The Leader

This contemporary review of Collins's play The Frozen Deep may have been written by his friend Edward Pigott who edited The Leader at this time and for whom Collins had written some years earlier.


Private Theatricals are generally associated in people’s minds with ideas of embarrassed ladies and gentlemen, an imperfect acquirement of the parts to be presented, a makeshift stage, inadequate to the purposes of the drama, nondescript costumes, equivocal scenery, and a general demand upon your merciful indulgence. You weep by courtesy; applaud out of a sense of consideration; and are glad of an opportunity to laugh, because (with the exception of feeling uneasy) that is the only genuine thing you can do. There have recently been some contradictions to this unhappy rule; and among those contradictions one of the most remarkable is that presented by Mr. DICKENS at his own residence. The visitor at TAVISTOCK HOUSE finds a theatre, small, indeed, but complete in every point; exquisite scenery, from the hands of STANFIELD and TELBIN; atmospherical effects absolutely superior to those at the public theatres; and acting which is equal to that of the Profession in all the requirements of confidence and ease, and often far above it in the higher qualities of truthful conception and artistic feeling. Mr. DICKENS, moreover, is a genuine manager, ‘creating’ new pieces as well as reviving old; and it is a new ‘creation’ we have now to notice.

The Frozen Deep is the title of the Drama brought out for the first time on Tuesday evening, repeated on Thursday, and destined to be played at TAVISTOCK HOUSE twice more. It is by Mr. WILKIE COLLINS—a fact which is in itself a guarantee of an exciting and admirably constructed story, and powerful writing. The plot centres round the heroes of an Arctic Expedition, and brings on the scene a great variety of characters and considerable breadth of passion and pathos. The first Act introduces us to four young ladies who live in a quiet nook of Devon, and who have each a relation or lover in the Polar Expedition, which forms the main subject of the Drama. All, of course, are sad and depressed; Clara Burnham (Miss MARY) is peculiarly so; for not merely has her betrothed gone to the terrible icy regions, but in the same expedition is a young Kentish gentleman whose passion for her she has rejected out of a misapprehension, and who has sworn to kill the man who has robbed him of her, whenever they shall meet.

He does not know the name of her favoured suitor, but Clara feels persuaded that the two rivals will be led together by some mysterious influence; and, in the deepening twilight and crimson sunset flush of the early Autumn evening, she tells her story to her friend Lucy Crayford (Miss HOGARTH). Her sad misgivings, sufficiently painful in themselves, are intensified by the mystical forebodings of an old Scotch attendant, Nurse Esther (Mrs. WILLS), who is gifted with ‘second sight,’ and who goes about the house like an ominous enchantress, muttering of awful visions which come to her from ‘the land o’ ice and snaw.’ On the particular evening on which the story opens, she is full of these dreary revelations; and, as the twilight deepens into night, and the warm red hues of the West pale into the grey and spectral moonshine (an effect marvellously contrived by Mr. TELBIN), she stands in the gathering gloom, darkly relieved against the misty blue of the window, and, in a voice half frightened, half denunciatory (for the young Southern ladies have been sceptical of her supernatural powers), tells them of a vision of blood which passes before her eyes from the Northern seas. Lucy Crayford, shuddering with dread, calls for lights; Clara Burnham falls senseless; and the first Act is concluded.

Of the effect of this scene, from the commencement to the end, it would be difficult to convey an adequate idea. The weary, lonely grief of the four companions; the spirit of quiet, gentle sorrow that moves over the whole performance; the sweet, sad Melody sung by two of the young ladies in the inner room, while Clara is telling her story to Lucy; the awful forebodings of the Scotch nurse; the deep, yet melancholy sympathy of the evening light, and the solemn stealing in of the white moonrise; the wretchedness and the terror of the ladies, and the shuddering awe of Esther’s vision (not raved out, according to transmitted fashion, but all quiet and intense)-these elements contribute to a general effect which is new to our stage, because based on Nature instead of on tradition. And here let us say that the acting of the ladies—Miss MARY, Miss HOGARTH, Miss HELEN, and Miss KAT—was exquisitely pure, delicate, and natural; and the voices, from not being strained, lost none of their refined gentleness and tender grace. Mrs. WILLS, also, played with true feeling and subdued power.

The second Act brings us to the Arctic regions. Here we find the lost heroes in an Arctic hut; and it is resolved to send out a party of explorers to see whether a way cannot be cut through the barrier that hems them in. They cast lots; and Frank Aldersley (Mr. WILKIE COLLINS), Clara Burnham’s favoured suitor, is to be one of the expedition. Richard Wardour, the rejected lover—a moody, passionate man, of a rugged but noble nature, played by Mr. DICKENS—throws a number which has the effect of keeping him in the but; and just before the starting of the explorers, he discovers that Frank Aldersley is his rival. An accident decides his gong with them, in company with Frank; and, in spite of the opposition of Lieutenant Crayford (played to perfection by Mr. MARK LEMON), who fears what may ensue, the rivals depart together.

In the third Act, we find several of the Arctic party in a cavern on the coast of Newfoundland, rescued and returning home. But Frank Aldersley and Richard Wardour remain behind. The ladies from Devon, who have come out with their Scotch nurse in search of the lost ones, are also congregated in the same cave, into which suddenly rushes a wild, ragged, maniac creature, crying for food. It is Richard Wardour, who has escaped from the icy floe, half-starved, and with madness in his brain. Food and drink are given him, and, after hastily and fiercely swallowing some, he stows away the rest in a wallet, and is preparing to rush off, when he is recognized, and himself recognizes Clara Burnham. He is charged with the murder of his comrade; but he replies hysterically, and fights his way out of the cave, returning almost instantly with Frank Aldersley in his arms, faint, famished, frost-bitten, but alive. Often in the wastes of snow has Richard been tempted to slay him, or to leave him behind when sleeping, that he may perish slowly. But his noble nature at length prevails; and, when his rival sinks beneath his sore trials, Richard’s stronger arm brings him safely through the icebergs and the snow-drifts, and lays him at the feet of Clara. Having thus accomplished a noble revenge, his own strength fails, and he dies, blessing and blessed.

