By G. B. Burgin.
One day a paragraph appears in the papers that a new piece will shortly be produced at such and such a theatre. Paterfamilias lays down the paper and placidly observes that it may be worth while getting seats. Then he goes down to the theatre, books seats, and troubles himself no more about the matter until the first night of the play in question. The world behind the curtain is one with which he is totally unfamiliar. He knows naught of its struggles, its hopes and fears, its arduous work, its magnificent prizes and sore disappointments. So many thousands of pounds have been spent in preparing the play, so many reputations are at stake, so many hearts will be gay and glad to-morrow, or aching with the bitter pain of defeat.
But to Paterfamilias these are all the joys or sorrows of another world. As he watches the smooth, easy performance, in which every actor has his place, in which the whole pageant produces itself without apparent effort, he fails to imagine the ceaseless work involved in its adequate realisation. He does not know that for weeks before the production of a new play, say at the Lyceum for instance, Mr. Irving and the wonderful company which he has gathered round him labour over it often far into the night after the audience has left. The general idea of an actor’s life is that it is a delightful round of social pleasures tempered by a few hours’ light, agreeable work in the evening; to those who think this, a visit to the Lyceum rehearsals would reveal the other side of the shield. Very few men in London labour so indefatigably as Mr. Irving.
To watch him directing a rehearsal almost makes one’s head ache at the mere idea of such unceasing labour. Every motion, however insignificant, of each individual on the stage, from himself down to the newest and rawest “super,” has to be thought out and planned in Mr. Irving’s brain. Like an ideal general, he leaves nothing to chance, nothing to subordinates. The turning up or down of every gas jet, the movement of every piece of furniture, the effect of every note of music, has received his most careful thought. One watches him stand hour after hour on the Lyceum stage, without weariness, without impatience, guiding the whole of the great production. And though Mr. Irving never spares himself, he is very considerate to others. When, for instance, a young actor is unable to comprehend the full meaning of an explanation, Mr. Irving walks up and down the stage, one arm on his shoulder, and explains the whole conception of the part. He is not only a great actor, but a great teacher; and his influence pervades and dominates every being in the theatre. He does not merely assert, but gives full and sufficient reason for every action until every one on the stage grasps the exact meaning of the scene as well as he does himself. As an instance of this, let us follow the rehearsals of “Becket.” *
The theatre itself is deserted save by some ghostly caretaker who glides noiselessly through the shadowy gloom, sliding a brush over the upholstery without looking at it, and replacing each covering as she goes. On the stage are two gentlemen wearing picturesque soft hats, and long coats which reach to within half-a-foot of the ground. The taller of the two, Mr. Henry Irving, wears a light drab-coloured coat and dark hat; Mr. William Terriss is attired in a light hat and dark coat. In the centre of the stage, close to the foot-lights, stands a screen; behind the screen is a chair. To the left of the stage (as you look at it from the stalls) is placed a small table with a big gilt cross on it.
On the extreme right there is another small table laden with papers, plans of the stage, and letters. At the back of the stage are grouped numerous male “supers,” clad in ordinary morning costume and wearing the inevitable “bowler” hat, which does not harmonise very well with the huge spears they carry. It is the scene in the second act of the late Poet Laureate’s “Becket,” “The Meeting of the Kings,” and Mr. Irving is busily engaged grouping some fifty people who are required to pose as barons, French prelates, and retainers. When he has done this, there is still something wanted to complete the picture. Two pages are lacking. “Where’s Johnny?” asks Mr. Irving, and “Johnny” appears. Mr. Irving eyes him critically. “I’m afraid you’re too big, Johnny,” he says, and “Johnny” disappointedly makes way for a smaller boy.
Mr. Irving stands well in the centre of the stage, absorbing every detail. The French bishops are huddled too near together, and he groups them more naturally. Becket’s mortal foes, Fitzurse, De Brito, De Tracy, and De Morville, are moved lower down towards the audience, so that they can go “off” with greater effect when jeering at Becket.
The cameo-cut outlines of Mr. Irving’s fine serious features are plainly visible as he turns to look at the wings. “I don’t see any necessity for having these ‘wings’ so forward,” he declares, and the wings at once slide gently back, moved by some invisible agency. In response to Mr. Irving’s request for another alteration in the scenery (he speaks with an utter absence of effort in a voice which can be heard at the other end of the theatre, although it does not appear to be raised above a conversational pitch), a middle-aged gentleman, attired in a frock coat, his brows carefully swathed in a white pocket handkerchief, comes forward, yardstick in hand, and measures the stage with great assiduity.
