An Actor's Notebooks
||Frank Archer’s book An Actor’s Notebooks could be
subtitled ‘famous people I knew and who said I was great.’ Names drop in a
cascade and Wilkie Collins is among them. Archer, whose real name was Frank
Bishop Arnold (1844-1917), played Julian Gray in the original production of
The New Magdalen at the Olympic theatre in 1873. Wilkie met him then
and they became friends. The book is the only source for most of the letters
from Collins to Archer* which contain many details, mainly about plays,
actors and the theatre, which we would otherwise not have. In addition
Archer’s accounts of conversations with Wilkie add to our knowledge of him
and his views.
The extracts here omit much of the material which is irrelevant to the information about Collins. The references to Wilkie Collins are dotted around the text. The first account is sub-titled ‘A Luncheon at Wilkie Collins’s’ and begins on page 147.
*The letters were with the family until the 1950s and were lent to Wilkie’s first serious biographer Kenneth Robinson who included further extracts in WIlkie Collins (London 1951). They have not been traced since. All the known leters are reproduced with notes in The Public Face of Wilkie Collins (Baker, Gasson, Law and Lewis, London 2006).
Thanks to the kind recommendation of the Bancrofts, I was selected by Wilkie
Collins to play the part of Julian Gray in "The New Magdalen," and was engaged
by Miss Ada Cavendish, who was to produce it at the Olympic Theatre on May 19.
Up to this time her management had been rather disastrous. "The New Magdalen"
was her first money-success. It attracted large audiences, and was played
without a break until September 27—about nineteen weeks. Julian Gray was an
excellent and most effective part, and the drama had a grip that was
irresistible. The ethics of the play were condemned by the press. The "Times
"thought that "in the time of our fathers the conclusion of the New Magdalen’s
history would not have been tolerated." Matthew Arnold, I believe, always spoke
very highly of the play. It had been presented in America by Miss Carlotta
Leclercq, who acted Mercy Merrick, before the time of the London production. It
was a fortnight or so after its appearance in England that I had the pleasure of
lunching with Wilkie Collins at 90, Gloucester Place, Portman Square. There were
present also, Squire Bancroft, John Hare, Steele MacKaye, Frank C.
Beard—Dickens’s friend and doctor—and Charles Reade the novelist. The latter I
had not met before, though I had played the repellent Mr. Meadows in his play,
"It Is Never Too Late To Mend," for twelve nights during my second season on the
stage. I remember the frank and kindly way in which Reade offered his hand and
said: "Here’s a gentleman, I think, whom I ought to know." We fell into talk
together about reading and readers, and I happened to mention Le Texier, the
French reader, an account of whose art I had met with in Boaden’s "Life of John
Kemble." I recall how astonished he seemed to be that I should have heard of
him—and indeed at that time I knew nothing of him from any other source. Fanny
Kemble’s "Records of a Girlhood" gives an interesting account of his art, which,
according to Sir Walter Scott also, was most exceptional. There was at the
luncheon much pleasant conversation generally; one subject—Charles Dickens, had
a special interest. The impression of Dr. Beard distinctly was, that Dickens’s
readings hastened his end. So earnest was he on the subject, that he induced
most of us to go round to his house in Welbeck Street, in order to see his
professional journal, giving particulars of the state of Dickens’s pulse,
before, during, and after his public readings. He took so much out of himself,
that the exhaustion that ensued was only a natural consequence. Dr. Beard was
summoned to Preston in response to a telegram, and the readings were
peremptorily stopped. The attack, Sir Thomas Watson declared, was "the result of
extreme hurry, overwork, and excitement, incidental to his readings."
On Saturday, June 28, there was a musical and dramatic matinée at the Olympic. The music was executed by Gounod, Ferdinand Hiller, Léonce Valdec, and Mrs. Weldon. Aimée Desclé recited "Le Revenant," by Victor Hugo; and Miss Cavendish, Tennyson’s "Charge of the Light Brigade"; Wilkie Collins, who was about to start on a reading tour in America, gave a reading of a "Strange Bed."
He lacked the physique and varied gifts for a public reader, but what he did I thought was earnest and impressive. I afterwards went with Squire Bancroft to the Queen’s Theatre to see "The Happy Land," a burlesque written by W. S. Gilbert and Gilbert à Beckett, in which there was a dance supposed to be executed by Gladstone, Lowe, and Ayrton. It was originally produced at the Court Theatre, and the veto put upon "making-up" the parts to represent the three statesmen added much to its popularity.
