|[The Daily Telegraph, 16 June 1884.]
The Melbourne Shakespeare Society has given its first performance, and the members of it have good reason for congratulating themselves - not so much upon the advance they have made upon popularising the study of Shakespeare, as upon the kindness of their respective fates in ordaining that they were not condemned to adopt the stage as a means of livelihood. Had such a lot fallen to the gentlemen who, in the Co-operative Society’s Hall, on Friday evening, read four acts of Julius Caesar, they would have been compelled to abandon the drama within a month, or else have retained their connection with it in the useful but humble rôles of supernumeraries and money takers.
For centuries the “comedy” and the “tragedy” of Shakespeare have furnished fruitful themes for the pens of essayists, but it has been reserved for a number of gentlemen of admitted intelligence, ability and culture, resident in the new world, and living in the latter end of the nineteenth century, to illustrate in their own persons the “farce” of Shakespeare. The curse never fell upon our national bard till now. The desire to display fancied elocutionary talent is intelligible in young men bitten with the amateur theatrical fever, but that such gentlemen as Messrs. James Smith, David Blair, “The Vagabond”, Professor Morris, Sir George Verdon, and others, should become infected, is almost incredible.
At the efforts of youthful amateurs we simply smile when the lads prove themselves unable to deliver the speeches of Shakespeare with nice emphasis and proper elocution, but when literary luminaries, Ministers of the Crown, bank managers, and City councillors gravely sit down to give a performance of Shakespeare di camera, for the express purpose of encouraging amongst our youth the study of Shakespeare, the absurdity is tinged with so much pain that the feeling of mirth becomes transformed into contempt.
On Friday evening, the eight or ten members of the public who cared to witness the initial farce of the travesty of Julius Caesar, sat in the Equitable Co-operative Society’s Hall. No meretricious surroundings in the shape of Mr George Gordon’s scenery offended the eye, nor flowing togas nor glittering helmets took the attention of the small but select audience away from the beauty of the text, when they heard it, of the poet of all time, as it flowed from the lips of the literary, political, municipal, academical, and financial lights of Melbourne. Tables covered with green cloth, and arranged in the “three sides of an oblong” shape so popular with Messrs. Clements and Gunsler on festive occasions, constituted the “cunning of the scene”. Upon these tables were glass tumblers and decanters of water. Around these tables, in various unstudied poses of Shakespearian ease and kalizoic elegance, were some thirty gentlemen and half dozen ladies. Each of them had a volume of Shakespeare - and there were all kinds of volumes, from Dick’s one-and-threepenny paper covers to Knight’s morocco bound - into which he peered to see if his one cue was near, using his book as Hotspur’s fop his pouncet box, “Which ever and anon / He gave his nose, and took’t away again.”
With as much solemnity, and with as little sense of the ludicrousness of the scene as if they had been officiating at a funeral, the dramatis personae would rise and speak their parts, delivering their lines - exception being made in the cases of the representatives of Julius Caesar and Cassius - in a style of elocution which would have been disgracefully inefficient in the average schoolboy.
Brutus (Mr David Blair) kept his spectacles close to his illustrated edition, and rattled through his speeches in the business-like, speedy manner of a man who doesn’t see any money hanging to the job.
“How now, fellow,” read Mr Blair, without raising his eyes, and turning spasmodically upon Mr Arthur Coppin and Mr Alfred Deakin, one of whom Brutus believed to be Varro.
Decius Brutus (Professor Morris) sotto voce to Brutus—“No, that’s
Varro over there.”
“The Vagabond” read through Marc Antony’s speeches with about as much of fluency and feeling as is displayed by the ordinary Rosencrantzes and Guildensterns of theatrical commerce. From an elocutionary point of view, Mr James Smith, as Caesar, with his hair parted in the centre, was unquestionably effective, but the effect of the line—
Mr Deakin played Cinna in a modern pair of double eye-glasses. Sir George Verdon and Councillor Ievers rose and read their parts with irritating monotony, and Professor Morris incited the mob of Rome to deeds of violence while he remained seated, keeping one hand upon his place in the book and allowing the other to toy with his flaxen beard, after the most approved custom of the ancient civis. A singularly classical pronunciation was also affected by certain of the Romans. Mr Blair referred to Caesar as “the foremost man in all the wurruld”, and Mr De Jersey Grut, not to be outdone, thrilled his fellow-citizens with his reference to “the greatah paht”. Yet not one of that brilliant cast blushed with self-accusing shame when Brutus said—
The whole performance resembled a first reading rehearsal by a mediocre dramatic company, followed by a brief young men’s debating club. To the unprejudiced listener the proceedings were simply calculated to bring the author into ridicule and the actors into contempt.
