Stedman and Hutchinson, comps. A Library of American Literature: An Anthology in Eleven Volumes. 1891. Vols. VIVIII: Literature of the Republic, Part III., 18351860
A First Appearance
By Frances Anne Kemble (18091893)
[Born in London, England, 1809. Died there, 1893. Records of a Girlhood. 1879.]
IT was in the autumn of 1829, my father being then absent on a professional tour in Ireland, that my mother, coming in from walking one day, threw herself into a chair and burst into tears. She had been evidently much depressed for some time past, and I was alarmed at her distress, of which I begged her to tell me the cause. Oh, it has come at last, she answered; our property is to be sold. I have seen that fine building all covered with placards and bills of sale; the theatre must be closed, and I know not how many hundred poor people will be turned adrift without employment! I believe the theatre employed regularly seven hundred persons in all its different departments, without reckoning the great number of what were called supernumeraries, who were hired by the night at Christmas, Easter, and on all occasions of any specially showy spectacle. Seized with a sort of terror, like the Lady of Shalott, that the curse had come upon me, I comforted my mother with expressions of pity and affection, and, as soon as I left her, wrote a most urgent entreaty to my father that he would allow me to act for myself, and seek employment as a governess, so as to relieve him at once at least of the burden of my maintenance. I brought this letter to my mother, and begged her permission to send it, to which she consented; but, as I afterward learned, she wrote by the same post to my father, requesting him not to give a positive answer to my letter until his return to town. The next day she asked me whether I seriously thought I had any real talent for the stage. My school-day triumphs in Racines Andromaque were far enough behind me, and I could only answer, with as much perplexity as good faith, that I had not the slightest idea whether I had or not. She begged me to learn some part and say it to her, that she might form some opinion of my power, and I chose Shakespeares Portia, then, as now, my ideal of a perfect womanthe wise, witty woman, loving with all her soul and submitting with all her heart to a man whom everybody but herself (who was the best judge) would have judged her inferior; the laughter-loving, light-hearted, true-hearted, deep-hearted woman, full of keen perception, of active efficiency, of wisdom prompted by love, of tenderest unselfishness, of generous magnanimity; noble, simple, humble, pure; true, dutiful, religious, and full of fun; delightful above all others, the woman of women. Having learned it by heart, I recited Portia to my mother, whose only comment was, There is hardly passion enough in this part to test any tragic power. I wish you would study Juliet for me. Study to me then, as unfortunately long afterward, simply meant to learn by heart, which I did again, and repeated my lesson to my mother, who again heard me without any observation whatever. Meantime my father returned to town and my letter remained unanswered, and I was wondering in my mind what reply I should receive to my urgent entreaty, when one morning my mother told me she wished me to recite Juliet to my father; and so in the evening I stood up before them both, and with indescribable trepidation repeated my first lesson in tragedy.
They neither of them said anything beyond Very well,very nice, my dear, with many kisses and caresses, from which I escaped to sit down on the stairs half-way between the drawing-room and my bedroom, and get rid of the repressed nervous fear I had struggled with while reciting, in floods of tears. A few days after this my father told me he wished to take me to the theatre with him to try whether my voice was of sufficient strength to fill the building; so thither I went. That strange-looking place, the stage, with its racks of pasteboard and canvasstreets, forests, banqueting-halls, and dungeonsdrawn apart on either side, was empty and silent; not a soul was stirring in the indistinct recesses of its mysterious depths, which seemed to stretch indefinitely behind me. In front, the great amphitheatre, equally empty and silent, wrapped in its gray holland covers, would have been absolutely dark but for a long, sharp, thin shaft of light that darted here and there from some height and distance far above me, and alighted in a sudden, vivid spot of brightness on the stage. Set down in the midst of twilight space, as it were, with only my fathers voice coming to me from where he stood hardly distinguishable in the gloom, in those poetical utterances of pathetic passion I was seized with the spirit of the thing; my voice resounded through the great vault above and before me, and, completely carried away by the inspiration of the wonderful play, I acted Juliet as I do not believe I ever acted it again, for I had no visible Romeo, and no audience to thwart my imagination; at least, I had no consciousness of any, though in truth I had one. In the back of one of the private boxes, commanding the stage but perfectly invisible to me, sat an old and warmly attached friend of my fathers, Major D, a man of the worldof London society,a passionate lover of the stage, an amateur actor of no mean merit, one of the members of the famous Cheltenham dramatic company, a first-rate critic in all things connected with art and literature, a refined and courtly, courteous gentleman; the best judge, in many respects, that my father could have selected, of my capacity for my profession and my chance of success in it. Not till after the event had justified my kind old friends prophecy did I know that he had witnessed that mornings performance, and joining my father at the end of it had said, Bring her out at once; it will be a great success. And so three weeks from that time I was brought out, and it was a great success. Three weeks was not much time for preparation of any sort for such an experiment, but I had no more, to become acquainted with my fellow actors and actresses, not one of whom I had ever spoken with or seenoff the stagebefore; to learn all the technical business, as it is called, of the stage; how to carry myself toward the audience, which was notbut was to bebefore me; how to concert my movements with the movements of those I was acting with, so as not to impede or intercept their efforts, while giving the greatest effect of which I was capable to my own.
