ADDRESSED TO BONNELL THORNTON, Esq
1 ACTING, dear Thornton, its perfection draws
2 From no observance of mechanic laws:
3 No settled maxims of a fav'rite stage,
4 No rules deliver'd down from age to age,
5 Let players nicely mark them as they will,
6 Can e'er entail hereditary skill.
7 If, 'mongst the humble hearers of the pit,
8 Some curious vet'ran critic chance to sit,
9 Is he pleas'd more because 'twas acted so
10 By Booth and Cibber thirty years ago?
11 The mind recals an object held more dear,
12 And hates the copy, that it comes so near.
13 Why lov'd we Wilks's air, Booth's nervous tone;
14 In them 'twas natural, 'twas all their own.
15 A Garrick's genius must our wonder raise,
16 But gives his mimic no reflected praise. [Page 68]
17 Thrice happy Genius, whose unrival'd name
18 Shall live for ever in the voice of Fame!
19 'Tis thine to lead, with more than magic skill,
20 The train of captive passions at thy will;
21 To bid the bursting tear spontaneous flow
22 In the sweet sense of sympathetic woe:
23 Through ev'ry vein I feel a chilness creep,
24 When horrors such as thine have murder'd sleep;
25 And at the old man's look and frantic stare
26 'Tis Lear alarms me, for I see him there.
27 Nor yet confin'd to tragic walks alone,
28 The comic muse too claims thee for her own.
29 With each delightful requisite to please,
30 Taste, spirit, judgment, elegance, and ease,
31 Familiar nature forms thy only rule,
32 From Ranger's rake to Drugger's vacant fool.
33 With powers so pliant, and so various blest,
34 That what we see the last, we like the best.
35 Not idly pleas'd, at judgment's dear expence,
36 But burst outrageous with the laugh of sense:
37 Perfection's top, with weary toil and pain,
38 'Tis genius only that can hope to gain.
39 The play'r's profession (tho' I hate the phrase,
40 'Tis so mechanie in these modern days)
