Home  »  library  »  prose  »  Jefferson’s Rip Van Winkle

C.D. Warner, et al., comp. The Library of the World’s Best Literature.
An Anthology in Thirty Volumes. 1917.

Jefferson’s Rip Van Winkle

By William Winter (1836–1917)

From ‘Life and Art of Joseph Jefferson’

EVERY reader of Washington Irving knows the story of Rip Van Winkle’s adventure on the Catskill Mountains,—that delightful, romantic idyl, in which character, humor, and fancy are so delicately blended. Under the spell of Jefferson’s acting the spectator was transported into the past, and made to see, as with bodily eyes, the orderly Dutch civilization as it crept up the borders of the Hudson: the quaint villages; the stout Hollanders, with their pipes and schnapps; the loves and troubles of an elder generation. It is a calmer life than ours; yet the same elements compose it. Here is a mean and cruel schemer making a heedless man his victim, and thriving on the weakness that he well knows how to betray. Here is parental love, tried, as it often is, by sad cares; and here the love of young and hopeful hearts, blooming amid flowers, sunshine, music, and happiness. Rip Van Winkle never seemed so lovable as in the form of this great actor, standing in poetic relief against the background of actual life. Jefferson has made him our familiar friend. We see that Rip is a dreamer, fond of his bottle and his ease, but—beneath all his rags and tatters, of character as well as raiment—essentially good. We understand why the children love him, why the dogs run after him with joy, and why the jolly boys at the tavern welcome his song and story and genial companionship. He has wasted his fortune and impoverished his wife and child, and we know that he is much to blame. He knows it too; and his talk with the children shows how keenly he feels the consequence of a weakness which yet he is unable to discard. It is in those minute touches that Jefferson denoted his sympathetic study of human nature,—his intuitive perception, looking quite through the hearts and thoughts of men. The observer saw this in the struggle of Rip’s long-submerged but only dormant spirit of manliness, when his wife turns him from their home, in night and storm and abandoned degradation. Still more vividly was it shown in his pathetic bewilderment,—his touching embodiment of the anguish of lonely age bowed down by sorrow and doubt,—when he comes back from his sleep of twenty years. His disclosure of himself to his daughter marked the climax of pathos; and every heart was melted by those imploring looks of mute suspense, those broken accents of love that almost fears an utterance. Perhaps the perfection of Jefferson’s acting was seen in the weird interview with the ghosts. That situation is one of the best ever devised for the stage; and the actor devised it. Midnight on the highest peak of the Catskill, dimly lighted by the moon. No one speaks but Rip. The ghosts cluster around him. The grim shade of Hudson proffers a cup of drink to the mortal intruder, already dazed by supernatural surroundings. Rip, almost shuddering in the awful silence, pledges the ghosts in their liquor. Then suddenly the spell is broken: the moon is lost in struggling clouds; the spectres glide away and slowly vanish; and Rip Van Winkle, with the drowsy, piteous murmur, “Don’t leave me, boys,” falls into his mystic sleep.

The idle, dram-drinking Dutch spendthrift—so perfectly reproduced, yet so exalted by ideal treatment—is not a heroic figure, and cannot be said to possess an exemplary significance either in himself or his experience. Yet his temperament has the fine fibre that everybody loves; and everybody, accordingly, has a good feeling for him, although nobody may have a good word for his way of life. All observers know that order of man. He is generally poor. He never did a bad action in all his life. He is continually cheering the weak and lowly. He always wears a smile—the reflex of a gentle heart. Ambition does not trouble him. His wants are few. He has no care, except when, now and then, he feels that he may have wasted time and talent, or when the sorrow of others falls darkly on his heart. This, however, is rare; for at most times he is “bright as light and clear as wind.” Nature has established with him a kind of kindred that she allows with only a chosen few. In him Shakespeare’s rosy ideal is suggested:—

