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Stedman and Hutchinson, comps. A Library of American Literature:
An Anthology in Eleven Volumes. 1891.
Vols. IX–XI: Literature of the Republic, Part IV., 1861–1889

In “The World of Dreams”

By William Winter (1836–1917)

[Born in Gloucester, Mass., 1836. Died in New York, N. Y., 1917. The New York Tribune. 1887–89.—The Jeffersons. 1881.]


HENRY IRVING, in his embodiment of Mephistopheles has fulfilled the conception of the poet in one essential respect and has far transcended it in another. His performance, superb in ideal and perfect in execution, is a great work—and precisely here is the greatness of it. Mephistopheles as delineated by Goethe is magnificently intellectual and sardonic, but nowhere does he convey even the faintest suggestion of the godhead of glory from which he has lapsed. His own frank and clear avowal of himself leaves no room for doubt as to the limitation intended to be established for him by the poet. I am, he declares, the spirit that perpetually denies. I am a part of that part which once was all—a part of that darkness out of which came the light. I repudiate all things—because everything that has been made is unworthy to exist and ought to be destroyed, and therefore it is better that nothing should ever have been made. God dwells in splendor, alone and eternal, but his Spirits he thrusts into darkness, and Man, a poor creature fashioned to poke his nose into filth, he sportively dowers with day and night. My province is Evil; my existence is mockery; my pleasure and my purpose are destruction. In a word, this Fiend, towering to the loftiest summit of cold intellect, is the embodiment of cruelty, malice and scorn, pervaded and interspersed with grim humor. That ideal Mr. Irving has made actual. The omniscient craft and deadly malignity of his impersonation, swathed as they are in a most specious humor, at some moments (as, for example, in Margaret’s bed-room, in the garden scene with Martha, and in the duel scene with Valentine) make the blood creep and curdle with horror, even while they impress the sense of intellectual power and stir the springs of laughter. But if you rightly read his face in the fantastic, symbolical scene of the Witch’s Kitchen; in that lurid moment of sunset over the quaint gables and haunted spires of Nuremberg, when the sinister presence of the arch-fiend deepens the red glare of the setting sun and seems to bathe this world in the ominous splendor of hell; and, above all, if you perceive the soul that shines through his eyes in that supremely awful moment of his predominance over the hellish revel upon the Brocken, when all the hideous malignities of nature and all those baleful “spirits which tend on mortal consequence” are loosed into the aërial abyss, and only this imperial horror can curb and subdue them, you will know that this Mephistopheles is a sufferer not less than a mocker; that his colossal malignity is the delineation of an angelic spirit, thwarted, baffled, shattered, but still defiant; never to be vanquished; never through all eternity to be at peace with itself. The infinite sadness of that face, the pathos, beyond words, of that isolated and lonely figure—these are the qualities which irradiate all its diversified attributes of mind, humor, duplicity, sarcasm, force, horror, and infernal beauty, and invest it with the authentic quality of greatness. There is no warrant for this treatment of the part to be derived from Goethe’s poem. There is every warrant for it in the apprehension of this tremendous subject by the imagination of a great actor. You cannot mount above the earth, you cannot transcend the ordinary line of the commonplace, as a mere sardonic image of self-satisfied and chuckling obliquity. Mr. Irving has embodied Mephistopheles not as a man but as a spirit, with all that the word implies, and in doing this he has not only heeded the fine instinct of the true actor but the splendid teaching of the highest poetry—the ray of supernal light that flashes from the old Bible; the blaze that streams from the “Paradise Lost”; the awful glory through which, in the pages of Byron, the typical figure of agonized but unconquerable revolt towers over a realm of ruin.
  • On his brow
  • The thunder-scars are graven; from his eye
  • Glares forth the immortality of hell.”

