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Beerbohm Tree

While these pages are going through the press, word comes from London of a Revival there, unprecedented for splendour and sumptuousness, by Mr Beerbohm Tree. The performance is thus spoken of by the London Times, January 4, 1907: “‘[Antony and Cleopatra] is one of the classics of what M. Porto-Riche would call the Théâtre de l'Amour. Mr Bernard Shaw would give its theme a less elegant name, “sexual infatuation.” Cleopatra is the irresistible enchantress, Antony the colossal lover, and the whole play must burn to a white heat with their fire. . . . Nevertheless, if you present Antony and Cleopatra at all, you must present it, above everything, as a treatment of “sexual infatuation” in the grand style. And that is just what Mr Tree has perceived and has done. . . . [Mr Tree] has the supreme quality of thinking out the master-idea of a play, of disengaging its essential essence, and of comprehending the play “in its quiddity.” To get at the heart of the play, and to exhibit that heart to you, he will boldly lop here and still more boldly add there—and who shall blame him? The pedants, no doubt; but certainly not the great body of playgoers who come to Shakespeare, as they come to any other dramatist, simply and solely to get what pleasure they can out of him,—and whose pleasure is dependent upon the clearness, the unity, of what is put before them. . . . Where is that unity in Antony and Cleopatra? Is it in the Imperial Roman motif? No; that is merely North's Plutarch cut up into blank verse, and taken by itself would be as dull as ditch water. Is it in the Octavia motif, the contrast of the ultra-respectable matron, the pattern of domesticity, with the voluptuous orchidaceous Cleopatra? No; that is a mere additional touch of art. It is in the passion-motif of Cleopatra and Antony, there and not elsewhere; and it is upon that motif that Mr Tree concentrates the whole force of his stage. Hence the scenes in “Cæsar's House” are cut very short indeed. Hence the “camp” scenes become mere kinematographs. Hence the passionate duologue between Antony and Cleopatra is given all the advantage of scenic magnificence and orchestral illustration. Egypt, not Rome nor Athens nor Misenum, becomes the “hub” of the play. . . . A dissolving vision of the Sphinx opens and closes the play. Weird nerve-thrilling Oriental strains are in the air. You hear those same strains even in Rome or Athens—on the Wagnerian plan— whenever Antony's thoughts turn to the far-away Cleopatra. For example, Antony has just parted, not without conjugal tenderness, from Octavia. He seems, for once, to have in him the makings of a model home-loving husband. But there swiftly enters a messenger—Cleopatra's trusty messenger—with a scroll. Antony falls on his couch, murmuring “Cleopatra,” and covering his eyes that he may shut out the present scene and dream of her, again to the faint sound of the Oriental music. You will search in vain for any indication of this “business” in Shakespeare; but it is ingeniously, and quite legitimately, invented; it helps the unity of impression. Another example: in the text Cæsar describes Antony's return to Alexandria, how “I' th' market place on a Tribunal silver'd” [etc. III, vi, 4-9; 17-19]. All this Mr Tree actually shows you in a silent and yet extraordinarily eloquent tableau, which will, perhaps, vex text-worshippers, but certainly will delight everybody else. . . . One hardly knows which to admire most, the gorgeous interior of the palace in which Cleopatra loves and languishes, or the mysterious cavern-like vastness of the “Monument,” wherein she so nobly dies. Another masterpiece both of stage-carpentry and of stage management is the deck of Pompey's galley, where the Triumvirs and their officers get so imperially drunk. . . . It would be unjust not to mention the name of the designer of the costumes, Mr Percy Macquoid. . . . Mr Tree himself makes a fine figure of Antony. He does not fall into the error of showing him as a mere sensual weakling, “passion's slave.” Indeed his voluptuous thrills, even when he is encircled by Cleopatra's arms, seem to lack something of responsive warmth. No doubt Mr Tree will become more demonstratively amorous by and by. Meanwhile you cannot help liking his Antony—which, of course, is quite the right frame of mind. The Octavius of Mr Basil Gill and the Pompey of Mr Julian L'Estrange are both excellent performances—they are proper “Plutarch's men” and speak their lines roundly. Excellent, too, the Enobarbus of Mr Lyn Harding, good to look at and a treat to hear. His “purple patch” describing Cleopatra's galley could not be better delivered. The helpless intoxication of Lepidus on board Pompey's ship loses nothing of its grotesque repulsiveness in the hands of Mr Norman Forbes; Mr Fisher White makes a quite remarkable thing of the Soothsayer; and the unhappy messenger who is so bullied and terrified by the jealous Cleopatra is very cleverly played by Mr Charles Quartermaine.

