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tone of his voice, which gave his words such a softness, that, as Dryden says,
Like flakes of feather'd snow,
They melted as they fell!
AD this he particularly verified in that scene of Alexander, where the hero throws himself at the feet of Statira for pardon of his past infidelities. There we saw the great, the tender, the penitent, the despairing, the transported, and the amiable, in the highest perfection. In comedy, he gave the truest life to what we call the Fine Gentleman; his spirit shone the brighter for being polished with decency: in scenes of gaiety, he never broke into the regard, that was due to the presence of equal or superior characters, though inferior actors played them; he filled the stage, not by elbowing, and crossing it before others, or disconcerting their action, but by surpassing them, in true and masterly touches of nature. He never laughed at his own jest, unless the point of his raillery upon another required it.—He had a particular talent, in giving life to bons mots and repartees: the wit of the poet seemed always to come from him extempore, and sharpened into more wit, from his brilliant manner of delivering it; he had himself a good share of it, or what is equal to it, so lively a pleasantness of humour, that when either of these fell into his hands upon the stage, he wantoned with them, to the highest delight of his auditors. The agreeable was so natural to him, that even in that dissolute character of the Rover he seemed to wash off the guilt from vice, and gave it charms and merit . For though it may be a reproach to the poet, to draw such characters, not only unpunished, but rewarded, the actor may still be allowed his due praise in his excellent performance. And this is a distinction which, when this comedy was acted at Whitehall, King William's Queen Mary was pleased to make in favour of Monfort, notwithstanding her disapprobation of the play.
"He had besides all this, a variety in his genius, which few capital actors have shown, or perhaps have thought it any addition to their merit to arrive at; he could entirely change himself; could at once throw off the man of sense, for the brisk, vain, rude, and lively coxcomb, the false, flashy pretender to wit, and the dupe of his own sufficiency: of this he gave a delightful instance in the character of Sparkish in Wycherly's Country Wife. In that of Sir Courtly Nice his excellence was still greater: there, his whole man, voice, mien, and gesture, was no longer Monfort, but another person. There, the insipid, soft civility, the elegant and formal mien, the drawling delicacy of voice, the stately flatness of his address, and the empty eminence of his attitudes, were so nicely observed and guarded by him, that had he not been an entire master of nature, had he not kept his judgment, as it were, a centinel upon himself, not to admit the least likeness of what he used to be, to enter into any part of his performance, he could not possibly have so completely finished it."
Our author is even more felicitous in his description of the performers in low comedy and high farce. The following critic brings Nokes—the Liston of his age—so vividly before us, that we seem almost as well acquainted with him, as with his delicious successor.
"Nokes was an actor of quite a different genius from any I have ever read, heard of, or seen, since or before his time; and yet his general excellence may be comprehended in one article, viz. a plain and palpable simplicity of nature, which was so utterly his own, that he was often as unaccountably diverting in his common speech, as on the stage. I saw him once, giving an account of some table-talk, to another actor behind the scenes, which, a man of quality accidentally listening to, was so deceived by his manner, that he asked him, if that was a new play he was rehearsing 1 It seems almost amazing, that this simplicity, so easy to Nokes, should never be caught by any one of his successors. Leigh and Underhil have been well copied, though not equalled by others. But not all the mimical skill of Estcourt (famed as he was for it) though he had often seen Nokes, could scarce give us an idea of him. After this, perhaps, it will be saying less of him, when I own, that though I have still the sound of every line lie spoke, in my ear, (which used not to be thought a bad one) yet I have often tried, by myself, but in vain, to reach the least distant likeness of the vis comica of Nokes. Though this may seem little to his praise, it may be negatively saying a good deal to it, because I have never seen any one actor, except himself, whom I could not, at least so far imitate, as to give you a more than tolerable notion of his manner. But Nokes was so singular a species, and was so formed by nature, for the stage, that I question if (beyond the trouble of getting words by heart) it ever cost him an hour's labour to arrive at that high reputation he had, and deserved.
"The characters he particularly shown in were Sir Martin Marr-all, Gomez, in the Spanish Friar, Sir Nicolas Cully, in Love in a Tub, Barnaby Brittle, in the Wanton Wife, Sir Davy Dunce, in the Soldier's Fortune, Sosia, in Amphytrion, &c. &c. &c. To tell you how he acted them, is beyond the reach of criticism: but, to tell you what effect his action had upon the spectator, is not impossible: this, then is all you will expect from me, and from hence I must leave you to guess at him.
