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Chapter 51

Pickle engages with a Knight of Malta, in a Conversation upon the English Stage, which is followed by a Dissertation on the Theatres of the Ancients, by the Doctor.

The rest of the company proceeded to the arsenal, which having viewed, together with some remarkable churches, they, in their return, went to the comedy, and saw the Cid of Corneille tolerably well represented. In consequence of this entertainment, the discourse at supper turned upon dramatic performances; and all the objections of Monsieur Scudery to the piece they had seen acted, together with the decision of the French Academy, were canvassed and discussed. The knight was a man of letters and taste, and particularly well acquainted with the state of the English stage; so that when the painter boldly pronounced sentence against the French manner of acting, on the strength of having frequented a Covent Garden club of critics, and been often admitted, by virtue of an order, into the pit; a comparison immediately ensued, not between the authors, but the actors of both nations, to whom the chevalier and Peregrine were no strangers. Our hero, like a good Englishman, made no scruple of giving the preference to the performers of his own country, who, he alleged, obeyed the genuine impulses of nature, in exhibiting the passions of the human mind; and entered so warmly into the spirit of their several parts, that they often fancied themselves the very heroes they represented; whereas, the action of the Parisian players, even in their most interesting characters, was generally such an extravagance in voice and gesture, as is nowhere to be observed but on the stage. To illustrate this assertion, he availed himself of his talent, and mimicked the manner and voice of all the principal performers, male and female, belonging to the French comedy, to the admiration of the chevalier, who, having complimented him upon this surprising modulation, begged leave to dissent in some particulars from the opinion he had avowed.

“That you have good actors in England,” said he, “it would be unjust and absurd in me to deny; your theatre is adorned by one woman, whose sensibility and sweetness of voice is such as I have never observed on any other stage; she has besides, an elegance of person and expression of features, that wonderfully adapt her for the most engaging characters of your best plays; and I must freely own that I have been as highly delighted and as deeply affected by a Monimia and Belvidera at London, as ever I was by Cornelia and Cleopatra at Paris. Your favourite actor is a surprising genius. You can, moreover, boast of several comic actors who are perfect masters of buffoonery and grimace; though, to be free with you, I think in these qualifications you are excelled by the players of Amsterdam. Yet one of your graciosos I cannot admire, in all the characters he assumes. His utterance is a continual sing-song, like the chanting of vespers; and his action resembles that of heaving ballast into the hold of a ship. In his outward deportment he seems to have confounded the ideas of insolence and the dignity of mien; acts the crafty cool, designing Crookback, as a loud, shallow, blustering Hector; in the character of the mild patriot Brutus, loses all temper and decorum; nay, so ridiculous is the behaviour of him and Cassius at their interview, that, setting foot to foot, and grinning at each other, with the aspect of two cobblers engaged, they thrust their left sides together, with repeated shoots, that the hilts of their swords may clash for the entertainment of the audience; as if they were a couple of merry andrews, endeavouring to raise the laugh of the vulgar, on some scaffold of Bartholomew Fair. The despair of a great man, who falls a victim to the infernal practices of a subtle traitor who enjoyed his confidence, this English Aesopus represents, by beating his own forehead, and beating like a bull; and, indeed, in almost all his most interesting scenes, performs such strange shakings of the head, and other antic gesticulations, that when I first saw him act, I imagined the poor man laboured under the paralytical disorder, which is known by the name of St. Vitus’s dance. In short, he seems to be a stranger to the more refined sensations of the soul, consequently his expression is of the vulgar kind, and he must often sink under the idea of the poet; so that he has recourse to such violence of affected agitation, as imposes upon the undiscerning spectator; but to the eye of taste, evinces him a mere player of that class whom your admired Shakespeare justly compares to Nature’s journeyman tearing a passion to rags. Yet this man, in spite of all these absurdities, is an admirable Falstaff, exhibits the character of the eighth Henry to the life, is reasonably applauded in the Plain Dealer, excels in the part of Sir John Brute, and would be equal to many humorous situations in low comedy, which his pride will not allow him to undertake. I should not have been so severe upon this actor, had I not seen him extolled by his partisans with the most ridiculous and fulsome manifestations of praise, even in those very circumstances wherein (as I have observed) he chiefly failed.”

Peregrine, not a little piqued to hear the qualifications of such a celebrated actor in England treated with such freedom and disrespect, answered, with some asperity, that the chevalier was a true critic, more industrious in observing the blemishes than in acknowledging the excellence of those who fell under his examination.

It was not to be supposed that one actor could shine equally in all characters; and though his observations were undoubtedly very jud............

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