The Story of My Life
Part 2 out of 7
In after years I met Tennyson again, when with Henry Irving I acted in
two of his plays at the Lyceum. When I come to those plays, I shall have
more to say of him. Gladstone, too, came into my later life. Browning I
saw once or twice at dinner-parties, but knew him no better than in this
early period, when I was Nelly Watts, and heedless of the greatness of
great men. "To meet an angel and not to be afraid is to be impudent." I
don't like to confess to it, but I think I must have been, according to
this definition, _very_ impudent!
One charming domestic arrangement at Freshwater was the serving of the
dessert in a separate room from the rest of the dinner. And such a
dessert it always was!--fruit piled high on great dishes in Veronese
fashion, not the few nuts and an orange of some English households.
It must have been some years after the Freshwater days, yet before the
production of "The Cup," that I saw Tennyson in his carriage outside a
jeweler's shop in Bond Street.
"How very nice you look in the daytime," he said. "Not like an actress!"
I disclaimed my singularity, and said I thought actresses looked _very_
nice in the daytime.
To him and to the others my early romance was always the most
interesting thing about me. When I saw them in later times, it seemed as
if months, not years, had passed since I was Nelly Watts.
Once, at the dictates of a conscience perhaps over fastidious, I made a
bonfire of my letters. But a few were saved from the burning, more by
accident than design. Among them I found yesterday a kind little note
from Sir William Vernon Harcourt, which shows me that I must have known
him, too, at the time of my first marriage and met him later on when I
returned to the stage.
"You cannot tell how much pleased I am to hear that you have been
as happy as you deserve to be. The longer one lives, the more one
learns not to despair, and to believe that nothing is impossible to
those who have courage and hope and youth--I was going to add
beauty and genius." (_This is the sort of thing that made me
blush--and burn my letters before they shamed me!_)
"My little boy is still the charm and consolation of my life. He is
now twelve years old, and though I say it that should not, is a
perfect child, and wins the hearts of all who know him."
That little boy, now in His Majesty's Government, is known as the Right
Honorable Lewis Harcourt. He married an American lady, Miss Burns of New
Many inaccurate stories have been told of my brief married life, and I
have never contradicted them--they were so manifestly absurd. Those who
can imagine the surroundings into which I, a raw girl, undeveloped in
all except my training as an actress, was thrown, can imagine the
Of one thing I am certain. While I was with Signor--the name by which
Mr. Watts was known among his friends--I never had one single pang of
regret for the theater. This may do me no credit, but it is _true_.
I wondered at the new life, and worshiped it because of its beauty. When
it suddenly came to an end, I was thunderstruck; and refused at first to
consent to the separation, which was arranged for me in much the same
way as my marriage had been.
The whole thing was managed by those kind friends whose chief business
in life seems to be the care of others. I don't blame them. There are
cases where no one is to blame. "There do exist such things as honest
misunderstandings," as Charles Reade was always impressing on me at a
later time. There were no vulgar accusations on either side, and the
words I read in the deed of separation, "incompatibility of temper"--a
mere legal phrase--_more_ than covered the ground. Truer still would
have been "incompatibility of _occupation_," and the interference of
well-meaning friends. We all suffer from that sort of thing. Pray God
one be not a well-meaning friend one's self!
"The marriage was not a happy one," they will probably say after my
death, and I forestall them by saying that it in many ways was very
happy indeed. What bitterness there was effaced itself in a very
I saw Mr. Watts but once face to face after the separation. We met in
the street at Brighton, and he told me that I had grown! I was never to
speak to him again. But years later, after I had appeared at the Lyceum
and had made some success in the world, I was in the garden of a house
which adjoined Mr. Watt's new Little Holland House, and he, in his
garden, saw me through the hedge. It was then that I received from him
the first letter that I had had for years. In this letter he told me
that he had watched my success with eager interest, and asked me to
shake hands with him in spirit. "What success I may have," he wrote,
"will be very incomplete and unsatisfactory if you cannot do what I have
long been hesitating to ask. If you cannot, keep silence. If you can,
one word, 'Yes,' will be enough."
I answered simply, "Yes."
After that he wrote to me again, and for two or three years we
corresponded, but I never came into personal contact with him.
As the past is now to me like a story in a book that I once read, I can
speak of it easily. But if by doing so I thought that I might give pain
or embarrassment to any one else, I should be silent about this
long-forgotten time. After careful consideration it does not seem to me
that it can be either indiscreet or injurious to let it be known that
this great artist honored and appreciated my efforts and strife in my
art; that this great man could not rid himself of the pain of feeling
that he "had spoiled my life" (a chivalrous assumption of blame for what
was, I think, a natural, almost inevitable, catastrophe), and that long
after all personal relation had been broken off, he wrote to me gently,
kindly,--as sympathetically ignoring the strangeness of the position, as
if, to use his own expression, "we stood face to face on the brink of an
When this tender kindness was established between us, he sent me a
portrait-head that he had done of me when I was his wife. I think it a
very beautiful picture. He did not touch it except to mend the edges,
thinking it better not to try to improve it by the work of another time.
In one of these letters he writes that "there is nothing in all this
that the world might not know." Surely the world is always the better
for having a little truth instead of a great deal of idle inaccuracy and
falsehood. That is my justification for publishing this, if
justification be needed.
If I did not fulfill his too high prophecy that "in addition to your
artistic eminence, I feel that you will achieve a solid social position,
make yourself a great woman, and take a noble place in the history of
your time," I was the better for his having made it.
If I had been able to look into the future, I should have been less
rebellious at the termination of my first marriage. Was I so rebellious,
after all? I am afraid I _showed_ about as much rebellion as a sheep.
But I was miserable, indignant, unable to understand that there could be
any justice in what had happened. In a little more than two years I
returned to the stage. I was practically _driven_ back by those who
meant to be kind--Tom Taylor, my father and mother, and others. _They_
looked ahead and saw clearly it was for my good.
It _was_ a good thing, but at the time I hated it. And I hated going
back to live at home. Mother furnished a room for me, and I thought the
furniture hideous. Poor mother!
For years Beethoven always reminded me of mending stockings, because I
used to struggle with the large holes in my brothers' stockings upstairs
in that ugly room, while downstairs Kate played the "Moonlight Sonata."
I caught up the stitches in time to the notes! This was the period when,
though every one was kind, I hated my life, hated every one and
everything in the world more than at any time before or since.
ROSSETTI, BERNHARDT, IRVING
Most people know that Tom Taylor was one of the leading playwrights of
the 'sixties as well as the dramatic critic of _The Times_, editor of
_Punch_, and a distinguished Civil Servant, but to us he was more than
this--he was an institution! I simply cannot remember when I did not
know him. It is the Tom Taylors of the world who give children on the
stage their splendid education. We never had any education in the strict
sense of the word, yet, through the Taylors and others, we _were_
educated. Their house in Lavender Sweep was lovely. I can hardly bear to
go near that part of London now, it is so horribly changed. Where are
its green fields and its chestnut-trees? We were always welcome at the
Taylors', and every Sunday we heard music and met interesting
people--Charles Reade among them. Mrs. Taylor had rather a hard
outside--she was like Mrs. Charles Kean in that respect--and I was often
frightened out of my life by her; yet I adored her. She was in reality
the most tender-hearted, sympathetic woman, and what an admirable
musician! She composed nearly all the music for her husband's plays.
Every Sunday there was music at Lavender Sweep--quartet playing with
Madame Schumann at the piano.
Tom Taylor was one of the most benign and gentle of men, a good and a
loyal friend. At first he was more interested in my sister Kate's career
than in mine, as was only natural; for, up to the time of my first
marriage, Kate had a present, I only a future. Before we went to Bristol
and played with the stock company, she had made her name. At the St.
James's Theater, in 1862, she was playing a small part in a version of
Sardou's "Nos Intimes," known then as "Friends and Foes," and in a later
day and in another version as "Peril."
Miss Herbert--the beautiful Miss Herbert, as she was appropriately
called--had the chief part in the play (Mrs. Union), and Kate, although
not the understudy, was called upon to play it at a few hours' notice.
She had from childhood acquired a habit of studying every part in every
play in which she was concerned, so she was as ready as though she had
been the understudy. Miss Herbert was not a remarkable actress, but her
appearance was wonderful indeed. She was very tall, with pale gold hair
and the spiritual, ethereal look which the aesthetic movement loved.
When mother wanted to flatter me very highly, she said that I looked
like Miss Herbert! Rossetti founded many of his pictures on her, and she
and Mrs. "Janie" Morris were his favorite types. When any one was the
object of Rossetti's devotion, there was no extravagant length to which
he would not go in demonstrating it. He bought a white bull because it
had "eyes like Janie Morris," and tethered it on the lawn of his home in
Chelsea. Soon there was no lawn left--only the bull! He invited people
to meet it, and heaped favors on it until it kicked everything to
pieces, when he reluctantly got rid of it.
His next purchase was a white peacock, which, very soon after its
arrival, disappeared under the sofa. In vain did Rossetti "shoo" it out.
It refused to budge. This went on for days.
"The lovely creature won't respond to me," said Rossetti pathetically to
The friend dragged out the bird.
"No wonder! It's _dead_!"
"Bulls don't like me," said Rossetti a few days later, "and peacocks
It preyed on his mind so much that he tried to repair the failure by
buying some white dormice. He sat them up on tiny bamboo chairs, and
they looked sweet. When the winter was over, he invited a party to meet
them and congratulate them upon waking up from their long sleep.
"They are awake now," he said, "but how quiet they are! How full of
One of the guests went to inspect the dormice more closely, and a
peculiar expression came over his face. It might almost have been
thought that he was holding his nose.
"Wake up, little dormice," said Rossetti, prodding them gently with a
"They'll never do _that_," said the guest. "They're _dead_. I believe
they have been dead some days!"
Do you think Rossetti gave up live stock after this? Not a bit of it. He
tried armadillos and tortoises.
"How are the tortoises?" he asked his man one day, after a long spell of
forgetfulness that he had any.
"Pretty well, sir, thank you.... That's to say, sir, there ain't no
The tortoises, bought to eat the beetles, had been eaten themselves. At
least, the shells were found full of beetles.
And the armadillos? "The air of Chelsea don't suit them," said
Rossetti's servant. They had certainly left Rossetti's house, but they
had not left Chelsea. All the neighbors had dozens of them! They had
burrowed, and came up smiling in houses where they were far from
This by the way. Miss Herbert, who looked like the Blessed Damosel
leaning out "across the bar of heaven," was not very well suited to the
line of parts that she was playing at the St. James's, but she was very
much admired. During the run of "Friends and Foes" she fell ill. Her
illness was Kate's opportunity. From the night that Kate played Mrs.
Union, her reputation was made.