  • “Suppose the singing birds musicians;
  • The grass whereon thou tread’st, the presence strewed:
  • The flowers fair ladies; and thy steps, no more
  • Than a delightful measure, or a dance.”
  • Nobody would dream of setting up Jefferson’s Rip as a model, but everybody is glad that he exists. Most persons are so full of care and trouble, so weighed down with the sense of duty, so anxious to regulate the world, that contact with a nature which is careless in the stress and din of toil, dwells in an atmosphere of sunshine idleness, and is the embodiment of careless mirth, brings a positive relief. This is the feeling that Jefferson’s acting inspired. The halo of genius was all around it. Sincerity, humor, pathos, imagination,—the glamour of wild flowers and woodland brooks, slumberous, slow-drifting summer clouds, and soft music heard upon the waters, in starlit nights of June,—those 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 those beauties there is a magical sweetness of temperament, a delicate blending of emotion, gentleness, quaintness, and dream-like repose, which awakens the most affectionate sympathy. Art could not supply that subtle, potent charm. It is the divine fire.

    In his embodiment of Rip Van Winkle, Jefferson delineates an individual character, through successive stages of growth, till the story of a life is completely told. If the student of acting would appreciate the fineness and force of the dramatic art that is displayed in the work, let him consider the complexity and depth of the effect, as contrasted with the simplicity of the means that are used to produce it. 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 purpose. However 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 unfettered, graceful, free from effort; and it shows with delicate precision the gradual, natural changes of the character, as wrought by the pressure of experience. Its result is the winning embodiment of a rare type of human nature and mystical experience, embellished by the hues 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 spiritual beauty, and beneath the spell of its humanity, made deeply conscious that life is worthless, however its ambition may be rewarded, unless it is hallowed by love.

    There will be, as there have been, many performers of Rip Van Winkle; there is but one Jefferson. For him it was reserved to idealize the subject; to elevate a prosaic type of good-natured indolence into an 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 fascinating embodiment of that 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, but walks forth crystallized in a human form, spangled with the diamond light of morning, mysterious with spiritual intimations, lovely with rustic freedom, and fragrant with the incense of the woods.

    Jefferson’s acting is an education as well as a delight. It especially teaches the imperative importance, in dramatic art, of a thorough and perfect plan; which yet, by freshness of spirit and spontaneity of execution, shall be made to seem free and careless. Jefferson’s embodiment of Rip has been prominently before the public for thirty years; yet it is not hackneyed, and it does not grow tiresome. The secret of its vitality is its poetry. A thriftless, commonplace sot, as drawn by Washington Irving, becomes a poetic vagabond, as transfigured and embodied by the actor; and the dignity of his artistic work is augmented rather than diminished from the fact that he plays in a drama throughout which the expedient of inebriety, as a motive of action, is exaggerated. Boucicault, working under explicit information as to Jefferson’s views and wishes with reference to the part, certainly improved the old piece; but as certainly, the scheme to show the sunny sweetness and indolent temperament of Rip is clumsily planned, while the text is devoid of literary excellence and intellectual character,—attributes which, though not dramatic, are desirable. The actor is immensely superior to the play, and may indeed be said to make it. The obvious goodness of his heart, the deep sincerity of his moral purpose, the potential force of his sense of beauty, the supremacy in him of what Voltaire was the first to call the “faculty of taste,” the incessant charm of his temperament,—those are the means, ruled and guided by clear vision and strong will, and made to animate an artistic figure possessing both symmetry and luxuriant wildness, that make the greatness of Jefferson’s embodiment of Rip. He has created a character that everybody will continue to love, notwithstanding weakness of nature and indolent conduct. Jefferson never had the purpose to extol improvidence, or extenuate the wrong and misery of inebriety. The opportunity that he discerned and has brilliantly improved was that of showing a lovely nature, set free from the shackles of conventionality, and circumscribed with picturesque, romantic surroundings, during a momentous experience of spiritual life, and of the mutability of the world. The obvious defects in the structure are an undue emphasis upon the bottle, as poor Rip’s failing, and an undue exaggeration of the virago quality in Gretchen. It would be easy, taking the prosy tone of the temperance lecturer, to look at Jefferson’s design as a matter of fact, and not of poetry; and by dwelling on the impediments of his subject rather than the spirit of his art and the beauty of his execution, to set his beautiful and elevating achievement in a degraded and degrading light. But fortunately the heart has its logic as well as the head, and all observers are not without imagination. The heart and imagination of our age know what Jefferson means in Rip, and have accepted him therefore into the sanctuary of affection.

