An Amateur Supe's Story
TAKE this one, please ; the fellows have used that chair a little rough, as you see. The table, I think, will hold. Perhaps you will like this pen better. It’s queer you should want to write it down. Well, I ’ll give it to you again just as it happened, and I will pledge my word and honor, too, that it is true in every particular. That was over three years ago, now; —you never do ? You don’t mind my smoking though, I suppose? — yes, it must have been three years and a half ago, for of course you know I am a senior now ; at any rate, it was during the first vacation of my Freshman year. I would n’t do such a thing these days, you understand ; a fellow gets older as —as he advances in years ; you know what I mean. Well, I went down to the city to pass the first vacation with a friend. My friend was not any taller than I was, though he was my elder by about two years, but then he weighed nearly twice as much as I did. The fact is, he was remarkably fat for one who could get around as he did. And he was the jolliest fellow I ever knew. It was he who proposed that we should go on the stage as supernumeraries. The inspiration came to him just after lunch one day as he was reading the play-bill of one of the theatres. A grand spectacular melodrama, entitled, I believe, Footprints of the Fairies, was to be produced. Although it was a bad, rainy afternoon, we started for the theatre, where, “at enormous expense and with an unparalleled host of attractive auxiliaries,” “ the great, pleasing, moral, instructive, and sensational melodrama,” as we read in the bill, would be given “ every evening until further notice.” I don’t know how we learned or guessed that the ballet and processions were rehearsed in the afternoon, but it seems they were.
Arrived at the theatre, we saw at a glance it would not do to let the man in the box-office into our secret, there was something so forbiddingly commercial in his face ; his sympathy with art, we felt sure, paused at the waxed ends of his dyed mustache. Prowling round the building, we finally discovered an alley which led to the back entrance. There we had the good fortune to observe a small battalion of mangy-looking creatures, of all ages and both genders, huddled about the door under umbrellas and waterproofs more or less shabby. These, we soon learned, were the supes, with the rank and file of the ballet, come to the afternoon rehearsal, and waiting for the door to be opened. We fraternized with them during the five minutes or more we stood together in the rain before the laggard doorkeeper made his appearance ; that is, we made known our ambition to the most respectablefaced fellow among them, and chatted with him in a friendly way, until we had a chance to follow the crowd through the narrow door into a dark hole somewhere under the stage. This was what is called the “ supe-room,” as I afterward learned. Impunity thus far emboldened us to ask for some one in authority ; and so we were referred to a little thin old Frenchman whose blood seemed all gone to his head. His face was excessively red ; and his scalp, redder still if possible, shone grotesquely through his sparse, sandywhite hair. We did not see where he came from ; he burst upon us as soon as the gas was lighted. Swelling with turkey-cock dignity, he gave us to understand that he, ma foi! was master of the ballet, and had “ nossing to do wiz ze confoun’ supes.” And then the old fellow walked off, pointing his toes out at exact right angles.
Soon after that, a door opened in the back part of the room we were in, and we became suddenly aware of three things: first, a smell of water-color paint from the scenes in the mysterious region of the stage above ; second, a stairway leading to that coveted region itself; and, third, the presence, as the whisper of the unruly multitude around us immediately announced, of Mr. Butler, the chief of the supes. He was a brisk, decided sort of man, a born American I should say, perhaps thirty-five years old. We told him we wanted to go on the stage just for one night ; we did n’t want any money for it, in fact would rather like to pay for the privilege ; in any way, and on any condition, we simply wanted to go on the stage; we would go on in the ballet even, but unfortunately we could n’t dance. It was my fleshy friend who said that. Of course, he wouldn’t have said anything so self-evident, if he had not been embarrassed by the very quiet way in which the chief of the supes listened to our enthusiasm. There was a moment of silence, during which Mr. Butler looked us over like so many theatrical properties, and then he said that he had no use for us, that he had stipes enough. We told him we thought ourselves peculiarly adapted to the business ; we had a love for it ; we had taken parts in private theatricals, and really had dramatic talent of which he could form no idea. But it was of no use. He said he thought he could form a pretty fair idea of our dramatic talent ; there was no need to say any more about it ; we could n’t go on the stage in that theatre. We thought of offering him every dollar we had with us as a bribe ; but there was something so decided and business-like about Mr. Butler, that we had n’t the courage. He marshalled the supernumerary host up to rehearsal, and there was seemingly nothing left for us to do but to go home again.
