TALKS ABOUT PLAYERS AND PLAY ACTING
"LIFE ON THE STAGE," "THE PASTEBOARD CROWN," ETC.
LONDON CHARLES H. KELLY
"THE FAIR THE CHASTE THE UNEXPRESSIVE SHE"_
To those dear girls who honour me with their liking and their confidences, greetings first, then a statement and a proposition.
Now I have the advantage over you of years, but you have the advantage over me of numbers. You can ask more questions in an hour than I can answer in a week. You can fly into a hundred "tiffs" of angry disappointment with me while I am struggling to utter the soft answer that turneth away the wrath of one.
Now, you eager, impatient young damsels, your name is Legion, and your addresses are scattered freely between the two oceans. Some of you are grave, some gay, some well-off, some very poor, some wise, some very, very foolish,—yet you are all moved by the same desire, you all ask, very nearly, the same questions. No actress can answer all the girls who write to her,—no more can I, and that disturbs me, because I like girls and I hate to disappoint them.
But now for my proposition. Why not become a lovely composite girl, my friend, Miss Hope Legion, and let me try to speak to her my word of warning, of advice, of remonstrance? If she doubts, let me prove my assertions by incident, and if she grows vexed, let me try to win her to laughter with the absurdities,—that are so funny in their telling, though so painful in their happening.
I. A WORD OF WARNING II. THE STAGE AND REAL LIFE III. IN CONNECTION WITH "DIVORCE" AND DALY'S IV. "MISS MULTON" AT THE UNION SQUARE V. THE "NEW MAGDALEN" AT THE UNION SQUARE VI. "ODETTE" IN THE WEST. A CHILD'S FIRST PLAY VII. A CASE OF "TRYING IT ON A DOG" VIII. THE CAT IN "CAMILLE" IX. "ALIXE." THE TRAGEDY OF THE GOOSE GREASE X. J.E. OWENS'S "WANDERING BOYS." "A HOLE IN THE WALL" INCIDENT XI. STAGE CHILDREN. MY "LITTLE BREECHES" IN "MISS MULTON" XII. THE STAGE AS AN OCCUPATION FOR WOMEN XIII. THE BANE OF THE YOUNG ACTRESS'S LIFE XIV. THE MASHER, AND WHY HE EXISTS XV. SOCIAL CONDITIONS BEHIND THE SCENES XVI. THE ACTRESS AND RELIGION XVII. A DAILY UNPLEASANTNESS XVIII. A BELATED WEDDING XIX. SALVINI AS MAN AND ACTOR XX. FRANK SEN: A CIRCUS EPISODE XXI. STAGE FORFEITS AND THEIR HUMOUR XXII. POOR SEMANTHA
CLARA MORRIS (1883) CLARA MORRIS IN "L' ARTICLE 47" CHARLES MATTHEWS CLARA MORRIS IN "ALIXE" CLARA MORRIS AS "MISS MULTON" CLARA MORRIS AS "ODETTE" MRS. GILBERT, AUGUSTIN DALY, JAMES LEWIS, AND LOUIS JAMES JOHN E. OWENS "LITTLE BREECHES" CLARA MORRIS AS "JANE EYRE" CLARA MORRIS IN "THE SPHINX" CLARA MORRIS IN "EVADNE" CLARA MORRIS AS "CAMILLE" TOMMASO SALVINI W.J. LE MOYNE CLARA MORRIS BEFORE COMING TO DALY'S THEATRE IN 1870
A WORD OF WARNING_
Every actress of prominence receives letters from young girls and women who wish to go on the stage, and I have my share. These letters are of all kinds. Some are extravagant, some enthusiastic, some foolish, and a few unutterably pathetic; but however their writers may differ otherwise, there is one positive conviction they unconsciously share, and there is one question they each and every one put to me: so it is that question that must be first answered, and that conviction that must be shaken.
The question is, "What chance has a girl in private life of getting on the stage?" and to reply at once with brutal truthfulness and straight to the point, I must say, "Almost none."
But to answer her instant "Why?" I must first shake that positive conviction each writer has, that she is the only one that burns with the high ambition to be an actress, who hopes and fears, and secretly studies Juliet. It would be difficult to convince her that her own state, her own city, yes, her own block, could each produce a girl who firmly believes that her talent is equally great, and who has just the same strength of hope for the future stage existence.
Every city in the country is freely sprinkled with stage-loving, or, as they are generally termed, "stage-struck" girls. It is more than probable that at least a half-dozen girls in her own circle secretly cherish a hope for a glorious career on the stage, while her bosom friend most likely knows every line of Pauline and has practised the death scene of Camille hundreds of times. Surely, then, the would-be actresses can see that their own numbers constitute one of the greatest obstacles in their path.
But that is by no means all. Figures are always hard things to manage, and there is another large body of them, between a girl and her chances, in the number of trained actresses who are out of engagements. There is probably no profession in the world so overcrowded as is the profession of acting. "Why, then," the manager asks, "should I engage a girl who does not even know how to walk across the stage, when there are so many trained girls and women to choose from?"
"But," says or thinks some girl who reads these words, "you were an outsider, poor and without friends, yet you got your chance."
Very true; I did. But conditions then were different. The stage did not hold then the place in public estimation which it now does. Theatrical people were little known and even less understood. Even the people who did not think all actors drunkards and all actresses immoral, did think they were a lot of flighty, silly buffoons, not to be taken seriously for a moment. The profession, by reason of this feeling, was rather a close corporation. The recruits were generally young relatives of the older actors. There was plenty of room, and people began at the bottom quite cheerfully and worked up. When a "ballet" was wanted, the manager advertised for extra girls, and sometimes received as many as three applicants in one day—when twenty were wanted. Such an advertisement to-day would call out a veritable mob of eager girls and women. There was my chance. To-day I should have no chance at all.
The theatrical ranks were already growing crowded when the "Schools of Acting" were started, and after that—goodness gracious! actors and actresses started up as suddenly and numerously as mushrooms in an old pasture. And they, even they stand in the way of the beginner.
I know, then, of but three powers that can open the stage door to a girl who comes straight from private life,—a fortune, great influence, or superlative beauty. With a large amount of money a girl can unquestionably tempt a manager whose business is not too good, to give her an engagement. If influence is used, it must indeed be of a high social order to be strong enough favourably to affect the box-office receipts, and thus win an opening for the young debutante. As for beauty, it must be something very remarkable that will on its strength alone secure a girl an engagement. Mere prettiness will not do. Nearly all American girls are pretty. It must be a radiant and compelling beauty, and every one knows that there are not many such beauties, stage-struck or otherwise.
The next question is most often put by the parents or friends of the would-be actress; and when with clasped hands and in-drawn breath they ask about the temptations peculiar to the profession of acting, all my share of the "old Adam" rises within me. For you see I honour the profession in which I have served, girl and woman, so many years, and it hurts me to have one imply that it is filled with strange and terrible pitfalls for women. I have received the confidences of many working-women,—some in professions, some in trades, and some in service,—and on these confidences I have founded my belief that every woman who works for her living must eat with her bread the bitter salt of insult. Not even the plain girl escapes paying this penalty put upon her unprotected state.
Still, insult does not mean temptation, by any means. But careful inquiry has shown me that temptation assails working-women in any walk of life, and that the profession of acting has nothing weird or novel to offer in the line of danger; to be quite frank, all the possibilities of resisting or yielding lie with the young woman herself. What will tempt one beyond her powers of resistance, will be no temptation at all to another.
However, parents wishing to frighten their daughters away from the stage have naturally enough set up several great bugaboos collectively known as "temptations"—individually known as the "manager," the "public," etc.
There seems to be a general belief that a manager is a sort of dramatic "Moloch," upon whose altar is sacrificed all ambitious femininity. In declaring that to be a mistaken idea, I do not for a moment imply that managers are angels; for such a suggestion would beyond a doubt secure me a quiet summer at some strictly private sanitarium; but I do mean to say that, like the gentleman whom we all know by hearsay, but not by sight, they are not so black as they are painted.
Indeed, the manager is more often the pursued than the pursuer. Women there are, attractive, well-looking, well-dressed, some of whom, alas! in their determination to succeed, cast morality overboard, as an aeronaut casts over ballast, that they may rise more quickly. Now while these women bestow their adulation and delicate flattery upon the manager, he is not likely to disturb the modest and retiring newcomer in his company by unwelcome attentions. And should the young stranger prove earnest and bright, she would be doubly safe; for then she would have for the manager a commercial value, and he would be the last man to hurt or anger her by a too warmly expressed admiration, and so drive her into another theatre, taking all her possible future popularity and drawing power with her.
One other and better word I wish to add. If the unprotected young beginner finds herself the victim of some odious creature's persistent advances, letters, etc., let her not fret and weep and worry, but let her go quietly to her manager and lay her trouble before him, and, my word for it, he will find a way of freeing her from her tormentor. Yes, the manager is, generally speaking, a kindly, cheery, sharp business man, and no Moloch at all.
As for the "public," no self-respecting girl need be in danger from the "public." Admiring young rakes no longer have coaches waiting round the corner, into which they thrust their favourite actress as she leaves the theatre. If a man sends an actress extravagant letters or flowers, anonymously, she can of course do nothing, but equally of course she will not wear his flowers and so encourage him boldly to step up and speak to her some day. If the gentleman sends her jewellery or valuable gifts of any kind, rest assured his name will accompany the offering; then the actress has but one thing to do, send the object back at once. If the infatuated one is a gentleman and worthy of her notice, he will surely find a perfectly correct and honourable way of making her acquaintance, otherwise she is well rid of him. No, I see no danger threatening a young actress from the "public."
