HARPER & BROTHERS PUBLISHERS
NEW YORK AND LONDON
Copyright, 1910, by HARPER & BROTHERS
Published October, 1910
Printed in the United States of America
I. THE RESTORATION OF THE EASY CHAIR BY WAY OF INTRODUCTION 1
II. A YEAR OF SPRING AND A LIFE OF YOUTH 13
III. SCLEROSIS OF THE TASTES 22
IV. THE PRACTICES AND PRECEPTS OF VAUDEVILLE 32
V. INTIMATIONS OF ITALIAN OPERA 44
VI. THE SUPERIORITY OF OUR INFERIORS 57
VII. UNIMPORTANCE OF WOMEN IN REPUBLICS 67
VIII. HAVING JUST GOT HOME 77
IX. NEW YORK TO THE HOME-COMER'S EYE 87
X. CHEAPNESS OF THE COSTLIEST CITY ON EARTH 97
XI. WAYS AND MEANS OF LIVING IN NEW YORK 107
XII. THE QUALITY OF BOSTON AND THE QUANTITY OF NEW YORK 117
XIII. THE WHIRL OF LIFE IN OUR FIRST CIRCLES 127
XIV. THE MAGAZINE MUSE 137
XV. COMPARATIVE LUXURIES OF TRAVEL 146
XVI. QUALITIES WITHOUT DEFECTS 156
XVII. A WASTED OPPORTUNITY 166
XVIII. A NIECE'S LITERARY ADVICE TO HER UNCLE 176
XIX. A SEARCH FOR CELEBRITY 184
XX. PRACTICAL IMMORTALITY ON EARTH 194
XXI. AROUND A RAINY-DAY FIRE 204
XXII. THE ADVANTAGES OF QUOTATIONAL CRITICISM 216
XXIII. READING FOR A GRANDFATHER 226
XXIV. SOME MOMENTS WITH THE MUSE 236
XXV. A NORMAL HERO AND HEROINE OUT OF WORK 244
I. AUTUMN IN THE COUNTRY AND CITY 255
II. PERSONAL AND EPISTOLARY ADDRESSES 264
III. DRESSING FOR HOTEL DINNER 274
IV. THE COUNSEL OF LITERARY AGE TO LITERARY YOUTH 283
V. THE UNSATISFACTORINESS OF UNFRIENDLY CRITICISM 296
VI. THE FICKLENESS OF AGE 306
VII. THE RENEWAL OF INSPIRATION 316
VIII. THE SUMMER SOJOURN OF FLORINDO AND LINDORA 326
IX. TO HAVE THE HONOR OF MEETING 338
X. A DAY AT BRONX PARK 350
AT THE OPERA Frontispiece
FIFTH AVENUE AT THIRTY-FOURTH STREET Facing p. 88
FIFTH AVENUE FROM THE TOP OF A MOTOR-BUS " 94
CHARLES EMBANKMENT, BELOW HARVARD BRIDGE " 120
THE MALL, CENTRAL PARK " 156
BROADWAY AT NIGHT " 256
ELECTION-NIGHT CROWDS " 260
ZOOLOGICAL GARDENS, BRONX PARK " 352
THE RESTORATION OF THE EASY CHAIR BY WAY OF INTRODUCTION
It is not generally known that after forty-two years of constant use the aged and honored movable which now again finds itself put back in its old place in the rear of Harper's Magazine was stored in the warehouse of a certain safety-deposit company, in the winter of 1892. The event which had then vacated the chair is still so near as to be full of a pathos tenderly personal to all readers of that magazine, and may not be lightly mentioned in any travesty of the facts by one who was thought of for the empty place. He, before putting on the mask and mimic editorial robes—for it was never the real editor who sat in the Easy Chair, except for that brief hour when he took it to pay his deep-thought and deep-felt tribute to its last occupant—stood with bowed face and uncovered head in that bravest and gentlest presence which, while it abode with us here, men knew as George William Curtis.
It was, of course, in one of the best of the fireproof warehouses that the real editor had the Easy Chair stored, and when the unreal editor went to take it out of storage he found it without trouble in one of those vast rooms where the more valuable furniture and bric-a-brac are guarded in a special tutelage. If instinct had not taught him, he would have known it by its homely fashion, which the first unreal editor had suggested when he described it as an "old red-backed Easy Chair that has long been an ornament of our dingy office." That unreality was Mr. Donald G. Mitchell, the graceful and gracious Ik Marvel, dear to the old hearts that are still young for his Dream Life and his Reveries of a Bachelor, and never unreal in anything but his pretence of being the real editor of the magazine. In this disguise he feigned that he had "a way of throwing" himself back in the Easy Chair, "and indulging in an easy and careless overlook of the gossiping papers of the day, and in such chit-chat with chance visitors as kept him informed of the drift of the town talk, while it relieved greatly the monotony of his office hours." Not "bent on choosing mere gossip," he promised to be "on the watch for such topics or incidents as" seemed really important and suggestive, and to set them "down with all that gloss, and that happy lack of sequence, which make every-day talk so much better than every-day writing."
While the actual unreality stood thinking how perfectly the theory and practice of the Easy Chair for hard upon fifty years had been forecast in these words, and while the warehouse agent stood waiting his pleasure, the Easy Chair fetched a long, deep sigh. Sigh one must call the sound, but it was rather like that soft complaint of the woody fibres in a table which disembodied spirits are about to visit, and which continues to exhale from it till their peculiar vocabulary utters itself in a staccato of muffled taps. No one who has heard that sound can mistake it for another, and the unreal editor knew at once that he confronted in the Easy Chair an animate presence.
"How long have I been here?" it asked, like one wakened from a deep sleep.
"About eight years," said the unreal editor.
"Ah, I remember," the Easy Chair murmured, and, as the unreal editor bent forward to pluck away certain sprays of foliage that clung to its old red back, it demanded, "What is that?"
"Some bits of holly and mistletoe."
"Yes," the Easy Chair softly murmured again. "The last essay he wrote in me was about Christmas. I have not forgotten one word of it all: how it began, how it went on, and how it ended! 'In the very promise of the year appears the hectic of its decay.... The question that we have to ask, forecasting in these summer days the coming of Christmas which already shines afar off, is this: whether while we praise Christmas as a day of general joy we take care to keep it so.... Thackeray describes a little dinner at the Timminses'. A modest couple make themselves miserable and spend all their little earnings in order to give a dinner to people for whom they do not care, and who do not care for them.... Christmas is made miserable to the Timminses because they feel that they must spend lavishly and buy gifts like their richer neighbors.... You cannot buy Christmas at the shops, and a sign of friendly sympathy costs little.... Should not the extravagance of Christmas cause every honest man and woman practically to protest by refusing to yield to the extravagance?' There!" the Easy Chair broke off from quoting, "that was Curtis! The kind and reasonable mood, the righteous conscience incarnate in the studied art, the charming literary allusion for the sake of the unliterary lesson, the genial philosophy—
'not too good For human nature's daily food'—
the wisdom alike of the closet and the public square, the large patience and the undying hopefulness! Do you think," the Easy Chair said, with a searching severity one would not have expected of it, "that you are fit to take his place?"
In evasion of this hard question the unreal editor temporized with the effect of not having heard it. "I believe that he and Mr. Mitchell were the only writers of your papers till Mr. Alden wrote the last?"
The Easy Chair responded, dryly, "You forget Aldrich."
"If I do, I am the only pebble on the shore of time that does or will," retorted the unreal editor. "But he wrote you for only two months. I well remember what a pleasure he had in it. And he knew how to make his readers share his pleasure! Still, it was Mr. Mitchell who invented you, and it was Curtis who characterized you beyond all the rest."
