'Are There Any Questions?'
To a great many people a public lecture that is not followed by a question period seems less like a piece of apple pie without cheese than like a piece of cheese without any apple pie. And why not? Turnabout is fair play among adults no less than at a nursery school.
The group silence maintained by an audience for an hour or more, and mistaken by the lecturer for interest, is against nature. It may delude the speaker into believing that because he has stilled a sea of upturned faces he has succeeded where King Canute failed. But the waves roared at Demosthenes. And, though audiences are better behaved and far more patient, they too are anxious to be heard from.
The question period is increment, overdue though still golden, which their silence has earned them. No wonder they look forward to it. Then it is that the real fireworks can begin. Then it is that the listeners have at last their chance to turn their hoses on Old Faithful. Then it is that the atmosphere changes from toga to slacks, from Stephen A. Douglas to Brother Bones, from Delphi to the trial of Warren Hastings.
The lecturer now stands noteless before all who choose to remain, his prepared speech finished, and ready for the worst — really looking forward to it. For that, of course, as Mr. Galsworthy put it, is where the fun comes in.
It is seldom slow in coming.
‘Ladies and gentlemen,’says the chairman, or ‘Ladies’ or ‘Gentlemen,’ depending upon the time and the place. ‘Ladies and gentlemen,’ repeats the chairman, using the gavel as forcefully as Lincoln must have swung his axe in his rail-splitting days — ‘Ladies and gentlemen, may I have your attention ? I know it is late — very late — and you have other things to do. But, if any of you wish to stay, will those of you who want to go go now as quietly as possible because Mr. — Mr. — uh — Brown says he will be glad to answer some questions. Won’t you, Mr. Brown?’
Whereupon an exodus of Biblical proportions occurs. It has begun before the chairman, after nodding encouragement in your direction, has stepped up to the lectern. Indeed, it has begun the moment, your peroration reached and your bow made, you have been so foolhardy as to turn your back on the audience and walk to the throne-chair.
By the time you are seated, the noise which you had hoped was applause proves to be mainly the scraping of chairs being pushed back and the stomping of feet up the aisles. ‘No questions tonight, unless I ask myself some,’ you mutter, peering at your shoes as if you had never worn any before and doing your best to seem unconcerned. When you do gather enough courage to look up, you discover that, although a large portion of the audience may have escaped, some of it has stayed behind.
‘These good people,’ you whisper to yourself, ‘are the bright ones — the real seekers after knowledge.’ What you have forgotten is the rain or the snow outside, and the fact that most of those who now face you were trained in their youth to wait patiently for the Wild West Show after the circus in the hope of seeing the freaks again. A few people stand at the back or cluster at the exits, anxious to go, yet reluctant to miss anything if anything is at last going to happen.
When the auditorium finally enjoys a quiet such as the prairies must have known after the passage of a thundering herd of buffalo, the chairman settles down to his third public task of the evening. The first of these is, of course, the introduction. The second is trying to serve the audience as a model not only by staying awake during the lecture but by reacting to it, sometimes with disconcerting conscientiousness, while sitting on the stage. Last but not least (to make a new edition of Bartlett unnecessary) comes the matter of raffling off the questions.
Now question periods, like men and women since the Garden, are apt to take one of two forms. Either those who want an answer raise their hands, and voices, face to face with the cornered lecturer, or a batch of written questions, as anonymous as so many Australian ballots, is gathered by the ushers and read aloud at random by the chairman.
Both of these methods have their advantages and their drawbacks. In the case of the thrust direct, the shyness that can overtake the questioner puts him at a decided disadvantage. When order has finally been gained after the hurly-burly of the first tribal migration through the doors, sheer embarrassment can so hush those who do remain that the auditorium sounds as if it were pausing in honor of Armistice Day.
The chairman feels this too. ‘Ladies and gentlemen,’ he begins very amiably, ‘are there any questions?’ Had he asked if anyone present would like to give the speaker all his life savings, the silence could not be more stubborn.
‘Ladies and gentlemen, I say are there any questions?’ By the time he has repeated this twice the chairman cannot be blamed if his voice has taken on the tones of an exasperated auctioneer.
Again the audience is noiseless. By now, however, it has begun to show definite signs of life. Heads are turning with that regular rhythm with which faces rotate at a tennis match. Everyone is looking at the person next to him, urging him or her, with many smothered giggles, to spring up with a poser. And everyone so prodded wears that look of misery which can distort your neighbor’s face when you have begged him to heed a magician’s call for volunteers.
‘Very well, then,’ the chairman blurts out, with just the slightest show of irritation, after another silence during which no one has jumped up. ‘Very well, then. Since nobody seems to have been interested enough in what Mr. Brown was saying to put him a question, I will ask him one.’
