Wednesday, November 28, 2007

Genius and Waiting

You would think that an actress should stop reading a review that starts out this way:

The abominable Western twang which is her apology for the English language, has already been accepted with indulgence by the admiring and lachyrmose observers - including the weeping writer - of her acting.

But you'd be wrong. The New York Times review of L'Article 47 goes on to read:

This was in 1882.

Many theatre historians have realized that Miss Clara Morris, while often the subject of this type of dichotomy in many of her notices, was simply way ahead of her time. While virtually untrained, she dominated the theatre world with a strange mix of method and naturalistic acting techniques combined with an almost superhuman intuition of emotional beats and rythyms and their effect on an audience.

Read Miss Morris's description of her triumphant performance as Emilia in Othello. Her secret, timing her delivery with the bells:

...I trailed about after Desdemona--picked up the fatal
handkerchief--spoke a line here and there as Shakespeare wills she should, and bided my time as all Emilias must. Now I had noticed that many Emilias when they gave the alarm--cried out their "Murder! Murder!" against all the noise of the tolling bells, and came back upon the stage spent, and without voice or breath to finish their big scene with, and people thought them weak in consequence. A
long hanging bar of steel is generally used for the alarm, and blows struck upon it send forth a vibrating clangor that completely fills a theatre. I made an agreement with the prompter that he was not to strike the bar until I held up my hand to him. Then he was to strike one blow each time I raised my hand, and when I threw up both hands he was to raise Cain, until I was on the stage again. So
with throat trained by much shouting, when in the last act I cried: "I care not for thy sword; I'll make thee known,/Though I lost twenty lives." I turned, and crying "Help! help, ho! help!" ran off shouting, "The Moor has killed my mistress!" then, taking breath, gave the long-sustained, ever-rising, blood-curdling cry: "Murder! Murder! Murder!" One hand up, and one long clanging peal of a bell. "Murder! Murder! Murder!" One hand up and bell. "Murder! Murder! Murder!" Both hands up, and pandemonium broken loose--and, oh, joy! the audience applauding furiously.

"One--two--three--four," I counted with closed lips, then with a
fresh breath I burst upon the stage, followed by armed men, and with one last long full-throated cry of "Murder! the Moor has killed my mistress!" stood waiting for the applause to let me go on. A trick? yes, a small trick--a mere pretence to more breath than I really had, but it aroused the audience, it touched their imagination. They saw the horror-stricken woman racing through the night--waking the empty streets to life by that ever-thrilling cry of "Murder!"

You can get that anecdote and much more at Wayne Turney's Clara Morris Web Page.

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