Page images

his future means of support. He played two or three subsequent nights at the Hay Market, and then joined a provincial company. From this period, till the summer of 1786 (with the exception of nearly two years, when a second family windfall enabled him to act the part of the gentleman at large), Cooke ran the customary round of Thespian itinerancy; passing his noviciate in various provincial companies, particularly those of Nottingham and Lincoln. In July 1786, he inlisted under the banners of the York manager, Mr. Wilkinson, and came out in the part of count Baldwin, the same night that Mrs. Siddons made her first appearance at that theatre, in Isabella, in the Fatal Marriage.

The May following, he repaired to Lancaster, having joined the Newcastle company,

with whom he continued four years, performing successively at Newcastle, Chester, Lancaster, Preston and other towns belonging to that district. In April 1791, he entered into an engagement with the manager of the Manchester theatre, to whom his talents were already experimentally known; Mr. Cooke having, previously to his treaty with the York manager, acted at Manchester a whole season with great applause, besides a winter spent at Liverpool. In November 1794, Mr. Cooke visited the capital of the sister kingdom at the pressing invitation of Mr. Daly, at that time director of the Dublin stage.

He returned to England the following year, and in March 1796, rejoined the Manchester company, with whom he stood in high favour and repute; and, indeed it reflects no small honour on the taste and penetration of the inhabitants of that town, that among the foremost to discern, they have been among the foremost likewise to foster and encourage the talents of a man, who owes his professional success entirely to his own intrinsic merit.

In October 1797, Mr. Cooke made a second trip to Dublin, the management of that theatre having devolved into the hands of the present patentee, Mr. Jones. Here he remained three years, rapidly rising in celebrity and favour, being justly regarded as the hero of the Dublin stage, and the Roscius of Ireland.

The state of the internal policy and economy of Covent Garden theatre, rendering it at that time indispensably necessary to secure a powerful accession of talents, in the event of certain contingencies then undecided, the proprietor very naturally directed his inquiring eye to our hero, whose growing reputation and acknowledged excellence pointed him ou the fittest person to counter

balance the weight of popular talents at the other house; as well as to supply the loss which might possibly accrue from any defection then apprehended in his own corps. Offers were accordingly made to Mr. Cooke, of too tempting and persuasive a nature, to be easily resisted; and, thus the town became indebted to Mr. Harris for the acquisition of an actor, who ranks among the very brightest ornaments of the profession. It was on the thirty-first of October 1800 he made his first appearance on the Covent Garden boards in the character of Richard the Third, and made a far more powerful impression on the public than any actor since the debut of Garrick. Expectation had been raised to the highest pitch, from his fame which renown had blazoned abroad: never were interest and curiosity more strongly excited; never was any appearance crowned with more distinguished success. The wonders of his performance flew like wild fire through the city, so that on his next appearance which was in Shylock, the house was crammed full. That season he played Richard fifteen times more, to overflowing houses; and every season afterwards, his Richard continued to be a standing weekly dish, a thing never known before, and which till it actually occurred could not have been believed. Richard had not for many years been attractive: three or four times in one season was the most to which it had been extended with profit; and even so, it was considered as a worn out old stock piece. That it should regularly on each Monday night, for several years, bring full houses at Covent Garden theatre, is a proof of the superlative powers of the actor, which no human argument, however invigorated by genius or animated by spleen, can possibly overturn,

His performance of Shylock was thought to fall very little, if at all, short of that of Macklin. It is pretty remarkable that, in that prostration of mind, and total eclipse of memory, which rendered the last few years of Mr. Macklin's life little better than a childish blank, he frequently spoke of some actor he had seen in a northern company of strollers, who played the character of Shylock to his perfect satisfaction. " By the L-d sir," he would say, fellow played it as well as I could.” He would then naturally ad. vert to the loss of his memory, and deplore his not being able

to tell “the fellow's name.” The first night Cooke appeared in Shylock on the Covent Garden boards this writer was in the pit accompanied by one who had been a particular confidential intimate and relation of the deceased veteran; and he immediately said,

" the

“Certainly this is the very actor of whom old Mac used to speak so warmly." To Shylock succeeded Iago, Kitely, Sir Giles Overreach, Sir Pertinax M’Sycophant, Sir Archy M’Sarcasm and others. In all of which he possessed stronger powers of attraction than any actor that has existed within the last thirty years.

That Cooke, as a great and original genius, stands preeminently above all others of his profession now living, will hardly be denied by any one who weighs his merits fairly, and recollects how little he owes to elaborated art, and what a deadly enemy he carries within himself to the full and fair exercise of his talents. So little artificial indeed is there in his acting, that those who have formed their opinions of the profession upon what they have seen done by others, now living, can at first scarcely consider him an actor. In that admirable picture of human life, the novel of Tom Jones, Fielding places Tom Jones and his friend Partridge in the gallery to see the tragedy of Hamlet-Hamlet by Garrick. Partridge, ignorant of the drama, and of the characters of actors, enjoys the whole play, as a mere child of nature: is frightened at the ghost, wonders at Hamlet's venturing to follow it, and so on. The play being over, Jones asks Partridge his opinion of the play, and above all which he thinks the best actor. Why the king to be sure, says Partridge. “ The world think differently,” returns Jones; "all concur in pronouncing him that played Hamlet the best player in the world.” “ What! the little man in black?” replies Partridge, confidently; “ no, no, dont you think to persuade me to that! why I should have acted just as he did, if I had seen a ghost myself. No, no, he is no actor.” In many of his assumed characters, a person as simple as Partridge would be likely to make the same remark on Cooke.