On our way out through the passage we observed an old fellow at the door of what proved to be the room where the supes’ costumes were kept. I think he was an Englishman ; he was a little old man, and the gray bristles of his chin, the whole lower part of his face, and the whole upper part of his coat and vest were covered with snuff. Now, dirt and dishonesty may not always go together, but this man looked bribable. We told him of our unsatisfied longing to be fairies, or soldiers in the triumphant army of the prince, or at least a pair of those nondescript citizens of melodrama, who represent nothing that ever was on land or sea, but who swell processions or stand against flats in imbecile phalanx ; and we ended by offering the old fellow five dollars if he would smuggle us in among the supes that night. He gave the lower part of his face a new coat of snuff while he was hesitating. Finally, after much argument on both sides, he consented, if we would agree to pay him the money as soon as we had got inside the theatre, and if we would promise not to betray him, even should we be detected and ignominiously expelled. As we took our leave he gave us two “ supe checks,” which would open the magic back door to us on our return that evening. But to make everything doubly safe, he appointed a meeting with us at six o’clock upon a neighboring street-corner.
Reaching my friend’s house, we gave warning that we should not be home to dinner, that we were going to dine out and go to the theatre “ with a party.” Then we went up stairs to dress, that is, to put on our very worst old clothes. Leaving our watches, and all our money but seven dollars and a half between us, we stole out of the house unobserved ; and in an oyster-cellar, over a couple of thin stews, we waited our time. The old fellow met us promptly on the corner at the appointed hour, led us silently and mysteriously to the room of which he had charge, and received his five dollars with trembling hand. Even so early as that, most of the supes had arrived, and, what was worse for us, they had appropriated all the best costumes. The result was that we had to make ourselves up from the habilimentary remnants of various ages and nations. I succeeded in getting into a pair of white tights and a kind of tunic which hugged me, even in the skirt, about as closely as the tights did. I forget what our old friend said was the original color of this tunic, but I remember it was much scaled and spangled, and barred across the breast with red and white. Upon my head I wore an elegant cap and bells, and held a cottonwood wand in my hand. My cap was too large, and kept getting down over my nose, like an extinguisher. Both of my sandals were designed for the right feet of two noble Romans, who could never have been near enough of a size to be brothers ; one of my sandals, in fact, was too large and the other was too small for me. My friend, who had also skirmished all along the line of history for his eclectic costume, had, singularly enough, a pair of lefts for his sandals ; but then his were red and mine were White, so we could not exchange.
Well, there is, I suppose, something naturally triumphant in tights ; they seem to suspend one in the air by the legs, as you might say. Perhaps it is because you are n’t used to them, and because they are lighter than pantaloons. That, however, will hardly account for the queer, nervous, exultant feeling we had as we strutted about among the impossible soldiery and assistant fairies, preparing to go on the stage. We were not quite happy though, for fear of Mr. Butler, the captain of the supes. He had not discovered us yet, but what would he say or do when he should discover us ? He certainly would catch us, for some of the ballet girls and most of the profesional supes had already detected us as amateurs ; and a couple of blond pages in silver spangles and dishevelled hair were poking fun at us. Just at the awful moment when we had got up stairs to the region of the wings and were upon the point of making our début in a vast procession of gnomes, fairies, and Utopian infantry, — men and women, boys and girls, —just at that moment we were addressed by Mr. Butler, the chief of the supes. He argued the case aloud, right in the hearing of the two silver-spangled blond pages and others, whether he would or would not put us out into the street, tights, tunics, unmatched sandals, and all. Not only while he was thus debating the matter, but when he demanded how we got in there, we did the only thing for us to do, which was to look him complacently in the face, and say nothing. Then he looked at us in silence awhile. Maybe he did n’t care or dare to lose the wardrobe we wore. Perhaps he thought he would draw our salaries — twenty-five cents a night — for himself. My friend was, or pretended to be, of opinion that the chief of the supes admired the persistency of our devotion to the drama. I think, rather, he saw the funny side of our impudence. At any rate, he said we might go on the stage, now that we were there, telling my friend to keep right behind me, and charging me to follow directly after a certain red spirit of evil with a green baize tail. Then Mr. Butler turned on his heel and left us. We observed him soon after looking our way and laughing with one of the actors in a neighboring wing ; and we were so far reassured as to give all our trepidation to the approaching début.
