Paul Johnson

The histrionic Jane slipping in and out of the limelight

The histrionic Jane slipping in and out of the limelight

It is remarkable that the English, so reserved in their emotional displays in ordinary existence, should have always shown such capacity, even genius, for enacting them on the stage. Or perhaps it is only logical, theatre being for us an escape from our natural inhibitions. Whatever the explanation, we have led the world in acting for half a millennium now, and still do, emphatically. Such performances as Michael Gambon as Falstaff, or Eve Best as Hedda Gabler, or Laura Michelle Kelly as Mary Poppins — and these are only the outstanding examples — are not to be seen anywhere else on earth. There is about the West End of London, today as always, not so much a whiff of grease paint as an almost visible presence of histrionic spirits, the shades of Olivier and Thorndyke, Irving and Terry, Macready, Kean and Siddons, and beyond them Garrick and the great Elizabethans, hovering over the stages and whispering encouragement to those who now hold them.

There is also a powerful current of theatre which runs through English literature, and by English I do not merely mean our own people but all who write for performance in our tongue; for what would the theatre be without Sheridan and Wilde, Shaw and O’Casey, not to speak of Behan and Beckett, to list only the Irish contribution? Then again, there are authors who, without being playwrights, were obsessed by the magic of theatre and longed to master it. Byron and Shelley wrote immense and resonating poetic dramas, intended chiefly to be read, as they themselves read the plays of Shakespeare, but not beyond performance — as brave experiments occasionally show. Dickens was in and out of the theatre all his life, being a natural actor and a master of comic dialogue, graduating from highly polished amateur performances of the classics, via such extravaganzas as the sensational tragedy of arctic exploration, The Frozen Deep, which he caused his novelist friend Wilkie Collins to write, and acted in and directed himself, to his tremendous public readings of his own works, electrifying audiences on both sides of the Atlantic (and in Paris) and shortening his life by the profligate expenditure of his emotional energy.

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