CHAPTER XXXVI. JOSEPH JEFFERSON.
The subject of this sketch is one of a race of actors. His great-grandfather was a contemporary of some of the brightest ornaments of the English stage, and was himself a famous actor and the intimate friend of Garrick, Sam Foote, and Barr. He was a man of amiable and winning disposition, and was strikingly handsome in person. He occupies a prominent place in the history of the English stage, and is said to have been, socially, one of the most brilliant men of his day. He died in 1807. In 1795 his son came to America. Of him, Dunlap, in his "History of the American Stage," says, referring to him, in February, 1797: "He was then a youth, but even then an artist. Of a small and light figure, well formed, with a singular physiognomy, a nose perfectly Grecian, and blue eyes full of laughter, he had the faculty of exciting mirth to as great a degree by power of feature, although handsome, as any ugly-featured low comedian ever seen." F.C. Wemyss has said of him at a later day: "Mr. Joseph Jefferson was an actor formed in Nature's merriest mood—a genuine son of Momus. There was a vein of rich humor running through all he did, which forced you to laugh despite of yourself. He discarded grimace as unworthy of him, although no actor ever possessed a greater command over the muscles of his own face, or the faces of his audience, compelling you to laugh or cry at his pleasure. His excellent personation of old men acquired for him, before he had reached the meridian of life, the title of 'Old Jefferson.' The astonishment of strangers at seeing a good-looking young man pointed out on the street as Old Jefferson, whom they had seen the night previous at the theater tottering apparently on the verge of existence, was the greatest compliment that could be paid to the talent of the actor. His versatility was astonishing—light comedy, old men, pantomime, low comedy, and occasionally juvenile tragedy. Educated in the very best school for acquiring knowledge in his profession, ... Jefferson was an adept in all the trickery of the stage, which, when it suited his purpose, he could turn to excellent account.... In his social relations, he was what a gentleman should be—a kind husband, an affectionate father, a warm friend, and a truly honest man." The second Jefferson enjoyed a brilliant career of thirty-six years in this country, and died in 1832, during an engagement at the theater at Harrisburg, which was then managed by his son. This son, named Joseph, after his father, was born in Philadelphia in 1804, and died at the age of thirty-eight. He was not so famous as an actor as his father or grandfather, but like them passed his life on the stage. He had a decided talent for painting, and was partially educated as an artist, but he never accomplished any thing with his pencil. He was a man of most amiable disposition, and was possessed of scores of warm and devoted friends; but he was a poor business manager, and was always more or less involved in pecuniary troubles. He married Mrs. Burke, the famous vocalist, and mother of Burke, the comedian.
To this couple, in the city of Philadelphia, was born the Joseph Jefferson of to-day, on the 20th of February, 1829.
This boy was literally brought up on the stage, as he made his first appearance upon the boards in a combat scene at the Park Theater in New York, when he was but three years old. He soon after went with his parents to the West. Olive Logan says of him, at this period of his life, "While they were both still children, he and my sister Eliza used to sing little comic duets together on the stage of various western towns."
He received as good a common-school education as the rapid manner in which he was moved about from place to place would permit, and was carefully trained in the profession of an actor, to which he was destined by his parents, and to which he was drawn by the bent of his genius. He appeared in public frequently during his boyhood, but his first appearance as a man was at Chanfrau's National Theater, in 1849. He met with fair success, and from that time devoted himself entirely and carefully to his profession. He began at the bottom of the ladder of fame, and gradually worked his way up to his present high position. Playing engagements in various minor theaters of the United States, he at length secured a position as low comedian at Niblo's Garden in New York, where he won golden opinions from the critical audiences of the metropolis. In 1857, he closed a most successful engagement as low comedian at the theater in Richmond, Virginia, and with that engagement ended his career as a stock actor. He had by careful and patient study rendered himself capable of assuming the highest place in his profession, and these studies, joined to his native genius, had made him famous throughout the country as the best low comedian of the day.
Feeling that he had now a right to the honors of a "star" in his profession, and urged by the public to assume the position to which his genius entitled him, he began a series of engagements throughout the Union, in which he more than fulfilled the expectations of his friends. He was received with delight wherever he went, and at once became the most popular of American comedians.
