« AnteriorContinuar »
spoke it with propriety, although with a French intonation. He had spent some years of his early life in London, and I observed that his sister, Madame Ducis, who is married to the painter of that name, (a nephew of the late poet,) spoke English with such purity and ease, that she might readily have been mistaken for an English woman. Talma intimated a strong desire to play Hamlet in London. The idea had been originally suggested to him by Helen Maria Williams, into which he entered with enthusiasm, and actually underwent a course of minute preparation, under the tuition of an English actor, who happened to be in Paris at the time that he indulged in the notion that he could win the reluctant approbation of an English auditory, of which he seemed to be peculiarly ambitious. I requested him to repeat “ To be or not to be.” He readily complied, and delivered it in a manner perfectly original, and which, with some appearance of strangeness, was powerful and impressive in the highest degree. It would not have produced a great effect upon the mass of auditors in one of our own theatres, but a discriminating actor would have found in it much for study, and even for imitation. It was at once solemn and abrupt. The pauses were long, but the utterance was sudden and occasionally precipitate. There was an earnestness, and, if I may so say, an impatient curiosity in his investigations of the mysteries of the grave, which he seemed to open and search like one looking for its secrets, like a treasure, in its dark and impenetrable depth. Yet there was no less of dignity in this impassioned scrutiny. He was more swift than hurried. His images appeared to pass, like the shadows of rapid clouds, over an elevated mind. He seemed to spring with one bound over the dark boundaries which separate us from futurity, and to traverse vast tracts of meditation in a single thought. It was not exactly consistent with our own notions of Hamlet, but it was a noble portraiture of a man holding discourse with death ; and, to use an expression of Madame de Stael, “interrogant la pensée sur le sort des mortels.” Of our Kemble he spoke in terms of the highest and most unaffected praise, although I could perceive that he considered him his rival. Coriolanus, he said, was a master-piece, which evinced an union of the highest genius with the most consummate art. Kemble, however, in his opinion would not have reached to eminence upon the French stage, on account of the feebleness of his voice,-an obstacle which is insurmountable in France, where the recitation of verse, from the peculiarity of its construction, requires an organ of great depth and power. He acknowledged the genius of Kean, but objected to his mannerism and extravagance. I found him quite alive to the distinguished merits of Miss O'Neill, for he said that in domestic pathos she was unequalled. A singular circumstance was mentioned by him as a proof of her great talents. Some French ladies accompanied him while in London to witness her performance of Isabella, and had previously formed a determination to receive no pleasure from any thing so barbarous as English acting. For some time they kept their resolution, and as they did not understand a word of the play, their impression was but slowly removed, until at last Nature asserted her prerogative, and tears afforded them attestation of the indisputable powers of that impassioned mistress of her delightful art.
Of the German actors, Talma said little, with the single exception of the great Prussian performer, Iffland, whom he represented as a man of singular ability, and as excelling in the delineation of domestic feeling and character, especially in the performance of his own dramas, in which he put out his noblest energies. Talma, in speaking of the German and English stages, took occasion to observe upon the great advantages which they afforded to the actor, both from the strength and variety of the situations, and the unshackled freedom which they permitted him to enjoy in the indulgence of his own invention. In France it is limited and fettered by that sense of bienséance, which, if it restrain the commission of great faults, imposes a check upon the natural flight of genius, and condemns it to an humble sphere. He had made many efforts, he said, (and had in part succeeded) to liberate the theatre of his country from those traditionary sophistications by which it was enslaved. He had changed the whole system of recitation, and had contrived a method by which the rhyme of French tragedy was more or less disguised. In his opinion, there could be no French verse without it; but he thought that it should act upon the ear without awakening a sense of its existence; and that the pleasure which a judicious declamation was calculated to supply, should be unaccompanied by any consciousness of the means by which it was produced. Talma, from his first advances towards celebrity, endeavoured to effect a great change in French acting.
He threw off many of the pompous forms of tragic enunciation, and assimilated in a greater degree the recitation of verse, with the measure of ordinary discourse. He remedied the imperfections of the metre, which he was reluctantly compelled to allow, by his bold approaches to the familiarity of natural speech. The pause at the third foot, and the alternation of masculine and feminine rhymes, were lost in his intrepid declamation. By a just sacrifice of melody to force, he broke the couplet into energy and power.