When this has been done, Mr. Irving sits down with “Please go on.” Then he turns to Mr. Terriss: “Shall we go through it first without the dialogue?” “Yes,” answers Mr. Terriss; and the whole action of the scene is gone through. Mr. Irving and Mr. Terriss exchanging their direction of the various groups for the assumption of their own parts with an ease and rapidity born of long practice, Mr. Irving moving about from group to group until he is satisfied with the effect of the whole. Mr. H. T. Loveday, the stage manager, being at present ill, Mr. Terriss is kindly assisting Mr. Irving with rehearsal. After the entrances and exits have been arranged for the twentieth time, Henry’s magnificent voice rings out as Louis enters:
“‘Brother of France, what shall be done with Becket?’”
As this is one of the early rehearsals, the actors are not yet word perfect. Each holds his part in one hand, and refreshes his memory as he goes on. When Henry and Louis have finished their dialogue, and Becket is about to enter, Mr. Irving suddenly pauses. “Make a note that before Becket’s entrance there should be a slow chant—a Gregorian chant—and flourishes. Where are the gentlemen who sing?” “The gentlemen who sing” come on, and practise the chant. “Not quite so loud.” Mr. Irving claps his hands (the stage signal for stopping people) and decides to try the effect behind the scenes. “That will do; very good,” he declares, as the solemn chant steals slowly in, and then, merging the manager in the actor, kneels at Henry’s feet.
At this juncture, Mr. Irving becomes the stage-manager again, and turns to the group of Henry’s followers. “You, gentlemen, are to come up here. You are rather startled, and listen attentively; that’s the spirit of it.” King Henry’s followers move up, and jeer at Becket, who curses them. Then come the voices of the crowd without:
“‘Blessed be the Lord Archbishop, who hath withstood two kings to their faces for the honour of God.’”
But Mr. Irving is not satisfied with the crowd. “Slower and more gravely, please. I want the emphasis on ‘the Lord Archbishop.’ So! That will be very good.”
After this, there is an interval, and Mr. Irving and Mr. Terriss disappear. Before they return, the stage carpenters begin to prepare for the murder scene in the last act. A number of what appear to be canvas-covered trunks are brought in and laid down to represent stones in the choir of Canterbury Cathedral.
Meantime, some of the gentlemen who represent the monks in this scene playfully spar at one another, or lunge with walking-sticks at imaginary foes. The carpenters are busy measuring the stage in all directions with tapes in accordance with a plan which one of them holds in his hand. Before Mr. Irving returns, the “supers” group themselves “left” and answer to their names. When he reappears, they look at him expectantly. “I am not going to rehearse this scene to-day,” he says, “but will just arrange it. Those who sing, go over right (left from the audience). You sing the vespers. I want six more with you. Then, twelve of the shortest. You follow them. All the short ones you have, please. Yes, you’re short (to a diminutive ‘super’ who is standing on tiptoe and trying to look seven feet high at least). Don’t be bashful. You’re none the worse for being short. Come along”; and with unfailing memory Mr. Irving calls each man by name, and indicates his place.
When a man fails to quite realise what is required of him, Mr. Irving takes him by the shoulders, and gently moves him along to the required position, very much as if the individual in question were a pawn about to be played in a game of chess. As soon as the monks are grouped to his satisfaction, he steps back. “That’s it. Now, you all come down from the choir. There is a loud hammering against the door. I go to open the door, and all of you rush right by me.” Then Mr. Irving opens the door to his murderers, and is borne back by the crowd of terrified monks. Five minutes afterwards, he has returned to life, and is rehearsing a scene from “King Lear,” with Miss Ellen Terry’s understudy, in as natural and unembarrassed a manner as if he had not been working hard for three hours previously.