About a year or two later, he left the United States and made a voyage to Australia, through which country he traveled, playing at the principal towns. He was extremely successful. His genial, sunny character won him hosts of friends among the people of that far-off land, and his great genius as an actor made him as famous there as he had been in his own country. Australia was then a sort of theatrical El Dorado. The prices paid for admission to the theaters were very high, and the sums offered to distinguished stars in order to attract them thither were immense. Mr. Jefferson reaped a fair share of this golden harvest, and at the close of his Australian engagements found himself the possessor of a handsome sum. It was this which formed the basis of his large fortune; for, unlike his father, he is a man of excellent business capacity, and understands how to care for the rewards of his labors, so that they shall be a certain protection to him in his old age, and an assistance to those whom he shall leave behind him.
Returning to the United States, Mr. Jefferson appeared with increased success in the leading cities of the Northern and Western States. His principal success at this time was won in the character of Asa Trenchard, in the play of "Our American Cousin." His personation of the rough, eccentric, but true-hearted Yankee was regarded as one of the finest pieces of acting ever witnessed on the American stage, and drew crowded houses wherever he went. His range of characters included the most refined comedy and the broadest farce, but each delineation bore evidence of close and careful study, and was marked by great originality and delicacy. There was in his performances a freshness, a distinctiveness, and, above all, an entire freedom from any thing coarse or offensive, which charmed his audiences from the first. One of his critics has well said of him: "As Caleb Plummer he unites in another way the full appreciation of mingled humor and pathos—the greatest delicacy and affection with rags and homely speech. As Old Phil Stapleton he is the patriarch of the village and the incarnation of content. As Asa Trenchard he is the diamond in the rough, combining shrewdness with simplicity, and elevating instead of degrading the Yankee character. As Dr. Ollapod, and Dr. Pangloss, and Tobias Shortcut, he has won laurels that would make him a comedian of the first rank. His Bob Acres is a picture. There is almost as much to look at as in his Rip Van Winkle. There is nearly the same amount of genius, art, experience, and intelligence in its personation. Hazlitt says that the author has overdone the part, and adds that 'it calls for a great effort of animal spirits and a peculiar aptitude of genius to go through with it;' Mr. Jefferson has so much of the latter that he can—and to a great extent does—dispense with the former requisite. His quiet undercurrent of humor subserves the same purpose in the role of Bob Acres that it does in other characters. It is full of points, so judiciously chosen, so thoroughly apt, so naturally made and so characteristically preserved, that the part with Jefferson is a great one. The man of the 'oath referential, or sentimental swearing,' makes the entire scope of the part an 'echo to the sense.' Even in so poor a farce as that of 'A Regular Fix,' Mr. Jefferson makes the eccentricities of Hugh de Brass immensely funny. The same style is preserved in every character, but with an application that gives to each a separate being."
After a season of great success in this country Mr. Jefferson decided to visit England. He appeared at the Adelphi Theater, in London, and at once became as popular as he had been at home. His Asa Trenchard, in "Our American Cousin," was received by the English with delight; but his greatest triumphs were won in Boucicault's version of "Rip Van Winkle," which he has since immortalized. This play was first produced at the Adelphi, where it enjoyed an uninterrupted run of nearly two hundred nights.