Seriously, I would ask the gentlemen who took part in Friday evening’s burlesque, if they expect to popularise the study of Shakespeare by such ludicrous exhibitions of senility? One of the avowed objects of the society is to lead the youth of the colony towards the works of the divine bard, and one of the speakers, in the desultory and useless criticism that followed the reading, complained that Victorian young men only read newspapers. Now such men as Messrs. Smith, Blair, Thomas and Morris are sufficiently well-known and admired to command space in most newspapers. If they have any light to throw upon the works of our great dramatist, they can reach the youth, for whom they are so anxious, through the columns of the Press. Upon one point they can rest satisfied, and that is that the mumbling or intoning of Shakespeare’s plays by middle-aged men who, for some inscrutable reason, desire to make themselves a laughing-stock, will neither attract young men nor create any desire for the study of Shakespeare.
If the Shakespeare Society is to continue to exist, it is sincerely
to be hoped that its members will cease at once and for ever the farce
of reading the plays in distributed parts. If they have not read the piece
to be criticised, let them engage, say, Mr William Hoskins to read it for
them. If, however, the cacoethes loquendi must be the relaxation
of men in whom the cacoethes scribendi has lost its virulence, let
them, if not out of respect for themselves, out of respect for the memory
of the poet whom they profess to revere, take lessons in elocution. If,
alas! they will accept neither of these suggestions, it is to be hoped
that the future readings will be strictly private, so that the gentlemen
who are the leading members of the Melbourne Shakespeare Society, and who
are known to be men of learning and ability, may not risk the reputation
for sanity which they have hitherto possessed.
TO THE EDITOR OF THE DAILY TELEGRAPH
SIR,—The point of the supremely silly attack on the newly-instituted Shakespeare Society, printed in your columns this morning, is so easily turned, that one is surprised to find a journal, claiming to be an intelligent organ of public opinion, giving publicity to such a feeble outpouring of spleen. The writer, whoever he may be, is put to shame and confusion when the simple statement is made that the reading of Julius Caesar was in no manner or degree a dramatic recitation. The gentlemen and ladies who took part in the reading all purposely pitched the tone far below that of the stage. There was no acting, nor any assumption of acting. An intelligent reading of the text of a magnificent drama was all that was aimed at, and it certainly was achieved. For myself (leaving the part of Brutus out of the question), I can testify that I have never heard better reading of the kind, taken as a whole. “The desire to display fancied elocutionary talent” was just about as influential in the breasts of the readers as was the desire to display fancied pugilistic powers. We were simply a private company of ladies and gentlemen, met together to spend a couple of hours in intellectual converse with Shakespeare. Where was the harm? And were we not well within our right? But the motive for this present rejoinder is not to vindicate the Melbourne Shakespeare Society. The new society needs no vindication. I write to point out that your contributor, whoever he may be, is guilty of the double offence of exceedingly bad manners and perverting truth. First, as to the bad manners. Either your contributor is, or he is not, a member of the society. If a member, is he warranted in holding up to public ridicule his fellow members? If not a member, what business had he to creep into the meeting as an interloper and a spy? A cad may, by accident, find his way into an evening party in a drawing-room, and he may subsequently put in print a sarcastic and burlesqued description of the manners and attitude of the company. But one never heard of a gentleman doing anything of that kind. Then as to the matter of truthfulness. The fact that a brief essay on the more salient points of the drama, as exhibited in the light of the most recent criticism, preceded the reading, is not stated. That, too, was a part of the proceedings. The reading, moreover, was followed by a brief discussion on the political lessons conveyed in Julius Caesar, of which discussion, as I took no part in it, I am able to say that it was conducted with remarkable cogency of argument, keen insight into the dramatist’s design, and really striking eloquence. The republican and anti-republican views respectively were most effectively upheld by their several advocates. Your contributor speaks of this episode in the proceedings of the evening as merely a tirade of “desultory and useless criticism”, which it certainly was not. Let us hear no more, then, of the “mediocre dramatic company”, the “travesty”, the “burlesque” and so forth. And let us, when we meet together to read and study our Shakespeare, have no vulgar and ill-bred cads in company to spy, and ridicule, and sarcastically criticise on the sly.—I am, etc.,
From Vol.2 No.2: December 2001, Vol.2 No.3: March 2002 and Vol.2 No.4: June 2002 of "The Melbourne Shakespearean"
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