Behind the Scenes

WE were billed for the evening at a small mountain town some twenty miles distant: before us, in a substantial wagon, with our “ call-boy ” as driver, rode the entire orchestra; there were eight of us, ladies and gentlemen, in the second division of our caravan, and the “ dramatic combination” concluded with a clumsy affair overloaded with trunks and baskets of all sizes, the whole being surmounted by three of the most unpromising votaries of the art that it has been my lot to meet.

Perhaps there never was a merrier company of strolling players than ours: some of us sang well; we were for the most part amiable and long-suffering, as indeed all good actors should be; the weather was fair, and business profitable.

We played a night or two in a place, entering with a blast of trumpets from the occupants of the first ambulance, and departing with many a hand-shake from new-found friends who professed the warmest admiration, and in some cases eternal fidelity, after an experience of twelve or twenty hours.

We were perpetual lions, and found life very sweet as we scoured the country; there was always something fresh to interest us; there were no rehearsals, for we repeated the same plays in each succeeding town. We were fêted of men, favored of women and the weather, and I began to relish that life exceedingly, after having worn patience threadbare over the continuous study and rehearsal at the Blank Theatre in S―.

I had tried to chum it with various members of the company, this sort of thing being one of the dire necessities of my nature. I fastened upon the low comedian, and found him a lachrymose fellow, exceedingly careful of his dignity, which, by the way, I never knew him to compromise in the slightest degree.

I made modest overtures to the leading man, whom I found in time to be a creature of infinite “ study ;” he could acquire a thousand lines in no time; but his brain was dull, and his temperament phlegmatic and wearisome.

The light comedian was cynical; the old man little better than an old fool: in short, a “ super ” who had taken to the stage for a love of adventure seemed to be the most interesting and agreeable of them all, when I took their measure for a possible intimacy; super and I consequently became the best of friends, and sympathized with each other to a tremendous extent.

The women were all agreeable, which indeed, with very few exceptions, I have found to be the rule with actresses: we chatted, sang, or were silent by turns, and according to our mood; We seemed to be floating upon the top wave of life; nothing fretted us for long; it was a kind of protracted picnic, and a very gracious and grateful relief from the drudgery of stock work in the first-class theatre in town, as we each said to the other at least twenty times a day.

That was pleasant time-killing, riding through a fertile though rather thinlysettled country; pausing at wayside inns for rest and refreshment, and usually astonishing the natives with a bit of innocent fooling that we could scarcely repress, we were all in such capital spirits; then as we drew near to the next town, we saw our familiar placards nearly covering the barn doors, and decorating every sort of public-house of whatever quality, and about most of them gathered a little group of villagers, whose eyes were not much accustomed to such splendid lettering, for we brought our posters from an office in town.

We enjoyed a brief exploration of the various theatres, town halls, and barns that we were to perform in; we thoroughly relished a walk among the queer, winding streets, after our long ride; and the little Shopping, now and then, in search of such articles as we might be in need of, — for the shopmen were as confused and happy as possible, and in some few cases knocked off the profit on the ware, “ seeing we were strangers in town,” etc., which was an unexpected kindness that of course charmed us.

Then how jolly were our late suppers, after the play, at which we were pretty sure to be joined by the landlord and his lady, if he were so happy as to have one; and what queer, innocent questions were put to us by all sorts of people, who might have seen with a glance that we were subject to all the ills that any man is subject to, and that we bore no charmed life!

Sometimes notes of congratulation came to us; sometimes letters of a more fervent nature; once or twice gifts were sent to certain members of our company, a ring, a silver brick, or an appropriate token of the time and place. Sex had little to do with the interest awakened in the heart of the public; a good-looking and smooth-spoken actor was sure to hold his own against the prettiest lady of the company.

It happened that my own chum was fair to see; the fact might have had something to do with our chumship, for I confess that my five senses are alive and hungry, and that the five must be satisfied before I go very deeply into a friendship. In a short time — two days is short enough in the measurement of a man’s life — this chum deserted me for the superior attractiveness of some straggler who fastened upon us in a subordinate capacity, and I was thrown over for this occasion.

Now, perhaps I would have done the same thing myself, under similar aggravating circumstances; I don’t assert my fidelity to any one in particular; I simply state my case, and give it as an example in this article, which treats wholly of actors among actors, behind the scenes.

