Thou trumpet set for Shakespeare’s lips to blow,
and we may be sure that Irving appreciated the honour thus paid him, he who so wonderfully interpreted so many of Shakespeare’s moods, so well understood the irony of his intellect, even the breadth of his humanity, yet in Hamlet, at all events, so strangely missed his soul.
Most of us have seen many Hamlets die. We have watched them squirming through those scientific contortions of dissolution, to copy which they had very evidently walked the hospitals in a businesslike quest of death-agonies, as certain histrionic connoisseurs of madness in France lovingly haunt the Saltpetriere. As I look back, I wonder how we tolerated their wriggling absurdity. I suppose it was that the hand of tradition was still upon us, as upon them. And, let us not forget, the words were there, the immortal words, and an atmosphere of tragic death and immortality that only such words could create:
thee from felicity awhile,
And in the harsh world draw thy breath in pain
To hear my story ...
The rest is silence....
How different it is when Forbes-Robertson’s Hamlet dies! All my life I seem to have been asking my friends, those I loved best, those who valued the dearest, the kindest, the greatest, and the strongest in our strange human life, to come with me and see Forbes-Robertson die in Hamlet. I asked them because, as that strange young dead king sat upon his throne, there was something, whatever it meant—death, life, immortality, what you will—of a surpassing loveliness, something transfiguring the poor passing moment of trivial, brutal murder into a beauty to which it was quite natural that that stern Northern warrior, with his winged helmet, should bend the knee. I would not exchange anything I have ever read or seen for Forbes-Robertson as he sits there so still and starlit upon the throne of Denmark.
Forbes-Robertson is not merely a great Shakespearian actor; he is a great spiritual actor. The one doubtless implies the other, though the implication has not always appeared to be obvious.
He is prophetic of what the stage will some day be, and what we can see it here and there preparing to become. In all the welter of the dramatic conditions of the moment there emerges one fact, that of the growing importance of the stage as a vehicle for what one may term general culture. The stage, with its half-sister, the cinema, is strangely, by how long and circuitous a route, returning of course, with an immeasurably developed equipment, to its starting-point, ending curiously where it began as the handmaid of the church. As with the old moralities or miracle-plays, it is becoming once more our teacher. The lessons of truth and beauty, as those of plain gaiety and delight, are relying more and more upon the actor for their expression, and less on the accredited doctors of