It is doubtful if the audience knew what the play was about ; it was one of those grand spectaculars whose plot dies of sheer inanition midway of the performance. From the wings, hustled about as I was in a throng of supes and ballet girls, with those two silverspangled blond pages jamming my capand-bells extinguisher down over my eyes and nose,— well, I can give no idea what an insane jumble, what a confused system of goose-tracks, those Footprints of the Fairies were to me. At last the thrilling moment of our first appearance before the foot-lights had arrived, and the motley rabble of the wings and side scenes disgorged itself upon the stage in a grand procession, whose connection with the past, present, or future of the beautiful fairy, the heroine of the piece, I never hope to understand. We entered at the back of the stage left, crossed over right, came down the stage, and, turning once more, marched across in the full glare of the foot-lights and off left, and went directly on again, having merely shuffled ourselves into different order, so as not to seem the same procession. During this second deal, as we were coming around again in front of the foot-lights, my friend dropped one of his red sandals, and, instead of passing on without it, as a professional supe would have done, he stopped and clattered back after it, thereby breaking the line, halting the whole procession, and of course bringing down the house.
For all the heartiness of the audience’s applause, my friend felt that he had not distinguished himself, and we both stole away out of Mr. Butler’s sight, concealing ourselves with our old patron, costumer to the supes. His hand trembled and wasted snuff in an unusual manner when he learned what my friend had done. We kept very quiet for some time, and, hoping at last that the storm was blown over, were beginning to feel a return of the gauzy exhilaration of tights and tunics. I suppose there was very little of the real Grecian in our make-up ; but I must say I don't know when I ever got so much real pleasure out of anything classical. And that was our glad state when the chief of the supes sent for us. Mr. Butler, as strange as it may sound, did not seem to have time to swear at either of us just then ; he wanted us, in great haste, to go on the stage again. We went on once or twice more, sometimes marching, sometimes leaning on our wands and blinking stupidly at the audience, like practised professionals. So by the end of the act everybody began to have confidence in everybody ; which we, on our part, manifested by fraternizing with the supes, and getting in the way of the scene-shifters and propertymen.
A queer race we found the supes to be. Some of them worked at trades during the day, but many of them looked as if they never did anything so un-
romantic or praiseworthy as honest work. Some of the younger ones, I fancy, served in a blameless state of stage-struck glamour. Even the rogues among them did not appear to be of the most intelligent sort. We were surprised to learn that the coarsest featured women, as a general thing, were the handsomest before the footlights. It seems that everything on the stage must be exaggerated ; your living statuary must be of heroic size, as it were. The ballet girls were mostly heroines in this sense ; they were certainly not attractive, huddled together near at hand. There were, however, some good, not to say pathetic, faces among them. Think of a poor widow dancing to support her four small children ! Well, there was such a one in that ballet. The blond pages I have told you of were rather handsome; but then they annoyed us so, especially after my friend’s exploit with his sandal, that we could not look upon them with unprejudiced eyes. There was a discontented supe, who, perhaps for the sake of being contrary, sided with us, or, I should say, befriended us, all through the evening’s troubles. He was a tall fellow, and just pigeon-toed enough of one foot to make him, when crossing the stage in oil-cloth top-boots, appear to go sideways, or, rather, in that larboard-quarter way in which you have seen a dog trot, seeming to tack, but really going before the wind. Well, there is some of sort connection between this peculiarity of his and the pathetic voice in which he vented his discontent, for I never can think of one without thinking of the other. It was true, he said, when they painted for Indians or Turks, or blacked themselves for negroes in the moral drama of Uncle Tom’s Cabin, or The Octoroon, supes got fifty instead of twenty-five cents a night; but then they had to furnish their own soap. The Spanish brown, with which they made themselves Moors or Indians, was always very bad,—the same that houses are painted with, he believed. We could form no idea, he assured us, of how it would stick.
