Miss Anderson in the 'Winter's Tale'


Miss Anderson in the 'Winter's Tale'


A review of Mary Anderson's performance in A Winter's Tale that develops into a reflection on the present state of British drama.


Craik, Dinah


December 1888


essay (art)


pp. 49–53


I have been a play-goer for over forty years, during which I have seen many a star rise and set — in fact, the whole dramatic hemisphere has changed; and there have been countless alterations, some for the better, and some for the worse. But my hearty love and appreciation of histrionic art has never altered; I now feel a play as keenly as a girl of sixteen — while bringing to it also the cool criticism of a lifetime's experience; therefore I think I may be listened to in a matter wherein the London critics seem to have been very unfair.

I did not join in the first furore over Miss Mary Anderson. She appeared to me a beautiful, intelligent, and attractive woman; but whether she would ever make a great actress remained to be proved. It depended upon her being able to keep a steady head, in spite of popular admiration — so as to attain by patient and continuous study that dramatic culture without which beauty and even genius are absolutely useless. Her Parthenia and Galatea, though graceful sketches, scarcely led up to Juliet — a part of which a great actress once said, "We can never understand it till we are too old to play it." No wonder therefore, though she looked it to perfection, and was charming in the lighter scenes, that Miss Anderson failed to attain the tragic height of the sixteen-year-old girl of Verona. Rosalind, played just before she left for America, was the first indication of her capacity to impersonate Shakespeare's heroines. The fantastic love-lorn boy-girl, witty and winning, yet never losing her maiden dignity, was played by her better than by anybody since Helen Faucit. She seemed to have in her that rare combination of nature and art, the poet's instinct and the woman's soul, without which no actress need attempt those women of women — Shakespeare's.

Therefore when she came back and announced her danng, unique, and ingenious combination of Hermione and Perdita — mother and daughter — in the Winter's Tale, I was eager to see her; all the more because the news-paper critics were against her. But a press verdict is not infallible. I have seen many a poor play and actor written up, many a good one written down, and both at last always found their right level. Most of the objections and condemnations were futile and unnecessary. For instance, the doubling of the parts, so much complained of as “confusion,” caused, I found, only the omission of four lines of Perdita's part, and the introduction of a harmless dummy for about three minutes before the curtain's fall. The excisions of words and phrases which the natural growth of refinement between the sixteenth and nineteenth centuries made necessary, were very few; and, much as she has been abused, Miss Anderson was right to make them. All else she has left as she found it. Dear old Will, though he calls a spade a spade, and deals with human nature as he saw it— the human nature of his time — is at heart always pure, always moral. In him you never find that elegant euphuistic glossing over of sin, to be laughed at in comedy and sentimentalised upon in tragedy, which makes one shrink from taking one's young daughters to almost any modern play.

The Winter's Tale is essentially a tale, no more. It goes against all the canons of dramatic unity, is full of ridiculous anachronisms, yet has a human interest and poetic charm peculiarly its own. Also it is so seldom acted that it must have come fresh to the London critics, startling them, not out of their proprieties, but out of their improprieties. The picture of a young man and young woman, bachelor and maid, innocently and virtuously in love with one another; of a wife so consciously pure that she can give the kiss of welcome to her husband's friend (as was the custom in Shakespeare's time) without thought of blame, and whose only reproach to that brutal husband is —

“Adieu, my lord;
I never wished to see you sorry— now
I trust I shall"—

was a phase of dramatic interest so new to the present generation of play-goers and play-reviewers, that it must have been to them like a dish of strawberries and cream after feeding upon "high" — very high — venison.

No wonder they carped at it, and at the actress who, instead of the Fedoras and Theodoras in tragedy, and the whole range of transplanted French heroines of comedy, had courage to present to the public two such women — merely women — as Hermione and Perdita.