    WHATEVER else may be said as to the drift of the tragedy of “Antony and Cleopatra,” this certainly may with truth be said, that to strong natures that sicken under the weight of convention and are weary with looking upon the littleness of human nature in its ordinary forms, it affords a great and splendid, howsoever temporary, relief and refreshment. The winds of power blow through it; the strong meridian sunshine blazes over it; the colors of morning burn around it; the trumpet blares in its music, and its fragrance is the scent of a wilderness of roses. Shakespeare’s vast imagination was here loosed upon colossal images and imperial splendors. The passions that clash or mingle in this piece are like the ocean surges—fierce, glittering, terrible and glorious. The theme is the ruin of a demigod. The adjuncts are empires. Wealth of every sort is poured forth with regal and limitless profusion. The very language glows with a prodigal emotion and towers to a superb height of eloquence. It does not signify, as modifying the effect of all this tumult and glory, that the stern truth of mortal evanescence is quietly suggested all the way, and simply disclosed at last in a tragical wreck of honor, love, and life. While the pageant endures it endures in diamond light, and when it fades and crumbles the change is instantaneous to darkness and death.
  • The odds is gone,
  • And there is nothing left remarkable
  • Beneath the visiting moon.”
  • There is no need to inquire whether Shakespeare—who closely followed Plutarch in telling this Roman and Egyptian story—has been true to the historical fact. His characters declare themselves with absolute precision, and they are not to be mistaken. Antony and Cleopatra are in middle life and the only possible or admissible ideal of them is that which separates them at once and forever from the gentle, puny, experimental emotions of youth, and invests them with the developed powers and fearless and exultant passions of men and women to whom the world and life are a fact and not a dream. They do not palter. For them there is but one hour, which is the present, and one life, which they will entirely and absolutely fulfil. They have passed out of the mere instinctive life of the senses, into that more intense and thrilling life wherein the senses are fed and governed by the imagination. Shakespeare has filled this wonderful play with lines that tell most unerringly his grand meaning in this respect—lines that, to Shakespearean scholars, are in the very alphabet of memory:

  • “There’s beggary in the love that can be reckoned.”
  • “There’s not a minute of our lives should stretch
  • Without some pleasure now.”
  • “Let Rome in Tiber melt and the wide arch
  • Of the ranged empire fall! Here is my space!”
  • “O, thou day o’ the world,
  • Chain mine armed neck! Leap thou, attire and all,
  • Through proof of harness, to my heart and there
  • Ride on the pants triumphing.”
  • “Fall not a tear, I say! one of them rates
  • All that is won and lost. Give me a kiss,
  • Even this repays me.”
  • Here is no Orsino, sighing for the music that is the food of love; no Romeo, taking the measure of an unmade grave; no Hamlet lover, bidding his mistress go to a nunnery. You may indeed, if you possess the subtle poetic sense, discern, all through this voluptuous story, the faint, far-off rustle of the garments of the coming Nemesis; the low moan of the funeral music that will sing these imperial lovers to their rest—for nothing is more inevitably doomed than mortal delight in mortal love, and no moralist ever taught his lesson of truth with more inexorable purpose than Shakespeare uses here. But in the mean time it is the present vitality and not the moral implication of the subject that actors must be concerned to show, and observers to recognize and comprehend, upon the stage, if this tragedy is to be properly acted and properly seen. In other words, a reference to what the characters are must precede a reference to what they become, as now represented. Antony and Cleopatra are lovers, but not lovers only. It is the splendid stature and infinite variety of character in them that render them puissant in fascination. Each of them speaks great thoughts in great language. Each displays noble imagination. Each becomes majestic in the hour of danger and pathetically heroic in the hour of death. The dying speeches of Antony are in the highest vein that Shakespeare ever reached, and when you consider what is implied as well as what is said there is nowhere in him a more lofty line than Cleopatra’s—

  • “Give me my robe, put on my crown, I have
  • Immortal longings in me!”

