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On Patronage And Puffing
by [?]

I was sent to see Kean the first night of his performance in Shylock, when there were about a hundred people in the pit; but from his masterly and spirited delivery of the first striking speech, ‘On such a day you called me a dog,’ etc., I perceived it was a hollow thing. So it was given out in the Chronicle; but Perry was continually at me as other people were at him, and was afraid it would not last. It was to no purpose I said it would last: yet I am in the right hitherto. It has been said, ridiculously, that Mr. Kean was written up in the Chronicle. I beg leave to state my opinion that no actor can be written up or down by a paper. An author may be puffed into notice, or damned by criticism, because his book may not have been read. An artist may be overrated, or undeservedly decried, because the public is not much accustomed to see or judge of pictures. But an actor is judged by his peers, the play-going public, and must stand or fall by his own merits or defects. The critic may give the tone or have a casting voice where popular opinion is divided; but he can no more force that opinion either way, or wrest it from its base in common sense and feeling, than he can move Stonehenge. Mr. Kean had, however, physical disadvantages and strong prejudices to encounter, and so far the liberal and independent part of the press might have been of service in helping him to his seat in the public favour. May he long keep it with dignity and firmness![2]

It was pretended by the Covent Garden people, and some others at the time, that Mr. Kean’s popularity was a mere effect of love of novelty, a nine days’ wonder, like the rage after Master Betty’s acting, and would be as soon over. The comparison did not hold. Master Betty’s acting was so far wonderful, and drew crowds to see it as a mere singularity, because he was a boy. Mr. Kean was a grown man, and there was no rule or precedent established in the ordinary course of nature why some other man should not appear in tragedy as great as John Kemble. Farther, Master Betty’s acting was a singular phenomenon, but it was also as beautiful as it was singular. I saw him in the part of Douglas, and he seemed almost like ‘some gay creature of the element,’ moving about gracefully, with all the flexibility of youth, and murmuring AEolian sounds with plaintive tenderness. I shall never forget the way in which he repeated the line in which young Norval says, speaking of the fate of two brothers:

And in my mind happy was he that died!

The tones fell and seemed to linger prophetic on my ear. Perhaps the wonder was made greater than it was. Boys at that age can often read remarkably well, and certainly are not without natural grace and sweetness of voice. The Westminster schoolboys are a better company of comedians than we find at most of our theatres. As to the understanding a part like Douglas, at least, I see no difficulty on that score. I myself used to recite the speech in Enfield’s Speaker with good emphasis and discretion when at school, and entered, about the same age, into the wild sweetness of the sentiments in Mrs. Radcliffe’s Romance of the Forest, I am sure, quite as much as I should do now; yet the same experiment has been often tried since and has uniformly failed.[3]

It was soon after this that Coleridge returned from Italy, and he got one day into a long tirade to explain what a ridiculous farce the whole was, and how all the people abroad wore shocked at the gullibility of the English nation, who on this and every other occasion were open to the artifices of all sorts of quacks, wondering how any persons with the smallest pretensions to common sense could for a moment suppose that a boy could act the characters of men without any of their knowledge, their experience, or their passions. We made some faint resistance, but in vain. The discourse then took a turn, and Coleridge began a laboured eulogy on some promising youth, the son of an English artist, whom he had met in Italy, and who had wandered all over the Campagna with him, whose talents, he assured us, were the admiration of all Rome, and whose early designs had almost all the grace and purity of Raphael’s. At last, some one interrupted the endless theme by saying a little impatiently, ‘Why just now you would not let us believe our own eyes and ears about young Betty, because you have a theory against premature talents, and now you start a boy phenomenon that nobody knows anything about but yourself–a young artist that, you tell us, is to rival Raphael!’ The truth is, we like to have something to admire ourselves, as well as to make other people gape and stare at; but then it must be a discovery of our own, an idol of our own making and setting up:–if others stumble on the discovery before us, or join in crying it up to the skies, we then set to work to prove that this is a vulgar delusion, and show our sagacity and freedom from prejudice by pulling it in pieces with all the coolness imaginable. Whether we blow the bubble or crush it in our hands, vanity and the desire of empty distinction are equally at the bottom of our sanguine credulity or fastidious scepticism. There are some who always fall in with the fashionable prejudice as others affect singularity of opinion on all such points, according as they think they have more or less wit to judge for themselves.