It was a splendid chance, no doubt, but of what use would it have been
to any one who was not ready to use it? Kate, though only about nineteen
at this time, was a finished actress. She had been a perfect Ariel, a
beautiful Cordelia, and had played at least forty other parts of
importance since she had appeared as a tiny Robin in the Keans'
production of "The Merry Wives of Windsor." She had not had her head
turned by big salaries, and she had never ceased working since she was
four years old. No wonder that she was capable of bearing the burden of
a piece at a moment's notice. The Americans cleverly say that "the lucky
cat _watches_." _I_ should add that the lucky cat _works_. Reputations
on the stage--at any rate, enduring reputations--are not made by chance,
and to an actress who has not worked hard the finest opportunity in the
world will be utterly useless.
My own opinion of my sister's acting must be taken for what it is
worth--and that is very little. I remember how she looked on the
stage--like a frail white azalea--and that her acting, unlike that of
Adelaide Neilson, who was the great popular favorite before Kate came to
the front, was scientific. She knew what she was about. There was more
ideality than passionate womanliness in her interpretations. For this
reason, perhaps, her Cordelia was finer than her Portia or her Beatrice.
She was engaged at one time to a young actor, called Montagu. If the
course of that love had run smooth, where should I have been? Kate would
have been the Terry of the age. But Mr. Montagu went to America, and,
after five years of life as a matinee idol, died there. Before that,
Arthur Lewis had come along. I was glad because he was rich, and during
his courtship I had some riding, of which in my girlhood I was
Tom Taylor had an enormous admiration for Kate, and during her second
season as a "star" at Bristol he came down to see her play Juliet and
Beatrice and Portia. This second Bristol season came in the middle of my
time at the Haymarket, but I went back, too, and played Nerissa and
Hero. Before that I had played my first leading Shakespeare part, but
only at one matinee.
An actor named Walter Montgomery was giving a matinee of "Othello" at
the Princess's (the theater where I made my first appearance) in the
June of 1863, and he wanted a Desdemona. The agents sent for me. It was
Saturday, and I had to play it on Monday! But for my training, how could
I have done it? At this time I knew the words and had _studied_ the
words--a very different thing--of every woman's part in Shakespeare. I
don't know what kind of performance I gave on that memorable afternoon,
but I think it was not so bad. And Walter Montgomery's Othello? Why
can't I remember something about it? I only remember that the
unfortunate actor shot himself on his wedding-day!
Any one who has come with me so far in my life will realize that Kate
Terry was much better known than Ellen at the time of Ellen's first
retirement from the stage. From Bristol my sister had gone to London to
become Fechter's "leading lady," and from that time until she made her
last appearance in 1867 as Juliet at the Adelphi, her career was a blaze
Before I came back to take part in her farewell tour (she became engaged
to Mr. Arthur Lewis in 1866), I paid my first visit to Paris. I saw the
Empress Eugenie driving in the Bois, looking like an exquisite waxwork.
Oh, the beautiful _slope_ of women at this period! They sat like lovely
half-moons, lying back in their carriages. It was an age of elegance--in
France particularly--an age of luxury. They had just laid down asphalt
for the first time in the streets of Paris, and the quiet of the
boulevards was wonderful after the rattling London streets. I often went
to three parties a night; but I was in a difficult position, as I could
not speak a word of the language. I met Tissot and Gambard, who had just
built Rosa Bonheur's house at Nice.
I liked the Frenchmen because they liked me, but I didn't admire them.
I tried to learn to smoke, but I never took kindly to it and soon gave
What was the thing that made me homesick for London? _Household Words._
The excitement in the 'sixties over each new Dickens can be understood
only by people who experienced it at the time. Boys used to sell
_Household Words_ in the streets, and they were often pursued by an
eager crowd, for all the world as if they were carrying news of the
Of course I went to the theater in Paris. I saw Sarah Bernhardt for the
first time, and Madame Favart, Croisette, Delaunay, and Got. I never
thought Croisette--a superb animal--a "patch" on Sarah, who was at this
time as thin as a harrow. Even then I recognized that Sarah was not a
bit conventional, and would not stay long at the Comedie. Yet she did
not put me out of conceit with the old school. I saw "Les Precieuses
Ridicules" finely done, and I said to myself then, as I have often said
since: "Old school--new school? What does it matter which, so long as it
is _good enough_?"
Madame Favart I knew personally, and she gave me many useful hints. One
was never to black my eyes _underneath_ when "making up." She pointed
out that although this was necessary when the stage was lighted entirely
from beneath, it had become ugly and meaningless since the introduction
of top lights.
The friend who took me everywhere in Paris landed me one night in the
dressing-room of a singer. I remember it because I heard her complain to
a man of some injustice. She had not got some engagement that she had
"It serves you damn right!" he answered. "You can't sing a bit." For the
first time I seemed to realize how brutal it was of a man to speak to a
woman like that, and I _hated_ it.
Long afterwards, in the same city, I saw a man sitting calmly in a
_fiacre_, a man of the "gentlemanly" class, and ordering the _cocher_ to
drive on, although a woman was clinging to the side of the carriage and
refusing to let go. She was a strong, splendid creature of the peasant
type, bareheaded, with a fine open brow, and she was obviously consumed
by resentment of some injustice--mad with it. She was dragged along in
one of the busiest streets in Paris, the little Frenchman sitting there
smiling, easy. How she escaped death I don't know. Then he became
conscious that people were looking, and he stopped the cab and let her
get in. Oh, men!
Paris! Paris! Young as I was, I fell under the spell, of your elegance,
your cleanness, your well-designed streets, your nonchalant gaiety. I
drank coffee at Tortoni's. I visited the studio of Meissonier. I stood
in the crowd that collected round Rosa Bonheur's "Horse Fair," which was
in the Salon that year. I grew dead sick of the endless galleries of the
Louvre. I went to the Madeleine at Easter time, all purple and white
lilies, and fainted from trying to imagine ecstasy when the Host was
raised.... I never fainted again in my life, except once from _anger_,
when I heard some friends whom I loved slandering another friend whom I
Good-bye to Paris and back to London, where I began acting again with
only half my heart. I did very well, they said, as Helen in "The
Hunchback," the first part I played after my return; but I cared nothing
about my success. I was feeling wretchedly ill, and angry too, because
they insisted on putting my married name on the bills.
After playing with Kate at Bristol and at the Adelphi in London, I
accepted an engagement to appear in a new play by Tom Taylor, called
"The Antipodes." It was a bad play, and I had a bad part, but Telbin's
scenery was lovely. Telbin was a poet, and he has handed on much of his
talent to his son, who is alive now, and painted most of our Faust
scenery at the Lyceum--he and dear Mr. Hawes Craven, who so loved his
garden and could paint the flicker of golden sunshine for the stage
better than any one. I have always been friendly with the
scene-painters, perhaps because I have always taken pains about my
dresses, and consulted them beforehand about the color, so that I should
not look wrong in their scenes, nor their scenes wrong with my dresses.
Telbin and Albert Moore together did up the New Queen's Theater, Long
Acre, which was opened in October, 1867, under the ostensible management
of the Alfred Wigans. I say "ostensible," because Mr. Labouchere had
something to do with it, and Miss Henrietta Hodson, whom he afterwards
married, played in the burlesques and farces without which no theater
bill in London at that time was complete. The Wigans offered me an
engagement, and I stayed with them until 1868, when I again left the
stage. During this engagement I acted with Charles Wyndham and Lionel
Brough, and, last but not least, with Henry Irving.
Mrs. Wigan, _nee_ Leonora Pincott, did me the honor to think that I was
worth teaching, and took nearly as much pains to improve me as Mrs. Kean
had done at a different stage in my artistic growth. Her own
accomplishments as a comedy actress impressed me more than I can say. I
remember seeing her as Mrs. Candour, and thinking to myself, "This is
absolutely perfect." If I were a teacher I would impress on young
actresses never to move a finger or turn the eye without being quite
certain that the movement or the glance _tells_ something. Mrs. Wigan
made few gestures, but each one quietly, delicately indicated what the
words which followed expressed. And while she was speaking she never
frittered away the effect of that silent eloquence.
One of my besetting sins was--nay, still is--the lack of repose. Mrs.
Wigan at once detected the fault, and at rehearsals would work to make
me remedy it. "_Stand still!_" she would shout from the stalls. "Now
you're of value!" "Motionless! Just as you are! _That's_ right."
A few years later she came to see me at the Court Theater, where I was
playing in "The House of Darnley," and afterwards wrote me the following
very kind and encouraging letter:
"_December 7, 1877._
"Dear Miss Terry,--
"You have a very difficult part in 'The House of Darnley.' I know no one
who could play it as well as you did last night--but _you_ could do it
much better. You would vex me much if I thought you had no ambition in
your art. You are the one young actress of my day who can have her
success entirely in her own hands. You have all the gifts for your
noble profession, and, as you know, your own devotion to it will give
you all that can be learned. I'm very glad my stage direction was useful
and pleasant to you, and any benefit you have derived from it is
overpaid by your style of acting. You cannot have a 'groove'; you are
too much of an artist. Go on and prosper, and if at any time you think I
can help you in your art, you may always count on that help from your
most sincere well-wisher
Another service that Mrs. Wigan did me was to cure me of "fooling" on
the stage. "_Did_ she?" I thought I heard some one interrupt me unkindly
at that point! Well, at any rate, she gave me a good fright one night,
and I never forgot it, though I will not say I never laughed again. I
think it was in "The Double Marriage," the first play put on at the New
Queen's. As Rose de Beaurepaire, I wore a white muslin Directoire dress
and looked absurdly young. There was one "curtain" which used to
convulse Wyndham. He had a line, "Whose child is this?" and there was I,
looking a mere child myself, and with a bad cold in my head too,
answering: "It's _bine_!" The very thought of it used to send us off
into fits of laughter. We hung on to chairs, helpless, limp, and
incapable. Mrs. Wigan said if we did it again, she would go in front and
hiss us, and she carried out her threat. The very next time we laughed,
a loud hiss rose from the stagebox. I was simply paralyzed with terror.
Dear old Mrs. Wigan! The stories that have been told about her would
fill a book! She was exceedingly plain, rather like a toad, yet,
perversely, she was more vain of her looks than of her acting. In the
theater she gave herself great airs and graces, and outside it hobnobbed
with duchesses and princesses.
This fondness for aristocratic society gave additional point to the
story that one day a blear-eyed old cabman in capes and muffler
descended from the box of a disreputable-looking growler, and inquired
at the stage-door for Leonora Pincott.
"Any lady 'ere of that name?"
"Well, I think she's married, and changed her name, but she's 'ere right
enough. Tell 'er I won't keep 'er a minute. I'm 'er--old father!"
In "Still Waters Run Deep" I was rather good as Mrs. Mildmay, and the
rest of the cast were admirable. Mrs. Wigan was, of course, Mrs.
