The conscript who is for the first time under fire feels a sense of fear. Nevertheless, if he has the pride of his sex, and the dignity of one who appreciates his duty, he stands firm, though it be against big will. So it was with me when I began my part. When I perceived that some of Pasquino's lines were amusing the audience, I took courage, and, like a little bird making its first flight, I arrived at the goal, and was eager to try again. As it turned out, my actor's malady grew worse, so that he was forced to leave the company, and I was chosen to take his place.
I must have had considerable aptitude for such comic parts as those of stupid servants, for everywhere that we went I became the public's Benjamin. I made the people laugh, and they asked for nothing better. All were surprised that, young and inexperienced as I was, I should have so much cleverness of manner and such sureness of delivery. My father was more surprised than anybody, for he had expected far less of my immaturity and total lack of practice. It is certain that from that time I began to feel that I was somebody. I had become useful, or at least I thought I had, and, as a consequence, in my manner and bearing I began to affect the young man more than was fitting in a mere boy. I sought to figure in the conversation of grown people, and many a time I had the pain of seeing my elders smile at my remarks. It was my great ambition to be allowed to walk alone in the city streets; my father was very loath to grant this boon, but he let me go sometimes, perhaps to get a sample of my conduct. I don't remember ever doing anything at these times which could have displeased him; I was particularly careful about it, since I saw him sad, pensive, and afflicted owing to the misfortune which had befallen him, and soon be began to accord me his confidence, which I was most anxious to gain.
Often he spoke to me of the principles of dramatic art, and of the mission of the artist. He told me that to have the right to call one's self an artist one must add honest work to talent, and he put before me the example of certain actors who had risen to fame, but who were repulsed by society on account of the triviality of their conduct; of others who were brought by dissipation to die in a hospital, blamed by all; and of still others who had fallen so low as to hold out their hands for alms, or to sponge on their comrades and to cozen them out of their money for unmerited subscriptions--all of which things moved me to horror and deep repugnance. It was with good reason that my father was called "Honest Beppo" by his fellows on the stage. The incorruptibility and firmness of principle which he cultivated in me from the time that I grew old enough to understand have been my spur and guide throughout my career, and it is through no merit of my own that I can count myself among those who have won the esteem of society; I attribute all the merit to my father. He was con scientious and honest to a scruple; so much so that of his own free will he sacrificed the natural pride of the dramatic artist, and denounced the well-earned honour of first place in his own company to take second place with Gustavo Modena, whose artistic merit he recognised as superior to his own, in order that I might profit by the instruction of that admirable actor and sterling citizen. My father preferred his son's advantage to his own personal profit.
The parts in which I won the most sympathy from the Italian public were those of Oreste in the tragedy of that name, Egisto in "Merope," Romeo in "Giulietta e Romeo," Paolo in "Francesca da Rimini," Rinaldo in "Pia di Tolommei," Lord Bonfield in "Pamela," Domingo in the "Suonatrice d 'Arpa," and Gian Galeazzo in "Lodovico il Moro." In all these my success was more pronounced than in other parts, and I received flattering marks of approval. I did not reflect, at that time, of how great assistance to me it was to be constantly surrounded by first-rate artists; but I soon came to feel that an atmosphere untainted by poisonous microbes promotes unoppressed respiration, and that in such an atmosphere soul and body maintain themselves healthy and vigorous. I observed frequently in the "scratch" companies, which played in the theatres of second rank young men and women who showed very notable artistic aptitude, but who, for lack of cultivation and guidance, ran to extravagance, overemphasis, and exaggeration. Up to that time, while I had a clear appreciation of the reasons for recognising defects in others, I did not know how to correct my own; on the other hand, I recognised that the applause accorded me was intended as an encouragement more than as a tribute which I had earned. From a youth of pleasing qualities (for the moment I quell my modesty), with good features, full of fire and enthusiasm, with a harmonious and powerful voice, and with good intellectual faculties, the public deemed that an artist should develop who would distinguish himself, and perhaps attain eminence in the records of Italian art; and for this reason it sought to encourage me, and to apply the spur to my pride by manifesting its feeling of sympathy. By good fortune I had enough conscience and good sense to receive this homage at its just value. I felt the need of studying, not