Tuesday, December 12, 2006

Actor Relay

This is a story that I like to tell my acting students, because, as you will see, they get to join in the relay. There are many ways of tracing the relay route, but this one is the most direct that I’ve been able to discover.

When I was a young actor, working on my first theatre job at age twenty-one, as an apprentice actor at the Stratford Festival of Canada, the person who taught me most about acting Shakespeare was an actor whom I had idolized for a number of years already, a leading member of the company, who is now, alas, no longer with us, Nicholas Pennell (1939-1995).

One of Nicholas Pennell’s first jobs as an actor was working in radio in the early 1960s, and it was there that he met a very elderly actress who had appeared at one point in silent films, such as “La Belle Russe” (1914), named Evelyn Russell.

Evelyn Russell told Nicholas that, even before her work in silent films, she had been working as an actress in the theatre. And one of her first jobs ever was taking small roles in the repertory company playing at the Lyceum Theatre in the late 1890s, which was still led at that time by the great actor-manager, Sir Henry Irving (1838-1905), then near the end of his long career.

One evening in June 1864, when Henry Irving was twenty-six, right at the beginning of his career as an actor, just having changed his name from John Brodribb, he met an older actor named William Henry Chippendale (1801-88), who, some years later would play Polonius to Irving’s Hamlet. But on this particular night, Chippendale spent the whole night until dawn, coaching Irving in playing Shakespeare.

Chippendale had worked with many of the great actors of his day, including William Charles Macready, but he based most of his lesson to Irving on an imitation (based on his own experience, nearly forty years earlier, when he had worked with the man himself) of the great Edmund Kean (1787-1833). (Incidentally, it was Chippendale who presented Irving with the sword which Edmund Kean had used as Richard III, a sword which was passed on from Irving through Ellen Terry to Sir John Gielgud and finally to Lord Laurence Olivier, who donated it to the Theatre Museum in London.)

When Edmund Kean was only twenty years old he was working at the Belfast Theatre. Kean had been on the stage on and off since he was four years old, working in various circumstances, including the circus; but at the theatre in Belfast, he was able to improve his work mightily, chiefly it seems because he was working in close contact with the leading tragedienne of her day, Sarah Siddons (1755-1831).

Although she came from a family of actors, Sarah Siddons had not always been a great performer, and this is seen in the record that in her very first job, at the Drury Lane Theatre, at the age of eighteen, she was not judged a success. But this undoubtedly had something to do with the actor with whom she had been matched (out-matched?)--- from whom we can assume that, however harsh the lesson, she learned much that she was gradually able to assimilate --- the actor sometimes called the greatest in history (although how can we know?), David Garrick (1717-1779).

David Garrick had come to London at the age of nineteen with his older friend and tutor, Samuel Johnson; but it was not until he was twenty-four, and appeared on stage as Richard III, that he was recognised as a great actor. In this, he undoubtedly owed something to the older actor who had coached him, Charles Macklin (c. 1699-1797)

Macklin, famous for playing Shylock as a tragic figure, was a volatile and pugnacious man, whose face had been disfigured by boxing, and who once killed another actor in a fight over a wig. But he was once young and green, of course. In his twenties, he got his first important professional work at Lincoln’s Inn Fields and then Drury Lane, then under the last years of the management of the actor-manager, autobiographer and gossip, Colley Cibber (1671-1757).

Colley Cibber’s first job as an actor was in his early twenties when, only a season or two before "the actors' revolt" (which would provide a great break for Cibber) he was invited to join the company led by the most admired actor of the Restoration, the actor-manager Thomas Betterton (1635-1710).

Thomas Betterton had been one of the new young actors to be hired by William Davenant when the theatres had reopened in 1660, after the interregnum. But also acting alongside Betterton was at least one actor who had some years of experience, one of the great actors of the early Restoration years, Charles Hart (1625-1683).

Charles Hart had been a boy player in the King’s Men before the London theatres had closed in 1642; his most famous role had been as the Duchess in The Cardinal by James Shirley. Playing the title role in that play was the most important actor of the later Jacobean era, Joseph Taylor (d. 1652).

Joseph Taylor had joined the King’s Men as a young actor more than thirty years before, in 1619. In the company at that time the actors John Heminges (1566-1630) and Henry Condell (c. 1576-1630), were still working, and Taylor had been hired, it seems, to replace the ailing Richard Burbage (1567-1619), by whom he had supposedly been coached.

These actors had been the partners and the fellow actors of William Shakespeare (1564-1616).

And I don't know about you, but I get a kick out of that.


judithlondon said...

The William Henry Chippendale in your story was my great-great grandfather. Would you like me to send a pic of him for your blog?

Craig said...

Hi Judith,

Sorry, I only just read your post now (more than two months after it was written)! Yes, I would love to have a photo. Thanks very much for the offer.