Sternhold. Wyndham, who was afterwards to be such a splendid Mildmay,
played Hawksley, and Alfred Wigan was Mildmay, as he had been in the
original production. When the play is revived now, much of it seems very
old-fashioned, but the office scene strikes one as freshly and strongly
as when it was first acted. I don't think that any drama which is vital
and _essential_ can ever be old-fashioned.
MY FIRST IMPRESSION OF HENRY IRVING
One very foggy night in December 1867--it was Boxing Day, I think--I
acted for the first time with Henry Irving. This ought to have been a
great event in my life, but at the time it passed me by and left "no
wrack behind." Ever anxious to improve on the truth, which is often
devoid of all sensationalism, people have told a story of Henry Irving
promising that if he ever were in a position to offer me an engagement I
should be his leading lady. But this fairy story has been improved on
since. The newest tale of my first meeting with Henry Irving was told
during my jubilee. Then, to my amazement, I read that on that famous
night when I was playing Puck at the Princess's, and caught my toe in
the trap, "a young man with dark hair and a white face rushed forward
from the crowd and said: 'Never mind, darling. Don't cry! One day you
will be queen of the stage.' It was Henry Irving!"
In view of these legends, I ought to say all the more stoutly that,
until I went to the Lyceum Theater, Henry Irving was nothing to me and I
was nothing to him. I never consciously thought that he would become a
great actor. He had no high opinion of _my_ acting! He has said since
that he thought me at the Queen's Theater charming and individual as a
woman, but as an actress _hoydenish_! I believe that he hardly spared me
even so much definite thought as this. His soul was not more surely in
his body than in the theater, and I, a woman who was at this time caring
more about love and life than the theater, must have been to him more or
less unsympathetic. He thought of nothing else, cared for nothing else;
worked day and night; went without his dinner to buy a book that might
be helpful in studying, or a stage jewel that might be helpful to wear.
I remember his telling me that he once bought a sword with a jeweled
hilt, and hung it at the foot of his bed. All night he kept getting up
and striking matches to see it, shifting its position, rapt in
admiration of it.
He had it all in him when we acted together that foggy night, but he
could express very little. Many of his defects sprang from his
not having been on the stage as a child. He was stiff with
self-consciousness; his eyes were dull and his face heavy. The piece we
played was Garrick's boiled-down version of "The Taming of the Shrew,"
and he, as Petruchio, appreciated the humor and everything else far more
than I did, as Katherine; yet he played badly, nearly as badly as I did;
and how much more to blame I was, for I was at this time much more easy
and skillful from a purely technical point of view.
Was Henry Irving impressive in those days? Yes and no. His fierce and
indomitable will showed itself in his application to his work. Quite
unconsciously I learned from watching him that to do work well, the
artist must spend his life in incessant labor, and deny himself
everything for that purpose. It is a lesson we actors and actresses
cannot learn too early, for the bright and glorious heyday of our
success must always be brief at best.
Henry Irving, when he played Petruchio, had been toiling in the
provinces for eleven solid years, and not until Rawdon Scudamore in
"Hunted Down" had he had any success. Even that was forgotten in his
failure as Petruchio. What a trouncing he received from the critics who
have since heaped praise on many worse men!
I think this was the peculiar quality in his acting afterwards--a kind
of fine temper, like the purest steel, produced by the perpetual fight
against difficulties. Socrates, it is said, had every capacity for evil
in his face, yet he was good as a naturally good man could never be.
Henry Irving at first had everything against him as an actor. He could
not speak, he could not walk, he could not _look_. He wanted to do
things in a part, and he could not do them. His amazing power was
imprisoned, and only after long and weary years did he succeed in
setting it free.
A man with a will like that _must_ be impressive! To quick-seeing eyes
he must, no doubt. But my eyes were not quick, and they were, moreover,
fixed on a world outside the theater. Better than his talent and his
will I remember his courtesy. In those days, instead of having our
salaries brought to our dressing-rooms, we used to wait in a queue on
Treasury Day to receive them. I was always late in coming, and always in
a hurry to get away. Very gravely and quietly Henry Irving used to give
up his place to me.
I played once more at the Queen's after Katherine and Petruchio. It was
in a little piece called "The Household Fairy," and I remember it
chiefly through an accident which befell poor Jack Clayton through me.
The curtain had fallen on "The Household Fairy," and Clayton, who had
acted with me in it, was dancing with me on the stage to the music which
was being played during the wait, instead of changing his dress for the
next piece. This dancing during the entr'acte was very popular among us.
Many a burlesque quadrille I had with Terriss and others in later days.
On this occasion Clayton suddenly found he was late in changing, and,
rushing upstairs to his dressing-room in a hurry, he missed his footing
and fell back on his head. This made me very miserable, as I could not
help feeling that I was responsible. Soon afterwards I left the stage
for six years, without the slightest idea of ever going back. I left it
without regret. And I was very happy, leading a quiet, domestic life in
the heart of the country. When my two children were born, I thought of
the stage less than ever. They absorbed all my time, all my interest,
all my love.
A SIX-YEAR VACATION
My disappearance from the stage must have been a heavy blow to my father
and mother, who had urged me to return in 1866 and were quite certain
that I had a great future. For the first time for years they had no
child in the theater. Marion and Floss, who were afterward to adopt the
stage as a profession, were still at school; Kate had married; and none
of their sons had shown any great aptitude for acting. Fred, who was
afterwards to do so well, was at this time hardly out of petticoats.
Perhaps it was because I knew they would oppose me that I left the stage
quite quietly and secretly. It seemed to outsiders natural, if
regrettable, that I should follow Kate's example. But I was troubling
myself little about what people were thinking and saying. "They are
saying--what are they saying? Let them be saying!"
Then a dreadful thing happened. A body was found in the river,--the dead
body of a young woman very fair and slight and tall. Every one thought
that it was my body.
I had gone away without a word. No one knew where I was. My own father
identified the corpse, and Floss and Marion, at their boarding-school,
were put into mourning. Then mother went. She kept her head under the
shock of the likeness, and bethought her of "a strawberry mark upon my
left arm." (_Really_ I had one over my left knee.) That settled it, for
there was no such mark to be found upon the poor corpse. It was just at
this moment that the news came to me in my country retreat that I had
been found dead, and I flew up to London to give ocular proof to my poor
distracted parents that I was alive. Mother, who had been the only one
not to identify the drowned girl, confessed to me that she was so like
me that just for a second she, too, was deceived. You see, they knew I
had not been very happy since my return to the stage, and when I went
away without a word, they were terribly anxious, and prepared to believe
the first bad tidings that came to hand. It came in the shape of that
most extraordinary likeness between me and that poor soul who threw
herself into the river.
I was not twenty-one when I left the stage for the second time, and I
haven't made up my mind yet whether it was good or bad for me, as an
actress, to cease from practicing my craft for six years. Talma, the
great French actor, recommends long spells of rest, and says that
"perpetual indulgence in the excitement of impersonation dulls the
sympathy and impairs the imaginative faculty of the comedian." This is
very useful in my defense, yet I could find many examples which prove
the contrary. I could never imagine Henry Irving leaving the stage for
six months, let alone six years, and I don't think it would have been of
the slightest benefit to him. But he had not been on the stage as a
If I was able to rest so long without rusting, it was, I am sure,
because I had been thoroughly trained in the technique of acting long
before I reached my twentieth year--an age at which most students are
just beginning to wrestle with elementary principles.
Of course, I did not argue in this way at the time! As I have said, I
had no intention of ever acting again when I left the Queen's Theater.
If it is the mark of the artist to love art before everything, to
renounce everything for its sake, to think all the sweet human things of
life well lost if only he may attain something, do some good, great
work--then I was never an artist. I have been happiest in my work when I
was working for some one else. I admire those impersonal people who care
for nothing outside their own ambition, yet I detest them at the same
time, and I have the simplest faith that absolute devotion to another
human being means the greatest _happiness_. That happiness was now mine.
I led a most unconventional life, and experienced exquisite delight from
the mere fact of being in the country. No one knows what "the country"
means until he or she has lived in it. "Then, if ever, come perfect
What a sensation it was, too, to be untrammeled by time! Actors must
take care of themselves and their voices, husband their strength for the
evening work, and when it is over they are too tired to do anything! For
the first time I was able to put all my energies into living. Charles
Lamb says, I think, that when he left the East India House, he felt
embarrassed by the vast estates of time at his disposal, and wished that
he had a bailiff to manage them for him, but I knew no such
I began gardening, "the purest of human pleasures"; I learned to cook,
and in time cooked very well, though my first essay in that difficult
art was rewarded with dire and complete failure.
It was a chicken! Now, as all the chickens had names--Sultan, Duke, Lord
Tom Noddy, Lady Teazle, and so forth--and as I was very proud of them as
living birds, it was a great wrench to kill one at all, to start with.
It was the murder of Sultan, not the killing of a chicken. However, at
last it was done, and Sultan deprived of his feathers, floured, and
trussed. I had no idea _how_ this was all done, but I tried to make him
"sit up" nicely like the chickens in the shops.
He came up to the table looking magnificent--almost turkey-like in his
"Hasn't this chicken rather an odd smell?" said our visitor.
"How can you!" I answered. "It must be quite fresh--it's Sultan!"
However, when we began to carve, the smell grew more and more potent.
_I had cooked Sultan without taking out his in'ards!_
There was no dinner that day except bread-sauce, beautifully made,
well-cooked vegetables, and pastry like the foam of the sea. I had a
wonderful hand for pastry!
My hour of rising at this pleasant place near Mackery End in
Hertfordshire was six. Then I washed the babies. I had a perfect mania
for _washing_ everything and everybody. We had one little servant, and I
insisted on washing her head. Her mother came up from the village to
"Never washed her head in my life. Never washed any of my children's
heads. And just look at their splendid hair!"
After the washing I fed the animals. There were two hundred ducks and
fowls to feed, as well as the children. By the time I had done this, and
cooked the dinner, the morning had flown away. After the midday meal I
sewed. Sometimes I drove out in the pony-cart. And in the evening I
walked across the common to fetch the milk. The babies used to roam
where they liked on this common in charge of a bulldog, while I sat and
I studied cookery-books instead of parts--Mrs. Beeton instead of
Of course, I thought my children the most brilliant and beautiful
children in the world, and, indeed, "this side idolatry," they were
exceptional, and they had an exceptional bringing up. They were allowed
no rubbishy picture-books, but from the first Japanese prints and fans
lined their nursery walls, and Walter Crane was their classic. If
injudicious friends gave the wrong sort of present, it was promptly
burned. A mechanical mouse in which Edy, my little daughter, showed keen
interest and delight, was taken away as being "realistic and common."
Only wooden toys were allowed. This severe training proved so effective
that when a doll dressed in a violent pink silk dress was given to Edy,
she said it was "vulgar"!