On July 17 the Prince and Princess of Wales (the late King Edward and the Queen-Mother) came to see "The New Magdalen." From the Prince I had the honour and pleasure of some kindly words of commendation…
After the run of "The New Magdalen" in London I had an offer to go on tour
with Miss Cavendish, which I declined. My country experiences had been rather
trying ones, and having succeeded in getting to London, I decided on remaining
there. Of course I should have acted in the provinces under different conditions
from those which attended my novitiate. A good "part" and a reliable salary were
not to be treated cavalierly, and I know the matter cost me much thought and
anxiety. The actor who was engaged to play Julian Gray in the country was Robert
B. Markby. I met him at the theatre during the rehearsals which were going
forward for the tour, when I came to help him by running through the "business"
of the part.
It was when "The New Magdalen" was first produced that I became acquainted with Stefan Polès, whose nationality and origin were something of a mystery. Both Charles Reade and Wilkie Collins had employed him in various capacities, the latter in connection with the business of the play I was acting in. He was of slight build, with a head which betokened much cleverness, and small, searching eyes. He was a skilful linguist, and had the most persuasive, insinuating manners. His zeal was apt to outrun his discretion. He died at the Middlesex Hospital, and his body, I believe, was unclaimed. It was said that he bore a wonderful resemblance to a well-known Russian spy. It was when Wilkie Collins was absent on his American tour that Polès must have been busying himself with plans for a revival of "The New Magdalen." At any rate, theatres were suggested which it seemed to me were quite unsuitable for the purpose. The small Charing Cross Theatre, afterwards Toole’s Theatre, did not seem likely to give the play its best chances of success, as at that time failure had been constantly associated with it. These details will enable Collins’s letter, in answer to two of mine, to be more clearly understood. As a matter of fact, it was revived at this theatre, but not until January 1875, Markby again supporting Miss Cavendish in the title-rôle I was then acting at the Prince of Wales’s Theatre.
BUFFALO, NEW YORK STATE,
My "readings" are getting on famously. The one drawback is that I cannot read
often enough to make a large sum of money, without the risk of injuring my
health. Everywhere there is the same anxiety to see and hear me, but I cannot
endure the double fatigue of railway travelling and reading on the same day.
Thus three or four days a week are lost days (in the matter of money), but
gained days (in the matter of health, and I have suffered enough to make health
my first consideration. As to my personal reception in "the States," it has
really and truly overwhelmed me. Go where I may, I find myself among friends.
From this place I go to Chicago (stopping at certain smaller towns on the way).
From Chicago, I go "West"—perhaps as far as the Mormons. This will be my last
tour. I propose giving farewell readings early in March, in Boston and New York,
and sailing for home during the last fortnight in March. I shall be very glad to
hear how this venturesome Charing Cross experiment promises to turn out, if you
have time to tell me. My address is, etc., etc. With all good wishes
On March 21, Collins having returned from America on the 18th, I had luncheon with him at Gloucester Place. He looked bright and well, and was in capital spirits. I met there Mrs. Ward the artist, the wife of the Royal Academician E. M. Ward, and also James Payn the novelist, and at that time, if I remember rightly, the editor of "Chambers’s Journal." He was an energetic-mannered, pleasant man, with a somewhat round and protuberant forehead, and very full eyes. I once afterwards, when he edited the "Cornhill Magazine," submitted a short story to him. Though he "declined it with thanks," he told me why: "It was too melodramatic for the ‘Cornhill.’" My friend, F. W. Robinson, accepted it for his monthly "Home Chimes," of which I shall have more to say. We had some very pleasant particulars from our host of his American experiences, as well as many personal reminiscences of his friend and fellow-worker, Charles Dickens.
Forster’s Life of the great novelist had recently appeared, and with the rest
of the world I had been much interested and excited about it. John Forster was
severely criticised in many quarters, as it seemed to me unfairly. I asked
Collins, who knew him well, if he thought a word of sympathy from me—a complete
stranger—would be acceptable. "Certainly," was his answer; "mention that you
know me." I did so in my letter, which was in praise of the biography, and in
censure of his detractors. Collins, at this time, I think could hardly have had
the opportunity of seeing Forster’s "Life," and I doubt whether afterwards he
altogether admired it.
On October 14 I had an offer from the Bancrofts to rejoin them, which I accepted.