The manager fancied our latest acquisition, and promised to advance him as speedily as possible; my friend at once transferred to the manager’s favorite the sum total of the affection which to date had been centred in me. On the strength of that experience, I felt like saying to myself that I had never seen an actor who was a genuine actor, one born and bred to the stage, who permitted sentiment to modify his professional career. I may add that probably no man in any line of business would do so. It is an actor’s ambition to rise, and to rise as rapidly as convenient; the actor, however, is not singular in this respect; but the actor who rises in his profession does so at the expense of the subordinates who play at his feet, and whose best office is to kiss the hem of his garment in as graceful a manner as possible. This I believe to be the truth. I have tested it in several cases, and found the laws of the stage to be inexorable; the inferiors, the subordinates, can no more affiliate with those above or out of their sphere, than can the stars of various magnitudes leave their orbits to approach the centre around which they revolve. There is, out of the atmosphere of the stage, a kind of condescension among actors that might pass for familiarity with any one less sensitive than myself on this particular point, but to me it savors of the art by which they gain their reputation; a simulation of friendship that is not over deep; a playing at affability with a grace that sooner or later becomes a second nature.

I have begun by saying the worst I have to say of these very important members of the human family, and if I do myself and them justice, something vastly more agreeable will follow before this paper is concluded. Much as I longed to throw open the doors of my heart, and receive some soul worthy of entertainment, I found that I had betrayed myself, and was a loser rather than a gainer in the estimation of my comrades.

It is natural that the actor should strive to receive the hearty applause of the public, the respect of the various members of the company, and a remunerative salary; all these worldly joys go together, and to a certain extent each hangs upon the other; but they are not gained without a hot race, and the heart of him who is distanced burns with the bitterest envy.

There is not only a prize to be gained on the one hand, but there is a kind of disgrace to be avoided on the other; if I am to play the lackey, who struts in an ill-fitting costume, the property of the theatre, and announces to “ my lord ” that “ the carriage wails,” I may possess a soul as proud and as sensitive as the “ star ” who would consider it beneath his dignity to recognize me out of my stage dress; the public has no regard for such a person, forgetful of the fact that few, if any, stars are born luminaries, but must begin their careers in characters as ungrateful as the one I have referred to.

This is the shady side of the drama, and what deep shadow’s it has! for only by long and arduous study, by selfmortification and repeated disappointments, by long-suffering and unfaltering devotion to the art, are the laurels gained; and once gained, unless kind nature calls the successful actor to account at some brilliant climax in his career, he feels his hard-earned garlands withering upon his brow, or sees them plucked away by the new idol of the hour who has taken the ear and the eye of the public, — for the most part an uncertain and inconstant patron. Yet as the public is the source of all profit, the public must be pandered to, and therefore the public is at the root of all social disorder in the profession, For instance: the low comedian sees an opportunity for throwing the juvenile into a most laughable and embarrassing predicament; the situation in the play is favorable to begin with, and with the sole thought of making a point, even at the expense of the unlucky juvenile, he exaggerates the situation and sacrifices his victim, who is driven in confusion from the stage, much to the amusement of the audience. Comedian and juvenile are not warm friends from that day; the latter hopes in his heart to get even with comedian, and the result is a continual spirit of antagonism that betrays itself in a thousand ways and aggravates both parties.

The villainous practice of “ gagging " is a fruitful source of annoyance, and so common that it may be considered the actor’s original sin. It is a cheap bid for applause, and can be made the instrument of torture when there is a spirit cruel enough to employ it. I remember a night when I was forced to assume a subordinate character at exceedingly short notice, in consequence of the sudden and unexpected departure of the young man who was cast for it. I had one brief and pointless scene with a man who professed a patriarchal interest in my development, for he had been some years on the stage; but when he at last had opportunity to sho his friendship by helping me to make something of a scene that was in itself nothing but words, he saw how he might bully me to a certain extent before the public upon whose plaudits we were both depending, and he did so with some spirit; had I suffered myself to submit to his indignities I should have left the stage with the audience convulsed at my discomfiture; as it was I held my own, returned his gagging to the best of my ability, and succeeded in frustrating his ungenerous design. At the wings, a few moments later, we had some conversation that savored little of the romance that is supposed to hang over the accessories of the theatre. I saved myself in this case by refusing to be dismissed from the scene with the very superior air that moderately good actors are sure to assume whenever they are brought in contact with amateurs, whom, for the most part, they detest.