"For a while," said the Easy Chair, with autobiographical relish, "they wrote me together, but it was not long before Mr. Mitchell left off, and Curtis kept on alone, and, as you say, he incomparably characterized me. He had his millennial hopes as well as you. In his youth he trusted in a time
'When the common sense of most shall hold a fretful realm in awe, And the kindly earth shall slumber, lapt in universal law,'
and he never lost that faith. As he wrote in one of my best papers, the famous paper on Brook Farm, 'Bound fast by the brazen age, we can see that the way back to the age of gold lies through justice, which will substitute co-operation for competition.' He expected the world to be made over in the image of heaven some time, but meanwhile he was glad to help make it even a little better and pleasanter than he found it. He was ready to tighten a loose screw here and there, to pour a drop of oil on the rusty machinery, to mend a broken wheel. He was not above putting a patch on a rift where a whiff of infernal air came up from the Bottomless Pit—"
"And I also believe in alleviations," the unreal editor interrupted. "I love justice, but charity is far better than nothing; and it would be abominable not to do all we can because we cannot at once do everything. Let us have the expedients, the ameliorations, even the compromises, en attendant the millennium. Let us accept the provisional, the makeshift. He who came on Christmas Day, and whose mission, as every Christmas Day comes to remind us, was the brotherhood, the freedom, the equality of men, did not He warn us against hastily putting new wine into old bottles? To get the new bottles ready is slow work: that kind of bottle must grow; it cannot be made; and in the mean time let us keep our latest vintages in the vat till we have some vessel proof against their fermentation. I know that the hope of any such vessel is usually mocked as mere optimism, but I think optimism is as wise and true as pessimism, or is at least as well founded; and since the one can no more establish itself as final truth than the other, it is better to have optimism. That was always the philosophy of the Easy Chair, and I do not know why that should be changed. The conditions are not changed."
There was a silence which neither the Easy Chair nor the unreal editor broke for a while. Then the Chair suggested, "I suppose that there is not much change in Christmas, at any rate?"
"No," said the unreal editor; "it goes on pretty much as it used. The Timminses, who give tiresome little dinners which they cannot afford to dull people who don't want them, are still alive and miserably bent on heaping reluctant beneficiaries with undesired favors, and spoiling the simple 'pleasure of the time' with the activities of their fatuous vanity. Or perhaps you think I ought to bring a hopeful mind even to the Timminses?"
"I don't see why not," said the Easy Chair. "They are not the architects of their own personalities."
"Ah, take care, take care!" cried the unreal editor. "You will be saying next that we are the creatures of our environment; that the Timminses would be wiser and better if the conditions were not idiotic and pernicious; and you know what that comes to!"
"No, I am in no danger of that," the Easy Chair retorted. "The Timminses are no such victims of the conditions. They are of that vast moderately moneyed class who can perfectly well behave with sense if they will. Nobody above them or below them asks them to be foolish and wasteful."
"And just now you were making excuses for them!"
"I said they were not the architects of their own personalities; but, nevertheless, they are masters of themselves. They are really free to leave off giving little dinners any day they think so. It should be the moralist's business to teach them to think so."
"And that was what Curtis gladly made his business," the unreal editor somewhat sadly confessed, with an unspoken regret for his own difference. More than once it had seemed to him in considering that rare nature that he differed from most reformers chiefly in loving the right rather than in hating the wrong; in fact, in not hating at all, but in pitying and accounting for the wrong as an ancient use corrupted into an abuse. Involuntarily the words of the real editor in that beautiful tribute to the high soul they were praising came to the unreal editor's lips, and he quoted aloud to the Easy Chair: "'His love of goodness was a passion. He would fain have seen all that was fair and good, and he strove to find it so; and, finding it otherwise, he strove to make it so.... With no heart for satire, the discord that fell upon his sensitive ear made itself felt in his dauntless comment upon social shams and falsehoods.... But he was a lover of peace, and, ... as he was the ideal gentleman, the ideal citizen, he was also the ideal reformer, without eccentricity or exaggeration. However high his ideal, it never parted company with good sense. He never wanted better bread than could be made of wheat, but the wheat must be kept good and sound,' and I may add," the unreal editor broke off, "that he did not hurry the unripe grain to the hopper. He would not have sent all the horses at once to the abattoir because they made the city noisy and noisome, but would first have waited till there were automobiles enough to supply their place."
The Easy Chair caught at the word. "Automobiles?" it echoed.
"Ah, I forgot how long you have been stored," said the unreal editor, and he explained as well as he could the new mode of motion, and how already, with its soft rubber galoshes, the automobile had everywhere stolen a march upon the iron heels of the horses in the city avenues.
He fancied the Easy Chair did not understand, quite, from the intelligent air with which it eagerly quitted the subject.
"Well," it said at last, "this isn't such a bad time to live in, after all, it appears. But for a supreme test of your optimism, now, what good can you find to say of Christmas? What sermon could you preach on that hackneyed theme which would please the fancy and gladden the heart of the readers of a Christmas number, where you should make your first appearance in the Easy Chair?"
To himself the unreal editor had to own that this was a poser. In his heart he was sick of Christmas: not of the dear and high event, the greatest in the memory of the world, which it records and embodies, but the stale and wearisome Christmas of the Christmas presents, purchased in rage and bestowed in despair; the Christmas of Christmas fiction; the Christmas of heavy Christmas dinners and indigestions; the Christmas of all superfluity and surfeit and sentimentality; the Christmas of the Timminses and the Tiny Tims. But while he thought of these, by operation of the divine law which renders all things sensible by their opposites, he thought of the other kinds of Christmas which can never weary or disgust: the Christmas of the little children and the simple-hearted and the poor; and suddenly he addressed himself to the Easy Chair with unexpected and surprising courage.
"Why should that be so very difficult?" he demanded. "If you look at it rightly, Christmas is always full of inspiration; and songs as well as sermons will flow from it till time shall be no more. The trouble with us is that we think it is for the pleasure of opulent and elderly people, for whom there can be no pleasures, but only habits. They are used to having everything, and as joy dwells in novelty it has ceased to be for them in Christmas gifts and giving and all manner of Christmas conventions. But for the young to whom these things are new, and for the poor to whom they are rare, Christmas and Christmasing are sources of perennial happiness. All that you have to do is to guard yourself from growing rich and from growing old, and then the delight of Christmas is yours forever. It is not difficult; it is very simple; for even if years and riches come upon you in a literal way, you can by a little trying keep yourself young and poor in spirit. Then you can always rejoice with the innocent and riot with the destitute.
"I once knew a father," the unreal editor continued, "a most doting and devoted father, who, when he bent over the beds of his children to bid them good-night, and found them 'high sorrowful and cloyed,' as the little ones are apt to be after a hard day's pleasure, used to bid them 'Think about Christmas.' If he offered this counsel on the night, say, of the 26th of December, and they had to look forward to a whole year before their hopes of consolation could possibly find fruition, they had (as they afterward confessed to him) a sense of fatuity if not of mocking in it. Even on the Fourth of July, after the last cracker had been fired and the last roman candle spent, they owned that they had never been able to think about Christmas to an extent that greatly assuaged their vague regrets. It was not till the following Thanksgiving that they succeeded in thinking about Christmas with anything like the entire cheerfulness expected of them."
"I don't see any application in this homily," said the Easy Chair, "or only an application disastrous to your imaginable postulate that Christmas is a beneficent and consolatory factor in our lives."
"That is because you have not allowed me to conclude," the unreal editor protested, when the Easy Chair cut in with,
"There is nothing I would so willingly allow you to do," and "laughed and shook" as if it had been "Rabelais's easy chair."
The unreal editor thought it best to ignore the untimely attempt at wit. "The difficulty in this case with both the father and the children was largely temperamental; but it was chiefly because of a defect in their way of thinking about Christmas. It was a very ancient error, by no means peculiar to this amiable family, and it consisted in thinking about Christmas with reference to one's self instead of others."
"Isn't that rather banal?" the Easy Chair asked.
"Not at all banal," said the unreal editor, resisting an impulse to do the Easy Chair some sort of violence. At the same time he made his reflection that if preachers were criticised in that way to their faces there would shortly be very few saints left in the pulpit. He gave himself a few moments to recover his temper, and then he went on: "If Christmas means anything at all, it means anything but one's own pleasure. Up to the first Christmas Day the whole world had supposed that it could be happy selfishly, and its children still suppose so. But there is really no such thing as selfish, as personal happiness."
"Tolstoy," the Easy Chair noted.
"Yes, Tolstoy," the unreal editor retorted. "He more than any other has brought us back to the knowledge of this truth which came into the world with Christmas, perhaps because he, more than any other, has tried to think and to live Christianity. When once you have got this vital truth into your mind, the whole universe is luminously filled with the possibilities of impersonal, unselfish happiness. The joy of living is suddenly expanded to the dimensions of humanity, and you can go on taking your pleasure as long as there is one unfriended soul and body in the world.
"It is well to realize this at all times, but it is peculiarly fit to do so at Christmas-time, for it is in this truth that the worship of Christ begins. Now, too, is the best time to give the Divine Word form in deed, to translate love into charity. I do not mean only the material charity that expresses itself in turkeys and plum-puddings for the poor, but also that spiritual charity which takes thought how so to amend the sorrowful conditions of civilization that poverty, which is the antithesis of fraternity, shall abound less and less.
