I have read in some of the biographies of me that have been published from time to time, that I was chagrined at Coghlan’s fiasco because it brought my success as Portia so soon to an end. As a matter of fact, I never thought about it. I was just sorry for clever Coghlan, who was deeply hurt and took his defeat hardly and moodily. He wiped out the public recollection of it to a great extent by his Evelyn in “Money,” Sir Charles Pomander in “Masks and Faces,” and Claude Melnotte in “The Lady of Lyons,” which he played with me at the Princess’s Theater for one night only in the August following the withdrawal of “The Merchant of Venice.”
I have been credited with great generosity for appearing in that single performance of “The Lady of Lyons.” It was said that I wanted to help Coghlan reinstate himself, and so on. Very likely there was some such feeling in the matter, but there was also a good part and good remuneration! I remember that I played Lytton’s proud heroine better then than I did at the Lyceum five years later, and Coghlan was more successful as Melnotte than Henry Irving. But I was never really good. I tried in vain to have sympathy with a lady who was addressed as “haughty cousin,” yet whose very pride had so much inconsistency. How could any woman fall in love with a cad like Melnotte? I used to ask myself despairingly. The very fact that I tried to understand Pauline was against me. There is only one way to play her, and to be bothered by questions of sincerity and consistency means that you will miss that way for a certainty!
I missed it, and fell between two stools. Finding that it was useless to depend upon feeling, I groped after the definite rules which had always governed the delivery of Pauline’s fustian, and the fate that commonly overtakes those who try to put old wine into new bottles overtook me.
I knew for instance, exactly how the following speech ought to be done, but I never could do it. It occurs in the fourth act, where Beauseant, after Pauline has been disillusioned, thinks it will be an easy matter to induce the proud beauty to fly with him:
“Go! (White to the lips.) Sir, leave this house! It is humble; but a husband’s roof, however lowly, is, in the eyes of God and man, the temple of a wife’s honor. (Tumultuous applause.) Know that I would rather starve—aye, starve—with him who has betrayed me than accept your lawful hand, even were you the prince whose name he bore. (Hurrying on quickly to prevent applause before the finish.) Go!”
It is easy to laugh at Lytton’s rhetoric, but very few dramatists have had a more complete mastery of theatrical situations, and that is a good thing to be master of. Why the word “theatrical” should have come to be used in a contemptuous sense I cannot understand. “Musical” is a word of praise in music; why not “theatrical” in a theater? A play in any age which holds the boards so continuously as “The Lady of Lyons” deserves more consideration than the ridicule of those who think that the world has moved on because our playwrights write more naturally than Lytton did. The merit of the play lay, not in its bombast, but in its situation.