Ermete Novelli Coming to America

Theatre Magazine, March 1907

Vol. VII No 73, pp. 67-68, v

At last it is tolerably certain that Signor Ermete Novelli, Italy’s foremost actor, will be seen this season in New York, Boston and Philadelphia. On several occasions the coming of this great actor has been announced, then for reasons unexplained to the public, his visit was suddenly postponed. It is now announced that he will positively appear here in March under the direction of the Shuberts. At present writing, the tragedian is acting in the city of Mexico, but as he is compelled to be in New York in March in order to appear in a law suit brought by him against an American firm of theatre managers whom he alleges broke their contract with him, it was an easy matter to arrange with the Shuberts for a series of performances. There is considerable curiosity among American theatregoers to see this actor of whom so much has been heard. It will be his first visit to the United States, although he is well-known in almost every other country. Novelli is now in the prime of his career. He resembles Coquelin in intellectual subtlety of characterization, no less than in certain distinctively natural methods of his art. In Italy he has been the foremost champion of the modern natural school of acting, of which with his marvelous mobility of features, range of vocal expression, ease of gesture and straight simplicity of style he is to-day one of the best living exponents. He first made his reputation in the line of comic jeune premiers. This seemed manifest destiny, with the big-nosed comedy and it was not long before his active mind reached out for the world’s dramatic masterpieces. His repertoire to-day is the most varied of any actor’s in the world, ranging from the Œdipus Rex of Sophocles and Hamlet to the modern French farces. Below will be found a study of Novelli in his greatest rôles written for the Theatre Magazine by Benjamin de Casseres, a New York journalist now living in the city of Mexico.

SIGNOR NOVELLI’S conception of Shylock is absolutely original. Booth made of Shylock a melancholy wandering Jew. Mansfield makes of him a demon of hatred. Novelli only among all the actors who have tried this difficult rôle has brought to the surface in stark nakedness the subtlety of the Jew of Venice, subtlety that is more than the subtlety of an individual robbed of his ducats and his daughter in that it mirrors the cunning, the subterranean hate, the watch-and-ward of a degraded, wronged people. The study is atomic. Novelli’s gestures are the minutiæ of a soul. The face is now a mask for calculated stupidity, now a dumb show of volcanic emotions; the eyes robbed of their lights by a thought that sits heavy upon his inquiet soul, then suddenly transversed by mockery, triumph, unspeakable irony—the great round pupils becoming two grimacing devils from hell; his postures slavish, kingly, obsequious, as flexible as his desires, crooked to the angle of his needs, a gymnast of expectations, an insinuating worm, a twisted, broken father chased by the dirty urchins of Venice—thus has Novelli followed Hamlet’s injunction of “suiting the action to the word,” giving to us, through the wonder of his art, a creature whose vengeful wickedness, unmerited sufferings and demoniacal furiousness have their tracks in the memory from act to act and long after the final curtain.

