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HOME > Biographical > Life of Edwin Forrest > CHAPTER VII. BREAKING THE WAY TO FAME AND FORTUNE.
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 One morning, early in August, 1825, a young man of fine figure and stately bearing, with bright dark-brown eyes, raven hair, and a clear, firm complexion like veined marble, approached the door of a modest house in Cedar Street, Philadelphia. Without knocking, he entered quickly. "Mother! Henrietta!" he cried, springing towards them with open arms. "Gracious Heaven, Edwin!" they exclaimed, "is it possible that this is you, changed so much and grown so tall?" "Yes, mother," he said, "Heaven has indeed been gracious to me; and here I am once more with you, after three years of strolling and struggling among strangers. Here I am, with a light pocket but a stout heart. I shall be something yet, mother; and then the first thing I am resolved to do is to make you and the girls independent, so far as the goods of this world go."
He had firm grounds for his confidence, as the sequel showed, though many dark days of hope deferred were yet to put his mettle to the proof. He was in his twentieth year, and his reputation had not reached much beyond the local centres where he had gained it. But it was plainly beginning to spread. Even his friendliest admirers had not the prescience to discern the signs of that vast success which was to make him a continental celebrity; but he knew better than they the fervor of his ambition and the strength of the motives that fed it, and he felt the consciousness of a latent power which justified him in sanguine dreams for the future. His intuitive perception had interpreted better than the critics or his friends the revelation and prophecy contained in the effects he had already often produced on his audiences. He knew very well himself that which it needed fame to make the public consciously recognize. That fame he not only expected, but was resolved to win.
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In the autumn he succeeded in securing an engagement on moderate terms at the theatre in Albany, then under the management of a shrewd, capable, but eccentric Dutchman, Charles Gilfert. He was to play leading parts in the stock company, and second parts to stars. Albany, as the capital of the State of New York, during the theatrical season was thronged with cultivated and distinguished people, and was an excellent place for a dramatic aspirant to achieve and extend a reputation. Forrest began with good heart and zeal, and, without any sudden or brilliant success, received sufficient encouragement to increase his confidence and keep him progressing. He took great pains to perfect his physical development, exercising his voice in declamation, practising gestures, and every night and morning taking a thorough sponge-bath, followed by vigorous friction with coarse towels. Immediately after his morning ablutions he always devoted a half-hour to gymnastics,—using dumb-bells, springing, attitudinizing, and walking two or three times about the room on his hands. One of the most distinguished philosophical writers of our country, who was a native of Albany and at that time a particular friend of Forrest, has recently been heard to describe with great animation the pleasure he used to take in visiting the actor at this early hour of the morning to see him go through his gymnastic performances. The metaphysician said he admired the enormous strength displayed by the player, and applauded his fidelity to the conditions for preserving and increasing it, though for his own part he never could bring himself to do anything of the kind.
Nothing occurred through the winter out of the ordinary routine, except his happy and most profitable intercourse with Edmund Kean, during the last engagement filled in Albany by that illustrious actor and unfortunate man. This encounter was of so much consequence to Forrest that we must pause a little over it. It will be recollected that he had, several years before, seen Kean perform a few nights in Philadelphia, and that he was filled with enthusiasm about him. But now the discipline and experience of five added years fitted him far more worthily to appreciate the genius and to profit from the startling methods and points of the tragedian whom many judges declare to have been the most original and electrifying actor that has ever stepped before the foot-lights.
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Edmund Kean, born under the ban of society, treated as a dog, beaten, starved, while yet an infant flung for a livelihood on his wits and tricks as a public performer, associating mostly with vagrants and adventurers, but occasionally with the best and highest, early became a wonder both in the elastic strength of his small body and in the penetrative power of his flashing mind. With sensibilities of extreme delicacy and passions of terrific energy he combined a natural and sedulously-cultivated ability of giving to the outer signs of inner states their utmost possible distinctness and intensity. Perhaps there never was, within his range, a greater master of the physiological language of the soul, one who set facial expression in more vivid relief. As a student of his art he went to no traditional school of posture, no frigid school of elocution, but to the original school of nature in the burning depths of his own mind and heart.
His direct observations of other men, and his reflex researches on himself in his impassioned probationary assumptions of characters, struck to the automatic centres of his being, the seats of those intuitions which are historic humanity epitomized in the individual, or the spirit of nature itself inspiring man. And when he acted there was something so unitary and elemental in the unconscious depths from which his revelations seemed to break in spontaneous thunderbolts that sensitive auditors were filled with awe, utterly overwhelmed and carried away from themselves. Coleridge said that seeing him act Macbeth was like reading the play by flashes of lightning. In his most impassioned moods his voice suggested, by the tense intermittent vibration of his whole resonant frame revealed in it, the frenzied energy of a tiger. He spoke then in a stammering staccato of spasmodic outbursts which shook others because they threatened to shatter him. After years of maddening scorn, poverty, drudgery, neglect, he vaulted at one bound, with his first appearance as Shylock on the stage of Drury Lane, into an almost fabulous popularity, courted and fêted by the proudest in the land, and reaping an income of over fifty thousand dollars a year. No wonder he grew wild, reeling with all sorts of intoxication between the throne of the scenic king and the den of the ungirt debauchee.
