Mr. Robert Downing appeared in "The Gladiator" to a good audience at the Lansing last night. It is the most unpleasant task in the world to condemn or even to disparage any honest artistic endeavor. It is a most difficult task to disparage a performance in which there is no radical error, but which fails only in that it attempts the sublime and never reaches it, because it deals with great themes and yet never uplifts the audience by one thrill of transfiguring emotion. An actor's impersonation may be good and yet be very far from great. It may please the eye and the ear, and yet never get any nearer to the soul, never penetrate the flesh and reach the spirit. In many ways Mr. Downing is admirably fitted for the role of Nero, the Gladiator . His strength of voice and power of gesture and even his somewhat too robust physique are perfectly in harmony with the part. Mr. Downing gave a very conscientious rendering of the play last night. His first scene was perhaps his best. There he maintained much of the repose of tone and manner which characterized him when he traveled as Mary Anderson's leading man years ago, when greater things were hoped of him than he has ever achieved. His reading of many of his lines was strong and self-contained. His "Oh to crush the universe" was powerful by reason of its hopeless quiet. But Mr. Downing is no more a great tragedian than he was last year, or the year before. The best part of his career lies behind him. Just wherein he fails no one can say. Tragedy is a dangerous undertaking. There is seldom more than one tragedian in a generation. There is holy ground even in the theatre, and Mr. Downing cannot enter upon it because, like the sons of Aaron, he carries in his censer only earthly fire. No one can say why a man with everything in his favor has not commanding greatness, any more than they can say why a man with everything against him has it. Science has never told us the origin of genius.
Miss Eugenie Blair appeared as Neodamia . Miss Blair has an unusually beautiful face, though she is growing rather stout and she has a most unfortunate pose of the head. Miss Blair does not rise to an emotion; she tumbles slouchily into it. Her intonation was at times moving, but her acting has the same willowy droop as her head and shoulders. No matter how classical her robes, Miss Blair is always a comfortable modern matron. There is nothing exalted or spiritual in her love, and it utterly lacks passion. She has neither the fine dignity nor the coarser emotions both of which are so necessary to a tragedienne. She is limited to the mediocre. Her love is the sort that might make a comfortable fireside, but cannot made a great tragedy. Her caresses made up in length and duration what they lacked in fervor. Her religion lacked the same intensity and exaltation as her love. The conflict between the higher aspirations of the soul and the human yearnings of the flesh which made the slave girl's sacrifice she did not bring out at all because she felt neither. She simply turned her emotion on and let it run and it came in a placid and untroubled streamlet. She never loved at all she was simply sweet and affectionate.
Mr. Edmund Hayes as Flavius should be highly commended. His person and voice are excellent, and he has a freshness and fervor in his acting that makes it promising. Mrs. F. M. Bates as Faustina should purchase a safer and more reliable brand of hairpins, so that when the Roman mob is beating in the doors she won't have to delay the denouement by doing up her back hair.The wrestling match between Mr. McChrister and the champion, Mr. George Stryker , elicited great applause, and Mr. Stryker proved himself an exceedingly skilful wrestler as well as an athelete of great prowess. The scenic effects of the play were highly picturesque, especially the scene in Flavius' garden on the Tiber.
Robert Downing: Robert Downing (1857-1944) appeared in minor roles Mary Anderson's company in New York by 1880; by 1882 he was playing leading roles with her, such as Claude in Lady of Lyons. When Anderson left for London, Downing played with Joseph Jefferson's company between 1883 and 1888. Odell first notes his appearance in New York as Spartacus in The Gladiator in 1886 (Annals of the New York Stage, XIII: 230), and return engagements thereafter, saying that Downing was "trying to be a Forrest" (XIII: 459). He was best known for his physique as displayed in the lead role of such plays as The Gladiator. Downing's basic repertoire in the early 1890s consisted of The Gladiator, Virginius, Ingomar, Damon and Pythias, Julius Caesar, and Richard the Lion-Hearted.