Returning to the United States in the autumn of 1867, Mr. Jefferson appeared at the Olympic Theater, in New York, in the play of "Rip Van Winkle." Since then he has traveled extensively throughout the United States, and has devoted himself exclusively to the character of Rip Van Winkle; so exclusively, indeed, that many persons are ignorant of his great merits in other roles. By adopting this as his specialty, he has rendered himself so perfect in it that he has almost made the improvident, light-hearted Rip a living creature. A writer in a popular periodical draws the following graphic sketch of his performance of this character:
If there is something especially charming in the ideal of Rip Van Winkle that Irving has drawn, there is something even more human, sympathetic and attractive in the character reproduced by Jefferson. A smile that reflects the generous impulses of the man; a face that is the mirror of character; great, luminous eyes that are rich wells of expression; a grace that is statuesque without being studied; an inherent laziness which commands the respect of no one, but a gentle nature that wins the affections of all; poor as he is honest, jolly as he is poor, unfortunate as he is jolly, yet possessed of a spontaneity of nature that springs up and flows along like a rivulet after a rain; the man who can not forget the faults of the character which Jefferson pictures, nor feel like taking good-natured young Rip Van Winkle by the hand and offering a support to tottering old Rip Van Winkle, must have become hardened to all natural as well as artistic influences. It is scarcely necessary to enter into the details of Mr. Jefferson's acting of the Dutch Tam O'Shanter. Notwithstanding the fact that the performance is made up of admirable points that might he enumerated and described, the picture is complete as a whole and in its connections. Always before the public; preserving the interest during two acts of the play after a telling climax; sustaining the realities of his character in a scene of old superstition, and in which no one speaks but himself,—the impersonation requires a greater evenness of merit and dramatic effect than any other that could have been chosen. Rip Van Winkle is imbued with the most marked individuality, and the identity is so conscientiously preserved that nothing is overlooked or neglected. Mr. Jefferson's analysis penetrates even into the minutiæ of the part, but there is a perfect unity in the conception and its embodiment. Strong and irresistible in its emotion, and sly and insinuating in its humor, Mr. Jefferson's Rip Van Winkle is marked by great vigor, as well as by an almost pre-Raphaelite finish.
The bibulous Rip is always present by the ever-recurring and favorite toast of "Here's your goot healt' and your family's, and may dey live long and prosper." The meditative and philosophic Rip is signaled by the abstract "Ja," which sometimes means yes, and sometimes means no. The shrewd and clear-sighted Rip is marked by the interview with Derrick Van Beekman. The thoughtful and kind-hearted Rip makes his appearance in that sad consciousness of his uselessness and the little influence he exerts when he says to the children, talking of their future marriage: "I thought maybe you might want to ask me about it," which had never occurred to the children. The improvident Rip is discovered when Dame Van Winkle throws open the inn window-shutter, which contains the enormous score against her husband, and when Rip drinks from the bottle over the dame's shoulder as he promises to reform. The most popular and the most thriftless man in the village; the most intelligent and the least ambitious; the best-hearted and the most careless;—the numerous contrasts which the role presents demand versatility in design and delicacy in execution. They are worked out with a moderation and a suggestiveness that are much more natural than if they were presented more decidedly. The sympathy of Mr. Jefferson's creation is the greatest secret of its popularity. In spite of glaring faults, and almost a cruel disregard of the family's welfare, Rip Van Winkle has the audience with him from the very beginning. His ineffably sad but quiet realization of his desolate condition when his wife turns him out into the storm, leaves scarcely a dry eye in the theatre. His living in others and not in himself makes him feel the changes of his absence all the more keenly. His return after his twenty years' sleep is painful to witness; and when he asks, with such heart-rending yet subdued despair, "Are we so soon forgot when we are gone?" it is no wonder that sobs are heard throughout the house. His pleading with his child Meenie is not less affecting, and nothing could be more genuine in feeling. Yet all this emotion is attained in the most quiet and unobtrusive manner. Jefferson's sly humor crops out at all times, and sparkles through the veil of sadness that overhangs the later life of Rip Van Winkle. His wonder that his wife's "clapper" could ever be stopped is expressed in the same breath with his real sorrow at hearing of her death. "Then who the devil am I?" he asks with infinite wit just before he pulls away at the heartstrings of the audience in refusing the proffered assistance to his tottering steps. He has the rare faculty of bringing a smile to the lips and a tear to the eye at the same time. From the first picture, which presents young Rip Van Winkle leaning carelessly and easily upon the table as he drinks his schnapps, to the last picture of the decrepit but happy old man, surrounded by his family and dismissing the audience with his favorite toast, the character, in Mr. Jefferson's hands, endears itself to all, and adds another to the few real friendships which one may enjoy in this life.
Mr. Jefferson is a thoroughly American actor. Abandoning all sensational shams, he devotes himself to pure art. His highest triumphs have been won in the legitimate branches of his profession, and won by the force of his genius, aided only by the most careful study and an intelligent analysis of the parts assumed by him. He has the happy faculty of entering into perfect sympathy with his characters, and for the time being he is less the actor than the individual he personates. It is this that gives the sparkle to his eye, the ring to his laughter, and the exquisite feeling to his pathos; and feeling thus, he is quick to establish a sympathy between himself and his audience, so that he moves them at will, convulsing them with laughter at the sallies of the light-hearted Rip, or dissolving them in tears at the desolations of the lonely old man, so soon forgot after he has gone.
