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Ernesto Rossi by L. H. H.

The stage of Paris has long been conceded to be the first in the world. In France the player is not only born—he must be made. Before the embryo performer achieves the honors of a public début he has been trained in the classes of the Conservatoire to declaim the verse of Racine and to lend due point and piquancy to the prose of Molière. He is taught to tread in the well-beaten path of French dramatic art, fenced in and hedged around with sacred traditions. If he attempts to embody any one of the characters of the classic drama, every tone, every gesture, every peculiarity of make-up, every shade and style in his costume, is prescribed to him beforehand. Originality of treatment and of conception is above all things to be avoided. So spoke Molière, so looked Lekain, so stepped Talma; therefore all the succeeding generations of players must so speak and look and walk. Let us imagine the process transferred to our English stage—the shades of Burbage and Betterton prescribing how Hamlet and Richard III. should be played—the manners of the seventeenth century forcibly transferred to our modern stage. The process would be intolerable. Worse still, it would have the effect on our comparatively undramatic race of crushing out every spark of originality and of wholly hindering the development of histrionic talent. With the French such results are happily, to a certain extent, impossible. There is scarcely any French man or woman of ordinary intelligence who does not possess sufficient capacity for acting to be capable of being trained into a very fair performer. The preponderance of beautiful women on the French stage above those to be found in other stations of life may be accounted for on the ground that any young girl of the lower classes possessing extraordinary beauty and ordinary intelligence can readily, from the bent of her national characteristics, be trained into an actress. But while the high-comedy theatres and those of the melodrama flourish, there can be no doubt but that the highest type of acting finds no chance for development in France. The actor who possesses one spark of genius soon escapes from the galling fetters of classicism and tradition, and takes refuge in comedy or in melodrama. Thus did Frédéric Lemaître in his prime, and thus, too, in later days, did the accomplished and brilliant Lafontaine.

From these causes, or from others of a kindred nature, the French tragic stage has within our generation possessed no actor of commanding genius. One actress indeed adorned it for a few brief years—the great Rachel. But she, strange and unnatural production of unnatural art, was a phenomenon, and one not likely to be soon reproduced. The art of the Comédie Française is to-day inimitable. Like Thalberg's playing, it is the very apotheosis of the mechanical. There talent is trained and cut and trimmed into one set fashion, till the very magnitude of the work becomes imposing, as the gardens of Le Nôtre in their grand extent almost console the spectator for the absence of virgin forests and of free-gushing streams. But could the forest be brought side by side with the parterre, could Niagara pour its emerald floods or Trenton its amber cascades side by side with the Fountain of Latona or the Great Basin of Neptune, Nature, terrible in her grandeur, would rule supreme. Such has been the comparison afforded by the appearance of Ernesto Rossi on the Parisian stage. It was Shakespeare and genius coming into direct competition with perfectly-trained talent and with Racine.

Early last October a modest announcement was made that Signor Rossi would give two performances at the Salle Ventadour, one of them to be for the benefit of the sufferers by the Southern inundations. Othello was the play selected for both occasions. The first night arrived. The unlucky opera-house, shorn of its ancient popularity, was not half filled. Public curiosity was not specially aroused. Nobody cared particularly to see an Italian actor perform in a translation of a play by an English dramatist. Of the scanty audience present, fully one-half were Italians, and the rest were mostly English, lured thither by the desire of comparing the new actor with his great rival, Salvini. There was a sprinkling of Americans and a scanty representation of the Parisian public.

When Othello came upon the stage the foreign actor received but a cool and unenthusiastic greeting. His appearance was a disappointment to those familiar with the majestic bearing and picturesque garb of Salvini. His dress was unbecoming, and the dusky tint of his stage complexion accorded ill with his blue eyes. Then, too, his conception of the character jarred on the ideas of those who had seen the other great Italian actor. It was hard to dethrone the majestic and princely Moor, the stately general of Salvini's conception, to give place to the frank, free-hearted soldier, intoxicated with the gladness of successful wooing, that Rossi brings before us. Certain melodramatic points, also, in the earlier acts, such as the "Ha!" wherewith Rossi with upraised arms starts from Desdemona when Brabantio reminds him

"She has deceived her father, and may thee,"

seemed exaggerated and out of place. In the scenes with Iago he equaled Salvini, yet did not in any one point surpass him. Nor did he in any way imitate him. The fury of the two Othellos is widely different. Salvini is the fiercer, for Rossi's rage has a background of intensest suffering. One is an enraged tiger, the other a wounded lion. Both are maddened—the one with wrath, the other with pain. But in the last act, with the unutterable anguish of its closing scenes—the swift remorse, the unavailing agony of that noble nature, too late undeceived, the wild, pathetic tenderness wherewith Othello clasped the dead Desdemona to his heart, smoothing back her loosened tresses with an inarticulate cry of almost superhuman love and woe—the horror of the catastrophe was all swallowed up in a sympathy whose pain was wellnigh too great to be aroused by mimic despair. The fall of the curtain was greeted with a tempest of applause. Men sprang to their feet and wildly waved their hats in the air. Shouts of "Bravo, Rossi!" and "Vive Rossi!" arose on all sides. Ladies stood up in the boxes waving their handkerchiefs, and every hand and throat joined in the universal uproar. Before noon the next day every seat in the house was engaged for the second representation. The great actors of the French stage came to study the acting of this new genius who had so suddenly made his appearance in their midst. To this sudden success succeeded the announcement of a prolonged engagement, the failing health of the younger Rossi having decided his father to relinquish all immediate idea of an American tour.

