THE GOLDEN AGE OF BRITISH THEATRE (1880-1920)
by Sydney Higgins
| (signed postcard, matt, Rotary Photo, 1104b
the signature is dated August 1908,
but Willard has added 1896 to the photo)
E(dward) S(mith) Willard was born in Brighton (GB). As a mature actor, he had an intense but controlled style of acting that, contrasting so obviously with the histrionic proclamations that were the norm at the end of the Nineteenth Century, had an immense - although now all but forgotten - impact on the theatre, both in England and the United States.
He started his acting career in 1869, at the age of sixteen. For the next six years, he played in provincial theatres a considerable number of roles from comedies to Romeo and Macduff. In 1875, he made his first London appearance and, the following year, played Antonio in The Merchant of Venice to the Shylock of Charles Rice. Disillusioned with the control exercised over West End theatre by the all powerful egotistical actor/managers, he returned to the provincial theatre, which he toured for the next five years, playing the lead roles denied to him in London.
In 1881, he moved back to London where he joined Wilson Barrett's company, then based at the Princess's Theatre. One of the first plays in which he appeared was The Silver King (1881). Barrett played the lead (Wilfred Denver), but Willard's interpretation of the Spider did much to establish his popularity. He remained with the company for five years, during which the many successes included The Lights o' London (September 10, 1881) and Romany Rye (June 10, 1882), both by G R Sims, Chatterton (May 22, 1884) by Henry Arthur Jones and Henry Herman, and the melodrama Hoodman Blind (August 18, 1885) by Jones and Wilson Barrett. The classical plays presented included Hamlet (1884) with Barrett playing the lead, Measure for Measure (with E S Willard as Claudius) and Cymbeline (in which he played Iachimo).
When Wilson Barrett took his company to the United States in 1886, E S Willard remained in England, intent on developing his own company. In 1889, he had an enormous success, presenting The Middleman by Henry Arthur Jones, in which he played the vengeful potter, Cyrus Blenkarn, with Maude Millett (1867-1920) as Mary Blenkarn, his daughter. The following year (1890), he took the play to the United States. To play Mary Blenkarn, he selected an exceptionally beautiful young American who made her New York debut in the play. Her stage name was Maxine Elliott who, of course, went on to win fame and a substantial fortune. When the play was presented at Palmer's Theatre on Broadway, the acting of E S Willard was rapturously received and reviewed. The following comment by L Clarke Davis on the New York production appeared in The Century of April, 1891:
'It is only just to the actor, Mr. E. S. Willard, to say that his genius outruns that of the author. The art of the player is of more original, finer, subtler stuff than that of the playwright; it has the power to evoke sentiments and passions from the vast deep of the entranced fancy, of which the author neither schemed nor dreamed; it creates images of wondrous power and beauty, which become forever fixed upon the mind of the spectator sitting at the play.
Mr. Willard has to do in this drama with materials not too new, only newly made over. He is a stage father as familiar almost as the stage itself. But he appears before his audience in shape so strange, with power to charm the senses so assured, with genius to beguile the feelings so subtle, as to make it appear as if he were the first of stage fathers whose child was wronged, whose home was desolated, whose heart was broken.
Mr. Willard's entrance upon the stage proclaimed his indisputable right to the center of it; it recalled Kean's original entrance before the floats of Drury Lane. Mr. Willard's gaunt, wasted figure; his unconsidered garb; his distraught manner; his introspective look; his unconsciousness of the unfitness of himself to his surroundings; his contempt for things material; his absorption in the single idea that possessed his mind, even as did his love for his daughter possess his heart - all made up a picture of such intense interest as to catch and fix in an instant the eye, the ear, the mind, and the heart of the audience.
Greater actors than Mr. Willard his audiences may have seen, but I doubt if for many years they have seen a more original one. He has, as Cyrus Blenkarn, whistled down the wind the most cherished traditions of the theater. At the end of the second act, when he hears of the shame and flight of the child that he has loved with a love greater than that of Rachel for her children; when he hears that she is lost to him, to home, to honor, the old wonted curse of the stage father is anticipated and not vainly. It follows, of course, but it is as no other stage father's curse ever was. The stricken man, standing amid the ruins of his home, with all that made home precious, sweet, and beautiful, rudely shattered, does not pray God to destroy his enemies, but to five to him the power to do it. He cannot trust the consummation of his vengeance even to the divine arm; his own must strike the blow; he himself must wreak the vengeance.
The author's manner of phrasing the mixed supplication and imprecation, fine as it is, is of little power compared with the actor's manner of pronouncing it. He should, by all the law and custom of the acted drama from Thespis to the last melodramatic star, rush madly to the footlights, fall heavily upon his knees, upreach his clasped hands, and, banishing all tones not thunderous, vociferously tear good passion to tatters, splitting the ears of the groundlings and terrifying them with noise.
Mr. Willard does nothing of the kind. He does not approach the footlights; he does not fall upon his knees; he does not vociferate his prayer; but standing erect, in the centre of the stage, his thin hands - stained with the clay - outstretched to the farthest limit, he speaks in a low, measured monotone which is as deep as the nethermost depths of human misery, suffering and wrong; and, so standing and speaking, he seems as one fit to command from heaven itself the boon of vengeance for which he supplicates The man appeared for the moment to the overwrought imagination of the spectator to be himself the awful minister of retributive justice; he seemed to fill the stage, to pervade every part of it. He appeared more than a man, an overpowering image of one on whom sin and sorrow and suffering had laid their hands to dignify, strengthen and ennoble. He seemed as great as fate itself, and those who heard his supplication knew that it would be answered, that Cyrus Blenkarn's enemies would be made even as he prayed they should be, as wax in his hands. It was not the author's words, but the actor's art, that assured to the audience the consummation of his prayer far in advance of it realization.
We cannot always have actors on the stage of genius or talent like that of Mr. Willard's, but we can, if audiences so will it, have always plays which, like The Middleman, elevate, not debase, the stage.
E S Willard was such a success in The Middleman that he continued to perform in the United States for four years. Maxine Elliott remained with his company for two years, her parts including playing Juliet to his Romeo. E S Willard's other American successes during this stay included Barrie's comedy The Professor's Love Story (1892) in which he played the absent-minded Professor Goodwillie, John Needham's Double (1892) and the title part in Hamlet (1893).
| As Giovanni de Medici in The Cardinal (1901)
Click photo to enlarge
He went back to England in 1894 but, from then until 1905 - when he undertook his farewell American tour (which included a revival of The Middleman, as well as The Brighter Side, a translation by Alfred Capus of La Chatalaine) - he regularly returned to perform in the United States. Throughout the decade, he was a huge success in both countries.
Towards the end of his career, he had one last great triumph, playing Giovanni de Medici in Louis N. Parker's The Cardinal. Under Sir George Alexander's management, the play was presented at St. James's Theatre in 1901 and ran for 106 performances. He took the play to the United States in 1902. The following season, it was revived at the St. James's, with E S Willard again playing the Cardinal.
He retired from the stage in 1906, returning only occasionally for special benefits, including one, in 1911, when he played Brutus in Julius Caesar.
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