There is danger in drifting at any time, so it may be well to warn young actresses against drifting into a too strong friendship. No matter how handsome or clever a man may be, if he approaches a modest girl with coarse familiarity, with brutalities on his lips, she is shocked, repelled, certainly not tempted. But let us say that the young actress feels rather strange and uncomfortable in her surroundings, that she is only on a smiling "good morning and good evening" footing with the company, and she has been promised a certain small part, and then at the last moment the part is given to some one else. The disappointment is cruel, and the suspicion that people are laughing in their sleeves over the slight put upon her makes her feel sick and faint with shame, and just then a friendly hand places a chair for her and a kind voice says: "I'm awfully sorry you missed that chance, for I'm quite sure you would do the part far and away better than that milliner's block will. But don't distress yourself, your chance will come, and you will know how to make the most of it—I am sure."
And all the time the plain, perhaps the elderly man is speaking, he is shielding her from the eyes of the other people, and from her very soul she is grateful to him, and she holds up her head and smiles bravely.
Not long after, perhaps, she does get a chance, and with joyous eyes she watches for the coming of the man who comforted her, that she may tell him of her good luck. And his pleasure is plain, and he assures her that she will succeed. And he, an experienced actor, waits in the entrance to see her play her small part, and shakes her hand and congratulates her when she comes off, and even tells her what to do next time at such a point, and her heart warms within her and is filled with gratitude for this "sympathetic friend," who helps her and has faith in her future. The poor child little dreams that temptation may be approaching her, softly, quietly, in the guise of friendship. So, all unconsciously, she grows to rely upon the advice of this quiet, unassuming man. She looks for his praise, for his approval. By and by their companionship reaches beyond the walls of the theatre. She respects him, admires, trusts him. Trusts him—he may be worthy, he may not! But it would be well for the young actresses to be on their guard against the "sympathetic friend."
Since we are speaking about absolute beginners, perhaps a word of warning may be given against pretended critics. The young actress trembles at the bare words "newspaper man." She ought to know that a critic on a respectable paper holds a responsible position. When he serves a prominent and a leading journal, he is frequently recognized as an authority, and has a social as well as a professional position to maintain. Further, the professional woman does not strongly attract the critic personally. There is no glamour about stage people to him; but should he desire to make an actress's acquaintance, he would do so in the perfectly correct manner of a gentleman. But this is not known to the young stranger within the theatrical gates, and through her ignorance, which is far from bliss, she may be subjected to a humiliating and even dangerous experience. I am myself one of several women whom I know to have been victimized in early days.
The beginner, then, fearing above all things the newspaper, receives one evening a note common in appearance, coarse in expression, requesting her acquaintance, and signed "James Flotsam," let us say. Of course she pays no attention, and two nights later a card reaches her—a very doubtful one at that—bearing the name "James Flotsam," and in the corner, Herald. She may be about to refuse to see the person, but some one will be sure to exclaim, "For mercy's sake! don't make an enemy on the 'press.'"
And trembling at the idea of being attacked or sneered at in print, without one thought of asking what Herald this unknown represents, without remembering that Miller's Pond or Somebody-else's Corners may have a Herald she hastens to grant to this probably ignorant young lout the unchaperoned interview she would instantly refuse to a gentleman whose name was even well known to her; and trembling with fear and hope she will listen to his boastings "of the awful roasting he gave Billy This or Dick That," referring thus to the most prominent actors of the day, or to his promises of puffs for herself "when old Brown or Smith are out of the office" (the managing and the city editors both being jealous of him, and blue pencilling him just for spite); and if Mr. Flotsam does not, without leave, bring up and present his chum, Mr. Jetsam, the young woman will be fortunate.
A little quiet thought will convince her that an editor would not assign such a person to report the burning of a barn or the interruption of a dog fight, and with deep mortification she will discover her mistake. The trick is as old as it is contemptible, and many a great paper has had its name put to the dishonourable use of frightening a young actress into an acquaintance with a self-styled critic.
Does this seem a small matter to you? Then you are mistaken. There are few things more serious for a young woman than an unworthy or undesirable acquaintance. She will be judged, not by her many correct friends, but by her one incorrect one. Again, feeling fear of his power to work her injury, she ceases really to be a free agent, and Heaven knows what unwise concessions she may be flurried into; and of all the dangers visible or invisible in the path of a good girl, the most terrible is "opportunity." If you wish to avoid danger, if you wish to save yourself some face-reddening memory, give no one the "opportunity" to abuse your confidence, to wound you by word or deed. Ought I to point out one other unpleasant possibility? Temptation may approach the somewhat advanced young actress through money and power in the guise of the "patron of Art"—not a common form of temptation by any means. But what has been may be again, and it is none the easier to resist because it is unusual. When a young girl, with hot impatience, feels she is not advancing as rapidly as she should, the wealthy "patron of Art" declares it is folly for her to plod along so slowly, that he will free her from all trammels, he will provide play, wardrobe, company, and show the world that she is already an artist. To her trembling objection that she could only accept such tremendous aid from one of her own family, he would crushingly reply that "Art" (with a very big A) should rise above common conventionalities; that he does not think of her personally, but only the advance of professional "Art"; and if she must have it so, why-er, she may pay him back in the immediate future, though if she were the passionate lover of "Art" he had believed her to be, she would accept the freedom he offered and waste no thought on "ways and means" or "hows and whys."
Ah, poor child, the freedom he offers would be a more cruel bondage than slavery itself! The sensitive, proud girl would never place herself under such heavy obligations to any one on earth. She would keep her vanity in check, and patiently or impatiently hold on her way,—free, independent,—owing her final success to her own honest work and God's blessing. Every girl should learn these hard words by heart, Rien ne se donne, tout se paye ici-bas! "Everything is paid for in this world!"
A number of young girls have asked me to give them some idea of the duties of a beginner in the profession, or what claims the theatre makes upon her time. Very well. We will first suppose you a young and attractive girl. You have been carefully reared and have been protected by all the conventionalities of refined social life. Now you enter the theatrical profession, depending solely upon your salary for your support, meaning to become a great actress and to keep a spotless reputation, and you will find your work cut out for you. At the stage door you will have to leave quite a parcel of conventional rules. In the first place, you will have to go about alone at night as well as by day. Your salary won't pay for a maid or escort of any kind. That is very dreadful at first, but in time you will learn to walk swiftly, with stony face, unseeing eyes, and ears deaf to those hyenas of the city streets, who make life a misery to the unprotected woman. The rules of a theatre are many and very exacting, and you must scrupulously obey them or you will surely be forfeited a stated sum of money. There is no gallantry in the management of a company, and these forfeits are genuine, be you man or woman.
You have heard that cleanliness is next to godliness, here you will learn that punctuality is next to godliness. As you hope for fame here and life hereafter, never be late to rehearsal. That is the theatrical unpardonable sin! You will attend rehearsal at any hour of the day the manager chooses to call you, but that is rarely, if ever, before 10 A.M. Your legitimate means of attracting the attention of the management are extreme punctuality and quick studying of your part. If you can come to the second rehearsal perfect in your lines, you are bound to attract attention. Your fellow-players will not love you for it, because they will seem dull or lazy by comparison; but the stage manager will make a note, and it may lead to better things.
Your gowns at this stage of your existence may cause you great anguish of mind—I do not refer to their cost, but to their selection. You will not be allowed to say, "I will wear white or I will wear pink," because the etiquette of the theatre gives the leading lady the first choice of colours, and after her the lady next in importance, you wearing what is left.
In some New York theatres actresses have no word in the selection of their gowns: they receive plates from the hand of the management, and dress accordingly. This is enough to whiten the hair of a sensitive woman, who feels dress should be a means of expression, an outward hint of the character of the woman she is trying to present.
Should you not be in a running play, you may be an understudy for one or two of the ladies who are. You will study their parts, be rehearsed in their "business," and will then hold yourself in readiness to take, on an instant's notice, either of their places, in case of sickness, accident, or ill news coming to either of them. If the parts are good ones, you will be astonished at the perfect immunity of actresses from all mishaps; but all the same you may never leave your house without leaving word as to where you are going and how long you expect to stay.
You may never go to another theatre without permission of your own manager; indeed, she is a lucky "understudy" who does not have to report at the theatre at 7 o'clock every night to see if she is needed. And it sometimes happens that the only sickness the poor "understudy" knows of during the whole run of the play is that sickness of deferred hope which has come to her own heart.
Not so very hard a day or night, so far as physical labour goes, is it? But, oh! the sameness, the deadly monotony, of repeating the same words to the same person at the same moment every night, sick or well, sad or happy—the same, same words!
A "one-play" company offers the worst possible chance to the beginner. The more plays there are, the more you learn from observation, as well as from personal effort, to make the parts you play seem as unlike one another as possible. A day like this admits of no drives, no calls, no "teas"; you see, then, a theatrical life is not one long picnic.