By that time she had found a tongue, but until she was two years old she
never spoke a word, though she seemed to notice everything with her
grave dark eyes. We were out driving when I heard her voice for the
"There's some more."
She spoke quite distinctly. It was almost uncanny.
"More what?" I asked in a trembling voice, afraid that having delivered
herself once, she might lapse into dumbness.
The nursemaid, Essie, described Edy tersely as "a piece," while Teddy,
who was adored by every one because he was fat and fair and
angelic-looking, she called "the feather of England."
"The feather of England" was considered by his sister a great coward.
She used to hit him on the head with a wooden spoon for crying, and
exhort him, when he said, "Master Teddy afraid of the dark," to be a
I feel that if I go maundering on much longer about my children, some
one will exclaim with a witty and delightful author when he saw "Peter
Pan" for the seventh time: "Oh, for an hour of Herod!" When I think of
little Edy bringing me in minute branches of flowers all the morning,
with the reassuring intelligence that "there are lots more," I could
cry. But why should any one be interested in that? Is it interesting to
any one else that when she dug up a turnip in the garden for the first
time, she should have come running in to beg me to come quick: "Miss Edy
found a radish. It's as big as--as big as _God_!"
When I took her to her first theater--it was Sanger's Circus--and the
clown pretended to fall from the tightrope, and the drum went bang! she
said: "Take me away! take me away! you ought never to have brought me
here!" No wonder she was considered a dour child! I immediately and
It was truly the simple life we led in Hertfordshire. From scrubbing
floors and lighting fires, cooking, gardening, and harnessing the pony,
I grew thinner than ever--as thin as a whipping-post, a hurdle, or a
haddock! I went to church in blue-and-white cotton, with my servant in
silk. "I don't half like it," she said. "They'll take you for the cook,
and me for the lady!"
We kept a goat, a dear fellow whom I liked very much until I caught him
one day chasing my daughter. I seized him by his horns to inflict severe
punishment; but then I saw that his eyes were exactly like mine, and it
made me laugh so much that I let him go and never punished him at all.
"Boo" became an institution in these days. She was the wife of a doctor
who kept a private asylum in the neighboring village, and on his death
she tried to look after the lunatics herself. But she wasn't at all
successful! They kept escaping, and people didn't like it. This was my
gain, for "Boo" came to look after me instead, and for the next thirty
years I was her only lunatic, and she my most constant companion and
dear and loyal friend.
We seldom went to London. When we did, Ted nearly had a fit at seeing so
many "we'els go wound." But we went to Normandy, and saw Lisieux,
Mantes, Bayeux. Long afterwards, when I was feeling as hard as sandpaper
on the stage, I had only to recall some of the divine music I had heard
in those great churches abroad to become soft, melted, able to act. I
remember in some cathedral we left little Edy sitting down below while
we climbed up into the clerestory to look at some beautiful piece of
architecture. The choir were practicing, and suddenly there rose a boy's
voice, pure, effortless, and clear.... For years that moment stayed with
me. When we came down to fetch Edy, she said:
"Ssh! ssh! Miss Edy has seen the angels!"
Oh, blissful quiet days! How soon they came to an end! Already the
shadow of financial trouble fell across my peace. Yet still I never
thought of returning to the stage.
One day I was driving in a narrow lane, when the wheel of the pony-cart
came off. I was standing there, thinking what I should do next, when a
whole crowd of horsemen in "pink" came leaping over the hedge into the
lane. One of them stopped and asked if he could do anything. Then he
looked hard at me and exclaimed: "Good God! it's Nelly!"
The man was Charles Reade.
"Where have you been all these years?" he said.
"I have been having a very happy time," I answered.
"Well, you've had it long enough. Come back to the stage!"
"You're a fool! You ought to come back."
Suddenly I remembered the bailiff in the house a few miles away, and I
said laughingly: "Well, perhaps, I would think of it if some one would
give me forty pounds a week!"
"Done!" said Charles Reade. "I'll give you that, and more, if you'll
come and play Philippa Chester in 'The Wandering Heir.'"
He went on to explain that Mrs. John Wood, who had been playing Philippa
at the New Queen's, of which he was the lessee, would have to relinquish
the part soon, because she was under contract to appear elsewhere. The
piece was a great success, and promised to run a long time if he could
find a good Philippa to replace Mrs. Wood. It was a kind of Rosalind
part, and Charles Reade only exaggerated pardonably when he said that I
should never have any part better suited to me!
In a very short time after that meeting in the lane, it was announced
that the new Philippa was to be an actress who was returning to the
stage "after a long period of retirement." Only just before the first
night did anyone guess who it was, and then there was great excitement
among those who remembered me. The acclamation with which I was welcomed
back on the first night surprised me. The papers were more flattering
than they had ever been before. It was a tremendous success for me, and
I was all the more pleased because I was following an accomplished
actress in the part.
It is curious how often I have "followed" others. I never "created" a
part, as theatrical parlance has it, until I played Olivia at the Court,
and I had to challenge comparison, in turn, with Miss Marie Wilton, Mrs.
John Wood and Mrs. Kendal. Perhaps it was better for me than if I had
had parts specially written for me, and with which no other names were
The hero of "The Wandering Heir," when I first took up the part of
Philippa, was played by Edmund Leathes, but afterward by Johnston
Forbes-Robertson. Everyone knows how good-looking he is now, but as a
boy he was wonderful--a dreamy, poetic-looking creature in a blue smock,
far more of an artist than an actor--he promised to paint quite
beautifully--and full of aspirations and ideals. In those days began a
friendship between us which has lasted unbroken until this moment. His
father and mother were delightful people, and very kind to me always.
Everyone was kind to me at this time. Friends whom I had thought would
be estranged by my long absence rallied round me and welcomed me as if
it were six minutes instead of six years since I had dropped out of
their ken. I was not yet a "made" woman, but I had a profitable
engagement, and a delightful one, too, with Charles Reade, and I felt an
enthusiasm for my work which had been wholly absent when I had returned
to the stage the first time. My children were left in the country at
first, but they came up and joined me when, in the year following "The
Wandering Heir," I went to the Bancrofts at the Prince of Wales's. I
never had the slightest fear of leaving them to their own devices, for
they always knew how to amuse themselves, and were very independent and
dependable in spite of their extreme youth. I have often thanked Heaven
since that, with all their faults, my boy and girl have never been lazy
and never dull. At this time Teddy always had a pencil in his hand, when
he wasn't looking for his biscuit--he was a greedy little thing!--and
Edy was hammering clothes onto her dolls with tin-tacks! Teddy said
poetry beautifully, and when he and his sister were still tiny mites,
they used to go through scene after scene of "As You Like It," for their
own amusement, not for an audience, in the wilderness at Hampton Court.
They were by no means prodigies, but it did not surprise me that my son,
when he grew up, should be first a good actor, then an artist of some
originality, and should finally turn all his brains and industry to new
developments in the art of the theater. My daughter has acted also--not
enough to please me, for I have a very firm belief in her talents--and
has shown again and again that she can design and make clothes for the
stage that are both lovely and effective. In all my most successful
stage dresses lately she has had a hand, and if I had anything to do
with a national theater, I should, without prejudice, put her in charge
of the wardrobe at once!
I may be a proud parent, but I have always refrained from "pushing" my
children. They have had to fight for themselves, and to their mother
their actual achievements have mattered very little. So long as they
were not lazy, I have always felt that I could forgive them anything!
And now Teddy and Edy--Teddy in a minute white pique suit, and Edy in a
tiny kimono, in which she looked as Japanese as everything which
surrounded her--disappear from these pages for quite a long time. But
all this time, you must understand, they are educating their mother!
Charles Reade, having brought me back to the stage, and being my manager
into the bargain, was deeply concerned about my progress as an actress.
During the run of "The Wandering Heir" he used to sit in a private box
every night to watch the play, and would send me round notes between
the acts, telling me what I had done ill and what well in the preceding
act. Dear, kind, unjust, generous, cautious, impulsive, passionate,
gentle Charles Reade. Never have I known anyone who combined so many
qualities, far asunder as the poles, in one single disposition. He was
placid and turbulent, yet always majestic. He was inexplicable and
entirely lovable--a stupid old dear, and as wise as Solomon! He seemed
guileless, and yet had moments of suspicion and craftiness worthy of the
wisdom of the serpent. One moment he would call me "dearest child"; the
next, with indignant emphasis, "_Madam_!"
When "The Wandering Heir" had at last exhausted its great popularity, I
went on a tour with Charles Reade in several of his plays. In spite of
his many and varied interests, he had entirely succumbed to the magic of
the "irresistible theater," and it used to strike me as rather pathetic
to see a man of his power and originality working the stage sea at
nights, in company with a rough lad, in his dramatic version of "Hard
Cash." In this play, which was known as "Our Seaman," I had a part which
I could not bear to be paid twenty-five pounds a week for acting. I knew
that the tour was not a financial success, and I ventured to suggest
that it would be good economy to get some one else for Susan Merton. For
answer I got a fiery "Madam, you are a rat! You desert a sinking ship!"
My dear old companion, Boo, who was with me, resented this very much:
"How can you say such things to my Nelly?"
"Your Nelly!" said Charles Reade. "I love her a thousand times better
than you do, or any puling woman."
Another time he grew white with rage, and his dark eyes blazed, because
the same "puling woman" said very lightly and playfully: "Why did poor
Nell come home from rehearsal looking so tired yesterday? You work her
too hard." He thought this unfair, as the work had to be done, and
flamed out at us with such violence that it was almost impossible to
identify him with the kind old gentleman of the Colonel Newcome type
whom I had seen stand up at the Tom Taylors', on Sunday evenings, and
sing "The Girl I Left Behind Me" with such pathos that he himself was
moved to tears. But, though it was a painful time for both of us, it was
almost worth while to quarrel with him, because when we made it up he
was sure to give me some "treat"--a luncheon, a present, or a drive. We
both felt we needed some jollification because we had suffered so much
from being estranged. He used to say that there should be no such word
as "quarrel," and one morning he wrote me a letter with the following
postscript written in big letters:
"THERE DO EXIST SUCH THINGS AS HONEST MISUNDERSTANDINGS.
"There, my Eleanora Delicia" (this was his name for me, my real,
full name being Ellen Alicia), "stick that up in some place where
you will often see it. Better put it on _your looking-glass_. And
if you can once get those words into your noddle, it will save you
a world of unhappiness."
I think he was quite right about this. Would that he had been as right
in his theories about stage management! He was a rare one for realism.
He had _preached_ it in all his plays, and when he produced a one-act
play, "Rachael the Reaper," in front of "The Wandering Heir," he began
to practice what he preached--jumped into reality up to the neck!
He began by buying _real_ pigs, _real_ sheep, a _real_ goat, and a
_real_ dog. _Real_ litter was strewn all over the stage, much to the
inconvenience of the unreal farm-laborer, Charles Kelly, who could not
compete with it, although he looked as like a farmer as any actor could.