Ermete Novelli as Shylock

Ermete Novelli as Shylock

In the first act, in the scene on the Rialto with Bassanio and Antonio, Novelli’s reserve—the crouching reserve of the cat before it pounces on the mouse—is thrown upon the mind in clear relief by the manner in which he calls “Jessica! Jessica!” after Bassanio and Antonio have left him. He calls for his daughter sternly, deeply, where a moment before, in the presence of his two Christian customers, he had been all cunning, as full of wiles as a coquette, naïve, entrenched behind his rampart of Oriental-Italian diplomacy. Here it is in that first act that Novelli bodies forth the puzzling complexity of the Jew of Venice. Complex he is beyond all the other characters of Shakespeare, even more complex than Hamlet, of whom we always know his next act; but in the case of Shylock—at least in the shadowy but extraordinarily clear conception that Novelli has of him—we are always in doubt as to whether he really will take his pound of flesh. Shadowy, but clear—that is the Shylock of the first act, like a shadow cut clear against a blazing sunlight. In the trial scene—and here it is that the test of the intelligence of an actor who undertakes Shylock is made—Novelli’s reserve is admirable. Reserve! Reserve! that is the shibboleth of great acting. The absence of it mars Mansfield’s acting and the possession of it makes of Duse and Noveli supreme masters of their art. In the trial scene there is every temptation to overstep, every invitation to rant; but Novelli never “plays to the gallery.” He does not sharpen his knife to take his pound of flesh, as some actors have done, like a butcher about to hack a dead bull. Novelli’s eyes glitter like his blade, his teeth open like a cannibal’s about to eat a succulent babe: he sharpens the blade to the hidden movement of a dream—the dream of a fiend about to settle an old account. His face is the beatification of maliciousness, the triumphant apotheosis of spleen. And when the decision is rendered against him the swollen bladder bursts, the puffed spite of this money hawk crumbles to a slimy, groveling humility, and he vanishes from the scene after spitting out the word “Christian”—squirted the vitriol from a syringe—at those in the courtroom and leaves us wondering at the superb art of Novelli [68] and the transcendent dramatic instinct of William Shakespeare. Shakespeare conceived “Lear” in a bitter moment, and wrought it out on the lines of the great Greek masterpieces. Victor Hugo has said that “King Lear” is the excuse for Cordelia. “Shakespeare carried Cordelia in his thought, and created that tragedy like a god, who having an Aurora to put forward makes a world expressly for it.” This is one of Hugo’s exaggerations. Shakespeare wrote “King Lear” for the same purpose, conscious or unconscious that Æschylus wrote his “Prometheus,” or Sophocles the “Œdipus Rex,” or Byron his “Cain.” The mightiest dramas deal with the war between gods and mankind, the immemorial struggle of the human being with that unspiritual god of the universe, Circumstance. The great Unkowable God is blind. He holds the lightning in his hand, and we call it Law; he grinds the human being in the dust with a movement of His foot, and we call it Necessity.

Valeska Surrat: The so-called Gibson girl now appearing in "The Belle of Mayfair" at Daly's

Valeska Surrat: The so-called Gibson girl now appearing in “The Belle of Mayfair” at Daly’s

