A Downcast Uplifter
THE CONTRIBUTORS’ CLUB
Do reformers, I wonder, ever feel regret for the evils they have abolished? Did Saint George, in his later years, come to speak of the dragon with a hint of affection in his tone? I am prompted to ask because I have recently gazed, with wistful memories awaked, upon the graves of things I had my humble share in killing — and slaughtered with a will. These graves were large steel filing-cabinet drawers, ranged along one side of a spacious room devoted to the sale of plays to amateurs. The firm name on the outer door is a famous one, and has been famous for two or three generations. This firm published plays for amateurs when your father and mine were young. And in these steel drawers, deep at the bottoms, were the plays it published then. They, however, caused me no wistful regrets. But on top, piled rank on rank, were the plays the firm published when I was young, and at sight of them I sorrowed, sorrowed for what I had helped to slay. Nor do I mean that I helped to slay them by acting in them, for I was an excellent actor, being applauded by all the Congregationalists in the audience as well as by the people of my own church. I was not at all like the amateur who once acted Hamlet at Wallack’s Theatre in New York because, he announced, he wished a verdict. ‘And,’ wrote one of the critics, ‘he shall have it: Murder in the first degree.’ No, I helped to slay them by joining in the modern theatrical renaissance, and preaching from coast to coast the gospel of better plays.
Now, as I stood before an opened
grave, — I mean drawer, — I saw what I had done. Here were the plays my childhood and youth knew so well, buried deep in steel, so seldom asked for, the clerk informed me, that many of them would not be reprinted when the stock was exhausted; while over them, brazenly displayed on open shelves, in all the pride of starched covers, were whole battalions of dramas fresh from the professional playhouse, subtle comedies from Europe, farces by Clare Kummer, melodramas difficult to mount, delicate fantasies, Socialistic satires, racy American genre-plays like those by Ade and Craven and Forbes
— anything, in fact, which the professionals dare try. These are what the amateurs are now buying. Even as I gazed, the clerk sold to a schoolboy twelve copies of The Dover Road, and to the representative of an amateur dramatic club fourteen copies of Only 38, and quoted the royalty on Pomander Walk and Six Characters in Search of an Author. (Times have changed indeed, thought I, when amateurs consider paying the royalty!)
All of which, of course, is as it should be — and as for twenty years I have been trying, so far as in me lay, to make it. I ought to have rejoiced and been exceeding glad. But I was n’t. I shed a tear into the dusty drawer. And the tear fell on a copy of A Pair of Lunatics
— which was why I shed it.
What, I wonder, has become of my fellow lunatic? She must now be — but no matter; she probably does n’t admit it. She was very beautiful, and had been told that she could act. Some charity at the Maine resort where we were that summer needed money, and we needed an opportunity for what would now be called ‘selfexpression’ ; so we sent to this same firm for two copies of A Pair of Lunatics, and presented it at the Casino, as our share in the entertainment. Do you remember the silly thing? A man and a girl have each called at an asylum for the insane, and each mistakes the other for an inmate. The play, perhaps, is well devised for amateurs, because each player is called upon to act like a lunatic. The efforts of my fair companion and myself, I know, must have been highly successful, for we were greeted with howls of appreciative delight, and after the curtain fell I had to lead her before it by the hand — almost as sweet a reward as the applause! Our services were thereafter in much demand, and we repeated our impersonations up and down the Maine coast, affording much innocent merriment and greatly enriching the local charities. Do any amateurs have such success with The Truth About Blaydes? Bah!
Then there was Mr. Bob. I don’t remember much about Mr. Bob, except that, as the juvenile lead, I had to go off-stage at the command of my aunt and bring back a kitten, and that on page 19 I had to kiss said aunt. As my aunt was, in private life, a somewhat shy but extremely presentable young female of my own age, — which, as I recall, was about eighteen, — the rehearsals always became brisker near the bottom of page 18, the rest of the cast gathering in the wings to watch and to criticize our technique. On the night of the performance we heard many appreciative murmurs from the audience, even, indeed, the then equivalent of ‘Attaboy!’ It is to be feared we had not so far roused illusion in our house that they were insensible to our off-stage personalities! It is to be feared, of course, that there was nothing in the direction we received — or the lack of it — or in the play itself to rouse true illusion even in us, let alone in the audience. A modern amateur director who allowed his cast for one moment to consider a stage kiss as anything but a stage kiss is quite inconceivable. Besides, his cast would all be too busy with the problems of their Art. But what a lot of fun they are missing!