The pause this time is a short one. It comes to a dead end when the chairman, after a moment of agony, smiles and turns directly to you as you rise to join him at the lectern. ‘Mr. Brown,’ says he with the expression of a man who knows he is inspired, ‘Mr. Brown, just what do you think of the movies — that is to say the motion pictures — versus the stage?’
This kind of thing can always be counted upon to start the ball rolling. And rolling it soon gets going, even if the roll is uphill in the Sisyphus manner. By the time you have tried to answer this one as if you had never tried to answer it before, and when both you and the chairman have come through the ordeal unscathed, the shyer people out front have gradually regained at least a part of their courage. Their voices have come back like Enoch Arden, even if, like Enoch Arden, they are still peeping through the windows. Little by little, after so long and polite a silence, they are reacquiring the speech habit.
A little gray-haired lady in the tenth row wins the chairman’s grateful eye. Her hand has slowly fluttered upward, and no less slowly she has raised herself to follow it.
‘Mr. Chairman,’ she asks in a voice muffled by such fear as has not possessed her vocal cords since at assembly fifty years ago she had to recite ‘Crossing the Bar’ before the whole school. ‘Mr. Brown said, I believe, that he admired Miss Fontanne’s Katharine?’
‘Mr. Chairman,’ continues the little lady, gaining by the syllable in confidence, and suddenly changing from hummingbird to eagle before everyone’s eyes. ‘Mr. Chairman’ — by now her tones are the resolute ones with which once she fought for suffrage—‘Mr. Chairman, I should like to ask Mr. Brown if he ever saw Ada Rehan in the part? . . . He didn’t!’ All her timidity has left her. With the triumphant look of a prosecutor who, after winking at the jury, wheels upon the defense to say, ‘The witness is yours,’ she adds, ‘That’s all I wanted to know,’ and sits down. At this her contemporaries laugh and applaud, while her young neighbors can be heard murmuring, ‘Who? What? Who?’
The applause proves so much gasoline both to the little lady’s courage and to her curiosity. In a moment she is up on her feet again. ‘One other thing, Mr. Chairman,’ she says, her eyes sparkling. ‘I should like to ask Mr. Brown if he thinks the actors and actresses of today are as good as the players were fifty years ago?’
When you have replied to this as best you can, other questions follow. If most of them are friendly in spirit and in phrasing, it is because the theatre as a subject is not, of course, the hornet’s nest of controversy that world affairs, politics, economics, birth control, dietetics, play schools, and flower arrangements are. Since it is a realm where opinions are facts, and the ultimate right is what each theatregoer finds right for himself, men and women are inclined when discussing the stage, or hearing it discussed, to let another person feed without interference upon the meat which to them is poison. They may hope he chokes, but they are not inclined to tire their own hands speeding him on his way.
Hence it is that the police are summoned with only moderate frequency to defend the admirers of Tallulah Bankhead from the champions of Walter Hampden. Hence it is that no pickets surround those halls in which Chekhov, Odets, George S. Kaufman, and Dodie Smith are being praised or damned; that the constables can — and do — indulge in siestas when Ina Claire is being described as a better comedienne than Bette Davis; that the riot squads are able to catch up with their reading of Proust when Mr. Saroyan and Miss Hellman are being compared; and that, even when they do meet socially, those Montagues and Capulets — the Gielgud girls and the Evans boys — raise their thumbs no higher than to bite them.
For theatre lovers are possessed unconsciously of the wisdom which was painfully acquired by a formidable New York dowager who once had the temerity to cross swords at an opening night with Alexander Woollcott in his reviewing days.
‘Mr. Woollcott,’ demanded the dowager, obstructing the aisle so that he could not escape, ‘what do you think of Miss So-and-So’s performance?’
‘I think she is excellent,’ the good doctor said. ‘Excellent — but I think Mr. Blank is every bit as good.’
This not being the reply she had expected, the dowager was infuriated. Mobilizing her physique, she turned upon Mr. Woollcott to snarl, ‘After all, that’s only your opinion!’
To which Mr. Woollcott’s answer was the final one. ‘What did you expect, madame — my hair combings?’
Accordingly, it is in an atmosphere for the most part as full of peace as Father Divine’s Krum Elbow that such questions as ‘Do you agree with Orson Welles on the subject of Orson Welles?’ and ‘Do you think a little girl of five would enjoy Panama Hattie?’ and ‘In your opinion would Noel Coward’s plays have been different if he had married?’ are batted back and forth between the lecturer on the drama and those members of his audience who, when his hour has come to an end, have found their voices.