Mr. DICKENS’ performance of this most touching and beautiful Part might open a new era for the stage, if the stage had the wisdom to profit by it. It is fearfully fine throughout—from the sullen despair in the second Act, alternating with gusts of passion or with gleams of tenderness, (let us more particularly note the savage energy with which he hews to pieces his rival’s berth with an axe, when the approaching departure of Frank Aldersley renders it no longer needed, except for fuel,) down to the appalling misery and supreme emotion of the dying Scene. Most awful are those wild looks and gestures of the starved, crazed man; that husky voice, now fiercely vehement, and now faltering into the last sorrow; that frantic cry when he recognizes Clara; that hysterical burst of joy when he brings in his former object of hatred, to prove that he is not a murderer; and that melting tenderness with which he kisses his old friend and his early love, and passes quietly away from Life. In these passages, Mr. DICKENS shows that he is not only a great Novelist, but a great Actor also. Both, indeed, proceed from the same intense sympathy with humanity, the same subtle identification of the individual man with the breadth and depth of our general nature. Mr. DICKENS has all the technical knowledge and resources of a professed Actor; but these, the dry bones of acting, are kindled by that soul of vitality which can only be put into them by the man of Genius, and the interpreter of the affections.

All the other Parts are played with careful intelligence and hearty zest. Mr. WILKIE COLLINS is very truthful and touching in the last Scene; and Mr. AUGUSTUS EGG ‘realizes’ a grumbling seacook with infinite humour. The ladies, who vie lovingly in all the charms and all the graces that delight the eye and touch the heart, are members of Mr. DICKENS’ family; and Mr. ‘YOUNG CHARLES,’ who performs Lieutenant Steventon with great ease and tact, is no other than Mr. CHARLES DICKENS, the Younger. Mr. ALFRED DICKENS’ Captain Helding is a fine piece of bluff, sailor-like robustness and sincerity; and Messrs. EDWARD HOGARTH and FREDERICK EVANS, who act two of the ‘Sea Mew’s’ crew, are thorough Jack Tars, with a taste of the salt breeze in all their looks and ways.

Of the scenery of the first Act, which is by Mr. TELBIN, we have already spoken as being singularly beautiful. That in the two other Acts is by Mr. STANFIELD (assisted by Mr. DAMSON), and is worthy of the Master’s hand.

The Drama is succeeded by Mr. BUCKSTONE’s Farce ‘Uncle John, acted with immense spirit by all, and giving further evidence of Mr. DICKENS’ powers as an Actor, in the exuberant fun of his comedy, which, by the way, is most effectively supported by Mr. MARK LEMON and Mr. WILKIE COLLINS, and delightfully aided by the refined vivacity of Miss HOGARTH, the marvellous dramatic instinct of ‘Miss MARY,’ and the fascinating simplicity of ‘Miss KATE.’ Altogether, the audience return home from TAVISTOCK HOUSE rather indisposed for some time to come to be content with the time-honoured conventionalities of the public stage.

The musical arrangements, which are of marked importance in the conduct of the Drama, are under the skilful and accomplished direction of Mr. FRANCESCO BERGER, a young Composer of rich promise, who appears to unite in his Art, as in his name, the melody of Italy with the science of Germany. A small but very select Orchestra is employed, Mr. BERGER presiding at the Piano. The introductory Overture, compact in form and brilliant in character, is marked throughout by skill, taste, and feeling; we may note particularly a duet for Violoncello and Flute, felicitously intimating the tender and pathetic elements of the story, and written with unmistakable affection and the true sympathy of a sister Art. The Incidental Music, announcing and accompanying the chief episodes in the action, deserves a word of emphatic recognition for the perfect fidelity of expression, the exquisite refinement, and the consistent grace, which almost approach Tennyson’s ideal of wedded bliss

 . . . Perfect music set to noble words.

 The following Prologue, written by Mr. DICKENS, was delivered, behind the scenes, by Mr. JOHN FORSTER

One savage foot-print on the lonely shore,
Where One Man listen’d to the surge’s roar,
Not all the winds that stir the mighty sea
Can ever ruffle in the Memory.
If such its interest and thrall, O! then
Pause on the footprints of heroic men,
Making a garden of the desert wide,
Where PARRY conquer’d, and where FRANKLIN died.

To that white region, where the lost lie low,
Wrapt in their mantles of eternal snow,
Unvisited by change, nothing to mock
Those statues sculptured in the icy rock,
We pray your company; that hearts as true
(Though fancies of the air) may live for you.
Nor only yet that on our little glass
A faint reflection of those wilds may pass,
But, that the secrets of the vast Profound
Within us, an exploring hand may sound,
Testing the rigor of the ice-bound soul,
Seeking the passage at its Northern Pole,
Soft’ning the horrors of its wintry sleep,
Melting the surface of that Frozen Deep.
“Vanish, ye mists! But ere this gloom departs,
And to the union of three sister arts,
We give a winter evening, good to know
That in the charm of such another show,
That in the fiction of a friendly Play,
The Arctic Sailors, too, put gloom away,
Forgot their long night, saw no starry dome,
Hail’d the warm sun, and were again at home.
Vanish, ye mists! Not yet do we repair
To the still country of the piercing air,
But seek, before we cross the troubled seas,
An English hearth and Devon’s waving trees.”

 From The Leader 10 January 1857

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