If there is one among my readers to whom the dim and dingy half-light of the theatre is dearer than the God-given radiance of the sunlight; if the burnt-out air with its indescribable odour, seemingly composed of several parts of cellar mould, a great many parts of dry rot or unsunned dust, the whole veined through and through with small streaks of escaped illuminating gas—if this heavy, lifeless air is more welcome to your nostrils than could be the clover-sweetened breath of the greenest pasture; if that great black gulf, yawning beyond the extinguished footlights, makes your heart leap up at your throat; if without noting the quality or length of your part the just plain, bald fact of "acting something" thrills you with nameless joy; if the rattle-to-bang of the ill-treated old overture dances through your blood, and the rolling up of the curtain on the audience at night is to you as the magic blossoming of a mighty flower—if these are the things that you feel, your fate is sealed: Nature is imperious; and through brain, heart, and nerve she cries to you, ACT, ACT, ACT! and act you must! Yes, I know what I have said of the difficulties in your way, but I have faith to believe that, if God has given you a peculiar talent, God will aid you to find a way properly to exercise that talent. You may receive many rebuffs, but you must keep on trying to get into a stock company if possible, or, next best, to get an engagement with a star who produces many plays. Take anything, no matter how small, to begin with. You will learn how to walk, to stand still—a tremendous accomplishment. You will get acquainted with your own hands, and cease to worry about them.
You can train your brain by studying Shakespeare and the old comedies. Study not merely the leading part, but all the female parts; it is not only good training, but you never know when an opportunity may come to you. The element of "chance" enters very largely into the theatrical life. Above all, try to remember the lines of every female character in the play you are acting in; it might mean a sudden rise in your position if you could go on, at a moment's notice, and play the part of some one suddenly taken ill.
Then work, work, and above all observe. Never fail to watch the acting of those about you. Get at the cause of the effects. Avoid the faults, and profit by the good points of the actors before you, but never permit yourself to imitate them.
One suggestion I would make is to keep your eyes open for signs of character in the real life about you. The most successful bit of business I had in "Camille" I copied from a woman I saw in a Broadway car. If a face impresses you, study it, try afterward to recall its expression. Note how different people express their anger: some are redly, noisily angry; some are white and cold in their rage. All these things will make precious material for you to draw upon some day, when you have a character to create; and you will not need to say, "Let me see, Miss So-and-So would stand like this, and speak very fast, or very slow," etc.
You will do independent work, good work, and will never be quite satisfied with it, but will eagerly try again, for great artists are so constituted; and the hard life of disappointments, self-sacrifices, and many partings, where strong, sweet friendships are formed only to be broken by travelling orders, will all be forgotten when, the glamour of the footlights upon you, saturated with light, thrilling to music, intoxicated with applause, you find the audience is an instrument for you to play upon at will. And such a moment of conscious, almost divine power is the reward that comes to those who sacrifice many things that they may act.
So if you really are one of these, I can only say, "Act, act!" and Heaven have you in its holy keeping.
But, dear gifted woman, pause before you put your hand to the plough that will turn your future into such strange furrows; remember, the life of the theatre is a hard life, a homeless life; that it is a wandering up and down the earth; a life filled full with partings, with sweet, lost friendships; that its triumphs are brilliant but brief. If you do truly love acting, simply and solely for the sake of acting, then all will be well with you, and you will be content; but verily you will be a marvel.
For the poor girl or woman who, because she has to earn her own living, longs to become an actress, my heart aches.
You will say good-by to mother's petting; you will live in your trunk. The time will come when that poor hotel trunk (so called to distinguish it from the trunk that goes to the theatre, when you are travelling or en route), with its dents and scars, will be the only friendly object to greet you in your desolate boarding-house, with its one wizened, unwilling gas-burner, and its outlook upon back yards and cats, or roofs and sparrows, its sullen, hard-featured bed, its despairing carpet; for you see, you will not have the money that might take you to the front of the house and four burners. Rain or shine, you will have to make your lonely, often frightened way to and from the theatre. At rehearsals you will have to stand about, wearily waiting hours while others rehearse over and over again their more important scenes; yet you may not leave for a walk or a chat, for you do not know at what moment your scene may be called. You will not be made much of. You will receive a "Good morning" or "Good evening" from the company, probably nothing more. If you are travelling, you will literally live in your hat and cloak. You will breakfast in them many and many a time, you will dine in them regularly, that you may rise at once and go to the theatre or car. You will see no one, go nowhere.
If you are in earnest, you will simply endure the first year,—endure and study,—and all for what? That, after dressing in the corner farthest from the looking-glass, in a dismal room you would scarcely use for your housemaid's brooms and dusters at home, you may stand for a few moments in the background of some scene, and watch the leading lady making the hit in the foreground. Will these few, well-dressed, well-lighted, music-thrilled moments repay you for the loss of home love, home comfort, home stardom?
To that bright, energetic girl, just home from school, overeducated, perhaps, with nothing to do, restless,—forgive me,—vain, who wants to go upon the stage, let me say: "Pause a moment, my dear, in your comfortable home, and think of the unemployed actresses who are suffering from actual want. Is there one among you, who, if you had the chance, would care to strike the bread from the hand of one of these? Ask God that the scales of unconscious selfishness may fall from your eyes. Look about you and see if there is not some duty, however small, the more irksome the better, that you may take from your mother's daily load, some service you can render for father, brother, sister, aunt; some daily household task, so small you may feel contemptuous of it, yet some one must do it, and it may be a special thorn in that some one's side. So surely as you force yourself to do the small things nearest your hand, so surely will you be called upon for greater service."
And oh! my dears, my dears, a loving mother's declaration, "I don't know what I should do without my daughter," is sweeter and more precious than the careless applause of strangers. Try, then, to be patient; find some occupation, if it is nothing more than the weekly putting in order of bureau drawers for some unusually careless member of the family; and, having a good home, thank God and your parents, and stay in it.
And now, having added the insult of preaching at you to the injury of disappointing you, I suppose you will accuse me of rank hypocrisy; but you will be wrong, because with outstretched hands I stand and proclaim myself your well-wisher and your friend.
THE STAGE AND REAL LIFE_
How often we hear people say, "Oh, that's only a play!" or "That could only happen in a play!" and yet it's surprising how often actors receive proof positive that their plays are reflecting happenings in real life.
When Mr. Daly had "L'Article 47" on, at the 5th Avenue Theatre, for instance, the key-note of the play was the insanity of the heroine. In the second, most important act, before her madness had been openly proclaimed, it had to be indicated simply by manner, tone, and gesture; and the one action of drawing the knee up into her clasping arms, and then swaying the body mechanically from side to side, while muttering rapidly to herself, thrilled the audience with the conviction of her affliction more subtly than words could have done. One night, when that act was on, I had just begun to sway from side to side, when from the auditorium there arose one long, long, agonizing wail, and that wail was followed by the heavy falling of a woman's body from her chair into the centre aisle.
In an instant all was confusion, every one sprang to his feet; even the musicians, who were playing some creepy, incidental music, as was the fashion then, stopped and half rose from their places. It was a dreadful moment! Somehow I kept a desperate hold upon my strained and startled nerves and swayed on from side to side. Mr. Stoepel, the leader, glanced at me. I caught his eye and said quick and low, "Play! play!"
He understood; but instead of simply resuming where he had left off, from force of habit he first gave the leader's usual three sharp taps upon his music desk, and then—so queer a thing is an audience—those people, brought to their feet in an agony of terror, of fire, panic, and sudden death by a woman's cry, now at that familiar tap, tap, tap, broke here and there into laughter. By sixes and sevens, then by tens and twenties, they sheepishly seated themselves, only turning their heads with pitying looks while the ushers removed the unconscious woman.
When the act was over, Mr. Daly—a man of few words on such occasions—held my hands hard for a moment, and said, "Good girl, good girl!" and I, pleased, deprecatingly remarked, "It was the music, sir, that quieted them," to which he made answer, "And it was you who ordered the music!"
Verily, no single word could be spoken on his stage without his knowledge. Later that evening we learned that the lady who had cried out had been brought to the theatre by friends who hoped to cheer her up (Heaven save the mark!) and help her to forget her dreadful and recent experience of placing her own mother in an insane asylum. Learned, too, that her very first suspicion of that poor mother's condition had come from finding her one morning sitting up in bed, her arms embracing her knees, while she swayed from side to side unceasingly, muttering low and fast all the time.
Poor lady! no wonder her worn nerves gave way when all unexpectedly that dread scene was reproduced before her, and worse still before the staring public.
Then Mr. Charles Matthews, the veteran English comedian, came over to act at Mr. Daly's. His was a graceful, polished, volatile style of acting, and he had a high opinion of his power as a maker of fun; so that he was considerably annoyed one night when he discovered that one of his auditors would not laugh. Laugh? would not even smile at his efforts.
Mr. Matthews, who was past seventy, was nervous, excitable,—and, well, just a wee bit cranky; and when the play was about half over, he came "off," angrily talking to himself, and ran against Mr. Lewis and me, as we were just about "going on." Instantly he exclaimed, "Look here! look here!" taking from his vest pocket a broad English gold piece and holding it out on his hand, then added, "And look there! look there!" pointing out a gentleman sitting in the opposite box.
"Do you see that stupid dolt over there? Well, I've toiled over him till I sweat like a harvest hand, and laugh—he won't; smile—he won't."
I remarked musingly, "He looks like a graven image"; while Lewis suggested cheerfully, "Perhaps he is one."
"No, no!" groaned the unfortunate star, "I'm afraid not! I'm—I'm almost certain I saw him move once. But look here now, you're a deucedly funny pair; just turn yourselves loose in this scene. I'll protect you from Daly,—do anything you like,—and the one who makes that wooden man laugh, wins this gold piece."
It was not the gold piece that tempted us to our fall, but the hope of succeeding where the star had failed. I seized one moment in which to notify old man Davidge of what was going on, as he had a prominent part in the coming scene, and then we were on the stage.