'Now is the time, now is the time, Now is the hour of golden prime'
for asking one's self, not how much one has given in goods or moneys during the past year, but how much one has given in thought and will to remove forever the wrong and shame of hopeless need; and to consider what one may do in the coming year to help put the poor lastingly beyond the need of help.
"To despair of somehow, sometime doing this is to sin against the light of Christmas Day, to confess its ideal a delusion, its practice a failure. If on no other day of all the three hundred and sixty-five, we must on this day renew our faith in justice, which is the highest mercy."
The Easy Chair no longer interrupted, and the unreal editor, having made his point, went on after the manner of preachers, when they are also editors, to make it over again, and to repeat himself pitilessly, unsparingly. He did not observe that the Easy Chair had shrunk forward until all its leathern seat was wrinkled and its carven top was bent over its old red back. When he stopped at last, the warehouse agent asked in whisper,
"What do you want done with it, sir?"
"Oh," said the unreal editor, "send it back to Franklin Square"; and then, with a sudden realization of the fact, he softly added, "Don't wake it."
There in Franklin Square, still dreaming, it was set up in the rear of the magazine, where it has become not only the place, but the stuff of dreams such as men are made of. From month to month, ever since, its reveries, its illusions, which some may call deliverances, have gone on with more and more a disposition to dramatize themselves. It has seemed to the occupant of the Easy Chair, at times, as if he had suffered with it some sort of land-change from a sole entity to a multiple personality in which his several selves conversed with one another, and came and went unbidden. At first, after a moment of question whether his imagination was not frequented by the phantoms of delight which in the flesh had formerly filled his place, whether the spirits which haunted him in it were not those of Mitchell, of Curtis, of Aldrich, he became satisfied from their multitude and nature that they were the subdivisions of his own ego, and as such he has more and more frankly treated them.
A YEAR OF SPRING AND A LIFE OF YOUTH
On one of those fine days which the April of the other year meanly grudged us, a poet, flown with the acceptance of a quarter-page lyric by the real editor in the Study next door, came into the place where the Easy Chair sat rapt in the music of the elevated trains and the vision of the Brooklyn Bridge towers. "Era la stagione nella quale la rivestita terra, piu che tutto l' altro anno, si mostra bella," he said, without other salutation, throwing his soft gray hat on a heap of magazines and newspapers in the corner, and finding what perch he could for himself on the window-sill.
"What is that?" he of the Easy Chair gruffly demanded; he knew perfectly well, but he liked marring the bloom on a fellow-creature's joy by a show of savage ignorance.
"It's the divine beginning of Boccaccio's 'Fiammetta,' it is the very soul of spring; and it is so inalienably of Boccaccio's own time and tongue and sun and air that there is no turning it into the language of another period or climate. What would you find to thrill you in, 'It was the season in which the reapparelled earth, more than in all the other year, shows herself fair'? The rhythm is lost; the flow, sweet as the first runnings of the maple where the woodpecker has tapped it, stiffens into sugar, the liquid form is solidified into the cake adulterated with glucose, and sold for a cent as the pure Vermont product."
As he of the Easy Chair could not deny this, he laughed recklessly. "I understood what your passage from Boccaccio meant, and why you came in here praising spring in its words. You are happy because you have sold a poem, probably for more than it is worth. But why do you praise spring? What do you fellows do it for? You know perfectly well that it is the most capricious, the most treacherous, the most delusive, deadly, slatternly, down-at-heels, milkmaid-handed season of the year, without decision of character or fixed principles, and with only the vaguest raw-girlish ideals, a red nose between crazy smiles and streaming eyes. If it did not come at the end of winter, when people are glad of any change, nobody could endure it, and it would be cast neck and crop out of the calendar. Fancy spring coming at the end of summer! It would not be tolerated for a moment, with the contrast of its crude, formless beauty and the ripe loveliness of August. Every satisfied sense of happiness, secure and established, would be insulted by its haphazard promises made only to be broken. 'Rather,' the outraged mortal would say, 'the last tender hours of autumn, the first deathful-thrilling snowfall, with all the thoughts of life wandering flake-like through the dim air—rather these than the recurrence of those impulses and pauses, those kisses frozen on the lips, those tender rays turning to the lash of sleet across the face of nature. No, the only advantage spring can claim over her sister seasons is her novelty, the only reason she can offer for being the spoiled child of the poets is that nobody but the poets could keep on fancying that there was any longer the least originality in her novelty."
The poet attempted to speak, in the little stop he of the Easy Chair made for taking breath, but he was not suffered to do so.
"Every atom of originality has been drained from the novelty of spring 'in the process of the suns,' and science is rapidly depriving her even of novelty. What was once supposed to be the spring grass has been found to be nothing but the fall grass, with the green stealing back into the withered blades. As for the spring lamb which used to crop the spring grass, it is now out of the cold-storage where the spring chicken and the new-laid eggs of yesteryear come from. It is said that there are no birds in last year's nests, but probably a careful examination would discover a plentiful hatch of nestlings which have hibernated in the habitations popularly supposed to be deserted the June before this. Early spring vegetables are in market throughout the twelvemonth, and spring flowers abound at the florists' in December and January. There is no reason why spring should not be absorbed into winter and summer by some such partition as took place politically in the case of Poland. Like that unhappy kingdom, she has abused her independence and become a molestation and discomfort to the annual meteorology. As a season she is distinctly a failure, being neither one thing nor the other, neither hot nor cold, a very Laodicean. Her winds were once supposed to be very siccative, and peculiarly useful in drying the plaster in new houses; but now the contractors put in radiators as soon as the walls are up, and the work is done much better. As for the germinative force of her suns, in these days of intensive farming, when electricity is applied to the work once done by them, they can claim to have no virtue beyond the suns of July or August, which most seeds find effective enough. If spring were absorbed into summer, the heat of that season would be qualified, and its gentler warmth would be extended to autumn, which would be prolonged into the winter. The rigors of winter would be much abated, and the partition of spring among the other seasons would perform the mystic office of the Gulf Stream in ameliorating our climate, besides ridding us of a time of most tedious and annoying suspense. And what should we lose by it?"
The poet seemed not to be answering the Easy Chair directly, but only to be murmuring to himself, "Youth."
"Youth! Youth!" the Easy Chair repeated in exasperation. "And what is youth?"
"The best thing in the world."
"For whom is it the best thing?"
This question seemed to give the poet pause. "Well," he said, finally, with a not very forcible smile, "for itself."
"Ah, there you are!" he of the Easy Chair exclaimed; but he could not help a forgiving laugh. "In a way you are right. The world belongs to youth, and so it ought to be the best thing for itself in it. Youth is a very curious thing, and in that it is like spring, especially like the spring we have just been having, to our cost. It is the only period of life, as spring is the only season of the year, that has too much time on its hands. Yet it does not seem to waste time, as age does, as winter does; it keeps doing something all the while. The things it does are apparently very futile and superfluous, some of them, but in the end something has been accomplished. After a March of whimsical suns and snows, an April of quite fantastical frosts and thaws, and a May, at least partially, of cold mists and parching winds, the flowers, which the florists have been forcing for the purpose, are blooming in the park; the grass is green wherever it has not had the roots trodden out of it, and a filmy foliage, like the soft foulard tissues which the young girls are wearing, drips from the trees. You can say it is all very painty, the verdure; too painty; but you cannot reject the picture because of this little mannerism of the painter. To be sure, you miss the sheeted snows and the dreamy weft of leafless twigs against the hard, blue sky. Still, now it has come, you cannot deny that the spring is pretty, or that the fashionable colors which it has introduced are charming. It is said that these are so charming that a woman of the worst taste cannot choose amiss among them. In spite of her taste, her hat comes out a harmonic miracle; her gown, against all her endeavors, flows in an exquisite symphony of the tender audacities of tint with which nature mixes her palette; little notes of chiffon, of tulle, of feather, blow all about her. This is rather a medley of metaphors, to which several arts contribute, but you get my meaning?" In making this appeal, he of the Easy Chair saw in the fixed eye of the poet that remoteness of regard which denotes that your listener has been hearing very little of what you have been saying.
"Yes," the poet replied with a long breath, "you are right about that dreamy weft of leafless twigs against the hard, blue sky; and I wonder if we quite do justice to the beauty of winter, of age, we poets, when we are so glad to have the spring come."
"I don't know about winter," he of the Easy Chair said, "but in an opera which the English Lord Chamberlain provisionally suppressed, out of tenderness for an alliance not eventually or potentially to the advantage of these States, Mr. William Gilbert has done his duty to the decline of life, where he sings,
'There is beauty in extreme old age; There's a fascination frantic In a ruin that's romantic'
Or, at least no one else has said so much for 'that time of life,' which another librettist has stigmatized as
'Bare, ruined choirs, where late the sweet birds sang.'"
