Advice to a Young Actor
by Mark Twain
YOUNG ACTOR. — This gentleman writes as follows: “I am desperate. Will you tell me how I can possibly please the newspaper critics? I have labored conscientiously to achieve this, ever since I made my début upon the stage, and I have never yet entirely succeeded in a single instance. Listen: The first night I played after I came among you, I judged by the hearty applause that was frequently showered upon me, that I had made a ‘hit’—that my audience were satisfied with me—and I was happy accordingly. I only longed to know if I had been as successful with the critics. The first thing I did in the morning was to send for the papers. I read this: ‘Mr. King Lear Macbeth made his first appearance last night, before a large and fashionable audience, as “Lord Blucher,” in Bilgewater’s great tragedy of Blood, Hair and the Ground Tore Up. In the main, his effort may be set down as a success—a very gratifying success. His voice is good, his manner easy and graceful, and his enunciation clear and distinct; his conception of the character he personated was good, and his rendition of it almost perfect. This talented young actor will infallibly climb to a dizzy elevation upon the ladder of histrionic fame, but it rests with himself to say whether this shall be accomplished at an early day or years hence. If the former, then he must at once correct his one great fault—we refer to his habit of throwing extraordinary spirit into passages which do not require it—his habit of ranting, to speak plainly. It was this same unfortunate habit which caused him to spoil the noble scene between “Lord Blucher” and “Viscount Cranberry,” last night, in that portion of the third act where the latter unjustly accuses the former of attempting to seduce his pure and honored grandmother. His rendition of “Lord Blucher’s” observation—
“Speak but another syllable, vile, hell-spawned miscreant, and thou diest the death of a ter-r-raitor!”
was uttered with undue excitement and unseemly asperity—there was too much rant about it. We trust Mr. Macbeth will consider the hint we have given him.’ That extract, Mr. Twain, was from the Morning Thunderbolt. The Daily Battering-Ram gave me many compliments, but said that in the great scene referred to above, I gesticulated too wildly and too much— and advised me to be more circumspect in future, in these matters. I played the same piece that night, and toned myself down considerably in the matter of ranting and gesticulation. The next morning neither the Thunderbolt or the Battering-Ram gave me credit for it, but the one said my ‘Lord Blucher’ overdid the pathetic in the scene where his sister died, and the other said I laughed too boisterously in the one where my servant fell in the dyer’s vat and came out as green as a meadow in Spring-time. The Daily American Earthquake said I was too tame in the great scene with the ‘Viscount.’ I felt a little discouraged, but I made a note of these suggestions and fell to studying harder than ever. That night I toned down my grief and my mirth, and worked up my passionate anger and my gesticulation just the least in the world. I may remark here that I began to perceive a moderation, both in quantity and quality, of the applause vouchsafed me by the audience. The next morning the papers gave me no credit for my efforts at improvement, but the Thunderbolt said I was too loving in the scene with my new bride, the Battering-Ram said I was not loving enough, and the Earthquake said it was a masterly performance and never surpassed upon these boards. I was check-mated. I sat down and considered how I was going to engineer that love-scene to suit all the critics, until at last I became stupefied with perplexity. I then went down town, much dejected, and got drunk. The next day the Battering-Ram said I was too spiritless in the scene with the ‘Viscount,’ and remarked sarcastically that I threatened the ‘Viscount’s’ life with a subdued voice and manner eminently suited to conversation in a funeral procession. The Thunderbolt said my mirth was too mild in the dyer’s vat scene, and observed that instead of laughing heartily, as it was my place to do, I smiled as blandly—and as guardedly, apparently—as an undertaker in the cholera season. These mortuary comparisons had a very depressing effect upon my spirits, and I turned to the Earthquake for comfort. That authority said ‘Lord Blucher’ seemed to take the death of his idolized sister uncommonly easy, and suggested with exquisite irony that if I would use a toothpick, or pretend to pare my nails, in the death-bed scene, my attractive indifference would be the perfection of acting. I was almost desperate, but I went to work earnestly again to apply the newspaper hints to my ‘Lord Blucher.’ I ranted in the ‘Viscount’ scene (this at home in my private apartments) to suit the Battering-Ram, and then toned down considerably, to approach the Earthquake’s standard; I worked my grief up strong in the death-bed scene to suit the latter paper, and then modified it a good deal to comply with the Thunderbolt’s hint; I laughed boisterously in the dyer’s vat scene, in accordance with the suggestion of the Thunderbolt, and then toned down toward the Battering-Ram’s notion of excellence. That night my audience did not seem to know whether to applaud or not, and the result was that they came as near doing neither one thing nor the other as was possible. The next morning the Semi-Monthly Literary Bosh said my rendition of the character of ‘Lord Blucher’ was faultless—that it was stamped with the seal of inspiration; the Thunderbolt said that I was an industrious, earnest and aspiring young dramatic student, but I was possessed of only ordinary merit, and could not hope to achieve more than a very moderate degree of success in my profession—and added that my engagement was at an end for the present; the Battering-Ram said I was a tolerably good stock-actor, but that the practice of managers in imposing such people as me upon the public as stars, was very reprehensible—and added that my engagement was at an end for the present; the Earthquake critic said he had seen worse actors, but not much worse—and added that my engagement was at an end for the present. So much for newspapers. The Monthly Magazine of Literature and Art (high authority,) remarked as follows: ‘Mr. King Lear Macbeth commenced well, but the longer he played, the worse he played. His first performance of “Lord Blucher” in Blood, Hair and the Ground Tore Up, may be entered upon the record as a remarkably fine piece of acting—but toward the last he got to making it the most extraordinary exhibition of theatrical lunacy we have ever witnessed. In the scene with the “Viscount,” which calls for sustained, vigorous, fiery declamation, his manner was an incomprehensible mixture of “fever-heat” and “zero”—to borrow the terms of the thermometer; in the dyer’s vat scene he was alternately torn by spasms of mirth and oppressed by melancholy; in the death-bed scene his countenance exhibited profound grief one moment and blank vacancy in the next; in the love scene with his bride—but why particularize? throughout the play he was a mixture—a conglomeration—a miracle of indecision—an aimless, purposeless dramatic lunatic. In a word, his concluding performances of the part of “Lord Blucher” were execrable. We simply assert this, but do not attempt to account for it—we know his first performance was excellence itself, but how that excellence so soon degenerated into the pitiable exhibition of last night, is beyond our ability to determine.’ Now, Mr. Twain, you have the facts in this melancholy case—and any suggestion from you as to how I can please these critics will be gratefully received.”
I can offer no suggestion, “Young Actor,” except that the ordinary run of newspaper criticism will not do to depend upon. If you keep on trying to shape yourself by such models, you will go mad, eventually. Several of the critics you mention probably never saw you play an entire act through in their lives, and it is possible that the balance were no more competent to decide upon the merits of a dramatic performance than of a sermon. Do you note how unconcernedly and how pitilessly they lash you as soon as your engagement is ended? Sometimes those “criticisms” are written and in type before the curtain rises. Don’t you remember that the New York Herald once came out with a column of criticism upon Edwin Forrest’s “Hamlet,” when unfortunately the bill had been changed at the last moment, and Mr. Forrest played “Othello” instead of the play criticised? And only lately didn’t the same paper publish an elaborate imaginary description of the funeral ceremonies of the late Jacob Little, unaware that the obsequies had been postponed for twenty-four hours? It is vastly funny, your “working yourself up” to suit the Thunderbolt, and “toning yourself down” to suit the Battering-Ram, and doing all sorts of similarly absurd things to please a lot of “critics” who had probably never seen you play at all, but who threw in a pinch of instruction or censure among their praise merely to give their “notices” a candid, impartial air. Don’t bother yourself any more in that way. Pay no attention to the papers, but watch the audience. A silent crowd is damning censure—good, hearty, enthusiastic applause is a sure sign of able acting. It seems you played well at first—I think you had better go back and start over again at the point where you began to instruct yourself from the newspapers. I have often wondered, myself, when reading critiques in the papers, what would become of an actor if he tried to follow all the fearfully conflicting advice they contained.