The play was "The Critic," the scene a burlesque rehearsal of an old-time melodrama. Our opportunities were great, and Heaven knows we missed none of them. New York audiences are quick, and in less than three minutes they knew the actors had taken the bit between their teeth and were off on a mad race of fun. Everything seemed to "go." We three knew one another well. Each saw another's idea and caught it, with the certainty of a boy catching a ball. The audience roared with laughter; the carpenters and scene-shifters—against the rule of the theatre—crowded into the entrances with answering laughter; but the man in the box gave no sign.
Worse and worse we went on. Mr. Daly, white with anger, came behind the scene, gasping out, "Are they utterly mad?" to the little Frenchman whom he had made prompter because he could not speak English well enough to prompt us; who, frantically pulling his hair, cried, "Oui! oui! zey are all mad—mad like ze dog in ze summer-time!"
Mr. Daly stamped his feet and cleared his throat to attract our attention; but, trusting to Mr. Matthews's protection, we grinned cheerfully at him and continued on our downward path. At last we reached the "climax," and suddenly I heard Mr. Matthews say, "She's got him—look—I think she's won!"
I could not help it—I turned my head to see if the "graven image" could really laugh. Yes, he was moving! his face wore some faint expression; but—but he was turning slowly to the laughing audience, and the expression on his face was one of wonder!
Matthews groaned aloud, the curtain fell, and Daly was upon us. Matthews said the cause of the whole business was that man in the box; while Mr. Daly angrily declared, "The man in the box could have nothing to do with the affair, since he was deaf and dumb, and had been all his life."
I remember sitting down very hard and very suddenly. I remember that Davidge, who was an Englishman, "blasted" a good many things under his breath; and then Mr. Matthews, exclaiming with wonder, told us he had been playing for years in a farce where this very scene was enacted, the whole play consisting in the actors' efforts to win the approbation of a man who was a deaf mute.
So once more a play was found to reflect a situation in real life.
IN CONNECTION WITH "DIVORCE" AND DALY'S_
"Divorce" had just settled down for its long run, when one evening I received a letter whose weight and bulk made me wonder whether the envelope contained a "last will and testament" or a "three-act play." On opening it I found it perfectly correct in appearance, on excellent paper, in the clearest handwriting, and using the most perfect orthography and grammar: a gentleman had nevertheless gently, almost tenderly, reproached me for using the story of his life for the play.
He said he knew Mr. Daly's name was on the bills as author; but as I was an Ohio woman, he of course understood perfectly that I had furnished Mr. D. with his story for the play. He explained at great length that he forgave me because I had not given Mr. Daly his real name, and also remarked, in rather an aggrieved way, that he had two children and only one appeared in the play. He also seemed considerably surprised that Mr. Harkins (who played my husband) did not wear a large red beard, as every one, he said, knew he had not shaved for years.
My laughter made its way over the transom, and in a moment my neighbour was at the dressing-room door, asking for something she did not need, that she might find out the why and wherefore of the fun; and when the red beard had started her off, another came for something she knew I didn't own, and she too fell before the beard; while a third writhed over the forgiveness extended to me, and exclaimed:—
"Oh, the well-educated idiot, isn't he delicious?"
By and by the letter started to make a tour of the gentlemen's rooms, and, unlike the rolling-stone that gathered no moss, it gathered laughter as it moved.
It was only Mr. Daly who astonished me by not laughing. He, instead, seemed quite gratified that his play had so clearly reflected a real life story.
In the business world of New York there was known at that time a pair of brothers; they were in dry-goods. The firm was new, and they were naturally anxious to extend their trade. The buyer for a merchant in the far Northwest had placed a small order with the brothers B., which had proved so satisfactory that the merchant coming himself to New York the next fall informed the brothers of his intention of dealing heavily with them. Of course they were much pleased. They had received him warmly and had offered him some hospitality, which latter he declined; but as it was late in the day, and as he was an utter stranger to the city, he asked if there was anything going on that would help pass an evening for him; and the elder Mr. B. had instantly answered, Yes; that there was a big success "on" at Daly's Theatre, right next door to the Fifth Avenue Hotel, at which the stranger was stopping. And so with thanks and bows, and a smiling promise to be at the store at ten o'clock the next morning, ready for business, the brothers and the Western merchant parted.
I happened to be in the store next morning before ten, and the elder B., who was one of my few acquaintances, was chatting to me of nothing in particular, when I saw such an expression of surprise come into his face, that I turned at once in the direction his glance had taken, and saw a man plunging down the aisle toward us, like an ugly steer. He looked a cross between a Sabbath-school superintendent and a cattle dealer. He was six feet tall and very clumsy, and wore the black broadcloth of the church and the cow-hide boots, big hat, and woollen comforter of the cattle man; while his rage was so evident that even organ-grinders and professional beggars fled from his presence. On he came, stamping and shaking his head steerlike. One expected every moment to hear him bellow. When he came up to Mr. B., it really did seem that the man must fall in a fit. When he could speak, he burst into vituperation and profanity. He d——d the city, its founders, and its present occupants. He d——d Mr. B., his ancestors, his relatives near and distant, by blood and by law; but he was exceptionally florid when he came to tell Mr. B. how many kinds of a fool he was.
When his breath was literally gone, my unfortunate friend, who had alternately flushed and paled under the attack, said:—
"Mr. Dash, if you will be good enough to explain what this is all about—"
"Explain!" howled the enraged man, "explain! in the place where I come from our jokes don't need to be explained. You ring-tail gibbering ape, come out here on the sidewalk, and I'll explain!"
Then he paused an instant, as a new thought came to him.
"Oh, yes," he cried, "and if I take you out there, to lick some of the fun out of you, one of your constables will jump on to me! You're a sweet, polite lot, to play jokes on strangers, and then hide behind your constables!"
Then his voice fell, his eyes narrowed, he looked an ugly customer as he approached Mr. B., saying:—
"You thought it d——d funny to send me to that play last night, on purpose to show me you knew I had just got a divorce from my wife! And if I have divorced her, let me tell you she's a finer woman than you ever knew in your whole fool life! It was d——d funny, wasn't it, to send a lonely man—a stranger—into a playhouse to see his own misery acted out before him! Well, in New York that may be fun, and call for laughter, but at my home it would call for bullets—and get 'em too!"
And he turned and strode out. Mr. B. had failed to mention the name of the play when he recommended it; and the Western man, whose skin seemed as sensitive as it was thick, thought that he was being made fun of, when the play of "Divorce" unfolded before him.
When "Alixe" was produced, there was one feature of the play that aroused great curiosity. Mr. Daly was called upon again and again to decide wagers, and considerable money changed hands over the question, before people could be convinced that it was I who was carried upon the stage, and not a waxen image of me.
Many people will remember that in that heart-rending play, Alixe, the innocent victim of others' wrong-doing, is carried on dead,—drowned,—and lies for the entire act in full view of the audience. Now that was the only play I ever saw before playing in it; and in Paris the Alixe had been so evidently alive that the play was quite ruined.
When I had that difficult scene intrusted to me, I thought long and hard, trying to find some way to conceal my breathing. I knew I could "make-up" my face all right—but that evident breathing. I had always noticed that the tighter a woman laced, the higher she breathed and the greater was the movement of her chest and bust. That gave me a hint. I took off my corset. Still when lying down there was movement that an opera glass would betray.
Then I tried a little trick. Alixe wore white of a soft crepy material. I had duplicate dresses made, only one was very loose in the waist. Then I had a great big circular cloak of the same white material, quite unlined; and when I was made up for the death scene, with lilies and grasses in hand and hair, I stood upon a chair and held a corner of the great soft cloak against my breast, while my maid carefully wound the rest of it loosely about my body, round and round, right down to my ankles, and fastened it there; result: a long, white-robed figure, without one trace of waist line or bust, and beneath ample room for natural breathing, without even the tremor of a fold to betray it.
At once the question rose, was it a wax figure or was it not? One gentleman came to Mr. Daly and asked him for the artist's address, saying the likeness to Miss Morris was so perfect it might be herself, and he wanted to get a wax model of his wife. Nor would he be convinced until Mr. Daly finally brought him back to the stage, and he saw me unpin my close drapery, and trot off to my dressing-room.
The play was a great success, and often the reading of the suicide's letter was punctuated by actual sobs from the audience, instead of those from the mother. Young club-men used to make a point of going to the "Saturday Funeral," as they called the "Alixe" matinee. They would gather afterward, opposite to the theatre, and make fun of the women's faces as they came forth with tear-streaked cheeks, red noses, and swollen eyes, and making frantic efforts to slip powder-puffs under their veils and repair damages. If glances could have killed, there would have been mourning in earnest in the houses of the club-men.
One evening, as the audience was nearly out and the lights were being extinguished in the auditorium, a young man came back and said to an usher:—
"There is a gentleman up there in the balcony; you'd better see to him, before the lights are all put out."
"A gentleman? what's he doing there, at this time, I'd like to know?" grumbled the usher as he climbed up the stairs. But next moment he was calling for help, for there in a front seat, fallen forward, with his head on the balcony rail, sat an old man whose silvery white hair reflected the faint light that fell upon it. They carried him to the office; and after stimulants had been administered he recovered and apologized for the trouble he had caused. As he seemed weak and shaken, Mr. Daly thought one of the young men ought to see him safely home, but he said:—
"No, he was only in New York on business—he was at a hotel but a few steps away, and—and—" he hesitated. "You are thinking I had no right to go to a theatre alone," he added, "but I am not a sick man—only—only to-night I received an awful shock."