Two more enjoyable evenings at the Théâtre Français are all I need give details of. The first, "Le Tartuffe " (Dupont-Vernon, Talbot, Madame Dinah-Felix, etc.); "L’Aventurière " (Maubant, Coquelin cadet, Madame Arnould-Plessy). The second evening, "Les Femmes Savantes" (Delaunay, Coquelin, Coquelin cadet, Talbot, Mesdames Jouassain, Lloyd, etc.), followed by "Le Gendre de M. Poirier " (Got, Berton, Mademoiselle Croizette, etc.).
On October 25 I left Paris for London…. The next communication I had from Wilkie Collins was as follows
90, GLOUCESTER PLACE, PORTMAN SQUARE, W.
…It is perhaps superfluous to say that Collins’s appreciation of my rendering of Julian Gray was fully valued by me….
Wilkie Collins’s play was revived at the Charing Cross Theatre January 9, 1875. Here is his letter after the event.
90, GLOUCESTER PLACE,
I have no complaint to make. We shall see how we get on. The first week was
far better than I had ventured to expect. My week’s fees were at least ten
pounds higher than my calculations anticipated. Give my love to Bancroft, and
tell him the news "so far, so good."
The following letter from Wilkie Collins was in answer to a letter asking whether he had anything in view for the theatre.
The letter which follows alludes to my project.
90, GLOUCESTER PLACE, PORTMAN SQUARE, W.
Your kind letter finds me just recovering from another attack of gout—not so severe as usual this time. It is needless to say that I shall feel interested in the result of the "Hamlet" experiment.
Your old friend Julian Gray still strolls through the country theatres with
Miss Cavendish. He has been translated into Italian, and turned into an
austere magistrate. The Italian public won’t have a priest of any sort on
the stage! The piece has been a great success at Rome, Florence, and Milan.
Early in December Sheridan’s "Rivals" was produced by Thorne at the Vaudeville, two clever actresses joining the company for the occasion—Mrs. Stirling and Miss Winifred Emery (Mrs. Cyril Maude)—who appeared as Mrs. Malaprop and Lydia Languish. Sir Anthony and Captain Absolute were the late William Farren and Henry Neville; Acres by the manager; Sir Lucius O’Trigger, John Maclean; Fag, J. R. Crauford; David, Arthur Wood, and Faulkland, myself. Miss Alma Murray was Julia and Miss Kate Phillips Lucy. The comedy was acted for over two hundred times.
Mrs. Stirling (Lady Gregory) I had always known as a true artist. It was no surprise to find that personally she came within my formula, and was a very charming and delightful woman. Her second husband, Sir Charles Hutton Gregory, an eminent engineer, was a son of Dr. Olinthus Gregory the mathematician, who, with his daughter, was known to my father in years gone by—a fact I became aware of after Mrs. Stirling’s death. I never, of course, saw Mrs. Glover act, but towards the end of her career Mrs. Stirling played several parts in the répertoire of her predecessor. Those who had the keenest recollection of Mrs. Glover asserted that Mrs. Stirling’s performance of Mrs. Malaprop was the finest example of old comedy acting left to the stage.
Wilkie Collins sent me the following, after seeing the play
90, GLOUCESTER PLACE, PORTMAN SQUARE, W.,
At the end of the year Miss Ada Cavendish entered into an arrangement with Miss Nelly Harris (a sister of Sir Augustus Harris), who then had the Novelty Theatre in Great Queen Street, to revive " The New Magdalen " again, and I was engaged for Julian Gray. Collins writes
90, GLOUCESTER PLACE, W.,
The first night of the revival was January 5, when the play was received with its old enthusiasm, Miss Cavendish, it being generally acknowledged, acting Mercy Merrick better than ever. Collins sent me the following
90, GLOUCESTER PLACE,
On February 5 he came himself to see the play
No communication could have been more gratifying than the above.
On the evening of February 14 the Prince and Princess of Wales, the late King and the Queen-Mother, came to see the performance, with, I think, the Princess Louise and the Marquis of Lorne. The Prince of Wales (King Edward), who came on the stage to congratulate Miss Cavendish, very kindly said some gracious things again to me, and recalled its original production at the Olympic eleven years before. A few evenings later the Duchess of Edinburgh and suite came to see the play. Including matinées, there were sixty-one performances of this, the second London revival.
I had never seen the dramatised version of "The Woman in White," and I asked Collins to let me read it.
March 6, 1884.
I have alluded to a story that I wrote, and which I submitted to the editor of the "Graphic." Charles Green was interested in it, and thought, had it been accepted, of making a drawing for it. It was declined, and there the matter ended until I decided to ask Wilkie Collins whether he would give me his opinion on it.
