The Lyceum Rehearsals. II

Cont. from Part I

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.”

img135The 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.

But where is Miss Ellen Terry? The question answers itself as soon as asked, for a gliding, graceful feminine presence appears on the stage. Miss Ellen Terry is attired in black, with a white fichu at her breast to relieve the monotony of this sombre garb. In her hand she carries a little black basket, and there is a glimmer of steel at her side as if she wore a reticule containing the hundred-and-one trifles which ladies like to carry about with them. So much has been written and said about Miss Terry that it would seem at first sight utterly impossible to say anything new. In five minutes, the difficulty is to say enough. The supreme unconsciousness of Art, or Nature, enables her to assume a hundred changing attitudes; her voice is heard without effort from one end of the theatre to the other; she possesses the most exquisite tact. Watch the skill, for instance, with which she induces some young actor to realise the true meaning of a passage in the play. She seems to be thinking it out to herself as if a new idea had been presented to her.

“Yes,” she says, musingly, “I wonder if that is what Tennyson meant?” Or, “Wait a minute,” she adds brightly, “How would this do?”

Then she repeats the passage with the right emphasis, action, and intonation, giving the meaning clearly and fully.

“Don’t you think that must be what is meant?” she asks questioningly.

“Hum-m,” says the actor, looking at the lines. “Ah, very likely. Perhaps it is.”

It is agreed that it shall be spoken that way, and the actor gives a delicate and truthful reading of the part, which will procure him a pat on the back from the critics when the play is produced. In the presence of her intuitive perception, the members of the caste instinctively become energetic and animated. At one moment she bends over to Mr. Meredith Ball in the orchestra, her long black skirt sweeping the stage in graceful folds; at another “moves up” to test a portion of the scenery and confer with Mr. Irving, or, with chair lightly dragging after, walks towards the wings, sits down, and rapidly cons her part. Three minutes after, she has crossed the stage, and is writing a letter.

Before the letter is finished, something else claims her attention. Then she comes back, finishes it, and is consulted by Mr. Irving and Mr. Terriss as to how he (Mr. Terriss) is to jump over a table without forfeiting his kingly dignity. Mr. Terriss has already vaulted over the table some eight times with the agility of a deer, but Mr. Irving wants it done differently.

“I think you’d better,” he says, “have something on the table, and pick it up before you go over. If you do it this way, it looks rather like Lillie Bridge, you know.”

Miss Ellen Terry reflects a moment, then asks, in mirthful tones, suiting the action to the word, “What is that jump that makes you go sideways as you fly over hurdles?” Mr. Terriss, like Mr. Winkle’s horse, goes “sideways.” This method, however, still lacks dignity, and at last it is decided that he shall place both hands on the table, spring over, and so lightly up the steps and exit. Half-way up the steps he is recalled by Mr. Irving’s warning voice, “Don’t go up there; it isn’t safe yet.”

There is one gentleman who plays a very important part in the proceedings, yet never appears on the Lyceum stage in public, and that is Mr. Hawes Craven, the scenic artist. Frequenters of the theatre have for many years past been familiar with Mr. Craven’s beautiful scenery, but very few of them know the manner of place where it is produced. Down many deep steps beneath the stage is a winding passage leading past the unornamental bases of what appear to be huge balks of timber, rising up into space. These timbers are interspersed with rubber pipes for lighting purposes.

Leaning against the wall is a dilapidated structure, very much like a huge Robinson Crusoe umbrella out of repair, which, on closer inspection, proves to be the hovel used in “King Lear.” Close to it is affixed a placard giving directions how to manipulate the celebrated Lyceum thunder. A little beyond is a narrow flight of stone steps leading to Mr. Craven’s painting room, which is fifty feet long and about thirty feet wide. It is lit by a skylight extending the full width of the roof. On each side of it are stretched huge canvasses, eighteen feet high and forty-seven feet long. These canvasses are extended on frames, which can be raised or lowered by means of a winch to suit Mr. Craven’s convenience. Some idea of the expensiveness of the materials for stage scenery may be gathered from the fact that the canvas alone costs a shilling a yard, with an additional charge of one penny for sewing. It takes Mr. Craven and his two assistants four hours to “prime” one cloth ready for painting. In times of emergency, he often works fourteen hours at a stretch.

The floor of the room is bespattered thickly with paint: Mr. Craven’s clothes are all the hues of the rainbow; so are those of his assistants, one of them unconsciously having decorated himself with a blue nose. The centre of the room is occupied by huge tables, on which stand earthen pots containing paint by the half-gallon, and brushes of all shapes and sizes. Indeed, some of the brushes will hold two pounds weight of paint at a single dip, and Mr. Craven’s implement for sketching in outlines is a thick stick of charcoal fastened on a long pole. The artist’s method of painting is to walk to the centre tables, take a huge dip of paint, and speed back again to his canvas, which represents a huge ash tree. Mr. Craven, besides sporting as much woad on his person as an ancient Briton, wears a white handkerchief round his brows. When he is very much pressed for time, he exchanges this handkerchief for a red one, and the joke goes round that this means blood.

