It was at the Royalty that I first acted with Mr. Kendal. He and I played together in a comedietta called “A Nice Quiet Day.” Soon after, my engagement came to an end, and I went to Bristol, where I gained the experience of my life with a stock company.
“I think anything, naturally written, ought to be in everybody’s way that pretends to be an actor.” This remark of Colley Cibber’s long ago struck me as an excellent motto for beginning on the stage. The ambitious boy thinks of Hamlet, the ambitious girl of Lady Macbeth or Rosalind, but where shall we find the young actor and actress whose heart is set on being useful?
Usefulness! It is not a fascinating word, and the quality is not one of which the aspiring spirit can dream o’ nights, yet on the stage it is the first thing to aim at. Not until we have learned to be useful can we afford to do what we like. The tragedian will always be a limited tragedian if he has not learned how to laugh. The comedian who cannot weep will never touch the highest levels of mirth.
It was in the stock companies that we learned the great lesson of usefulness; we played everything—tragedy, comedy, farce, and burlesque. There was no question of parts “suiting” us; we had to take what we were given.
The first time I was cast for a part in a burlesque I told the stage manager I couldn’t sing and I couldn’t dance. His reply was short and to the point. “You’ve got to do it,” and so I did it in a way—a very funny way at first, no doubt. It was admirable training, for it took all the self-consciousness out of me to start with. To end with, I thought it capital fun, and enjoyed burlesque as much as Shakespeare.
What was a stock company? I forget that in these days the question may be asked in all good faith, and that it is necessary to answer it. Well, then, a stock company was a company of actors and actresses brought together by the manager of a provincial theater to support a leading actor or actress—“a star”—from London. When Edmund Kean, the Kembles, Macready, or Mrs. Siddons visited provincial towns, these companies were ready to support them in Shakespeare. They were also ready to play burlesque, farce, and comedy to fill out the bill. Sometimes the “stars” would come for a whole season; if their magnitude were of the first order, for only one night. Sometimes they would rehearse with the stock company, sometimes they wouldn’t. There is a story of a manager visiting Edmund Kean at his hotel on his arrival in a small provincial town, and asking the great actor when he would rehearse.
“Rehearse! I’m not going to rehearse—I’m going to sleep!”
“Have you any instructions?”
“Instructions! No! Tell ’em to keep at a long arm’s length away from me and do their d——d worst!”
At Bristol, where I joined Mr. J.H. Chute’s stock company in 1861, we had no experience of that kind, perhaps because there was no Kean alive to give it to us. And I don’t think that our “worst” would have been so very bad. Mr. Chute, who had married Macready’s half-sister, was a splendid manager, and he contrived to gather round him a company which was something more than “sound.”