Kean having performed the most sensational
of acting stunts, erupting like Vesuvius
as Overreach, ripping his shirt to ribbons,
then diving acrobatically to hit the stage
“biting the earth.” Lord Byron took convulsions,
and bawling fainters blocked the aisles and doors.
Hazlitt loved the way O’Neill could also hurl herself
flat on the stage, as if struck down by lightning,
and later commended her for retiring young,
and sparing herself the fate of Mrs. Crawford
and Mrs. Abington, who returned to the boards
when older and, unwanted, to “poverty,
neglect, and scorn.” Hazlitt felt sorry as well
for has-been players who avoided his glance
as they shambled down the street on futile errands.
Some chanted bleeding chunks of Shakespeare
in exchange for drinks, while others coached
young actresses, though long-toothed Romeos
often “assumed” too much. Those who could still
be cast were commonly hooted and hissed,
pelted and booed, and sent back mocked and sulking
to their seedy garrets in tumbledown lodging houses.
O’Neill rushed out to wed a baron after Hazlitt
accused her of acting with her alluring body
and not her immortal soul, which rendered her quite
unworthy of playing Juliet again
or Belvidera, even. And if, Hazlitt would warn,
her blatant “fleshiness” remained untempered,
she’d mar her finer sense, and be forced to play
a common sort of Magdalen forever.
This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 40 Number 4, on page 56
Copyright © 2023 The New Criterion | www.newcriterion.com