Wednesday, January 22, 2014

The New York Times, 1895

I recently came across an article from The New York Times I just had to share. On June 7, 1895, the Grey Lady published an anonymous review of the great actress Janet Achurch's legendary performance as Nora in the Ibsen classic A Doll House. It begins like this:

Janet Achurch, continuing her brief engagement at Hoyt's Theatre, appeared last night as Nora Helmer in William Archer's translation of "Et Dukke-Hjem," by Henrik Ibsen, called "A Doll's House." The bill declared that Nora was her "original character." But that is a misstatement. The role was played in Scandinavian and German theatres long before Mr. Archer instituted the short-lived Ibsen fad in London.

By the way, that "short-lived Ibsen fad," it's still going on more than a hundred years latter, okay Times?

To be fair, the anonymous reviewer wanted to give some credit to those actresses who had played Nora in the past, including Beatrice Cameron, who had played the role in New York prior to Achurch. Unfortunately, any sympathy I might have had for the Times disappeared when I read the next paragraph:

As a matter of fact, the role of Nora Helmer does not demand an actress of brilliant technique. It has been, in a dramatic sense, a greatly overrated character. Except in the tarantella episode and the succeeding fit of hysteria, it is as simple a role as Dot, in "The Cricket on the Hearth."

Nora Helmer? An overrated character? And don't make me go and defend Dot in The Cricket on the Hearth. (The review later mentions Mrs. Jellyby in Bleak House--misspelling her name by the way--so whoever wrote it must have had Dickens on the brain. The article came out two days before the 25th anniversary of the novelist's death.)

History has proven Nora Helmer to be one of the greatest stage characters of all time, and not because she has a "fit of hysteria" after dancing the tarantella. No newspaper can get them all right, but I found the article particularly disturbing because some of the same prejudices the Times had in 1895 are still with us today. For instance, the reviewer writes:

But the whole performance was competent--the work of a skillful and thoughtful actress, though she was rather heavy for a little songbird and somewhat clumsy for a squirrel.

Thousands of actors now thank you for their eating disorders.

Moving on, the review criticized Achurch for displaying "uncalled-for portions of petticoat" and--seriously here--worried that "she would involuntarily be revealed as Eve before the fall." Somehow I am more inclined to fault the reviewer here than Ms. Achurch.

And who was Janet Achurch? Not only was she one of the greatest actors of her day, but starting in 1889 she also managed the Novelty Theatre in London. She toured throughout the world, including Egypt, India, Australia, and New Zealand, and George Bernard Shaw once called her 'the only tragic actress of genius we now possess.'

Shaw wrote the title role of his play Candida just for her. Literally. He wouldn't even allow the play to be performed unless she was cast in the role. She eventually did play Candida, two years after the Times published this article.

Achurch gave her last performance in 1913 and died three years later at the age of 52