No actor can long sustain himself under the embarrassment of a wait, or interruption of the play; it is the most provoking and confusing situation I know of in connection with the profession, and under this head I include the delays occasioned by the sudden forgetting of a part, or any break in the smooth progress of the play occasioned by the stupidity or embarrassment of the actors.

By replying to the gag of the unmerciful man who was about to make a point at my expense, I threw him off his guard and created a lull in the business of the scene, during which I quietly withdrew into the wings and had the satisfaction of seeing the bully a little nonplused and a good deal vexed at the unpromising turn in affairs,

I have seen a young and inexperienced actor unmercifully hooted from the stage in consequence of his inability to hold his own against the gags of the actors, who might have taken to themselves Hamlet’s advice to the player about saying no more than is set down to them, and blushed for very shame.

I have seen an actor and actress, both notable people, hut on the shady slope of their careers, crowding one another up the stage, each hoping to gain the mean advantage of a few feet, for thus the victor could face the audience and compel the vanquished one to stand with back to the foot-liglits; of course they had to face one another, an exceedingly awkward and ungrateful predicament. There was no love lost between these two, save in the play, yet by a casual observer the professional spite that betrayed itself during the evening was entirely unobserved.

On one occasion a star actress, who was to wear a rich dress of a very delicate color, requested the ladies of the company to wear such dresses as would harmonize with it; but the leading lady, who was crowded out of her legitimate rôle by the advent of the star, and whose pride was a little piqued at the splendid success of the new favorite, resolved to avenge herself, and at night the star was horrified to see the lady in question enter the scene in a dress of such gorgeous tint that the beauty and delicacy of her own was utterly killed.

I was continually surprised to find how few actors spoke well of the various members of the company they were associated with, — this was of course amongst us, and not town talk, — and sometimes wondered if indeed there was any genuine fellowship amongst them. Of course there is! once separated from the alluring glow of the foot-lights, over which they flutter like moths, with an eye single to their own martyrdom, they reach out to one another a generous hand; and some never weary of recounting the good and ill luck of days gone by, when they shared their fortunes with various members of the craft, whose memory they cherish and whose eccentricities they picture with a lively yet loving touch. They are ever ready to volunteer for the benefit of some luckless comrade, and their professional services are always current, being as good as gold, if not better. I know of no class of people more thoroughly charming socially; and actors amongst actors, when they are not playing and pleading for the favorable verdict of the public, are incomparable companions. What experiences may they not relate, what mysteries reveal! and always in an artistic fashion which is the result of long training. They seem to be familiar with all classes of people ; they are at home in any latitude; to them the ends of the earth are as yesterday, and the vicissitudes of the future promise the variety necessary to the proper spicing of their highly seasoned lives.

The actor is essentially homeless; he may affect certain localities, but his fellowship is with the world at large; and though he plays a long and successful engagement in one city or another, he is likely to strike his tent at the end of the season and seek new pastures. Wherever he goes he is pretty sure to meet old friends, friends who greet him with a cordiality that would be more welcome could he identify the warm-hearted fellow who is extending the hospitality of the town to the newly arrived star, with a prodigality worthy of an Eastern prince. Somewhere in the highways of the world they have met and exchanged civilities, and fate has again brought them face to face. Well, it is all the same in the course of a week, and by that time the actor has met more people than he can hope to cultivate seriously, and his round of experiences begins. The various members of the stock company make him ac quainted with their friends, and he is speedily introduced to the several social clubs of the city. He bows to the reporters and to a score of people who meet him with an insinuating smile of recognition, which he has not the heart to return coldly.

He plays Hamlet in shoes that are still warm from the feet of the last Hamlet, who by the way was the favorite of the hour. Romeo and Richelieu follow, and Richard III. and every part that has been enacted by anybody for the last generation or two, and the wonder is that the public does n’t weary of Hamlets, fat and lean, blonde and brunette, sentimental and erratic.

