The Winter of Our Discontent


You would have loved Daddy. He was so wild and beautiful, everybody adored him. That was the trouble: things came too easy for him; he never had to work for anything.

The year before Daddy died, Richard Brandell made a production of Richard III, and he sent my father tickets for the performance, with a very urgent and excited note asking us to come to see him before the show began. At this time my father had not played in the theatre for almost a year. His deafness had got so bad he could no longer hear his cues, and Uncle Bob had given him a job as his secretary at Police Headquarters. I used to go there to meet him every Saturday — the policemen were very nice to me and gave me bundles of pencils and great packages of fine stationery.

Mr. Brandell had not seen my father for several months. When we got to the theatre we went backstage for a few moments before the curtain. As my father opened the door and went into the dressing room, Brandell turned and sprang out of his chair like a tiger; he threw both arms around my father and embraced him, crying out in a trembling and excited voice as if he were in some great distress of mind and spirit: — ‘Choe! Choe! I am glad you have come! It’s good to zee you!’

When he was excited he always spoke like this, with a pronounced accent. Although he insisted he was English by birth, he had been born in Leipzig, his father was a German; his real name was Brandl, which he had changed to Brandell after becoming an actor.

He had the most terrific vitality of any man I have ever seen. He was very handsome, but at the moment his features, which were smooth, powerful, and infinitely flexible, were so swollen and distorted by some convulsion of the soul that he looked like a pig. At his best, he was a man of irresistible charm and warmth; he greeted me in a very kind and affectionate way, and kissed me, but he was overjoyed to see my father. He stood for a moment without speaking, grasping him by the arms and shaking him gently; then he began to speak in a bitter voice of ‘they’ and ‘ them.’ He thought everyone was against him; he kept saying that Daddy was his only friend on earth, and he kept asking in a scornful and yet eager tone—

‘What are they saying, Joe? Have you heard them talk?’

‘All that I’ve heard,’ my father said, ‘is that it’s a magnificent performance, and that there’s no one on the stage to-day who can come anywhere near you — no, that there’s no one who can touch you, Dick — and that’s the way I feel about it, too.’

‘Not even His Snakeship? Not even His Snakeship?’ Mr. Brandell cried, his face livid and convulsed.

We knew he was speaking of Henry Irving and we said nothing. For years, ever since the failure of his tour in England, he had been convinced that Irving was responsible for his failure. He had become obsessed with the idea that almost everyone on earth hated him and was trying to get the best of him, and he seized my father’s hand, and, looking very earnestly in his eyes, he said: —

Copyright 1939 by Maxwell Perkins as the Executor under the will of Thomas Wolfe

‘No, no! You mustn’t lie to me! You mustn’t fool me! You are the only man on earth I’d trust!’

Then he began to tell us all the things his enemies had done to injure him. He said the stagehands were all against him, that they never got the stage set in time, that the time they took between scenes was going to ruin the production. I think he felt his enemies were paying the crew to wreck the show. Daddy told him this was foolish, that no one would do a thing like that, and Mr. Branded kept saying: —

‘Yes, they would! They hate me! They’ll never rest now until they ruin me! I know! I know!’ in a very mysterious manner. ‘I could tell you things. ... I know things. . . . You wouldn’t believe it if I told you, Joe.’ Then, in a bitter voice, he said: ‘Why is it, then, that I’ve toured this country from coast to coast, playing in a new town every night, and I’ve never had any trouble like this before? I’ve had my scenery arrive two hours before the performance and they always set it up for me on time! Yes! They’ll do that much for you in any one-horse town! Do you mean to tell me they can’t do as well here in New York?’

In a moment he said, in a bitter tone: ‘I’ve given my life to the theatre, I’ve given the public the best that was in me — and what is my reward? The public hates me and I am tricked, betrayed, and cheated by the members of my own profession. I started life as a bank clerk in a teller’s cage, and sometimes I curse the evil chance that took me away from it. Yes,’ he said in a passionate voice, ‘I should have missed the tinsel, the glitter, and the six-day fame — the applause of a crowd that will forget about you to-morrow, and spit upon you two days later — but I should have gained something priceless —’

‘What’s that?’ my father said.

‘The love of a noble woman and the happy voices of the little ones.’

‘Now I can smell the ham,’ my father said in a cynical tone. ‘Why, Dick, they could not have kept you off the stage with a regiment of infantry. You sound like all the actors that ever lived.’

‘Yes,’ said Mr. Brandell with an abrupt laugh, ‘you’re right. I was talking like an actor.’ He bent forward and stared into the mirror of his dressing table. ‘An actor! Nothing but an actor! “Why should a dog, a horse, a rat, have life— and thou no breath at all?”’

‘Oh, I wouldn’t say that, Dick,’ my father said. ‘You’ve got plenty of breath — I’ve never known you to run short of it.’