    MOST persons work so hard, are so full of care and trouble, so weighed down with the sense of duty, so anxious to regulate the world and put everything to rights, that contact with a nature which does not care for the stress and din of toil but dwells in an atmosphere of sunshiny idleness and is the embodiment of goodness, innocence, and careless mirth, brings a positive relief. This is the feeling that Jefferson’s acting inspires. The halo of genius is all around it. Sincerity, humor, pathos, vivid imagination, and a gentleness that is akin with wild flowers and woodland brooks, slumberous, slow-drifting summer-clouds, and soft music heard upon the waters in starlit nights of June—these are the springs of the actor’s art. There are a hundred beauties of method in it which satisfy the judgment and fascinate the sense of symmetry; but underlying these beauties there is a magical sweetness of temperament—a delicate blending of humor, pathos, gentleness, quaintness, and dream-like repose—which awakens the most affectionate sympathy. This subtle spirit is the potent charm of the impersonation. All possible labor (and Jefferson sums up in this performance the culture acquired in many years of professional toil) could not supply that charm. It is a celestial gift. It is the divine fire. It is what the philosophic poet Emerson, with fine and far-reaching significance, calls
  • “The untaught strain
  • That sheds beauty on the rose.”
  • In depicting Rip Van Winkle Jefferson reaches the perfection of the actor’s art; which is to delineate a distinctly individual character, through successive stages of growth, till the story of a life is completely told. If the student of acting would feelingly appreciate the fineness and force of the dramatic art that is displayed in this work let him, in either of the pivotal passages, consider the complexity and depth of the effect as contrasted with the simplicity of the means that are used to produce it. There is no trickery in the charm. The sense of beauty is satisfied, because the object that it apprehends is beautiful. The heart is deeply and surely touched, for the simple and sufficient reason that the character and experience revealed to it are lovely and pathetic. For Rip Van Winkle’s goodness exists as an oak exists, and is not dependent on principle, precept, or resolution. Howsoever he may drift he cannot drift away from human affection. Weakness was never punished with more sorrowful misfortune than his. Dear to us for what he is, he becomes dearer still for what he suffers, and (in the acting of Jefferson) for the manner in which he suffers it. That manner, arising out of complete identification with the part, informed by intuitive and liberal knowledge of human nature and guided by an unerring instinct of taste, is the crown of Jefferson’s art. It is unrestrained; it is graceful; it is free from effort; it is equal to every situation; and it shows, with the precision and delicacy of the finest miniature-painting, the gradual, natural changes of the character, as wrought by the pressure of experience. Its result is the perfect embodiment of a rare type of human nature and mystical experience, embellished by the appliances of romance and exalted by the atmosphere of poetry; and no person of imagination and sensibility can see it without being charmed by its humor, thrilled by its manifold suggestions of beauty, and made more and more sensible that life is utterly worthless, howsoever brilliantly its ambitions may happen to be rewarded, unless it is hallowed by love and soothed by kindness.

    There will be, as there have been, many Rip Van Winkles: there is but one Jefferson. For him it was reserved to idealize the entire subject; to elevate a prosaic type of good-natured indolence into an ideal emblem of poetical freedom; to construct and translate, in the world of fact, the Arcadian vagabond of the world of dreams. In the presence of his wonderful embodiment of this droll, gentle, drifting human creature—to whom trees and brooks and flowers are familiar companions, to whom spirits appear, and for whom the mysterious voices of the lonely midnight forest have a meaning and a charm—the observer feels that poetry is no longer restricted to canvas and marble and rapt reverie over the printed page, but walks forth crystallized in a human form, spangled with the freshness of the diamond dews of morning, mysterious with hints of woodland secrets, lovely with the simplicity and joy of rustic freedom, and fragrant with the incense of the pines.

    The world does not love Rip Van Winkle because he drinks schnapps, nor because he is unthrifty, nor because he banters his wife, nor because he neglects his duties as a parent. All these are faults, and he is loved in spite of them. Underneath all his defects the human nature of the man is as sound and bright as the finest gold; and it is out of this interior beauty that the charm of Jefferson’s personation arises. The conduct of Rip Van Winkle is the result of his character and not of his drams. At the sacrifice of some slight comicality here and there, the element of intoxication might be left out of his experience altogether, and he would still act in the same way and possess the same fascination. Jefferson’s Rip, of course, is meant, and not Irving’s. The latter was “a thirsty soul,” accustomed to frequent the tavern; and thirsty souls who often seek taverns neither go there to practise total abstinence nor come thence with poetical attributes of nature. No such idea of Rip Van Winkle can be derived from Irving’s sketch as is given in Jefferson’s acting. Irving seems to have written the sketch for the sake of the ghostly legend it embodies; but he made no attempt to elaborate the character of its hero or to present it as a poetic one. Jefferson has exalted the conception. In his embodiment the drink is merely an expedient, to plunge the hero into domestic strife and open the way for his ghostly adventure and his pathetic resuscitation. The machinery may be clumsy; but that does not invalidate either the beauty of the character or the supernatural thrill and mortal anguish of the experience. In these abides the soul of this great work, which while it captivates the heart also enthralls the imagination—taking us away from the region of the commonplace, away also from the region of the passions, lifting us above the storms of life, its sorrows, its losses, and its fret, till we rest at last on Nature’s bosom, children once more, and once more happy.