Miss Anderson is not a perfect Hermione, especially in the first scene, when she does not well manage a not always harmonious voice; and her manner is scarcely stately enough for "the daughter of a king," the matron-queen whose sweet courtesy to her husband's guest is miles removed from modern "flirting." But at once she strikes the keynote of the character — thorough womanliness. Her fondling of Mamillius, her kindliness to her women, her tender playfulness with Leontes, all carry out the true conception of the part. And in the trial scene, when a commoner actress would have given us a ranting tragedy-queen. Miss Anderson is simplicity itself — a wronged, broken-hearted woman, sick and worn, but yet noble in her innocence. Her by-play is excellent, every gesture full of the deepest pathos; and her blank verse — the critics said she did not know how to declaim blank verse — was not "declaimed" at all, but wrung from her, brokenly and by fits, exactly as in such a case would be.

The only fault in this scene — as fine a one as ever Shakespeare wrote — is her parting look of reproach at her husband, which Miss Anderson would do well to reconsider, or omit entirely.

Another stage "point" which was severely commented on, and must have seemed strange to an audience accustomed to watch the ravings of heroines, even when in articulo mortis was Hermione's reception of the tidings that her little son is dead. In that supreme agony she neither shrieks nor moans, but stands paralysed a moment (the stony look of her face is a perfect study), then covers her head with her mantle and sinks slowly down, Genius and nature could alone have suggested to Miss Anderson a gesture so pathetic and so real— just like the peasant-woman who throws her apron over her head. Any one who has ever received from fate a blow which seems to turn the living and breathing woman into an image of stone — conscious only of one instinct, how best to conceal it — will acknowledge the truthfulness of the delineation.

It was a bold idea, a critical test, to disappear from an audience thus, and reappear half an hour after as Perdita—

––––––"the prettiest low-bom lass that ever
Danced on the green sward."

That exquisite creature, in whom "all she does still betters what is done," was never more exquisitely presented than by Miss Anderson, who, physically, is a perfect Shakespeare's woman. Her beauty, her grace, the almost child-lke sweetness of her face and gestures, and an atmosphere of innocent simplicity so completely un-"stagey" take one fairly by storm. We follow her with eager eyes, and truly, when she dances, wish her

––––––“a wave of the sea,
That she might do it ever”

If any fault can be found in a study that would have charmed Shakespeare's self, it is that the princess-peasant, being a princess, is a little too like the common herd in her demonstrations of affection for her “sweet friend" Florizel. A certain reticence and dignity would have marked her most passionate tenderness. By the way, what a pity that Mr. Forbes Robertson, who acts so well the thankless and too elderly part of Leontes, could not also have doubled it with that of Florizel, and so made a true picture of that bmve young prince who has the sense to see in the village-girl a royal nature equal lo his own, and holds to her with a pure, passionate love and courageous fidelity. Florizel, usually confided to secondary performers, might, in the hands of a really good actor, be an exceedingly useful study of a young man — a pattern to all the young men of to-day, from the “mashers" in the stalls to the 'Arrys of the gallery.

It is this view of the stage as a great teacher, better than most books and many sermons, which has evoked the present notice of the Winter’s Tale at the Lyceum. It is a charming spectacle— pleasant to the ear and delightful to the eye; for the artistic mise-en-scène is excellent, save the "dummy" baby ("not a judicious baby," as one spectator observed), which rouses in the audience an irresistible titter. The music is very good, except for the evil habit our orchestras are getting into of accompanying special bits, thereby spoiling both music and speeches. Besides all this, it is an innocent play. We come from it entirely free from that "bad taste in one's mouth" with which one generally quits a theatre. Shakespeare, if rough, is always wholesome. In him we never find that condoning and plastering over of vice, which is the curse of the modern stage. "Death is a fearful thing," says Claudio. " And shamed life a hateful," answers Isabella. Nor does he ever make sin anything else than hateful. Dear old Will! even his comedy, when purged of certain verbal grossnesses peculiar to his time, is, as in the Winter’s Tale, perfectly harmless to pure ears and eyes.

For some months to come, let us hope there will be at least one theatre in London where one can take one's young daughters without tainting their fresh souls by images of wickedness, or, worse, putting vice in such pleasant or pathetic shape that they mistake it for virtue.

