Internet Shakespeare Editions

Author: Michael Best
Not Peer Reviewed

Actors' Interpretations of King John

Herbert Beerbohn Tree

Saturday Review, Sept. 21, 1889, 31.

48Any lover of Shakespeare who went on Thursday to the Crystal Palace eager to see one of the finest of the historical plays, and one which has not been given in London for several years, might well be ready to overlook many shortcomings due to hasty preparation for a single performance, to make allowances for defects of stage management, and to be duly grateful if only he might hear a fair rendering of the play as a whole. Such a playgoer would have been most agreeably disappointed. The performance went without a hitch; the voice of the prompter was almost unheard, and, considering the small size of the stage, which could not but mar the effect of such scenes as those before Angiers, the stage management was excellent throughout. Indeed, the only fault to be found with the mounting of the play is that the arms of England on the banners were those of the present day. We have heard it rumoured that the preparations for producing the play occupied little more than a week, and if this be the case the degree of perfection attained is indeed remarkable.

49To the majority of the audience probably the chief point of interest was the assumption of the part of King John by Mr Tree, whose presentation of a very different Shakespearian character is fresh in all memories. Tall and gaunt, with a rather colourless face, thin light beard, and wandering eyes, he represented well the anxious claimant of a crown not his by right. Perhaps he made rather too much of this aspect of the character; a little more kingly dignity would not have been amiss in the scene, for instance, with the nobles in the fourth act. Mr Tree was at his best in the two great scenes with Hubert -- that in Act III, where he first breaches to him the death of Arthur, and again when he reproaches him with murder. The former scene was led up to by a well-conceived piece of 'business.' The King, weary from battle, sets down his helmet encircled by the crown. Arthur takes it up and puts it on his own head. John, seeing him, snatches the crown away, and his hints to Hubert arise quite naturally from this incident and the thoughts which it suggests. The speech itself was admirably given. The guilty look and the broken utterance, the nervous repetition of the words 'I had a thing to say,' were as good as they possibly could be. The conclusion of the scene lost something of its impressiveness by the omission, whether intentional or accidental, of the significant interchange of words which follows Hubert's promise so to keep Arthur 'that he shall not offend your Majesty.' The text runs thus:

K. John. Death.
Hub. My Lord?
K. John. A Grave.
Hub. He shall not live.

50Hubert's impassive bearing through the scene makes John uncertain whether his meaning has really been understood, and this brief explanation is necessary and most forcible. But for some excessive clutching at Hubert's dress Mr Tree's gesture in this scene was as good as his speech, and he made a most effective exit. Equally good in a different way was his defiance of the power of Rome -- which, by the way, ought to have produced more effect than it did on the throng of soldiers and courtiers in whose presence it was uttered. Such a speech in those times would have made all around shrink in horror from him who made it.

51Mr Tree was well supported in his best scenes by Mr Fernandez as Hubert. Next in interest to Mr Tree's King John is undoubtedly the Arthur of Miss Norrey's, whose success was complete. She looked the part to perfection, and spoke her lines admirably. In her scene with Hubert she showed true pathetic power, and produced great effect upon her audience. Her fall from the castle window, by the way, was not well managed, and came dangerously near to provoking mirth. If Arthur must roll through a bush upon the stage, care should be taken that his tumble may not recall memories of last season's pantomime. Mr Macklin as Philip, the bastard, deserves to be spoken of with respect, if without enthusiasm. He has a manly presence and a soldier-like bearing, and speaks his lines with vigour and distinctness, but his emphasis appears to us to be a little mechanical, and to be placed sometimes with regard rather for sound than for sense. Moreover, he does not quite succeed in hitting off the humorous side of the character. The part is one which makes great demands, physical and other, upon the actor. The Bastard is at once adventurer, humourist, and resourceful man of action, and he has, moreover, to perform to some extent the functions of a Greek Chorus. Few actors could do all that the part requires; Mr Macklin does a great deal. Miss Amy Roselle, too, deserves praise, but not unreserved praise, for her performance of Constance. She has force and passion, but she reminds one rather too frequently of the injured heroine of modern melodrama, and has certain tricks of style and gesture which jar on the spectator more in Shakespeare than in a modern play. Her earlier scenes were marred by a gasping utterance, which almost disappeared in the great scene of all, after Arthur's capture, with the King of France and the Cardinal. Here Miss Roselle was at her best. Her delivery of the speech to Pandulph affected the audience as nothing else in the whole play did, but she has not fully mastered the difficult art of speaking blank verse.