The second character that Rossi assumed was Hamlet, and in this he achieved the greatest success of his Parisian engagement. The opera of Thomas had rendered the public familiar with the personage of the hero, and the magnates of the Grand Opera came to the Salle Ventadour to study this new and forcible presentment of the baritone prince, who wails and warbles through the operatic travesty of Shakespeare's masterpiece. That the impersonation will prove wholly acceptable to all Shakespearian critics in England or America is extremely doubtful. For the Hamlet of Rossi is mad—undeniably, unmistakably mad—from the moment of his interview with the Ghost. But once accept that view, and the characterization stands unrivaled upon our modern stage. Nothing can be imagined at once more powerful or more pathetic than that picture of a "noble mind o'erthrown," alternating between crushed, hopeless misery and wild excitement—thirsting for the rest and peace that only death can bestow, yet shrinking from the fearful leap into the dim unknown beyond the grave. The scene with the Queen is inimitably grand. One feels that the entrance of the Ghost comes only in time to stay the frenzied hand, and then follows the swift revulsion when Hamlet, melting into tenderest pathos, kneels at his mother's feet to beseech her to repent—a mood that changes anew to frenzy when his wild wandering thoughts are turned toward the King. It is only in the last scene of the play that the approach of death scatters the clouds that have so long obscured the grief-tortured brain. Nothing can be imagined finer or more picturesque than this closing scene. On the raised daïs in the centre of the stage, and on the throne from which the King has been hurled, the dying prince, conqueror and sovereign in this last supreme moment, dominates the scene of death and carnage, triumphant over all, even in the clutches of his own relentless doom.

As the Hamlet of Rossi is unmistakably mad, so his Macbeth is an undeniable craven and criminal. I can compare this personation to nothing so much as to that of a man haunted by a fiend. For the steps of Macbeth are dogged ever by an unseen devil—namely, his own evil yet coward nature. He is wicked and he is afraid. The whole physique of Rossi in the scene in the first act where the king heaps favors and commendations on his valiant warrior was eloquent of conscious guilt: the constrained attitude, the shifting, uneasy glance, told, louder than words, of a wicked purpose and a stinging conscience. From the moment of the murder the wretched thane lives in a perpetual atmosphere of fear. He is afraid of everything—first of his own unwashed hands, and next of the dead king; then of Banquo and of Banquo's ghost; and finally he is afraid of all the world. It is only at the last that the mere physical courage of the soldier reasserts itself, and Macbeth, driven to bay by Fate, fights with the fierce energy of despair.

As to Rossi's Lear, it is not to be criticised. Words fail when the heartstrings are thrilled to trembling and to tears. The pathos of Lear's recognition of Cordelia was past the power of words to describe. He stands at first gazing in vague bewilderment at the face of his child, then into the darkened and troubled gaze steals anew the light of reason and of recognition: unutterable sorrow, inexpressible remorse, sweep across the quivering features, and with an inarticulate sob Lear would fain sink on his knees at his wronged daughter's feet to pray for pardon. That people rose and left the house in a very passion of tears is the fittest criticism that can be bestowed upon this personation.

The list of the Shakesperian characters closed with Romeo. Rossi was the divinest of lovers, in spite of his forty years and his stalwart proportions, and the balcony scene was an exquisite love-duet that needed not the aid of music to lend it sweetness. But in the Italian version the play was so cut and garbled that there could be little pleasure in listening to it for any one familiar with the original.

Outside of his Shakespearian répertoire, Rossi has appeared in only two plays—the Kean of the elder Dumas, and Nero, a tragedy by Signer Cosso, The first, originally written for Lemaître, is an ill-constructed, improbable melodrama. But it contains one grand scene—namely, that where Kean, whilst playing Hamlet, goes mad upon the stage; and this scene Rossi renders superbly. As to Nero, it is marvelous to witness the complete eclipse of the refined, accomplished gentleman and intellectual actor behind the brutal physiognomy of the wicked emperor. It is Hamlet transformed into a prize-fighter.

In person, Signor Rossi is less strikingly handsome than is his rival, Salvini, but he possesses a singularly attractive and pleasing countenance. He is a Piedmontese, blue-eyed and fair-complexioned, with chestnut hair, the abundant locks of which are just touched with gray. He is tall and finely proportioned, with the chest of a Hercules and the hands and feet of a duchess. Off the stage he is peculiarly pleasing in manner, and is said to be a noble-hearted and generous gentleman, as well as an amiable and genial companion, singularly free from conceit and delighting in his art.