Talma may indeed be justly designated as the actor of the revolution. His mind broke out in its intensity at that period of excitation, so favourable to the developement of his strong and gloomy faculties; for, if I may use the expression, there was a lurid light in his genius, of a quality peculiarly calculated to shine in those dark and tempestuous times. The familiar and almost daily indulgence of the fiercer passions begot a corresponding avidity for emotion in the pictures of ideal life; and men entered the theatre with a predisposition, and even a craving for excitement, which they had derived from the contemplation of those dreadful scenes, in which they had not only been spectators, but had borne so disastrous a part. They looked for fiction upon
the stage as terrible, as the reality to which they had been previously habituated, and they found, in the spirit of Talma, a fitting comment for what they saw and felt about them. His genius administered to their appetite for emotion. In his terrible personations, the public man beheld his own image. Full of turbulence and gloom, he saw exhibited, in a faithful mirror, those modifications of nature which the great events upon the theatre of human affairs had contributed to produce. Talma would not, perhaps, have risen to celebrity in times of a more subdued and pacific character. Had he lived in the midst of the frivolous gaiety of the former monarchy of France, he would have found no field for the manifestation of his talents. He would not have
passion of the the ra pride tators liarity nishin mute silen furie heart reput facul cordi any His of hi his 1 a $1 lite intir and sur
been in unison with the public feeling. His manner would have been condemned for bad taste and exaggeration, and he would have been proscribed for his adventurous innovations. To this day the adherents to the old school of politics and literature (for it is remarkable that the supporters of the one are equally devoted to the other) manifest their distaste in a querulous sort of criticism of this great and original actor. They consider his genius as tainted with the revolution, and are as fully convinced that the ancien régime should be restored at the theatre, as at the Louvre. They talk of the good old times of Le Kain, and of La Rive, and lament the barbarous degeneracy of the age in many a pathetic reminiscence of a better day. His gesture, gait, and aspect, furnish them with topics of mournful comparison with the favourites of their younger years; and they remain unmoved, or at most but shrug their shoulders with the habitual demonstration of contempt, while the revolutionary actor traverses the stage in the whirlwind of passion, merging the dignity of the monarch in the vehement emotions of the man, and presenting in his countenance, in a terrible succession, the rapid vicissitude of those stormy feelings, which it is his chief pride and noblest faculty to paint. But upon the great mass of spectators he exercises a magical dominion. To men who court a familiarity with terror, he offers at every moment new materials for astonishment and pleasure, and they gaze upon his terrible delineations in mute and marvelling delight. The cavern of a magician is not more silent than the Parisian theatre, when this great enchanter awakes the furies, and calls up the passions from their dark abysses in the human heart. It is not wonderful that he should have gained so unequalled a reputation with the French people, by the display of those extraordinary faculties with which their own feelings sympathized so well. He accordingly attained a station in society which had never been reached by any other actor, and the blot upon his profession was in part worn away. His intimacy with Bonaparte too gave him a consideration independent of his theatrical fame. The partiality of the emperor for the stage, and his love of dramatic literature, which he continued to protect, when by a singular inconsistency he discountenanced every other branch of polite learning, raised him into estimation at the court. Talma had been intimate with Bonaparte when the latter was a subaltern in the army ; and to his honour, their friendship lasted during his elevation, and survived his fall.
Talma mentioned to me some singular circumstances of Bonaparte, which may be of interest, as they are derived from an authentic source. The early acquaintance of Talma with Bonaparte originated from his passion for the stage. Talma had an opportunity of gratifying it, by giving him free admissions, when the finances of the “emperor to be" were too limited for a frequent indulgence in what every Frenchman considers as almost a necessary of life. Their acquaintance soon ripened into familiarity, and the hours which were not devoted to their respective professions, were often passed together. They used frequently to stroll through the streets of Paris in the evening. Bonaparte was so immoderately fond of coffee, that he could not refrain from entering every tavern by which they passed, in which his favourite beverage could be procured. His love for it arose from its exciting qualities. After he had swallowed large draughts, and when his spirits VOL. V. NO. XIX.