They all looked their parts better than the real wall which ran across
the stage, piteously naked of _real_ shadows, owing to the absence of
the _real_ sun, and, of course, deficient in the painted shadows which
make a painted wall look so like the real thing.
Never, never can I forget Charles Reade's arrival at the theater in a
four-wheeler with a goat and a lot of little pigs. When the cab drew up
at the stage-door, the goat seemed to say, as plainly as any goat could:
"I'm dashed if I stay in this cab any longer with these pigs!" and while
Charles Reade was trying to pacify it, the piggies escaped!
Unfortunately, they didn't all go in the same direction, and poor dear
Charles Reade had a "divided duty." There was the goat, too, in a nasty
mood. Oh, his serious face, as he decided to leave the goat and run for
the pigs, with his loose trousers, each one a yard wide at least,
flapping in the wind!
"That's a relief, at any rate," said Charles Kelly, who was watching the
flight of the pigs. "I sha'n't have those d----d pigs to spoil my acting
as well as the d----d dog and the d----d goat!"
How we all laughed when Charles Reade returned from the pig-hunt to
rehearsal with the brief direction to the stage manager that the pigs
would be "cut out."
The reason for the real wall was made more evident when the real goat
was tied up to it. A painted wall would never have stood such a strain.
On the first night, the real dog bit Kelly's real ankles, and in real
anger he kicked the real animal by a real mistake into the orchestra's
So much for realism as practiced by Charles Reade! There was still
something to remind him of the experiment in Rachael, the circus goat.
Rachael--he was no she, but what of that?--was given the free run of the
garden of Reade's house at Knightsbridge. He had everything that any
normal goat could desire--a rustic stable, a green lawn, the best of
food. Yet Rachael pined and grew thinner and thinner. One night when we
were all sitting at dinner, with the French windows open onto the lawn
because it was a hot night, Rachael came prancing into the room, looking
happy, lively, and quite at home. All the time, while Charles Reade had
been fashing himself to provide every sort of rural joy for his goat,
the ungrateful beast had been longing for the naphtha lights of the
circus, for lively conversation and the applause of the crowd.
You can't force a goat any more than you can force a child to live the
simple life. "N'Yawk's the place," said the child of a Bowery tenement
in New York, on the night of her return from an enforced sojourn in
Arcady. She hated picking daisies, and drinking rich new milk made her
sick. When the kind teacher who had brought her to the country strove to
impress her by taking her to see a cow milked, she remarked witheringly
to the man who was milking: "Gee! You put it in!"
Rachael's sentiments were of the same type, I think. "Back to the
circus!" was his cry, not "Back to the land!"
I hope, when he felt the sawdust under his feet again (I think Charles
Reade sent him back to the ring), he remembered his late master with
gratitude. To how many animals, and not only four-footed ones, was not
Charles Reade generously kind, and to none of them more kind than to
THE ACTRESS AND THE PLAYWRIGHT
THE END OF MY APPRENTICESHIP
The relation between author and actor is a very important element in the
life of the stage. It is the way with some dramatists to despise those
who interpret their plays, to accuse us of ruining their creations, to
suffer disappointment and rage because we do not, or cannot, carry out
Other dramatists admit that we players can teach them something; but I
have noticed that it is generally in "the other fellow's" play that we
can teach them, not in their own!
As they are necessary to us, and we to them, the great thing is to
reduce friction by sympathy. The actor should understand that the author
can be of use to him; the author, on his side, should believe that the
actor can be of service to the author, and sometimes in ways which only
a long and severe training in the actor's trade can discover.
The first author with whom I had to deal, at a critical point in my
progress as an actress, was Charles Reade, and he helped me enormously.
He might, and often did, make twelve suggestions that were wrong; but
against them he would make one that was so right that its value was
immeasurable and unforgettable.
It is through the dissatisfaction of a man like Charles Reade that an
actress _learns_--that is, if she is not conceited. Conceit is an
insuperable obstacle to all progress. On the other hand, it is of little
use to take criticism in a slavish spirit and to act on it without
understanding it. Charles Reade constantly wrote and said things to me
which were not absolutely just criticism; but they directed my attention
to the true cause of the faults which he found in my performance, and
put me on the way to mending them.
A letter which he wrote me during the run of "The Wandering Heir" was
such a wonderful lesson to me that I am going to quote it almost in
full, in the hope that it may be a lesson to other actresses--"happy in
this, they are not yet so old but they can learn"; unhappy in this, that
they have never had a Charles Reade to give them a trouncing!
Well, the letter begins with sheer eulogy. Eulogy is nice, but one does
not learn anything from it. Had dear Charles Reade stopped after writing
"womanly grace, subtlety, delicacy, the variety yet invariable
truthfulness of the facial expression, compared with which the faces
beside yours are wooden, uniform dolls," he would have done nothing to
advance me in my art; but this was only the jam in which I was to take
Here followed more jam--with the first taste of the powder:
"I prefer you for my Philippa to any other actress, and shall do so
still, even if you will not, or cannot, throw more vigor into the
lines that need it. I do not pretend to be as good a writer of
plays as you are an actress [_how naughty of him!_], but I do
pretend to be a great judge of acting in general. [_He wasn't,
although in particular details he was a brilliant critic and
adviser._] And I know how my own lines and business ought to be
rendered infinitely better than any one else, except the
Omniscient. It is only on this narrow ground I presume to teach a
woman of your gifts. If I teach you Philippa, you will teach me
Juliet; for I am very sure that when I have seen you act her, I
shall know a vast deal more about her than I do at present.
"No great quality of an actress is absent from your performance.
Very often you have _vigor_. But in other places where it is as
much required, or even more, you turn _limp_. You have limp lines,
limp business, and in Act III. limp exits instead of ardent exits."
Except in the actual word used, he was perfectly right. I was not
_limp_, but I was exhausted. By a natural instinct, I had produced my
voice scientifically almost from the first, and I had found out for
myself many things, which in these days of Delsarte systems and the
science of voice-production, are taught. But when, after my six years'
absence from the stage, I came back, and played a long and arduous part,
I found that my breathing was still not right. This accounted for my
exhaustion, or limpness and lack of vigor, as Charles Reade preferred to
As for the "ardent" exits, how right he was! That word set me on the
track of learning the value of moving off the stage with a swift rush. I
had always had the gift of being rapid in movement, but to _have_ a
gift, and to _use_ it, are two very different things.
I never realized that I was rather quick in movement until one day when
I was sitting on a sofa talking to the famous throat specialist, Dr.
Morell Mackenzie. In the middle of one of his sentences I said: "Wait a
minute while I get a glass of water." I was out of the room and back so
soon that he said, "Well, go and get it then!" and was paralyzed when he
saw that the glass was in my hand and that I was sitting down again!
_Consider!_ That was one of Charles Reade's favorite expressions, and
just hearing him say the word used to make me consider, and think, and
come to conclusions--perhaps not always the conclusions that he wished,
but suggested by him.
In this matter of "ardent" exit, he wrote:
"The swift rush of the words, the personal rush, should carry you
off the stage. It is in reality as easy as shelling peas, if you
will only go by the right method instead of by the wrong. You have
overcome far greater difficulties than this, yet night after night
you go on suffering ignoble defeat at this point. Come, courage!
You took a leaf out of Reade's dictionary at Manchester, and
trampled on two difficulties--impossibilities, you called them.
That was on Saturday, Monday you knocked the poor impossibilities
down. Tuesday you kicked them where they lay. Wednesday you walked
placidly over their prostrate bodies!"
The difficulty that he was now urging me to knock down was one of
_pace_, and I am afraid that in all my stage life subsequently I never
quite succeeded in kicking it or walking over its prostrate body!
Looking backward, I remember many times when I failed in rapidity of
utterance, and was "pumped" at moments when swiftness was essential.
Pace is the soul of comedy, and to elaborate lines at the expense of
pace is disastrous. Curiously enough, I have met and envied this gift of
pace in actors who were not conspicuously talented in other respects,
and no Rosalind that I have ever seen has had enough of it. Of course,
it is not a question of swift utterance only, but of swift thinking. I
am able to think more swiftly on the stage now than at the time Charles
Reade wrote to me, and I only wish I were young enough to take advantage
of it. But youth thinks _slowly_, as a rule.
_Vary the pace._ Charles Reade was never tired of saying this, and,
indeed, it is one of the foundations of all good acting.
"You don't seem quite to realize," he writes in the letter before
me, "that uniformity of pace leads inevitably to languor. You
should deliver a pistol-shot or two. Remember Philippa is a fiery
girl; she can snap. If only for variety, she should snap James'
head off when she says, 'Do I _speak_ as if I loved them!'"
My memories of the part of Philippa are rather vague, but I know that
Reade was right in insisting that I needed more "bite" in the passages
when I was dressed as a boy. Though he complimented me on my self-denial
in making what he called "some sacrifice of beauty" to pass for a boy,
"so that the audience can't say, 'Why, James must be a fool not to see
she is a girl,'" he scolded me for my want of bluntness.
"Fix your mind on the adjective 'blunt' and the substantive
'pistol-shot'; they will do you good service."
They did! And I recommend them to anyone who finds it hard to overcome
monotony of pace and languor of diction.
"When you come to tell old Surefoot about his daughter's love," the
letter goes on, "you should fall into a positive imitation of his
manner: crest, motionless, and hands in front, and deliver your
preambles with a nasal twang. But at the second invitation to
speak out, you should cast this to the winds, and go into the other
extreme of bluntness and rapidity. [_Quite right!_] When you meet
him after the exposure, you should speak as you are coming to him
and stop him in mid-career, and _then_ attack him. You should also
(in Act II.) get the pearls back into the tree before you say: 'Oh,
I hope he did not see me!'"
Yes, I remember that in both these places I used to muddle and blur the
effect by doing the business and speaking at the same time. By acting on
Reade's suggestion I gained confidence in making a pause.
"After the beating, wait at least ten seconds longer than you
do--to rouse expectation--and when you do come on, make a little
more of it. You ought to be very pale indeed--even to enter with a
slight totter, done moderately, of course; and before you say a
single word, you ought to stand shaking and with your brows
knitting, looking almost terrible. Of course, I do not expect or
desire to make a melodramatic actress of you, but still I think you
capable of any effect, provided _it is not sustained too long_."
A truer word was never spoken. It has never been in my power to
_sustain_. In private life, I cannot sustain a hatred or a resentment.
On the stage, I can pass swiftly from one effect to another, but I
cannot fix _one_, and dwell on it, with that superb concentration which
seems to me the special attribute of the tragic actress. To sustain,
with me, is to lose the impression that I have created, not to increase
"The last passage of the third act is just a little too hurried.