NELSON CRESCENT, RAMSGATE,
I promptly sent the manuscript, and here is, to me, his kind and valuable letter.
Once more! When you are rescued, the interest of your story is over. Fewer particulars as to the fortunes of the characters will prevent more "skipping." In a short story—if you were Walter Scott himself—you cannot interest the reader in character. Now for a word of encouragement. The incident of the dog is excellent. It is so new and so true (as far as I know) that it throws all the other incidents into the shade. If I had been writing the story I should have dwelt on the dog’s character in the earlier part of it, so as to interest the reader in " Nap’s " habits and doings on the ordinary occasions of his life. Said reader, puzzled and interested, would feel that something was coming in relation to that dog—would not have the least idea what it was; and when " Nap " enters on the stage and acts his grand scene, would be so amazed and interested that he would talk of the story to his friends, and "the editor" would be your obedient humble servant in the matter of future work. (N.B.—I would not describe "Nap" as being in his second childhood. No dog—and especially no big dog—in that condition would have rescued you. Make him old—and no more.)
The other incident of the lay figure is ingenious, but there is this objection to it, it has been done before, and more than once done. Keep it, by all means. I only mention my reason for giving it a secondary place in the composition.
I will wait to offer you an introduction to a periodical until I see what you can do on a larger canvas. The price paid for short stories by authors not yet in a state of notoriety is so miserably small that I am really ashamed to mention it. If you think you can do something with a one-volume novel, pecuniary results might be more satisfactory.
A last word of advice before I say good-bye. Study Walter Scott. He is beyond
all comparison the greatest novelist that has ever written. Get, for instance,
"The Antiquary," and read that masterpiece over and over and over again.
It is not every one’s good fortune to get such a painstaking, clever, and kindly opinion of a first effort. It is almost needless to say that every one of the suggestions was duly carried out, greatly to the advantage of the tale. I had read it to Robinson, and told him my intention of trying the "Graphic" with it. "If they don’t take it, let me have it for the ‘Chimes,’" he remarked; and in a letter subsequently he says: "It will be very good news to me to hear that it is coming out in the ‘Graphic’ with Green’s sketches. I fancy it will, and if otherwise (hang the otherwise!), send on the MS to me."
…I gave Robinson the criticism of Collins on the story, and he replied, "Wilkie Collins is evidently a brick. I wonder if he had any idea that the lay figure comedy sequel jars a little bit with the sensational start. But it is a very fair first tale as it stands, and I shall be curious to see what comes of your revisions." I made them, and it duly appeared in "Home Chimes."
Wilkie Collins’s letter has given more prominence to my story than it deserves. Many evidences of goodwill and kindness I experienced from the author of " The Woman in White." His advice, introduction to publishers, review of the plot of a story, and so on, were always most willingly at my service. His next letter touched on my play collaboration.
90, GLOUCESTER PLACE,
MY time was after this pretty fully occupied by efforts with my pen. I have spoken of Wilkie Collins’s invariable kindness in the way of help and advice. I sent him an invitation, which was not wholly disinterested, as I wanted his counsel over a little matter of literary business. There is no other reason for giving the letter which follows, except that it was the last communication that I ever received from him, and led to a pleasant chat we had together two days afterwards at his own home.
90, GLOUCESTER PLACE, PORTMAN SQUARE,
The advice alluded to he willingly gave me on that Wednesday afternoon when I dropped in on him. And we afterwards had some agreeable gossip on literary and theatrical matters. It was pleasant to hear him speak in praise of his confrère F. W. Robinson. He knew and valued his work as a story writer. We turned to Bulwer, whose cleverness in the capacity of novelist and playwright he thought undoubted, though apropos of "Richelieu" he remarked, "I never could conceive him talking blank verse."
