for pity!—we shall much disgrace
With four or five most vile and ragged foils
The name of Agincourt.”
There have always been critics who regarded care and elaboration in the mounting of plays as destructive of the real spirit of the actor’s art. Betterton had to meet this reproach when he introduced scenery in lieu of linsey-woolsey curtains; but he replied, sensibly enough, that his scenery was better than the tapestry with hideous figures worked upon it which had so long distracted the senses of play-goers. He might have asked his critics whether they wished to see Ophelia played by a boy of sixteen, as in the time of Shakespeare, instead of a beautiful and gifted woman. Garrick did his utmost to improve the mechanical arts of the stage—so much so, indeed, that he paid his scene-painter, Loutherbourg, L500 a year, a pretty considerable sum in those days—though in Garrick’s time the importance of realism in costume was not sufficiently appreciated to prevent him from playing Macbeth in a bagwig. To-day we are employing all our resources to heighten the picturesque effects of the drama, and we are still told that this is a gross error. It may be admitted that nothing is more objectionable than certain kinds of realism, which are simply vulgar; but harmony of color and grace of outline have a legitimate sphere in the theatre, and the method which uses them as adjuncts may claim to be “as wholesome as sweet, and by very much more handsome than fine.” For the abuse of scenic decoration, the overloading of the stage with ornament, the subordination of the play to a pageant, I have nothing to say. That is all foreign to the artistic purpose which should dominate dramatic work. Nor do I think that servility to archaeology on the stage is an unmixed good. Correctness of costume is admirable and necessary up to a certain point, but when it ceases to be “as wholesome as sweet,” it should, I think, be sacrificed. You perceive that the nicest discretion is needed in the use of the materials which are nowadays at the disposal of the manager. Music, painting, architecture, the endless variations of costume, have all to be employed with a strict regard to the production of an artistic whole, in which no element shall be unduly obtrusive. We are open to microscopic criticism at every point. When Much Ado about Nothing was produced at the Lyceum, I received a letter complaining of the gross violation of accuracy in a scene which was called a cedar-walk. “Cedars!” said my correspondent,—“why, cedars were not introduced into Messina for fifty years after the date of Shakespeare’s story!” Well, this was a tremendous indictment, but unfortunately the cedar-walk had been painted. Absolute realism on the stage is not always desirable, any more than the photographic reproduction of Nature can claim to rank with the highest art.
The rewards of the art.