Mr. Jefferson has inherited from his father the genial, sunny disposition for which the latter was famous. He is an essentially cheerful man, and trouble glances lightly off from him. He is generous to a fault, and carries his purse in his hand. Misfortune never appeals to him in vain, and many are the good works he has done in the humbler walks of his own calling. He is enthusiastically devoted to his profession, and enjoys his acting quite as much as his auditors. In putting his pieces on the stage, he is lavish of expense, and whenever he can control this part of the performance, it leaves nothing to be desired. Some years ago he brought out "A Midsummer Night's Dream" at a Philadelphia theater, in a style of magnificence rarely witnessed on any stage. The scenery was exquisite, and was a collection of artistic gems. The success of the piece was very decided in Philadelphia, but when it was reproduced, with the same scenery and appointments, in a Western city, the public would scarcely go to see it, and the theater incurred a heavy loss in consequence. Jefferson's remark to the manager, when the failure became apparent, was characteristic: "It is all right," said he. "We have done our duty, and have made an artistic success of the piece. If the people will not come to see it, it is more their misfortune than ours."
He has inherited also from his father considerable talent as an artist, and sketches with decided merit, though he makes no pretensions to artistic skill. In his vacations, which he passes in the country, his sketch-book is his constant companion. He is a famous sportsman and fisherman, and in the summer is rarely to be found without his gun and rod. It is his delight to tramp over miles of country in search of game, or to sit quietly in some cozy nook, and, dropping his line into the water, pass the hours in reveries broken only by the exertion necessary to secure a finny prize.
Not long since his love of art led him to buy a panorama merely because he admired it. He put it in charge of an agent in whom he knew he could confide, and started it on a tour throughout the country. In a month or two he received a gloomy letter from the agent, telling him that the exhibition had failed to draw spectators, and that he despaired of its ever paying expenses. "Never mind," wrote Jefferson in reply, "it will be a gratification for those who do go to see it, and you may draw on me for what money you need." The losses on the panorama, however, were so great that Jefferson was compelled to abandon it.
Several years before the death of John Sefton, Jefferson paid him a visit at his home in Paradise Valley, during one of his summer rambles. Upon reaching Sefton's farm, he found the owner "with his breeches and coat sleeves both rolled up, and standing in the middle of a clear and shallow stream, where one could scarcely step without spoiling the sports of the brook trout, which sparkled through the crystal waters. Sefton stood in a crouching attitude, watching, with mingled disappointment and good humor, a little pig which the stream was carrying down its current, and which, pig-like, had slipped from the hands of its owner in its natural aversion to being washed. Jefferson, with the true instinct of an artist, dropped his fishing tackle and took his sketch-book to transfer the ludicrous scene to paper. Sefton appreciated the humor of the situation, and only objected when Jefferson began to fill in the background with a dilapidated old barn, at which the old gentleman demurred on account of its wretched appearance. The artist insisted that it was picturesque, however, and proceeded to put it down. Sefton had to submit; but he had his revenge, by writing back to New York that 'Jefferson is here, drawing the worst "houses" I ever saw.'"
In private life, Mr. Jefferson is a cultivated gentleman, and is possessed of numbers of warm and devoted friends. He has been married twice. The first Mrs. Jefferson was a Miss Lockyer, of New York, and by her he had two children, a son and a daughter. The former is about eighteen years of age, and is destined to his father's profession, in which he has already shown unusual promise. The present Mrs. Jefferson was a Miss Warren, and is a niece of the veteran actor, William Warren, of Boston. She was married to her husband early in 1868, and has never been an actress.
Mr. Jefferson is the possessor of a large fortune, acquired in the exercise of his profession, and being thus comfortably situated, is enabled to enjoy more rest from his labors than falls to the lot of most American actors. He resides in Orange County, New Jersey, about an hour's ride from New York, where he has a handsome country seat, which he has adorned with all the attractions that wealth and taste can command.