Especial care is bestowed by Mr. Irving with regard to every detail of the murder scene. On another occasion, the scenery is not ready, but a flight of steep steps, essential to the action, is placed far back in a position to left of the stage. As “Becket” has never been played before, there are no traditions whatever to guide actors or scenic artists, and each movement, phrase, gesture, and intonation, must be “created.” Mr. Irving picks up a huge battle-axe and hatchet, and carefully plans the details of his own murder. Having decided how to die, he thoughtfully surveys the steps up which the frightened monks are supposed to rush. “They won’t do,” says Mr. Irving. “They are too steep; there is no hand-rail; and the monks will fall over and hurt themselves. Take off four steps. It would be too dangerous if anyone fell down. Now, then, Salisbury and Grim, I enter, forced along by you. Catch hold of me, and put your arms round me this way. That’s it. No; I don’t like those steps.”
Mr. Irving again tries the steps personally, and decides what further alterations are required. Then he addresses the monks, who stand by the steps awaiting instructions.
“This is a scene, gentlemen, which requires the utmost carefulness and patience, and all the earnestness you can throw into it. Now, gentlemen.”
The crowd: “Here is the great Archbishop. He lives! he lives!”
“No, I wouldn’t do it that way,” says Mr. Irving. “‘Here is the great Archbishop.’ You’re surprised to see me, you know. Then pause. ‘He lives! he lives!’ in a sort of whisper. Now, go back and chant the service, and do it all over again.”
The solemn strains of the organ are heard, as Rosamond goes off, the cue for the monks to enter being, “And pass at once perfect to Paradise.” But the organ is too loud; so is the chant. After several attempts, the organ sounds more softly, the monks appear, and Becket enters, hurried along by his friends. But the monks have not yet caught the spirit of the scene.
“You are frightened out of your lives. See,” says Mr. Irving, and, in a second, he personates a frightened monk. The next moment, with bewildering rapidity, he is the Archbishop again. “‘What do these people fear?’ When I say, ‘I will go out and meet them,’ you must murmur as if to stop me. I tell you, ‘Why, these are our own monks who follow’d us,’ and you are reassured. Then I open the door, with, ‘Come in, my friends, come in.’ Yes, that’s it. Who leads the monks as they come in? Mr. Belmore? Yes, that’s right. You rush in, followed by monks, crying out as if you were thoroughly frightened:
“‘A score of knights all arm’d with swords and axes.’
“Then pause a moment, and shout, ‘To the choir, to the choir.’ Some of you run half-way up the steps, then come down again as if you had changed your minds, and rush right across the other side. You are confused, and don’t know what to do. You, Mr. Bishop, shout out in your tremendous voice, ‘To the crypt.’”
This movement is rehearsed some twenty times before it satisfies Mr. Irving. At last, the monks disappear, and Becket is left to confront his murderers. “I stand here in the transept, and Fitzurse rushes up to me. What’s he say? Oh, ‘I will not only touch but drag thee hence.’ Then I say, ‘Thou art my man, thou art my vassal. Away,’ and push him off.”
Fitzurse falls, and Mr. Irving stops reading from the part.
“No, Fitzurse, you take hold of me, and I fling you off violently. You must remember that I am supposed to be a strong man — a man who has been a soldier. Like this,” and Mr. Irving falls on the stage with an ease born of long practice.
“You pick yourself up, rush at me with drawn sword (it’s all one movement), and shout, ‘I told thee that I should remember thee.’ I say, ‘Profligate, pander.’ You come on with, ‘Do you hear that? Strike! strike!’ I cover my face. ‘I do commend my cause to God,’ and you rush off, drunk with blood, half-horrified at what you’ve done, and yet braving it out, crying, ‘King’s men! King’s men!’ to support your Dutch courage.”
The murderers go “off,” and Mr. Terriss and Mr. Irving practise a series of different attitudes for the death scene until Mr. Irving is finally satisfied. He has taken off his coat in order to better rehearse the murder scene. Mr. Terriss now helps him on with it again, the monks are recalled, and some dozen more painstaking attempts made to get everything right.
“It’s very simple, gentlemen,” Mr. Irving assures the monks. “Very simple, when you’ve once caught the spirit of it.”
This rehearsal has lasted for nearly three hours, during the whole of which time Mr. Irving has superintended everything, thrown himself into each man’s part, grouped everyone, created the action, devised suggestions for scenery, as if regardless of the fact that in the evening he will have to undergo the awful stress and strain of King Lear. Any other man, with a less intense vitality, would simply collapse under all this pressure. Mr. Irving puts up his eyeglass, takes a last look at the stage, and walks buoyantly off as if the whole thing were mere child’s play.
To be continued in Part II
* Becket by ALFRED LORD TENNYSON — Becket and Other Plays