In the third act of the play we were drafted as Roman soldiers, and we appeared as nearly in character as gilt and pasteboard and tin battle-axes and broadswords could make us. As Roman soldiers we were to figure in the scene disclosing the celebrated “ Fairy Lake of Glass ” advertised by the management to be “ one solid glass plate,” and to have cost five thousand dollars. Now, that extraordinary sheet of water consisted in reality of a goodly sized piece of bright sheet-tin, and cost, as nearly as a person outside the hardware business can estimate, about thirteen dollars and seventy-five cents. In due time we found ourselves — an incongruous pretorian cohort—marching through fairyland. Whether it was the roundness of my friend’s fat legs, or the witchery of the scene, or whether I was simply carried away with stage fervor, I cannot say ; indeed, I have tried and tried to explain how the strange temptation came over me, and I fear I shall never know ; but just as we were marching at the rear of the little raised platform, which I suppose was mistaken by the audience for a bridge over the famous “ Fairy Lake of Glass,” I gave my pine-helved battle-axe another flourish, and thrust its tin point between a couple of brilliant scales in the pasteboard armor of my friend, as he swaggered grandly ahead of me. I prodded him, it seems, much harder than I meant. I had intended a gentle surprise : the result proved something more. For, as I touched his fat ribs, there came from him a smothered shriek, and I was amazed to see my friend leap madly into the air, clearing the bridge, and landing plump upon the “ Fairy Lake of Glass,” a couple of feet below. There was a sound of crumpling tin heard all over the house, and my friend floundered desperately on his Roman stomach, to the uproarious applause of the audience. Scrambling up as quickly as he could, he resumed his place in the line. On our second round, as we came to the front again, the audience recognized us both, and cheered louder than before. In fact, they appeared to see far more histrionic genius in our performance than the stage-manager and chief of the supes did. You can imagine the swearing with which those two gentlemen prologued and epilogued the announcement that we need not go on the stage any more.
We vanished into the room of our old patron, whom, in our sheer desperation and for short, we took to calling “ Snuffy.” Here we crawled out of the Augustan age into our own, by getting into our clothes as quickly as possible. My friend in his good-nature forgave me for prodding him with the battle-axe ; and, once more in condition to appear in the street in case of emergency, we plucked up courage, resolving to see the thing out. We mingled among the supes until we imagined our identity lost, at least to the stage-manager, if not to Mr. Butler. After a while we ventured up stairs to the wings again, where we were recognized and commented upon by the ballet girls, and chaffed worse than ever by the blond pages. In their ignorance of Roman history, they called my friend Brutus, I recollect, and myself Julius Cæsar. Being a freshman, of course I told them that it was Cæsar who got stabbed, in the annals, and it could not therefore be Brutus whom I had prodded in the ribs. They did n’t care ; they Cæsared me more than ever. We had not been very long in the wings when I observed a blond charmer in the guise of a page, with silver scales and hair gracefully dishevelled, leaning against a side scene, with her feet crossed akimbo, as I shall have to call it in my ignorance of the proper term. She was evidently just ready to go upon the stage. Her golden back-hair was toward me. Thinking to pay in her own coin at least one of my most persistent tormentors, I stole up behind her and gave her hair a playful twist. The lady turned briskly around, and, glaring at me, demanded in an indignant, tragic way, “ What does this mean, sir ? ” Then I discovered that I had been pulling the hair of the leading actress, wife of the leading actor, the Prince of the piece. She, the Queen of all the Fairies, in older that she might watch her princely lover unobserved, was then disporting herself in the disguise of a page at the court of his Highness’s royal father. Of course, she was an utter stranger to me, and I was dumbfounded. “ What does this mean, sir?” she repeated. “There comes my husband, I will speak to him.” Looking in the direction indicated by her eyes, I beheld the Prince in all his magnificent clothes striding toward us from the stars' dressingroom. “ For heaven’s sake, madam,”
I faltered, “ don’t, don’t do that! I took you for somebody else.” At this, the two pages of our acquaintance, who seemed always on hand just in time to witness any discomfiture, burst out laughing ; in which the Queen of the Fairies herself could not help joining. His Highness the Prince stalked by us on to the stage, and I walked to another wing, the two pages following, and amusing themselves with me, until it came time for them to join the Queen before the audience.