img134As it is impossible to carry heavy pots of paint about all day, Mr. Craven really performs a kind of “sentry-go,” painting as he goes. One curious fact is that his colours dry very quickly about two shades lighter than when they are wet. After Mr. Craven has covered a certain amount of space, he motions to the boy at the winch, and the whole vast canvas moves slowly up some two or three feet. Mr. Craven, in addition to his artistic knowledge, is a perfect ambulatory encyclopædia, his work requiring an intimate acquaintance with architecture, botany, history. He is, above all things, an artist, with an intimate knowledge of the shapes, the hues, the seasons of flowers, the colours and habits of birds, the tints of leaves, their varied forms, and the other thousand and one things which he is called upon to depict at a moment’s notice. The rapidity with which he works is simply marvellous.

“So sorry I can’t talk much,” he says; “but I had fourteen hours of it yesterday, and my feet are beginning to give out.”

“You ought to join the eight hours’ movement, Mr. Craven.”

Mr. Craven makes a semi-circular sweep with a huge brush, the point of which lights on a pendulous ash bough.

“Eight hours!” he echoes with genial scorn. “Why, if I did, my profession would (dab! dab! dab!) cease (dab! dab! dab!) to (dab!) exist for me”; and the naked bough is clad in graceful foliage with magical rapidity.

One evening, it is announced that for a couple of days Mr. Irving will not play. Before he has fully recovered, however, he comes down to rehearsal with Mr. Loveday, who is, happily, convalescent. Miss Terry and Mr. Terriss spare him all they can, the latter’s Jove-like voice thundering over the stage when Mr. Irving wishes to convey commands to distant groups. But it is evident that Mr. Irving will not be restrained. After the rehearsal begins, the force of habit causes him to be here, there, and everywhere with unabated energy, as the grouping in the third scene of the first act is very difficult. The following rough diagram will give some idea of the stage:

img136

This scene is laid in Northampton Castle. Some fifty people are on the stage, bishops, Templars, knights, and John of Oxford, President of the Council. Mr. Irving runs his eye over the different groups. “Put one man on the steps. Now, a group by the throne. The barons sit round the table, and the rest of you occupy the benches.”

As the groups arrange themselves in obedience to Mr. Irving’s directions, his somewhat elderly fox-terrier moves slowly “on,” and superciliously surveys the general effect. As the barons give vent to angry murmurs, the dog howls. Sometimes, when Mr. Irving walks up the steps after bidding defiance to the barons, the dog follows stiffly after him to lend the weight of his moral support. Satisfied that all is well, the dog returns to Miss Terry, and goes to sleep on her dress. Now and then he wakes up, stretches himself, and evinces the most profound contempt for John of Oxford’s speech by yawning in the orator’s face. Seeing, at last, that the rehearsal will be longer than usual, he resigns himself to the inevitable, and goes to sleep again.

After Mr. Irving has grouped the men on the benches, he steps back and looks at the table. “We ought to have on it some kind of mace or crosier,” he says—“a large crosier. Now for the ‘make up.’ All the barons and everyone who has a moustache must wear a small beard. All the gentlemen who have no beards remain unshaven. All the priests and bishops are unshaven. The mob can have slight beards, but this is unimportant. Now, take off your hats, gentlemen, please. Some of you must be old, some young. Hair very short;” and he passes from group to group selecting the different people. “Now, I think, that is all understood pretty well. Where are the sketches for dresses?”

The sketches are brought, and he goes carefully through them. Miss Terry and Mr. Terriss also look over the big white sheets of paper. The fox-terrier strolls up to the group, gives a glance at them, and walks back again to Miss Terry’s chair with a slightly cynical look. Then Mr. Irving returns to the groups by the benches. “Remember, gentlemen, you must be arguing here, laying down the law in this way,” suiting the action to the word. “Just arrange who is to argue. Don’t do it promiscuously, but three or four of you together. Try to put a little action into it. I want you to show your arms, and not to keep them glued to your sides like trussed fowls. No; that isn’t half enough action. Don’t be frightened. Better make too much noise rather than too little, but don’t stop too suddenly. Start arguing when I ring the first bell. As I ring the second bell, you see me enter, and stop.” The dog stands one bell, but the second annoys him, and he disappears from the stage altogether, until the people on the benches have finished their discussion.

Mr. Irving next tries the three-cornered stools which are placed around the table, but prefers square ones. The dog returns, walks over to the orchestra, looks vainly for a rat, and retreats under the table in the centre of the stage as if things were getting really too much for him. But his resting place is ill-chosen, for presently half-a-dozen angry lords jump on the table, and he is driven forth once more. After a stormy scene with the lords, Mr. Irving walks up the steps again.

“When I say ‘I depart,’ you must let me get up the steps. All this time your pent-up anger is waiting to burst out suddenly. Don’t go to sleep over it.”

He looks at the table in the centre of the stage, and turns to a carpenter.

“This table will never do. It has to be jumped on by so many people that it must be very strong. They follow me. (To Miss Terry) They’d better catch hold of me, up the steps here.”

