Now and then a genius, like Rachel as Horatia, or Hackett as Falstaff, may actually seem to be the character assumed by virtue of a transforming imagination, but I suppose the fact to be that getting into a costume, absurdly antiquated and remote from all the habits and associations of the actor, largely accounts for the incongruity and ridiculousness of most of our modern acting. Whether what is called the “legitimate drama” ever was legitimate we do not know, but the advocates of it appear to think that the theatre was some time cast in a mould, once for all, and is good for all times and peoples, like the propositions of Euclid. To our eyes the legitimate drama of to-day is the one in which the day is reflected, both in costume and speech, and which touches the affections, the passions, the humor, of the present time. The brilliant success of the few good plays that have been written out of the rich life which we now live—the most varied, fruitful, and dramatically suggestive—ought to rid us forever of the buskin-fustian, except as a pantomimic or spectacular curiosity.
We have no objection to Julius Caesar or Richard III. stalking about in impossible clothes, and stepping four feet at a stride, if they want to, but let them not claim to be more “legitimate” than “Ours” or “Rip Van Winkle.” There will probably be some orator for years and years to come, at every Fourth of July, who will go on asking, Where is Thebes? but he does not care anything about it, and he does not really expect an answer. I have sometimes wished I knew the exact site of Thebes, so that I could rise in the audience, and stop that question, at any rate. It is legitimate, but it is tiresome.
If we went to the bottom of this subject, I think we should find that the putting upon actors clothes to which they are unaccustomed makes them act and talk artificially, and often in a manner intolerable.
An actor who has not the habits or instincts of a gentleman cannot be made to appear like one on the stage by dress; he only caricatures and discredits what he tries to represent; and the unaccustomed clothes and situation make him much more unnatural and insufferable than he would otherwise be. Dressed appropriately for parts for which he is fitted, he will act well enough, probably. What I mean is, that the clothes inappropriate to the man make the incongruity of him and his part more apparent. Vulgarity is never so conspicuous as in fine apparel, on or off the stage, and never so self-conscious. Shall we have, then, no refined characters on the stage? Yes; but let them be taken by men and women of taste and refinement and let us have done with this masquerading in false raiment, ancient and modern, which makes nearly every stage a travesty of nature and the whole theatre a painful pretension. We do not expect the modern theatre to be a place of instruction (that business is now turned over to the telegraphic operator, who is making a new language), but it may give amusement instead of torture, and do a little in satirizing folly and kindling love of home and country by the way.