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truth is that no actor has ever really conquered as Hamlet, or can ever hope to conquer, unless possessed of the temperament of genius, possessed of the Hamlet nature,—which commingles great intellect, great imagination, and great tenderness, with a constitutional susceptibility to melancholy,--and possessed, also, of that strange personal allurement, partly physical beauty, partly inspirational light, and partly spiritual charm, which never yet was wholly explicable in words, but which never yet has failed, in whatsoever branch of art made manifest, to diffuse an irresistible enchantment for the human race. In many other characters the efficiency of trained talent proves adequate and victorious; never in Hamlet.
Mr. Sothern, an actor of exceptional talent—whose assumption of Hamlet was first made known at the Garden Theatre, New York, on September 17, 1899, and which, since then, has become familiar throughout America-gave a performance of which it can justly be said that it was careful, intelligent, thoughtful, and respectably good. It is not disparagement which records the fact that Mr. Sothern is, essentially, a comedian: it is judgment in classification and definition of acting. In attempting Hamlet he measured himself by a colossal standard, and, considering the slender calibre of his natural gifts and cultivated powers, it is much to his credit that he did not dash himself to pieces in the effort. He did not embody, Hamlet, but he presented, after the
manner of eminent mediocrity, a sufficiently interesting type of fantastic mental disturbance and juvenile gloom. The principal attributes of his embodiment of the man whom he displayed as Hamlet were sincerity of purpose, earnestness of mind, strenuous effort, and fitful, spasmodic force. He spoke the text with fluency, and, though seldom with expressive modulation such as is sequent on spontaneity of feeling, with a propriety of intelligence that usually apprehended and conveyed its surface meanings. He indicated a right sense of filial tenderness and reverence. He showed a certain nobility of righteous scorn and moral fervor, notably in the Closet Scene,—and, once or twice (as when listening to the Ghost, apostrophizing “your gracious figure," and uttering Hamlet's dying words), he became mournfully passionate and momentarily sympathetic. On the other hand, he lacked personal distinction, innate princely authority, grace of movement, invariable clarity of articulation, mobility of facial expression, deep tenderness of feeling, depth, variety, and charm of voice, that sense of being haunted which only a powerful imagination can awaken and impart, and, at certain great pivotal moments of the tragedy,—such as Hamlet's first meeting with the Ghost; his parting with Ophelia; his delirium at the climax of “the mouse trap” play, and his frenzied joy and horror at the killing of Polonius, he conspicuously lacked the passion that should be electrical and the tragic power that should carry all before it.
Of the corrosive misery of Hamlet,-misery that has sapped the foundations of his mind and life, and which steadily, mercilessly, inexorably, and irresistibly burns out his heart and propels him onward to ruin and death, -he gave no adequate denotement. In a word, from the first performance and until the latest repetition, his Personation of this marvellous part, though gaining in force, feeling, and the nice adjustment and flexibility of mechanism, began, continued, and ended completely within the limits of stage utility, the conventional, and the commonplace.
In Mr. Sothern's earliest revival of the tragedy much effort was visible to create novelty of effect by invention of new stage business, such as each successive new Hamlet seeks to contribute, and by various restorations and excisions in the text, which sometimes obscured the meaning. A better, because clearer and shorter, text was ultimately utilized by this actor, and the play was set with thoughtful regard to archæological detailthe exterior view of Elsinore Castle, in particular, a gloomy, gray, antique fabric, overhanging the sea, being imaginative in composition and beautiful in effect.
The instructive facts are that, in the Ghost Scenes, which are the test scenes of this tragedy, Mr. Sothern neither expressed awe nor inspired terror; that his delivery of the speech on life and death and the “something after death” was so hollow and superficial as to
be completely insignificant; that he did not dominate, as surely Hamlet ought to do, the climax of the Play Scene; that he was merely melodramatic in the killing of Polonius-a crisis so terrible that it ought almost to rend the hearts of his hearers; and that, from first to last, his demeanor and speech, his repose and action, all the concurrent attributes of his personality, were so void of authoritative puissance, so light and thin, that, while he pleased by his earnestness, he often seemed hopelessly frivolous. Denial of his abstract merit as a conscientious and capable actor would be idle and wrong, but no man rationally expects to be applauded who goes to sea in a teaspoon. Less than that, in censure of his performance, remembering what this great play really is, would be weakness; more than that, in his praise, would be folly. The standard by which a dramatic artist is to be judged is not that of technical utility or monetary gain.
Mr. Sothern appeared, September 9, 1901, at the Garden Theatre, New York, presenting the play by Laurence Irving called “Richard Lovelace.” That play is the image of a romantic, sanguinary, grievous love affair, which, fancifully speaking, befell in the old city of Worcester, England, in 1651, and in which the English poet Lovelace was the principal participant. Worcester, in 1651, was held by the army of King