete could have invested her. When I first saw this play and
this actor, I could not in forming my lenient judgment of the
heroine, forget that she had been the inspiration of a passion of
which I had beheld such profound and affecting marks. I said to
myself, as a child might have said: "A bad woman could not have
been the object of that wonderful tenderness, could not have so
subdued that worshipping heart, could not have drawn such tears from
such a lover". I am persuaded that the same effect was wrought upon
the Parisian audiences, both consciously and unconsciously, to a
very great extent, and that what was morally disagreeable in the
Dame aux Camelias first got lost in this brilliant halo of romance.
I have seen the same play with the same part otherwise acted, and in
exact degree as the love became dull and earthy, the heroine
descended from her pedestal.

In Ruy Blas, in the Master of Ravenswood, and in the Lady of Lyons--
three dramas in which Mr. Fechter especially shines as a lover, but
notably in the first--this remarkable power of surrounding the
beloved creature, in the eyes of the audience, with the fascination
that she has for him, is strikingly displayed. That observer must
be cold indeed who does not feel, when Ruy Blas stands in the
presence of the young unwedded Queen of Spain, that the air is
enchanted; or, when she bends over him, laying her tender touch upon
his bloody breast, that it is better so to die than to live apart
from her, and that she is worthy to be so died for. When the Master
of Ravenswood declares his love to Lucy Ashton, and she hers to him,
and when in a burst of rapture, he kisses the skirt of her dress, we
feel as though we touched it with our lips to stay our goddess from
soaring away into the very heavens. And when they plight their
troth and break the piece of gold, it is we--not Edgar--who quickly
exchange our half for the half she was about to hang about her neck,
solely because the latter has for an instant touched the bosom we so
dearly love. Again, in the Lady of Lyons: the picture on the easel
in the poor cottage studio is not the unfinished portrait of a vain
and arrogant girl, but becomes the sketch of a Soul's high ambition
and aspiration here and hereafter.

Picturesqueness is a quality above all others pervading Mr.
Fechter's assumptions. Himself a skilled painter and sculptor,
learned in the history of costume, and informing those
accomplishments and that knowledge with a similar infusion of
romance (for romance is inseparable from the man), he is always a
picture,--always a picture in its right place in the group, always
in true composition with the background of the scene. For
picturesqueness of manner, note so trivial a thing as the turn of
his hand in beckoning from a window, in Ruy Blas, to a personage
down in an outer courtyard to come up; or his assumption of the
Duke's livery in the same scene; or his writing a letter from
dictation. In the last scene of Victor Hugo's noble drama, his
bearing becomes positively inspired; and his sudden assumption of
the attitude of the headsman, in his denunciation of the Duke and
threat to be his executioner, is, so far as I know, one of the most
ferociously picturesque things conceivable on the stage.

The foregoing use of the word "ferociously" reminds me to remark
that this artist is a master of passionate vehemence; in which
aspect he appears to me to represent, perhaps more than in any
other, an interesting union of characteristics of two great
nations,--the French and the Anglo-Saxon. Born in London of a
French mother, by a German father, but reared entirely in England
and in France, there is, in his fury, a combination of French
suddenness and impressibility with our more slowly demonstrative
Anglo-Saxon way when we get, as we say, "our blood up", that
produces an intensely fiery result. The fusion of two races is in
it, and one cannot decidedly say that it belongs to either; but one
can most decidedly say that it belongs to a powerful concentration
of human passion and emotion, and to human nature.

Mr. Fechter has been in the main more accustomed to speak French
than to speak English, and therefore he speaks our language with a
French accent. But whosoever should suppose that he does not speak
English fluently, plainly, distinctly, and with a perfect
understanding of the meaning, weight, and value of every word, would
be greatly mistaken. Not only is his knowledge of English--
extending to the most subtle idiom, or the most recondite cant
phrase--more extensive than that of many of us who have English for
our mother-tongue, but his delivery of Shakespeare's blank verse is
remarkably facile, musical, and intelligent. To be in a sort of
pain for him, as one sometimes is for a foreigner speaking English,
or to be in any doubt of his having twenty synonymes at his tongue's
end if he should want one, is out of the question after having been
of his audience.