Image available at the New York Public Library Digital Gallery.
The Gladiator: The Gladiator, by French poet Alexandre Soumet (1788-1845), was introduced in America by Tommaso Salvini in 1885. The gladiator, a Thracian slave who lives only for revenge, finds that the Christian whom he is ordered to kill in the arena is his own daughter. He appeals to the crowd for mercy and finds none. The mob, led by the priest of Juno, breaks into the prison where the gladiator and other Christians are held; the Gladiator kills his daughter to save her from rape. He too converts to Christianity and faces his death at the hands of the mob.
The dramatis personae makes it clear that this play was not Robert Montgomery Bird's blank verse tragedy, The Gladiator (1831), written for Edwin Forrest. It was Bird's most popular play, and was performed over a thousand times before his death in 1854. The plot concerns Spartacus, leader of a first century slave revolt in Rome.
Lansing Theatre: The Lansing Theater, on the southwest corner of 13th and P Streets, was built in 1891, displacing the Funke Opera House as the largest and finest theater in Lincoln. The owners were J.F. Lansing (b. 1842), a Lincoln real estate man, and his brother-in-law Henry Oliver (b. 1857); Edward A. Church was the manager. According to the program of the opening week (November 23-28, 1891) the auditorium consisted of the orchestra and parquet seating on the main level, with dress circle at the rear and sides; three tiers of five boxes each and six loges were at the sides. Above were the balcony and the gallery. With standing room, about 2500 people could be present.
The building also housed offices, including that of Cather's friend and fellow reviewer, Dr. Julius H. Tyndale. It was renamed the Oliver Theater in 1898.
Nero, the Gladiator: In the translation of Soumet's The Gladiator used by Salvini, the gladiator is not named. The New York Times review of Frederick Warde's version of Soumet's play, Galba the Gladiator, noted that the hero was "Nero, or Galba, as Mr. Warde calls him" (9 September 1888).
Mary Anderson: Actress Mary Anderson (1859-1940) was born in California before her parents moved back to Kentucky, where her father died while serving in the Confederate army. She was educated in convent schools in Louisville, and at the age of thirteen decided to become an actress; her stepfather encouraged her ambition, and she made her debut in Louisville in 1875 at the age of sixteen, as Juliet. She played in stock companies managed by John McCullogh and John T. Ford, then formed her own company in 1876, making her New York debut in 1877. In 1883 she made her debut in London, where her beauty and dedication to her art made her one of the first American actresses to be acclaimed in Europe; she played Rosalind at the newly opened Shakespeare Memorial Theatre in Stratford. Her Hermione, in A Winter's Tale, ran for a phenomenal one hundred consecutive performances. In November 1888 she returned to America with A Winter's Tale, but she fell ill the following March, and retired from the stage. Returning to England, Anderson married Antonio F. de Navarro in June, 1890, by whom she had two sons; they lived in retirement at a country house in Warwickshire.
Cather refers to Anderson's success in A Winter's Tale in My Ántonia (177), and to her fame in The Song of the Lark; in "Two Friends" Trueman and Dillon talked for years of having seen Anderson in St. Louis, and Dillon calls her "our Mary" because she was a Catholic girl (181).
Oh to crush the universe: At the end of Act I, scene iv, of Soumet's The Gladiator, in the translation used by Tommaso Salvini, the Gladiator says: . . . To our gods,Tyrants that I never see,I offer defiance as to a fight impossible;I, a dull athlete; and vainly on the airI write the treasures of my fury. Revenge misleads me, sweat runs down, my armsI open wide in the fierce desire To crush . . . the universe. The Times felt that the translation used by Warde was superior to Salvini's.