He paused. Mr. Daly noted the quiver of his firm old lips. He dismissed the usher; then he turned courteously to the old gentleman and said:—
"As it was in my theatre you received that shock, will you explain it to me?"
And in a low voice the stranger told him that he had had a daughter, an only child, a little blond, laughing thing, whom he worshipped. She was a mere child when she fell in love. Her choice had not pleased him, and looking upon the matter as a fancy merely, he had forbidden further intercourse between the lovers. "And—and it was in the summer, and—dear God, when that yellow-haired girl was carried dead upon the stage to-night, even the grass clutched between her fingers, it was a repetition of what occurred in my country home, sir, three years ago."
Then Mr. Daly gave his arm to the old stranger, and in dead silence they walked to the hotel and parted.
Once more the play had reflected real life.
"MISS MULTON" AT THE UNION SQUARE_
Mr. Palmer had produced "Miss Multon" at the Union Square, and we were fast settling down to our steady, regular gait, having got over the false starts and breaks and nervous shyings of the opening performance, when another missive of portentous bulk reached me.
It was one of those letters in which you can find everything except an end; and the writer was one of those men whose subjects, like an unhealthy hair, always split at the end, making at least two subjects out of one.
For instance, he started to show me the resemblance between his life and the story of the play; but when he came to mention his wife, the hair split, and instead of continuing, he branched off, to tell me she was the step-daughter of "So-and-so," that her own father, who was "Somebody," had died of "something," and had been buried "somewhere"; and then that hair split, and he proceeded to expatiate on the two fathers' qualities, and state their different business occupations, after which, out of breath, and far, far from the original subject, he had to hark back two and a half pages and tackle his life again.
Truth to tell, it was rather pathetic reading when he kept to the point, for love for his wife cropped out plainly between the lines after years of separation. Suddenly he began to adorn me with a variety of fine qualities. He assured me that I had penetration, clear judgment, and a sense of justice, as well as a warm heart.
I was staggering under these piled-up traits, when he completely floored me, so to speak, by asking me to take his case under consideration, assuring me he would act upon my advice. If I thought he had been too severe in his conduct toward his wife, to say so, and he would seek her out, and humble himself before her, and ask her to return to him.
He also asked me whether, as a woman, I thought she would be influenced wholly by the welfare of her children, or whether she would be likely to retain a trace of affection for himself.
That letter was an outrage. The idea of appealing to me, who had not had the experience of a single divorce to rely upon! Even my one husband was so recent an acquisition as to be still considered a novelty. And yet I, all unacquainted with divorce proceedings, legal separations, and common law ceremonies, was called upon to make this strange man's troubles my own, to sort out his domestic woes, and say:—
"This sin" is yours, but "that sin" is hers, and "those other sins" belong wholly to the co-respondent.
What a useful word that is! It has such a decent sound, almost respectable. We are a refined people, even in our sins, and I know no word in the English language we strive harder to avoid using in any of its forms than that word of brutal vulgarity, but terrific meaning—adultery.
The adulterer may be in our midst, but we have refinement enough to refer to him as the "So-and-So's" co-respondent.
I was engaged in saying things more earnest and warm than correct and polished—things I fear the writer of the letter could not have approved of—when I was pulled up short by the opening words of another paragraph, which said: "God! if women suffer in real life over the loss of children, husband, and home, as you suffered before my very eyes last night in the play; if my wife is tortured like that, it would have been better for me to have passed out of life, and have left her in peace. But I did not know that women suffered so. Help me, advise me."
I could not ignore that last appeal. What my answer was you will not care to know; but if it was brief, it was at least not flippant; and before writing it, I, in my turn, appealed for help, only my appeal was made upon my knees to the Great Authority.
* * * * *
On election nights it is customary for the manager to read or have read to the audience the returns as fast as they come in from various points, showing how the voting has gone.
An election was just over, when one evening a small incident occurred during a performance of "Miss Multon" that we would gladly have dispensed with. In the quarrel scene between the two women, the first and supposedly dead wife, in her character of governess to her own children, is goaded by the second wife into such a passion that she finally throws off all concealment and declares her true character and name.
The scene was a strong one, and was always looked forward to eagerly by the audience.
On the evening I speak of the house was packed almost to suffocation. The other characters in the play had withdrawn, and for the first time the two women were alone together. Both keyed up almost to the breaking point, we faced each other, and there was a dead, I might almost say a deadly pause before either spoke.
It was very effective—that silence before the storm. People would lean forward and fairly hold their breath, feeling there was a death struggle coming. And just at that very moment of tensest feeling, as we two women silently measured each other, a man's voice clearly and exultantly declared:—
"Well, now, we'll get the returns read, I reckon."
In one instant the whole house was in a roar of laughter. Under cover of the noise I said to my companion, who was showing her annoyance, "Keep still! keep still!"
And as we stood there like statues, utterly ignoring the interruption, there was a sudden outbreak of hissing, and the laughter stopped as suddenly as it had burst out, and our scene went on, receiving even more than its usual meed of applause. But when the curtain had fallen, I had my own laugh; for it was funny, very funny.
In Boston there was an interruption of a different nature. It was at a matinee performance. There were tear-wet faces everywhere you looked. The last act was on. I was slipping to my knees in my vain entreaty to be allowed to see my children as their mother, not merely as their dying governess, when a tall, slim, black-robed woman rose up in the parquet. She flung out her arms in a superb gesture, and in a voice of piercing anguish cried:—
"For God's sake, let her have her children! I've lived through such loss, but she can't; it will kill her!"
Tears sprang to the eyes of every one on the stage, and there was a perceptible halt in the movement of the play. And when, at the death scene, a lady was carried out in a faint, we were none of us surprised to hear it was she who had so far forgotten where she was as to make that passionate plea for a woman whose suffering was probably but a faint reflection of her own.
THE "NEW MAGDALEN" AT THE UNION SQUARE_
One night at the Union Square Theatre, when the "New Magdalen" was running, we became aware of the presence of a distinguished visitor—a certain actress from abroad.
As I looked at the beautiful woman, magnificently dressed and jewelled, I found it simply impossible to believe the stories I had heard of her frightful poverty, in the days of her lowly youth.
Her manner was listless, her expression bored; even the conversation which she frequently indulged in seemed a weariness to the flesh; while her applause was so plainly a mere matter of courtesy as almost to miss being a courtesy at all.
When, therefore, in the last act, I approached that truly dreadful five-page speech, which after a laconic "Go on!" from the young minister is continued through several more pages, I actually trembled with fear, lest her ennui should find some unpleasant outward expression. However, I dared not balk at the jump, so took it as bravely as I could.
As I stood in the middle of the stage addressing the minister, and my lover on my left, I faced her box directly. I can see her now. She was almost lying in her chair, her hands hanging limply over its arms, her face, her whole body suggesting a repressed yawn.
I began, slowly the words fell, one by one, in low, shamed tones:—
"I was just eight years old, and I was half dead with starvation."
Her hands closed suddenly on the arms of her chair, and she lifted herself upright. I went on:—
"I was alone—the rain was falling." (She drew her great fur cloak closely about her.) "The night was coming on—and—and—I begged—openly—LOUDLY—as only a hungry child can beg."
She sat back in her seat with a pale, frowning face; while within the perfumed furry warmth of her cloak she shivered so that the diamonds at her ears sent out innumerable tiny spears of colour.
The act went on to its close; her attention never flagged. When I responded to a call before the curtain, she gravely handed me her bunch of roses.
A few moments later, by a happy accident, I was presented to her; when with that touch of bitterness that so often crept into her voice she said:—
"You hold your glass too steadily and at too true an angle to quite please me."
"I do not understand," I answered.
She smiled, her radiantly lovely smile, then with just a suspicion of a sneer replied, "Oh, yes, I think you do; at all events, I do not find it amusing to be called upon to look at too perfect a reflection of my own childhood."
At which I exclaimed entreatingly, "Don't—please don't—"
I might have found it hard to explain just what I meant; but she understood, for she gave my hand a quick, hard pressure, and a kind look shone from her splendid eyes. Next moment she was sweeping superbly toward her carriage, with her gentlemen in waiting struggling for the opportunity to do her service. So here, again, was the play reflecting real life.
But surely I have given instances enough in illustration of my original claim that the most dramatic scenes in plays are generally the mere reflections of happenings in real life; while the recognition of such scenes often causes a serious interruption to the play, though goodness knows there are plenty of interruptions from other causes.
One that comes often to my mind occurred at Daly's. He once tried to keep the theatre open in the summer-time—that was a failure. Two or three plays were tried, then he abandoned the scheme. But while "No Name" was on, Mr. Parks was cast for a part he was utterly unsuited for. He stamped and stammered out his indignation and objection, but he was not listened to, so on he went.
During the play he was found seated at a table; and he not answering a question put to him, his housekeeper knelt at his side, lifted his hand, and let it fall, heavily, then in awed tones exclaimed, "He is dead!"
Now there is no use denying that, clever actor as he was, he was very, very bad in that part; and on the third night, when the housekeeper let his hand fall and said, "He is dead!" in clear and hearty response from the gallery came the surprising words, "Thank God!"
The laughter that followed was not only long-continued, but it broke out again and again. As one young woman earnestly remarked next day: "You see he so perfectly expressed all our feelings. We were all as thankful as the man in the gallery, but we didn't like to say so."
Parks, however, was equal to the occasion. He gravely suggested that Mr. Daly would do well to engage that chap, as he was the only person who had made a hit in the play.