That is, of course, unless — as sometimes happens — a man or woman is in the house whose mother was frightened by Marc Antony. It is these non-union speechifiers, these self-starting Ciceros, these uninvited keynoters, who, under the mask of standing up to ask a question, suddenly erupt (with gestures) into endless philippics of their own. There is no mistaking these speakers who are their own managers and audiences. Shyness is not one of their attributes. As the platform is their goal, they like to sit near the front. While ‘the speaker of the evening’ is talking they pay as much attention to him as a leading actor does to the fiddlers who are scraping out the overture. They are too busy rehearsing their own carefully prepared addresses to have cars for anyone else. They don’t want to ask anything. They have something to say.
‘Mr. Chairman!’ they call, their eyes rolling with frenzy, their voices a cross between Daniel Webster’s and Willie Stevens’s, and their notes tucked behind their backs. ‘Mr. Chairman!’
But the chairman, knowing them all too well from previous sessions, looks the other way. To him they seem not men and women but dreaded ectoplasms. He no more sees them than Macbeth’s guests spied Banquo at the banquet. ‘Mr. Chairman!’ they continue, eyeing the audience as Danton must have surveyed the Convention. The audience mutters, sometimes going so far in its forgetfulness of Emily Post and the Bill of Rights as to cry, ‘Sit down,’ ‘Throw him out,’ ‘Shut up.’
‘Mr. Chairman, is this the United States of America or is it not?’
The chairman, well aware of his Rand McNally, is sorrowfully compelled to admit it is.
‘Oh, you, Mr. Ventrefibre,’ he says, much as a judge might recognize an old offender. His tones would have chilled anyone else, but not Mr. Ventrefibre.
‘Mr. Chairman,’ continues Mr. Ventrelibre, whose name is legion, ‘as an American citizen I demand the right to be heard.’
And heard he is, while you and the chairman get so tired of standing that finally you have to sit down, and while those in the audience who have remained for the question period begin to run, not walk, to the nearest exits.
One way of silencing Mr. Ventrelibre is to applaud him from the stage in the middle of a sentence in which he has made no point. The audience, being on your side if for no other reason than that, having listened patiently to one lecture, it refuses to listen to another, particularly to one it has heard before, soon takes the applause up. Sometimes this drowns Mr. Ventrelibre out. If it does not, there is nothing for you and the chairman to do but wait until the hall has been emptied, and then steal out, leaving the floor to Mr. Ventrefibre, and both the floor and Mr. Ventrelibre to the janitor to be mopped up.
Written questions do more than muzzle the Ventrelibres of this world. They make it possible for the shyest member of an audience to get a hearing. Moreover, the fact that those inquisitive white slips are given to the ushers unsigned, and that no handwriting experts are on the stage, can provoke the men and women responsible for them to an audacity and a frankness they could scarcely be expected to achieve were they required to stand right up in meeting and demand answers to some of the things they have on their minds.
Usually the chairman serves these written questions as their editor, censor, and transmitter. His job is not an easy one. Although it has its pleasant aspects, such as being able to peruse at home the questions he has thought best to suppress in public, it calls for quick decisions. It requires a talent for reading scrawls of all kinds with a winnowing eye. It involves protecting the lecturer from those people who have grown so accustomed to trying to stump the experts on ‘Information, Please’ that they now go to lectures in the hope of collecting a set of the Britannica from the speaker during the question period. It necessitates a hasty scanning and discarding of the hurriedly written essays which sometimes bob up with question marks put in where periods should have gone. It means keeping the interests of the Parent-Teacher Association and Legion of Decency in mind, along with the sensibilities of the visiting lecturer, who, after all, is a guest, even though paid instead of paying. In short, it demands a gift for placating while inciting which amounts to being able to wave a red flag as politely as if it were a white one.
It is when the chairman blushes, and reaches for the speaker’s glass of water while quickly tucking a slip of paper into his pocket, that both the audience and the lecturer can be certain that they have been cheated of a hot one. The audience will never hear it. But, if the chairman is a genial soul, the speaker will. Thereafter he will stand both in the writer’s and in the chairman’s debt.
Although I have tried to answer a good many questions, written and spoken, in my time, my favorite still remains the written one read to me by a professor who was serving as chairman at a university where I had talked about Shakespeare, Maxwell Anderson, and High Tragedy. In such an atmosphere I expected, needless to say, to be asked to discuss the differences between Aristotle and Sime Silverman, to compare the three Greek versions of the Electra story with O’Neill’s, or at least to expatiate upon the advantages of blank verse over the Alexandrine as means of expressing the dilemmas and ecstasies of the human spirit. But no — that question which was sent up to the professor to be read was scribbled by a person in search of more practical knowledge.
‘Will the speaker,’ it demanded, ‘be so good as to give me Carmen Miranda’s telephone number?’