The essential peculiarity of Kean's greatness in his greatest
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 effects was that his acting was then no effort of will, no trick or art of calculation, but nature itself uncovered and set free in its deepest intensity of power, just on the edge, sometimes quite over the verge, of madness. He penetrated and incorporated himself with the characters he represented until he possessed them so completely that they possessed him, and their performance was not simulation but revelation. He brought the truth and simplicity of nature to the stage, but nature in her most intensified degrees. His playing was a manifestation of the inspired intuitions, infallibly true and irresistibly sensational. It came not from the surfaces of his brain, but from the very centres of his nervous system, and suggested something portentous, preternatural, supernal, that blinded and stunned the beholders, appalled their imagination, and chilled their blood. This same curdling automatic touch Lucius Junius Brutus Booth also had; but it is asserted that he was first led to it by imitating Kean.
At the time of his engagement in Albany, Kean was much marred and broken from his best estate by his bad habits. The intoxication of fame, the intoxication of love, and the dismal intoxication of stimulants snatched to keep his jaded faculties at their height, had done their sad work on him. Still, the habitudes of his genius lingered fascinatingly with him, and he delivered his climacteric points with almost undiminished power, between the cloudy intervals of his weariness striking lightning and eliciting universal shocks.
Nothing could have been more fortunate for Forrest, just at that time, than to watch such an actor in his greatest parts and come into confidential contact with him. In playing Iago to his Othello, Titus to his Brutus, Richmond to his Richard, the best chance was afforded for this. About noon of the day they were to act together, as Kean did not come to the rehearsal, Forrest called at his hotel and asked to see him. He told the messenger to say to Mr. Kean that the young man who was to play Iago wished a brief interview with him, to receive any directions he might like to give for the performance in the evening. "Show him up," said the actor, graciously. As Forrest entered, with a beating heart, Kean rose and welcomed him with great kindness of manner. In answer to a question as to the business of the play, he said, "My boy, I do not care how you come on or go
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 off, if while we are on the stage you always keep in front of me and let not your attention wander from me." He had not yet breakfasted, late as it was, but was in a loose dressing-gown, with the marks of excessive indulgence in dissipation and sleepless hours too plainly revealed in his whole appearance. A rosewood piano was covered with spilth and sticky rings from the glasses used in the debauch of the night. "Have you ever heard me sing?" asked Kean. "Oh, yes, in Tom Tug the Waterman." "Did you see my Tom Tug?" responded the actor, in a pleased tone of caressing eagerness. "I learned those songs purely by imitation of my old friend Incledon; and I approached him so closely that it was said no one could tell the singing of one of us from that of the other. But now you shall hear me sing my favorite piece." He sat down at the piano, struck a few notes, and sang the well-known song of Moore, "Farewell, but whenever you welcome the hour." His face was very pale, and wore an expression of unutterable pathos and melancholy; his hair was floating in confused masses, and his eyes looked like two great inland seas. Both he and his auditor wept as he sang with matchless depth of feeling and a most mournful sweetness,—
"Let fate do her worst, there are relics of joy,
Bright dreams of the past, which she cannot destroy,
Which come in the night-time of sorrow and care
And bring back the features that joy used to wear.
Long, long be my heart with such memories filled!
Like the vase in which roses have once been distilled,—
You may break, you may ruin the vase, if you will,
But the scent of the roses will hang round it still."
While he thus sang, he was, to the fancy of his moved and admiring listener, himself the vase broken and ruined, and his genius, still blooming over the ruins of the man, distilled its holy perfume around him.
The Othello of Kean was his unapproachable masterpiece, crowded with electric effects in detail and crowned with a masterly originality as a whole. It left its general stamp ineffaceably on the young actor who that night confronted it with his Iago in such a manner as to win not only the vehement applause of the house but likewise the warm approval of the Othello himself. Forrest had carefully studied the character of Iago in the inde
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pendent light of what he knew of human nature. And he conceived the part in what was then quite an original reading of it. The current Iago of the stage was a sullen and sombre villain, as full of gloom as of hate, and with such sinister manners and malignant bearing as made his diabolical spirit and purposes perfectly obvious. One must be a simpleton to be deceived by such a style of man. A man like Othello, accustomed to command, moving for many years among all sorts of men in peace and war, could be so played on only by a most accomplished master of the arts of hypocrisy. Forrest accordingly represented Iago as a gay and dashing fellow on the outside, hiding his malice and treachery under the signs of a careless honesty and jovial good humor. One point, strictly original, he made which powerfully affected Kean. Iago, while working insidiously on the suspicions of Othello, says to him,—
"Look to your wife; observe her well with Cassio;
Wear your eye thus, not jealous,—nor secure."