41 Lies not in trick, or attitude, or start,
42 Nature's true knowledge is his only art.
43 The strong-felt passion bolts into the face,
44 The mind untouch'd, what is it but grimace?
45 To this one standard make your just appeal,
46 Here lies the golden secret; learn to FEEL. [Page 69]
47 Or fool, or monarch, happy, or distrest,
48 No actor pleases that is not possess'd.
49 Once on the stage, in Rome's declining days,
50 When Christians were the subject of their plays,
51 E'er persecution dropp'd her iron rod,
52 And men still wag'd an impious war with God,
53 An actor flourish'd of no vulgar fame,
54 Nature's disciple, and Genest his name.
55 A noble object for his skill he chose,
56 A martyr dying 'midst insulting foes;
57 Resign'd with patience to religion's laws,
58 Yet braving monarchs in his Saviour's cause.
59 Fill'd with th' idea of the secret part,
60 He felt a zeal beyond the reach of art,
61 While look and voice, and gesture, all exprest
62 A kindred ardour in the player's breast;
63 Till as the flame thro' all his bosom ran,
64 He lost the actor, and commenc'd the man:
65 Profest the faith, his pagan gods denied,
66 And what he acted then, he after died.
67 The player's province they but vainly try,
68 Who want these pow'rs, deportment, voice, and eye.
69 The critic sight 'tis only grace can please,
70 No figure charms us if it has not ease.
71 There are, who think the stature all in all,
72 Nor like the hero, if he is not tall.
73 The feeling sense all other want supplies,
74 I rate no actor's merit from his size.
75 Superior height requires superior grace,
76 And what's a giant with a vacant face?
77 Theatric monarchs, in their tragic gait,
78 Affect to mark the solemn pace of state.
79 One foot put forward in position strong,
80 The other, like its vassal, dragg'd along.
81 So grave each motion, so exact and slow,
82 Like wooden monarchs at a puppet-show.
83 The mien delights us that has native grace,
84 But affectation ill supplies its place.
85 Unskilful actors, like your mimic apes,
86 Will writhe their bodies in a thousand shapes;
87 However foreign from the poet's art,
88 No tragic hero but admires a start.
89 What though unfeeling of the nervous line;
90 Who but allows his attitude is fine?
91 While a whole minute equipois'd he stands,
92 Till praise dismiss him with her echoing hands!
93 Resolv'd, though nature hate the tedious pause,
94 By perseverance to extort applause.
95 When Romeo sorrowing at his Juliet's doom,
96 With eager madness bursts the canvas tomb,
97 The sudden whirl, stretch'd leg, and lifted staff,
98 Which please the vulgar, make the critic laugh.
99 To paint the passion's force, and mark it well,
100 The proper action nature's self will tell:
101 No pleasing pow'rs distortions e'er express,
102 And nicer judgment always loaths excess.
103 In sock or buskin, who o'erleaps the bounds,
104 Disgusts our reason, and the taste confounds.
105 Of all the evils which the stage molest,
106 I hate your fool who overacts his jest:[Page 71]
107 Who murders what the poet finely writ,
108 And, like a bungler, haggles all his wit,
109 With shrug, and grin, and gesture out of place,
110 And writes a foolish comment with his face.
111 Old Johnson once, tho' Cibber's perter vein
112 But meanly groupes him with a num'rous train,
113 With steady face, and sober hum'rous mien,
114 Fill'd the strong outlines of the comic scene.
115 What was writ down, with decent utt'rance spoke,
116 Betray'd no symptom of the conscious joke;
117 The very man in look, in voice, in air,
118 And tho' upon the stage, appear'd no play'r.
119 The word and action should conjointly suit,
120 But acting words is labour too minute.
121 Grimace will ever lead the judgment wrong;
122 While sober humour marks th' impression strong.
123 Her proper traits the fixt attention hit,
124 And bring me closer to the poet's wit;
125 With her delighted o'er each scene I go,
126 Well-pleas'd, and not asham'd of being so.
127 But let the generous actor still forbear
128 To copy features with a mimic's care!
129 'Tis a poor skill, which ev'ry fool can reach,
130 A vile stage-custom, honour'd in the breach.
131 Worse as more close, the disingenuous art
132 But shews the wanton looseness of the heart.
133 When I behold a wretch, of talents mean,
134 Drag private foibles on the public scene,
135 Forsaking nature's fair and open road
136 To mark some whim, some strange peculiar mode,[Page 72]
137 Fir'd with disgust, I loath his servile plan,
138 Despise the mimic, and abhor the man.
139 Go to the lame, to hospitals repair,
140 And hunt for humour in distortions there!
141 Fill up the measure of the motley whim
142 With shrug, wink, snuffle, and convulsive limb;
143 Then shame at once, to please a trifling age,
144 Good sense, good manners, virtue, and the stage!
145 'Tis not enough the voice be sound and clear,
146 'Tis modulation that must charm the ear.
