FROM STAGELAND TO SHAKESPEARE-LAND

How youth adores the stage! It ever has in all climes and ages, and
probably ever will.

This was amusingly borne in on me just after my boy had gone to
Cambridge. A particular play with a particularly fascinating actress in
the principal part was announced for production there.

Of course, all Cambridge went.

A day or so later, when a lot of “men” were raving over the beauties of
the fascinating actress, buying her photographs, wanting her autograph,
and so on, one of them turned round to my son and said:

“Isn’t she lovely? I’m just dying to be introduced to her. By Jove, she
is a ripping girl. What did you think of her, Tweedie?”

“I did not go,” he replied.

“Why not?”

“Well, you see, I know her pretty well; she went to school with my
mother.”

A bomb might have fallen.

“Went to school with _your_ mother?”

“Yes, and she has a girl nearly as old as I am.”

Bomb number two.

Charming and pretty as she is, a woman old enough to be their mother,
she stirs the hearts of the undergrads, who, across the footlights,
innocently think she is a girl of eighteen.

So much for the delusions of the stage.

Still, it is marvellous how some actresses seem blessed with perpetual
youth.

There is no doubt about it that Miss Geneviève Ward is one of the most
remarkable women of the age. One morning in March, 1908, came a knock
at the door, and in she walked.

“Out for my constitutional, my dear,” she exclaimed, “so I thought I
would just look you up. I have walked six miles this morning, and after
a little rest and chat with you I shall walk another mile home and
enjoy my luncheon all the better for it.”

“You are a marvel!” I exclaimed. “Seven miles and over seventy. I saw
your ‘Volumnia’ was a great success the other day when you played it
with Benson.” For “Volumnia” is one of the grand old actress’s chief
parts.

“Yes,” she said, “and the next day I started for Rome. I got a telegram
to say one of three old cousins, with whom I was staying in Rome a few
weeks previously, had died suddenly; so four hours after receiving the
message I set out.”

“Were you very tired?” I asked.

“No, not at all. I knitted nearly all the way and talked to my
fellow-passengers, and when I arrived, instead of resting, went at once
to see to some business, for these two old sisters, one of whom is
blind, were absolutely prostrate with grief, and had done nothing while
awaiting my arrival. I stayed a fortnight with them, settled them up,
and arrived back two days ago.”

Miss Ward has one of the most remarkable faces I have ever known. Her
blue-grey eyes are electric. They seem to pierce one’s very soul. They
flash fire or indignation, and yet they literally melt with love. And
this great, majestic tragedienne is full of emotion and sentiment.
Geneviève Ward is the Sarah Siddons of the day. Her “Lady Macbeth,”
“Queen Eleanor,” “Queen Katherine,” and her other classic rôles, are
unrivalled. Her elocution is matchless. Her French is as perfect as her
English; anyone who ever heard her recite in French will never forget
it, and her Italian, for purity of diction, is not far behind. On the
stage her grand manner is superb. She is every inch a queen, and yet,
strange as it may appear, she is only a small woman, five feet three at
most; but so full of activity and courage that she impresses one with
immense power, height, and strength.

I happened to tell her that I had again seen an account of her marriage
in a paper.

“Some new invention,” she laughed. “And yet it is not necessary to
invent, for the romance and tragedy of my life were acute enough.” And
she then told me the following story:

“I was travelling with my mother and brother on the Riviera in
1855, when we met a Russian, Count de Guerbel. He was very tall,
very handsome, very fascinating, very rich, and twenty-eight. I was
seventeen.

“He fell in love with me, and it was settled I should be married at the
Consulate at Nice, which I was; but the Russian law required that the
marriage should be repeated in the Russian Church to make the ceremony
binding, otherwise I was his legal wife, but he was not my legal
husband.

“It was arranged, therefore, that I should go to Paris with my mother,
the Count going on in advance to arrange everything, and we would be
remarried there in the Greek Church. When we arrived in Paris it was
Lent, when no marriage can take place in the Greek Church; and so time
passed on.