But Cleopatra herself? Everything in this play depends upon her. It is a terribly exacting part for any actress. She must have beauty, of course, and, what is even more important, she must have glamour. She must be able to run at a rapid sweep through the whole gamut of emotion—from dove-like cooings to the rage of a tigress, from voluptuous languor to passion all aflame, from the frenzy of a virago to the calm and statuesque majesty of one of the noblest death-scenes in all Shakespeare. It is a great ordeal for Miss Constance Collier. One trembled for her beforehand, but quite needlessly as it turns out, for she not only looks but plays the part splendidly. An occasional touch of our modern “fine spoken” accent, which jars against the music of Shakespearian verse is the only blemish in what is on the whole, as Enobarbus says of the Queen, “a wonderful piece of work.” ’

“ Never, probably, in his career has Mr Tree given us a more perfect stage adornment than that which he displays in Antony & Cleopatra. The gradation of colours, the delicate shades of violet, and puce, and purple, the glittering robes of the Queen, the pomp and ceremony of her court,—all these things, controlled by the practised artistry of Mr Percy Macquoid, add to the pleasure of the eye, and give bodily semblance to the inner meaning of the play. If for nothing else, the production would be extraordinary because of its stage pictures. The first glimpse of the landing-stage of Cleopatra's palace, with the barge that draws up to the steps, from which issue the regal pair of lovers; the beautiful gold-bedizened scene, when Cleopatra wreaks her vengeance on the messenger telling of Antony's betrothal; the magnificent tableau of the return of Antony to Alexandria; above all, perhaps, the scene on Pompey's galley, where, in the mysterious dark, lit by the fantastically-coloured lamps at the poop, the triumvirs watch the dancing-girls, and themselves join in a mad debauch—these and other pictures prove once more that whatever else we may have succeeded or failed in doing on the modern stage, we have advanced the ordinary scenic artifices to a pitch of success which was not dreamed of by our forefathers. In this, above all, lies the triumph of last night's play, on which Mr Tree is warmly to be congratulated. . . .

Certainly the piece is very well played. Miss Constance Collier, handsome, dark-skinned, barbaric, dominates the scene wherever she appears. Nor has she ever had a better chance, or more fully availed herself of it, than when in the second act she has to prove how close the tiger's cruelty lies under the sleek skin of the cultivated woman. Mr Tree's Mark Antony was a fine, masculine, resolute rendering of a hero ruined by love. There is not much subtlety or complexity in the part. Antony is the Samson caught by Delilah; a sort of primitive, elemental hero, whose degradation is all the more sure because his intellect is so inferior to his heart. And this is precisely the hero whom Mr Tree so skilfully rendered. Apart from these two principal personages, there were many others who gained a significant success on the boards. Mr Basil Gill was very alert and vivid in the part of Octavius Cæsar, saying his lines with that prompt energy which belongs to the nature of the Shakespearian conqueror. Mr Norman Forbes gave adequate presentment of the weakness of Lepidus, an invaluable help in the evolution of the play, keeping the figure within its proper limits, as wholly subordinate, yet illustrative of the increasing degeneracy of the Roman. Mr Lyn Harding's Enobarbus was also a fine performance, picturesque, and varied, done with admirable lightness and no little artistic skill; while Mr Julian L'Estrange, in such brief opportunities as he possessed, gave a firm sketch of Sextus Pompeius. Cleopatra's two attendants, Iras and Charmian, were both excellent—especially, perhaps, Charmian, as played by Miss Alice Crawford, who revealed real dramatic power in the last act, and throughout presented a beautiful picture of Eastern womanhood. Nor ought we to forget the dignified Sooth-sayer of Mr J. Fisher White—a characteristic personage, who at various crises in the story illustrated before our eyes the noiseless steps of on-coming Destiny.

