Internet Shakespeare Editions

Author: Michael Best
Not Peer Reviewed

Actors' Interpretations of King John

30Helen Faucit

From Fletcher, George. Studies of Shakespeare 27.

What strikes us first of all in Miss Helen Faucit's personation [of Constance] is her clear and perfect conception that feeling, not pride, is the mainspring of the character; that the dignity of bearing natural to and inseparable from it, and which the advantage of a tall, graceful figure enables this actress to maintain with little effort, is at the same time an easy, unconscious dignity, quite different from that air of self importance, that acting of majesty, which has been mistakenly ascribed to it by those who have attributed to the heroine an ambitious nature. She makes us feel throughout not only the depth, the tenderness, and the poetry of the maternal affection dwelling in a vivid fancy and a glowing heart, but is ever true to that 'constant, loving, noble nature,' which is not more sensitive to insult from her foes and falsehood from her friends than it is ever ready to welcome with fresh gratitude and confidence the return of better feelings in any who have injured her. That intimate association, in short, of gracefulness with force, and of tenderness with dignity, which this lady has so happily displayed in other leading characters of Shakespeare, in her especial qualification for this arduous part -- the most arduous, we believe, of all the Shakespearian female characters -- for this plain reason, that while it is one of those exhibiting the highest order of powers, the range of emotions included in it is the wildest, and the alternations, the fluctuations, between the height of virtuous indignation and contempt, and the softest depth of tenderness, are the most sudden and the most extreme. The principle of contrast, in fact that great element of the romantic drama, as of all romantic art which Shakespeare delighted to employ not only in opposing one character to another, but in developing each character individually, is carried out to the highest pitch by the trials to which the course of the dramatic incident subjects the sensitive, passionate, and poetic, the noble and vigorous nature of Constance.

31We think it one of the most notable merits in the representation of the part by the lady who now personates it, that so far from letting the indignant excitement cast for one moment the slightest shade upon her brow or harshness into her tone when turning to the boy, she follows undeviatingly the poet's indication; and, in like manner as he has made the first effusion poured out by Constance, on hearing her abandonment, one of maternal grief and tenderness only, so amidst her subsequent bursts of indignant reproach and fiery denunciation, in every look and word which the present actress addressed to Arthur, the afflicted mother seems to find relief from those effusions of bitterness, as repugnant to her nature as they are withering in their power, by melting into double tenderness over the beauties and misfortunes of her child. This, we repeat, seems to us to be one of the very happiest features in Miss Faucit's personation of the Lady Constance. Thus it is, for example, that in the first scene with Elinor she renders with such perfect truth and beauty the exquisitely characteristic passage .

'His grandam's wrongs, and not his mother's shames,
Draw those heaven moving pearls from his poor eyes,
Which heaven shall take in nature of a fee:
Ay, with these crystal beads heaven shall be brib'd
To do him justice, and revenge on you.'

32Again, in her scene with Salisbury, where Constance is informed of the peace made between the two kings, and where the emotions that agitate her are deeper and more conflicting, we can conceive nothing in acting, or in reality, more exquisitely touching than the expression which she gives to the passage,

'But thou art fair; and at thy birth, dear boy, &c.'

33The faltering pauses, more eloquent than the finest declamation, must have gone directly not only to every mother's heart, but to every heart present alive to any touch of sympathy. Indescribably sweet, too, in her utterance, are the words

'Of Nature's gifts thou mayst with lilies boast,
And with the half blown rose.'

34In those brief accents she breathes to us all the inmost soul of Constance, the idol mother, delicately sensitive and richly imaginative. Nor can anything be more beautiful in itself, or more true to nature and to the poet, than the graceful fondness with which, after throwing herself on the ground in the climax of her grief, she looks up, and raises her hand to play with the ringlets of her boy as he stands drooping over her.

