SEAGULLS’ FEATHERSCategory: Theatre
We actors frequently like to give the impression that the whole composition is, as it were, inspired from within and that there is nothing of the deliberate about it. This may be partly our vanity, or it may be the very natural and proper desire to conceal our methods or tricks in the belief that if the spectator knew how they worked they would cease to impress or deceive him. Nevertheless the biographers,-journals and letters that actors have left us bear witness to an infinite degree of care, especially over small details.
There is a delightful story of Irving at the time when he was about to undertake King Lear. He and Graham Robertson, who tells the stoiy, were taking a holiday by the sea in Cornwall:
Once, during a walk when we were discussing some totally different subject — probably dogs — he stopped and, gazing fixedly at me, demanded: “Where am I going to get that feather from?”
“Yes. You know — when I say, ‘This feather stirs. She lives.’ What am I doing with a feather in my hand? Where did it come from? Did you ever see Lear acted?,?
“No, I said.
“That’s a pity: you might have remembered. I saw in a book that Macready used to pluck the” feather out of Edgar’s helmet, but I can’t do that.”
“Why not?” I enquired.
“Why not? Why, if I started plucking feathers out of William Terriss the whole house would roar. What can I do?”
We sat down and became gradually aware of feathers, quantities of feathers, lying about on the grass.
“Here are feathers,” said Irving slowly. “Any amount of ’em — and the scene is by the sea — just like this. I’ll have a feather tacked to the stage cloth just where I kneel beside Cordelia; then I can pick it up and — there I am.”
He gathered up a few feathers thoughtfully.
Next day I found him near the same spot, his handkerchief full of feathers.
“I’m going to keep them and use them in Lear” he said, displaying his take. “I shall like to feel that they were picked up by the sea — real seabirds’ feathers.”
I inspected the collection. “Ye-es,” I said regretfully. “But you know, those are all hens’ feathers. They’ve blown out of that yard — somebody has been plucking a fowl.”
“Ah,”’said Irving with one of his curious staccato grunts, and emptied his handkerchief. The feathers had lost their powers of inspiration — why could I not have held my tongue?
Irving’s productions were nothing if not representational, and though the idea of feathers — even seagulls’ feathers — tacked about the Lyceum stage to give point to one line may offend our modern views of production, the story helps to illustrate the kind of small chance which may clear or cloud an actor’s imagination.
(From The Actor’s Ways and Means by M. Redgrave)