52With regard to the remaining characters, it is only necessary to mention the admirable elocution and dignified bearing of Mr Kemble as Pandulph, and Mr Brookfield's clever little character sketch of Robert Faulconbridge. His make-up was excellent, and his stolid stare, awkward gait, and stooping shoulders represented the loutish squire to the life. There was some de- fective elocution among the minor characters, one or two of whom were at times almost unintelligible, but the acoustic properties of the Crystal Palace Theatre probably leave something to be desired, and if Mr Tree ever finds it advisable, as we hope he may, to produce King John at the Haymarket, these little shortcomings will, no doubt, be remedied.

53G. B. Shaw. Saturday Review, Sept. 30, 1899, 420.

In a nobly vaulted chamber of Northampton Castle are set the thrones of the king and the queen mother. The portly chamberlain, wand-bearing, red-robed, stands waiting on one of the topmost steps of the great staircase. An organ sounds, and he stalks majestically down. After him skips a little jester. A long sombre procession of bowed heads and folded arms, the monks come, chanting a Mass. After them walk the courtiers. The monks pass away through the arches. The courtiers range themselves around the throne. A blast of trumpets heralds the king and the queen mother, who presently seat themselves upon the throne. In the brief parley with Chatillon -- 'new diplomacy,' with a vengeance! -- one feels that not the king, but the sinister and terrible old figure beside him, is the true power, ever watching, prompting, enforcing. Chatillon flings his master's defiance and is escorted from the presence chamber. The ill-matched brothers are ushered in; the straight-limbed elder, splendidly confident and insolent; the younger, lantem-jawed and cringing, grinning with fear. At the foot of the throne the younger whines his cause with quick, wretched gestures. The king suppresses a smile. His eyes wander to the bastard, finding in him 'perfect Richard.' 'Man and no-man' are here -- and elemental situation. Sped by a blow of the jester's bladder, 'no-man' scurries out of the chamber, happy in the acquisition of his gold. The bastard is left exulting in his manhood and the glory it has brought him. . . .

54Under the walls of Angiers Philip of France parleys with his enemy. The queen mother holds out her arms to little Arthur, and Constance reads in her eyes all that would befall him in England. The citizens open their gates, and on a cushion the keys of the city are presented to the two kings, who, hand in hand, pass in to hold revelry. . . . Pandulpho, tremendous embodiment of the Pope's authority, comes to the two kings. John, strong in his mother's presence, receives the curse. Philip snatches his hand away from the clasp of his ally. Torn with conflicting fears, he submits himself to Rome. . . . You see the two armies 'face to face, and bloody point to point.' In a corner of a dark field, fitfully lit by the flames of a distant village, you see the victorious Bastard fell his arch foe and snatch from his shoulders the lion skin of Richard. . . . In a glade of slim beeches John communes with the faithful, grim Hubert. The old soldier stands immovable while his master whispers in his ear. Beyond stands the queen mother, watching with her eyes of ill omen. Little Arthur is plucking the daisies. The king smiles down at him as he passes, and the child starts away. There are some daisies growing near the spot where the king has been whispering his behest. Lightly, he cuts the heads of them with his sword. . . .