35We must speak rather more at large of Miss Faucit's acting in the following scene, the most difficult of all in so difficult a part. Undoubtedly, the dramatist conceived of his heroine as of one endowed with the most vigorous as well as exquisite powers. Only such a person could rise to the adequate expression of that towering sublimity of virtuous invective and religious invocation which was indispensable to this part of his dramatic purpose. Equally certain it seems to be that these solemnly appealing and withering scornful passages, demanding above all things the display of what is commonly meant by tragic force, were the most successful parts of Mrs Siddons's personation of the Lady Constance. Not having had the advantage of witnessing those majestic efforts of the great actress, we are not enabled to compare the force of delivery shown in those particular sentences by Mrs Siddons and by the present actress respectively. But we have the means of comparing the force of execution in the present performer with what we conceive that the part itself demands, and in that view we find her personation adequate.

36The force which Shakespeare exhibits in the eloquence of Constance is not the hard force of an arrogant, imperious termagant, such as we see in his Queen Elinor, but the elastic force that springs from a mind and person having all the vigour of a character at once so intellectual, so poetical, and so essentially feminine as that of Constance. To the expression of this highest and most genuine tragic force we repeat that Miss Faucit shows her powers to be not only fully equal, but peculiarly adapted. She has that truest histrionic strength, which consists in an ample share of physical power in the ordinary sense, combined with exquisite modulation of tone and flexibility of feature by turns the firm and the varying expressiveness of figure, voice, and eye. We say this after much attentive study of her acting, especially in her Shakespearian parts; and as regards the perform ' ance of the Lady Constance in particular, how perfect soever Mrs. Siddons may have been in certain other Shakespearian characters, yet, considering her decided deficiency in tenderness, we cannot hesitate to regard the present personation of the heroine of King John as truer to that spirit of bold and beautiful contrast which we have already observed, is in the very essence of the part, as it is in that of the whole Shakespearian drama. Thus it is that the caressing of her boy, while seated on the ground, according to the true Shakespearian conception, at once deepens the impression of the preceding words and action which make that sublime enthronement of her grief, and gives bolder effect to her majestically indignant contradiction of the French King's speech in glorification of that 'blessed day,'

'A wicked day, and not a holy day! &c.'

and yet more to the personal invective against Philip,

'You have beguil'd me with a counterfeit
Resembling majesty, &c.'

37And in like manner, her action and tone, in bending down to clasp her son, with the words --

'And our oppression hath made up this league!'--

while they speak all the beautiful nature of Constance, make us the more strikingly and sublimely feel its energy when, as if drawing from her child's embrace the strongest stimulus of which the wronged and sorrowing mother is susceptible, she rises, as it were, to more than the natural height of her noble figure, and lifts high her hands to heaven in the majestic appeal --

'Arm, arm, you heavens, against these perju'd kings, &c.'

38It is this exclamation of the figure -- this aspiring heavenward of the whole look and tone, and gesture -- that gives, and can alone give, adequate effect to the flashes of scorn that burst, in her glances and her accents, upon the despicable and devoted head of Austria, when he interrupts her invocation, in its highest fervor, with those very characteristic words of his, 'Lady Constance, peace!' This it is, as given by the present actress, that makes her piercing and scorching reproaches seem to be drawn down like the forked lightnings from above, searing and blasting where they strike, and sharpened to their utmost keenness by the practical sarcasm which she finds in the bodily aspect worn by the object of her indignation -- in the 'lion's hide' upon 'those recreant limbs.' This, in all the part, is the passage most requiring the display of physical energy richly and variously modulated, as remote as possible from monotonous loudness and vehemence. Miss Faucit, in her whole manner of rendering this passage, shows how well she comprehends this distinction. By the fluctuating look and intonation, -- by the hesitating pauses, at a loss for expressions adequate to the intensity of her unwonted bitterness, and giving keener force to the expressions when they come, -- she makes us exquisitely feel the stung spirit of injured, betrayed, and insulted confidence and tenderness, more terrible and blighting far than that of mere exasperated pride. And after this climax of her indignation, when the legate appears, as if sent from heaven in answer to her call, most affectingly and impressively beautiful, to our mind, is the expression of the noble nature of the heroine, which her representative gives to the kneeling appeals which Constance makes to the virtuous and religious feelings of the Dauphin.