A few words on two of his Shakespearian impersonations, and I shall
have indicated enough, in advance of Mr. Fechter's presentation of
himself. That quality of picturesqueness, on which I have already
laid stress, is strikingly developed in his Iago, and yet it is so
judiciously governed that his Iago is not in the least picturesque
according to the conventional ways of frowning, sneering,
diabolically grinning, and elaborately doing everything else that
would induce Othello to run him through the body very early in the
play. Mr. Fechter's is the Iago who could, and did, make friends,
who could dissect his master's soul, without flourishing his scalpel
as if it were a walking-stick, who could overpower Emilia by other
arts than a sign-of-the-Saracen's-Head grimness; who could be a boon
companion without ipso facto warning all beholders off by the
portentous phenomenon; who could sing a song and clink a can
naturally enough, and stab men really in the dark,--not in a
transparent notification of himself as going about seeking whom to
stab. Mr. Fechter's Iago is no more in the conventional
psychological mode than in the conventional hussar pantaloons and
boots; and you shall see the picturesqueness of his wearing borne
out in his bearing all through the tragedy down to the moment when
he becomes invincibly and consistently dumb.

Perhaps no innovation in Art was ever accepted with so much favour
by so many intellectual persons pre-committed to, and preoccupied
by, another system, as Mr. Fechter's Hamlet. I take this to have
been the case (as it unquestionably was in London), not because of
its picturesqueness, not because of its novelty, not because of its
many scattered beauties, but because of its perfect consistency with
itself. As the animal-painter said of his favourite picture of
rabbits that there was more nature about those rabbits than you
usually found in rabbits, so it may be said of Mr. Fechter's Hamlet,
that there was more consistency about that Hamlet than you usually
found in Hamlets. Its great and satisfying originality was in its
possessing the merit of a distinctly conceived and executed idea.
From the first appearance of the broken glass of fashion and mould
of form, pale and worn with weeping for his father's death, and
remotely suspicious of its cause, to his final struggle with Horatio
for the fatal cup, there were cohesion and coherence in Mr.
Fechter's view of the character. Devrient, the German actor, had,
some years before in London, fluttered the theatrical doves
considerably, by such changes as being seated when instructing the
players, and like mild departures from established usage; but he had
worn, in the main, the old nondescript dress, and had held forth, in
the main, in the old way, hovering between sanity and madness. I do
not remember whether he wore his hair crisply curled short, as if he
were going to an everlasting dancing-master's party at the Danish
court; but I do remember that most other Hamlets since the great
Kemble had been bound to do so. Mr. Fechter's Hamlet, a pale,
woebegone Norseman with long flaxen hair, wearing a strange garb
never associated with the part upon the English stage (if ever seen
there at all) and making a piratical swoop upon the whole fleet of
little theatrical prescriptions without meaning, or, like Dr.
Johnson's celebrated friend, with only one idea in them, and that a
wrong one, never could have achieved its extraordinary success but
for its animation by one pervading purpose, to which all changes
were made intelligently subservient. The bearing of this purpose on
the treatment of Ophelia, on the death of Polonius, and on the old
student fellowship between Hamlet and Horatio, was exceedingly
striking; and the difference between picturesqueness of stage
arrangement for mere stage effect, and for the elucidation of a
meaning, was well displayed in there having been a gallery of
musicians at the Play, and in one of them passing on his way out,
with his instrument in his hand, when Hamlet, seeing it, took it
from him, to point his talk with Rosencrantz and Guildenstern.

This leads me to the observation with which I have all along desired
to conclude: that Mr. Fechter's romance and picturesqueness are
always united to a true artist's intelligence, and a true artist's
training in a true artist's spirit. He became one of the company of
the Theatre Francais when he was a very young man, and he has
cultivated his natural gifts in the best schools. I cannot wish my
friend a better audience than he will have in the American people,
and I cannot wish them a better actor than they will have in my
friend.

Footnotes:

{1} Cornhill Magazine

Charles Dickens

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