"Yes, I know," the poet returned, clinging to the thread of thought on which he had cast himself loose. "But I believe a great deal more could be said for age by the poets if they really tried. I am not satisfied of Mr. Gilbert's earnestness in the passage you quote from the 'Mikado,' and I prefer Shakespeare's 'bare, ruined choirs.' I don't know but I prefer the hard, unflattering portrait which Hamlet mockingly draws for Polonius, and there is something almost caressing in the notion of 'the lean and slippered pantaloon.' The worst of it is that we old fellows look so plain to one another; I dare say young people don't find us so bad. I can remember from my own youth that I thought old men, and especially old women, rather attractive. I am not sure that we elders realize the charm of a perfectly bald head as it presents itself to the eye of youth. Yet, an infant's head is often quite bald."
"Yes, and so is an egg," the Easy Chair retorted, "but there is not the same winning appeal in the baldness of the superannuated bird which has evolved from it—eagle or nightingale, parrot or
Many-wintered crow that leads the clanging rookery home.
Tennyson has done his best in showing us venerable in his picture of
'the Ionian father of the rest: A million wrinkles carved his silver skin, A hundred winters snowed upon his breast.'
But who would not rather be Helen than Homer, her face launching a thousand ships and burning the topless tower of Ilion—fairer than the evening air and simply but effectively attired in the beauty of a thousand stars? What poet has ever said things like that of an old man, even of Methuselah?"
"Yes," the poet sighed. "I suppose you are partly right. Meteorology certainly has the advantage of humanity in some things. We cannot make much of age here, and hereafter we can only conceive of its being turned into youth. Fancy an eternity of sensibility!"
"No, I would rather not!" he of the Easy Chair returned, sharply. "Besides, it is you who are trying to make age out a tolerable, even a desirable thing."
"But I have given it up," the poet meekly replied. "The great thing would be some rearrangement of our mortal conditions so that once a year we could wake from our dream of winter and find ourselves young. Not merely younger, but young—the genuine article. A tree can do that, and does it every year, until after a hundred years, or three hundred, or a thousand, it dies. Why should not a man, or, much more importantly, a woman, do it? I think we are very much scanted in that respect."
"My dear fellow, if you begin fault-finding with creation, there will be no end to it. It might be answered that, in this case, you can walk about and a tree cannot; you can call upon me and a tree cannot. And other things. Come! the trees have not got it all their own way. Besides, imagine the discomforts of a human springtime, blowing hot and blowing cold, freezing, thawing, raining, and drouthing, and never being sure whether we are young or old, May or December. We should be such nuisances to one another that we should ask the gods to take back their gift, and you know very well they cannot."
"Our rejuvenescence would be a matter of temperament, not temperature," the poet said, searching the air hopefully for an idea. "I have noticed this spring that the isothermal line is as crooked as a railroad on the map of a rival. I have been down in New Hampshire since I saw you, and I found the spring temperamentally as far advanced there as here in New York. Of course not as far advanced as in Union Square, but quite as far as in Central Park. Between Boston and Portsmouth there were bits of railroad bank that were as green as the sward beside the Mall, and every now and then there was an enthusiastic maple in the wet lowlands that hung the air as full of color as any maple that reddened the flying landscape when I first got beyond the New York suburbs on my way north. At Portsmouth the birds were singing the same songs as in the Park. I could not make out the slightest difference."
"With the same note of nervous apprehension in them?"
"I did not observe that. But they were spring songs, certainly."
"Then," the Easy Chair said, "I would rather my winter were turned into summer, or early autumn, than spring, if there is going to be any change of the mortal conditions. I like settled weather, the calm of that time of life when the sins and follies have been committed, the passions burned themselves out, and the ambitions frustrated so that they do not bother, the aspirations defeated, the hopes brought low. Then you have some comfort. This turmoil of vernal striving makes me tired."
"Yes, I see what you mean," the poet assented. "But you cannot have the seasons out of their order in the rearrangement of the mortal conditions. You must have spring and you must have summer before you can have autumn."
"Are those the terms? Then I say, Winter at once! Winter is bad enough, but I would not go through spring again for any—In winter you can get away from the cold, with a good, warm book, or a sunny picture, or a cozy old song, or a new play; but in spring how will you escape the rawness if you have left off your flannels and let out the furnace? No, my dear friend, we could not stand going back to youth every year. The trees can, because they have been used to it from the beginning of time, but the men could not. Even the women——"
At this moment a beatific presence made itself sensible, and the Easy Chair recognized the poet's Muse, who had come for him. The poet put the question to her. "Young?" she said. "Why, you and I are always young, silly boy! Get your hat, and come over to Long Island City with me, and see the pussy-willows along the railroad-banks. The mosquitoes are beginning to sing in the ditches already."
SCLEROSIS OF THE TASTES
The other day one of those convertible familiars of the Easy Chair, who
"Change and pass and come again,"
looked in upon it, after some months' absence, with the effect of having aged considerably in the interval. But this was only his latest avatar; he was no older, as he was no younger, than before; to support a fresh character, he had to put on an appropriate aspect, and having, at former interviews, been a poet, a novelist, a philosopher, a reformer, a moralist, he was now merely looking the part of a veteran observer, of a psychologist grown gray in divining the character of others from his own consciousness.
"Have you ever noticed," he began, "that the first things we get stiff in, as we advance in life, are our tastes? We suppose that it is our joints which feel the premonitions of age; and that because we no longer wish to dance or play ball or sprint in college races we are in the earliest stage of that sapless condition when the hinges of the body grind dryly upon one another, and we lose a good inch of our stature, through shrinkage, though the spine still holds us steadfastly upright."
"Well, isn't that so?" the Easy Chair asked, tranquilly.
"It may be so, or it may not be so," the veteran observer replied. "Ultimately, I dare say, it is so. But what I wish to enforce is the fact that before you begin to feel the faintest sense of stiffening joints you are allowing yourself to fall into that voluntary senescence which I call getting stiff in the tastes. It is something that I think we ought to guard ourselves against as a sort of mental sclerosis which must end fatally long before we have reached the patriarchal age which that unbelieving believer Metchnikoff says we can attain if we fight off physical sclerosis. He can only negatively teach us how to do this, but I maintain we can have each of us in our power the remedy against stiffening tastes."
"I don't see how," the Easy Chair said, more to provoke the sage to explanation than to express dissent.
"I will teach you how," he said, "if you will allow me to make it a personal matter, and use you in illustration."
"Why not use yourself?"
"Because that would be egotistical, and the prime ingredient of my specific against getting stiff in the tastes is that spiritual grace which is the very antidote, the very antithesis of egotism. Up to a certain point, a certain time, we are usefully employed in cultivating our tastes, in refining them, and in defining them. We cannot be too strenuous in defining them; and, as long as we are young, the catholicity of youth will preserve us from a bigoted narrowness. In aesthetic matters—and I imagine we both understand that we are dealing with these—the youngest youth has no tastes; it has merely appetites. All is fish that comes to its net; if anything, it prefers the gaudier of the finny tribes; it is only when it becomes sophisticated that its appetites turn into tastes, and it begins to appreciate the flavor of that diseased but pearl-bearing species of oyster which we call genius, because we have no accurate name for it. With the appreciation of this flavor comes the overpowering desire for it, the incessant and limitless search for it. To the desire for it whole literatures owe their continued existence, since, except for the universal genius-hunger of youth, the classics of almost all languages would have perished long ago. When indiscriminate and omnivorous youth has explored those vast and mostly lifeless seas, it has found that the diseased oyster which bears the pearls is the rarest object in nature. But having once formed the taste for it, youth will have no other flavor, and it is at this moment that its danger of hardening into premature age begins. The conceit of having recognized genius takes the form of a bigoted denial of its existence save in the instances recognized. This conceit does not admit the possibility of error or omission in the search, and it does not allow that the diseased oyster can transmit its pearl-bearing qualities and its peculiar flavors; so that the attitude of aging youth, in the stiffening of its tastes, is one of rejection toward all new bivalves, or, not to be tediously metaphorical, books."
The veteran observer fell silent at this point, and the Easy Chair seized the occasion to remark: "Yes, there is something in what you say. But this stiffening of the tastes, this sclerosis of the mind, is hardly an infectious disease——"
"Ah, but it is infectious," the veteran observer exclaimed, rousing himself, "infectious as far as the victim can possibly make it so. He wishes nothing so much as to impart his opinions in all their rigidity to everybody else. Take your own case, for instance——"
"No, we would rather not," the Easy Chair interposed.