55In the crypt there is no light but from the cresset where the irons will be heated. Arthur runs in, carrying a cross-bow on his shoulders. 'Good morrow, Hubert.' 'Good morrow, little prince. . . .' All the vassals have left their king. The jester who watched the scene from a gallery has fled too. The king takes up the sword and the sceptre, sits haggard upon his throne. Hubert comes in, and the sound of the footstep causes the king to shudder and cry out like a child. But Arthur still lives. Nothing but his death-warrant remains against the king. While the king burns this parchment on the cresset, the monks file into their mass. Up the stairs they go, chanting. The king smiles, and then, still leaning by the cresset, folds his hands in prayer. He walks, with bowed head, up the stairs, abases himself at the altar. . . . It is the dusk of dawn in the orchard of Swinstead Abbey, and through the apple-trees the monks hurry noiselessly to the chapel. The dying king is borne out in a chair. He is murmuring snatches of a song. The chair is set down and with weak hands he motions away his bearers. 'Ay marry,' he gasps, 'now my soul hath elbow-room; it would not out at windows nor at doors. There is so hot a summer in my bosom, that all my bowels crumble up to dust. . . . And none of you will bid the winter come, to thrust his icy fingers in my maw,' The bastard comes in hot haste, and the king, to receive his tidings, sits upright, and is crowned for the last time. He makes no answer to the tidings. One of the courtiers touches him, ever so lightly, on the shoulder and he falls back. The crown is taken from his head and laid on the head of the child who is now king. The bastard rings out those words in which the poetry of patriotism finds the noblest expression it can ever find. . . .

56I have written down these disjointed sentences less in order to enable my readers to imagine the production at Her Majesty's Theatre than to preserve and accentuate for my own pleasure my own impressions. Probably I have omitted many of the important points in the play and in the show. I have merely recorded the things which an errant memory has kept clearest. Most of the points I have alluded to are, as you will have observed, points of 'business' and the stage management. For this I make no apology, I have never seen the play acted before, and I must confess that, reading it, I have found it insufferably tedious. I had found many beautiful pieces of poetry in it, but drama had seemed to be absolutely lacking. That was because I have not much imagination. Lengths of blank verse, with a few bald directions -- 'enter A; exeunt B and D; dies; alarums and excursions' -- are not enough to make me see a thing. (And, I take it, this is the case with most of my fellow-creatures.) Therefore, when I go to a theatre and find that what bored me very much in the reading of it is a really fine play, I feel that I owe a great debt of gratitude to the management which has brought out the latent possibilities. I can imagine that a bad production of King John would be infinitely worse than a private reading of it. A bad production would make the play's faults the more glaring. But a good production, as at Her Majesty's, makes one forget what is bad in sheer surprise at finding so much that is good. I can say without partiality, and with complete sincerity, that I have never seen a pro- duction in which the note of beauty was so surely and incessantly struck as in this production of King John. As for the actual performance, there are many interesting points which, unfortunately, I cannot discuss this week. I shall write about the performance as soon as there are not so many other plays clamouring to be noticed.

57G. B. Shaw, The Speaker, Sept. 30, 1899, 346.

The King John Revival at her Majesty's is an excellent piece of work. To the present generation the play is virtually unknown -- for few people, it is to be presumed, read chronicle plays for their own amusement, and there was only a sparse audience on that afternoon a dozen years ago or more when Mr Tree gave a scratch performance of King John at the Crystal Palace. I was present on that occasion, but as I remember nothing save the peculiar slipperiness of the cane-chairs in the Palace Theatre, it is plain that Mr Tree's acting then produced no sort of impression on my mind. I should not call his acting 'impressive' to-day -- Mr Tree is not an impressive actor and, for that matter, King John is not an impressive part -- but it is plausible, well-considered acting. And Mr Tree is always lively, he gives you the notion that there is something up, that he is taking a hand in the game. I do not mean that he lacks dignity. Indeed, his John is 'every inch a king' -- even in that scene of the tempting of Hubert to Arthur's murder, wherein both John Kemble (according to Hazlitt) and Charles Kean (according to G. H. Lewes) fell to the ordinary level of melodrama. His death, too, has a certain grandeur (Charles Kean's reminded Lewes of 'the agonies of a Jew with the colic'), though one doubts whether--as with a good many other stage-deaths from poison -- the manner of it would be approved by experts in toxicology. John's sardonic humour and Mephistophelean cunning are the points he seems chiefly to desire to bring out -- as in the scene with Hubert after the murder is supposed to have been done, and in the effective little piece of dumb-show behind Pandulph's back after John's pretense of becoming 'a gentle convertite.' His appearance, whether he is in flowing white robes of white silk or in close-fitting chain armour, is always picturesque; and I was devoutly thankful to find that his make-up owes nothing to a certain portrait of Macready in the part, which is a thing of positively appalling hideousness. These are the chief points that strike me as a playgoer.

