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  • Title: Actors' Interpretations of King John
  • Author: Michael Best

  • Copyright Michael Best. This text may be freely used for educational, non-profit purposes; for all other uses contact the Editor.
    Author: Michael Best
    Not Peer Reviewed

    Actors' Interpretations of King John

    Robert Mantell (New York)

    W. Winter. New York Tribune, 9th March, 1909.

    The most important dramatic event of the year occurred last night, when Robert Mantell, appearing at the New Amsterdam Theatre, impersonated King John in Shakespeare's historical tragedy relative to that Monarch, and by a great performance gave conclusive proof that he is a great actor. The character of King John, although not one of the greatest of Shakespeare's creations, is, of all his characters, one of the most difficult of authoritative, enthralling representation, for the double reason that, while it is not uniformly and explicitly drawn, it is embedded in a tumultuous and somewhat distracting profusion of military exploits. Almost all of the first half of the play is devoted to a development of the principal persons concerned in it, and to preparation, by means of debate and the clangor of martial combat, for the portrayal of those persons, in a web of movement essentially dramatic; and during that preliminary period the character of the king is, in a considerable degree, reserved from full disclosure -- for he appears as an intrepid, resolute, expeditious warrior, not openly exhibiting either malevolence, weakness, or guile. When, themfore, after the capture of Prince Arthur, he suddenly reveals himself as a subtle, crafty, treacherous, sinister villain, prompting the perpetration of a dastardly murder, of which he scarcely has the courage to speak, the author's revelation of him in this new light tends to bring with it a sense of discord, and to make the character seem anomalous. Formation of a clear, consistent, definite, practical idea of King John, accordingly, requires keen discernment in a comprehensive survey of the tragedy as a whole, while the effective impartment of that ideal to a theatrical audience exacts the exercise of a consummate faculty of insinuation and extraordinary skill of embodiment. The crowning excellence of Mr Mantell's performance is his interfusion, from the beginning, of malignity with royal arrogance, duplicity with irascible valor, and a lurking incertitude beneath an outside show of power.

    In this respect his acting excels that of Charles Kean, the best and most renowned representative of King John who has been seen here, within a long rememberance of our stage. That interfusion is not accomplished by any expedients of extravagant demeanor, nor by any exacerbations of the traditional Plantagenet temper (John, it is recorded, habitually swore 'by God's teeth !'), but by aspect, movement, facial play, modulations of the voice, and such other close denotements of the personality as, while they cannot perhaps be precisely defined, are intuitively comprehended.

    The actor who is a scholar will, of course, avail himself of whatever biographical information he is able to obtain, relative to peculiarities of appearance and manner known to have been characteristic of any historic person whom he is desirous to represent; but the actor is not justified in going behind the poet's fiction in order to derive an ideal from the historian's alleged fact.

    The character of King John, as represented by History, is far from being identical with the character of King John as represented by Shakespeare. The actual man appears to have been a ruffian, and, though possessed of redeeming qualities (such as promptitude of win, inherent authority and sporadic, bulldog courage), hideously cruel, monstrously licentious, a savage tyrant, perfidious, ruthless, intrinsically wicked: such a man as, being practically almost a barbarian, could not, if literally drawn, be made interesting in a work of art. It should be remembered that the age of King John was one of violence; that, for the most part, the chronicles of his reign proceed from monkish writers, unlikely to be tender of the reputation of a prince who defied the Pope of Rome; and that, whatever may have been his vices and crimes, his sovereignty of England lasted for eighteen years, and was terminated, not by his disposition but by his natural death. The purpose of art, in treating of such a person, -- whether that art be of drama or romance, -- could only be served, as it has been in Shakespeare's play of King John and in Scott's novel of Ivanhoe, 'through a judicious consideration of those facts, and through the conception of a character not compact of merely monotonous brutality, but commingled of many attributes, susceptible of artistic treatment and of more or less sympathetic exhibition.' A savage, occupied in the industry of ordinary crime, is practically useless, whether in a play or in a novel. Character, in order that it may be interesting, must be diversified.

    65Shakespeare, in delineating King John, has largely ignored the testimony of such records as were accessible to him, and -- closely following, as to plot and as to the ground plan of the several prominent persons, an old play, of which the authorship is unknown, but with which Shakesperian scholars are familiar, -- has drawn a man and not a brute. Beneath the magic touch of the poet a burly barbarian is transfigured, so that he becomes a creature of imagination; a being capable of inspiring friendship as well as animosity; a being prone to frightful wickedness, but not immune from equally frightful remorse. The historian Macaulay designates King John as a trifler and a coward. Shakespeare has depicted him as an incarnation of valor, policy, and depravity -- valor that is defeated by rashness and misfortune; policy that is thwarted by remorse and superstitious fear, and depravity that is punished by the defection of his barons and the protracted tortures of an agonizing death, In that way Mr Mantell has apprehended and represented the character, manifesting a broad comprehension of the whole subject, and enriching the stage with a Shakespearian figure not less magnificent than true.