‘Only an actor!’ cried Mr. Branded, staring into the mirror. ‘A paltry, posturing, vain, vile, conceited rogue of an actor! An actor — a man who lies and does not know he lies, a fellow who speaks words that better men have written for him, a reader of mash notes from shopgirls and the stage-struck wives of grocery clerks, a fellow who could not go into the butcher’s to buy his dog a bone without wondering what appearance he was making, a man who cannot even pass the time of day without acting — an actor! Why, by God, Joe,’ he cried, turning to my father, ‘when I look into the glass and see my face I hate the sight of it!’

‘Where’s that ham?’ said Daddy, sniffing about the place.

‘An actor!’ Mr. Branded said again. ‘A man who has imitated so many feelings that he no longer has any of his own! Why, Joe,’ he said, in a whispering voice, ‘do you know that when the news came to me that my own mother was dead, I had a moment — yes, I think I really had a moment—of genuine sorrow. Then I ran to look at my face in the mirror, and I cursed because I was not on the stage where I could show it to an audience. An actor! A fellow who has made so many faces he no longer knows his own — a collection of false faces! . . . What would you like, my dear?’ he said to me ironically. ‘Hamlet?’ — instantly he looked the part. ‘Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde?’— here his face went through two marvelous transformations: one moment he was a benevolent-looking gentleman, and the next the deformed and horrible-looking monster. ‘Richelieu? all at once he looked like a crafty and sinister old man. ‘Beau Brummell?’— he was young, debonair, arrogant, and a fop. ’The Duke of Gloucester?’—and in a moment he had transformed himself into the cruel and pitiless villain he was to portray that night.

It was uncanny and fascinating; and there was something horrible in it, too. It was as if he were possessed by a powerful and fluent energy which had all been fed into this wonderful and ruinous gift of mimicry: a gift which may have, as he said, destroyed and devoured his proper self, since one got fleeting and haunting glimpses between these transformations of a man — a sense, an intuition, rather than a memory, of what the man was like and looked like — a sense of a haunted, lost, and lonely spirit which looked out with an insistent, mournful, and speechless immutability through all the hundred changes of his mask.

It seemed to me there was a real despair, a real grief, in Mr. Brandell. I think he had been tormented, like my father, by the eternal enigma of the theatre: its almost impossible grandeur and magnificence, its poetry and its magic which are like nothing else on earth; and the charlatanism and cheapness with which it corrupts its people. Richard Brandell was not only the greatest actor I have ever seen upon the stage, he was also a man of the highest quality. He possessed almost every gift a great actor should possess. And yet his spirit was disfigured as if by an ineradicable taint — a taint which he felt and recognized, as a man might recognize the action of a deadly poison in his blood without being able either to cure or to control it.

He had an astounding repertory of plays which ranged all the way from the great music of Hamlet to grotesque and melodramatic trash which he had commissioned some hired hack to write for him, and he would use his great powers in these parts with as much passion and energy as he used in his wonderful portrayals of Iago, Gloucester, or Macbeth. Like most men who are conscious of something false and corrupt in them, he had a kind of Byronic scorn and self-contempt. He was constantly discovering that what he thought had been a deep and honest feeling was only the posturings of his own vanity, a kind of intoxication of self-love, an immense romantic satisfaction at the spectacle of himself having such a feeling; and while his soul twisted about in shame, he would turn and mock and jeer himself and his fellow actors bitterly.


That night was the last time Mr. Brandell ever saw my father. Just before we left he turned to me, took me by the hand, and said very simply and earnestly: ‘Esther, earn your living in the sweat of your brow, if you have to; go down on your hands and knees and scrub floors, if you have to; eat your bread in sorrow, if you have to — but promise me you will never attempt to go on the stage.'

‘I have already made her promise that,’ my father said.

‘ Is she as good as she’s pretty? Is she smart?’ said Mr. Brandell, still holding my hand and looking at me.

‘She’s the smartest girl that ever lived,’ my father said. ‘She’s so smart she should have been my son.’

‘And what is she going to do?’ said Mr. Brandell, still looking at me.

‘She’s going to do what I could never do,’ my father said. He lifted his great hands before him and shook them suddenly in a gesture of baffled desperation. ‘She’s going to take hold of something!’ Then he took my hands in his and said: ‘Not to want the whole earth, and to get nothing! Not to want to do everything, and to do nothing! Not to waste her life dreaming about India when India is around her here and now! Not to go mad thinking of a million lives, wanting the experience of a million people, when everything she has is in the life she’s got! Not to be a fool, tortured with hunger and thirst when the whole earth is groaning with its plenty. . . . My dear child,’ my father cried, ‘you are so good, so beautiful, and so gifted, and I love you so much! I want you to be happy and to have a wonderful life.’ He spoke these words with such simple and urgent feeling that all the strength and power in him seemed to go out through his great hands to me, as if all of the energy of his life had been put into his wish.