It would be interesting, also, if it were possible, to recount all those clever adaptations and contrivances by means of which so diffuse a play was brought within manageable compass on the stage. We must limit ourselves, however, to one example, where Shakespeare has given a real difficulty to the stage manager. Antony who has tried, very imperfectly, to commit suicide, is lying outside the walls of Alexandria. Cleopatra and her maids have taken refuge in the monument. The problem is how to get the wounded man into the monument, in order that the final scene of death may be enacted before us. Mr Tree solves it as follows. In the gloom of on-coming night the fallen hero, Mark Antony, is carried to the bottom of the walls, and above, at a window, Cleopatra is looking out, to answer the cry of her defeated lover. As the lights go out we see the body being hoisted upwards to the window; then, by a quick change, we are transported to the interior of the monument, and once more see Antony being lifted inwards through the open window, and brought to the couch to receive Cleopatra's farewell. It was a clever bit of stage work, which gave a complete and satisfactory impression without any lack of verisimilitude.

The Daily Telegraph (28 December, 1906)

“ For the first time, so far as records extend, Antony and Cleopatra has been set upon the stage in a manner worthy of the place it occupies in the Shakespearian drama, and its reception,—not that accorded it by the first night's public at His Majesty's, but the lasting empire it exercises over the play-going world,—should settle definitely its claims to rank among the great acting plays. . . . As re-arranged by Andrew Halliday, the piece was produced at Drury Lane in 1873. At the Standard it was also given; and in Manchester there was a noteworthy revival. The experiment of Mrs Langtry; that of Madame Bernhardt, which, however, was in Sardou, not Shakespeare; and that, sadly misjudged, of Signora Duse, belong to days comparatively modern. Irving, urged to present the play at the Lyceum, was discouraged by its record of indifferent success. Among these efforts, that of Mr Tree is the most serious,—it might almost be said the sole serious attempt. That in 1873 at Drury Lane came nearest to it in splendour and had a certain amount of imaginative grace. . . . In the case of Antony and Cleopatra it is impossible to regard with favour the restrictions upon scenic display which some sticklers for the text, and nothing but the text, would have us observe. Here, if anywhere, is to be shown the full splendour of a court in which Egypt strove, if not with Assyria, with Rome in wealth and luxury, when Cleopatra wore, as now she wears the garb of Isis and accepted her worship, and her regal lover took on him the state and splendour of his ancestor, Hercules. Nowise burdensome is the environment Mr Tree provides. It is on the contrary splendidly helpful and serviceable, as well as pleasurable to the spectator. As regards the mounting, it is not only the best that has been given to this play—it may be regarded as the best that has been bestowed upon any work of the author. . . . A splendid effect is realized in the scene at the portals of Cleopatra's Palace where the royal lovers arrive at the river front and disembark. Still more superb is that in which, apparelled like Isis, the queen greets her returning warrior. As an example of scenic decoration and pageantry this is unequalled. More sedate in beauty, but still unsurpassable, is that in the Palace in which Cleopatra receives the unfortunate messenger who brings her intelligence of the marriage of Antony and Octavia. Very fine, too, is the picture of debauch on the galley of Pompey. A word of special praise is deserved by the costumes of the Roman warriors, which are perfect. Those of Cleopatra and her hand-maidens ‘beggared all description.’

The general interpretation is admirable. Looking Antony to the life, Mr Tree shows something more than the inspired sensualist who for Cleopatra's sake counted the world well lost. With him are well contrasted the forceful, passionate, resolute Cæsar of Mr Basil Gill, and the weak, bibulous Lepidus of Mr Norman Forbes. Enobarbus, Sextus Pompeius, Eros, the Soothsayer, and other prominent characters find effective exponents. Miss Constance Collier is a splendid Cleopatra, and shows well the forcible passions that underlie the sensual charm and allurement of the queen. The most dramatic scene in the play—her onslaught on the messenger bringing her the unwelcome news of Antony's marriage—is thrilling in savage, passionate intensity and energy, and was greeted with rapture by the audience. Iras and Charmian have delightful exponents, the latter, in the person of Miss Alice Crawford, displaying dramatic power as well as charm. For the first time the play has been adequately set before the public, by which it was received with ecstasy. Whether the magnificence of the production will break the spell under which Antony and Cleopatra supposedly labours remains to be seen. It can hardly, however, be otherwise, since as spectacle and as intellectual entertainment the whole is equally noteworthy.

The Athenæum (5 January, 1907)

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