39Already, in speaking of Mrs Siddons's acting of the part, we have fully expressed our opinion as to the true reading of this important passage. We have here only to add that Miss Faucit gives that reading, as it seems to us, with admirable effect, delivering especially, with all that noble and generous fervour which, we conceive, belongs to it, the unanswerable answer to Blanch --

'That which upholdeth him that thee upholds,
His honour; oh, thine honour, Lewis, thine honour!'

40It is to be regretted that owing to the suppression, in the acting play, of that part of the dialogue which immediately follows, the last words of Constance in this scene --

'Oh fair return of banish'd majesty!' --

the crowning expression of her trusting, grateful, forgiving spirit are nearly drowned in their delivery by the too hasty noise and bustle on the stage of breaking up the royal conference. We shall not attempt to speak in detail of this lady's acting in the terrible despairing scene, She renders its anguish-born poetry with a delicacy of expression yet more overpowering than its force. The looks, and tones, and gestures of a performance like this are not things to be described, but to be seen and heard, felt, and wept over. For our own part, long shall we be haunted by those accents, now piercingly, now softly thrilling -- now enamoured of Death, now rushing back to the sweet and agonizing remembrance of her child, now hurrying forward to anticipate the chasing of 'the native beauty from his cheek' -- till her last lingering ray of hope expires, and reason totters on the verge of frenzy. All these emotions are rendered to us by the actress, in all their varied beauty and their trembling intensity. In the concluding exclamation --

'O Lord! my boy! my Arthur! my fair son!
My life! my joy! my food! my all the world!
My widow comfort, and my sorrow's cure!'--

her voice, it is true, rises almost into a scream; what, however, we would ask, are the whole three lines in themselves, but one long scream of intensest agony? The immediate effect upon the feelings of the auditor is doubtless painful, as the shrieking accents are to his ear; yet both are necessary to the full dramatic force and beauty of the passage.

41The woes of Constance and her son are to be visited in retributive justice on their oppressors; and to sustain our interest vividly through that subsequent portion of the drama it was requisite that the affliction of the bereaved mother should be brought home to us in its darkest and most heart rending extreme. The poet, therefore, conducts her through every stage of desperate grief -- the yearning for death -- the longing for madness the constant craving for the presence of the boy whose image 'walks up and down with her' -- till this last fixed idea finally seizes, burningly and burstingly, on her brain, and consigns her not to insanity, which, as she says, might have made her 'forget her son,' but to a torturing frenzy, hopeless and mortal. Of this her final state on earth Shakespeare gives us one awful glimpse, one harrowing strain, then mercifully hurries her from our sight and hearing. An exclamation like this, then, let us repeat, in justice to the actress, can only have its due effect from being delivered, not with the harmonious modulation of tone appropriate to even the most impassioned words of Constance while her self possession yet remains to her, but rather like the death shriek of a spirit violently parting. Among the other omissions in the acting, we have to regret that of the lines spoken by King Philip in the middle of this scene --

'Oh, what love I note
In the fair multitude of those her hairs!
Where but by chance a silver drop hath fallen,
Even to that drop ten thousand wiry friends
Do glue themselves in sociable grief,
Like true, inseparable, faithful loves,
Sticking together in calamity!'

42These are wanted not only for the purpose to which Shakespeare ever so diligently -- attended to relieve the feelings and attention of the auditor, by breaking the continuity of the heroine's effusions of despair -- but also to give double effect to those effusions, by the impression which the exquisite poetry of this passage shows to be made by her cureless affliction, even upon the not over feeling personages about her. The dry, cold words which are left in Philip's mouth,

'Bind up your tresses,'

43are a grievous falling-off. The suppression is an injury to the actress no less than to the heroine.