58Earnest students, fresh from the perusal of Green's Short History, it may be, will want to know more. As, What is Mr Tree's conception of John's character? and How does he help us to a better knowledge of the true John? The answer is that plays are not played to answer such questions, and that we are not to trouble ourselves about matters which certainly never troubled Shakespeare, and, I should hope, have not greatly troubled Mr Tree, even though he has not had Shakespeare's luck in escaping the age of historical research. The measure of Shakespeare's achievement is well given by Mr Pater (Appreciations, p. 1194), who says the dramatist allows John 'a kind of greatness, making the development of the play centre in the counteraction of his natural gifts -- that something of heroic force about him -- by a madness which takes the shape of reckless impiety, forced especially on men's attention by the terrible circumstances of his end, in the delineation of which Shakespeare triumphs, setting, with true poetic tact, this incident of the King's death, in all the horror of a violent one, amid a scene delicately suggestive of what is perennially peaceful and genial in the outward world.' This is Shakespeare's plan. Mr Tree 'goes and does it.' Et voila!

59But if John is the protagonist of the play, Faulconbridge is, of course, its popular hero. He starts with the immense advantage of bastardy -- an advantage, indeed, on which he insists with somewhat embarrassing plainness. A hero who is at once a fils naturel (the younger Dumas knew all about that), 'one of nature's noblemen,' and at the same time 'kep' out of his rights' (like Arthur Orton), presents an irresistible combination. Faulconbridge has it all his own way, from his knighthood before he has been five minutes at court to the close of the play, when he preactically 'runs the show.' 'Have thou the ordering of this present time,' says John to him; and he has. This is just the part for Mr Lewis Waller, who 'bullyrags' Austria with great gusto, rails at 'commodity' as heartily as though be supposed his admirers in the pit were familiar with the Shakespearian use of that word, and delivers the final patriotic 'tag'

'Come the three comers of the world in arms
And we shall shock them. Nought shall make us rue,
If England to itself do rest but true'

60as though he were defying Oom Paul. On the first night men's heads instinctively turned to the stage box occupied by Mr Chamberlain, who sat tight. The hysterical grief of Miss Julia Neilson's Constance seems overdone. But it is of the essence of hysteria to seem overdone, is it not? After all, it is a part to tear a cat in, and (if my suspicions are correct) gives us an uncomfortable glimpse into Shakespeare's domestic experiences. Mrs Siddons used to shed real tears as Constance at least, so she said; but that was in the sentimental age, and Miss Neilson's eyes are dry. Anyhow, if she cannot act like Mrs Siddons (I do not add 'Thank goodness!' though I sometimes think Mrs Siddons must have been what the Americans call 'a holy terror'), she is a much more beautiful woman. Master Charles Sefton, who astonished the town so much in The Heather Field, astonishes it still more as Arthur. He is a wonderful boy, seeming to live his part rather than to act it. If he is not spoiled by early success -- and he has the air of being a modest, unaffected lad -- he probably has a fine future before him. Miss Lettice Fairfax's Blanche is a 'dainty rogue in porcelain,' and Miss Bateman's Queen Elinor a granite monolith. The Hubert of Mr McLeay, the Austria of Mr McKinnel, Mr Gerald Lawrence's Dauphin, and Mr Louis Calvert's Pandulph are all good. The stage-spectacle is superb -- giving the impression of tumultuous life essential to a chronicle play, which was in some sort a promotion of the kinemtograph. And, as it is also of the essence of a chronicle play to be loosely constructed, tied down as it is by material limitations of the stage rather than by any rigid unity of treatment, I see no objection to the interpolated tableau of The Granting of Magna Charta. It is only a case of putting another slide into the lantern, not of tampering with the text and -- for that matter, if Shakespeare had known as much of Magna Charta as our Modern Board scholars, we may be sure he would have had something to say about it. The great thing, after all, in these Shakespearian revivals is to see that they are something more than mere survivals -- to put new life into them, in short. Mr Tree puts new life into King John.