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Extemporal Comedies
by [?]

It evidently required that some of the actors at least should be blessed with genius, and what is scarcely less difficult to find, with a certain equality of talents; for the performance of the happiest actor of this school greatly depends on the excitement he receives from his companion; an actor beneath mediocrity would ruin a piece. “But figure, memory, voice, and even sensibility, are not sufficient for the actor all’ improvista; he must be in the habit of cultivating the imagination, pouring forth the flow of expression, and prompt in those flashes which instantaneously vibrate in the plaudits of an audience.” And this accomplished extemporal actor feelingly laments that those destined to his profession, who require the most careful education, are likely to have received the most neglected one. Lucian, in his curious treatise on Tragic Pantomime, asserts that the great actor should also be a man of letters, and such were Garrick and Kemble.

The lively Gherardi throws out some curious information respecting this singular art: “Any one may learn a part by rote, and do something bad, or indifferent, on another theatre. With us the affair is quite otherwise; and when an Italian actor dies, it is with infinite difficulty we can supply his place. An Italian actor learns nothing by head; he looks on the subject for a moment before he comes forward on the stage, and entirely depends on his imagination for the rest. The actor who is accustomed merely to recite what he has been taught is so completely occupied by his memory, that he appears to stand, as it were, unconnected either with the audience or his companion; he is so impatient to deliver himself of the burthen he is carrying, that he trembles like a school-boy, or is as senseless as an Echo, and could never speak if others had not spoken before. Such a tutored actor among us would be like a paralytic arm to a body; an unserviceable member, only fatiguing the healthy action of the sound parts. Our performers, who became illustrious by their art, charmed the spectators by the beauty of their voice, their spontaneous gestures, the flexibility of their passions, while a certain natural air never failed them in their motions and their dialogue.”

Here, then, is a species of the histrionic art unknown to us, and running counter to that critical canon which our great poet, but not powerful actor, has delivered to the actors themselves, “to speak no more than is set down for them.” The present art consisted in happily performing the reverse.

Much of the merit of these actors unquestionably must be attributed to the felicity of the national genius. But there were probably some secret aids in this singular art of Extemporal Comedy which the pride of the artist has concealed. Some traits in the character, and some wit in the dialogue, might descend traditionally; and the most experienced actor on that stage would make use of his memory more than he was willing to confess. Goldoni records an unlucky adventure of his “Harlequin Lost and Found,” which outline he had sketched for the Italian company; it was well received at Paris, but utterly failed at Fontainebleau, for some of the actors had thought proper to incorporate too many jokes of the “Cocu Imaginaire,” which displeased the court, and ruined the piece. When a new piece was to be performed, the chief actor summoned the troop in the morning, read the plot, and explained the story, to contrive scenes. It was like playing the whole performance before the actors. These hints of scenes were all the rehearsal. When the actor entered on the scene he did not know what was to come, nor had he any prompter to help him on; much, too, depended on the talents of his companions; yet sometimes a scene might be preconcerted. Invention, humour, bold conception of character, and rapid strokes of genius, they habitually exercised–and the pantomimic arts of gesture, the passionate or humorous expression of their feelings, would assist an actor when his genius for a moment had deserted him. Such excellence was not long hereditary, and in the decline of this singular art its defects became more apparent. The race had degenerated; the inexperienced actor became loquacious; long monologues were contrived by a barren genius to hide his incapacity for spirited dialogue; and a wearisome repetition of trivial jests, coarse humour, and vulgar buffoonery, damned the Commedia a soggetto, and sunk it to a Bartholomew-fair play. But the miracle which genius produced it may repeat, whenever the same happy combination of circumstances and persons shall occur together.