    The dramatic thread of the tragedy is the opposition of King John to Prince Arthur, in a contest for the crown of England, the title to which is lawfully vested in the prince while the possession of it is unlawfully vested in the king. Behind the prince stands his mother, the passionate, picturesque Constance, clamorous for his royal birthright, and frantic in dolorous lamentation when that birthright is bartered. Behind the king stands the arrogant Queen mother, Elinor, inspiring her son to hold, by the strong hand, that sovereignty to which she knows he is not entitled and cannot otherwise maintain; and behind him also stands the gay, martial, buoyant, truculent, honest Faulconbridge, whom no peril can daunt and no obstacle impede. Sometimes in alliance and sometimes in opposition, the scheming potent Philip, King of France, whether as friend or foe, is a continual menace to the English usurper. Behind all, -- the spring and impulse of the action -- stands Cardinal Pandulph, legate of the Pope, prompting to war or peace, as best befits his political purpose to augment the Papal power. Viewed even as a financial epitome of old English History -- while allowing for its compression of events and its proved errors of alleged fact -- the play is exceptionally luminous and vitally interesting. Viewed as a study of human nature it is precious for its substance of truth and marvellous for its beauty of expression. Maternal love and grief are nowhere else put into such superlative words as those of Constance. The exquisite scene in which Arthur pleads and Hubert relents is, of its pathetic order, unmatched and unmatchable. The consistent preservation of poetic tone is not less absolute than the sustainment of perfect fidelity to nature and essential fact.

    King John, in reality, was as contemptuous of the 'bell, book, and candle' of the church as Faulconbridge is in the play. His surrender to Rome, like his surrender to the Barons when he signed the Great Charter, was an act conceived in policy and performed under compulsion for he well knew that what was demanded would soon be extorted if it were not then given. In the tragedy be is shown -- after the death of his formidable mother, and lacking her counsel and support -- to be gradually but surely breaking beneath the affliction of a haunting doubt and a secret terror. Disasters thicken around him. Omens affright him. The fever that is heavy on him has troubled him for a long time. His heart is sick. The death of Arthur, for which he knows himself responsible, is a burden upon his guilty mind. He feels that his friends are falling away. He dreads the power of Rome. He dreads the power of France. Above all things else, he dreads the nameless horror of an inscrutable, retributive Fate. From the moment when King John incites and enjoins Hubert to murder Prince Arthur the atmosphere of the tragedy is tremulous with a fearful apprehension of mysterious, impending doom. From that moment the monarch, though he walks in sunlight, is conscious of the ever darkening shadow.

    As far as possible in his treatment of the play, and entirely and decisively in his performance of the King, Mr Mantell has preserved the atmosphere. He endues the miserable sovereign at once with a dangerous personality, a nervous temperament, a disquieted mind, a sinister look, and an impetuous, irascible demeanor -- making him a man who, while bold in pretention and expeditious in movement, is, furtively, ill at ease, continually rancorous and capable of evil, and yet at vital moments weakly irresolute. His impersonation, accordingly, is all of one piece, so that, when he reaches the King's temptation of Hubert to do a murder, he only fully reveals a nature that he has already indicated. That terrible speech of King John to Hubert -- 'I had a thing to say' he speaks in a hollow undertone, placing, however, a distinct, blood curdling emphasis on the conclusive phrases -- 'Death' -- 'A Grave!' -- and enforcing them with gesture and glance so baleful, and of such fatal meaning, that the observer shudders with horror. The sudden change to grisly exultation, with the words 'I could be merry now!' intensifies that impartment of dread. Indeed, the whole treatment of the temptation scene is admirable for its investiture of wickedness with plausibility, and for its subtle transparency the suggestion of treachery, cruelty, and hideous crime being made in such a way that Hubert's acceptance of it and compliance with it seemed unconstrained and natural.

    The King's convulsive, clinging grasp of the hand of Philip. when the Cardinal threatens the curse of Rome, is a significant forerunner of that submission which his shifting, irresolute mind will, in all its subsequent access of infirmity, make to his spiritual lord, and it is all the more felicitous, as a touch of art, because it follows a splendid burst of passion, in the defiance of the imperious priest. But while Mr Mantell does not in any scene act for 'points,' his finest effects are obtained in the scenes with Hubert and in the death scene. His shrill and querulous denunciation of Hubert, after the defection of the distempered Barons, in the telling words, 'I had mighty cause to wish him dead, but thou hadst none to kill him,' is exactly in the fitting tone of irrational, panic stricken tremor and self pity, while the frantic revulsion of feeling, when Hubert exclaims 'young Arthur is alive,' is rightly and most effectively made to express itself in hysterical clamor of relief.

