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The Pamphlet Collection of Sir Robert Stout: Volume 18

To the Editor of the Argus

To the Editor of the Argus.

Sir—I never knew till this moment what a misfortune it is to be obscure. I am not naturally of an envious disposition, but I cannot help feeling that it is worth living for, to be able to say that a whole people is on the tiptoe of expectation to learn one's opinion. On the other hand, I trust the inhabitants of this and the neighbouring colonies are properly sensible of their obligations page 9 to Mr. James Smith, for having at last spoken, and so relieved them from the distressing uncertainty, of how they should estimate the quality of Mr. Montgomery's Hamlet. As to Mr. Montgomery himself, having now been made aware of the sad truth that he is not the great actor some of his critics and admirers have pronounced IBM, it can hardly help but that he will return to Europe in the "Great Britain," and be for the rest of his life content to rate himself among the lesser lights of the theatrical firmament. Nevertheless, there be dissentients in this, as in most other matters of opinion; and, to be frank with you, I at once proclaim myself of an entirely different way of thinking from Mr, Smith. You may perhaps shudder and stand aghast at the temerity which refuses accord with the sentiments of a gentleman who, it appears, holds the right to speak oracularly in matters of theatrical criticism; but your own experience will render it unnecessary for me to remind you that obstinate people of my complexion continually present themselves, even when so potent an authority as Mr. James Smith has to be confronted.

Freely translated, and highly condensed, Mr. Smith's letter appears to me to consist of some such declaration as this:—"Mr. Montgomery is passable, and that is about all; he walks quietly through his part, and reads fairly enough, and—voila tout." If you submit this letter of mine to a similar process of transmutation, it may declare to this effect:—That Mr. Montgomery, being strongly impressed with the prevailing fault of actors in making their characters only pieces of stage-mechanism, more or less skilful or clumsy, has determined on presenting them as living and breathing things, having human passions and prejudices, and so expressing these, not according to arbitrary models, but in obedience to that kind of impulse from which all the greatest works of art result.

Taking Mr. Smith's letter in detail, however, I find that he begins by informing an anxious public that "every Hamlet of note has been largely affected by, if it has not faithfully reflected, the temperament of the actor;" and that Mr. Montgomery's temperament is "essentially lymphatic." I reply by denying that his temperament is "essentially lymphatic," and I assert, on the contrary, that page 10 it is principally of the nervo-sanguineous kind. I assert, further—and in so asserting do but declare what innumerable examples have proved to be an invariable truth—that it would be simply impossible for a man whose temperament was "essentially lymphatic" ever to attain to eminence as an actor in any line of his art, if even the desire for distinction should exist, which is not very likely. So far, therefore, from Mr. Montgomery's Hamlet "faithfully reflecting" his temperament, it is an instance of complete subordination of temperament to the necessities of the character. The endeavour, therefore, to explain his acting as consistent with a "lymphatic temperament" needs no reply, as it is nothing else than drawing a conclusion from false data. "But," says Mr. Smith, "Mr. Montgomery's is an eminently agreeable Hamlet. Logically, then, as, according to Mr. Smith, it is vastly different from all other Hamlets, I might remind him that this admission leaves us to infer that all preceding Hamlets have been eminently disagreeable. But without insisting on this inference, and conceding that this is not precisely what he desires to say, I go on with the letter, and presently find myself in a fog; for one of the reasons adduced to demonstrate this quality of eminent agreeableness is that Mr. Montgomery's Hamlet is "comparatively unimpressive in those scenes—the interview with the Ghost, and the closet scene, for example—in which previous actors, and Mr. Anderson especially so, have made their strongest points;" and then we are told "Mr. Montgomery presents us with a striking picture of mental abstraction," which we are further informed should have been "mental absorption," and that the state of his mind is "subjective" instead of "objective." I have no doubt that many waverers in opinion about Mr. Montgomery, and Mr. Montgomery's Hamlet, wavered no longer when they got to this part of Mr. Smith's letter; because, you see, though this imposing array of the terms "abstraction," "absorption," "subjective," and "objective," may convey no information whatever to a great many of Mr. Smith's readers, they are dictionary words so formidable and important, that they are sure to have created a profound impression. You remember the story of some highly-impressible old ladies who always used to weep whenever they page 11 heard the Rev. Mr. Whitfield pronounce the word "Mesopotamia." There was no reason in the world why the old ladies should weep at the word Mesopotamia, any more than, let us say, at the word "pickles," but the fact remains that they did weep; and the fact will also remain that conviction will have followed, with an equal reason for following, the abstraction-absorption-subjective-objective appeal. Then Mr. Smith says, with a triumphant sort of flourish, "Thus much is obvious from the text;" but I confess, with great humiliation at the consciousness of my incapacity, that I do not here see what is obvious, and that I do not know what portion of the text should make it so. But since Mr. Smith follows up the remark by telling us that, as the traditions of the stage have been handed down from the time of Shakspeare, who instructed Burbage and reproved Kemp, and that as Tom Jones tells us how Garrick bore himself in the part, we are justified in disputing the wisdom and propriety of certain innovations, his admirers will dispute them accordingly.

