Celebrity for the week ending
Saturday, 23 April 2005

Tomasso Salvini (1829-1915)
Italian tragedian as Othello,
Theatre Royal, Drury Lane, London, 1 April 1875

Tomasso Salvini

Tomasso Salvini as Othello, Drury Lane, London, 1 April 1875

(photo: Lock & Whitfield, London, 1875)

'Signor Salvini, an Italian tragedian, who is now playing a version of Othello in his native tongue at Drury Lane, is unquestionably the sensation of this early part of the season. A performance which finds among its audience persons so widely distinct as Earl Dudley and his wife, and "George Eliot" and her husband, and which calls forth from their honourable and well-earned retirement ladies like Mrs. Charles Kean and Mrs. [Robert] Keeley, who might fairly be supposed to have had enough of Shakespearian representations, must have some special merit. It is not to be denied that Signor Salvini has many qualifications for the character her undertakes - among them an expressive face, a noble presence, and a wondrously fine voice, at once deep and tender. He is an experienced and intelligent actor, making every point tell, after his own fashion, and entering into the scene with the whole-souled spirit of a genuine artist. All this we concede; but when we are told, as we have been by some, that they have been so impressed by the realism of his performance as to be unable to sleep o'nights, and my others that he is as great as ever was Rachel, we think it time to enter a warm protest.
'The middle-aged playgoer of the day had has no chance of seeing any great tragedian, though Madame Rachel, and a very long way after her, Madame Ristori, were probably only excelled as tragédiennes by the incomparable Mrs. Siddons. But the male players whom we can recollect as essaying the character of Othello - Mr. Charles Kean, Mr. James Wallack, Mr. [Charles] Fechter, and Mr. Edwin Booth - were at their best but good melodramatic actors, never rising to the height required by tragedy. Perhaps the very best Othello of the last quarter of a century was Mr. G.V. Brooke when he first came to London, before drink had thickened his splendid voice and dissipation had told upon his fine frame. There were many portions of Signor Salvini's performance which reminded us much of the early days of G.V. Brooke, and the mental comparison was by no means to the discredit of the English actor. In the first two acts little is left to be desired. Signor Salvini is the frank, cheery soldier to the life; even his trick of putting his hands into the pockets of his loose breeches, though ungraceful, seemed thoroughly natural; his manner to Brabantio was respectful without showing too much desire for conciliation; but his love for Desdemona was rather grossly and unpleasantly manifested. The speech to the Senate was excellently delivered, but the "Hold, for your lives!" which interrupts the brawl between Cassio and Montano was neither one thing nor the other; it lacked the dignity of the general, nor was it characterised by that wild outburst of passion which Mr. Brooke assumed would have been shown by a hot-tempered bridegroom roused up by a drunken row. Most of the grand third act is well played. The impossibility of at first comprehending Iago's hints, the blank amazement through which dawns the first faint trace of awakening suspicion, were admirably rendered; so were the "Not a jot! not a jot!" feebly translated as "Punto! punto!" and the "farewell" speech, most tenderly and pathetically given. But from that out all was noise and rant and bellow and exaggerate action. Possibly Signor Salvini has not read Schlegel, but he certainly illustrates Schlegel's notion that Othello's jealousy "is not the jealousy of the heart, which is compatible with the tenderest feeling and adoration of the beloved subject; it is of that sensual kind which, in burning climes, has given birth to the disgraceful confinement of women, and many other unnatural usages. A drop of this poison flows in his veins, and sets his whole blood in the wildest ferment. . . . The mere physical force of passion puts to flight in one moment all his acquired and mere habitual virtues, and gives the upper hand to the savage over the moral man." The outburst of rage in which he throttles Iago, flings him to the ground, and spurns him with his foot, the roars and inarticulate shrieks at Desdemona, and the unnecessary rudeness which he displays in murdering that large-framed matron, are wholly characteristic of the savage. All the stage-management of the last scene is clumsy and bad. No chance is given to Othello for the "O fool, fool, fool!" of which so much has been made by men with much poorer voices than Signor Salvini's; while the omission of Montano's direction, "Take you this weapon, which I have here recovered from the Moor," makes nonsense of Othello's declaration, "Every puny whipster gets my sword!" As for the suicide, if Othello served the turbaned Turk as he served himself, the "circumcised dog" must have had a bad time, for instead of "smiting him - thus," Signor Salvini seemed to hear in mind Mr. Fagin's instruction to Sikes in regard to Mr. Morris Bolter: "Bolter's throat, Bill; never mind the girl! Bolter's rhroat, as deep as you can cut; saw his head off!" A more thoroughly repulsive sight was never seen on the stage; far, far away more disgusting than Croizette's death scene in the Sphinx. To sum up, in our opinion Signor Salvini's is a good actor, better, far better than any of our "eminent tragedians" who oscillate between Drury Lane, the Standard, and the Surrey, but nothing like so good as his friends would lead one to believe. It is impossible to imagine any one so bad as the Iago, a combination of Mephistopheles with Flibbertigibbet, a shallow, transparent, mincing knave. Desdemona lacked youth and good looks, but she spoke clearly and well.'
(The World, London, Wednesday, 14 April 1875, pp.8b/9a)

'The dramatic critics are a little dissatisfied with the arrangements of Signor Salvini's representatives. Owing to somebody's want of common sense, they are generally provided with seats in the hindermost rows of the stalls; and writers who have been among the first to give the great Italian actor a generous welcome have been seen perched in lofty boxes, at such a distance from the stage that all the more subtle points in the actor's art must in so vast a theatre have been undistinguishable.'
(The World, London, Wednesday, 19 May 1875, p.19a)

'Signor Salvini has been elected an honorary member of the Athenæum, the Garrick, and the Arts Clubs.'
(The World, London, Wednesday, 19 May 1875, p.19a)

'The Salvini furore seems to have subsided as quickly as it arose. The world has seen him, is satisfied, and now canvasses the merits of the other Italian actor, Signor [Ernesto] Rossi. This artist is, I am told by one who saw him at Bologna a few weeks ago, immeasurably superior to the gentleman whose Othello was so much raved about by the injudicious many and soberly admired by the judicious few. Rossi is greatest as Hamlet. The Italians quite lost their heads at his interpretation of the melancholy Dane, and, as is their wont at such times, rained flowers upon him - not the bouquets of English diminutiveness, but large circular baskets of roses, lilies, camellias, and other equally beautiful and sweet-smelling flowers of the south. As a rule, you cannot flatter actors too much, but even Signor Rossi, the pet of the Italians, was abashed at this demonstration, and, half smothered by the flowers which fell around him as thickly as leaves in Vallombrosa, piteously besought his admirers to stay their hands. Very soon we shall have Rossi among us, and shall be able to judge of his quality for ourselves. Great as he may be and unquestionably is, it is doubtful if "the profession" will make so great a fuss about him as they did about Salvini; and I do not expect we shall have a repetition of the curious scene behind the curtain at Drury-lane, beheld by one or two spectators with what the poet calls mingled feelings - the unusual sight of one celebrated actress kneeling and kissing M. Salvini's hand as though she had been a Roman-catholic devotee and he a newly-made cardinal; and of another even more celebrated actress throwing her arms round the poor man's neck and greeting him with a modest kiss! It would be only kind to put Signor Rossi on his guard against this kind of welcome, and to explain to him that it is not, as Salvini may have told him, an English custom, but simply an eccentricity of genius.'
(The World, London, Wednesday, 9 June 1875, p.16a)

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© John Culme, 2005