Behind the Scenes
— How many people, I wonder, are blessed or cursed — one hardly knows which term is the more appropriate — with that irresistible desire for getting behind the scenes which I have felt since childhood ? I do not mean, it is scarcely necessary to say, a desire to be introduced into the Green Room, or to have the freedom of the scene-shifters’ precincts, but an impulse to penetrate those still more mysterious regions which form the character and consciousness of the actor himself. The play within the play is the thing that engrosses my attention. There is a fascination in this pursuit, although it sadly interferes with one’s enjoyment of what is more strictly speaking the dramatic art. There we sit, the reader and I (for I assume that he shares my idiosyncrasy), gravely conjecturing about the life or character of a particular actor or actress, so absorbed in striving to catch the natural tones in his voice, as distinguished from the theatrical, so intent upon all his gestures and movements, that the real play, to call it such, passes over our heads, almost unheeded.
This, I repeat, is not the legitimate drama ; it is not the object for which we pay our money at the box office ; and yet perhaps in this way one gets as near a view of the tragedy and comedy of human life as a closer attention to the actual play upon the boards could afford. What romances, what joys, what catastrophes, what sorrows do we not discern speaking even through the paint and powder, through the strange costume, through the assumed manner, through the artificial voice in which the actor vainly seeks to hide his personality ! A child-like forehead, a melancholy eyebrow, a sensitive mouth, a graceful throat, the “false twist of a hip,” a liquid, or a flashing, or a cold and glittering eye, —any one of these or of a thousand other singularities in appearance will provide a sufficient starting-point for our imaginations.
Sometimes the audience and not the players furnish the tragic or the comic figure which diverts our attention from the fictitious scenes upon the stage. I remember among the spectators at one performance a little crippled boy, with, pale face and shabby clothes, his crutch hugged under his arm, lest it should be lost in the crowd of the gallery where he sat; — this small, pitiful figure eclipsed for me, in spite of myself, the unreal scenes upon the stage. I was compelled to spend the evening at a tragedy, whereas it was a comedy that I had come to see. The fact is, people are never at any other time so pathetic to look upon as when they are enjoying some unusual pleasure ; the very intensity of their delight on such a rare occasion calls attention to and emphasizes the darkness of their ordinary life.
But it is not only at the theatre that I find myself thus haunted by an inclination to get behind the scenes, to study the play within the play. Even at church — I confess it—a sacrilegious impulse to dissect the clergyman (morally speaking) seizes upon me, and especially at sermon time. I like sermons, — perhaps I am one of only half a dozen persons, or thereabout, in this country who possess a taste so archaic. Newman’s sermons, Robertson’s, Trench’s, and a few others are on my bookshelves, and from time to time I read them, but alas ! not in the right spirit,not, I fear, to edification, for I regard them in the light of works of art. And so of the preacher ; when he ascends the pulpit, instead of putting myself in the attitude of a sinner ready to be exhorted and admonished, I take my place, in imagination, beside the minister. I sit in the pulpit. I go along with him in his assault upon the congregation. I appreciate, Criticise, condemn or praise, as the case may be, the art with which he manages his subject. I wonder what effect he is producing, and sometimes, when a particularly telling passage has been delivered, I find myself thinking, “ That must hit somebody extremely hard,” — never taking the application to myself, although it may be one of my pet vices that is under discussion.
Besides, of course, I have to keep a close scrutiny upon the preacher himself, noting all the subtle tones in his voice, and conjecturing as to whether he really means what he says or not; striving to decide in my own mind when he is absolutely sincere and spontaneous, when he is intentionally theatrical, when he wanders in the vast neutral territory between these two positive states of feeling. This is a very difficult task ; and it is not strange that I like hearing sermons, nor can it be accounted singular that they do me no good.
My condition in this respect resembles that of the sexton. As a child I used to wonder — nearly all serious thinking, by the way, is done in childhood — how the sexton could by any possibility be saved, seeing that although his body was necessarily present in the sacred edifice, his mind was occupied with other things than the prayers and sermons, so that he might, spiritually speaking, just as well have been absent. And this childish problem is one which, even in mature life, I am unable to solve. How, indeed, can there be hope for a man who invariably stands upright while the congregation kneel ! How can the heart of the sexton be softened, considering that at the very moment when the minister gathers together the converging threads of his discourse, when he reaches the climax of his appeal, when the light grows dim, when the church is absolutely silent — except for the preacher’s voice, when the coughers stop coughing, and even the sleepers awake, conscience-stricken, and pay attention,— how, I say, can the heart of tlie sexton he softened, considering that at this vital moment be has to steal out on tiptoe and open the storm doors in the vestibule ! Perhaps Providence in its infinite mercy may find a way to save the sexton (and me), but I confess that I hardly see how it can be done.
There is another mode of getting behind the scenes which, I take it, is more common, and which certainly has the merit of being innocent. I mean the practice of detecting in the work of a painter or illustrator some hint as to his private life and character. We are all familiar, for example, with the face of Mr. Du Manner’s beautiful wife, and with that magnificent St. Bernard, which must be a frequent guest in bis studio. There are two illustrators of a weekly paper published on this side of the water whose clever drawings are often suggestive in a similar way. One of them can scarcely take up bis pencil without depicting a certain girl, — a tall, beautiful, stately young woman, with a noble head and an imperious air. This girl is shown in many situations, sometimes talking idly in an easy chair, sometimes standing in a drawingroom, sometimes walking outdoors, and once, I remember particularly, making a slight but graceful courtesy as she greets her hostess in a ball-room. Of course she is the artist’s wife, or else she is betrothed to him ? Well, no, I fear not, for the peculiarity of this girl (as we see her through the eyes of the artist) is that she always wears an expression of scorn, or atleast of disdain. Even when the nature of the situation does not require it, this proud and disdainful expression still appears upon her face. I cannot help thinking that it was stamped indelibly upon the artist’s mind in some supreme and unpleasant moment. However, the most obdurate women have been known to relent ; and I live in hopes of seeing this hitherto unapproachable girl drawn in a different fashion. Then, when the haughty head is bent, when the scornful eyes are east down, when the proud lips are parted by a smile, when a blush (if a blush can be indicated in black and white) appears upon her cheek ; — if the weekly —— ever contains such an illustration as this, I shall be moved to send the unknown artist a congratulatory present.
The other draughtsman to whom I have referred has enjoyed, unless I am much in error, a happier fate. His girl is always wreathed with smiles. She is short and plump, with a pretty face and a small foot, and an expression roguish, piquant, and essentially good-humored. This is a girl of such character that a strange child would crawl upon her lap, or a strange dog would come and lick her hand without fear of repulse. She is a sad flirt, though, it is to be feared. I remember one scene where, in the very presence of a sleepy chaperon, she kisses a young man behind a book of conveniently large size. Was this lucky youth the artist ?
But the picture from which the most certain deduction as to this young woman can be drawn deals with a street-car incident. Probably many of my readers will recollect the three or four successive scenes in which it is described. An unprotected man in a ear full of women (among whom is our girl) is at last, by the mute battery of female eyes turned upon him, compelled to give up his seat to a petticoatcd passenger. To bring this about, the other women look indignant, angry, shrewish, or viragoish, according to their several natures. But how about this particular girl ? Could the artist bear to draw a frown upon her beloved face ? No ; the rogue eludes the difficulty by ingeniously screening her with the body of the woman who is tacitly demanding a seat. When the matter has been arranged, when the vanquished man despondently arises, then indeed her smiling face comes out, as the sun from behind a cloud ; and I firmly believe that it shines perpetually upon the fortunate artist.