ALL RIGHT ON THE NIGHT by V. C. Clinton-Baddeley (Putnam 21s.) FIFTY YEARS OF PETER PAN by Roger Lancelyn Green (Peter Davies 21s.)
IAM suspicious of Mrs. Siddons. She is mysterious. Was she truly a great actress, like our divine Dame Edith or lovely Peggy Ashcroft; or was she just a great performer? Did she beguile her audiences or bash them, woo, as Dame Sybil woos us, or bludgeon.
Hazlitt's record, for all his reverence. suggests that her exits and entrances had something of the atmosphere of an "H" film, not so much a bride but a sister of Frankenstein's monster. How muscular she is in the lively Rowlandson that decorates the cover of Mr. ClintonItaddeley's book; her father "old Kemble" cowers with the prompt book as rehearsing she rends the air. I have pursued Sarah in contemporary pictures. There is a patrician quality in a portrait by an "unknown artist" but as "the tragic muse" the actress suggests a lady hypnotist on a fairground.
Thc Gainsborough is more Gainborough than Sarah; she might be Lady Godiva, much over-dressed, riding an invisible horse. In a drawing by Chalon she eerily resembles Mr. Danny Kaye while Lawrence depicted her as the Medusa seemingly caught before morning ablutions. Another, unidentified, sketch shows Sarah in a pose and costume that implies Gertrude stealing Hamlet's lines and instructing Ophelia to get her to a nunnery. Mrs. Siddons is a mystery to me; and the portraits do not help.
When I opened Mr. ClintonBaddeley's book and read that when she "was playing Lady Macbeth at Leeds in 1799, the call-boy who had gone to fetch her a can of ale, marched on to the stage and attempted to deliver it during the sleep-walking scene," I surrendered. Who was that call-boy? What happened to him? What did Sarah do? One can imagine Dame Edith swamping such an innocent oaf with a musical blast—A Caa-aan of AAAlef
Recalling Hazlitt's description of Sarah as "a being of superior order who had dropped from another sphere to awe the world" one shudders for the long-dead Ganymede who pursued the goddess with a cornmon potion too far, too far. But one thing we know now; she liked her beer, God bless her. We always knew she came of good stock. solemn, it takes us into the past of the English theatre, reveals its garish splendours, its dignity and ribaldry; the author is properly irreverent and never patronising. His book, I suspect, was a labour of love; it is a lovesome thing to read.
Mr. Green's history of Barrie's Peter Pan has given me more pleasure than I ever received from the play. I don't, alas, believe in fairies; I don't believe in J. M. Barrie.
Mr. Clinton-Baddeley's subject is the Georgian stage, its manners, the anarchy of its actors. tyranny of its audiences, its raffish approach to the entertainment we rightly describe as art and solemnly treated as religion, its squalors and capt vating mag nificence. Whatever the actor may have thought and felt about his profession in those days, the theatre was a business, in the worst way.
Managements thought nothing of permitting amateurs to buy parts and the botching, say, of Shakespeare by Garrick (a shrewd little man whose eye for a main chance makes the Master Mind of H. M. Tennant's, for example, seem like au altruistic hov scout) was the least of many tricks used to separate the rude audience from its cash.
Not that the audience was always rude; so moved was a gentleman of Dublin by Peg Woffington's Cordelia that when she lay dead in the lap of Garrick's Lear, he climbed on-stage and embraced her. The Dublin audience was ever composed of critics and in the boyhood of men not yet old, they expressed themselves as actively, if not so benevolently as Mistress Woffington's "fan."
New respectability GEORGIAN England was as virile. Actors would arrive at the theatre drunk and Matthews, Mr. Clinton-Baddeley tells us, performed on occasions when he was too far gone on wine to speak. Kean's ploys in his cups are of history. It was Macready, who nearly qualifies as the last of the Georgian actors, who brought the new enervating respectability which grounded Irving in Westminster Abbey where he lies surrounded by nonentities who lacked even colour.
What, one wonders, does the "Chief' think of his bed-fellow Sydney Webb, Shaw's other nominee? It would be nice to know. But even Irving did not escape the lingering business tactics of the Georgians. "On August II, 1856, Henry Irving paid three guineas for the part of Romeo in an amateur production at The Royal Soho Theatre."
Our author brims with entertaining information. When next one passes the rat-infested, doxie-festooned frontage of the skeleton of "the Royal," the innocent shade of the great actor will echo, at least, as torches burn tow in Dean Street.
Many aspects of the old theatre are touched upon and explored in this admirable book; and it is illustrated with gems from the eccentric hands of Rowlandson, Cruikshank and other contemporary artists.
Mr. Green's study of Peter Pan is enthusiastic, pious and charming. No single modern phis, one imagines. ever has been so thoroughly and happily studied, in its beginnings, progress and present condition. The illustrations are good, the anecdotes plentiful and the history, one feels, exact. A delightful book.
"The Diary of a Nobody" reaches the stage at the Arts with all its old warm English humour and nice performances from Miss Dulcie Gray, Mr. George Benson—what a good actor he is—ideally cast as Pooter, and Mr. Alan MacNaughton. "Dry Rot" (Whitehall) will run, I suspect, for as long as a sentence for manslaughter. Those who enjoyed "Worm's Eye View," "Reluctant Heroes," etc., at this theatre will find the current offering to their taste. It is as innocent as its predecessors.