Sons of Aaron: In the Bible, Nadab and Abihu were the two elder sons of Aaron, the brother of Moses. In Leviticus 9, Moses tells Aaron how to make a burnt offering to the Lord; a fire comes from the Lord, consuming the offering as a sign of acceptance. Then, in chapter 10: 1-2, Nadab and Abihu "took either of them his censer, and put fire therein, and put incense thereon, and offered strange fire before the Lord, which he commanded them not. And there went out fire from the Lord, and devoured them, and they died before the Lord."
Miss Eugenia Blair: Eugenie Blair (c. 1868-1922) was born in South Carolina, but made her professional debut in Chicago. She toured with the D.P. Powers and James O'Neill companies, and then played supporting roles in Frederick B. Warde's company in the mid-1880s, winning modest praise in the New York Times reviews. By 1888 she was playing in Robert Downing's company; they were married by 1891, and divorced by 1910. She continued active in the theater, performing character roles on Broadway as she aged. She died after suffering a heart attack backstage during a performance of Eugene O'Neill's Anna Christie (1921), for which she created the role of Marthy. Blair's daughter was actress Eleanor Montell.
Image at: Google Books.
Neodamia: Neodamia, in Soumet's The Gladiator, is the daughter of the Gladiator. After her mother is killed by the Empress Faustina, the Gladiator flees with the infant Neodamia to the Egyptian desert, where she is stolen from him. She becomes a slave in the household of Flavian, who falls in love with her and sets her free. Before their marriage can be accomplished, Faustina has her captured and sent to the arena for execution for her Christian beliefs. The Gladiator recognizes her by a mark on her shoulder and refuses to kill her, but is forced to do so later to save her from rape.
Flavius: The cast of characters gives the name of this character in Soumet's The Gladiator as Flavian. Flavian is a wealthy young Roman who falls in love with his slave girl, Neodamia, and frees her in order to marry her. Inspired by her example, he becomes a Christian at the end of the play.
[Mrs.] Frank M. Bates: American actress Frances Wren Bates (-1908) was born into a touring theatrical family, the Wrens. She married Frank M. Bates, and they were well-known supporting actors in the 1860s. In the 1870s they toured Australia and New Zealand as stars; Bates was robbed and murdered, leaving the family stranded. She made her way to San Francisco, and toured with Booth, Barrett, and Modjeska, becoming a member of Robert Downing's company in the 1890s. Her only appearance on the New York stage, as recorded by the New York Times, was in a 1901 production of Under Two Flags, with her daughter Blanche Bates starring as Cigarette. She managed the career of her daughter before retiring in 1904.
Faustina: The Empress Faustina in Soumet's The Gladiator had killed the Gladiator's wife in order to use his new-born daughter in a sorcerous rite to ensure the life of her own infant son. Later, in the action of the play, Faustina is in love with Flavian, and so plots to kill Neodamia by the hand of the Gladiator.
Empress Faustina the Younger (d. 175) was the daughter of the emperor Antonius Pius and his wife Faustina the Elder (d. 141). She was married to the emperor Marcus Aurelius; she bore thirteen children, most of whom died young. She was reputed to have had many affairs, and the bad character of her surviving son, the future emperor Commodus, was attributed to her affair with a gladiator.
the wrestling match: Although the Salvini version of Soumet's The Gladiator does not contain any reference to a wrestling match, Downing may have introduced it into Act IV, which takes place in the Roman amphitheatre.
Scene in Flavian's garden: Act II of Soumet's The Gladiator opens in Flavian's luxurious garden, where he tells his aristocratic friends of his intention to marry his slave, Neodamia, after he has freed her. Faustina and the Gladiator, concealed in the garden, watch the couple pledge their love.
Tiber River: The Tiber River, the third longest in Italy, flows through Rome. According to the legend, the twins Romulus and Remus were abandoned on the river to die, but the river god Tiberinus flooded the river, carrying them to the Palatine hill, where they were rescued by a she-wolf, who nurtured them. The boys were found and raised by a shepherd; they later founded the city of Rome at the site.