Critical Articles by Jenny Marx

4. Shakespeare’s Richard III in London’s Lyceum Theatre

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

London, February 1 1877

Since the break-down of the conference, a pause has ensued on the “Eastern question.” There is no longer a rush to read the reports from Constantinople, Vienna and Berlin or greedily devour the yard-long despatches of special and non-special correspondents, from the Gallengas in Pera and the Abels in Berlin. “The trumpet of war is silent” and the speculating philistines blathering about politics can lay their anxious heads quietly to rest and slumber peacefully, lulled by golden dreams of peace and prosperity.

It is thanks to this political lull that the great event of the week, the production of Shakespeare’s Richard III at the Lyceum Theatre, has attracted general and undivided interest. To the German admirer of Shakespeare it will seem incredible and unheard-of that since the time of the great dramatist, who himself produced his Richard III at the Globe and Blackfriars theatres, the play had, until Monday evening’s production, never been presented to an English audience in its original version. After Shakespeare’s death, the play disappeared completely from the stage for half a century. In 1700 a totally mutilated and disjointed version of Richard III by Colley Cibber appeared, with passages of bombastic nonsense and melodramatic stage-effects added. A second still weaker version of the play appeared in 1821, but this, too, was unable to retain its place in the repertoire.

Many attempts have been made to present the drama in its original purity, but all have failed. Neither Garrick nor Cooke, Edmund Kean or Macready strayed from the beaten track. And so this bungled piece of work remained in unchallenged command of the stage for 177 years; indeed, Richard trod the boards of Old Drury in Cibber’s customary garb only a few months ago. Every institution, every custom and practice, every idea in this country ossifies, petrifies, rusts and becomes an “historical” tradition, an article of faith — and woe betide anyone who dares to shake these dusty and weather-beaten traditions. Henry Irving had the bold idea, the courage and the energy to defy these deeply rooted prejudices and present Shakespeare to the public in his pure, undistorted and original form.

How successful this dangerous experiment has been was demonstrated on Monday by the enormous crowds which besieged the doors of the Lyceum. The pit and the gallery were virtually taken by storm, while in the boxes and stalls, the cream of society, and probably of the demi-monde as well, were enthroned in all their beauty, youth and elegance. Amid these brilliant blooms one picked out a young actress with a Dolly Warden (a kind of Black Forest peasant bonnet) perched high on her blond curls, seated beside a grey-haired duchess in a gold-embroidered mantle; next to a heavily powdered, hawk-nosed pure-blooded aristocrat sat the offshoot of a still older aristocracy, a beautiful, dark-skinned little daughter of Israel, and all were thrown together quite at random. In the front rows, close to the orchestra, sat the “Star Chamber,” the gentlemen of the press, both great and small. How they looked, these knights of the mind or, rather, of pen and ink, as they sat there in formal black swallow-tail coats and small, muslin evening ties, preparing to pass sentence of life or death the following morning!

Time, space and staging considerations naturally demanded a certain amount of excision, compression and alteration of meaning. The intelligent, unconstrained and tactful way in which this has been done and the extent to which this old and unique drama has been brought into complete harmony with the demands of today’s theatre were shown in the magical effect it produced on the packed audience. After Gloster’s first monologue:

“Now is the winter of our discontent
Made glorious summer by this son of York”

a breathless hush immediately descended on the audience and even the noisy “deities” on high listened entranced.

In his interpretation of Richard, Irving has cast all the old traditions aside. This is no “villain” with bushy brows and the stereotyped expression of a Mephistopheles who stamps about the stage. His deformity is not so striking as to make him grotesque: a raised left shoulder and. a slight limp are the only indications. But Irving knows so well how to present the arch-hypocrite, and master of dissimulation, his criminal nature held in check by ambition and his baseness veiled by a fine tissue of deceit, hypocrisy and duplicity, through the subtlest traits, tiny, almost imperceptible movements of the features, faint twitches of his compressed lips and subtle, sarcastic, fleeting smiles, hand movements and tones of voice. Above all, Irving never exaggerates. Even during the most intense moments of passion he preserves a kind of fundamental dignity and never descends to the level of the vulgar, raging villain of melodrama. The narrow bounds of a single article make it impossible to cover every brilliant moment of his performance, from the tiny, delicate details of his characterisation to the spectacular energy of the final scene, the sword fight with Richmond, which concludes the play. We shall emphasise only a few especially successful scenes: for example, the scene with Lady Anne at the end of the first act, which is scarcely comprehensible on the printed page. But one understands her weakness when one sees the elegant, gallant, witty and repentant flatterer, with his smooth and supple tongue. Very characteristic, too, is his performance in the scene with the two young princes, whose parts are taken most intelligently by two young girls — his friendly, gentle, ingratiating manner. One actually sees the children cling to their good uncle Gloster, and involuntarily recalls the words of his mother, the aged Duchess of York:

Tetchy and wayward was thy infancy.
Thy school-days, frightful, desperate, wild and furious;
Thy prime of manhood, daring, bold, and venturous;
Thy age confirm'd, proud, subtle, sly, and bloody,
More mild, but yet more harmful, kind in hatred.

Also worthy of special note is the scene on the gallery with the two archbishops, in which this accomplished hypocrite casts his gaze, filled with “goodness, virtue and pious humility” from prayerbook to heaven.

Seldom has so outstanding an artist found such support in his fellow players. We cannot praise the Margaret of Miss Bateman enough — this marvellously affecting, uncanny figure, eyes fixed, features distorted by grief, her wild, stormy outburst and the curse that breaks from her in mad despair!

Her younger sister Isabel presented Lady Anne with bewitching charm and captivating sweetness. She spoke her few words from the heart in Richard’s tent with special feeling; the tent, like all the scenery, costumes, etc., was admirable in its picturesque accuracy of detail, which brought this ancient time vividly before the onlooker. All the small parts, including those of Elizabeth, the Duchess of York, Clarence, Richmond and Buckingham, were also very well performed, and this was true even of the tiniest roles, such as Catesby, Rivers, the murderers and, last but not least, the young princes, all of whom contributed much to the success of this great drama.

It is impossible to describe the excited scene in the theatre as Irving was greeted with stormy enthusiasm and frantic curtain-calls. For the English, the production came as a fresh revelation of the old master and they sat electrified, admiring the harmony of the whole, the clarity and distinctness of motivation, the gradual development of the plot, the completeness of characterisation and, above all, the inexhaustible and overflowing fount of poetry and passion. The scales fell from their eyes and they saw that their Shakespeare is greater than their Cibber. One German critic alone in our vicinity was heard to declare in broken English that “there was more ‘stamina’ in Cibber than in Shakespeare!” 0 thou, unique among thy nation!