EESE 3/99

The Illustrated London News
Oct. 16, 1880


Last Saturday, at the Court Theatre, in the presence of an audience as crowded as it was refined, took place the first performance of the tragedy "Mary Stuart," adapted, and it may be said remodelled and rewritten, from the German original of Johann Christoph Friedrich von Schiller, by the Hon. Lewis Wingfield. Mr. Carlyle has said quite enough about the general ineligibility for modern theatrical purposes ofthe illustrious Würtemberger's grandiose but wearisome drama. If he could devote five whole acts to the exposition ofthe incidents which occurred between the condemnation of the hapless Mary to death and the execution of her sentence, how many acts, it has been elsewhere asked, would he have required had he begun at the beginning of her troubled career - had he traced her from the Palaces of the Louvre and Chenonceux, thence to Holyrood House, thence to the Kirk of the Field, Carberry Hill, Lochleven, and Dumbarton; and, so through the many English castles in which during a period of nineteen years she was imprisoned, to the ultimate catastrophe on the scaffold in the hall at Fotheringay? The play in twenty-six acts which mad Nat Lee wrote would have been but the merest interlude in comparison with a complete Marian epopoea from such an exhaustive pen as Schiller's. Even Mr. Swinburne, in his exquisitely poetical treatment of the same fertile theme has only reached the Boswell episode; and the life-drama of Mary Queen of Scots, in its entirety, might rival in oppressiveness Guicciardini's History of the Italian Wars. A culprit condemned tothe galleys, Lord Macauley tells us, was once offered as an alternative punishment the reading of Guicciardini's tremendous work; but he "gave out" at the War of Pisa, and went to the galleys gleefully.

     Schiller was a wonderful writer; and "Mary Stuart" is, in many respects, a very fine play. So are "Wallenstein" and "The Robbers" (of which the frequenters of her Majesty's Theatre would have naught, as the libretto to the opera of "I Masnadieri"), "Don Carlos," and "The Maid of Orleans" very fine plays: still not one of these could, with any chance of success, be produced intact on our stage. "William Tell" is, perhaps, the most actable of all the pieces in the Schillerian repertory: but were it presented at a London theatre it would require, in the way of excision, the application of the axe, rather than the pruning knife. A distinguished French playwright, M. Pierre Lebrun, tried his hand at a compressing of Schiller's unwieldy drama at the Théatre Français, sixty years ago. The famous Mdlle. Duchenois was the Mary; and the more famous Talma played Leicester. The piece seems, at this time of day, a weak and impertinent production. The more recent "Maria Stuarda," so splendidly impersonated by Madame Adelaide Ristori, was a slightly altered version of the Italian translated from Schiller by Maffei. Mr. Lewis Wingfield has very wisely refrained from any attempt to patch, cobble, truncate, and disfigure the text of Schiller. He has not cut down the stately old three-decker to the proportions of what, in nautical technology, used to be called a "raze." He has left, the rather, the fine old galleon laid up in ordinary, and painted with the dockyard drab, and he has built by her side, in quite another slip, and on quite other lines, a smart, taut, seagoing ship. Only downright ill-nature and injustice could stigmatise Mr. Wingfield's "Mary Stuart" (written in vey ringing and in portions very polished blank verse) as a dull play. It is, on the contrary, from first to last, intensely interesting; butthat it should not be dull, and intolerably dull, is positively a marvel. The plot is merely the congener of that of Victor Hugo's "Dernier Jour d'un Condamné." Is mary to have her head cut off or not? that is the pivot on which the entire interest of the play runs. Besides the great scene in the third actin the park at Fotheringay, when "thetrampled worm turns," and Mark overwhelms Elizabeth with scorn and insult, there are scarcely any "situations" of moment. The suicide of Mortimer in the fourth act is an absurd anti-climax; the signature of the death-warrant by Elizabeth, which is led up to by some excellent writing and acting, is marred in tis effect by the too "stagey" yells of a mob outside; and the parting of Mary from her attendants and the procession to the block are only the realisation of long foregone conclusions. In a word, "Mary Stuart," both the old and the new, must be considered as dramas made up of dialogue; and dialogue may be dramatic, but is not, per se, a drama. Why Mr. Wingfield's able paraphrase of Schiller is from the beginning to the end, replete with the deepest interest is simply due to this: love that is "strong as death;" jealousy that is "cruel as the grave." In Elizabeth we have the proud, imperious Tudor Princess, who has every reason to hate Mary as a Queen - who has hated and dreaded her from her youth, when the Scottish Queen denied the legitimacy of the daughter of Anne Boleyn and claimed the Crown of England. But the political animosity which she entertains for her is far exceeded in steady bitterness by the hatred which she feels for her as a Woman. How she abhors her; and how she fears her! Mary is younger and comelier than she. She hates her own red hair and oainted face and attenuated form; she rages at the thought of her rival still beautiful, still loving and beloved, after nineteen years' cruel captivity. The only wonder is that, in the park at Fotheringay, she does not make a rush at mary and slash her across the face with her riding-switch. Mary's vengeful feelings towards Elizabeth take, characteristically enough, just such a shape as might be expected in a highly accomplished Frenchwoman. In her heart of hearts she detects her Queenly persecutor; but she can be polite to her, she can pathetically entreat her as "Sister," and kneel before and fawn upon her, so long as she thinks that her object can be gained by submission; but when that hope is gone she turns upon her with the fury of a wild beast, and rends her. The entire scheme of action between the two Queens in Schiller, as interpreted by Mr. Wingfield, is a Duel; and a duel is more interesting than a pitched battle.