"But you must make the sacrifice," the veteran observer persisted. "You will allow that you are extremely opinionated?"
"Not at all."
"Well, then, that you are devoutly conscientious in the tenure of your aesthetic beliefs?"
"Something like that, yes."
"And you cannot deny that in times past you have tried your best to make others think with you?"
"It was our duty."
"Well, let it pass for that. It amounted to an effort to make your mental sclerosis infectious, and it was all the worse because, in you, the stiffening of the tastes had taken the form of aversions rather than preferences. You did not so much wish your readers to like your favorite authors as to hate all the others. At the time when there was a fad for making lists of The Hundred Best Authors, I always wondered that you didn't put forth some such schedule."
"We had the notion of doing something of the kind," the Easy Chair confessed, "but we could not think of more than ten or a dozen really first-rate authors, and if we had begun to compile a list of the best authors we should have had to leave out most of their works. Nearly all the classics would have gone by the board. What havoc we should have made with the British poets! The Elizabethan dramatists would mostly have fallen under the ban of our negation, to a play, if not to a man. Chaucer, but for a few poems, is impossible; Spenser's poetry is generally duller than the Presidents' messages before Mr. Roosevelt's time; Milton is a trial of the spirit in three-fourths of his verse; Wordsworth is only not so bad as Byron, who thought him so much worse; Shakespeare himself, when he is reverently supposed not to be Shakespeare, is reading for martyrs; Dante's science and politics outweigh his poetry a thousandfold, and so on through the whole catalogue. Among the novelists——"
"No, don't begin on the novelists! Every one knows your heresies there, and would like to burn you along with the romances which I've no doubt you would still commit to the flames. I see you are the Bourbon of criticism; you have learned nothing and forgotten nothing. But why don't you turn your adamantine immutability to some practical account, and give the world a list of The Hundred Worst Books?"
"Because a hundred books out of the worst would be a drop out of the sea; there would remain an immeasurable welter of badness, of which we are now happily ignorant, and from which we are safe, as long as our minds are not turned to it by examples."
"Ah," our visitor said, "I see that you are afraid to confess yourself the popular failure as a critic which you are. You are afraid that if you made a list of The Hundred Worst Books you would send the classes to buying them in the most expensive binding, and the masses to taking them out of all the public libraries."
"There is something in what you say," the Easy Chair confessed. "Our popular failure as a critic is notorious; it cannot be denied. The stamp of our disapproval at one time gave a whole order of fiction a currency that was not less than torrential. The flood of romantic novels which passed over the land, and which is still to be traced in the tatters of the rag-doll heroes and heroines caught in the memories of readers along its course, was undoubtedly the effect of our adverse criticism. No, we could not in conscience compile and publish a list of The Hundred Worst Books; it would be contrary, for the reasons you give, to public morals."
"And don't you think," the observer said, with a Socratic subtlety that betrayed itself in his gleaming eye, in the joyous hope of seeing his victim fall into the pit that his own admissions had digged for him, "and don't you think that it would also bring to you the unpleasant consciousness of having stiffened in your tastes?"
"It might up to a certain point," we consented. "But we should prefer to call it confirmed in our convictions. Wherever we have liked or disliked in literature it has been upon grounds hardly distinguishable from moral grounds. Bad art is a vice; untruth to nature is the eighth of the seven deadly sins; a false school in literature is a seminary of crime. We are speaking largely, of course——"
"It certainly sounds rather tall," our friend sarcastically noted, "and it sounds very familiar."
"Yes," we went on, "all the ascertained veracities are immutable. One holds to them, or, rather, they hold to one, with an indissoluble tenacity. But convictions are in the region of character and are of remote origin. In their safety one indulges one's self in expectations, in tolerances, and these rather increase with the lapse of time. We should say that your theory of the stiffening tastes is applicable to the earlier rather than the later middle life. We should say that the tastes if they stiffen at the one period limber at the other; their forbidding rigidity is succeeded by an acquiescent suppleness. One is aware of an involuntary hospitality toward a good many authors whom one would once have turned destitute from the door, or with a dole of Organized Charity meal-tickets at the best. But in that maturer time one hesitates, and possibly ends by asking the stranger in, especially if he is young, or even if he is merely new, and setting before him the cold potato of a qualified approval. One says to him: 'You know I don't think you are the real thing quite, but taking you on your own ground you are not so bad. Come, you shall have a night's lodging at least, and if you improve, if you show a tendency to change in the right direction, there is no telling but you may be allowed to stay the week. But you must not presume; you must not take this frosty welcome for an effect of fire from the hearth where we sit with our chosen friends.' Ten to one the stranger does not like this sort of talk, and goes his way—the wrong way. But, at any rate, one has shown an open mind, a liberal spirit; one has proved that one has not stiffened in one's tastes; that one can make hopeful allowances in hopeful cases."
"Such as?" the observer insinuated.
"Such as do not fit the point exactly. Very likely the case may be that of an old or elderly author. It has been only within a year or two that we have formed the taste for an English writer, no longer living, save in his charming books. James Payn was a favorite with many in the middle Victorian period, but it is proof of the flexibility of our tastes that we have only just come to him. After shunning Anthony Trollope for fifty years, we came to him, almost as with a rush, long after our half-century was past. Now, James Payn is the solace of our autumnal equinox, and Anthony Trollope we read with a constancy and a recurrence surpassed only by our devotion to the truth as it is in the fiction of the Divine Jane; and Jane Austen herself was not an idol of our first or even our second youth, but became the cult of a time when if our tastes had stiffened we could have cared only for the most modern of the naturalists, and those preferably of the Russian and Spanish schools. A signal proof of their continued suppleness came but the other day when we acquainted ourselves with the work of the English novelist, Mr. Percy White, and it was the more signal because we perceived that he had formed himself upon a method of Thackeray's, which recalled that master, as the occasional aberrations of Payn and Trollope recall a manner of him. But it is Thackeray's most artistic method which Mr. White recalls in his studies of scamps and snobs; he allows them, as Thackeray allows Barry Lyndon and the rest, to tell their own stories, and in their unconsciousness of their own natures he finds play for an irony as keen and graphic as anything in fiction. He deals with the actual English world, and the pleasure he gave us was such as to make us resolve to return to Thackeray's vision of his own contemporaneous English world at the first opportunity. We have not done so yet; but after we have fortified ourselves with a course of Scott and Dickens, we are confident of being able to bear up under the heaviest-handed satire of Vanity Fair. As for The Luck of Barry Lyndon and The Yellowplush Papers, and such like, they have never ceased to have their prime delight for us. But their proportion is quite large enough to survive from any author for any reader; as we are often saying, it is only in bits that authors survive; their resurrection is not by the whole body, but here and there a perfecter fragment. Most of our present likes and dislikes are of the period when you say people begin to stiffen in their tastes. We could count the authors by the score who have become our favorites in that period, and those we have dropped are almost as many. It is not necessary to say who they all are, but we may remark that we still read, and read, and read again the poetry of Keats, and that we no longer read the poetry of Alexander Smith. But it is through the growth of the truly great upon his mature perception that the aging reader finds novel excellences in them. It was only the other day that we picked up Hawthorne's Scarlet Letter, and realized in it, from a chance page or two, a sardonic quality of insurpassable subtlety and reach. This was something quite new to us in it. We had known the terrible pathos of the story, its immeasurable tragedy, but that deadly, quiet, pitiless, freezing irony of a witness holding himself aloof from its course, and losing, for that page or two, the moralist in the mere observer, was a revelation that had come to that time of life in us when you think the tastes stiffen and one refuses new pleasures because they are new."
Our visitor yawned visibly, audibly. "And what is all this you have been saying? You have made yourself out an extraordinary example of what may be done by guarding against the stiffening of the tastes after the end of second youth. But have you proved that there is no such danger? Or was your idea simply to celebrate yourself? At moments I fancied something like that."
We owned the stroke with an indulgent smile. "No, not exactly that. The truth is we have been very much interested by your notion—if it was yours, which is not altogether probable—and we have been turning its light upon our own experience, in what we should not so much call self-celebration as self-exploitation. One uses one's self as the stuff for knowledge of others, or for the solution of any given problem. There is no other way of getting at the answers to the questions."
"And what is your conclusion as to my notion, if it is mine?" the veteran observer asked, with superiority.
