CH. VI. -- The Prince's company of comedians.

 

My master getting up the next day, received a note from Don Alexo Segiar, desiring his company immediately. We went, and found there the Marquis de Zenette, and another young nobleman of prepossessing manners, whom I had never seen. Don Matthias, said Segiar to my protector, introducing the stranger, give me leave to present Don Pompeyo de Castro, a relation of mine. He has been at the court of Portugal almost from his childhood. He reached Madrid last night, and returns to Lisbon to-morrow. He can allow me only one day. I wish to make the most of the precious moments, and thought of asking you and the Marquis de Zenette to make out the time agreeably. Thereupon my master and Don Alexo's relation embraced heartily, and complimented one an other in the most extravagant manner. I was much pleased with Don Pompeyo's conversation, it showed both acuteness and solidity.

They dined with Segiar; and the gentlemen, after the dessert, amused themselves at play till the theatre opened. Then they went all together to the Prince's House, to see a new tragedy, called The Queen of Carthage. At the end of the piece they returned to supper, and their conversation ran first on the composition, then upon the actors. As for the work, cried Don Matthias, I think very lightly of it. Eneas is a more pious blockhead there than in the Eneid. But it must be owned that the piece was played divinely. What does Signor Don Pompeyo think of it? He does not seem to agree with me. Gentlemen, said the illustrious stranger with a smile, you are so enraptured with your actors, and still more with your actresses, that I scarcely dare avow my dissent. That is very prudent, interrupted Don Alexo with a sneer, your criticisms would be ill received. You should be tender of our actresses before the trumpeters of their fame. We carouse with them every day, we warrant them sound in their conceptions: we would give vouchers for the justness of their expression if it were necessary. No doubt of it, answered his kinsman, you would do the same kind office by their lives and their manners, from the same motives of companionable feeling.

Your ladies of the sock and buskin at Lisbon, said the Marquis de Zenette, laughing, are doubtless far superior? They certainly are, replied Don Pompeyo. They are some of them at least perfect in their cast. And these, resumed the Marquis, would be warranted by you in their conceptions and expressions? I have no personal acquaintance with them, rejoined Don Pompeyo. I am not of their revels, and can judge of their merit without partiality. Do you, in good earnest, think your company first-rate? No, really, said the Marquis, I think no such thing, and only plead the cause of a few individuals. I give up all the rest. Will you not allow extraordinary powers to the actress who played Dido? Did she not personate that queen with the dignity, and at the same time with all the bewitching charms, calculated to realize our idea of the character? Could you help admiring the skill with which she seizes on the passions of the spectator, and harmonizes their tone to the vibrations she purposes to produce? She may be called perfect in the exquisite art of declaiming. I agree with you, said Don Pompeyo, that she can touch the string either of terror or of pity: never did any actress come closer to the heart, and the performance is altogether fine; but still she is not without her defects. Two or three things disgusted me in her playing. Would she denote surprise? she glances her eyes to and fro in a most extravagant manner, altogether unbecoming her supposed majesty as a princess. Add to this, that in swelling her voice, which is of itself sound and mellifluous, she goes out of her natural key, and assumes a harsh ranting tone. Besides, it would seem as if she might be suspected in more than one passage, of not very clearly comprehending her author. Yet I would in candour rather suppose her wanting in diligence than capacity.

As far as I see, said Don Matthias to the critic, you will never write complimentary odes to our actresses! Pardon me, answered Don Pompeyo. I can discover high talent through all their imperfections. I must say that I was enchanted with the chambermaid in the interlude. What fine natural parts! With what grace she treads the stage! Has she anything pointed to deliver? she heightens it by an arch smile, with a keen glance and sarcastic emphasis, which convey more to the understanding than the words to the ear. It might be objected that she sometimes gives too much scope to her animal spirits, and exceeds the limits of allowable freedom, but that would be hypercritical. There is one bad habit I should strongly advise her to correct. Sometimes in the very crisis of the action, and in an affecting passage, she bursts in all at once upon the interest with some misplaced jest, to curry favour with the mob of barren spectators. The pit, you will say, is caught by her artifice; that may be well for her popularity, but not for their taste.