    70A singularly fortunate make up intensifies every effect of the actor's part. Mr Mantell's King John, when he is first seen, is seen to be a sick man, feverish in body and distressed in mind. The aspect is singular, menacing, almost repulsive, and yet it is attractive -- possessing the reptile fascination of the serpent. The face is blanched. The gaze of the cruel blue eyes is sometimes concentrated cold, and stony, sometimes wavering and shifting, as in the habit of self conscious evil. The lips are full, red, and sensual. The head is crowned with a shock of reddish hair. The cheeks are covered, but not concealed, by a red, matted beard. The body slightly stoops, and, while it indicates physical strength, it conveys a suggestion that the vital forces will not long prove adequate to sustain it. The movements are quick and, at some moments, spasmodic. A trick of plucking at the hair of the beard expressively denotes a nervous, splenetic temperament, overstrained and with difficulty held in check. At first the voice of the king is clear, stern, and aggressive; later -- especially in the scenes with Pembroke, Salisbury, and the other discontented lords, when he inquires 'Why do you bend such solemn brows on me?' and after he has been apprised of the death of Queen Elinor -- it becomes thin, hoarse, and fretful. No essential detail of the part has been forgotten; no illuminative characteristic of it has been omitted. Thought is manifested in every device of treatment, and prudent care of the voice is shown in an improved and fluent elocution, obedient to each ordainment of design. Those facts possess a decisive significance. Mr Mantell has brought to a task of uncommon magnitude a fine intuition, sedulous study, profound sincerity, and a rare faculty of impersonation, and so the large result of great talents and many years of experience is shown in a noble achievement.

    Mr Mantell's version of King John is not a new version, but the old version authorized by Charles Kean, a little varied, and divided by a larger number of curtains than hitherto used. The more notable of the old actors who, on the American stage, appeared as King John were Douglass, Cooper, Barry, two of the Booths, Charles Kean, Hamblin, and E. L. Davenport. Edwin Booth never acted King John, but his father, J. D. Booth, acted it, and so did his elder brother, J. B. Booth, Jr., with John McCullough as Faulconbridge and Agnes Booth as Constance. In England the part has been less neglected than in our country. Mr Benson has been seen in it, and it was performed at Her Majesty's Theatre by Mr Beerbohm Tree. The scenery used by Mr Mantell is appropriate, handsome, and effective, but like most of the scenery that is provided on such occasions as this, it is obviously new, lacking the depth of mellow color, and tinge of antiquity which would make it impressive. The discreet use of a 'pounce bag' would be beneficial.

    The closing scene of Shakespeare's King John -- in its clear suggestion of picturesque, impressive investiture, in its marvellous fidelity (poetic, and not for even one instant degenerating toward realism) to the afflicting fact of a miserable death, and in the exceeding beauty of its language -- beggars description. In that scene Mr Mantell is at his best; a somewhat rare felicity! for it is not always that a dramatic performance, even when it is of a high order, continues to be evenly, potently, and splendidly sustained until its very end. The situation is a simple one, and all the more exacting for that reason. The King is dying -- poisoned by a monk. 'The life of all his blood is touched corruptibly.' His agony has been terrible. He has been delirious, making 'idle comment' and pathetically breaking into song. He momentarily recovers his reason at the last. He will not die within four walls or beneath a roof. His soul must have 'elbow room.' 'It would not out at windows nor at doors.' He is brought into the orchard of the Abbey. The time is night. A wavering, golden light streams over the form of the dying man, and over the stalwart knights and courtiers who are grouped around him some of them in full armour, others in the sumptuous colored raiment that John, like all the Plantagenets, liked to see. The body of the King, convulsed with pain, is shrunken and withered. His hair and beard are dishevelled. His face is ghastly, and, as seen in the flickering light, it gleams with the gathering dew of death. He has thrown aside his rich attire, and is clad in black trunks and long black hose, with a white shirt, torn open at the throat; around his shoulders there is a loose robe. A more piteous spectacle -- made awful with mysterious, grim, and weird environment -- has not been seen; and Mr Mantell makes the illusion so complete that the theatre is forgotten. The threadlike, gasping, whispering, despairing voice in which he utters the dying speeches of King John -- the abject, pitiful supplication that his kingdom's rivers may be allowed to take their course through his burnt bosom -- can only be heard with tears.

    If pity and terror be the legitimate object of tragedy -- touching the heart and thrilling and exalting the mind -- Mr Mantell, assuredly, has accomplished its object. Wonderful death scenes have, at long intervals, been shown upon our stage: those, for example, of Ristori in Queen Elizabeth; Davison in Othello; Edwin Booth in King Lear; Henry Irving in King Louis; Salvini in Conrade. The death scene of Robert Mantell's King John is worthy to rank with the best of them. The art of it is superb. The monition of it should sink deep into every heart. To each one of us the hour of death must come the forlorn, abject isolation from humanity -- the awful opening of that dread pathway which every human being must tread alone -- the great mystery -- the piteous solitude, when mortality breathes its last sigh and murmurs its last farewell.