[Speech of William Winter at a banquet of the Lotos Club, given to
Lester Wallack, December 17, 1887. Whitelaw Reid, the President of
the Club, occupied the chair. Mr. Winter was called upon to speak
in behalf of the critics.]
I thank you for your thoughtful courtesy and for this distinguished mark of your favor. Being well aware of my defects both as a thinker and a speaker, I shrink from such emergencies as this, but having known him so long and having been in a professional way associated with so many of his labors and his triumphs, I should fail in duty if I were not at least to try to add my word of love, feeble and inadequate as it may be, to the noble volume of your sympathy and homage. [Cheers.]
The presence of this brilliant assemblage, the eloquent words which have fallen from the lips of your honored president and the speeches of your orators, they signify some change--I will not say in regard to the advancement of the stage--but they signify a wonderful advancement in our times in sympathetic and thoughtful and just appreciation of the theatre. This was not always so. It is not very long since so wise and gentle a man as Charles Lamb expressed his mild astonishment that a person capable of committing to memory and reciting the language of Shakespeare could for that reason be supposed to possess a mind congenial with that of the poet. The scorn of Carlyle and the scarcely less injurious pity of Emerson for the actor are indications that in a time not remote, thought and philosophy have made but little account of the stage.
Something might be said about this by a voice more competent than mine, for in our time there has been a change in the intelligent spirit of the age, and I am sure that thought and philosophy now are of the opinion that the actor is an intellectual and spiritual force; that he is connected most intimately with the cause of public education; that he brings something of his own, and that, although the part provides the soul, it is the actor who must provide the body, and without the soul and the body, you could not have dramatic representations for the benefit of them. [Applause.]
I am not one of those writers who believe that it is the business of the newspaper to manage the theatres. The question of what to do to please the public taste, to provide mankind with what they like, or what they want, or, which is the same thing, with what they think they want, opens a very complex inquiry. Our dear friend has been puzzled by it himself more than a little. I should not undertake to instruct him, but as the observer of his course I have been struck by wonder and admiration of the way he has carried his theatre through seasons of great competition and great peril.
I call to mind one season, now seventeen years ago, I think, when in the course of a very few months, he produced and presented upward of thirty-two plays, showing the best points of these plays and showing his great company to every possible advantage; so have I seen a juggler toss fifty knives in the air and catch them without cutting his fingers.
[At the close of his speech Mr. Winter read the following poem.]--
With a glimmer of plumes and a sparkle of lances,
With blare of the trumpets and neigh of the steed,
At morning they rode where the bright river glances,
And the sweet summer wind ripples over the mead;
The green sod beneath them was ermined with daisies,
Smiling up to green boughs tossing wild in their glee,
While a thousand glad hearts sang their honors and praises,
While the Knights of the Mountain rode down to the sea.
One rode 'neath the banner whose face was the fairest,
Made royal with deeds that his manhood had done,
And the halo of blessing fell richest and rarest
On his armor that splintered the shafts of the sun;
So moves o'er the waters the cygnet sedately,
So waits the strong eagle to mount on the wing,
Serene and puissant and simple and stately,
So shines among princes the form of the King.
With a gay bugle-note when the daylight's last glimmer
Smites crimson and gold on the snow of his crest,
At evening he rides through the shades growing dimmer,
While the banners of sunset stream red in the West;
His comrades of morning are scattered and parted,
The clouds hanging low and the winds making moan,
But smiling and dauntless and brave and true-hearted,
All proudly he rides down the valley alone.
Sweet gales of the woodland embrace and caress him,
White wings of renown be his comfort and light,
Pale dews of the starbeam encompass and bless him,
With the peace and the balm and the glory of night;
And, Oh! while he wends to the verge of that ocean,
Where the years like a garland shall fall from his brow,
May his glad heart exult in the tender devotion,
The love that encircles and hallows him now.