New York, 1913. Bernhardt’s recent engagement in New York at the Palace Theatre was doubly interesting in serving to reintroduce to the American public a young Greek actor of unusual appeal and commanding presence.
Lou Tellegen is twenty-eight and be has already for two years been the leading man of the world’s greatest actress. He is, therefore, a somewhat extraordinary young man indeed, the youngest leading man she has ever had. Despite bis youth his work has a dignity, authority and repose that is impressive. In watching these artistes together there appears no great disparity in age or experience, but then, has there yet been discovered a spirit that is more youthful than that of Sarah Bernhardt ?
Tellegen’s father was a Greek general and his mother a Danish dancer. He was born in Athens and reared in Holland. He has been associated with the theatre nearly all his life, rather against his father’s wishes. He has travelled almost all over the world and has acted in Holland, France, England and America. He is, in fact, a man of the world by education and experience. At fourteen he ran away from home and for three years lived a nomadic life. He knew what it was —to be desolate to be without decent clothes — to be disagree ably hungry.
One dramatic moment in his youthful experience impresses one as graphic and significant. He was sixteen barefoot; he had no money, no place to go no shelter and it began to rain. The quick, sudden realization of all this was too overwhelming so he began to cry. He saw a house, but pride forbade from telling his plight. Seeing a tree he laid down under it and slept with the abandon of perfect youth. When he woke he walked to the next town, got work and in four hours was eating a meal that he had earned by the sweat of his brow. At that moment he says: “I realized what it was to be a man.”
Tellegen is a universal man; as one talks with him you realize that his biggest lessons he has learned from the stars and living out in the open. He loves life and speaks of his love for it with the naiveté of a child. Bernhardt be reveres. He speaks of her with an affectionate, admiring respect that is refreshing. He says: “My mother brought me into the world, but Madame Sarah is my real mother. She has given me my chance and has taught me everything. We really play together: it is not work to us and there is no audience ever. It is those moments that we are on the stage that we live and have our real being. I hate the word actor —I never want to act I want only to be !”
To see Tellegen on the stage is to be convinced that this is not a mere pose. Each of the characters he portrays is a creation and is etched individually with cameo-like clarity. Best of all he brings fresh thought to a character and often entirely disregards tradition. Oddly enough, his best work on the American stage has been the two extremes of classical and modern drama. Armand in Camille and Hyppolitus in Phèdre. In this latter rôle he is given, too, the opportunity to visualize a glorious picture of physical beauty.
His most radical departure from tradition is revealed in his portraiture of Scarpia in Tosca. Scarpia is usually presented as a burly brute, sensual, pugnacious, rather blatant and a little middle class. As a matter of fact, Scarpia was a patrician and Tellegen makes him so, and from this major note he works out his plan. He smiles a great deal and his smile is terrible. It is the smile of utter cruelty. There is no sun in this glancing light. It does not warm. It kills as it tortures Tosca. He has the gentleness of absolute control of the situation, he has the mildness of the finished job. He is subtlety and resiliency itself. His mentality hurts so you almost wish he’d do something crude, obvious and humanly stupid.
As Armand he is the ingenuous lover : a little gauche as a boy might be— a little dumb and awkward as a youth hopelessly in love ever is. His first entrance is perfect. You realize absolutely he is coming into the presence of his divinity —the one who embodies his grande passion.