IN TRAGIC PATHS
The average comedian will whisper, if you are fortunate enough to get him in confidential mood, that he was really designed by nature to tread the stately walks of tragedy; that had not cruel fate intervened he would now be enthralling the town with his Hamlet, Macbeth, or Othello, and that even yet he has not lost all hope of adorning the kingdom of Melpomene. But he is not to be believed, in at least ninety-nine cases out of a hundred, and while we listen politely to his story of blasted ambition our hearts are exceeding thankful that the chance he looked for never came.
Nance Oldfield brilliantly reversed this order of things. Although she shone in comedy with the brighter light, she could play serious roles with majesty and power, and feel, or pretend to feel, a trifle bored in so doing. “I hate to have a page dragging my train about,” she used to cry, with a pout of the pretty mouth; “why don’t they give Porter those parts? She can put on a better tragedy face than I can.” Yet whatever might be the undoubted capabilities of Porter for assuming the tragic mask, audience and manager sometimes insisted that Nance should banish all the sunlight and becloud her features with the sorrows of a high-strung heroine.
One of these heroines was Andromache, the title personage of “The Distressed Mother,” an adaptation by Ambrose Philips of Racine’s “Andromaque.” This play seems heavy enough if we bother to read it now, but it had a thousand charms for theatre-goers in the days when Mr. Philips frequented Button’s coffee-house and there hung up a cane which he threatened to use upon the body of the great Mr. Pope.[A] Addison, whom tradition credits with writing the entertaining epilogue, took all manner of interest in the tragedy, and the Spectator treated it to an advance notice which we degenerates might term an unblushing “boom.”
[Footnote A: Pope had ventured to sneer at Philips’ “Pastorals.”]
“The players, who know I am very much their friend,” says the Spectator[A] “take all opportunities to express a gratitude to me for being so. They could not have a better occasion of obliging me, than one which they lately took hold of. They desired my friend Will Honeycomb to bring me the reading of a new tragedy; it is called ’The Distressed Mother.’ I must confess, though some days are passed since I enjoyed that entertainment, the passions of the several characters dwell strongly upon my imagination; and I congratulate the age, that they are at last to see truth and human life represented in the incidents which concern heroes and heroines. The style of the play is such as becomes those of the first education, and the sentiments worthy those of the highest figure. It was a most exquisite pleasure to me, to observe real tears drop from the eyes of those who had long made it their profession to dissemble affliction; and the player, who read, frequently threw down the book, until he had given vent to the humanity which rose in him at some irresistible touches of the imagined sorrow.”