Years later I put on a play for the high-school boys and girls in a somewhat rural community. By that time I was working for the uplift. They wanted to do ‘something funny,’ but I insisted on Riders to the Sea. I had in my cast two Irish girls of rather exceptional sensitiveness, even for Irish girls, and to this day I can hear the cry one of them sent keening through the Town Hall — ‘It’s Michael, Nora!’ — as she recognized the garments of her drowned brother. She certainly inspired that spinal shiver which Billy Phelps says is the test of great acting. Two servant-maids in the audience went home weeping. Other Celts in the town declared the play libeled their race. There were ugly murmurs regarding my status as a citizen. I began to realize that, at the beginning, a little art goes a long way, or, as Sam Bernard used better to phrase it, ‘Too much is enough.'
How different it was before the Abbey Theatre had begun the uplift by furnishing masterpieces for amateurs, royalty free! Then we always did do ‘something funny.’ We consulted the catalogue of plays for amateurs, knowing little and caring less about plays for professionals, and selected according to the available talent in our school or church or club. ‘Obadiah Slick, or Love Finds a Way — comedy in 3 acts. Characters, 5m., 6f. Comedy of rural life; young couple fool miserly and cranky old father; excellent barndance scene, may be expanded ad lib. Full of laughs. Plays 2h.’
‘Fine!’ we cried. ‘ Dan Sanborn can play the old man. He’s awful funny when he puts on whiskers and talks through his nose. And we can bring in some real hay for the barn dance, and have a cart wheel sticking out from the wings.’ ‘Who’s going to play the lovers? ‘ ‘Aw, no, not Jim and Florence; gee, that would n’t take any acting!’ Whereupon Jim and Florence registered embarrassment, and our fun began. We did n’t take our Art seriously. We did n’t know it was Art.
And, of course, it was n’t.
Just to-day, after my shed tear had prompted me to plan this little plaint, I received a circular from the — Players, the omitted name being that of a famous New England rural town. Last year, I read, they made a most successful production of The Countess Kathleen, much praised for its beauty of setting and its light-effects. As a climax to the present season, the club is planning an even more ambitious undertaking. They are going to produce The Merchant of Venice, playing the entire text, uncut and untransposed. A week ago I should have cried ‘Splendid!’ But to-day I shed another tear. I shed a tear for a play buried too deep, I fear, in one of those steel drawers ever to be found again, a play which in my boyhood would have been — nay, was — the crowning achievement of the winter’s community theatricals — The District School — or was it spelled ‘Skule’?
This dramatic masterpiece was, in my day, almost a Yankee commedia del arte. On a framework of dialogue and situation supplied by the printed text, the men, women, and children taking part hung whatever adornments they could supply of impromptu comedy. The leading female spirit in the community was the teacher, and all the rest of the cast were pupils, the men dressed as boys, the women as girls — so far as propriety permitted. Propriety, however, was assisted by trips to the attic and the discovery in old trunks of voluminous pantalettes. Deacon Sims sat in the corner wearing a dunce cap. Benny Manning, who was six feet four, and weighed 240 pounds, got a whipping. Spitballs hurtled through the air. Pigtails were pulled. But the great moment came when Tom Atkinson — he was Town Clerk and Assessor, and something of a humorist — was sent to the blackboard to take dictation. All the other pupils ceased their individual improvisations and watched. The entire attention of the vast audience was concentrated on Tom and teacher. Grasping a piece of chalk in upraised hand, Tom listened to the crisp sentence from teacher’s desk: —
‘There is a worm. Do not tread on it.’
The hand bore down heavily on the board, and the chalk began to leave great white marks, which quickly and unmistakably resolved themselves into the following: —
‘There is a warm doughnut. Tread on it.’
Then a rain of spitballs flew suddenly at Tom from all quarters of the schoolroom, teacher raised her threatening ferule, and the vast audience rocked with mirth.
What is there in the ill-tempered plays of G. B. Shaw to compare with such cosmic humor as this? Or even in the plays of Shakespeare?
When you are playing Shaw or Shakespeare, at any rate, you can’t be a cutup. You have to behave according to a disciplined scheme, and your audience will watch you, not as Tom Atkinson cutting up, but as a cog in Shaw’s or Shakespeare’s machinery of illusion. The result is that both you and your audience lose something of legitimate delight. Of course I should n’t dare to say that both you and they don’t gain something vastly more worth while. Nevertheless and notwithstanding, even with The Merchant of Venice in the offing, I must pause and shed a tear for The District School, for our Yankee commedia del arte, for that warm, immortal doughnut, now trod upon no more.