I do not wonder, when I remember this brief apprenticeship to my profession, that Mr. Macready once said that I did not know the elements of it. Three weeks of morning rehearsals of the play at the theatre, and evening consultations at home as to colors and forms of costume, what I should wear, how my hair should be dressed, etc., etc.,in all which I remained absolutely passive in the hands of others, taking no part and not much interest in the matter,ended in my mothers putting aside all suggestions of innovation like the adoption of the real picturesque costume of mediæval Verona (which was, of course, Juliets proper dress), and determining in favor of the traditional stage costume for the part, which was simply a dress of plain white satin with a long train, with short sleeves and a low body; my hair was dressed in the fashion in which I usually wore it; a girdle of fine paste brilliants, and a small comb of the same, which held up my hair, were the only theatrical parts of the dress, which was as perfectly simple and as absolutely unlike anything Juliet ever wore as possible.
Poor Mrs. Jameson made infinite protests against this decision of my mothers, her fine artistic taste and sense of fitness being intolerably shocked by the violation of every propriety in a Juliet attired in a modern white satin ball-dress amid scenery representing the streets and palaces of Verona in the fourteenth century, and all the other characters dressed with some reference to the supposed place and period of the tragedy. Visions too, no doubt, of sundry portraits of Raphael, Titian, Giorgione, Bronzino,beautiful alike in color and fashion,vexed her with suggestions, with which she plied my mother; who, however, determined as I have said, thinking the body more than raiment, and arguing that the unencumbered use of the person, and the natural grace of young arms, neck, and head, and unimpeded movement of the limbs (all which she thought more compatible with the simple white satin dress than the picturesque mediæval costume) were points of paramount importance. My mother, though undoubtedly very anxious that I should look well, was of course far more desirous that I should act well, and judged that whatever rendered my dress most entirely subservient to my acting, and least an object of preoccupation and strange embarrassment to myself, was, under the circumstances of my total inexperience and brief period of preparation, the thing to be chosen, and I am sure that in the main she judged wisely. The mere appendage of a trainthree yards of white satinfollowing me wherever I went, was to me a new, and would have been a difficult experience to most girls. As it was, I never knew after the first scene of the play what became of my train, and was greatly amused when Lady Dacre told me, the next morning, that as soon as my troubles began I had snatched it up and carried it on my arm, which I did quite unconsciously, because I found something in the way of Juliets feet .
All being in due preparation for my coming out, my rehearsals were the only interruption to my usual habits of occupation, which I pursued very steadily in spite of my impending trial. On the day of my first appearance I had no rehearsal, for fear of over-fatigue, and spent my morning as usual, in practising the piano, walking in the inclosure of St. Jamess Park opposite our house, and reading in Blunts Scripture Characters (a book in which I was then deeply interested) the chapters relating to St. Peter and Jacob. I do not know whether the nervous tension which I must have been enduring strengthened the impression made upon me by what I read, but I remember being quite absorbed by it, which I think was curious, because certainly such subjects of meditation were hardly allied to the painful undertaking so immediately pressing upon me. But I believe I felt imperatively the necessity of moderating my own strong nervous emotion and excitement by the fulfilment of my accustomed duties and pursuits, and above all by withdrawing my mind into higher and serener regions of thought, as a respite and relief from the pressure of my alternate apprehensions of failure and hopes of success. I do not mean that it was at all a matter of deliberate calculation or reflection, but rather an instinct of self-preservation, which actuated me: a powerful instinct which has struggled and partially prevailed throughout my whole life against the irregular and passionate vehemence of my temperament, and which, in spite of a constant tendency to violent excitement of mind and feeling, has made me a person of unusually systematic pursuits and monotonous habits, and been a frequent subject of astonishment, not unmixed with ridicule, to my friends, who have not known as well as myself what wholesomeness there was in the method of my madness. And I am persuaded that religion and reason alike justify such a strong instinctive action in natures which derive a constant moral support, like that of the unobserved but all-sustaining pressure of the atmosphere, from the soothing and restraining influence of systematic habits of monotonous regularity. Amid infinite anguish and errors, existence may preserve a species of outward symmetry and harmony from this strong band of minute observance keeping down and assisting the mind to master elements of moral and mental discord and disorder, for the due control of which the daily and hourly subjection to recurring rules is an invaluable auxiliary to higher influences. The external practice does not supply but powerfully supplements the internal principle of self-control.