In speaking of the novelist’s and the dramatist’s art, he held that they were absolutely distinct, and approached from different sides entirely. He instanced the different treatment of his own "Woman in White "in novel and in play. In the latter the audience learnt the secret in the first act. "The great difficulty of a play," he exclaimed, "is the scenario." Speaking of fitting actors, he said: "I never could write a play for a particular company." On the subject of the older plays, he said: "How good the ‘Rivals’ is—Sheridan was wonderful." He agreed with me that it wanted genius to produce pure comedy. "What a splendid thing," he went on, "is ‘The Road to Ruin.’ How fine that scene between old and young Dornton. Curious that Holcroft’s other plays should have been so poor." He mentioned Mr. Rider Haggard’s "King Solomon’s Mines," which he had read with great pleasure. He preferred it, he said, to "Jess," by the same author. "I assure you," he continued, "I hurried from a meal to take it up again." Then he sounded once more a high note of praise over Sir Walter Scott, and was impatient with a public which did not read him as it ought to do. Collins, alluding to his first or one of his early novels, said: "There was a man who came down upon me heavily, and prophesied that I should never make a novelist. Many years afterwards I met him, and we had a hearty laugh over his prediction. Though I must honestly say," he said, "the story was anything but a good one. The scene and period of it were very remote." I suppose his allusion was to "Antonina, or the Fall of Rome," though he did not tell me so. We fell into talking over actors of the past—John Kemble and Mrs. Siddons. The latter, he had a firm conviction, must have been a very grand actress. What follows does not, of course, prove anything, as very indifferent actresses can be copious in tears, but he mentioned that Macready once told him that when he was acting with her in Home’s "Douglas," although she had played the part of Lady Randolph hundreds of times, he felt her tears fall on his face freely in the scene they were acting together. Collins was an idoliser of the elder Farren. He particularised his acting in "Secret Service." "In Michel Perrin," he said, "he was finer than the original Bouffée." There is little doubt, I think, but that Planchée’s clever adaptation gave greater opportunities than the musical play from which it was taken. Collins told me that he got Peake, the dramatist, to introduce him to Farren one evening. They entered into conversation, and he was disappointed at finding him so extremely stupid. From every account that we have he was a wonderful artist, but I had heard before stories of his ignorance on general matters. I had it from an actor who knew him well that Farren was under the impression that Iago, whose military grade was "ancient" (or ensign), must necessarily be an old man! While we were talking of Bulwer, Collins remarked that he thought his friend Fechter’s performance of Claude Melnotte in "The Lady of Lyons" was remarkably fine. We spoke of Paris. "I never visit it now," he said; "it has become a sad place to me from the many friends I have lost there." This led on to the subject of French actors—Regnier, whom he knew and valued. "How splendid he was in ‘La Joie Fait Peur.’ Do you know, I think he must have helped Madame de Girardin a great deal with that little play; she did not seem successful with much else."
"Coquelin? Yes, I admire him very much; his Duc de Septmonts in ‘L’Étrangère’ was excellent. But to me," he continued, "the cleverest of the Français actors is Got. Coquelin was, you know, a pupil of Regnier. His master always had a high opinion of him, but thought his main defect was too great a loudness. Lafont was another actor whose art was a great enjoyment to me. How I regret that I never saw our own Edmund Kean act. I think the greatest acting, though, I ever saw was that of Frédéric Lemâitre. He was wonderful!"
"Do you think," I asked him, "that the account given by Dickens of his acting in ‘Thirty Years of a Gambler’s Life’ is a true one?"
"Certainly," he replied. "It is not one whit exaggerated. Dickens and I saw
the play together, and at the end of one of the acts we were so utterly overcome
that we both sat for a time perfectly silent!" Collins then mentioned his
father, the Royal Academician, and Sir David Wilkie’s friend, whose pictures, he
thought, were but rarely in the market. "Constantly," he observed, "I get work
submitted to my judgment which is said to be his, but the paintings are always
spurious." Speaking of his health, he said; "The gout which I have told you I
have suffered so much from I suspect that I’ve inherited from my grandfather. I
wrote a great deal of ‘The Moonstone’ when I was in fearful pain. Weather? Yes,
it has a great effect upon me. Cold, frosty weather I delight in, as you know,
but fog and damp make me suffer acutely." Though our conversation had not, to
repeat a familiar jest, "ended in smoke," we had chatted on over the cigar he
promised and talked of the habit we indulged in. "At one time I used to smoke
continuously," he said, " but now it is a rare thing with me—it keeps me from
sleep." I thought him looking very well, though I fancied he stooped a little
more than was his wont. We said "Good-bye" after our pleasant talk, and parted
with a hand-shake, which was fated to be our last. I never saw Wilkie Collins
again. He died September 23, 1889 in his sixty-fifth year, and was laid to rest
in Kensal Green cemetery—a good-hearted, loyal, and a very truthful man. But the
valued friend of Dickens could scarcely have been otherwise.
From Frank Archer An Actor’s Notebooks – being some memories, friendships, criticisms and experiences London .
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