Why should it not be so ? Why should not managers (who are, many of them, most respectable men and women) and actors (often as good husbands and wives, fathers and mothers, as any of us all), why should they not combine to give the omnivorous British public wholesome food instead of garbage ? Its appetite is wholesome still. Witness the honest delight with which it applauds “virtue rewarded and vice punished." What crowds went nightly to see Olivia, Claudian, and the like! And now every Shakespearen revival may count upon a lengthened "run." Why not give it good food instead of bad! — provided the food is palatable.

And can it be possible that our honest English brains are unable to produce anything which is palatable without being dull? Are managers so afraid of this that their worst condemnation of a play is (I have known it given), "Oh! it will never pay; it is too moral”?

How, then, can we stem this fatal tide, which is drifting us off into the lowest depths of Greek and Roman degradation? — all the worse because, like them, it has a smooth surface of artistic beauty and refinement. Will no one raise a warning voice (especially to the young generation), "Take heed where you are going”? And, more, will no one try to arrest them in the fatal way they are going ?

We have set aside the old superstition that as the church is God's house (which it is, or ought to be), so the theatre must be the house of the devil. Actors and actresses, too, are not what they often, alas! used to be. Most of them, especially of the higher ranks, are cultivated gentlemen and gentlewomen; and many are very good men and good women, virtuous, domestic, with a high ideal of their art intellectually and morally. So are managers, not a few. Could not these, the wholesome leaven of a corrupt lump, combine to purify the whole lump? Could they not combine to abhor that which is evil, and cleave to that which is good? Better than all the vetoes of the Lord Chamberlain would be an honest lessee, who had the courage to say (as one lessee has been heard to say when urged to accept various French plays), "There are two sorts of love— one fair, one foul : the latter shall never enter my theatre." And if, in support of this, our leading actors, or, better, our actresses — favourites of the public, whom managers must need propitiate — would absolutely refuse to play such a part as Marguerite in La Dame aux Camellias, and the countless other parts familiar to the public, of which the whole interest consists in the breaking, or attempted breaking, or pardonable and pathetic breaking of the seventh commandment — what a change would at once be made in the atmosphere of the stage! As great spiritually as that which is soon to be made materially in substituting electric light for gas (“airs from heaven" instead of "blasts from hell"); for to many people coming away from a modern play, as out of the reeking, noxious theatre where it is acted, is like quitting (in plain English) a moral hell— a very ingenious, elegant, amusing hell, but nevertheless as black as Avemus, and into which the descent is quite as easy.

If a reformation is to come at all, it must come, I believe, from the women.

Let those actresses — not few, I trust — who are stainless maidens, faithful wives, good mothers, take their stand — as apparently Miss Anderson does — and refuse to act immoral parts in vicious plays. Let them lead the public taste, instead of weakly following it; refuse to pamper its appetite for anything vile; give it strong, pure, and wholesome food. I believe it would "swallow" the sternest morality, the highest poetry, if put before it in an attractive form.

There can be no earthly objection to what is called "stage upholstery.” If the public like spectacle, by all means let them have it. A real gem is none the worse for a beautiful setting. The exquisite eye-pictures of the Winter's Tale at the Lyceum are truly Shakespearean throughout. Even the slight interpolations of dumb-show crowds, &c., tell exceedingly well. And the world - known parts of Autolycus, Shepherd, and Clown are well sustained by capable actors. But that "dresses, scenery, and decorations" make the whole of a play is as great a mistake as that the play can do without them.

It remains for Miss Mary Anderson, and perhaps for Mr. Wilson-Barrett, who is said to have taken the Globe Theatre, and who, with one or two fatal exceptions, has done more than any manager to raise the tone of the stage — it remains for these, and those like them, to show that under all its feeble, melodramatic, or vicious outside, there is a wholesome inward vitality in our British drama which now survives all foreign taint, and needs no bolstering-up by translations or imitations, but can be both tragic and comic on its own account. Surely it is monstrous that the country which produced Shakespeare should be obliged to beg, borrow, or steal from other countries the dramatic element which it cannot find itself. It could find it if it tried — both plays and actors. Our English stage, like our literature, might he made the greatest and the wholesomest in all the world. We possess good dramatists, good actors, clever managers. Courage only is needed to lead the way; the public would follow like a flock of sheep. That someone will arise and show it, is the earnest hope with which the present paper is written.