"That there is nothing in it. The fact is that the tastes are never so tolerant, so liberal, so generous, so supple as they are at that time of life when they begin, according to your notion, to stiffen, to harden, to contract. We have in this very period formed a new taste—or taken a new lease of an old one—for reading history, which had been dormant all through our first and second youth. We expect to see the time when we shall read the Elizabethan dramatists with avidity. We may not improbably find a delight in statistics; there must be a hidden charm in them. We may even form a relish for the vagaries of pseudo-psychology——"
At this point we perceived the veteran observer had vanished and that we were talking to ourselves.
THE PRACTICES AND PRECEPTS OF VAUDEVILLE
A Friend of the Easy Chair came in the other day after a frost from the magazine editor which had nipped a tender manuscript in its bloom, and was received with the easy hospitality we are able to show the rejected from a function involving neither power nor responsibility.
"Ah!" we breathed, sadly, at the sight of the wilted offering in the hands of our friend. "What is it he won't take now?"
"Wait till I get my second wind," the victim of unrequited literature answered, dropping into the Easy Chair, from which the occupant had risen; and he sighed, pensively, "I felt so sure I had got him this time." He closed his eyes, and leaned his head back against the uncomfortably carven top of the Easy Chair. It was perhaps his failure to find rest in it that restored him to animation. "It is a little thing," he murmured, "on the decline of the vaudeville."
"The decline of the vaudeville?" we repeated, wrinkling our forehead in grave misgiving. Then, for want of something better, we asked, "Do you think that is a very dignified subject for the magazine?"
"Why, bless my soul!" the rejected one cried, starting somewhat violently forward, "what is your magazine itself but vaudeville, with your contributors all doing their stunts of fiction, or poetry, or travel, or sketches of life, or articles of popular science and sociological interest, and I don't know what all! What are your illustrations but the moving pictures of the kalatechnoscope! Why," he said, with inspiration, "what are you yourself but a species of Chaser that comes at the end of the show, and helps clear the ground for the next month's performance by tiring out the lingering readers?"
"You don't think," we suggested, "you're being rather unpleasant?"
Our friend laughed harshly, and we were glad to see him restored to so much cheerfulness, at any rate. "I think the notion is a pretty good fit, though if you don't like to wear it I don't insist. Why should you object to being likened to those poor fellows who come last on the programme at the vaudeville? Very often they are as good as the others, and sometimes, when I have determined to get my five hours' enjoyment to the last moment before six o'clock, I have had my reward in something unexpectedly delightful in the work of the Chasers. I have got into close human relations with them, I and the half-dozen brave spirits who have stuck it out with me, while the ushers went impatiently about, clacking the seats back, and picking up the programmes and lost articles under them. I have had the same sense of kindly comradery with you, and now and then my patience has been rewarded by you, just as it has been by the Chasers at the vaudeville, and I've said so to people. I've said: 'You're wrong to put down the magazine the way most of you do before you get to those departments at the end. Sometimes there are quite good things in them.'"
"Really," said the unreal editor, "you seem to have had these remarks left over from your visit to the real editor. We advise you to go back and repeat them. They may cause him to revise his opinion of your contribution."
"It's no use my going back. I read finality in his eye before I left him, and I feel that no compliment, the most fulsome, would move him. Don't turn me out! I take it all back about your being a Chaser. You are the first act on the bill for me. I read the magazine like a Chinese book—from the back. I always begin with the Easy Chair."
"Ah, now you are talking," we said, and we thought it no more than human to ask, "What is it you have been saying about the vaudeville, anyway?"
The rejected one instantly unfolded his manuscript. "I will just read—"
"No, no!" we interposed. "Tell us about it—give us the general drift. We never can follow anything read to us."
The other looked incredulous, but he was not master of the situation, and he resigned himself to the secondary pleasure of sketching the paper he would so much rather have read.
"Why, you know what an inveterate vaudeville-goer I have always been?"
We nodded. "We know how you are always trying to get us to neglect the masterpieces of our undying modern dramatists, on the legitimate stage, and go with you to see the ridiculous stunts you delight in."
"Well, it comes to the same thing. I am an inveterate vaudeville-goer, for the simple reason that I find better acting in the vaudeville, and better drama, on the whole, than you ever get, or you generally get, on your legitimate stage. I don't know why it is so very legitimate. I have no doubt but the vaudeville, or continuous variety performance, is the older, the more authentic form of histrionic art. Before the Greek dramatists, or the longer-winded Sanskrit playwrights, or the exquisitely conventionalized Chinese and Japanese and Javanese were heard of, it is probable that there were companies of vaudeville artists going about the country and doing the turns that they had invented themselves, and getting and giving the joy that comes of voluntary and original work, just as they are now. And in the palmiest days of the Greek tragedy or the Roman comedy, there were, of course, variety shows all over Athens and Rome where you could have got twice the amusement for half the money that you would at the regular theatres. While the openly wretched and secretly rebellious actors whom Euripides and Terence had cast for their parts were going through roles they would never have chosen themselves, the wilding heirs of art at the vaudeville were giving things of their own imagination, which they had worked up from some vague inspiration into a sketch of artistic effect. No manager had foisted upon them his ideals of 'what the people wanted,' none had shaped their performance according to his own notion of histrionics. They had each come to him with his or her little specialty, that would play fifteen or twenty minutes, and had, after trying it before him, had it rejected or accepted in its entirety. Then, author and actor in one, they had each made his or her appeal to the public."
"There were no hers on the stage in those days," we interposed.
"No matter," the rejected contributor retorted. "There are now, and that is the important matter. I am coming to the very instant of actuality, to the show which I saw yesterday, and which I should have brought my paper down to mention if it had been accepted." He drew a long breath, and said, with a dreamy air of retrospect: "It is all of a charming unity, a tradition unbroken from the dawn of civilization. When I go to a variety show, and drop my ticket into the chopping-box at the door, and fastidiously choose my unreserved seat in the best place I can get, away from interposing posts and persons, and settle down to a long afternoon's delight, I like to fancy myself a far-fetched phantom of the past, who used to do the same thing at Thebes or Nineveh as many thousand years ago as you please. I like to think that I too am an unbroken tradition, and my pleasure will be such as shaped smiles immemorially gone to dust."
We made our reflection that this passage was probably out of the rejected contribution, but we did not say anything, and our visitor went on.
"And what a lot of pleasure I did get, yesterday, for my fifty cents! There were twelve stunts on the bill, not counting the kalatechnoscope, and I got in before the first was over, so that I had the immediate advantage of seeing a gifted fellow-creature lightly swinging himself between two chairs which had their outer legs balanced on the tops of caraffes full of water, and making no more of the feat than if it were a walk in the Park or down Fifth Avenue. How I respected that man! What study had gone to the perfection of that act, and the others that he equally made nothing of! He was simply billed as 'Equilibrist,' when his name ought to have been blazoned in letters a foot high if they were in any wise to match his merit. He was followed by 'Twin Sisters,' who, as 'Refined Singers and Dancers,' appeared in sweeping confections of white silk, with deeply drooping, widely spreading white hats, and long-fringed white parasols heaped with artificial roses, and sang a little tropical romance, whose burden was
'Under the bamboo-tree,'
brought in at unexpected intervals. They also danced this romance with languid undulations, and before you could tell how or why, they had disappeared and reappeared in short green skirts, and then shorter white skirts, with steps and stops appropriate to their costumes, but always, I am bound to say, of the refinement promised. I can't tell you in what their refinement consisted, but I am sure it was there, just as I am sure of the humor of the two brothers who next appeared as 'Singing and Dancing Comedians' of the coon type. I know that they sang and they danced, and worked sable pleasantries upon one another with the help of the pianist, who often helps out the dialogue of the stage in vaudeville. They were not so good as the next people, a jealous husband and a pretty wife, who seized every occasion in the slight drama of 'The Singing Lesson,' and turned it to account in giving their favorite airs. I like to have a husband disguise himself as a German maestro, and musically make out why his wife is so zealous in studying with him, and I do not mind in the least having the sketch close without reason: it leaves something to my imagination. Two of 'America's Leading Banjoists' charmed me next, for, after all, there is nothing like the banjo. If one does not one's self rejoice in its plunking, there are others who do, and that is enough for my altruistic spirit. Besides, it is America's leading instrument, and those who excel upon it appeal to the patriotism which is never really dormant in us. Its close association with color in our civilization seemed to render it the fitting prelude of the next act, which consisted of 'Monologue and Songs' by a divine creature in lampblack, a shirt-waist worn outside his trousers, and an exaggerated development of stomach. What did he say, what did he sing? I don't know; I only know that it rested the soul and brain, that it soothed the conscience, and appeased the hungerings of ambition. Just to sit there and listen to that unalloyed nonsense was better than to 'sport with Amaryllis in the shade, or with the tangles of Neaera's hair,' or to be the object of a votive dinner, or to be forgiven one's sins; there is no such complete purgation of care as one gets from the real Afro-American when he is unreal, and lures one completely away from life, while professing to give his impressions of it. You, with your brute preferences for literality, will not understand this, and I suppose you would say I ought to have got a purer and higher joy out of the little passage of drama, which followed, and I don't know but I did. It was nothing but the notion of a hapless, half-grown girl, who has run away from the poorhouse for a half-holiday, and brings up in the dooryard of an old farmer of the codger type, who knew her father and mother. She at once sings, one doesn't know why, 'Oh, dear, what can the matter be,' and she takes out of her poor little carpet-bag a rag-doll, and puts it to sleep with 'By low, baby,' and the old codger puts the other dolls to sleep, nodding his head, and kicking his foot out in time, and he ends by offering that poor thing a home with him. If he had not done it, I do not know how I could have borne it, for my heart was in my throat with pity, and the tears were in my eyes. Good heavens! What simple instruments we men are! The falsest note in all Hamlet is in those words of his to Guildenstern: 'You would play upon me; you would seem to know my stops; you would pluck out the heart of my mystery; you would sound me from my lowest note to the top of my compass.... 'S blood, do you think I am easier to be played on than a pipe?' Guildenstern ought to have said: 'Much, my lord! Here is an actor who has been summering in the country, and has caught a glimpse of pathetic fact commoner than the dust in the road, and has built it up in a bit of drama as artless as a child would fancy, and yet it swells your heart and makes you cry. Your mystery? You have no mystery to an honest man. It is only fakes and frauds who do not understand the soul. The simplest willow whistle is an instrument more complex than man.' That is what I should have said in Guildenstern's place if I had had Hamlet with me there at the vaudeville show.