‘Why, Dick,’ he said to Mr. Brandell, ‘this child was born into the world with more wisdom than either of us will ever have. She can go into the Park and come back with a dozen kinds of leaves and study them for days. And when she gets through she will know all about them. She knows their size, their shape and color — she knows every marking on them; she can draw them from memory. Could you draw a leaf, Dick? Do you know the pattern and design of a single leaf? Why, I have looked at forests, I have walked through woods and gone across the continent in trains, I have stared the eyes out of my head trying to swallow up the whole earth at a glance — and I hardly know one leaf from another. I could not draw a leaf from memory if my life depended on it. And she can go out on the street and tell you later what clothes the people wore, and what kind of people wore them. Can you remember anyone you passed by on the street to-day? I walk the streets, I see the crowds, I look at a million faces until my brain goes blind and dizzy with all that I have seen, and later all the faces swim and bob about like corks in water. I can’t tell one from the other. I see a million faces and I can’t remember one. But she sees one and remembers a million. That’s the thing, Dick. If I were young again I’d try to live like that: I’d try to see a forest in a leaf, the whole earth in a single face.’

‘Why, Esther,’ Mr. Brandell said. Have you discovered a new country? How does one get to this wonderful place where you live?’

‘Well, I tell you, Mr. Brandell,’ I said. ‘It’s easy. You just walk out in the street and look around and there you are.’

‘There you are!’ Mr. Brandell said. ‘Why, my dear child, I have been walking out and looking around for almost fifty years, and the more I walk and look, the less I see that I care to look at. What are these wonderful sights that you have found?’

Well, Mr. Brandell,’ I said, ‘sometimes it’s a leaf, and sometimes it’s the pocket of a coat, and sometimes it’s a button or a coin, and sometimes it’s an old hat, or an old shoe on the floor. Sometimes it’s a little boy, and sometimes it’s a girl looking out a window, and sometimes it’s an old woman with a funny hat. Sometimes it’s the color of an ice wagon, and sometimes the color of an old brick wall, and sometimes a cat creeping along the back-yard fence. Sometimes it’s the feet of the men on the rail when you pass a saloon, and the sawdust floors, and the sound of their voices, and that wonderful smell you get of beer and orange peel and angostura bitters. Sometimes it’s people passing underneath your window late at night, and sometimes it’s the sound of a horse in the street early in the morning, and sometimes it’s the ships blowing out in the harbor at night. Sometimes it’s the way you feel at night when you wake up in wintertime and you know it’s snowing, although you can’t see or hear it. Sometimes it’s the harbor, sometimes the docks, and sometimes it’s the Bridge with people coming across it. Sometimes it’s the markets and the way the chickens smell; sometimes it’s all the new vegetables and the smell of apples. Sometimes it’s the people in a train that passes the one you re in: you see all the people, you are close to them, but you cannot touch them; you say good-bye to them and it makes you feel sad. Sometimes it’s all the kids playing in the street: they don’t seem to have anything to do with the grown-ups, they seem to be kids, and yet they seem to be grown up and to live in a world of their own — there is something strange about it. And sometimes it’s like that with the horses too — sometimes you go out and there is nothing but the horses; they fill the streets, you forget about all the people; the horses seem to own the earth; they talk to one another, and they seem to have a life of their own that people have nothing to do with. I know all about this and what is going on inside them, but it’s no use telling you and Daddy — you wouldn’t know what I was talking about. Well — there’s a lot more — do you give up?’

‘Good God, yes!’ said Mr. Brandell, picking up a towel from his dressing table and waving it at me. ‘I surrender! O brave new world that has such wonders in it! . . . O, Joe, Joe!’ he said to my father. ‘Will that ever happen to us again? Are we nothing but famished beggars, weary of our lives? Can you still see all those things when you walk the streets? Would it ever come back to us that way again?’

‘Not to me,’ my father said. ‘I was a Sergeant, but I’ve been rejuced.’

He smiled as he spoke, but his voice was old and tired and weary. I know now he felt that his life had failed. His face had got very yellow from his sickness, and his shoulders stooped, his great hands dangled to his knees; as he stood there between Mr. Brandell and me he seemed to be half-erect, as if he had just clambered up from all fours. And yet his face was as delicate and wild as it had ever been; it had the strange, soaring look — as if it were in constant flight away from a shackling and degrading weight — that it had always worn, and to this expression of uplifted flight there had now been added the intent listening expression that all deaf people have.