And what do you think of the men? interrupted the Marquis; you must give them no quarter, since you have handled the women so roughly. Not so, said Don Pompeyo. There are some promising young actors, and I am particularly well pleased with that corpulent performer who played the part of Dido's prime minister. His recitation is unaffected, and he declaims just as they do in Portugal. If you can bear such a fellow as that, said Segiar, you must be charmed with the representative of Eneas. Did not you think him a great, an original performer? Very original, indeed, answered the critic; his inflections are quite his own, they are as shrill as an hautboy. Almost always out of nature, he rattles the impressive words of the sentence off his tongue, while he labours and lingers on the expletives; the poor conjunctions are frightened at their own report as they go off. He entertained me excessively, and especially when he was expressing in confidence his distress at abandoning the princess; never was grief more ludicrously depicted. Fair and softly, cousin, replied Don Alexo; you will make us believe at last that good taste is not greatly cultivated at the court of Portugal. Do you know that the actor of whom we are speaking is esteemed a phenomenon? Did you not observe what thunders of applause he called down? He cannot therefore be contemptible. That therefore does not prove the proposition, replied Don Pompeyo. But, gentlemen, let us lay aside, I beseech you, the injudicious suffrages of the pit; they are often given to performers very unseasonably. Indeed, their boisterous tokens of approbation are more frequently bestowed on paltry copies than on original merit, as Phedrus teaches us by an ingenious fable. Allow me to repeat it as follows: -- The whole population of a city was assembled in a large square to see a pantomime played. Among the performers there was one whose feats were applauded every instant. This buffoon, at the end of the entertainment, wished to close the scene with a new device. He came alone upon the stage, stooping clown, covering his head with his mantle, and began counterfeiting the squeak of a pig. He acquitted himself so naturally as to be suspected of having the animal itself concealed within the folds of his drapery. He stripped, but there was no pig. The assembly rang with more furious applause than ever. A peasant, among the spectators, was disgusted at this misplaced admiration. Gentlemen, exclaimed he, you are in the wrong to be so delighted with this buffoon, he is not so good a mimic as you take him for. I can enact the pig better; if you doubt it, only attend here this time to-morrow. The people, prejudiced in the cause of their favourite, collected in greater numbers on the next day, rather to hiss the countryman than to see what he could do. The rivals appeared on the stage. The buffoon began, and was more applauded than the day before. Then the farmer stooping down in his turn, with his head wrapped up in his cloak, pulled the ear of a real pig under his arm, and made it squeal most horribly. Yet this enlightened audience persisted in giving the preference to their favourite, and hooted the countryman off the boards; who producing the pig before he went, said -- Gentlemen, you are not hissing me, but the original pig. So much for your judgment.

Cousin, said Don Alexo, your fable is rather satirical. Nevertheless, in spite of your pig, we will not bate an inch of our opinion. But let us change the subject, this is grown threadbare. Then you set off to-morrow, do what we can to keep you with us longer? I should like, answered his kinsman, to protract my stay with you, but it is not in my power. I have told you already that I am come to the court of Spain on an affair of state. Yesterday, on my arrival, I had a conference with the prime minister; I am to see him to-morrow morning, and shall set out immediately afterwards on my return to Lisbon. You are become quite a Portuguese, observed Segiar, and, to all appearance, we shall lose you entirely from Madrid. I think otherwise, replied Don Pompeyo, I have the honour to stand well with the King of Portugal, and have many motives of attachment to that court; yet with all the kindness that sovereign has testified towards me, would you believe that I have been on the point of quitting his dominions for ever. Indeed! by what strange accident? said the Marquis. Give us the history, I beseech you. Very readily, answered Don Pompeyo, and at the same time my own, for it is closely interwoven with the recital for which you have called.

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