Boston Discovers Miss Nance O’Neil By CHARLOTTE PORTER
Jan-June 1904 for THE CRITIC (excerpt)
Nance O’Neil in 1904, the year Lizzie Borden meets Nance
“THE supreme dramatic event of this season in Boston has been itself dramatic. In unexpectedness, richness of development, and climax it has been “as good as a play.” Miss Nance O’Neil came to Boston last January for a two weeks’ engagement at the Columbia. She has been playing here ever since. The town is said to be “Nance O’Neil mad,” and to have exiled her orchestra to durance perpetual beneath the stage. The editor of THE CRITIC said last year, I believe, in a brief notice accompanying a noticeable but inadequate picture of Miss O’Neil, that “her acting had been highly commended by good judges.” Although that is perfectly true,—despite the fact, too, that she has had extraordinary successes in San Francisco, Melbourne, and Honolulu,—it is yet true that she was practically unknown in the East. She owes her recent notable triumph to no acclaim whatsoever. The Columbia where she opened is out of the way and has a vogue ill adapted to such plays and such art as hers. Yet there anew she compelled attention. “Wherever Prince Rupert sits there is the head of the table.” Thanks to her own distinction on the one side, on the other side to those discriminating and incorruptible playgoers who care so much for genuinely artistic plays that they go to them wherever they may be seen, this unlikely theatre suddenly wheeled into place as the heart of the town.
Miss O’Neil at first played Hedda and Magda for less than a pittance to a handful of people. But the stir of deep emotion and high artistic pleasure she excited stormed the box-office and bowled over all handicaps. Profits arose, it is reported, from $32 or so, when the town was as yet unaware of the greatness within its gates, to $1500 at the first performance of “Camille,” when the general public was awakening to a lively sense of what it now takes to be the most potential personality on the English-speaking stage. The profits are stated to have been $40,000 in the first six weeks. Theatrical men of prominence took a hand promptly. Miss O’Neil was moved down-town before the now famous fortnight of discovery was out. Since then, under contract with Mr. John B. Schoeffel, she has played successively—a unique occurrence surely in a single city and season—at three of the most prominent theatres — the Tremont, Colonial, and Hollis Street— and enacted no less than twelve different parts. These parts have been various, old and new, subtle and simple, but none trivial.
Those least congenial to Miss O’ Neil’s nobly tragic note have asserted some dominating quality in the impersonation. Rarest trait of all, they have each been conceived, rendered, and made to look essentially different. After the shrewd, loyal, and masterful Magda; the sophisticated, mentally alert, and fascinatingly villainous Hedda; the meek-witted but quick-hearted, volcanic Marie of Sudermann’s “John’s Fire,” given for the first time in English on January 21st, there followed a series of “old-timers”: “Camille,” “Parthenia,” “Peg Woffington,” “Leah.” Then came the Fru Inger of Ibsen’s great historical tragedy, never before played in English. It is plotted in his earlier manner not yet emerged from the classic method, but already betraying a modern touch, though still worlds away from the latterday Ibsen of the better-known social dramas. Scott’s Meg Merrilies, made famous by Charlotte Cushman, challenged attention as a tour de force. Then Giacometti’s Judith and Queen Elizabeth, marked deeply with Ristori’s mark, received for her audiences henceforth the special impress of Miss O’Neil. Finally, now, on closing her season here, for culmination of the whole, comes Shakespeare’s Lady Mac beth.
As Miss O’Neil plays her she is essentially modern and femininely charming. She is in love with her husband, and ambitious for him. She reinforces Macbeth’s mental cowardice with a dauntlessness of resource and energy the more profoundly womanly because it is so entirely an inward force responding to his needs. His brute force and great resources of physical courage overwhelm her finer spirit. It learns, by its overthrow, that it cannot stoop to command on the lower level of brute force without self-destruction. Naturally in an epoch of dull spectacular externalism these humanly individualized plays have roused an unwonted thrill. They have amounted to a dramatic renaissance. It has been a stunner to critics or other persons of shallow culture, whether of the sort that loathes new plays or the sort that scorns old ones. It has been of incalculable influence in leading the public toward such intelligent sympathy with the drama in all its manifestations both elder – day and present – day as Miss O’Neil herself exemplifies.
Miss O’Neil was born in San Francisco, and is thoroughly American, her mother a Virginian, her father a New Englander. The name she bears is one derived for stage use from Nance Oldfield, the famous comedienne, and Eliza O’Neil, the not less famous tragic actress of the seventeenth century. In person she is very fair, with a nobly modelled face. She is tall to stateliness, and has ease, grace, and shapeliness of figure. The accompanying photographs of her show her as Magda and as Camille. Mr. E. H. Clement, the editor of the Transcript, is responsible, I venture to say, for the following description in the Transcript of her play of gesture: Evidently as far as natural endowment goes, for the great position of leading “tragedienne” of her time, in English-speaking countries she has no near rival. Nothing in the way of training, either, seems to be lacking. From her beautiful arm and hand and most exquisite use of wrist and the open fingers in gesture — nobody since Edwin Booth has displayed such hand-play—one could construct all the figures of the traditional poses, as given in Delsarte and the old French works for the expres sion or heightening of all the various passions and emotions. As with the arm and hand, so with the whole superb figure, all of its movements were “express and admirable”; and yet its arrests of motion and its repose did the most powerful work. The way the tall figure has stalked or stopped short, or merely stood and waited for the blows of fate . . . has been enough at limes to fix the house in stillness that could be felt and heard.