"In the pretty language of the playbill," the contributor went on, "this piece was called 'A Pastoral Playlet,' and I should have been willing to see 'Mandy Hawkins' over again, instead of the 'Seals and Sea Lions,' next placarded at the sides of the curtain immediately lifted on them. Perhaps I have seen too much of seals, but I find the range of their accomplishments limited, and their impatience for fish and lump sugar too frankly greedy before and after each act. Their banjo-playing is of a most casual and irrelevant sort; they ring bells, to be sure; in extreme cases they fire small cannon; and their feat of balancing large and little balls on their noses is beyond praise. But it may be that the difficulties overcome are too obvious in their instances; I find myself holding my breath, and helping them along too strenuously for my comfort. I am always glad when the curtain goes down on them; their mere flumping about the stage makes me unhappy; but they are not so bad, after all, as trained dogs. They were followed by three 'Artistic European Acrobats,' who compensated and consoled me for the seals, by the exquisite ease with which they wrought the impossibilities of their art, in the familiar sack-coats and top-coats of every day. I really prefer tights and spangles, but I will not refuse impossibilities simply because they are performed, as our diplomats are instructed to appear at European courts, in the ordinary dress of a gentleman; it may even add a poignancy to the pleasure I own so reluctantly.
"There came another pair of 'Singers and Dancers,' and then a 'Trick Cyclist,' but really I cannot stand trick cycling, now that plain cycling, glory be! has so nearly gone out. As soon as the cyclist began to make his wheel rear up on its hind leg and carry him round the stage in that posture, I went away. But I had had enough without counting him, though I left the kalatechnoscope, with its shivering and shimmering unseen. I had had my fill of pleasure, rich and pure, such as I could have got at no legitimate theatre in town, and I came away opulently content."
We reflected awhile before we remarked: "Then I don't see what you have to complain of or to write of. Where does the decline of the vaudeville come in?"
"Oh," the rejected contributor said, with a laugh, "I forgot that. It's still so good, when compared with the mechanical drama of the legitimate theatre, that I don't know whether I can make out a case against it now. But I think I can, both in quality and quantity. I think the change began insidiously to steal upon the variety show with the increasing predominance of short plays. Since they were short, I should not have minded them so much, but they were always so bad! Still, I could go out, when they came on, and return for the tramp magician, or the comic musician, who played upon joints of stovepipe and the legs of reception-chairs and the like, and scratched matches on his two days' beard, and smoked a plaintive air on a cigarette. But when the 'playlets' began following one another in unbroken succession, I did not know what to do. Almost before I was aware of their purpose three of the leading vaudeville houses threw off the mask, and gave plays that took up the whole afternoon; and though they professed to intersperse the acts with what they called 'big vaudeville,' I could not be deceived, and I simply stopped going. When I want to see a four-act play, I will go to the legitimate theatre, and see something that I can smell, too. The influence of the vaudeville has, on the whole, been so elevating and refining that its audiences cannot stand either the impurity or the imbecility of the fashionable drama. But now the vaudeville itself is beginning to decline in quality as well as quantity."
"Not toward immodesty?"
"No, not so much that. But the fine intellectual superiority of the continuous performance is beginning to suffer contamination from the plays where there are waits between the acts. I spoke just now of the tramp magician, but I see him no longer at the variety houses. The comic musician is of the rarest occurrence; during the whole season I have as yet heard no cornet solo on a revolver or a rolling-pin. The most dangerous acts of the trapeze have been withdrawn. The acrobats still abound, but it is three long years since I looked upon a coon act with real Afro-Americans in it, or saw a citizen of Cincinnati in a fur overcoat keeping a silk hat, an open umbrella, and a small wad of paper in the air with one hand. It is true that the conquest of the vaudeville houses by the full-fledged drama has revived the old-fashioned stock companies in many cases, and has so far worked for good, but it is a doubtful advantage when compared with the loss of the direct inspiration of the artists who created and performed their stunts."
"Delightful word!" we dreamily noted. "How did it originate?"
"Oh, I don't know. It's probably a perversion of stint, a task or part, which is also to be found in the dictionary as stent. What does it matter? There is the word, and there is the thing, and both are charming. I approve of the stunt because it is always the stuntist's own. He imagined it, he made it, and he loves it. He seems never to be tired of it, even when it is bad, and when nobody in the house lends him a hand with it. Of course, when it comes to that, it has to go, and he with it. It has to go when it is good, after it has had its day, though I don't see why it should go; for my part there are stunts I could see endlessly over again, and not weary of them. Can you say as much of any play?"
"Gilbert and Sullivan's operas," we suggested.
"That is true. But without the music? And even with the music, the public won't have them any longer. I would like to see the stunt fully developed. I should like to have that lovely wilding growth delicately nurtured into drama as limitless and lawless as life itself, owing no allegiance to plot, submitting to no rule or canon, but going gayly on to nothingness as human existence does, full of gleaming lights, and dark with inconsequent glooms, musical, merry, melancholy, mad, but never-ending as the race itself."
"You would like a good deal more than you are ever likely to get," we said; and here we thought it was time to bring our visitor to book again. "But about the decline of vaudeville?"
"Well, it isn't grovelling yet in the mire with popular fiction, but it is standing still, and whatever is standing still is going backward, or at least other things are passing it. To hold its own, the vaudeville must grab something more than its own. It must venture into regions yet unexplored. It must seize not only the fleeting moments, but the enduring moments of experience; it should be wise not only to the whims and moods, but the passions, the feelings, the natures of men; for it appeals to a public not sophisticated by mistaken ideals of art, but instantly responsive to representations of life. Nothing is lost upon the vaudeville audience, not the lightest touch, not the airiest shadow of meaning. Compared with the ordinary audience at the legitimate theatres—"
"Then what you wish," we concluded, "is to elevate the vaudeville."
The visitor got himself out of the Easy Chair, with something between a groan and a growl. "You mean to kill it."