     It may fairly be said of Madame Helena Modjeska's impersonation of mary Stuart that it is so exquisitely pathetic, so winning, so thoroughly "loveable" that, if we yielded to the oblivion of the moment - as well we might - and fancied that she was the real Mary who was done to death at Fotheringay, we should at once forgive and forget the murder of Darnley, the scandalous alliance with Bothwell, the equivocal episode of Rizzio, and the hundred-and-one dark scandals that cling like burrs to Mary's regal mantle. When the old men saw Helen at the Scaean gate, they forgave her all the woes of Troy. The pathos of Madame Modjeska never becomes sickly nor maudlin. That she should be sunk from time to time in the deepest dejection, is but natural, looking at what she has suffered, and the awful doom with which she is menaced; and in wondrously artistic contrast with trhis normal sorrowfulness is the exuberant, the almost infantile manifestation of her joy, when, for a few brief moments, one bright streak of the light of Hope gleams across her gloomy path; and when, although still encircled by watchful guards, she treads the fresh green turf and breathes the pure air in the park at Fotheringay in comparative freedom. The blackest of clouds speedily obliterate the sunshine. Her interview with Elizabeth passes from cautious tentatives of reconciliation to bitterest recrimination, and culminates ion the tremendous outburst of invective in which she tells her enemy that she is a base-born usurper,that the English people are the dupes of a deceiver, and that she, Mary Stuart, is the rightful Queen of England.

     The parting of Mary with her female attendants in the Fifth Act was almost pathetically heartrending; and, looking at the supreme nature of the coming catastrophe, I am not prepared to say that the farewell was too protracted. But the curtain should have definitively fallen when Mary, given over to the custody of the sheriff, slowly passes from the stage also, to object too stringently to the somewhat too obstrusive display of the large crucifix which Mary holds in her hands in the last scene; - because I may be told that such an exhibition of her piety is strictly historical; and becuase, perhaps, Madame Modjeska, may plead that she herself is a Catholic and is reluctant to change the conduct of her stage action for the reason that Protestant audiences entertain a strong objection to the too-marked parade of the emblems of Religion on the stage. But I do most strongly protest against the recitation by Madame Mojeska behind the scenes of sundry fragments of a low mass in the Latin tongue. Excerpts from the De Profundis and the Dies Irae in a monotonous chant at the "wings" are as unnecessary as they are unseemly; and, besides, this fnunereal psalmody is only a vague refinement on the lugubrious chanting ofthe Penitential Friars heard behind the scenes in the banqueting-scene in Victor Hugo's "Lucrèce Borgia."

     Too much praise cannot be bestowed on Miss Louise Moodie for the most artistic and most powerful manner in which she rendered the part of Elizabeth. The character is a repulsive one, and the sympathies of the audience aare, throughout, against her; but against these disadvantages Miss Moodie bravely struggled. In two of the five acts she is the predominant female personage; nor, with herself as the central figure, did the interest for one moment flag. In the great scene of the third act (for which a view of the castle and park of Fotheringay has been superbly painted by Mr. William Beverly) Miss Moodie played on an artistic equality with Madame Modjeska. Politically her rival, she was dramatically her compeer - even to the extent that such an Iago as Mr. Hermann Vezin is the compeer of the best Othello that could be brought forward on the stage. Mr. John Clayton was bluff, chovalrous, and at times impassioned, inthe wholly cloudy, unhistoric, and inconsistent part of Leicester; and Mr. Edward Price was grave, solid, and respectable as Lord Burleigh. He has only to talk; and Mr. Edward Price talked well. As the crack-brained Sir Edward Mortimer, who, in this "drama of dialogue," is the only conspicuous "man of action," Mr. J.R. Crauford was somewhat over-weighted. Schiller's Mortimer, as distilled in Mr. Wingfield's alembic, should be a combination of the Admirable Crichton, Lord Herbert of Cherbury, Cinq Mars, and Anthony Babington; but Mr. Crauford failed either in speech, action, or appearance to rise above the level of an ordinary Gunpowder-Plot Conspirator. He would make a good Catesby. It was not the gentleman's fault that he had to die in so ridiculous a manner. On the other hand, the part of the high-minded, albeit austere, custodian of Mary, Sir Amias Paulet, was very impressively played by Mr. Clifford Cooper. The part of Hannah Kennedy, Mary's nurse, was acted with quiet effect by Miss M.A. Giffard. Altogether, Madame Helen Modjeska has every reason to be satisfied with the triumph which (in the presence of Mr. Gladstone, Earl Granville, and a whole host of political, social, and literary notabilities) she achieved at the Court on Saturday night; Mr. Wilson Barrett is to be congratulated on the highly successful commencement of his autumnal season of management; and Mr. Louis Wingfield is to be sincerely felicitated on the scholarship and the adroitness with which he has accomplished a most difficult, yet not by any means a thankless task; for his "Mary Stuart," as adapted for the use of Madame Modjeska, will probably remain an integral patrt of her répertoire.

Courtesy of The Theatre Museum,London