From Mrs. Erving Winslow, formerly Catherine Reignolds, who was moved to write of Miss O’Neil when she first saw her, January 16th, I quote as to her voice and technique in general: It is for the sake of our theatre-goers, for the sake of the theatre and of the art of acting, that I hope to see attention widely turned to this gifted young woman. Success must inevitably come to her, and perhaps it is all the safer and all the surer if it comes by degrees and is won by sheer deserving.
To have acquired her technique, Miss O’Neil must have been a devoted student, and as art is a jealous mistress, such magnetism as she exerts can never have been obtained without sacrifice of all other pursuits and pleasures, for which I honor her. The young actress has all the good natural endowments for the stage. She is a graceful, leopardlike creature, whose motions suggest the sweep of William Blake’s wonderful lines. Her voice has every modulation, every variety—sweet, low, and musical, rich, deep, and vibrant. But her rarest quality is the intellectual grasp of the character which evidences the correctness of her study and the ideality of her conception. To all else she adds the crowning charm of reserve—not its semblance, which is often mere incapacity, but that repose which assures the spectator of the power to reach the climax, illuminated by her temperamental power, through the perfection of technique. Let us be quick to recognize and welcome a new artist worthy to stand with the very highest.
Miss O’Neil’s personal style in acting must be recognized as quite her own. Its sincerity is absolute and of the highest order. Her way of getting hold of her character is through direct, brooding study of how to render life and her author in unmistakable integrity. In a word, she has great gifts of person, character, and brain as well as genius. She has, moreover, a robust capacity for unremitting, hard work. It has brought her now to a high pitch of proficiency and power. Yet she convinces one of her reserve force and promise of development.
Her plans for the future are still more interesting than her present achievement. She learned to act by long hard work. As a tall and very thin girl she presented herself one morning in the early part of October, 1893, to McKee Rankin during a rehearsal at the Alcazar Theatre in San Francisco. Her unusually fair hair contrasted strangely with her serious eyes, and although plainly a young girl she had the reserve of a woman. She brought a letter of introduction from Peter Robertson, the dramatic critic of the Chronicle. He wrote: “Here is a young friend of mine who wants to go on the stage. Kindly discourage her.” Mr. Rankin did so: “My dear child,” he said, “if you go on the stage you must expect to give up your liberty; you will become a slave of the public. The greater your success, the greater your slavery.” She was not abashed. Mr. Rankin finally permitted her to study for a small part in a play called “Sara.” The girl showed surprising talent, and Mr. Rankin gave her a slightly more important part before the piece was put on. It was produced at the Alcazar the latter part of October, 1893. In it she played the part of a nun, and appeared for the first time in her life on any stage.
She had never even taken part in amateur theatricals. The first line she spoke on the stage was,” Nanon Beaudet, you are dismissed from San Lazare.” “She was very awkward,” says Mr. Rankin, “and she seemed to be all elbows.” Her next play was called “Long Branch.” She played a soubrette part very well; but it was not until she played Captain Tommy, a mining-camp woman of loose character, in “The Danites” that she showed genius. On the first night, she said these lines with such rare feeling that the audience wept and applauded as they had never applauded before: “You don’t know much about my kind, Widder, and I hopes you never may; but we are human for all that, and one of these days you may realize that even sich as I have hearts ter feel and hands ter help.”
Mr. Rankin now realized that he had found a really great actress. She says of this that during the day when they were playing “The Danites” in a little half-civilized town in Colorado she walked about more or less, and just as she was returning to the place where she was staying a woman came out of a saloon. “She reminded me,” she says, “of the character I was playing. I wondered how she would feel if she had to say and mean what I had to say and not mean. When I went on to play my part that night I thought of that woman again as if I were that sort of woman, and as I thought I spoke and acted. I forgot myself, I forgot that I must try to act, and the next thing I knew the audience was applauding and shouting its pleasure. Mr. Rankin came running back of the scenes with the tears streaming down his face. ‘That was great, great!’ he said. ‘What?’ I asked, with perfect sincerity. ‘Your acting in that last scene,’ he answered. ‘But I did n’t try to act,’ I exclaimed, and then I saw what he had meant some time before when he had reproved me and I muttered something about having tried my best to act. He gazed very steadily at me and then he said: ‘My dear little girl, never do it again. Don’t try to act.’ His words did n’t make a deep impression on me then, but when I went to bed that night I began to think of them and I thought of them till dawn came. I realized now that I had won the secret of good acting. But the chasm between knowing how to do a thing and doing it is wide and deep. The secret I discovered, at last, that night in ‘The Danites,’ it took me years of weary barn-storming to put in thorough practice. Before I appeared as a star (in ‘The Jewess,’ or ‘Leah,’ in San Francisco, in 1898) I played through all the small towns in the West and Northwest, appearing in fully a hundred characters, varying from soubrettes to heavies. We played in everything, from barns to first-class theatres; and in all kinds of plays, from ‘The Kanuck,’ ’49,’ ‘Storm-beaten,’ ‘The Great Metropolis,’ ‘The Bachelor’s Baby,’ ‘East Lynne,’ and ‘Uncle Tom’s Cabin,’ to ‘Hamlet.’ That is the way that I learned to act; it was work, work, work, work, long and hard and lots of it. Other actresses may learn in other ways, other women might not learn by my way. Yes, I believe that all forms of art are inborn, but some arts cannot blossom without long cultivation.” After the success in San Francisco already spoken of came the successes in Honolulu and Australia and Egypt, and the trip around the world.
Finally has come this Boston success.”