Break the line. 'Now, James--for England and liberty!'"
I remember that I never could see that he was right about that, and if I
can't see a thing I can't do it. The author's idea must become mine
before I can carry it out--at least, with any sincerity, and obedience
without sincerity would be of small service to an author. It must be
despairing to him, if he wants me to say a line in a certain way, to
find that I always say it in another; but I can't help it. I have tried
to act passages as I have been told, just _because_ I was told and
without conviction, and I have failed miserably and have had to go back
to my own way.
"Climax is reached not only by rush but by increasing pace. Your
exit speech is a failure at present, because you do not vary the
pace of its delivery. Get by yourself for one half-hour--if you
can! Get by the seaside, if you can, since there it was Demosthenes
studied eloquence and overcame mountains--not mole-hills like this.
Being by the seaside, study those lines by themselves: 'And then
let them find their young gentleman, and find him quickly, for
London shall not hold me long--no, nor England either.'
"Study to speak these lines with great volubility and fire, and
settle the exact syllable to run at."
I remember that Reade, with characteristic generosity, gave me ten
pounds and sent me to the seaside in earnest, as he suggests my doing,
half in fun, in the letter. "I know you won't go otherwise," he said,
"because you want to insure your life or do something of that sort.
Here! go to Brighton--go anywhere by the sea for Sunday! Don't thank me!
It's all for Philippa."
As I read these notes of his on anti-climax, monotony of pace, and all
the other offenses against scientific principles of acting which I
committed in this one part, I feel more strongly than ever how important
it is to master these principles. Until you have learned them and
practiced them you cannot afford to discard them. There is all the
difference in the world between departure from recognized rules by one
who has learned to obey them, and neglect of them through want of
training or want of skill or want of understanding. Before you can be
eccentric you must know where the circle is.
This is accepted, I am told, even in shorthand, where the pupil acquires
the knowledge of a number of signs, only for the purpose of discarding
them when he is proficient enough to make an individual system. It is
also accepted in music, where only the advanced pianist or singer can
afford to play tricks with _tempo_. And I am sure it should be accepted
Nowadays acting is less scientific (except in the matter of
voice-production) than it was when I was receiving hints, cautions, and
advice from my two dramatist friends, Charles Reade and Tom Taylor; and
the leading principles to which they attached importance have come to be
regarded as old-fashioned and superfluous. This attitude is
comparatively harmless in the interpretation of those modern plays in
which parts are made to fit the actors and personality is everything.
But those who have been led to believe that they can make their own
rules find their mistake when they come to tackle Shakespeare or any of
the standard dramatists in which the actors have to fit themselves to
the parts. Then, if ever, technique is avenged!
All my life the thing which has struck me as wanting on the stage is
_variety_. Some people are "tone-deaf," and they find it physically
impossible to observe the law of contrasts. But even a physical
deficiency can be overcome by that faculty for taking infinite pains
which may not be genius but is certainly a good substitute for it.
When it comes to pointing out an example, Henry Irving is the monument,
the great mark set up to show the genius of _will_. For years he worked
to overcome the dragging leg, which seemed to attract more attention
from some small-minded critics (sharp of eye, yet how dull of vision!)
than all the mental splendor of his impersonations. He toiled, and he
overcame this defect, just as he overcame his disregard of the vowels
and the self-consciousness which in the early stages of his career used
to hamper and incommode him. His _self_ was to him on a first night what
the shell is to a lobster on dry land. In "Hamlet," when we first acted
together after that long-ago Katherine and Petruchio period at the
Queen's, he used to discuss with me the secret of my freedom from
self-consciousness; and I suggested a more swift entrance on the stage
from the dressing-room. I told him that, in spite of the advantage in
ease which I had gained through having been on the stage when still a
mere child, I should be paralyzed with fright from over-acute
realization of the audience if I stood at the wing for ten minutes, as
he was in the habit of doing. He did not need me then, nor during the
run of our next play, "The Lady of Lyons"; but when it came to Shylock,
a quite new part to him, he tried the experiment, and, as he told me,
with great comfort to himself and success with the audience.
Only a great actor finds the difficulties of the actor's art infinite.
Even up to the last five years of his life, Henry Irving was striving,
striving. He never rested on old triumphs, never found a part in which
there was no more to do. Once when I was touring with him in America, at
the time when he was at the highest point of his fame, I watched him
one day in the train--always a delightful occupation, for his face
provided many pictures a minute--and being struck by a curious look,
half puzzled, half despairing, asked him what he was thinking about.
"I was thinking," he answered slowly, "how strange it is that I should
have made the reputation I have as an actor, with nothing to help
me--with no equipment. My legs, my voice--everything has been against
me. For an actor who can't walk, can't talk, and has no face to speak
of, I've done pretty well."
And I, looking at that splendid head, those wonderful hands, the whole
strange beauty of him, thought, "Ah, you little know!"
The brilliant story of the Bancroft management of the old Prince of
Wales's Theater was more familiar twenty years back than it is now. I
think that few of the youngest playgoers who point out, on the first
nights of important productions, a remarkably striking figure of a man
with erect carriage, white hair, and flashing dark eyes--a man whose
eye-glass, manners, and clothes all suggest Thackeray and Major
Pendennis, in spite of his success in keeping abreast of everything
modern--few playgoers, I say, who point this man out as Sir Squire
Bancroft could give any adequate account of what he did for the English
theater in the 'seventies. Nor do the public who see an elegant little
lady starting for a drive from a certain house in Berkeley Square
realize that this is Marie Wilton, afterward Mrs. Bancroft, now Lady
Bancroft, the comedienne who created the heroines of Tom Robertson, and,
with her husband, brought what is called the cup-and-saucer drama to
We players know quite well and accept with philosophy the fact that when
we have done we are forgotten. We are sometimes told that we live too
much in the public eye and enjoy too much public favor and attention;
but at least we make up for it by leaving no trace of our short and
merry reign behind us when it is over!
I have never, even in Paris, seen anything more admirable than the
ensemble of the Bancroft productions. Every part in the domestic
comedies, the presentation of which, up to 1875, they had made their
policy, was played with such point and finish that the more rough,
uneven, and emotional acting of the present day has not produced
anything so good in the same line. The Prince of Wales's Theater was the
most fashionable in London, and there seemed no reason why the triumph
of Robertson should not go on for ever.
But that's the strange thing about theatrical success. However great, it
is limited in its force and duration, as we found out at the Lyceum
twenty years later. It was not only because the Bancrofts were ambitious
that they determined on a Shakespearean revival in 1875: they felt that
you can give the public too much even of a good thing, and thought that
a complete change might bring their theater new popularity as well as
I, however, thought little of this at the time. After my return to the
stage in "The Wandering Heir" and my tour with Charles Reade, my
interest in the theater again declined. It has always been my fate or my
nature--perhaps they are really the same thing--to be very happy or
very miserable. At this time I was very miserable. I was worried to
death by domestic troubles and financial difficulties. The house in
which I first lived in London, after I left Hertfordshire, had been
dismantled of some of its most beautiful treasures by the brokers.
Pressure was being put on me by well-meaning friends to leave this house
and make a great change in my life. Everything was at its darkest when
Mrs. Bancroft came to call on me and offered me the part of Portia in
"The Merchant of Venice."
I had, of course, known her before, in the way that all people in the
theater seem to know each other, and I had seen her act; but on this
day, when she came to me as a kind of messenger of Fate, the harbinger
of the true dawn of my success, she should have had for me some special
and extraordinary significance. I could invest that interview now with
many dramatic features, but my memory, either because it is bad or
because it is good, corrects my imagination.
"May I come in?"
An ordinary remark, truly, to stick in one's head for thirty-odd years!
But it was made in such a _very_ pretty voice--one of the most silvery
voices I have ever heard from any woman except the late Queen Victoria,
whose voice was like a silver stream flowing over golden stones.
The smart little figure--Mrs. Bancroft was, above all things,
_petite_--dressed in black--elegant Parisian black--came into a room
which had been almost completely stripped of furniture. The floor was
covered with Japanese matting, and at one end was a cast of the Venus
of Milo, almost the same colossal size as the original.
Mrs. Bancroft's wonderful gray eyes, examined it curiously. The room,
the statue, and I myself must all have seemed very strange to her. I
wore a dress of some deep yellow woolen material which my little
daughter used to call the "frog dress," because it was speckled with
brown like a frog's skin. It was cut like a Viollet-le-Duc tabard, and
had not a trace of the fashion of the time. Mrs. Bancroft, however, did
not look at me less kindly because I wore aesthetic clothes and was
painfully thin. She explained that they were going to put on "The
Merchant of Venice" at the Prince of Wales's, that she was to rest for a
while for reasons connected with her health; that she and Mr. Bancroft
had thought of me for Portia.
Portia! It seemed too good to be true! I was a student when I was young.
I knew not only every word of the part, but every detail of that period
of Venetian splendor in which the action of the play takes place. I had
studied Vecellio. Now I am old, it is impossible for me to work like
that, but I never acknowledge that I get on as well without it.
Mrs. Bancroft told me that the production would be as beautiful as money
and thought could make it. The artistic side of the venture was to be in
the hands of Mr. Godwin, who had designed my dress for Titania at
"Well, what do you say?" said Mrs. Bancroft. "Will you put your shoulder
to the wheel with us?"
I answered incoherently and joyfully, that of all things I had been
wanting most to play in Shakespeare; that in Shakespeare I had always
felt I would play for half the salary; that--oh, I don't know what I
said! Probably it was all very foolish and unbusinesslike, but the
engagement was practically settled before Mrs. Bancroft left the house,
although I was charged not to say anything about it yet.
But theater secrets are generally _secrets de polichinelle_. When I went
to Charles Reade's house at Albert Gate on the following Sunday for one
of his regular Sunday parties, he came up to me at once with a knowing
look and said:
"So you've got an engagement."
"I'm not to say anything about it."
"It's in Shakespeare!"
"I'm not to tell."
"But I know. I've been thinking it out. It's 'The Merchant of Venice.'"
"Nothing is settled yet. It's on the cards."
"I know! I know!" said wise old Charles. "Well, you'll never have such a
good part as Philippa Chester!"
"No, Nelly, never!" said Mrs. Seymour, who happened to overhear this.
"They call Philippa a Rosalind part. Rosalind! Rosalind is not to be
compared with it!"
Between Mrs. Seymour and Charles Reade existed a friendship of that rare
sort about which it is easy for people who are not at all rare,
unfortunately, to say ill-natured things. Charles Reade worshiped Laura
Seymour, and she understood him and sympathized with his work and his
whims. She died before he did, and he never got over it. The great
success of one of his last plays, "Drink," an adaptation from the
French, in which Charles Warner is still thrilling audiences to this
day, meant nothing to him because she was not alive to share it. The "In
Memoriam" which he had inscribed over her grave is characteristic of the
man, the woman, and their friendship:
HERE LIES THE GREAT HEART OF
I liked Mrs. Seymour so much that I was hurt when I found that she had
instructed Charles Reade to tell Nelly Terry "not to paint her face" in
the daytime, and I was young enough to enjoy revenging myself in my own
way. We used to play childish games at Charles Reade's house sometimes,
and with "Follow my leader" came my opportunity. I asked for a basin of
water and a towel and scrubbed my face with a significant thoroughness.