Parks was, by the way, very droll in his remarks about theatrical matters. One day Mr. Daly concluded he would "cut" one of the acts we were rehearsing, and it happened that Parks's part, which was already short, suffered severely. He, of course, said nothing, but a little later he introduced a bit of business which was very funny, but really did not suit the scene. Mr. Daly noticed it, and promptly cut that out too. Then was Parks wroth indeed.
After rehearsal, he and Mr. Lewis were walking silently homeward, when they came upon an Italian street musician. The man ground at his movable piano, the wife held the tambourine, while his leggy little daughter danced with surprising grace on the stone walk. As she trotted about gathering her harvest of pennies, Parks put his hand on her shoulder and said solemnly:—
"You ought to be devilish glad you're not in Daly's company; he'd cut that dance out if you were."
One evening in New Orleans, when we were playing "Camille," a coloured girl, who had served me as dressing-maid, came to see me, and I gave her a "pass," that she might see from the "front" the play she had so often dressed me for. She went to the gallery and found herself next to a young black man, who had brought his sweetheart to see her first play.
The girl was greatly impressed and easily moved, and at the fourth act, when Armand hurled the money at me, striking me in the face, she turned to her young man, saying savagely, "You, Dave, you got ter lay for dat white man ter night, an' lick der life outen him."
Next moment I had fallen at Armand's feet. The curtain was down and the girl was excitedly declaring, I was dead! while Dave assured her over and over again, "No, honey, she carn't be dead yit, 'cause, don' yer see, der's anudder act, an' she just nacherly's got ter be in it."
When, however, the last act was on, it was Dave himself who did the business. The pathetic death scene was almost over, when applause broke from the upper part of the house. Instantly a mighty and unmistakable negro voice, said: "Hush—hush! She's climin' der golden stair dis time, shure—keep still!"
My devoted "Nannine" leaned over me to hide my laughing face from the audience, who quickly recovered from the interruption, while for once Camille, the heart-broken, died with a laugh in her throat.
In the same city I had, one matinee, to come down three steps on to the stage. I was quite gorgeous in one of my best gowns; for one likes to dress for Southern girls, they are so candidly pleased with your pretty things. My skirt caught on a nail at the very top step, so that when I reached the stage my train was stretched out full length, and in the effort a scene-hand made to free it, it turned over, so that the rose-pink lining could be plainly seen, when an awed voice exclaimed, "For de Lor's sake, dat woman's silk lin'd clear frou!" and the performance began in a gale of laughter.
"ODETTE" IN THE WEST. A CHILD'S FIRST PLAY_
An odd and somewhat touching little incident occurred one evening when we were in the far Northwest. There was a blizzard on just then, and the cold was something terrible. I had a severe attack of throat trouble, and my doctor had been with me most of the day. His little boy, hearing him speak of me, was seized with a desire to go to the theatre, and coaxed so well that his father promised to take him.
The play was "Odette." The doctor and his pretty little son sat in the end seats of the parquet circle, close to the stage and almost facing the whole house. The little fellow watched his first play closely. As the comedy bit went on, he smiled up at his father, saying audibly, "I like her—don't you, papa?"
Papa silenced him, while a few people who had overheard smiled over the child's unconsciousness of observers. But when I had changed my dress and crept into the darkened room in a robe de chambre; when the husband had discovered my wrong-doing and was driving me out of his house, a child's cry of protest came from the audience. At the same moment, the husband raised his hand to strike. I repelled him with a gesture and went staggering off the stage; while that indignant little voice cried, "Papa! papa! can't you have that man arrested?" and the curtain fell.
One of the actors ran to the peep-hole in the curtain, and saw the doctor leading out the little man, who was then crying bitterly, the audience smiling and applauding him, one might say affectionately.
A bit later the doctor came to my dressing-room to apologize and to tell me the rest of it. When the curtain had fallen, the child had begged: "Take me out—take me out!" and the doctor, thinking he might be ill, rose and led him out. No sooner had they reached the door, however, than he pulled his hand away, crying: "Quick, papa! quick! you go round the block that way, and I'll run round this way, and we'll be sure to find that poor lady that's out in the cold—just in her nighty!"
In vain he tried to explain, the child only grew more wildly excited; and finally the doctor promised, if the child would come home at once, only two blocks away, he would return and look for the lady—in the nighty. And he had taken the little fellow home and had seen him fling himself into his mother's arms, and with tears and sobs tell her of the "poor lady whose husband had driven her right out into the blizzard, don't you think, mamma, and only her nighty on; and, mamma, she hadn't done one single bad thing—not one!"
Poor, warm-hearted, innocent little man; he was assured later on that the lady had been found and taken to a hotel; and I hope his next play was better suited to his tender years.
In Philadelphia we had a very ludicrous interruption during the last act of "Man and Wife." The play was as popular as the Wilkie Collins' story from which it had been taken, and therefore the house was crowded.
I was lying on the bed in the darkened room, in that profound and swift-coming sleep known, alas! only to the stage hero or heroine. The paper on the wall began to move noiselessly aside, and in the opening thus disclosed at the head of the bed, lamp-illumined, appeared the murderous faces of Delamain and Hesther Detheridge. As the latter raised the wet, suffocating napkin that was to be placed over my face, a short, fat man in the balcony started to his feet, and broke the creepy silence with the shout:—
"Mein Gott in Himmel! vill dey murder her alreaty?"
Some one tried to pull him down into his seat, but he struck the hand away, crying loudly, "Stob it! stob it, I say!" And while the people rocked back and forth with laughter, an usher led the excited German out, declaring all the way that "A blay vas a blay, but somedings might be dangerous even in a blay! unt dat ting vat he saw should be stobbed alreaty!" Meantime I had quite a little rest on my bed before quiet could be restored and the play proceed.
I have often wondered if any audience in the world can be as quick to see a point as is the New York audience. During my first season in this city there was a play on at Mr. Daly's that I was not in, but I was looking on at it.
In one scene there stood a handsome bronze bust on a tall pedestal. From a careless glance I took it to be an Ariadne. At the changing of the scene the pedestal received a blow that toppled it over, and the beautiful "bronze" bust broke into a hundred pieces of white plaster.
The laughter that followed was simply caused by the discovery of a stage trick. The next character coming upon the stage was played by Miss Newton, in private life known as Mrs. Charles Backus, wife of the then famous minstrel. No sooner did she appear upon the stage, not even speaking one line, than the laugh broke forth again, swelled, and grew, until the entire audience joined in one great roar. I expected to see the lady embarrassed, distressed; but not she! After her first startled glance at the house, she looked at the pedestal, and then she, too, laughed, when the audience gave a hearty round of applause, which she acknowledged.
A scene-hand, noticing my amazed face, said, "You don't see it, do you?"
"No," I answered.
"Well," said he, "did you know who that bust was?"
"Yes," I replied, "I think it was Ariadne."
"Oh, no!" he said, "it was a bust of Bacchus; then, when Mrs. Backus appeared—"
"Oh!" I interrupted. "They all said to themselves: 'Poor Backus is broken all up! Backus has busted!'"
And that was why they laughed; and she saw it and laughed with them, and they saw that and applauded her. Well, that's a quick-witted audience—an opinion I still retain.
People are fond of saying, "A woman can't keep a secret." Well, perhaps she doesn't keep her secrets forever; but here's how two women kept a secret for a good many years, and betrayed it through a scene in a play.
Mr. Daly's treasurer had given tickets to some friends for a performance of "Divorce." They were ladies—mother and daughter. At first greatly pleased, the elder lady soon began to grow nervous, then tearful as the play went on; and her daughter, watching her closely, was about to propose their retirement, when the mother, with clasped hands and tear-blurred eyes, seeing the stealing of my little son by the order of his father, thrilled the audience and terrified her daughter by flinging up her arms and crying wildly: "Don't do it! for God's sake, don't do it! You don't know what agony it means!" and fell fainting against the frightened girl beside her.
Great confusion followed; the ushers, assisted by those seated near, removed the unconscious woman to Mr. Daly's private office; but so greatly had her words affected the people, that when the men on the stage escaped through the window with the child in their arms, the curtain fell to a volley of hisses.
In the office, as smelling salts, water, and fresh air were brought into requisition, in answer to a question of Mr. Daly's, the treasurer was saying, "She is Mrs. W——, a widow," when a faint voice interrupted, "No—no; I'm no widow!"
The treasurer smiled pityingly, and continued, "I have known her intimately for twelve years, sir; she is the widow of—"
"No—no!" came the now sobbing voice. "No—no! Oh, Daisy, dear, tell him! tell him!"
And the young girl, very white, and trembling visibly, said: "I hope you will forgive us, Mr. W——, but from causeless jealousy my father deserted mother, and—and he stole my little brother, mamma's only son! We have never heard of either of them since. Widowhood seemed a sort of protection to poor mamma, and she has hidden behind its veil for sixteen years. She meant no harm. She would have told you before—"
She turned crimson and stopped, but that burning blush told its story plainly; and Mr. Daly busied himself over the pouring of a glass of wine for the robbed mother, while the treasurer in low tones assured Daisy there was nothing to forgive, and gratefully accepted the permission granted him to see the poor things safely home.
Sixteen years' silence is not so bad for a sex who can't keep a secret!
A CASE OF "TRYING IT ON A DOG"_
It was before I came to New York that I one night saw a really fine performance almost ruined by a single interruption. It was a domestic tragedy of English rural life, and one act began with a tableau copied exactly from a popular painting called "Waiting for the Verdict," which was also the title of the play.