"He scarce ever made his first entrance in a play, but he was received with an involuntary applause, not of hands only, for those may be, and have often been partially prostituted, and bespoken; but by a general laughter, which the very sight of him provoked, and nature could not resist; yet the louder the laugh, the graver was his look upon it; and sure, the ridiculous solemnity of his features were enough to have set a whole bench of bishops into a titter, could he have been honoured (may it be no offence to suppose it) with such grave and right reverend auditors. In the ludicrous distresses, which by the laws of comedy, Folly is often involved in; he sunk into such a mixture of piteous pusillanimity, and a consternation so ruefully ridiculous and inconsolable, that when he had shook you, to a fatigue of laughter, it became a moot point, whether you ought not to have pitied him. When he debated any matter by himself, he would shut up his mouth with a dumb studious pout, and roll his full eye into such a vacant amazement, such a palpable ignorance of what to think of it, that his silent perplexity (which would sometimes hold him several minutes) gave your imagination as full content, as the most absurd thing he could say upon it . In the character of Sir Martin Marr-all, who is always committing blunders to the prejudice of his own interest, when he had brought himself to a dilemma in his affairs, by vainly proceeding upon his own head, and was afterwards afraid to look his governing servant and counsellor in the face; what a copious and distressful harangue hav« I seen him make with his looks (while the house has been in one continued roar, for several minutes) before he could prevail with his courage to speak a word to him! Then might you have, at once, read in his face vexation, that his own measures, which he had piqued himself upon, had failed;— envy, of his servant's superior wit;—distress, to retrieve the occasion he had lost;—shame, to confess his folly;—and yet a sullen desire, to be reconciled and better advised for the future! What tragedy ever showed us such a tumult of passions, rising, at once in one bosom1 or what buskined hero, standing under the load of them, could have more effectually moved his spectators, by the most pathetic speech, than poor miserable Nokes did, by this silent eloquence, and piteous plight of his features 1
"His person was of the middle size, his voice clear, and audible; his natural countenance grave, and sober; but the moment he spoke, the settled seriousness of his features was utterly discharged, and a dry, drolling, or laughing levity took such full possession of him, that I can only refer the idea of him to your imagination. In some of his low characters, that became it, he had a shuffling shamble in his gait, with so contented an ignorance in his aspect, and an awkward absurdity in his gesture, that had you not known him, you could not have believed, that naturally he could have had a grain of common sense. In a word, I am tempted to sum up the character of Nokes, as a comedian, in a parody of what Shakspeare's Mark Antony says of Brutus as a hero:
'His life was laughter, and the ludicrous
The portrait of Underhil has not less the air of exact resemblance, though the subject is of less richness.
"Underhil was a correct and natural comedian; his particular excellence was in characters, that may be called stilllife, I mean the stiff, the heavy, and the stupid: to these he gave the exactest and most expressive colours, and in some of them, looked, as if it were not in the power of human passions to alter a feature of him. In the solemn formality of Obadiah in the Committee, and in the boobily heaviness of Lolpoop, in the Squire of Alsatia, he seemed the immoveable log he stood for! a countenance of wood could not be more fixed than his, when the blockhead of a character required it: his face was full and long; from his crown to the end of his nose, was the shorter half of it, so that the disproportion of his lower features, when soberly composed, with an unwandering eye hanging over them, threw him into the most lumpish, moping mortal, that ever made beholders merry ! not but, at other times, he could be awakened into spirit equally rediculous.—In the coarse, mstic humour of Justice Clodpate, in Epsome Wells, he was a delightful brute! and in the blunt vivacity of Sir Sampson, in Love for Love, he showed all that true perverse spirit, that is commonly seen in much wit and ill-nature. This character is one of those few so well written, with so much wit and humour, that an actor must be the grossest dunce, that does not appear with an unusual life in it: but it will still show as great a proportion of skill, to come near Underhil in the acting it, which (not to undervalue those who came soon after him) I have not yet seen. He was particularly admired too, for the Grave-digger, in Hamlet . The author of the Tatler recommends him to the favour of the town, upon that play's being acted for his benefit, wherein, after his age had some years obliged him to leave the stage, he came on again, for that day, to perform his old part; but, alas! so worn and disabled, as if himself was to have lain in the grave he was digging: when he could no more excite laughter, his infirmities were dismissed with pity: he died soon after, a superanuated pensioner, in the list of those, who were supported by the joint sharers, under the first patent granted to Sir Richard Steele."