The first time Garrick made his appearance, he boldly struck into the path of nature, bursting from the old beaten road of slow, monotonous singsong drawling. At first the audience could not decide, or indeed imagine what he meant. Truth and nature, however, soon broke forth in a full blaze upon them; and Quin, Ryan, and the whole train of monotonists, sunk from the public eye like the ghosts in Richard. Quin, who was as candid in heart, as coarse in language, when prevailed upon to see him, said, " If he be right, we have been all wrong; and by the L-d I am afraid he is.” Something of the same kind of dubious sensation was experienced, we are told, at New York on Cooke's first appearance. After the tedious, monotonous syllabizing, dead march speechifying, to which

this country has hitherto been so much accustomed, the natural acting, and familiar colloquial speech of Cooke, seemed at first strange and new; but being conformable to nature, it stood its ground, and has carried away the crown of laurel.

We have written much, and read more upon Mr. Cooke's professional powers, having admired him extremely from the first time we saw him: but we have not yet met with any thing which for correct and luminous conception, truth, and brilliance of colouring can be put in competition with a critique on his Richard, which lately appeared in a New York paper. To prevent such an exquisite morceau from being buried in an unwieldy file, and mixed with the advertisements and other lumber of a newspaper, and at the same time to offer our readers, (not one in a hundred of whom will have met with it in its original place) a just description, dressed up in language and illustrated with reflections superior to any we can pretend to employ, we extract so much of that critique as relates to our present subject.

“ Mr. Cooke's style of acting,” says the New York critic, “is vivid, original, and impressive. It is the product of genius, improved and exalted by taste and study. His excellence is drawn altogether from the resources of his own capacious mind. Nature has been by no means lavish in her bounties to the person or voice of this eminent tragedian. His figure is neither majestic nor symmetrically proportioned: his voice, though not deficient in compass, is neither mellow nor varied: his gesticulation is more expressive than elegant: his gait is less distinguished for grace, than ease and freedom; and it may be greatly questioned whether his stage walk is always compatible with the dignity of a hero. In what then, it may be asked, does the wonderful superiority of Cooke consist? We answer, in the force and comprehension of his genius, the boldness and originality of his manner, the significance of his gestures, the astonishing flexibility of his countenance, and the quick and piercing expression of his eye, united to his thorough knowledge, not only of the text, but the meaning of his author. Mr. Cooke, in Richard, differs not more widely from, than he surpasses, every other representative of the part. He not only enters on the threshold of the character, but is absolutely lost in its mazes. In all the diversified humors of the crookbacked tyrant, whether his duplicity is employed in wooing the affections of the fickle Anne; whether his daring ambition is crowned with success or thwarted

by opposing accidents; whether his cool malignant sarcasms are thrown out at the court flies that surround him, or his perturbed spirit wanders in the world of terrible shadows; he uniformly appears, through every change and variety of scene, impregnated with the genius of his author; always impressive, always Richard.

To analyze his acting, is to enter into an enumeration of all his beauties. Our limits will only permit us to notice a few of the the most prominent. In his first interview with Lady Anne, the deep dissembling cunning of Richard assumed an air of such perfect sincerity, that it might have deceived a mind less weak and trusting than the one whose credulity he so successfully played upon. In the same scene, where the mock-penitent tyrant demands his death from Anne, Mr. Cooke contrived to throw in the part a wonderful degree of force and expression. When he exclaims,

Nay, do not pause, for I did kill king Henry-
But 'twas thy beauty that provoked me.
Nay, now despatch, 'twas I that stabb'd young Edward-

But 'twas thy heavenly face that set me on. His instantaneous transition from the former to the latter part of each sentence, and his accompanying expressions of ardent attachment, displayed a mind deeply read in the language of genuine passion. The cool and settled malignity of Richard's heart in the sentence

I can smile, and smile, and murder while I smile, was uttered by Mr. Cooke with admirable effect. And his subsequent adherence to the character which he here gives of himself, proves at once the force of his genius and the strength of his judgment. His affected piety and humility before the lord mayor, and his seeming unwillingness to accept the crown, were finely portrayed. Throughout this scene he not only evinced the deep cunning of a practised villain, but the archness of a fiend. His burst of triumphant exultation at the success of his schemes, the energy

of his manner in grasping the hand of Buckingham, and the vehemence with which he threw the prayer-book from him, at the de. parture of the lord mayor, were highly expressive of the swelling ambition of the proud and aspiring Gloster. Mid the noise and bustle that preceded the battle of Bosworth Field, there was nothing so preeminently conspicuous as the cool, collected and thoughtful manner of Richard. His manner of bidding good night to the

« PreviousContinue »