In “King Lear” Shakespeare aimed to depict the most terrible war that could be conceived of. He aimed at nothing less than an exposition of universal anarchy. He sought out the profoundest instinct in men and women—the love of parent for children, of brother for brother—and set them at war—civil war. In a malign universe nothing is impossible. He seems to say, Behold I show you the hideous possibilities inherent in a world where there is only Fate! I will show you father against daughter, daughter against father, brother against brother, and son against parent! In “King Lear” I will strip nature and the Unknown God of all the sentimental finery that faith and belief have decked them out in the bludgeon kings to the earth, where they shall sprawl like worms, ridiculed and spurned by their children; I will put children born out of wedlock into place and power and drive the good of heart into the storm-riven heath, where they shall live on toads and roots and offal; and men shall be played upon as Edmund plays upon the faith of his father; I will put out the eyes of conquerors, and make kings and fools herd together and lie down on dirty straw beds, while on high the gods shall laugh in the thunder and lightning, seeing thus the straits of man; the gods shall laugh and pass on the naked winds—for man is like an autumn leaf in the wind. Thus, rather, did Shakespeare conceive his great tragedy of “Lear.” But he gave us Cordelia. She is the modern Antigone. There is nothing more majestic in all dramatic literature than this woman whose soul is as spotless as her tunic. She stands out silhouetted against all that gloom and that series of sinister catastrophes like a white dove that wings its way through giant thunderclouds. In her human love comes into its own. Man may expect nothing from on high; he is the sport of the gods. But here on earth is the balm, and Cordelia, proud, lofty of spirit, is destined to hold her father in death and smooth to rest the turbulent waves of unreason that beat out the light in the old man’s brain. Signor Novelli’s Lear is a fit companion to his Shylock. In his very first gestures in the first act he strikes the keynote of the tragedy. In his querulous shake of the head, his munching of a toothless mouth, his gimlet-like glance of suspicion at his courtiers when he mounts the throne, he shows already the beginnings, the foundations of that malady which helped along by circumstances was to do its deadly work in that brain. No detail, however minute, has escaped Novelli. From that first entrance he unwinds the inexorable chain of Lear’s destiny, depicting with a startling knowledge of the psychopathic, the crumbling of the crapulous, irritable, proud old tyrant. That children have rights that are superior to parental love is something that never had entered the brain of Lear. The revolt of Cordelia is to him the extinction of that universe; he seems to hear Time’s very timbers cracking. Curse after curse he rains upon his daughters as they grow tired of his absurd claims. But Novelli never rants. He storms, he rages, he glares, he struggles in his impotency; he spits at the world; he bites, gnaws, scratches, mews, howls—running the gamut of his fury. In these scenes, verging on the cataleptic, the marvelous facial expressions of which Novelli is the master come into play. His face literally becomes his soul. Those muscles covered with skin are as absolutely at the command of this facile actor as are the keys of a piano under the fingers of a great pianist. Novelli is a Paderewski of the histrionic art. In the heath scene—one of the most marvelous things in Shakespeare—Lear becomes the king of a fantastic realm, a sport of the elements, insulted by God and man and daughter. Novelli here shows his excellent reserve by never stepping over that line—as thin as a hair—that divides the sublime from the ridiculous. But it is in the death scene with Cordelia that he strikes the highest note in his art. The broken old man carrying in his dead daughter—what pathos in his voice! What heart-rending solicitude! What exquisite tenderness! What a piteous dumb appeal he makes to the vengeful gods! Why was it thus? Why strike his beloved one in death at that moment? Why, oh, why at that instant of the coming springtide in that old man’s heart should Fate spread winter through their veins and set upon their heads the hoarfrost of the grave? Shakespeare does not answer. Novelli depicts the problem without an answer, and the rest is—silence. Signor Novelli also has in his repertoire “Povera Gente,” a three-act drama by Franco Liberati, founded on the famous book of the same name, by Feodor Dostoievsky. Dostoievsky’s life was more terrible than anything he ever wrote. Lunacy, poverty and exile were some of the things that stamped his face with that grim despair that made of it a broken façade to a haunted house, which Vallotin put so memorably into his portrait of him. The book is better than the play. Signor Liberati has done the best he could with the materials he had. It is rather a series of [v] sombre pictures lighted here and there by touches of gray humor, than a connected story. The background is Russia in revolution. We are introduced into a poor Russian family where the father is a bibulous, sniveling, spittle-shirted, good-natures ass, the wife a virago with a lover and a macadamized heart, a son who is suffering from anemia and revolutionary virus—that type so well known to readers of the Russian novel, immortalized in the Dmitri Roudine of Tourgeneff. These pale young thinkers, predestined to consumption or Siberia, carry dynamite in their brains; they are slaves of that ancient devil—the Ideal, the mocker that hallucinates the brain with dreams of freedom and feeds the body to the flame of official hatred. Such a one is the young hero of “Povera Gente”; he who is claimed by consumption in the last act after a term of imprisonment. Zakar Pokrovski, the father, was played by Signor Novelli. A fine character study. Half-lovable, half-despicable, he turned inside out the nature of this doddering remnant of a man as one would pull a stocking inside out. He might have crawled out of this cellar of brutalized beings that Gorky has so powerfully depicted in “A Night’s Lodging.” Wickedness is often majestic, admirable; but weakness, drooling imbecility, are disgusting. Novelli crushes our minds with his intensely vivid portrayals. He overwhelms us with him, until we, like marionettes, in the hands of a master, are seduced out of our own personalities and act ith him in those fictions of passions which his art bodies before our eyes. At the death bed of his son he goes crazy. It is so realistic and horrible that we feel the nightmare touch of insane asylums or battlefield hospitals descend on the mind. Benjamin de Casseres.