It seemed to me that the sense of loneliness and exile, of a brief and alien rest, as if some winged spirit had temporarily arrested flight upon a foreign earth, was more legible on him now than it had ever been. Suddenly I felt all the strangeness of his life and destiny — his remoteness from all the life I knew. And I felt more than ever before a sense of our nearness and farness; I felt at once closer to him than to anyone on earth, and at the same time farther from him. Already his life had something fabulous and distant in it; he seemed to be a part of some vanished and irrevocable time.

I do not think Mr. Brandell had noticed before how tired and ill my father looked. He had been buried in his own world, burning with a furious, half-suppressed excitement, an almost mad vitality which was to have that night its consummation. Before we left him, however, he suddenly glanced sharply and critically at my father, took his hand, and said with great tenderness: —

‘What is it, Joe? You look so tired. Is anything wrong?’

My father shook his head. He had become very sensitive about his deafness, and any reference to the affliction that had caused his retirement from the stage or any suggestion of pity from one of his former colleagues because of his present state deeply wounded him. ‘Of course not,’ he said. ‘I never felt better! I used to be Joe the Dog-Faced Actor, now I’m Joe the Dog-Faced Policeman, and I’ve got a badge to prove it, too.’ Here he produced his policeman’s badge, of which he was really very proud. ‘If that’s not a step up in the world, what is it? Come on, daughter,’ he said to me. ‘Let’s leave this wicked man to all his plots and murders. If he gets too bad, I’ll arrest him!’

We started to go, but for a moment Mr. Branded stopped us and was silent. The enormous and subdued excitement, the exultant fury, which had been apparent in him all the time, now became much more pronounced. The man was thrumming like a dynamo; his strong hands trembled, and when he spoke it was as if he had already become the Duke of Gloucester: there was a quality of powerful cunning and exultant prophecy in his tone, something mad, secret, conspiratorial, and knowing.

‘Keep your eyes open to-night,’ he said. ‘You may see something worth remembering.’

We left him and went out into the theatre.


When we got out into the auditorium the house was almost full, although the people were still going down the aisles to their seats. Because of my father’s deafness, Branded had given us seats in the front row. For a few minutes I watched the people come in and the house fill up, and I felt again the sense of elation and joy I have always felt in the theatre before the curtain goes up.

I looked at the beautiful women, the men in evening clothes, and at all the fat and gaudy ornamentation of the house; I heard the rapid and excited patter of the voices, the stir and rustle of silks, the movement — and I loved it ad.

Then in a few minutes the lights darkened. There was a vast, rustling sigh ad over the theatre, the sound of a great bending forward, and then, for a moment, in that dim light I saw the thing that has always seemed so full of magic and beauty to me: a thousand people who have suddenly become a single, living creature, and all the frail white spots of faces blooming like petals there in a velvet darkness, upturned, thirsty, silent, and intent and beautiful.

Then the curtain went up, and on an enormous and lofty stage stood the deformed and solitary figure of a man. For a moment I knew the man was Branded; for a moment I could feel nothing but an astounded surprise, a sense of unreality, to think of the miracle of transformation which had been wrought in the space of a few minutes, to know that this cruel and sinister creature was the man with whom we had just been talking. Then the first words of the great opening speech rang out across the house, and instantly all this was forgotten: the man was no longer Brandell — he was the Duke of Gloucester.

With the opening words, the intelligence was instantly communicated to the audience that it was about to witness such a performance as occurs in the theatre only once in a lifetime. And yet, at first, there was no sense of characterization, no feeling of the cruel and subtle figure of Richard — there was only a mighty music which sounded out across the house, a music so grand and overwhelming that it drowned the memory of ad the baseness, the ugliness, and the pettiness in the lives of men. In the sound of the words it seemed there was the full measure of man’s grandeur, magnificence, and tragic despair, and the words were flung against immense and timeless skies like a challenge and an evidence of man’s dignity, and like a message of faith that he need not be ashamed or afraid of anything.

‘Now is the winter of our discontent
Made glorious summer by this sun of York;
And all the clouds that lour’d upon our house
In the deep bosom of the ocean buried. . . .’

Then, swiftly and magnificently, with powerful developing strokes of madness, fear, and cruelty, the terrible figure of Richard began to emerge; almost before the conclusion of the opening speech it stood complete. That speech was really a speech of terror, and set clearly the picture of the warped, deformed, agonized Gloucester, for whom there was no beautiful thing in life, a man who had no power to raise himself except by murder. As the play went on, the character of Richard became so real to me, the murders so frightful, the lines filled with such music and such terror, that when the curtain rose on that awful nightmare scene in the tent, I felt I could not stay there if one more drop of blood was shed. That evening will live in my memory as the most magnificent evening I ever spent in the theatre. On that evening Richard Brandell reached the summit of his career. That night was literally the peak. Immediately after the performance Brandell had a nervous collapse: the play was taken off; he never appeared as Richard again. It was months before he made any appearance whatever, and he never again, during the remainder of his life, approached the performance he gave that night.