For the next fifteen or twenty minutes I have a dim recollection of being in everybody’s way. It was probably owing to this fact, added to that of a scarcity of supes, that Mr. Butler, the chief, so far forgot his anger and the past as to ask us if we wanted to go on as fishes in the grand submarine scene in the last act. In that we would have little to do but stand still, and he thought he could trust us that far. Finding us willing to be fishes, he led us into a property-room, filled with all sorts of sea-monsters, and bade us take our choice. My friend, in his fat ferocity, chose to be a shark. I said I would be a whale. As a fish and a shark, my friend looked like an exaggerated edition of himself as a young man, excepting only about the mouth. There, what was intended to be fierce was in reality oddly lackadaisical. If, however, the shark was weakly sentimental, my whale was ponderous and impressive, the largest of
three of the same species. I inspected it as it lay sprawled upon its ineffectual back on the floor of the property-room ; it was an unsavory thing, upon a framework of half-tanned leather and illcured whalebone. Another supe and myself carried the carcass to the stage, where, behind a flat, they were arranging the submarine scene,— the home of the water-nymphs, or something of the kind. Here I was made to mount the centre pedestal at the back of the stage, with a lesser whale in either hand. Then they put the frame right over me. My whale had evidently been made for a much taller supe than I was, as the holes for the eyes to look out of were about a foot above my head ; and the whole weight of the colossus, instead of resting upon my shoulders, as it was designed to do, pressed somehow right upon my forehead. About the time the weight began to be painfully felt, and I became aware that I never could stand it, the curtain rose. There I was, like another Jonah, cooped up in that dark, suffocating carcass. My complainings could not be heard, or at least understood, then, if I uttered them. How I did curse my vaulting ambition that had so overleaped itselt ! If I had only chosen to be a modest dolphin, or any smaller fish ! Of the audience, of the submarine wonders, of my friend the shark, of my blond, be-silvered tormentors, I could see nothing; but these last I heard occasionally in their comments upon the “ boss whale,” as they called me. The confined air and the pressure upon my head at last became unbearable. As there was no possible help for me from without, I cast about within me, as i may say, for what I should do for myself. The only relief I could think of was to stoop tlown, leaving most of the weight upon my arms, and my arms upon my knees. No sooner had I done this than I could hear, through the thickness of my skin, “ Get up, get up, there ! ” coupled with muffled oaths ; “ Get up, I say ! ” And I recognized the commanding voice of the chief of the supes. “ Straighten up that whale, or I ’ll put you out of the theatre ! ” Now, although that was the catastrophe that I just then coveted most, I made a mighty effort and stood up again. After a painful moment or so, I determined that I would sit down on my pedestal, even if the chief whale waddled inconstantly and feebly in the dust, lower than his fellows, and even if I should be taken and led out ignominiously by my dorsal fin. And I did sit down through the rest of the scene. There was marching going on in front of me on the stage. I could not see it, of course, but I knew every time my faithful pages came around by the remarks they made ; which were asides to this effect, “Sick whale, sick whale! O, ain’t he cunning ? Walk off on your fin ! ”
At last the scene was to close by the fishes and all marching out; I was to bring up the rear of the procession. I stumbled around the stage blindly, following one of the lesser whales by a sort of fishy instinct, I suppose. To add brilliancy of effect to the scene, an extra gas-pipe had been brought on to the stage, about a foot above the flooring, at the side where the procession made its exit. Those who preceded me, having the use of their eyes, stepped gayly over this, but I tripped and fell sprawling, the head of the whale plunging drolly out of the audience’s view, leaving the tail elevated gigantically, and my legs dangling at an oblique angle with it, all in plain sight. I could not get out of the whale, and I could not get off the stage ; so there I lay and kicked. I could hear that the applause of the audience increased with my struggles. It occurred to me that I could at least conceal my legs, which were clad in the pantaloons usual to land animals of our species; and I turned over. This had the surprising dioramic effect to the audience of a sudden disappearance. I had vanished as to my legs, but there still lay beached upon the stage the biggest half of the whale. The Queen of the Fairies, and his Highness the Prince, who, nearer to the foot-lights, were trying to carry on the play, had their voices drowned by the cheers of the house. All this mingled dimly in my ears with the vituperation of the chief of the supes, the stage-manager, and prompter. It was the three of them in their wrath who pulled the whale off the stage, leaving me still in view, spread out in my shirt-sleeves and pantaloons, exhausted by strangulation and mortification. Just as I was recovering enough to think about gathering myself up to steal away, a couple of supes, dressed in blue and gold knee-breeches and cut-away coats, marched in and carried me off like a piece of stage furniture.
This all happened in much less time than it takes to tell it; yet it was enough for me — I beg your pardon ? Yes, that was my last appearance on the stage. There is no use of dwelling upon my utter humiliation, or the jibes of the pages and ballet girls. But at the abuse of the chief of the supes I finally revolted ; I had endured enough ; I turned upon him. I told him that was no sort of a whale anyhow; it was intended for a giant and one without lungs. I had heard enough, and suffered enough. He need n’t tell me that I could n’t go on the stage again ;
I did n’t want to go on again ; I would n’t go on the stage again. And those,
I may add, were our sentiments when we got home that night, and are our sentiments even to this hour.