When the golden age wheels round again, perhaps the ideal will not be so unceremoniously violated! How can a man play ten or twenty parts with equal excellence ? It is good reading, I grant you, but it is not a genuine impersonation in each case; nor does it seem to me so desirable for a man to do several parts well, as for him to identify himself with a single character and raise that beyond criticism.

In the desirable hereafter we shall have a Booth for Hamlet, a Jefferson for Rip Van Winkle, a Forrest for Richelieu, a Kean for Richard, a Fechter for Romeo, and every man shall live his part and it shall become his second nature. Then the reputation of a player will be assured, for the man whose disposition, temperament, and physique fit him for such a rôle as Hamlet shall take it by storm, as it were, and there shall be no experimental and variegated Danes after that ; nor, until his melancholy mantle has fallen from his shoulders with the sear, the yellow leaf, and is again the enigma of the championship, will his sole right and title to the same be questioned.

In our triumphant march through the interior towns we struck hands with resident Hamlets who willingly, and I may add very properly, dropped into the rôle of Guildenstern in order to strengthen our cast. These vicissitudes in the career of the actor appalled me; I was never certain of my own position, and knew not at what hour I might be called upon to leap from the modest station of the juvenile to support the star of the evening whose main prop had failed him through sudden sickness, or who, by reason of some misunderstanding with the management, had deserted at an hour’s notice.

It was not all sunshine in our summer’s campaign; by and by came bad business; we were working, or playing, our way into the smaller towns that hang upon the very edge of our Western civilization. Legitimate dramas were too tame for them; they clove to the sooty-faced minstrel and surrendered at once to the allurements of sawdust and spangles. We were obliged to lower the tone of our entertainments, and it was thought best to conclude with a walk-around, for the audience seemed unsatisfied with anything less whimsical. My education was not equal to the emergency. I am no “ cloggist,” and my song does not chime with the twang of the banjo, as a general thing. I did not belong to the utility-corps, and there was trouble in the business-office when I pleaded with the manager for a reprieve. The horizon darkened with the approaching storm, and much of our time was passed in wondering what we were to do next. The eagle-eyed manager saw a silver lining in the cloud ahead of us, and announced with unfeigned joy the advent of the Blonde Sisters; but their ways were not our ways, and we rebelled!

This was a predicament which resulted in the utter annihilation of our company and the organization of a new troupe from such fragments as lay within reach. The Blonde Sisters tossed their silver heels and shook their golden locks to the tune of an overflowing treas ury, and we, of the legitimate, who regard the nude drama as a highly demoraliztng innovation that pays better than almost any other form of entertainment ; who look with pity and forgiveness on the four-and-twenty blackbirds sitting in a row, and likely at any moment to break into the very midst of Shoo Fly and disappear with a howl of Ethiopian harmony that leaves the audience in a delicious state of wonder and delight; who patronize the circus, while we deny that it is in any way connected with our profession — and in truth it is not —we, we went our several ways and never expected to meet again in this vale of tears and transformations.

Well, we have not, to any extent! The low comedian, who was a genius in his line, and could play anything funny, of any color under the theatrical heaven, went into the “ nigger business ” with a transient troupe of “ burnt cork artists;” I think he was announced on the bill as the only surviving Christy. Our star pawned his valuables and went East like a wise man, where he had little difficulty in securing an engagement. The heavy man and his wife, or lady, perhaps I should say, did the descriptive and musical elements in a sensational panorama of the Chicago fire, and thus worked their way back to civilization and profitable respectability.

An ambitious walking lady and myself gave moral readings before innumerable Christian and heathen associations, and had some difficulty in collecting our hire. My former chum, he of the attractive physique and gracious manner, sank at once into obscurity, and to this hour I am ignorant of his fate. I fear that he went to the had, simply because it is so easy to go there, and he was over-fond of his ease.

A few of the old company have drifted back to the town from which we started, but we shall probably never all come together again at one roll-call.

One, an amiable and modest girl, who played Jessica in The Merchant of Venice shortly after her début, and to whose Jessica I played Lorenzo, told me after a six months' experience that she had resolved to end the year on the stage; but if at the end of the year she was no better satisfied than at present, she would leave it forever. There was a pitiful weariness in her voice and a weariness in her face that betrayed something of the unceasing fatigue of professional life. I had by this time withdrawn into literary obscurity, and I did not envy her. Nor do I now; though she has turned blonde and is traveling with a capital husband, and starring it to remunerative business from Maine to Oregon.

