[Footnote A: Spectator, No. 290, February 1, 1711-12. This essay has been credited to Steele.]
This picture of woe would hardly suit the theories of those hard-hearted players who believe that the true artist is never “carried away,” or affected by the pathos of his part. Surely, the scene is ridiculous rather than imposing, and one is tempted to suggest, albeit with bated breath, that the Spectator was indulging in a bit of good-natured exaggeration. Exaggeration did we say? The modern newspaper writer, who is always glad, when off duty, to call things by their plain names, would brand the notice of the “Distressed Mother” as a bare-faced puff. And who could quarrel with his scepticism? Actors are not in the habit of weeping over the reading of a play; they have little time for such briny luxury.
Yet in this very number of the Spectator we have George Powell, who was cast for Orestes in Mr. Philips’ tragedy, writing that the grief which he is required to portray will seem almost real enough to choke his utterance. Here is what the hypocrite says:
“Mr. SPECTATOR,—I am appointed to act a part in the new tragedy called ‘The Distressed Mother.’ It is the celebrated grief of Orestes which I am to personate; but I shall not act it as I ought, for I shall feel it too intimately to be able to utter it. I was last night repeating a paragraph to myself, which I took to be an expression of rage, and in the middle of the sentence there was a stroke of self-pity which quite unmanned me. Be pleased, Sir, to print this letter, that when I am oppressed in this manner at such an interval, a certain part of the audience may not think I am out; and I hope with this allowance, to do it with satisfaction.—I am, Sir, your most humble servant, GEORGE POWELL.”
Poor dashing, dissipated, brandy-bibbing George! Perhaps you had as keen an eye to the value of advertising as have certain players who never heard your name.[A]
[Footnote A: The original cast of the “Distressed Mother” included Booth (Pyrrhus), Powell (Orestes), Mills (Pylades), Mrs. Oldfield (Andromache), and Mrs. Porter (Hermione).]
The production of the “Distressed Mother” (March, 1712), was accompanied by an exciting popular demonstration which must for the nonce have made Powell quite forget those lines which gave him such exquisite sorrow. It all came from the jealousy of Mrs. Rogers, she of more virtue on the stage than off, and who always cherished, with the assistance of kind friends, a very sincere belief that her powers far exceeded those of Oldfield.[A]