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A HISTORICAL PLAY,
IN FIVE ACTS;
BY WILLIAM SHAKSPEARE.
AS PERFORMED AT THE
THEATRE ROYAL, COVENT GARDEN.
PRINTED UNDER THE AUTHORITY OF THE MANAGERS
FROM THE PROMPT BOOK.
BY MRS. INCHBALD,
PRINTED FOR LONGMAN, HURST, REES, AND ORME,
This tragedy is one amongst Shakspeare's dramas, which requires, in representation, such eminent powers of acting, that it is scarcely ever brought upon the stage, but when a theatre has to boast of performers highly gifted in their art.
The part of King John is held most difficult to perform. John is no hero, and yet he is a murderer— his best actions are debased by meanness, deceit, or cowardice, and yet he is a king. Here is then to be pourtrayed, thirst of blood, without thirst of fame; and dignity of person, with a groveling mind.
Garrick was so little satisfied with his own performance of this character, that, after playing it with cold approbation from the audience, he changed it for the illegitimate Faulconbridge; where nature forced him to oppose the author's meaning by a diminutive person, though art did all its wonders in his favour.
The genius of Kemble gleams terrific through the gloomy John. No auditor can hear him call for his Kingdom's rivers to take their course Through his burn'd bosom,"
and not feel for that moment parched with a scorching fever.
Yet, in a previous scene with Hubert, by suffering his auditors to get before him, as it were, he fails of perfection in the part. An attentive audience is never dull of comprehension; and, however swiftly an actor proceeds, will follow close: but if permitted to gain ground of him, and penetrate the secret he should disclose, he gives up his prerogative by dallying with the impatient, who dive into impending events, with fatal consequence to all scenic deception.
Though Hubert sinks in importance by not being of the blood royal in this play, his character is illustrious from his virtue. Cooke, in the habit of performing characters far superior, elevates Hubert so much above the level where performers in general place him, that he displays, in this single instance, abating every other, abilities of the very first class.
Constance is the favourite part both of the poet and the audience; and she has been highly fortunate under the protection of the actress. It was the part in which that idol of the public, Mrs. Cibber, was most of all adored; and the following lines, uttered by Mrs. Siddons in Constance,
Here I and sorrow sit:
"This is my throne, bid kings come bow to it,"
seem like a triumphant reference to her own potent skill in the delineation of woe, as well as to the agonizing sufferings of the mother of young Arthur.
Faulconbridge, one of the brightest testimonies of Shakspeare's comic power, is excellent relief to that part of the tragedy which may be styled more dull
than pathetic. Mr. C. Kemble personates this child of love, as Shakspeare himself could wish.-If those who remember Garrick in the part complain of C. Kemble's inferior gaiety and spirit, the inferiority is granted. Still, he would be something nearer an equality with this great archetype of actors, could but those critics recall their gaiety and spirit, which, in their juvenile days, inspired them with the ardour to admire.
Prince Arthur is of more importance than either manager or actors generally conceive. They seldom care whether a princely or plebeian child is to perform the part; whether from feature, or from voice, Arthur shall belie his royal birth, and take away all sympathy in his own and his mother's sufferings.
Though Shakspeare's King John is inferior to many of his plays, yet it contains some poetic passages, and some whole scenes, written with his hand, beyond all power of forgery.
Theobald says, in his commentaries on this drama, "The action of the play begins at the thirty-fourth year of the King's life, and takes in only some transactions of his reign to the time of his demise, being an interval of about seventeen years."