were awakened into unusual vivacity, he indulged in all sorts of ambitious speculation. His friend could not belp smiling at the confidence with which he predicted his future greatness, for he was ever commercing with futurity, and by anticipation was already a great man. All his notions were vast and daring; and he expressed himself in wild and dreamy imagery, which was well suited to his high and aspiring thoughts. Talma said, that at this time bis conversation was nearly Ossianic, from which I took occasion to inquire from him if it was true that Bonaparte had so much partiality for the writer, whom he little suspected for a modern Scotchman, who had arrayed his conceptions in the mists of his own grey hills, and contrived to impose upon the world in this ingenious and fantastic masquerade. Talma did not seem to be quite pleased at my being so incredulous of the authenticity of the favourite author of his imperial friend; for he assured me, that from the earlist period of their acquaintance, he remembered Bonaparte's passion for what he considered as among the sublimest fragments of antiquity. He used to carry a small edition of Ossian about him. No doubt, the style more or less communicated something of its own colour to his mind; and we may account for the occasional hyperboles to be found in his public documents, by referring them to that very likely
I asked Talma whether Bonaparte's temper was as violent before he attained his elevation, as it was said to have been afterwards. He denied, and that with no little warmth, that his temper had ever been remarkable for its vehemence, and asserted, that on the contrary, though subject to gusts of a sudden and transitory kind, he was generally gentle, and exceedingly good-natured. As a proof of it, he mentioned the deep attachment of all those who were immediately about his person. Talma was often much affected in speaking of the man, who had loaded him with favours, and upon one or two occasions he was moved even to tears. He could not help admitting the evils which Bonaparte had inflicted, and that he was a foe to liberty ; but at the same time he said, that those who knew him best indulged in the hope that age might have calmed his ambition, and given his mind a more pacific cast-an opinion which, from politeness, I did not care to controvert. Talma always found a ready access to Bonaparte, even in the days of his loftiest prosperity. The emperor used to chat with him, with all the familiarity of an old acquaintance; he inquired minutely into all the concerns of the theatre, and dwelt upon the subject with a real and unimpaired delight. Corneille was Bonaparte's favourite dramatist; and of all his works, he chiefly admired Cinna. It occurred to me indeed, when I saw that noble tragedy, that the sentiments it conveyed must have been greatly agreeable to him, as the cvils of a republic, and the necessity that one strong hand should seize the reins in turbulent and distracted times, are strongly inculcated. Talma played Augustus for the first time whilst I was in Paris, and to Lafond, who had till then performed the former part, Cinna was committed. There was a rivalry between the two actors, which gave additional interest to the performance. Talma soon left competition at an immense distance, and carried all the applauses of the house, which was crowded to excess. The deepest emotion was produced among the spectators, by the many references to the scenes of Roman conception, which afforded a painful association with what they had themselves so recently beheld. The terrific descriptions of the poet, given with all the power of the most masterly declamation, approached, at moments, to the vividness of reality. Scarce a sentiment was uttered which did not find an echo in every bosom around me, and I could not refrain from praying, that in the theatres of my own country I should never be a witness to emotions derived from any
kindred cause. Talma appeared to me, in his personation of Augustus, to aim at presenting some shadows of Bonaparte. Indeed there was a vehemence and abruptness in his acting, so little conformable with my own ideas of the character, that I was satisfied that he intended to pourtray the great product of the revolution. Talma afterwards mentioned that Cinna was the play which Bonaparte chiefly liked ; and that one day, after witnessing its representation, he mentioned, that the depth and justice of the political reflections which every where occur in the writings of Corneille, had so much impressed him with admiration for the genius of the poet, that if he had been living in his time, he would have made him his prime minister.
LETTERS FROM TOURS,
Miss Mary Ball To Miss JANE JINKINS.
mind. We drove to Meurice's, and there should each thing go That, to use Papa's phrase, cannot jabber the lingo, For our language is spoken by all that you meet, Nay, even the charges are English complete, And beef and plum-pudding you get if you choose, With young roasted-pig, which the French hale like Jews. Next morning with Pa to the Louvre I flew, The statues, and marbles, and sculptures to view. La! Jenny, they're quite indecorous : why, Madam, They've not c'en the priinitive wardrobe of Adam ! I didn't know which way to look; but in France These matters are view'd' with complete nonchalance ; And the ladies around me, like cool connoisseurs Were raving in raptures on limbs and contours“O Dieu ! que c'est beau ! c'est superbe, magnifique ! Voilà ce que c'est que de suivre l'antique."