Critical Articles by Jenny Marx

1. From London’s Theatre World

Source: Marx Engels On Literature and Art, Progress Publishers, 1976;
Transcribed: by Andy Blunden.

London, November 1875

John Bull is mightily proud of his glorious Constitution, his Milton, with whom he is not acquainted, his pork-pie, with which he is very well acquainted, and last but not least, his William Shakespeare. But it is all words and nothing more (he takes only his pork-pie seriously). All national conceit and hypocrisy! If the question arises of erecting a monument to the “Swan of Avon,” the greatest of all poets, then it is only through the mites contributed by the lower strata of society that such an undertaking can be brought to fruition. Only actors, who love their Shakespeare, and workers, who have a thorough knowledge of him through shilling editions and who hold their “Will” deep in their hearts stood round the small oak that was planted eleven years ago on Primrose Hill to commemorate the three hundredth anniversary of Shakespeare’s birth. More than twenty years ago the actor Phelps, working in a small theatre in. the East End of London, succeeded for a number of years in keeping a taste for Shakespeare alive among the workers. At the same time, in the West End, the so-called educated classes were flooding to the “Shakespeare revivals” of Charles Kean. However, they were not thronging the theatre to hear the marvellous language of Shakespeare, but to see the splendid cloth-of-gold dresses of beautiful golden-locked Anne Boleyn. They wanted to feast their eyes on the banquet and ceremonial procession of Henry the Eighth, which Kean presented in historically faithful detail and even illuminated with electric light.

Many years ago a very talented Irish actor, Barry Sullivan, tried to rescue Shakespeare from oblivion. With him performed Mrs. Hermann Vezin, the best, indeed, one might say the only excellent Shakespearian actress. But it was all in vain. Othello and Desdemona, Hamlet and Ophelia, King Lear and Cordelia appeared before empty houses and after Sullivan had sacrificed the fortune he had earned in Australia from his Shakespearian productions, the enterprise had to be abandoned. Then Old Drury Lane stepped into the breach, an Old Drury still hallowed by memories of Kemble, Kean, Mrs. Siddons and Macready. The house remained empty, and after some weeks the manager was obliged to declare that “Shakespeare means bankruptcy.” So Shakespeare was completely forgotten; only here and there a Hamlet or a Macbeth would appear in the workers’ districts, quickly to disappear again. Then a year ago, a young actor named Henry Irving, who was known only in the provinces and whose London break-through had been made in melodramatic parts, ventured once again to bring Hamlet to the stage. He dared to defy the old, conventional tradition and create his own, faithful and original Shakespearian portrait, instead of the usual, all too familiar Hamlet. The critics grumbled, nagged and indulged in fault-finding; Irving had too little of the prince in him for one, while another did not like his walk, a third found him mannered and a fourth melodramatic. Nevertheless, he played to full houses. And then, suddenly, the wind changed, the critics ceased to cavil and began to praise — in fact to praise to the skies. The unheard-of happened: for two hundred nights attentive and enraptured audiences packed the theatre. It became fashionable to see Irving as Hamlet. It was bon ton to be enthusiastic about Shakespeare!

Greatly to the credit of the young artist, he did not allow himself to be taken in by the applause, but continued his efforts to perfect his part with the utmost conscientiousness and the greatest diligence, ever ready cheerfully to accept and make use of good advice and serious criticism. As a result, he succeeded, day by day, in increasingly overcoming the weaknesses and crudities from which his Hamlet was not yet free and in finally creating a complete, rich, rounded and harmonious portrait in which little fault could be found. On the two hundredth evening we bade farewell to an ideal Prince Hamlet.

For a month now he has been presenting Macbeth to us. The same grumbling, yelping and nagging from the press that greeted his production of Hamlet has been heard, but this time with an added bitterness and venom. Only the Times has treated this young, aspiring artist justly, acknowledging his achievement and encouraging him. The big daily papers have plunged into long and thoroughly contradictory critical reviews, one difficult to distinguish from the other; none of them examined Shakespeare deeply, but lost them selves in side issues and trivialities instead. “The small fry” gave themselves up to petty and purely personal attacks and observations, which bespoke only too clearly intrigues, envy and impotent spite. Nevertheless, there are full houses every day and tickets must be ordered weeks in advance. The audience sits in breathless silence, but there are only feeble signs of approval and no spontaneous enthusiasm to fire the young artist. Everyone sits mute and rigid, as if entranced. How is this rigidity of the public to be explained? Has the English middle class again grown tired of the chains of good taste binding it to Shakespeare? Does the haute volée long to escape from true works of art to spectacular melodramas with burning ships, collapsing rocks and real carriages, horses, camels and goats? Perhaps fine ladies nourish a secret longing for a badly translated modern piece of Sardou, saccharine as a Jewish cherry brandy, for titillating phrases and equivocal situations? Or has the public allowed the critics to intimidate and frighten it? The English philistine seldom has the courage of his own convictions: he is a lion only in private. He has a lazy mind and every morning at breakfast his obligatory bacon and eggs are accompanied by his penny-a-liner, who thinks for him. How convenient it is to get into a bus, to drive to the City or the club or to sit in a box at the theatre in the evening with the rounded, ready-made phrases in one’s pocket! That very morning the Daily News has informed him that Irving’s interpretation of Macbeth is wrong, that Macbeth is a frank, brave, daring general and that Irving presents him as a cruel, faint-hearted murderer, whom he allows to appear daring, mighty and brave only at the end of his life. What a contradiction in this interpretation! says the Daily News, and my newspaper-reading citizen believes his Daily News. Next to him sits a Standard philistine or even someone who believes the Saturday Review, each of them with ready-made opinions in his pocket. That is the great advantage of a working-class public: the working man does not allow the press to bewilder him; he goes to the theatre, relies on his own eyes and cars and applauds and hisses as his feelings and his own judgment and sense of what is proper impel him. For the good actor the pit and the gallery are, therefore, of decisive importance. That was why Edmund Kean was so delighted when the pit rose like one man during his performance of Richard III and he proudly cried: “The pit rose at me.”

We hope that Irving will not be misled by the howling of the press and the apparent coldness of the public into abandoning his exploration of Shakespeare and returning to melodrama, for which he is considered qualified.

His Macbeth is not yet a finished work of art. During the first act his whole manner is uneven, unsure and therefore unsatisfactory; extreme anxiety often causes failures in intonation, and even his diction is faulty on occasion. In the second and third acts his performance rises to significant heights. His vision of the witches is presented in a masterly way and the banquet scene is powerfully gripping. During the whole of the last act, Irving’s performance is peerless.

The audience is genuinely shocked by this broken man, his face twisted and aged by grief, wordless pain filling his expressive features at the news of the death of Lady Macbeth; the furious rage and heedless courage with which he throws himself into battle, the insane daring and despair of his fight with MacDuff and, finally, his death produce a powerful effect.

We are firmly convinced that Irving, with his conscientiousness and willingness to accept and make use of serious criticism will overcome the shortcomings, weaknesses and uneven parts of his Macbeth and that ultimately he will present consummate artistic creation, worthy of being placed beside his Hamlet. Of great assistance to the young artist in this serious and conscientious endeavour are his spiritual as well as his physical gifts: his beautiful, soft, resonant, albeit not very strong voice, his noble, expressive face and the remarkable mobility and fine play of his feature.

We hope that the artist will perform before German audiences: audiences that know and love Shakespeare and will greet this purposeful man with benevolent interest and encouragement. We also hope that in the future he receives better support from his fellow-actors and, finally, a critical response that is more fair, less contradictory and less misleading to the public.