“He must have been a thoroughly bad man, because he did his best at
that time to persuade me to run away with him, always reminding me
that I was his legal wife. The whole thing was merely a trick of this
handsome, fascinating rascal. He promised me that, if I would go
to him, he would take me to Russia at once, and there we should be
remarried according to the rules of the Greek Church. Being positively
frightened by his persistence, I told my mother. At the same time
rumours of de Guerbel’s amours and debts reached her ears, and she
wrote to a cousin of ours, then American Minister in Petersburg, for
confirmation of these reports.

“My cousin replied, ‘Come at once.’ We went; I, of course, under my
name of Countess de Guerbel, which I had naturally assumed from the day
of our wedding at Nice, and we stayed at the Embassy in St. Petersburg.
The Count’s brother was charming to me. He told us my husband was
a villain, and I had better leave him alone. That was impossible,
however—I was married to him, but he was not married to me, and such a
state of affairs could not remain. It became an international matter,
and was arranged by the American Government and the Tzar that we
should be officially married at Warsaw. The Count refused to come.
The Tzar therefore sent sealed orders for his appearance. Wearing a
black dress, and feeling apprehensive and miserably sad, I went to the
church, and at the altar rails, supported by my father and mother, and
the Count’s brother, I met my husband.

“It was a horrible crisis, for I knew my father was armed with a
loaded revolver, and, if de Guerbel refused to give me the last legal
right which was morally already mine, its contents would put an end to
the adventurer’s life. There we stood, husband and wife, knowing the
service was a mere form; but the marriage was lawfully effected. He had
completed his part of the bargain and we had learned his villainy.

“At the door of the church we parted, and I never saw him again. We
called a cab and drove direct to the railway station, and thence
travelled to Milan.”

Romance, comedy, tragedy! As I sat looking at that beautiful woman,
still beautiful at seventy, it was easy to see how lovely she must have
been at seventeen, and to picture that perfect figure in her black
frock on her bridal morning—a pathetic sight indeed!

She was continuing her story:

“Determined to do something, I at once began studying singing for the
stage on our arrival in Italy, and in a year or two made my appearance
in Paris, London, and New York.

“I made a success in opera; but in Cuba I strained my voice by
continually singing in three octaves, and one fine day discovered
it had gone. Then I took to teaching singing in New York. But,
unfortunately, I hated it; most of my pupils had neither voice nor
talent; it was like beating my head against a stone wall.

“In my operatic days critics had always mentioned my capacity for
acting. Then why not go on the stage? Thus it was at the age of
thirty-five I appeared at Manchester, under my maiden name of Geneviève
Ward, and in the end, having played _Forget-me-not_ some thousand
times, all over the world, I retired from the profession when I was
about sixty. I have occasionally appeared since.”

This gifted tragedienne was going to Stratford to play in the
Shakespeare week in 1908.

She came to have tea with me, and as she sat beside me looking the
picture of strength and dignity, I asked if it took her long to get up
her part.

“Good heavens, no!” she replied. “I have never forgotten a
Shakespearian character in my life. Every word means something. All I
do is to read it through once or twice—perhaps three times—before the
night.”

“I own,” she said, “that sitting here now I do not recall a word of
_Forget-me-not_, and yet I played that several thousand times. But
then, there is nothing to grip hold of in the modern drama; however, I
could undertake to go on the stage letter-perfect even in that after
a day’s work. I am sure, after reading it through, it would all come
back to me. In Shakespeare I not only know my own part, but most of the
other people’s, and I can both remember things I learnt in my youth and
have played at intervals during my life, and memorise now more easily
than my pupils. I did so last year when I got up those classical plays
for Vedrenne and Barker.”

One cold February day Benson’s Company played _Coriolanus_ at the
“Coronet.”

As Miss Ward had sent me the following note, I was amongst the pleased
spectators.

“DEAR MEPHISTO,

“Here is the Box for Saturday. I hope you will enjoy ‘Volumnia.’
I love her. Come on the stage after the play, and let me take you
home.

“Yours cordially,

“GENEVIÈVE WARD.”




Her performance was simply amazing. Well rouged, with a cheerful smile
and sprightly manner, this dear lady of over seventy looked young,
handsome, animated, indeed beautiful, and buoyant in the first act.
As the play proceeded her complexion paled, her eyes dimmed, the deep
black robe and nun-like head-gear helped the tragedy of the scene,
until in the mad scene she was cringing and yet magnificent; in the
last act—thrilling.

