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Review from The Times
Monday, January 28, 1884.
 
LYCEUM THEATRE

Those who have suspected that Miss Mary Anderson was well-advised in clinging to the artificial class of characters hitherto associated with her engagement at the Lyceum – characters, that is to say, making little call upon the emotional faculties of their exponent – will not be disposed to modify their opinion from her “creation” of the new part of distinctly higher scope in Mr. Gilbert’s one act drama Comedy and Tragedy, produced for the first time on Saturday night. Though passing in a single scene, this piece furnishes a more crucial test of Miss Anderson’s powers than any of her previous assumptions in this country. Unfortunately, it also assigns limits to those powers which few actresses of the second or even the third rank need despair of attaining.

Like Peg Woffington, Adrienne Lecouvreur, and one or two other less known plays, Comedy and Tragedy sets forth an episode in the private life of an actress, Mdlle. Clarice, of the Comédie Française, who appears to have flourished under the regency of the profligate Duc d’Orleans in the early part of last century. Miss Anderson, as Clarice, wears a Louis XV costume, which has been designed for her by Mr. Lewis Wingfield, but does not powder her hair, thus following the example of Rachel when that famous actress “created” the part of Adrienne Lecouvreur. The effect, it maybe noted in passing, is not particularly happy, inasmuch as the actress’s classical severity of style consorts ill with the heavy brocaded silks and satins and the other finery of an especially licentious period, while these same adornments seem to require a more elaborate coiffure than a simple auburn perruque.

Mdlle. Clarice is secretly married to a man whom she loves, a certain d’Aulnay, who for the sake of being near her has resigned the military profession and turned actor; but for a whole year she has been pursued by the unworthy attentions of the Regent. In vain d’Aulnay has challenged this notorious roué to fight; his status as an actress’s husband unfits him to cross swords with a gentleman. But Clarice resorts to a stratagem which at length brings about the desired encounter. Pretending to have done with d’Aulnay for good, she invites the Regent and a number of his profligate friends to her house, and contriving to find herself alone with her persecutor, arranges that her husband shall enter at a moment when the Duke is pressing his suit with growing warmth. Once more the husband throws down his challenge. The Duke declines to fight, as usual, but d’Aulnay, who will not he balked, tears into shreds his official engagement as an actor at the Comédie Française, and, renouncing the stage for ever, renews his challenge in the improvised character of a gentleman. This curious argumetum ad hominem weighs with the Duke; and the combatants forthwith repair to the garden to engage in a duel to the death. Meanwhile, Clarice undertakes to provide her other guests with entertainment, which she does, on their return from the salon, by comic recitations. The woman’s heart is torn with anxiety, but she affects a gay and careless manner. In the midst of this scene a groan from the direction of the garden catches her ear. Instantly her comedy changes to real tragic anguish, to the delight of the company, who still believe her to be acting, and her agony of mind lasts until d’Aulnay returns unharmed, reporting the Duke to be mortally wounded.

Such a piece as this, it will be seen, makes the highest demands upon an actress. Tenderly affectionate and true with her husband, when she arranges with him the plan upon which so much depends, heartless and insouciante in manner as she receives her guests, affectedly gay and vivacious while her husband’s fate is trembling in the balance, deeply tragic in her anguish when her fortitude has broken down, and finally overcome with joy as her husband is restored to her arms, she has to pass and repass without a pause from one extreme of her art to the other. There is probably no actress but Sarah Bernhardt who could render all the various phases of this character as they should be rendered. There is only one phase of it that comes fairly within Miss Anderson’s grasp. Of vivacity there is not a spark in her nature; a heavy-footed impassiveness weighs upon all her efforts to be sprightly. The refinement, the subtlety, the animation, the ton, of an actress of the Comédie Française she does not so much as suggest. Womanly sympathy, tenderness, and trust, those qualities which constitute a far deeper and more abiding charm than statuesque beauty, are equally absent from an impersonation which in its earlier phases is almost distressingly laboured. While the actress is entertaining her guests with improvised comedy moreover, no under current of emotion, no suggestion of suppressed anxiety is perceptible. It is not till this double rôle, which demands a degree of finesse evidently beyond Miss Anderson’s range, is exchanged for the unaffected expression of mental torture that the actress rises to the occasion, and here, it is pleasing to record, she displayed on Saturday night an earnestness and an intensity which won her an ungrudging round of applause. Miss Anderson’s conception of the character is excellent; it is her powers of execution that are defective, and we do not omit from these the quality of her voice, which at times sinks into a hard and unsympathetic key. The part of Clarice overshadows all others in the piece, but we may note that such assistance as is necessary is rendered by Mr. Alexander as d’Aulnay and Mr. J. H. Barnes as the Duc d’Orleans.


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