All these words, except the last two, Forrest uttered in a frank and easy fashion; but suddenly, as if the intensity of his under-knowledge of evil had automatically broken through the good-natured part he was playing on the surface and betrayed his secret in spite of his will, he spoke the words nor secure in a husky tone, sliding down from a high pitch and ending in a whispered horror. The fearful suggestiveness of this produced from Kean a reaction so truly artistic and tremendous that the whole house was electrified. As they met in the dressing-room, Kean said, excitedly, "In the name of God, boy, where did you get that?" Forrest replied, "It is something of my own." "Well," said he, while his auditor trembled with pleasure, "everybody who speaks the part hereafter must do it just so."
There must, from all accounts, have been something supernaturally sweet and sorrowful, an unearthly intensity of plaintive and majestic pathos, in the manner in which Kean delivered the farewell of Othello. The critics, Hazlitt, Procter, Lamb, and the rest, all agree in this. They say, "the mournful melody of his voice came over the spirit like the desolate moaning of the blast that precedes the thunder-storm." It was like "the hollow and musical murmur of the midnight sea when the tempest has raved
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 itself to rest." His "tones sunk into the soul like the sighing of the breeze among the strings of an æolian harp or through the branches of a cypress grove." His voice "struck on the heart like the swelling of some divine music laden with the sound of years of departed happiness." The retrospect of triumphant exultation, the lingering sense of delight, the big shocks of sudden agony, and the slow blank despair, breathed in a voice elastic and tremulous with vital passion and set off with a by-play of exquisitely artistic realism, made up a whole of melancholy beauty and overwhelming power perhaps never equalled. It was at once an anthem, a charge, and a dirge. Forrest was inexpressibly delighted and thrilled by it, and he did not fail to his dying day to speak of it with rapturous admiration.
Kean, both as a man and as an actor, made a fascinating impression on the imagination and heart as well as on the memory of his youthful supporter in the Albany theatre. What he had himself experienced under the influence of this marvellous player, in the profound stirring of his wonder and affection, remained to exalt his estimate of the rank of his professional art and to stimulate still further his personal ambition. This is the way the sensitive soul of genius grows, by assimilating something from every superior ideal exhibited to it. Kean himself, at a public dinner given him in Philadelphia on his return thither from Albany, generously said that he had met one actor in this country, a young man named Edwin Forrest, who gave proofs of a decided genius for his profession, and who would, as he believed, rise to great eminence. This kind act on the part of the veteran was reported to the novice, and sank gratefully into his heart. To be praised by one we admire is such a delight to the affections and such a spur to endeavor that it is a pity the successful are not more ready to give it to the aspiring. Ah, what a heaven this world would be if all the men and women in it were only what in our better hours we dream and wish!
One incident occurred during this season at Albany showing extraordinary character in so young a man. The fearful power of the passion for gaming has been well known in all ages. It has prevailed with equal violence and evil among the rudest savages and in the most luxurious phases of civilization. Every year, at the present time, in the capital centres of Christendom it
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 explodes in forgeries, murder, and suicides. And we read in the Mahabharata, the great Sanscrit epic written we know not how many centuries before the Christian era, that king Yudishthira was so desperately addicted to gambling that on one occasion he staked his empire, and lost it; then his wife, and lost; finally, his own body, lost that, and became the slave of the winner. In New Orleans Forrest had felt something of the horrid fascination of this passion. He had not, however, indulged much in it, although his friend Gazonac, who stood at the head of the profession, had initiated him pretty thoroughly into the secret tricks of the art.
The company of actors and actresses used often to stay after the play was over and engage in games of chance. Forrest joined them several times. He then steadily refused to do so any more; for he felt that the gambling spirit was getting hold of him. But on a certain evening they urged him so strongly that he consented,—determined to give them a lesson. He said it was a base business, full of dishonest arts by which all but the sharpest adepts could be cheated. They maintained that there were among them neither decoys nor dupes, and they challenged fraud. They played all night, and Forrest at last had won every cent they had with them. He then rose to his feet, and denounced the habit of gaming for profit as utterly pernicious. He recited some examples of the horrors he had known to result from it. He said it demoralized the characters of those who practised it, and, producing nothing, was a robbery, stealing the time, thought, and feeling which might so much better be devoted to something useful. With these words he swept the implements of play into the fire, strewed the money he had won on the floor, left the room, and went home in the gray light of the morning,—and never gambled again from tha............
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