The rules of the game meant that everyone had to follow my example! When
I had dried my face I powdered it, and then darkened my eyebrows. I
wished to be quite frank about the harmless little bit of artifice which
Mrs. Seymour had exaggerated into a crime. She was now hoist with her
own petard, for, being heavily made up, she could not and would not
follow the leader. After this Charles Reade acquitted me of the use of
"pigments red," but he still kept up a campaign against "Chalky," as he
humorously christened my powder-puff. "Don't be pig-headed, love," he
wrote to me once; "it is because Chalky does not improve you that I
forbid it. Trust unprejudiced and friendly eyes and drop it altogether."
Although Mrs. Seymour was naturally prejudiced where Charles Reade's
work was concerned, she only spoke the truth, pardonably exaggerated,
about the part of Philippa Chester. I know no part which is a patch on
it for effectiveness; yet there is little in it of the stuff which
endures. The play itself was too unbusiness like ever to become a
Not for years afterwards did I find out that I was not the "first
choice" for Portia. The Bancrofts had tried the Kendals first, with the
idea of making a double engagement; but the negotiations failed. Perhaps
the rivalry between Mrs. Kendal and me might have become of more
significance had she appeared as Portia at the Prince of Wales's and
preferred Shakespeare to domestic comedy. In after years she played
Rosalind--I never did, alas!--and quite recently acted with me in "The
Merry Wives of Windsor"; but the best of her fame will always be
associated with such plays as "The Squire," "The Ironmaster," "Lady
Clancarty," and many more plays of that type. When she played with me in
Shakespeare she laughingly challenged me to come and play with her in a
modern piece, a domestic play, and I said, "Done!" but it has not been
done yet, although in Mrs. Clifford's "The Likeness of the Night" there
was a good medium for the experiment. I found Mrs. Kendal wonderful to
act with. No other English actress has such extraordinary skill. Of
course, people have said we are jealous of each other. "Ellen Terry Acts
with Lifelong Enemy," proclaimed an American newspaper in five-inch
type, when we played together as Mistress Page and Mistress Ford in Mr.
Tree's Coronation production of "The Merry Wives of Windsor." But the
enmity did not seem to worry us as much as the newspaper men over the
Atlantic had represented.
It was during this engagement in 1902 that a young actor who was
watching us coming in at the stage-door at His Majesty's one day is
reported to have said: "Look at Mr. Tree between his two 'stars'!"
"You mean Ancient Lights!" answered the witty actress to whom the remark
However, "e'en in our ashes burn our wonted fires," or, to descend from
the sublime to the ridiculous, and from the poetry of Gray to the
pantomime gag of Drury Lane and Herbert Campbell, "Better to be a good
old has-been than a never-was-er!"
But it was long before the "has-been" days that Mrs. Kendal decided not
to bring her consummately dexterous and humorous workmanship to the task
of playing Portia, and left the field open for me. My fires were only
just beginning to burn. Success I had had of a kind, and I had tasted
the delight of knowing that audiences liked me, and had liked them back
again. But never until I appeared as Portia at the Prince of Wales's had
I experienced that awe-struck feeling which comes, I suppose, to no
actress more than once in a lifetime--the feeling of the conqueror. In
homely parlance, I knew that I had "got them" at the moment when I spoke
the speech beginning, "You see me, Lord Bassanio, where I stand."
"What can this be?" I thought. "_Quite_ this thing has never come to me
before! _This is different!_ It has never been quite the same before."
It was never to be quite the same again.
Elation, triumph, being lifted on high by a single stroke of the mighty
wing of glory--call it by any name, think of it as you like--it was as
Portia that I had my first and last sense of it. And, while it made me
happy, it made me miserable because I foresaw, as plainly as my own
success, another's failure.
Charles Coghlan, an actor whose previous record was fine enough to
justify his engagement as Shylock, showed that night the fatal quality
A worse performance than his, carried through with decision and attack,
might have succeeded, but Coghlan's Shylock was not even bad. It was
You could hardly hear a word he said. He spoke as though he had a sponge
in his mouth, and moved as if paralyzed. The perspiration poured down
his face; yet what he was doing no one could guess. It was a case of
moral cowardice rather than incompetency. At rehearsals no one had
entirely believed in him, and this, instead of stinging him into a
resolution to triumph, had made him take fright and run away.
People felt that they were witnessing a great play with a great part cut
out, and "The Merchant of Venice" ran for three weeks!
It was a pity, if only because a more gorgeous and complete little
spectacle had never been seen on the English stage. Veronese's "Marriage
in Cana" had inspired many of the stage pictures, and the expenditure in
carrying them out had been lavish.
In the casket scene I wore a dress like almond-blossom. I was very thin,
but Portia and all the ideal _young_ heroines of Shakespeare ought to
be thin. Fat is fatal to ideality!
I played the part more stiffly and more slowly at the Prince of Wales's
than I did in later years. I moved and spoke slowly. The clothes seemed
to demand it, and the setting of the play developed the Italian feeling
in it, and let the English Elizabethan side take care of itself. The
silver casket scene with the Prince of Aragon was preserved, and so was
the last act, which had hitherto been cut out in nearly all stage
I have tried five or six different ways of treating Portia, but the way
I think best is not the one which finds the heartiest response from my
audiences. Has there ever been a dramatist, I wonder, whose parts admit
of as many different interpretations as do Shakespeare's? There lies his
immortality as an acting force. For times change, and parts have to be
acted differently for different generations. Some parts are not
sufficiently universal for this to be possible, but every ten years an
actor can reconsider a Shakespeare part and find new life in it for his
new purpose and new audiences.
The aesthetic craze, with all its faults, was responsible for a great
deal of true enthusiasm for anything beautiful. It made people welcome
the Bancrofts' production of "The Merchant of Venice" with an
appreciation which took the practical form of an offer to keep the
performances going by subscription, as the general public was not
supporting them. Sir Frederick and Lady Pollock, James Spedding, Edwin
Arnold, Sir Frederick Leighton and others made the proposal to the
Bancrofts, but nothing came of it.
Short as the run of the play was, it was a wonderful time for me.
Everyone seemed to be in love with me! I had sweethearts by the dozen,
known and unknown. Most of the letters written to me I destroyed long
ago, but the feeling of sweetness and light with which some of them
filled me can never be destroyed. The task of reading and answering
letters has been a heavy one all my life, but it would be ungrateful to
complain of it. To some people expression is life itself. Half my
letters begin: "I cannot help writing to tell you," and I believe that
this is the simple truth. I, for one, should have been poorer, though my
eyes might have been stronger, if they _had_ been able to help it.
There turns up to-day, out of a long-neglected box, a charming note
about "The Merchant of Venice" from some unknown friend.
"Playing to such houses," he wrote, "is not an encouraging pursuit; but
to give to human beings the greatest pleasure that they are capable of
receiving must always be worth doing. You have given me that pleasure,
and I write to offer you my poor thanks. Portia has always been my
favorite heroine, and I saw her last night as sweet and lovely as I had
always hoped she might be. I hope that I shall see you again in other
Shakespearean characters, and that nothing will tempt you to withhold
your talents from their proper sphere."
The audiences may have been scanty, but they were wonderful.
O'Shaughnessy, Watts-Dunton, Oscar Wilde, Alfred Gilbert, and, I think
Swinburne were there. A poetic and artistic atmosphere pervaded the
front of the house as well as the stage itself.
TOM TAYLOR AND LAVENDER SWEEP
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
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
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
Before Pauline I had played Clara Douglas in a revival of "Money," and I
found her far more interesting and possible. To act the _balance_ of the
girl was keen enjoyment; it foreshadowed some of that greater enjoyment
I was to have in after years when playing Hermione--another well-judged,
well-balanced mind, a woman who is not passion's slave, who never
answers on the spur of the moment, but from the depths of reason and
divine comprehension. I didn't agree with Clara Douglas's sentiments but
I saw her point of view, and that was everything.
Tom Taylor, like Charles Reade, never hesitated to speak plainly to me
about my acting, and, after the first night of "Money," wrote me a
letter full of hints and caution and advice:
"As I expected, you put feeling into every situation which gave you the
opportunity, and the truth of your intention and expression seemed to
bring a note of nature into the horribly sophisticated atmosphere of
that hollow and most claptrappy of all Bulwerian stage offenses. Nothing
could be better than the appeal to Evelyn in the last act. It was sweet,
womanly and earnest, and rang true in every note.
"_But_ you were nervous and uncomfortable in many parts for want of
sufficient rehearsal. These passages you will, no doubt, improve in
nightly. I would only urge on you the great importance of studying to be
quiet and composed, and not fidgeting. There was especially a trick of
constantly twiddling with and looking at your fingers which you should,
above all, be on your guard against.... I think, too, you showed too
evident feeling in the earlier scene with Evelyn. A blind man must have
read what you felt--your sentiment should be more masked.
"Laura (Mrs. Taylor) absolutely hates the play. We both
thought--detestable in his part, false in emphasis, violent and coarse.
Generally the fault of the performance was, strange to say for that
theater, overacting, want of repose, point, and finish. With you in
essentials I was quite satisfied, but _quiet_--not so much movement of
arms and hands. Bear this in mind for improvement; and go over your part
to yourself with a view to it.
"The Allinghams have been here to-day. They saw you twice as Portia, and
were charmed. Mrs. Allingham wants to paint you. Allingham tells me that
Spedding is going to write an article on your Portia, and will include
Clara Douglas. I am going to see Salvini in 'Hamlet' to-morrow morning,
but I would call in Charlotte Street between one and two, on the chance
of seeing you and talking it over, and amplifying what I have said.
"Ever your true old friend,
A true old friend indeed he was! I have already tried to convey how much
I owed to him--how he stood by me and helped me in difficulties, and
said generously and unequivocally, at the time of my separation from my
first husband, that "the poor child was not to blame."
I was very fond of my own father, but in many ways Tom Taylor was more
of a father to me than my father in blood. Father was charming, but
Irish and irresponsible. I think he loved my sister Floss and me most
because we were the lawless ones of the family! It was not in his
temperament to give wise advice and counsel. Having bequeathed to me
light-heartedness and a sanguine disposition, and trained me splendidly
for my profession in childhood, he became in after years a very
cormorant for adulation of me!
"Duchess, you might have been anything!" was his favorite comment, when
I was not living up to his ideas of my position and attainments. And I
used to answer: "I've played my cards for what I want."