INTIMATIONS OF ITALIAN OPERA
Whether pleasure of the first experience is more truly pleasure than that which comes rich in associations from pleasures of the past is a doubt that no hedonistic philosopher seems to have solved yet. We should, in fact, be sorry if any had, for in that case we should be without such small occasion as we now have to suggest it in the forefront of a paper which will not finally pass beyond the suggestion. When the reader has arrived at our last word we can safely promise him he will still have the misgiving we set out with, and will be confirmed in it by the reflection that no pleasure, either of the earliest or the latest experience, can be unmixed with pain. One will be fresher than the other; that is all; but it is not certain that the surprise will have less of disappointment in it than the unsurprise. In the one case, the case of youth, say, there will be the racial disappointment to count with, and in the other, the case of age, there will be the personal disappointment, which is probably a lighter thing. The racial disappointment is expressed in what used to be called, somewhat untranslatably, Weltschmerz. This was peculiarly the appanage of youth, being the anticipative melancholy, the pensive foreboding, distilled from the blighted hopes of former generations of youth. Mixed with the effervescent blood of the young heart, it acted like a subtle poison, and eventuated in more or less rhythmical deliriums, in cynical excesses of sentiment, in extravagances of behavior, in effects which commonly passed when the subject himself became ancestor, and transmitted his inherited burden of Weltschmerz to his posterity. The old are sometimes sad, on account of the sins and follies they have personally committed and know they will commit again, but for pure gloom—gloom positive, absolute, all but palpable—you must go to youth. That is not merely the time of disappointment, it is in itself disappointment; it is not what it expected to be; and it finds nothing which confronts it quite, if at all, responsive to the inward vision. The greatest, the loveliest things in the world lose their iridescence or dwindle before it. The old come to things measurably prepared to see them as they are, take them for what they are worth; but the young are the prey of impassioned prepossessions which can never be the true measures.
* * * * *
The disadvantage of an opening like this is that it holds the same quality, if not quantity, of disappointment as those other sublime things, and we earnestly entreat the reader to guard himself against expecting anything considerable from it. Probably the inexperienced reader has imagined from our weighty prologue something of signal importance to follow; but the reader who has been our reader through thick and thin for many years will have known from the first that we were not going to deal with anything more vital, say, than a few emotions and memories, prompted, one night of the other winter, by hearing one of the old-fashioned Italian operas which a more than commonly inspired management had been purveying to an over-Wagnered public. In fact, we had a sense that this sort of reader was there with us the night we saw "L'Elisir d'Amore," and that it was in his personality we felt and remembered many things which we could have fancied personal only to ourselves.
He began to take the affair out of our keeping from the first moment, when, after passing through the crowd arriving from the snowy street, we found our way through the distracted vestibule of the opera-house into the concentred auditorium and hushed ourselves in the presence of the glowing spectacle of the stage. "Ah, this is the real thing," he whispered, and he would not let us, at any moment when we could have done so without molesting our neighbors, censure the introduction of Alpine architecture in the entourage of an Italian village piazza. "It is a village at the foot of the Alps probably," he said, "and if not, no matter. It is as really the thing as all the rest: as the chorus of peasants and soldiers, of men and women who impartially accompany the orchestra in the differing sentiments of the occasion; as the rivals who vie with one another in recitative and aria; as the heroine who holds them both in a passion of suspense while she weaves the enchantment of her trills and runs about them; as the whole circumstance of the divinely impossible thing which defies nature and triumphs over prostrate probability. What does a little Swiss Gothic matter? The thing is always opera, and it is always Italy. I was thinking, as we crowded in there from the outside, with our lives in our hands, through all those trolleys and autos and carriages and cabs and sidewalk ticket-brokers, of the first time I saw this piece. It was in Venice, forty-odd years ago, and I arrived at the theatre in a gondola, slipping to the water-gate with a waft of the gondolier's oar that was both impulse and arrest, and I was helped up the sea-weedy, slippery steps by a beggar whom age and sorrow had bowed to just the right angle for supporting my hand on the shoulder he lent it. The blackness of the tide was pierced with the red plunge of a few lamps, and it gurgled and chuckled as my gondola lurched off and gave way to another; and when I got to my box—a box was two florins, but I could afford it—I looked down on just this scene, over a pit full of Austrian officers and soldiers, and round on a few Venetians darkling in the other boxes and half-heartedly enjoying the music. It was the most hopeless hour of the Austrian occupation, and the air was heavy with its oppression and tobacco, for the officers smoked between the acts. It was only the more intensely Italian for that; but it was not more Italian than this; and when I see those impossible people on the stage, and hear them sing, I breathe an atmosphere that is like the ether beyond the pull of our planet, and is as far from all its laws and limitations."
* * * * *
Our friend continued to talk pretty well through the whole interval between the first and second acts; and we were careful not to interrupt him, for from the literary quality of his diction we fancied him talking for publication, and we wished to take note of every turn of his phrase.
"It's astonishing," he said, "how little art needs in order to give the effect of life. A touch here and there is enough; but art is so conditioned that it has to work against time and space, and is obliged to fill up and round out its own body with much stuff that gives no sense of life. The realists," he went on, "were only half right."
"Isn't it better to be half right than wrong altogether?" we interposed.
"I'm not sure. What I wanted to express is that every now and then I find in very defective art of all kinds that mere look of the real thing which suffices. A few words of poetry glance from the prose body of verse and make us forget the prose. A moment of dramatic motive carries hours of heavy comic or tragic performance. Is any piece of sculpture or painting altogether good? Or isn't the spectator held in the same glamour which involved the artist before he began the work, and which it is his supreme achievement to impart, so that it shall hide all defects? When I read what you wrote the other month, or the other year, about the vaudeville shows—?
"Hush!" we entreated. "Don't bring those low associations into this high presence."
"Why not? It is all the same thing. There is no inequality in the region of art; and I have seen things on the vaudeville stage which were graced with touches of truth so exquisite, so ideally fine, that I might have believed I was getting them at first hand and pure from the street-corner. Of course, the poor fellows who had caught them from life had done their worst to imprison them in false terms, to labor them out of shape, and build them up in acts where anything less precious would have been lost; but they survived all that and gladdened the soul. I realized that I should have been making a mistake if I had required any 'stunt' which embodied them to be altogether composed of touches of truth, of moments of life. We can stand only a very little radium; the captured sunshine burns with the fires that heat the summers of the farthest planets; and we cannot handle the miraculous substance as if it were mere mineral. A touch of truth is perhaps not only all we need, but all we can endure in any one example of art."
"You are lucky if you get so much," we said, "even at a vaudeville show."
"Or at an opera," he returned, and then the curtain rose on the second act. When it fell again, he resumed, as if he had been interrupted in the middle of a sentence. "What should you say was the supreme moment of this thing, or was the radioactive property, the very soul? Of course, it is there where Nemorino drinks the elixir and finds himself freed from Adina; when he bursts into the joyous song of liberation and gives that delightful caper
'Which signifies indifference, indifference, Which signifies indifference,'
and which not uncommonly results from a philter composed entirely of claret. When Adina advances in the midst of his indifference and breaks into the lyrical lament
'Neppur mi guarda!'
she expresses the mystery of the sex which can be best provoked to love by the sense of loss, and the vital spark of the opera is kindled. The rest is mere incorporative material. It has to be. In other conditions the soul may be disembodied, and we may have knowledge of it without the interposition of anything material; but if there are spiritual bodies as there are material bodies, still the soul may wrap itself from other souls and emit itself only in gleams. But putting all that aside, I should like to bet that the germ, the vital spark of the opera, felt itself life, felt itself flame, first of all in that exquisite moment of release which Nemorino's caper conveys. Till then it must have been rather blind groping, with nothing better in hand than that old, worn-out notion of a love-philter. What will you bet?"
"We never bet," we virtuously replied. "We are principled against it in all cases where we feel sure of losing; though in this case we could never settle it, for both composer and librettist are dead."
"Yes, isn't it sad that spirits so gay should be gone from a world that needs gayety so much? That is probably the worst of death; it is so indiscriminate," the reader thoughtfully observed.
"But aren't you," we asked, "getting rather far away from the question whether the pleasure of experience isn't greater than the pleasure of inexperience—whether later operas don't give more joy than the first?"
"Was that the question?" he returned. "I thought it was whether Italian opera was not as much at home in exile as in its native land."
"Well, make it that," we responded, tolerantly.
"Oh no," he met us half-way. "But it naturalizes itself everywhere. They have it in St. Petersburg and in Irkutsk, for all I know, and certainly in Calcutta and Australia, the same as in Milan and Venice and Naples, or as here in New York, where everything is so much at home, or so little. It's the most universal form of art."
"Is it? Why more so than sculpture or painting or architecture?"
Our demand gave the reader pause. Then he said: "I think it is more immediately universal than the other forms of art. These all want time to denationalize themselves. It is their nationality which first authorizes them to be; but it takes decades, centuries sometimes, for them to begin their universal life. It seems different with operas. 'Cavalleria Rusticana' was as much at home with us in its first year as 'L'Elisir d'Amore' is now in its sixtieth or seventieth."
"But it isn't," we protested, "denationalized. What can be more intensely Italian than an Italian opera is anywhere?"