books alone, but men and things, vice and virtue, love and hate, humility and haughtiness, gentleness and cruelty, folly and wisdom, poverty and opulence, avarice and lavishness, long-suffering and vengeance--in short, all the passions for good and evil which have root in human nature. I needed to study out the manner of rendering these passions in accordance with the race of the men in whom they were exhibited, in accordance with their special customs, principles, and education; I needed to form a conception of the movement, the manner, the expressions of face and voice characteristic of all these cases; I must learn by intuition to grasp the characters of fiction, and by study to reproduce those of history with semblance of truth, seeking to give to every one a personality distinct from every other. In fine, I must become capable of identifying myself with one or another personage to such an extent as to lead the audience into the illusion that the real personage, and not a copy, is before them. It would then remain to learn the mechanism of my art; that is, to choose the salient points and to bring them out, to calculate the effects and keep them in proportion with the unfolding of the plot, to avoid monotony in intonation and repetition in accentuation, to insure precision and distinctness in pronunciation, the proper distribution of respiration, and incisiveness of delivery. I must study; study again; study always. It was not an easy thing to put these precepts into practice. Very often I forgot them, carried away by excitement, or by the superabundance of my vocal powers; indeed, until I had reached an age of calmer reflection I was never able to get my artistic chronometer perfectly regulated; it would always gain a few minutes every twenty-four hours.
In my assiduous reading of the classics, the chief places were held among the Greeks by the masculine and noble figures of Hector, Achilles, Theseus, Oedipus; among the Scots by Trenmor, Fingal, Cuchullin; and among the Romans by Caesar, Brutus, Titus, and Cato. These characters influenced me to incline toward a somewhat bombastic system of gesticulation and a turgid delivery. My anxiety to enter to the utmost into the conceptions of my authors, and to interpret them clearly, disposed me to exaggerate the modulations of my voice like some mechanism which responds to every touch, not reflecting that the abuse of this effort would bring me too near to song. Precipitation in delivery, too, which when carried too far destroys all distinctness and incisiveness, was due to my very high impressionability, and to the straining after technical scenic effects. Thus, extreme vehemence in anger would excite me to the point of forgetting the fiction, and cause me to commit involuntarily lamentable outbursts. Hence I applied myself to overcome the tendency to singsong in my voice, the exuberance of my rendering of passion, the exclamatory quality of my phrasing, the precipitation of my pronunciation, and the swagger of my motions.
I shall be asked how the public could abide me, with all these defects; and I answer that the defects, though numerous, were so little prominent that they passed unobserved by the mass of the public, which always views broadly and could be detected only by the acute and searching eye of the intelligent critic. I make no pretence that I was able to correct myself all at once. Sometimes my impetuosity would carry me away, and not until I had come to mature age was I able to free myself to any extent from this failing. Then I confirmed myself in my opinion that the applause of the public is not all refined gold, and I became able to separate the gold from the dross in the crucible of intelligence. How many on the stage are content with the dross!
THE DESIRE TO EXCEL IN EVERYTHING
My desire to improve in my art had its origin in my instinctive impulse to rise above mediocrity--an instinct that must have been born in me, since, when still a little boy, I used to put forth all my energies to eclipse what I saw accomplished by my companions of like age. When I was sixteen, and at Naples, there were in the boarding-house, at two francs and a half a day, two young men who were studying music and singing, and to surpass them in their own field I practised the scales until I could take B natural. Later on, when the tone of my voice; had lowered to the barytone, impelled always by my desire to accomplish something, I took lessons in music from the Maestro Terziani, and appeared at a benefit with the famous tenor Boucarde, and Signora Monti, the soprano, and sang in a duet from "Belisaria," the aria from "Maria di Rohan,"and "La Settimana d'Amore," by Niccolai; and I venture to say that I was not third best in that triad. But I recognised that singing and declamation were incompatible pursuits, since the method of producing the voice is totally different, and they must therefore be mutually harmful. Financially, I was not in a condition to be free to choose between the two careers, and I persevered of necessity in the dramatic profession. Whether my choice was for the best I do not know; it is certain that if my success had been in proportion to my love of music, and I have reason to believe that it might have been, I should not have remained in obscurity.