Next he brings in Drs. Bucknill and Conolly, two most learned physicians and graceful writers, it is true, but who, having been exclusively engaged many years in the treatment of lunatics, manifestly, and perhaps not unnaturally, came at last to consider madness an inevitable condition of humanity, and so found that Hamlet, despite his frequent protestation to the contrary, was really mad, the particular proof of his madness consisting in using "unfilial and scoffing language towards his father." I should be afraid to say how many young gentlemen in Victoria are mad, if the use of unfilial and scoffing language towards their fathers be positive proof thereof. But, without staying to inquire how far it might be desirable to make provision for the accommodation of thirty or forty thousand additional lunatics prospectively on the enforcement of this principle, let us see how it applies to Hamlet, who, Mr. Smith says, is to be deemed insane because he accosts the subterranean ghost jocularly. It is probably in the experience of every person to have felt an irrepressible desire in certain moments of great solemnity to laugh or utter a jest, or indulge in some grimace or antic, preposterously inconsistent with the time and page 12 place. It would seem as if the excessive restraint imposed by the circumstances prompted a relief in some shape; and thus it is found sometimes at funerals, that remarks are made strangely at variance with the sombre surroundings. Conformably with this propensity Hamlet, who has just experienced a very agony of terror at the sight of his father's spirit, finds much relief in passing, even for a moment, to the extreme state of playful sportiveness. But this feeling Shakspeare very properly makes only a transient one, for, after letting Hamlet allude to the ghost as "this fellow in the cellarage," and "an old mole i' the ground," his reverential feelings are allowed again to predominate, and he exclaims, "Rest, rest, perturbed spirit." 1 do not doubt that Mr. Montgomery's own judgment would incline him to the restoration of these passages of jocularity; and, I dare say, it is only in unavoidable deference to the prejudices of the audience, who have so long been accustomed to a mutilated version, that for a time he consents to follow the beaten track. So again Mr. Smith informs us that the jubilant exclamation beginning with

For thou dost know, O Damon dear,

is "not less demonstrative of a disordered intellect;" in answer to which I may reply that nothing is more common than for a person suddenly made aware of the successful termination of an experiment, or enterprise, to indulge in a mock-tragic demonstration, a bit of extemporised recitative, a snatch of some song—for Hamlet might consistently sing these lines—a quotation from Scripture, however irreverently applied, or any other interjectional mode of testifying satis faction. For the moment, Hamlet's delight at the perfect success of his murder-test overcomes every other feeling, and being, as we know, a humourist as well as a philosopher, he bids Horatio congratulate him, and asks him if he does not think he was made for an actor? There is certainly nothing inconsistent with sanity in all this; and Mr. Montgomery, I am sure, does not omit these lines because they are inconsistent with Hamlet's reason, but because some excisions being necessary, these seem to permit of being excised without material impairment of the rest. Mr. Smith's usually page break page 14 more "fireworks." He says in effect if not in words that it ought to be delivered according to Bottom's notion as "a part to tear a cat in, to make all split." And then, passing from the soliloquy to the character generally, he says, "It is like a clever water-colour drawing, lacking the depth and solidity of an oil-painting;" or, it is "a pleasant twilight, neither morning nor afternoon." With Mr, Smith's understood acquaintance with pictorial art, it is something remarkable that he should have selected so unfortunate an illustration to prove Mr. Montgomery's inferiority, for he should know that the water-colours of this day have all the force and more than the finish of oil-paintings. Let him take comfort, however. If he will go a little higher up the street, he will get his oil-painting with the colours plastered on "thick and slab;" and as to the other comparison, he will there also find the sun so hot and blazing that ordinary people do not soon recover from its effects. Finally, I am Pagan enough to thank the gods they have sent us an actor who—in obedience to the promptings which urged on John Millais and Holman Hunt to tread a new road in painting, and Ruskin, with Scott to second him, to demolish the bastard abortions of eighteenth-century architectural art—has charged himself with the great and noble mission of interpreting Shakspeare unclogged by tradition, and guided only by the light of nature and a fine intelligence.

John Brown.