My mother, who had left the stage for upward of twenty years, determined to return to it on the night of my first appearance, that I might have the comfort and support of her being with me in my trial. We drove to the theatre very early, indeed while the late autumn sunlight yet lingered in the sky; it shone into the carriage upon me, and as I screened my eyes from it, my mother said, Heaven smiles on you, my child. My poor mother went to her dressing-room to get herself ready, and did not return to me for fear of increasing my agitation by her own. My dear aunt Dall and my maid and the theatre dresser performed my toilet for me, and at length I was placed in a chair, with my satin train carefully laid over the back of it; and there I sat, ready for execution, with the palms of my hands pressed convulsively together, and the tears I in vain endeavored to repress welling up into my eyes and brimming slowly over, down my rouged cheeksupon which my aunt, with a smile full of pity, renewed the color as often as these heavy drops made unsightly streaks in it. Once and again my father came to the door, and I heard his anxious How is she? to which my aunt answered, sending him away with words of comforting cheer. At last, Miss Kemble called for the stage, maam! accompanied with a brisk tap at the door, started me upright on my feet, and I was led round to the side scene opposite to the one from which I saw my mother advance on the stage; and while the uproar of her reception filled me with terror, dear old Mrs. Davenport, my nurse, and dear Mr. Keely, her Peter, and half the dramatis personæ of the play (but not my father, who had retreated, quite unable to endure the scene) stood round me as I lay, all but insensible, in my aunts arms. Courage, courage, dear child! poor thing, poor thing! reiterated Mrs. Davenport. Never mind em, Miss Kemble! urged Keely, in that irresistibly comical, nervous, lachrymose voice of his, which I have never since heard without a thrill of anything but comical association; never mind em! dont think of em, any more than if they were so many rows of cabbages! Nurse! called my mother, and on waddled Mrs. Davenport, and, turning back, called in her turn, Juliet! My aunt gave me an impulse forward, and I ran straight across the stage, stunned with the tremendous shout that greeted me, my eyes covered with mist, and the green baize flooring of the stage feeling as if it rose up against my feet; but I got hold of my mother, and stood like a terrified creature at bay, confronting the huge theatre full of gazing human beings. I do not think a word I uttered during this scene could have been audible; in the next, the ball-room, I began to forget myself; in the following one, the balcony scene, I had done so, and, for aught I knew, I was Juliet; the passion I was uttering sending hot waves of blushes all over my neck and shoulders, while the poetry sounded like music to me as I spoke it, with no consciousness of anything before me, utterly transported into the imaginary existence of the play. After this, I did not return into myself till all was over, and amid a tumultuous storm of applause, congratulation, tears, embraces, and a general joyous explosion of unutterable relief at the fortunate termination of my attempt, we went home. And so my life was determined, and I devoted myself to an avocation which I never liked or honored, and about the very nature of which I have never been able to come to any decided opinion. It is in vain that the undoubted specific gifts of great actors and actresses suggest that all gifts are given for rightful exercise, and not suppression; in vain that Shakespeares plays urge their imperative claim to the most perfect illustration they can receive from histrionic interpretation: a business which is incessant excitement and factitious emotion seems to me unworthy of a man; a business which is public exhibition, unworthy of a woman.
At four different periods of my life I have been constrained by circumstances to maintain myself by the exercise of my dramatic faculty; latterly, it is true, in a less painful and distasteful manner, by reading, instead of acting. But though I have never, I trust, been ungrateful for the power of thus helping myself and others, or forgetful of the obligation I was under to do my appointed work conscientiously in every respect, or unmindful of the precious good regard of so many kind hearts that it has won for me; though I have never lost one iota of my own intense delight in the act of rendering Shakespeares creations; yet neither have I ever presented myself before an audience without a shrinking feeling of reluctance, or withdrawn from their presence without thinking the excitement I had undergone unhealthy, and the personal exhibition odious.
Nevertheless, I sat me down to supper that night with my poor, rejoicing parents well content, God knows! with the issue of my trial; and still better pleased with a lovely little Geneva watch, the first I had ever possessed, all encrusted with gold-work and jewels, which my father laid by my plate and I immediately christened Romeo, and went, a blissful girl, to sleep with it under my pillow.