Most of the subordinates of our company have either withdrawn from the foot-lights or are occupying the self-same positions in the profession to which so many feel themselves called and so few find themselves chosen. They do not look to the end, and perhaps it is well that they do not; for there would be fewer ventures and fewer successes if it were possible to do that sort of thing with any degree of accuracy.

I have met in the warm and sleepy suburbs of Honolulu a seedy individual who paced, alone, the dusty lanes by day, a large white cotton umbrella his only consolation; but at night, when the soft air of the evening passed through the town dispensing the odor of absolution, he would seat himself in a deep veranda and pick the melancholy banjo in memory of old times. I believe Home, Sweet Home never sounded so homely as it used to when that forsaken soul clutched the trembling strings in his agony. He had been a first-class minstrel in his day; but his day was over and gone, and all the foot-lights in the world seemed to burn low in his teardimmed eyes. The banjo is a tearful instrument when well fingered in the tropical moonlight.

I have met at the antipodes, where we were both vagabondizing, the accomplished Madame D―, who in her

time was accounted the best Jack Sheppard on the stage. She is never weary of relating her experiences, and never wearisome, for she seems to have lived whole volumes of the strangest and most fascinating adventure. She has made fortunes, and lost them, in speculations that promised well; but like life in the mining districts of New Zealand and Australia, her luck ended with the day and she is now almost penniless. Having passed her whole life in the atmosphere of the stage, she finds retirement insupportable, and, though her dramatic fire still flashes with something of its former vigor, she has been crowded out by the constant accessions to the stage, and lives in the forlorn hope of meeting some manager who will engage her services upon the strength of her once brilliant reputation.

One of the noblest and dearest friends I have is an actor whose varied accomplishments fit him for almost any sphere in life. A distinguished entomologist, a devoted and appreciative student, a man of vast experience, the grace and sweetness of his manner and his large humanity endear him to every one who is brought in contact with him. He has the advantage of the majority of his professional brethren, who are usually foreign to any other walk in life; there is a kind of hospitality in his smile and a magnetism in his very presence that make his absence almost a bereavement.

You meet the world face to face when you meet an actor of repute; he has met his fate and conquered it; he has outlived ten thousand uncommon experiences, and nightly awakens the profoundest emotions in the breast of multitudes who seem to see life and death weighed in the balance. One of the pleasantest theatrical episodes that I recall at this moment is an evening when a truly great actor was playing The Marble Heart to a dense and enthusiastic audience; he could not have played ill under any circumstances, but was naturally doing his best on this occasion. As the play progressed and Raphael became more and more involved through the arts of the marblehearted Mademoiselle Marco, his frame quivered with genuine emotion and the house was deathly still. But in the wings, we who were supporting him crowded together that we might watch his masterly impersonation, and through all his sorrows we wept manfully, for there was an inspiration in every syllable he uttered that affected us as sorely as reality. “ What’s Hecuba to him, or he to Hecuba, that he should weep for her ? " Possibly something more than we are acquainted with. It is seldom that the companions of Mary Stuart and Marie Antoinette, though they be players, escape from the scene with dry eyes, and there is a reaction after these emotional dramas that leaves the participants sometimes quite exhausted.

You who picture the happy leisure of the actor who awaits his cue in the wings, smoking his cigarette the while, or flirting with a pretty ballet-girl, have something to learn of the serious side of the actor’s life, and when you have once learned it perhaps you will be more considerate of occasional failures.

The actor is not uncommonly calumniated; personal experience has taught me how hard it is to please the hypercritical, and how easy is fault-finding. I have respect and love and sympathy for actors; the memory of my association with some members of the profession is such as I cherish among the most agreeable of my life. I believe there are few, if any, professions that will bear the critical examination the theatrical profession is subjected to with a better grace; and I know that the best of us are subject to some sort of weakness. And in this connection let me add that there is a suggestive little text that has something to say of the possible beam in one’s own eye, and that it will do us all good to consider, when we feel the old prejudices beginning to discolor our vision.

Charles Warren Stoddard.