Miss Terry: They must do something. They can’t stand holding you like that.

Mr. Irving: No. The door opens suddenly at top of steps, and discovers the crowd, who shout, “Blessed is he that cometh in the name of the Lord.”

The doors open and the crowd shout, but the effect is not good.

Miss Terry: It would be better if it were done at the foot of the steps. The people needn’t show their faces as they do it, and the effect will be so much better.

The effect is tried, and found to answer admirably. Then the carpenters carry away the scenery, and the stage is “set” roughly for the Bower scene in the second act. Mr. Terriss fetches a screen from the left, and places it behind Miss Terry’s chair; Mr. Irving sits facing Miss Terry, backed by another screen to keep off draughts; Mr. Terriss sits a little way back, and the dog goes to sleep in the centre of the group. In the background appear three or four costumed specimen monks and retainers waiting to be inspected, one frivolous being trying to balance a yard measure on the tip of his nose in a manner which ill accords with his monkish vestments. The “music cues” are very difficult to get right. Nearly an hour is consumed in trying different effects. Miss Terry insists that the whole scene entirely depends upon the action, and that the music must be subordinated to it. When the music drowns her voice, she suddenly stops with a despairing gesture, “We couldn’t speak through this any more than the dead. Can’t it begin loudly, Mr. Ball, then die away?” Then she turns to Miss Kate Phillips, who is her maid in the play.

“Please try your song at the back there, Miss Phillips.”

Miss Phillips sings a very pretty but sad little song, and Miss Terry listens attentively.

“It’s an Irish wail,” says Mr. Irving. “You don’t want an Irish wail here, but a merry song. You should have a mirthful, running accompaniment,” and the song is changed. “That is enough for to-day.”

The dog thinks so too. The “Irish wail” has been the last straw. He precedes everyone towards the wings with joyous barks which quite belie his air of long-suffering cynicism. It is lunch time.

At the first full-dress rehearsal, the Lyceum stage resembles a bee-hive with its swarms of busy occupants. Huge pieces of scenery move about, propelled by perspiring carpenters in shirt-sleeves; whole skies suddenly float up into “the flies”; the prompter converses amicably with a mail-clad baron; then, more scenery glides majestically down from the roof or springs up suddenly through the stage, which is literally full of “traps” for the unwary. The “tum-tum-tum” of the fiddles in the orchestra sounds weirdly as the composer of the incidental music, Professor Stanford Villiers, leans over from the stalls and chats with Mr. Meredith Ball, or makes a mysterious statement to him that “the staccato should be a little more staccato.” Presently, Professor Villiers remarks to the orchestra, “Instead of playing two short quavers, please play the crotchet in three time.” The orchestra respond vigorously, but are stopped with a further request to “play the first chord in the second bar as a dotted minim instead of a quaver,” and the Professor wanders about all over the house testing the effect of every note.

The prologue goes off as smoothly as if it had been played for a hundred nights. Miss Terry, clad in Rosamond’s magnificent robes, sits in the stalls and watches the effect of the lights upon each group. Sometimes a light is too blue, or too yellow, or too white, and in the first act the rehearsal is stopped several times on this account. When Miss Terry is on the stage, Mr. Irving watches the lights; when Mr. Irving is acting, she studies each flash.

On the whole, there are wonderfully few details which require modification. In the Bower scene, the light is at first too yellow, and has to be altered. Practical experience proves that the bank up which the lovers go is too slippery. A portion of it is cut away, thus avoiding the probability of an awkward accident. Miss Ward trips on the hem of her regal robe, and requests the costumier to “take it up a little.” Mr. Irving, with unfailing memory, notices that some spearmen are without their spears. But there is little to alter; at the second full-dress rehearsal there will be less; and on the evening of the first performance everything and everybody will have settled down into the right place. Mr. Hawes Craven comes on once or twice to look at his handiwork, and see that it has been properly “set.” Then he walks away with a brisk step to his well-earned rest.

Apart from the interest of the Bower scene, it is delightful to watch Miss Terry and Master Byrne, who plays Geoffrey. When he comes “on” a little before he is wanted, Miss Terry throws her arms round him and kisses the pretty little fellow tenderly with, “There, run away for a moment, darling; we’re not quite ready for you.” It is this sweet and all-ellen-terrypervading womanliness of Miss Terry’s which fascinates the onlooker. Suddenly, from some dark recess, her voice floats out with an eminently practical suggestion, a shrewd idea as to effect, some playful query. It comes from every quarter of the theatre, and is marvellously thrilling, with all the subtle fascination of what a poet-musician would call its “tone-colour.” When the curtain draws up for the Bower scene, and she playfully chides her royal lover, it is more exquisite still. The solitary observer sits and listens to it, the sole representative from the outer world. All this gorgeous pageantry is for him alone; all this wealth of emotion, this story of love and murder, this work of the great poet now passed away—all this is poured into the ears of one man, who sits motionless, entranced, until the tale is told, the play done, and he walks out into the quiet night, quivering with the terrible pathos of Becket’s end.


THE IDLER MAGAZINE., March 1893

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