WITHIN a few years we have had the opportunity of seeing the part of Hamlet interpreted by three actors, all of whom have devoted considerable attention to its study and performance. Edwin Booth's rendering had been for many years unequalled and perhaps unapproached, and when we heard of the new actor, whose light hair and broken English had won such triumphs abroad, all were impatient to make the comparison, confident, no doubt, that Booth's glory could not fail to be increased by it. Fechter came well advertised to this country, for his arrival was preceded by a letter from Charles Dickens, who seemed fairly carried away by the man's conception of the part, and perhaps a little anxious withal, lest the judgment of American theatre goers should be biassed by national prejudice. But his anxiety was groundless, for Fechter was received with hearty applause and lenient criticism. His conception of the part proved very different from Booth's, nor did it fail to find crowds of admirers, who hastened, perhaps unduly, to transfer their allegiance. Unduly, because some of them have since returned to their former position, having found that Booth's Hamlet stands better the test of being seen again and again, than that of the German actor.
This week, Signor Tommaso Salvini, "the greatest living actor," if we are to believe the bills, has presented us with a third rendering, quite distinct from either of the others. Fechter's imperfect English gives way to the rich Italian of the new comer; but the English was Shakspere's, while the name of the translator of "Amleto" is not preserved. To almost all, it is Hamlet in pantomime; and the labor of mentally connecting Shakspere's words with the action of the player can hardly fail to detract somewhat from the spectator's pleasure. But, pantomime and all, Salvini's Hamlet interests and pleases. Throughout it recalls Booth much more than Fechter, to our mind. In the scene where the ghost first appears, a great deal of the acting seems strangely familiar, and elsewhere throughout the play the likeness is striking. The conception of the part is different from Booth's; it is not so artistic, but, like Fechter's, more even and consistent throughout. Hamlet, as Salvini shows him, is mad; but it is monomania. The idea of vengeance upon his father's murderer early fills his mind, even to the exclusion of his love for Ophelia. He forms his plan of action, and afterward lets nothing turn him aside from its execution.
It is in this very firmness of purpose that the conception differs from that of Booth, who portrays Hamlet's vacillating character side by side with the impulse and filial love which combats and finally overcomes it. This is "higher" art, and, to us, it is more interesting. The conception is a more difficult one, and it is the skill shown in overcoming the difficulty that gives such pleasure to those who see it.
There are places in Salvini's acting that are unsurpassed in their power and dramatic fervour, while nowhere does he pass the line that divides tragedy from absurdity. This is his chief merit. He plays throughout with a freedom from over-acting that is as welcome as it is uncommon, yet he is never tame, nor does he anywhere fail to do justice to his conception. If consistency and evenness are all that is wanted, his impersonation is the best, in so far as it is the most "perfect piece of acting." But with those who look for the highest and noblest conception, and who are willing to accept it, though its imperfections be manifest, Edwin Booth will still be the nearest approach to their ideal.