I think of Shakespeare in his theatre company as a carpenter in his workshop, looking through his stock of wood for a suitable piece, a man who makes tables, wardrobes and chests according to public taste, and even to order, who freely decorates all these things, following his own genius, not even thinking about it. I like to think that when the clown enters the stage, it’s because there’s an actor in the company liked by the public and who is a success in the role; and if the clown sings it’s because the comic actor has a good voice; that a large and fat actor was the model for Falstaff, and so on. Perhaps the roles of porters, grooms, men of the people were first given to employ the whole company; and it could be that the allocation of lines depended on the abilities and memory of a chance actor, employed primarily to snuff the candles. As for the subject of the play, it was often taken from another author; like Molière who wrote a Don Juan because the legend attracted the public of the time. And it’s no small advantage if the public knows the action and the characters in advance. The eyes and ears are prepared. A much loved actor is also like a known form and which everyone can draw in advance. And that’s how genius finds its way. Like a fine sideboard; it resembles all sideboards, but is beautiful. Where other sideboards have been carved, this has been carved, but by genius. The line follows custom; but curved or enhanced a little; and that’s enough. There’s very little difference between a beautiful thing and one that doesn’t even rate attention; as we often see a face that resembles a beautiful face, and which is ugly.
“To make a book is as much a trade as to make a clock”, said La Bruyère. Stendhal copied Italian anecdotes from old chronicles; I don’t know what he invented in his story of the Cenci, and I’m not very curious to find out. It’s in copying that we invent. And for someone making a clock, I envy him if he’s given the materials in advance, the thing inlayed, the figures and even the shape. For if he hesitates between a solid form or small columns, he won’t choose; I see him wandering and groping. And what reason for a choice? There aren’t beautiful and ugly shapes, but there is a beauty in every shape. If a shape and a beautiful shape have to be invented at the same time, it’s too much for a human being. A painter who has to make a portrait has hardly to hesitate or choose; and if the model wants to pose in a certain way, so much the better; then the portrait is made in advance, beautiful or ugly; it then has to be made beautiful; the imagination is no longer wandering and the brush advances.
Not all sideboards are beautiful; but all come from a workman. An actor and leader of the company, that is, having a trade and tools, won’t always make a good play; but he will make a play. And all plays are perhaps made; not all beautiful; but there is a beauty in all. And if it’s not always someone in the trade who discovers it, it’s always someone who receives it from the trade and executes it according to the artisan’s plans. If the means are also imposed; that’s even better. If my orchestra includes a gifted first violin, it’s an opportunity to draw his whole soul from him; or, from an orchestra that one has brought together and knows well, all its soul. Wagner was an orchestra conductor. It should be enough to look at the head of a man by Michelangelo to understand that the most surprising inventions are very close to the object, and so close to the ordinary that it’s only the artisan without genius who illustrates the difference. And it’s also true of the great poets, who say things completely ordinary, with the words of everybody, and following a very natural order. There’s perhaps no stronger example of what I am saying than a group of musicians, in itself a virtuoso, known, predictable, well-worn like a crossroads. But listen to the groups of violins in the death of Isolde; something inimitable, which resembles everything. When I see our artists twist and turn in search of something new and unheard of, I allow myself to laugh.
English translation copyright © Michel Petheram