Her clear enunciation, magnificent diction, and great repose are indeed
a contrast to the modern young woman of the stage, who speaks so badly
that one cannot hear what she says, and has often not learnt even the
first rules of walking gracefully.

After the play I went behind the scenes, as arranged. Benson was there
standing at Miss Ward’s door thanking her for her performance.

What a splendid athlete he is in appearance, and though I am not
particularly fond of his performance, _Coriolanus_ is by far his best.
I congratulated him upon it, and his simplicity and almost shyness were
amusing.

“But I am so much below my ideal of the part,” he said; “although it
is strengthening and broadening, I cannot even now get it,” and then,
turning to Miss Ward, added, “However, our ‘Volumnia’ is all she should
be.”

There was Miss Ward, dressed ready to return home, smiling cheerfully
and not in the least tired. As we were driving back to my house, she
told me, in answer to a friendly enquiry, what her day had been.

“I went for a long walk this morning, had my lunch at a quarter to one,
got to the theatre at two, began at two-thirty, and, as you know, did
not end till five-thirty.”

“I hope you had some tea,” I said.

“Tea, my dear! Certainly not. I shall have a glass of hot milk at six,
when I get in, and then my dinner as usual, a little later.”

Over seventy years of age, she thus had played a strong rôle for
three hours, yet did not even need to be refreshed with a cup of tea.
Geneviève Ward certainly is a great woman.

The three greatest English actresses I have ever seen are Ellen Terry,
Geneviève Ward, and Mrs. Kendal. The latter two are among the most
brilliant women and most charming conversationalists I know—outside
their stage life I mean.

One February day in 1909, Mrs. Kendal walked up Portland Place to fetch
me _en route_ for luncheon with Geneviève Ward.

“Why have you suddenly left the stage like this?” I asked in banter.

In a serious voice she replied:

“Because we want no farewells. I went on the stage when I was four,
and no one knew I was there. I go off the stage when I am fifty-five,
and I do not see why people should be asked to contribute to my
well-advertised disappearance as to a charity. I’ve worked hard for
fifty years, and have retired to enjoy myself while I can. Actors have
long-drawn-out ‘farewells’ lasting for two or three years. I don’t wish
to do likewise. We’ve worked hard, and we’ve been thrifty and saved,
and now we can retire from a kindly public—as their friends, I hope.
I don’t want to write to the papers, or make speeches, or call myself
their ‘humble servant.’ I’ve given them of my best, and they’ve paid me
for it, as they pay for their hats and gloves. No gratuities, nothing
more than I have rightly earned. Don’t you think I’m right?”

“Well, it is certainly more dignified, but we should have liked to give
you a farewell cheer.” Then, reverting to others, I asked why Irving
was so poor.

“Ah, because he was so generous. I remember an instance; when he
heard the Duchess of Manchester (afterwards Duchess of Devonshire)
had taken two stalls, he at once sent off to offer her a private box.
She accepted, and then he ordered a two-guinea bouquet to be placed
therein, and invited her to supper. Again she accepted. He at once
asked a party to meet her; that cost him over twenty-six pounds. He
told me so, and he returned the Duchess her guinea.

“Now do you call that business? Would a dressmaker give material gratis
and entertain a customer to supper? We have never given free seats. Why
should one? If the house does not fill, change the piece, but don’t
pretend it’s a success by paper. Yes—I’m retiring; the public doesn’t
want an actress to-day. It wants a pretty girl. If I was beginning now,
instead of ending, I should be a failure. I was never really pretty.
“Men and women who have never studied acting as an art are wanted now,
young, pretty, well built. But as to acting!—the old school of acting
is a thing of the past, my dear.”

From Stageland to Shakespeare-land is a natural transit. Besides, there
is no space left in this book to describe afresh the many valued and
gifted theatrical friends to whom I devoted an entire volume in 1904,
for which a second edition was called two months after publication.

This book was _Behind the Footlights_, and it occurred to me to write
in it that “Mrs. Kendal was the most loved and most hated woman on the
stage.” These words might apply almost to Marie Corelli in literature.