The scene gave an exterior view of the building within which the husband and father was being tried for his life on a charge of murder. The trembling old grandsire leaned heavily on his staff; the devoted wife sat wearily by the closed iron gate, with a babe on her breast, tired but vigilant; a faithful dog stretched himself at her feet, while his shaggy shoulders pillowed the head of the sleeping child, who was the accused man's darling.
The curtain rose on this picture, which was always heartily greeted, and often, so well it told its pathetic story, a second and a third round of applause greeted it before the dialogue began. The manager's little daughter, who did the sleeping child, contracted a cold and was advised not to venture out of the house for a fortnight, so a substitute had to be found, and a fine lot of trouble the stage-manager had. He declared half the children of Columbus had been through his sieve; and there was the trouble—they all went through, there was no one left to act as substitute. But at last he found two promising little girls, sisters they were, and very poor; but the mother vowed her children must be in bed at nine, theatre or no theatre; yes, she would like to have the money, but she'd do without it rather than have a child out of bed at all hours. At first she held out for nine o'clock, but at last yielded the additional half-hour; and to the great disappointment of the younger child, the elder one was accepted, for the odd reason that she looked so much younger than her sister.
The company had come from Cleveland, and there were the usual slight delays attendant on a first night; but the house was "good"; the star (Mr. Buchanan) was making a fine impression, and the play was evidently a "go." The big picture was looked forward to eagerly, and when it was arranged, we had to admit that the pale, pinched little face of the strange child was more effective as it rested on the dog's shoulder than had been the plump, smiling face of the manager's little one. The curtain went up, the applause followed; those behind the scenes crowded to the "wings" to look on; no one noted that the hands of the clock stood at 9.40; no one heard through the second burst of applause the slam of the stage door behind the very, very small person who entered, and silently peering this way and that, found her stern, avenging way to the stage, and that too-favoured sister basking in the sunlight of public approval.
The grandsire had just lifted his head and was about to deliver his beautiful speech of trust and hope, when he was stricken helpless by the entrance upon the stage of a boldly advancing small person of most amazing appearance. Her thin little legs emerged from the shortest of skirts, while her small body was well pinned up in a great blanket shawl, the point of which trailed fully a quarter of a yard on the floor behind her. She wore a woman's hood on her head, and from its cavernous depth, where there gleamed a pale, malignant small face, a voice issued—the far-reaching voice of a child—that triumphantly commanded:—
"You, Mary Ann, yu're ter get up out of that an' com' home straight away—an' yu're ter go ter bed, too,—mother says so!" and the small Nemesis turned on her heel and trailed off the stage, followed by laughter that seemed fairly to shake the building. Nor was that all. No sooner had Mary Ann grasped the full meaning of this dread message than she turned over on her face, and scrambling up by all fours, she eluded the restraining hands of the actress-mother and made a hasty exit to perfect shrieks of laughter and storms of applause; while the climax was only reached when the dog, trained to lie still so long as the pressure of the child's head was upon his shoulder, finding himself free, rose, shook himself violently, and trotted off, waving his tail pleasantly as he went.
That finished it; the curtain had to fall, a short overture was played, and the curtain rose again without the complete tableau, and the action of the play was resumed; but several times the laughter was renewed. It was only necessary for some person to titter over the ludicrous recollection, and instantly the house was laughing with that person. The next night the manager's child, swathed in flannel, with a mouth full of cough-drops, held the well-trained dog in his place until the proper moment for him to rise, and the play went on its way rejoicing.
And just to show how long-lasting is the association of ideas, I will state that years, many years afterward, I met a gentleman who had been in the auditorium that night, and he told me he had never since seen a blanket shawl, whether in store for sale or on some broad back, that he had not instantly laughed outright, always seeing poor Mary Ann's obedient exit after that vengeful small sister with her trailing shawl.
THE CAT IN "CAMILLE"_
It was in "Camille," one Friday night, in Baltimore, that for the only time in my life I wished to wipe an animal out of existence. I love four-footed creatures with extravagant devotion, not merely the finely bred and beautiful ones, but the poor, the sick, the halt, the maimed, the half-breeds or the no breeds at all; and almost all animals quickly make friends with me, divining my love for them. But on this one night—well! it was this way. In the last act, as Camille, I had staggered from the window to the bureau and was nearing that dread moment when in the looking-glass I was to see the reflection of my wrecked and ruined self. The house was giving strained attention, watching dim-eyed the piteous, weak movements of the dying woman; and right there I heard that (——h!) quick indrawing of the breath startled womanhood always indulges in before either a scream or a laugh. My heart gave a plunge, and I thought: What is it? Oh, what is wrong? and I glanced down at myself anxiously, for really I wore so very little in that scene that if anything should slip off—gracious! I did not know but what, in the interest of public propriety, the law might interfere. But that one swift glance told me that the few garments I had assumed in the dressing-room still faithfully clung to me. But alas! there was the dreaded titter, and it was unmistakably growing. What was it about? They could only laugh at me, for there was no one else on the stage. Was there not, indeed! In an agony of humiliation I turned half about and found myself facing an absolutely monstrous cat. Starlike he held the very centre of the stage, his two great topaz eyes were fixed roundly and unflinchingly upon my face. On his body and torn ears he carried the marks of many battles. His brindled tail stood straightly and aggressively in the air, and twitched with short, quick twitches, at its very tip, truly as burly an old buccaneer as I ever saw.
No wonder they giggled! But how to save the approaching death scene from total ruin? All was done in a mere moment or two; but several plans were made and rejected during these few moments. Naturally my first thought, and the correct one, was to call back "Nannine," my faithful maid, and tell her to remove the cat. But alas! my Nannine was an unusually dull-witted girl, and she would never be able to do a thing she had not rehearsed. My next impulse was to pick up the creature and carry it off myself; but I was playing a dying girl, and the people had just seen me, after only three steps, reel helplessly into a chair; and this cat might easily weigh twelve pounds or more; and then at last my plan was formed. I had been clinging all the time to the bureau for support, now I slipped to my knees and with a prayer in my heart that this fierce old Thomas might not decline my acquaintance, I held out my hand, and in a faint voice, called "Puss—Puss—Puss! come here, Puss!"
It was an awful moment: if he refused to come, if he turned tail and ran, all was over; the audience would roar.
"Puss—Puss!" I pleaded. Thomas looked hard at me, hesitated, stretched out his neck, and working his whiskers nervously, sniffed at my hand.
"Puss—Puss!" I gasped out once more, and lo! he gave a little "meow," and walking over to me, arched his back amicably, and rubbed his dingy old body against my knee. In a moment my arms were about him, my cheek on his wicked old head, and the applause that broke forth from the audience was as balm of Gilead to my distress and mortification. Then I called for Nannine, and when she came on, I said to her, "Take him downstairs, Nannine, he grows too heavy a pet for me these days," and she lifted and carried Sir Thomas from the stage, and so I got out of the scrape without sacrificing my character as a sick woman.
My manager, Mr. John P. Smith, who was a wag, and who would willingly give up his dinner, which he loved, for a joke, which he loved better, was the next day questioned about this incident. One gentleman, a music dealer, said to him: "Mr. Smith, I wish you to settle a question for me. My wife and I are at variance. We saw 'Camille' last night, and my wife, who has seen it several times in New York, insisted that that beautiful little cat-scene belongs to the play and is always done; while I am sure I never saw it before, and several of my customers agree with me, one lady declaring it to have been an accident. Will you kindly set us right?"
"Certainly," heartily replied Mr. Smith; "your wife is quite right, the cat scene is always done. It is a great favourite with Miss Morris, and she hauls that cat all over the country with her, ugly as he is, just because he's such a good actor."
"ALIXE." THE TRAGEDY OF THE GOOSE GREASE_
During the run of "Alixe," at Daly's Theatre, I had suffered from a sharp attack of inflammation of the lungs, and before I was well the doctor was simply horrified to learn that Mr. Daly had commanded me to play at the Saturday performance, saying that if the work made me worse, the doctor would have all day Sunday to treat me in. He really seemed to think that using a carriage did away with all possible danger in passing from a warm room, through icy streets, to a draughty theatre. But certain lesions that I carry about with me are proofs of his error. However, I dared not risk losing my engagement, so I obeyed. My chest, which had been blistered and poulticed during my illness, was excruciatingly tender and very sensitive to cold; and the doctor, desiring to heal, and at the same time to protect it from chill, to my unspeakable mortification anointed me lavishly with goose grease and swathed me in flannel and cotton wadding.
That I had no shape left to me was bad enough; but to be a moving abomination was worse, and of all vile, offensive, and vulgar odours commend me to that of goose grease. With cheeks wet from tears of sheer weakness, I reached the theatre resolved to keep as silent as the grave on the subject of my flamboyant armour of grease and flannel. But the first faint muttering of the coming storm reached me even in my dressing-room, when the theatre maid (I had none of my own yet) entered, and frowningly snapped out: "I'd like to know what's the matter with this room? It never smelled like this before. Just as soon as you go out, Miss Morris, I'll hunt it over and see what the trouble is."
I had been pale, but at that speech one might have lighted matches at my scarlet face. While in the entrance I had to be wrapped up in a great big shawl, through which the odour could not quite penetrate, so no one suspected me when making kindly inquiries about my health; but when it was thrown off, and in my thin white gown I went on the stage—oh!
In the charming little love scene, as Henri and I sat close, oh, very close together, on the garden seat, and I had to look up at him with wide-eyed admiration, I saw him turn his face aside, wrinkling up his nose, and heard him whisper: "What an infernal smell! What is it?"
