MEMOIRS OF MRS. SIDDONS (1783)

JAMES BOADEN (1762–1839)


Mr. Cumberland has a name in the drama, which demands attention to every effort not very much below himself. The Mysterious Husband, acted at Covent Garden, on the 28th of January [1783], is in many respects one of his best productions. Before the play went into rehearsal, he brought it to Henderson’s house to read to him. Mrs. Henderson, with a very natural feeling, exclaimed to him, ‘Well, Mr. Cumberland, I hope at last you will find Mr. Henderson to be good for something on the stage.’ ‘Madam,’ replied the poet, ‘I can’t afford it – a VILLAIN he must be.’ And, to be sure, of all the causeless depravity, in the great moral massacre of the English tragedy, the character of Lord Davenant, in the present play, affords the completest specimen. It seems to have been suggested by [Horace Walpole] Lord Orford’s mysterious Mother, which had been printed in 1768 at Strawberry Hill, and presented to his friends, with the express stipulation, that neither Garrick, nor Dr. Johnson, should be permitted to read it. The Doctor would call this a ‘very angry, but unnecessary prohibition.’ It would severely mortify Mr. Garrick, who, however idly, hoped for universal esteem.
          I do not wonder that Walpole, when, in 1781, he consented to a publication of this play from his own copy, pronounced a subject so horrid unsuited to the stage; and it should be remembered, that, in horrors, the Mysterious Mother greatly transcends either Ph&aedig;dra or Jocasta. But the nervous dignity of its composition will for ever delight in the closet. Yet, when we have in the mind’s eye, such an actress as Mrs. Siddons, it is impossible to read some of its passages without attempting to conceive the astonishing effect they must receive from her look and utterance. The fifth scene of the first act, where an artful friar is endeavouring to worm out the cause of her remorse, that he may be master of her wealth, offers a few points that are irresistible, among many that are fine.

Bened. The church could seal
          Your pardon, but you scorn it. In your pride
          Consists your danger. Yours are pagan virtues.
Countess. Father, my crimes are pagan: my belief
          Too orthodox to trust to erring man.

          When the reader, who has known this magician in her strength, has a little considered the effect of one word in this reply, he may be disposed to go on with her in a speech so calculated for her powers.

          What! shall I, foul with guilt, and self-condemn’d,
          Presume to kneel, where angels kneel appal’d,
          And plead a priest’s certificate for pardon?
          While HE, perchance, before my blasted eyes
          Shall sink to woes endless unutterable,
          For having fool’d me into that presumption.
Bened. Is HE to blame, trusting to what he grants?
Countess. Am I to blame, NOT trusting to what he grants?

          Nor is the power of the poet at all weakened to the very end of the first act; where, with some of the forms, and more of the spirit, he adopts the interrogative style of Cato to Labienus in the ninth book of Lucan. Of its forms in the outset:

Countess. Good father, wherefore? what should I inquire?
          Must I be taught of him, that guilt is woe?
          That innocence alone is happiness?

Of its spirit about the middle of her speech:

          We want no preacher to distinguish vice
          From virtue. At our birth the god reveal’d
          All conscience needs to know.

          As Mr. Cumberland chose a slighter degree of incest for the subject of his play, I wish he had not written it in prose, and that with the dexterity of Walpole, he had thrown the occurrence back a few centuries. In hearing or reading the vices of another and distant age, we have a twofold consolation: an involuntary suspicion that the facts may never have been true; and a voluntary belief, that our own times exhibit nothing like them. . . .
          To use the language of the late Dr. Parr, when speaking of Warburton, on the 2nd of February, 1785, – ‘from her towering and distant heights she rushed down upon her prey, and disdaining the ostentatious prodigalities of cruelty, destroyed it at a blow.’ She [Mrs. Siddons] acted Lady Macbeth on that night, and criticism, and envy, and rivalry sunk at once before her. The subject was as fortunate to her as to the GREAT POET himself, and from that hour her dominion over the passions was undisputed, her genius pronounced to be at least equal to her art, and Sir Joshua’s happy thought of identifying her person with the muse of tragedy confirmed by the immutable decree of the public. . . .
          When Mrs. Siddons came on with the letter from Macbeth (the first time we saw her,) such was the impression from her form, her face, her deportment – the distinction of sex was only external – ‘her spirits’ informed their tenement with the apathy of a demon. The commencement of this letter is left to the reader’s imagination. ‘They met me in the day of success,’ shews that he had previously mentioned the witches. Her first novelty was a little suspension of the voice, ‘they made themselves – air:’ that is, less astonished at it as a miracle of nature, than attentive to it as a manifestation of the reliance to be built upon their assurances. She read the whole letter with the greatest skill, and, after an instant of reflection, exclaimed –

          Glamis thou art, and Cawdor – and SHALT BE
          What thou art promised.

          The amazing burst of energy upon the words shalt be, perfectly electrified the house. The determination seemed as uncontrollable as fate itself. The searching analysis of Macbeth, which she makes, was full of meaning – the eye and the hand confirmed the logic. Ambition is the soul of her very phrase: –

          Thou’dst have, great Glamis.

Great Glamis! this of her husband! metaphysical speculation, calculated estimate – as if it had regarded C&aedig;sar or Pompey. He is among the means before me – how is such a nature to be worked up to such unholy objects? . . .
          The murmured mysteriousness of the address to the spirits ‘that tend on mortal thoughts,’ became stronger as she proceeded: –

          Come to my WOMAN’S BREASTS,
And take my milk for GALL, you murd’ring ministers.

          A beautiful thought, be it observed; as if these sources of infant nourishment could not even consent to mature destruction, without some loathsome change in the very stream itself which flowed from them.
          When the actress, invoking the destroying ministers, came to the passage –

          Wherever in your sightless substances
          You wait on nature’s mischief,

the elevant of her brows, the full orbs of sight, the raised shoulders, and the hollowed hands, seemed all to endeavour to explore what yet were pronounced no possible objects of vision. Till then, I am quite sure, a figure so terrible had never bent over the pit of a theatre; that night crowded with intelligence and beauty, in its seven front rows. . . .

[SOURCE: James Boaden, Memoirs of Mrs. Siddons, 2 vols (London: Henry Colburn, 1827), vol. 2, pp. 3–6, 129–30, 133–5]


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