Who could help loving her who saw her as I did on October 6th, 1909, at
the opening of Harvard House in Stratford-on-Avon?

It was a wonderful day.

A private train with bowls of flowers on every table, and smilax
hanging in long tendrils from the roof (all this being the offering
of the Railway Company), took us to Stratford at sixty-eight miles an
hour. Our engine was also gaily decked with flags and flowers and had
“HARVARD” painted across its front in big letters.

The sun shone brilliantly on that early autumn day, bestowing, as it
were, his blessing on this scholarly alliance of the Union Jack with
the Stars and Stripes.

A gracious little lady bade us welcome; short and “comely,” with
fluffy brown hair above a round face. As a girl our hostess must have
been a pretty little blonde English type—she owns the sweetest voice
imaginable, a voice to love, to coo a child to sleep, the most gracious
manners, and a delightful smile.

This was Marie Corelli, to whom the work of restoration of Harvard
House had been entrusted; and her guests that day saw it just as
John Harvard himself saw it as a child. In that house where this
most modern of twentieth-century novelists awaited her guests, the
sixteenth-century maiden Katherine Rogers, passed her early days, and
in 1605 went thence as the bride of Robert Harvard the merchant, to
his home in Southwark. Between that place and the small country town
on the Avon their little son spent his childish years. And just as the
river deepened and widened as it joined the infinity of the ocean,
so John Harvard’s youthful intelligence deepened and widened in the
great ocean of learning. Far, far away it bore fruit—not only in his
own generation, but the waves of scholarly influence have rippled down
through successive decades to the present day, when the College he
founded in America—the first established in the New World—sends forth
her men in thousands to all parts of the globe, and the name of Harvard
is an honoured household word through the length and breadth of the
world.

Although I had been twice to America and knew that the best of the
culture and learning in the United States emanated from Boston and
Harvard, I had not then realised that the famous University was three
hundred years old—contemporaneous with our own Will Shakespeare—nor
that its founder had been christened in our little old English Mecca.

Miss Marie Corelli had a bright word for everyone; flitted hither and
thither like a bee, made speeches charmingly, and yet it must have been
a day of great nervous strain for this little lady. A woman of taste
and refinement, a woman of organisation—as the occasion revealed, with
all its details of a luncheon for a hundred and fifty people, as well
as an opening ceremony—and withal, what a strangely imaginative mind!
Almost a seer, a mystic, a religious dreamer, a hard worker, a strange
but lovable personality—such is Marie Corelli.

Many men and women who attain great ends are egotistical—and why not?
What others admire they may surely be allowed to appreciate also.

It is the conceit of ignorance that is so detestable. The assurance of
untutored youth that annoys.

The American Ambassador was, as ever, gentle, persuasive, eloquent,
delightful. We had a long conversation on Harvard, whose virtues he
extolled; but then Mr. Whitelaw Reid is at heart a literary man and
would-be scholar, besides having enough brains to appreciate brains in
others.

Mason Croft is Miss Marie Corelli’s home. Probably no writer of
fiction—not plays, mind you, but pure fiction—ever made so much money,
or has been so widely read, as Marie Corelli. The little girl without
fortune—by pen, ink, and paper and her own imaginative mind—has won
a lovely home. It is a fine old house, charmingly furnished, and
possesses a large meadow (the “croft“) and an enticing winter garden.
The châtelaine keeps four or five horses and is a Lady Bountiful. Yes,
and all this is done by a woman with a tiny weapon of magic power.

So came the end of a delightful gathering—

But stop!

As Marie Corelli wrote the story of that day in a few pithy words, let
me be allowed to repeat her message to the _Evening News_:

“To-day, October 6th, America owns for the first time in history a
property of its own in Shakespeare’s native town.

“The ‘Harvard House,’ the gift of Mr. Edward Morris, of Chicago, to
Harvard University, was opened to-day by the American Ambassador in
the presence of a large and representative gathering of American
social magnates amid the greatest enthusiasm.

“I am proud and glad to know that my dream of uniting the oldest
university in the States to the birth town of the Immortal
Shakespeare has been carried to a successful issue.—MARIE CORELLI.”

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