    The world does not love Rip Van Winkle because of his faults, but in spite of them. Underneath his defects the human nature is sound and bright; 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, not of his drams. At the sacrifice of comicality, here and there, the element of inebriety might be left out of his experience, and he would still act in the same way, and possess the same fascination. The drink is only an expedient to involve the hero in domestic strife, and open the way for his ghostly adventure and his pathetic resuscitation. The machinery is clumsy; but that does not invalidate either the beauty of the character or the supernatural thrill and mortal anguish of the experience. Those elements make the soul of this great work; which, while it captivates the heart, also enthralls the imagination,—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….

    Most persons who have seen Jefferson as Rip would probably name that achievement as essentially the most natural piece of acting ever presented within their observation. In its effect it is natural; in its method, in the process by which it is wrought, it is absolutely artificial. In that method—not forgetting the soul within that method—will be found the secret of its power; in the art with which genius transfigures and interprets actual life: and in that, furthermore, dwells the secret of all good acting. If you would produce the effect of nature in dramatic art, you must not be natural; you must be artificial, but you must seem to be natural. The same step, the same gesture, the same tone of voice, the same force of facial expression that you involuntarily use in the proceedings of actual, every-day life, will not upon the stage prove adequate. They may indicate your meaning, but they will not convey it. Their result will be tame, narrow, and insufficient. Your step must be lengthened; your tone must be elevated; your facial muscles must be allowed a freer play; the sound with which you intend to produce the effect of a sigh must leave your lips as a sob. The actor who is exactly natural in his demeanor and speech upon the stage—who acts and speaks precisely as he would act and speak in a room—wearies his audience, because he falls short of his object, and is indefinite and commonplace. Jefferson, as Rip, has to present, among other aspects of human nature, a temperament that to some extent is swayed by an infirmity,—the appetite for intoxicant liquor. That, in actual life, is offensive; but that, as shown by Jefferson, when it reaches his auditors, reaches them only as the token or suggestion of an amiable weakness; and that weakness, and not the symptom of it, is the spring of the whole character and action. The hiccough with which Rip looks in at the window of the cottage where the offended Gretchen is waiting for him, is not the obnoxious hiccough of a sot, but the playful hiccough of an artist who is only suggesting a sot. The effect is natural. The process is artificial. Jefferson constantly addresses the imagination, and he uses imagination with which to address it. In actual life the garments worn by Rip would be soiled. In Jefferson’s artistic scheme the studied shabbiness and carefully selected tatters are scrupulously clean; and they are made not only harmonious in color,—and thus so pleasing to the eye that they attract no especial attention,—but accordant with the sweet drollery and listless, indolent, drifting spirit of the character. No idea could easily be suggested more incongruous with probability, more unnatural and fantastic, than the idea of a tipsy vagabond encircled by a ring of Dutch ghosts, on the top of a mountain, in the middle of the night; but when Jefferson—by the deep feeling and affluent imagination with which he fills the scene, and by the vigilant, firm, unerring, technical skill with which he controls his forces and guides them to effect—has made that idea a living fact, no spectator of the weird, thrilling, pathetic picture ever thinks of it as unnatural. The illusion is perfect, and it is perfectly maintained. All along its line the character of Rip—the impossible hero of an impossible experience—is so essentially unnatural that if it were impersonated in the literal manner of nature it would produce the effect of whirling extravagance. Jefferson, pouring his soul into an ideal of which he is himself the creator,—an ideal which does not exist either in Washington Irving’s story, or Charles Burke’s play, or Dion Boucicault’s adaptation of Burke,—and treating that idea in a poetic spirit, as to every fibre, tone, hue, motion, and attitude, has made Rip as natural as if we had personally participated in his aimless and wandering life. So potent, indeed, is the poetic art of the actor, that the dog Schneider, who is never shown, possesses all the same a positive existence in our thoughts. The principal truth denoted by Jefferson’s acting, therefore, is the necessity of clear perception of what is meant by “nature.” The heights are reached only when inspiration is guided by intellectual purpose, and used with artistic skill. Shakespeare, with his incomparable felicity, has crystallized this principle into diamond light:—

  • “Over that art,
  • Which you say adds to nature, is an art
  • Which nature makes.”