147 When desperate heroines grieve with tedious moan,
148 And whine their sorrows in a see-saw tone,
149 The same soft sounds of unimpassioned woes
150 Can only make the yawning hearers doze.
151 The voice all modes of passion can express,
152 That marks the proper word with proper stress.
153 But none emphatic can that actor call,
154 Who lays an equal emphasis on all.
155 Some o'er the tongue the labour'd measures roll
156 Slow and delib'rate as the parting toll,
157 Point ev'ry stop, mark ev'ry pause so strong,
158 Their words, like stage-processions, stalk along.
159 All affectation but creates disgust,
160 And e'en in speaking we may seem too just.
161 Nor proper, Thornton, can those sounds appear
162 Which bring not numbers to thy nicer ear:
163 In vain for them the pleasing measure flows,
164 Whose recitation runs it all to prose;
165 Repeating what the poet sets not down,
166 The verb disjointing from its friendly noun,[Page 73]
167 While pause, and break, and repetition join
168 To make a discord in each tuneful line.
169 Some placid natures fill th' allotted scene
170 With lifeless drone, insipid and serene;
171 While others thunder ev'ry couplet o'er,
172 And almost crack your ears with rant and roar.
173 More nature oft and finer strokes are shown,
174 In the low whisper than tempestuous tone.
175 And Hamlet's hollow voice and fixt amaze,
176 More powerful terror to the mind conveys,
177 Than he, who swol'n with big impetuous rage,
178 Bullies the bulky phantom off the stage.
179 He, who in earnest studies o'er his part,
180 Will find true nature cling about his heart.
181 The modes of grief are not included all
182 In the white handkerchief and mournful drawl;
183 A single look more marks th' internal woe,
184 Than all the windings of the lengthen'd oh.
185 Up to the face the quick sensation flies,
186 And darts its meaning from the speaking eyes!
187 Love, transport, madness, anger, scorn, despair,
188 And all the passions, all the soul is there.
189 In vain Ophelia gives her flowrets round,
190 And with her straws fantastic strews the ground,
191 In vain now sings, now heaves the desp'rate sigh,
192 If phrenzy sit not in the troubled eye.
193 In Cibber's look commanding sorrows speak,
194 And call the tear fast trickling down my cheek.
195 There is a fault which stirs the critic's rage;
196 A want of due attention on the stage. [Page 74]
197 I have seen actors, and admir'd ones too,
198 Whose tongues wound up set forward from their cue;
199 In their own speech who whine, or roar away,
200 Yet seem unmov'd at what the rest may say;
201 Whose eyes and thoughts on diff'rent objects roam,
202 Until the prompter's voice recal them home.
203 Divest yourself of hearers, if you can,
204 And strive to speak, and be the very man.
205 Why should the well-bred actor wish to know
206 Who fits above to-night, or who below?
207 So, 'mid th' harmonious tones of grief or rage,
208 Italian squallers oft disgrace the stage;
209 When, with a simp'ring leer, and bow profound,
210 The squeaking Cyrus greets the boxes round;
211 Or proud Mandane, of imperial race,
212 Familiar drops a curt'sie to her grace.
213 To suit the dress demands the actor's art,
214 Yet there are those who over-dress the part.
215 To some prescriptive right gives settled things,
216 Black wigs to murd'rers, feather'd hats to kings:
217 But Michael Cassio might be drunk enough,
218 Tho' all his features were not grim'd with snuff.
219 Why shou'd Pol Peachum shine in satin cloaths?
220 Why ev'ry devil dance in scarlet hose?
221 But in stage-customs what offends me most
222 Is the slip-door, and slowly-rising ghost.
223 Tell me, nor count the question too severe,
224 Why need the dismal powder'd forms appear?
225 When chilling horrors shake th' affrighted king,
226 And guilt torments him with her scorpion sting;[Page 75]
227 When keenest feelings at his bosom pull,
228 And fancy tells him that the seat is full;
229 Why need the ghost usurp the monarch's place,
230 To frighten children with his mealy face?
231 The king alone shou'd form the phantom there,
232 And talk and tremble at the vacant chair.
233 If Belvidera her lov'd loss deplore,
234 Why for twin spectres bursts the yawning floor?
235 When with disorder'd starts, and horrid cries,
236 She paints the murder'd forms before her eyes,
237 And still pursues them with a frantic stare,
238 'Tis pregnant madness brings the visions there.
239 More instant horror would enforce the scene,
240 If all her shudd'rings were at shapes unseen.
241 Poet and actor thus, with blended skill,
242 Mould all our passions to their instant will;
243 'Tis thus, when feeling Garrick treads the stage,
244 (The speaking comment of his Shakespear's page)
245 Oft as I drink the words with greedy ears,
246 I shake with horror, or dissolve with tears.
247 O, ne'er may folly seize the throne of taste,
248 Nor dulness lay the realms of genius waste!
249 No bouncing crackers ape the thund'rer's fire,
250 No tumbler float upon the bending wire!
251 More natural uses to the stage belong,
252 Than tumblers, monsters, pantomime, or song.
253 For other purpose was that spot design'd:
254 To purge the passions, and reform the mind,
255 To give to nature all the force of art,
256 And while it charms the ear to mend the heart.
257 Thornton, to thee, I dare with truth commend,
258 The decent stage as virtue's natural friend.
259 Tho' oft debas'd with scenes profane and loose,
260 No reason weighs against it's proper use.
261 Tho' the lewd priest his sacred function shame,
262 Religion's perfect law is still the same.
263 Shall they, who trace the passions from their rise,
264 Shew scorn her features, her own image vice?
265 Who teach the mind it's proper force to scan,
266 And hold the faithful mirror up to man,
267 Shall their profession e'er provoke disdain,
268 Who stand the foremost in the mortal train,
269 Who lend reflection all the grace of art,
270 And strike the precept home upon the heart?
271 Yet, hapless artist! tho' thy skill can raise
272 The bursting peal of universal praise,
273 Tho' at thy beck applause delighted stands,
274 And lifts, Briareus' like, her hundred hands,
275 Know, fame awards thee but a partial breath!
276 Not all thy talents brave the stroke of death.
277 Poets to ages yet unborn appeal,
278 And latest times th' eternal nature feel.
279 Tho' blended here the praise of bard and play'r,
280 While more than half becomes the actor's share,
281 Relentless death untwists the mingled fame,
282 And sinks the player in the poet's name.
283 The pliant muscles of the various face,
284 The mien that gave each sentence strength and grace,
285 The tuneful voice, the eye that spoke the mind,
286 Are gone, nor leave a single trace behind.