I shook my head in seeming ignorance and wondered what was ahead—if this was the beginning. It was a harrowing experience; by the time the second act was on, the whole company was aroused. They were like an angry swarm of bees. Miss Dietz kept her handkerchief openly to her pretty nose; Miss Morant, in stately dudgeon, demanded that Mr. Daly should be sent for, that he might learn the condition of his theatre, and the dangers his people were subjected to in breathing such poisoned air; while right in the very middle of our best scene, Mr. Louis James, the incorrigible, stopped to whisper, "Can't we move further over and get out of this confounded stench?"
In that act I had to spend much of my time at the piano, with the result that when the curtain fell, the people excitedly declared that awful smell was worst right there, and I had the misery of seeing the prompter carefully looking into the piano and applying his long, sharp nose to its upright interior.
There had been a moment in that act when I thought James Lewis suspected me. I had just taken my seat opposite him at the chess table, when he gave a little jerk at his chair, exclaiming under his breath, "Blast that smell—there it is again!"
I remained silent, and there I was wrong; for Lewis, knowing me well, knew my habit of extravagant speech, and instantly his blue pop eyes were upon my miserable face, with suspicion sticking straight out of them. With trembling hand I made my move at chess, saying, "Queen to Queens rook four," and he added in aside, "Seems to me you're mighty quiet about this scent; I hope you ain't going to tell me you can't smell it?"
But the assurance that "I did—oh, I did, indeed! smell a most outrageous odour," came so swiftly, so convincingly from my lips, that his suspicions were lulled to rest.
The last act came, and—and—well, as I said, it was the last act. White and rigid and lily-strewn, they bore me on the stage,—Louis James at the shoulders and George Clarke at the feet. Their heads were bent over me. James was nearest to the storm centre. Suddenly he gasped, then as we reached the centre of the stage Clarke gave vent to "phew!" They gently laid me on the sofa, but through the sobs of the audience and of the characters I heard from James the unfinished, half-doubting sentence, "Well, I believe in my soul it's—" But the mother (Miss Morant) approached me then, took my hand, touched my brow, called for help, for a physician; then with the wild cry, "She is dead! she is dead!" flung herself down beside the sofa with her head upon my goose-grease breast. Scarcely had she touched me, however, when with a gasping snort of disgust she sprang back, exclaiming violently, "It's you, you wretch! it's you!" and then under cover of other people's speeches, I being dead and helpless, Clarke stood at my head and James at my feet and reviled me, calling me divers unseemly names and mocking at me, while references were made every now and then to chloride of lime and such like disinfectants.
They would probably have made life a burden for me ever after, had I not after the performance lifted tearful eyes to them and said, "I am so sorry for your discomfort, but you can go out and get fresh air; but, boys, just think of me, I can't get away from myself and my goose-grease smell a single moment, and it's perfectly awful!"
"You bet it is!" they all answered, as with one voice, and they were merciful to me, which did not prevent them from sending the prompter (who did not know of the discovery) with a lantern to search back of the scenes for the cause of the offensive odour. Perhaps I may add that goose grease does not figure in my list of "household remedies."
But the next week I was able, in a measure at least, to heal their wounded feelings. Actresses used to receive a good many little gifts from admirers in the audience. They generally took the form of flowers or candy, but sometimes there came instead a book, a piece of music, or an ornament for the dressing-table; but Alixe's altar could boast an entirely new votive offering. I received a letter and a box. The letter was an outburst of admiration for Alixe, the "lily maid the tender, the poetical," etc. The writer then went on to tell me how she had yearned to express to me her feelings; how she had consulted her husband on the matter, and how he had said certainly to write if she wished, and send some little offering, which seemed appropriate, and "therefore she sent this"; and with visions of a copy of Keats or Shelley or a lace-trimmed pin-cushion, I opened the box and found the biggest mince pie I ever saw.
Certainly the lady's idea of an appropriate gift was open to criticism, but not so her pie. That was rich perfection. Its fruity, spicy interior was evenly warmed with an evident old French brandy,—no savagely burning cooking brandy, mind,—and when the flaky marvel had stood upon the heater for a time, even before its cutting up with a paper-knife, the odour of goose grease was lost in the "Araby the Blest" scent of mince meat.
J.E. OWENS'S "WANDERING BOYS." "A HOLE IN THE WALL" INCIDENT_
The late John E. Owens, while acting in Cincinnati, had a severe cold. He was feverish, and fearing for his throat, which was apt to give him trouble, he had his physician, an old friend, come to see him back of the scenes. The doctor brought with him an acquaintance, and Mr. Owens asked them to wait till the next act was over to see how his throat was going to behave.
It's always a dangerous thing to turn outsiders loose behind the scenes; for if they don't fall into traps, or step into paint pots, they are sure to pop on to the stage.
Mr. Owens supposed the gentlemen would stop quietly in his room, but not they. Out they wandered on discovery intent. A well-painted scene caught the doctor's eye. He led his friend up to it, to take a better look; then as only part of it was visible from where they stood, they followed it along.
Mr. Owens and I were on the stage. Suddenly his eyes distended. "What in the devil?" he whispered. I looked behind me, and at the same moment the audience burst into shouts of laughter; for right into the centre of the stage had walked, with backs toward the audience, two tall gentlemen, each with a shining bald head, each tightly buttoned in a long black overcoat, and each gesticulating with a heavy cane.
I whispered to Mr. Owens, "The two Dromios"; but he snapped out, "Two blind old bats."
When they heard the roar behind them, they turned their heads, and then a funnier, wilder exit I never saw than was made by these two dignified old gentlemen; while Owens added to the laughter by taking me by the hand, and when we had assumed their exact attitude, singing "Two wandering boys from Switzerland."
I am reminded that the first performance I ever saw in my life had one of the most grotesque interruptions imaginable. At a sort of country hotel much frequented by driving parties and sleighing parties, a company of players were "strapped,"—to use the theatrical term, stranded,—unable either to pay their bills or to move on. There was a ballroom in the house, and the proprietor allowed them to erect a temporary stage there and give a performance, the guests in the house promising to attend in a body.
One of the plays was an old French farce, known to English audiences as "The Hole in the Wall." The principal comedy part was a clerk to two old misers, who starved him outrageously.
I was a little, stiffly starched person, and I remember that I sat on some one's silk lap, and slipped and slipped, and was hitched up and immediately slipped again until I wished I might fall off and be done with it. Near me sat a little old maiden lady, who had come in from her village shop to see "the show." She wore two small, sausage curls either side of her wrinkled cheeks, large glasses, a broad lace collar, while three members of her departed family gathered together in one fell group on a mighty pin upon her tired chest. She held a small bag on her knee, and from it she now and then slid a bit of cake which, as she nibbled it, gave off a strong odour of caraway seed.
Now the actor was clever in his "make-up," and each time he appeared he looked thinner than he had in the scene before. Instead of laughing, however, the old woman took it seriously, and she had to wipe her glasses with her carefully folded handkerchief several times before that last scene, when she was quite overcome.
His catch phrase had been, "Oh! oh! how hungry I am!" and every time he said it, she gave a little involuntary groan; but as he staggered on at the last, thin as a bit of thread paper, hollow-cheeked, white-faced, she indignantly exclaimed, "Well now, that's a shame!"
The people laughed aloud; the comedian fixed his eyes upon her face, and with hands pressed against his stomach groaned, "O-h! how hungry I am!" and then she opened that bag and drew forth two long, twisted, fried cakes, rose, stood on her tip-toes, and reaching them up to him tearfully remarked:—
"Here, you poor soul, take these. They are awful dry; but it's all I've got with me."
The audience fairly screamed; but poor and stranded as that company was, the comedian was an artist, for he accepted the fried cakes, ate them ravenously to the last crumb, and so kept well within the character he was playing, without hurting the feelings of the kind-hearted, little old woman.
It's pleasant to know that that clever bit of acting attracted the attention and gained the interest of a well-to-do gentleman, who was present, and who next day helped the actors on their way to the city.
A certain foreign actor once smilingly told me "I was a crank about my American public." I took his little gibe in good part; for while he knew foreign audiences, he certainly did not know American ones as well as I, who have faced them from ocean to ocean, from British Columbia to Florida. Two characteristics they all share in common,—intelligence and fairness,—otherwise they vary as widely, have as many marked peculiarities, as would so many individuals. New York and Boston are the authorities this side of "the Great Divide," while San Francisco sits in judgment by the blue Pacific.
One never-to-be-forgotten night I went to a fashionable theatre in New York City to see a certain English actress make her debut before an American audience, which at that time was considered quite an interesting event, since there were but one or two of her countrywomen over here then. The house was very full; the people were of the brightest and the "smartest." I sat in a stage box and noted their eagerness, their smiling interest.
The curtain was up, there was a little dialogue, and then the stage door opened. I dimly saw the actress spreading out her train ready to "come on," the cue was given, a figure in pale blue and white appeared in the doorway, stood for one single, flashing instant, then lurched forward, and with a crash she measured her full length upon the floor.
The shocked "O-h-h" that escaped the audience might have come from one pair of lips, so perfect was its spontaneity, and then dead and perfect silence fell.
The actress lay near but one single piece of furniture (she was alone in the scene, unfortunately), and that was one of those frail, useless, gilded trifles known as reception chairs. She reached out her hand, and lifting herself by that, had almost reached her knee, when the chair tipped under her weight, and they both fell together.