Years afterwards, when he and mother used to come to first nights at the
Lyceum, the grossest flattery of me after the performance was not good
enough for them.
"How proud you must be of her!" someone would say. "How well this part
"Yes," father would answer, in a sort of "is-that-all-you-have-to-say"
tone. "But she ought to play Rosalind!"
To him I owe the gaiety of temperament which has enabled me to dance
through the most harsh and desert passages of my life, just as he used
to make Kate and me dance along the sordid London streets as we walked
home from the Princess's Theater. He would make us come under his cloak,
partly for warmth, partly to hide from us the stages of the journey
home. From the comfortable darkness one of us would cry out:
"Oh, I'm so tired! Aren't we nearly home? Where are we, father?"
"You know Schwab, the baker?"
"Well, we're _not_ there yet!"
As I grew up, this teasing, jolly, insouciant Irish father of mine was
relieved of some of his paternal duties by Tom Taylor. It was not Nelly
alone whom Tom Taylor fathered. He adopted the whole family.
At Lavender Sweep, with the horse-chestnut blossoms strewing the drive
and making it look like a tessellated pavement, all of us were always
welcome, and Tom Taylor would often come to our house and ask mother to
grill him a bone! Such intimate friendships are seldom possible in our
busy profession, and there was never another Tom Taylor in my life.
When we were not in London and could not go to Lavender Sweep to see
him, he wrote almost daily to us. He was angry when other people
criticised me, but he did not spare criticism himself.
"Don't be Nelly Know-all," I remember his saying once. "_I_ saw you
floundering out of your depth to-night on the subject of butterflies!
The man to whom you were talking is one of the greatest entomologists in
Europe, and must have seen through you at once."
When William Black's "Madcap Violet" was published, common report said
that the heroine had been drawn for Ellen Terry, and some of the reviews
made Taylor furious.
"It's disgraceful! I shall deny it. Never will I let it be said of you
that you could conceive any vulgarity. I shall write and contradict it.
Indiscreet, high-spirited, full of surprises, you may be, but
vulgar--never! I shall write at once."
"Don't do that," I said. "Can't you see that the author hasn't described
me, but only me in 'New Men and Old Acres'?" As this was Tom Taylor's
own play, his rage against "Madcap Violet" was very funny! "There am I,
just as you wrote it. My actions, manners, and clothes in the play are
all reproduced. You ought to feel pleased, not angry."
When his play "Victims" was being rehearsed at the Court Theater, an old
woman and old actress who had, I think, been in the preceding play was
not wanted. The day the management gave her her dismissal, she met
Taylor outside the theater, and poured out a long story of distress. She
had not a stocking to her foot, she owed her rent, she was starving.
Wouldn't Mr. Taylor tell the management what dismissal meant to her?
Wouldn't he get her taken back? Mr. Taylor would try, and Mr. Taylor
gave her fifteen pounds in the street then and there!
Mrs. Taylor wasn't surprised. She only wondered it wasn't thirty!
"Tom the Adapter" was the Terry dramatist for many years. Kate played in
many of the pieces which, some openly, some deviously, he brought into
the English stage from the French. When Kate married, my turn came, and
the interest that he had taken in my sister's talent he transferred in
part to me, although I don't think he ever thought me her equal. Floss
made her first appearance in the child's part in Taylor's play "A Sheep
in Wolf's Clothing," and Marion her first appearance as Ophelia in his
version of "Hamlet"--perhaps "perversion" would be an honester
description! Taylor introduced a "fool" who went about whacking people,
including the Prince, by way of brightening up the tragedy.
I never saw my sister's Ophelia, but I know it was a fine send-off for
her and that she must have looked lovely. Oh, what a pretty young girl
she was! Her golden-brown eyes exactly matched her hair, and she was the
winsomest thing imaginable! From the first she showed talent.
From Taylor's letters I find--and, indeed, without them I could not have
forgotten--that the good, kind friend never ceased to work in our
interests. "I have recommended Flossy to play Lady Betty in the
country." "I have written to the Bancrofts in favor of Forbes-Robertson
for Bassanio." (Evidently this was in answer to a request from me.
Naturally, the Bancrofts wanted someone of higher standing, but was I
wrong about J. Forbes-Robertson? I think not!) "The mother came to see
me the other day. I was extremely sorry to hear the bad news of Tom."
(Tom was the black sheep of our family, but a fascinating wretch, all
the same.) "I rejoice to think of your coming back," he writes another
time, "to show the stage what an actress should be." "A thousand thanks
for the photographs. I like the profile best. It is most Paolo
Veronesish and gives the right notion of your Portia, although the color
hardly suggests the golden gorgeousness of your dress and the blonde
glory of the hair and complexion.... I hope you have seen the quiet
little boxes at ----'s foolish article." (This refers to an article
which attacked my Portia in _Blackwood's Magazine_.) "Of course, if ----
found his ideal in ---- he must dislike you in Portia, or in anything
where it is a case of grace and spontaneity and Nature against
affectation, over-emphasis, stilt, and false idealism--in short, utter
lack of Nature. How _can_ the same critic admire both? However, the
public is with you, happily, as it is not always when the struggle is
between good art and bad."
I quote these dear letters from my friend, not in my praise, but in his.
Until his death in 1880, he never ceased to write to me sympathetically
and encouragingly; he rejoiced in my success the more because he had
felt himself in part responsible for my marriage and its unhappy ending,
and had perhaps feared that my life would suffer. Every little detail
about me and my children, or about any of my family, was of interest to
him. He was never too busy to give an attentive ear to my difficulties.
"'Think of you lovingly if I can'!" he writes to me at a time when I had
taken a course for which all blamed me, perhaps because they did not
know enough to pardon enough--_savoir tout c'est tout pardonner_. "Can
I think of you otherwise than lovingly? _Never_, if I know you and
Tom Taylor got through an enormous amount of work. Dramatic critic and
art critic for the _Times_, he was also editor of _Punch_ and a busy
playwright. Everyone who wanted an address written or a play altered
came to him, and his house was a kind of Mecca for pilgrims from America
and from all parts of the world. Yet he all the time occupied a position
in a Government office--the Home Office, I think it was--and often
walked from Whitehall to Lavender Sweep when his day's work was done. He
was an enthusiastic amateur actor, his favorite part being Adam in "As
You Like It," perhaps because tradition says this was a part that
Shakespeare played; at any rate, he was very good in it. Gilbert and
Sullivan, in very far-off days, used to be concerned in these amateur
theatricals. Their names were not associated then, but Kate and I
established a prophetic link by carrying on a mild flirtation, I with
Arthur Sullivan, Kate with Mr. Gilbert!
Taylor never wasted a moment. He pottered, but thought deeply all the
time; and when I used to watch him plucking at his gray beard, I
realized that he was just as busy as if his pen had been plucking at his
paper. Many would-be writers complain that the necessity of earning a
living in some other and more secure profession hinders them from
achieving anything. What about Taylor at the Home Office, Charles Lamb
at East India House, and Rousseau copying music for bread? It all
depends on the point of view. A young lady in Chicago, who has written
some charming short stories, told me how eagerly she was looking
forward to the time when she would be able to give up teaching and
devote herself entirely to a literary career. I wondered, and said I was
never sure whether absolute freedom in such a matter was desirable.
Perhaps Charles Lamb was all the better for being a slave at the desk
for so many years.
"Ah, but then, Charles Lamb wrote so little!" was the remarkable answer.
Taylor did not write "so little." He wrote perhaps too much, and I think
his heart was too strong for his brain. He was far too simple and
lovable a being to be great. The atmosphere of gaiety which pervaded
Lavender Sweep arose from his generous, kindly nature, which insisted
that it was possible for everyone to have a good time.
Once, when we were rushing to catch a train with him, Kate hanging onto
one arm and I onto the other, we all three fell down the station steps.
"Now, then, none of your jokes!" said a cross man behind us, who seemed
to attribute our descent to rowdyism. Taylor stood up with his soft felt
hat bashed over one eye, his spectacles broken, and laughed, and
laughed, and laughed!
Lavender Sweep was a sort of house of call for everyone of note. Mazzini
stayed there some time, and Steele Mackaye, the American actor who
played that odd version of "Hamlet" at the Crystal Palace with Polly as
Ophelia. Perhaps a man with more acute literary conscience than Taylor
would not have condescended to "write up" Shakespeare; perhaps a man of
more independence and ambition would not have wasted his really fine
accomplishment as a playwright for ever on adaptations. That was his
weakness--if it was a weakness. He lived entirely for his age, and so
was more prominent in it than Charles Reade, for instance, whose name,
no doubt, will live longer.
He put himself at the mercy of Whistler, once, in some Velasquez
controversy of which I forget the details, but they are all set out, for
those who like mordant ridicule, in "The Gentle Art of Making Enemies."
When Tom Taylor criticised acting he wrote as an expert, and he often
said illuminating things to me about actors and actresses which I could
apply over again to some of the players with whom I have been associated
since. "She is a curious example," he said once of an actress of great
conscientiousness, "of how far seriousness, sincerity, and weight will
supply the place of almost all the other qualities of an actress." When
a famous classic actress reappeared as Rosalind, he described her
performance as "all minute-guns and _minauderies_, ... a foot between
every word, and the intensity of the emphasis entirely destroying all
the spontaneity and flow of spirits which alone excuse and explain; ...
as unlike Shakespeare's Rosalind, I will stake my head, as human
personation could be!"
There was some talk at that time (the early 'seventies) of my playing
Rosalind at Manchester for Mr. Charles Calvert, and Tom Taylor urged me
to do it. "Then," he said charmingly, "I can sing my stage Nunc
Dimittis." The whole plan fell through, including a project for me to
star as Juliet to the Romeo of a lady!
I have already said that the Taylors' home was one of the most softening
and culturing influences of my early life. Would that I could give an
impression of the dear host at the head of his dinner-table, dressed in
black silk knee-breeches and velvet cutaway coat--a survival of a
politer time, not an affectation of it--beaming on his guests with his
_very_ brown eyes!
Lavender is still associated in my mind with everything that is lovely
and refined. My mother nearly always wore the color, and the Taylors
lived at Lavender Sweep! This may not be an excellent reason for my
feelings on the subject, but it is reason good enough.
"Nature repairs her ravages," it is said, but not all. New things come
into one's life--new loves, new joys, new interests, new friends--but
they cannot replace the old. When Tom Taylor died, I lost a friend the
like of whom I never had again.
A YEAR WITH THE BANCROFTS
My engagement with the Bancrofts lasted a little over a year. After
Portia there was nothing momentous about it. I found Clara Douglas
difficult, but I enjoyed playing her. I found Mabel Vane easy, and I
enjoyed playing her, too, although there was less to be proud of in my
success here. Almost anyone could have "walked in" to victory on such
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