The Weekly Machen
The following memorial by Arthur Machen made it into the pages of the Evening News only a day after the passing of English actor George Alexander. The article is fascinating for its anecdotal nature, and so, A. E. W. Mason appropriately selected a portion from it for a biography, Sir George Alexander and the St. James’s Theatre (1935). That excerpt is in red font below. For more of Machen’s reminisces on his acting career, refer to Treading the Boards.
Sir George Alexander:
As I Knew Him
March 16, 1918
It is De Quincey, I think, who inquires into that curious question as to whether a man can point to the happiest day of his life. Granting such a day, says De Quincey, it would diffuse its happiness over many days subsequent to itself, so that its own radiant and especial and original happiness would tend to be obscured. I know not how this may be; but I remember one of the happiest days in my life, and I shall always have grateful memories for the man to whom I owed that day—the late Sir George Alexander.
The circumstances were these. I had “gone on the stage” in middle life. 1 was painfully aware of my ignorances, awkwardnesses, incapacities in my new career, and of my age, in which all the joints both of mind and body are stiffened. With every gesture, every step, every word, I shuddered inwardly, learning that I was making a dreadful fool of myself. And I had barely been three months in his employment—certainly I had the very best of masters. Sir Frank Benson—when my friend, Mr. Henry Ainley, just engaged by Alexander for “Paolo and Francesca,” said one night in the dressing-room: “Alexander said to me, ‘You’ve got a very good actor in your company. He was playing a very small part, the Clerk of the Court in “The Merchant of Venice,’’ but it was a remarkable performance. I’ve never seen it done so well.’”
Alas! why don’t such moments happen to us all once a month at least? Henry Ainlev spoke quite casually, and I pretended not to care much about it as we changed from “Awkward Servants” (“Taming of the Shrew”) into Constables of the Watch, and then again from Constables to Noble Guests. But who will wonder that I have always thought of Sir George Alexander with something like affection.
Later, I joined his company at the St. James’s Theatre, and I must say that my kindly impression was there rendered all the kindlier. And, by the way, I liked him none the worse because his theatre was one of the few perfectly managed institutions that I have encountered. On tour one naturally has to do things more or less in a haphazard way. In a repertory company, at all events, there is seldom time or opportunity for dress rehearsals, and the practised craftsmen of such a company are not disturbed by being requested to transform at rehearsal a deal table into a grassy bank, to pass through doors, where there are no doors, and to ascend invisible and intangible flights of steps.
But the beginner trembles and is afraid, and I shall not forget my deep sense of comfort when at the first rehearsal of “Paolo and Francesca” the stage of the St. James’s was set and lit as for the first night, with all the properties in readiness. At the beginning of the first act I had to follow Sir George down a flight of steps, and there they were, real steps, not mocking and empty air.
And there were better things than practical steps at the St. James’s Theatre. Most people realise, I imagine, that acting is “nervy” work and excitable work, especially to the actor-manager whose money is involved with his artistic reputation. In such a business the sharp word amidst the anxiety and stress and tumult of rehearsal is a very pardonable and negligible matter, and so customary a matter that no one resents it. But I never heard a sharp word or a mere hasty word at the St. James’s—save once—and that word, if I may be pardoned, was addressed, not to a small actor of no consequence, but to Lady Alexander.
The affair was this. There was a dancing interlude in “If I were King,” and at one of the last dress rehearsals Lady Alexander ventured to hint, from the stalls, that this interlude was a little lengthy. I am a afraid she was right; but Sir George answered very briskly from the stage that “dancers had their feelings like other people”; and the dance was retained in its full length.
I know that I benefited by this kindly spirit. In “Paolo and Francesca” I had a small bit to play which I had one critical moment. I fear that I was rehearsing vilely, when I heard Sir George—or “Mr. George,” as he was then—explaining to the company that the whole fortune of the play hung upon Mr. Machen, and I know he can act.” I have long known what the manager really meant; he meant “and his abominable acting is going to spoil the play.” But I liked his way of putting it, and I tried my very best, and went on trying, and I hope that I did not spoil the play.
He once told me something that perhaps explained his kindly treatment of the beginner.
“When I was at the Lyceum,” he said, “after five or six hours of rehearsal by Irving I would go home almost crying. I would tell my wife that I was afraid I had made a dreadful mistake in going on the stage. And I made up my mind that if I ever had a company of my own, I would let them down pretty easy.”
Sir George believed in a long period of rehearsal. He told me once that if it were possible he would rehearse a new piece for six months. I asked him whether the actors would not become “stale.”
“Not at all,” be said. “they would grow into their parts and feel at ease in them.”
Odd legends grew about Alexander. His full name was George Alexander Sampson; and I suppose it was the Sampson that made people say that he was a Jew. As a matter of fact he was a Scot. His family name ultimately derived not from the strong man of the Bible, but from the illustrious Celtic saint, Sampson Sant.
Another legend told how as a young man he felt some doubt as to his prudence in leaving the great silk warehouse in St. Paul’s Churchyard for the stage. So, to make sure, he carried samples of silk with him on his early tours, doing a little business for his old firm in the morning and acting in the evening.
I repeated this legend once to an old friend of Alexander’s.
“Upon my word!” he said, “the tales people make up! It’s truly marvellous.”
But the adverb he used was not “truly.”
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2 thoughts on “Sir George Alexander”
From that brief BBC radio recording that still survives, of Machen’s wise comments on realism in literature, we know he had a fine, resonant voice. That must have counted for a lot with his theatrical associates.
It would be interesting to see as complete a list as possible of recordings of authors in our area(s) of interest. There are good recordings of C. S. Lewis and J. R. R. Tolkien (but not Charles Williams), Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, John Buchan, Algernon Blackwood (but not M. R. James)…
Thanks for this warm and vivid article! The people and works I don’t know…(!) I see various scans of editions of Stephen Phillips’s Paolo & Francesca: A Tragedy in Four Acts (“To George Alexander this play is dedicated by the author”) and of Justin Huntly McCarthy’s If I Were King, in the Internet Archive.
and I second Dale Nelson – how good it would be to have a list of recordings of such authors – and actors (and actresses)! I remember how thrilled I was to hear recordings of Tennyson (including one of his Lincolnshire dialect poems!) and Browning… I wonder if there are such lists, to be discovered?