The Hamlet of Franklin Street

I

IN Franklin Street we all called him ‘ Mr. Mephisto ‘ because of his pointed beard, his raked brows, his cunning eyes, and what seemed to be, but wasn’t, his sneering smile. He was A. Lincoln Ladd, head of the Ladd Institute of Dramatic Art and Correct Posture.

The Institute occupied the parlor and the entire second floor of the Ladd home, which was nearly opposite our own. How the Ladds came to choose Franklin Street for the Institute can be explained by the precept that where wood is being chopped splinters are bound to fall. Franklin Street and its environs formed the faubourg of the uppish bourgeoisie, whose children were ready-made prospects for courses in how to sit, stand, walk, and speak affectedly. The Ladds knew perfectly what they were about.

Over the mantelpiece in the parlor hung a painting in oil of Mr. Ladd as Claude Melnotte in The Lady of Lyons, one of his best portrayals, if the press of the small towns along the Mississippi and as far west as Topeka may be believed. In those days — sadder and yet happier, as Mr. Ladd often recalled — he was but a barnstormer, little dreaming that one day he would have his own school like the famous Nelson Wheatcroft’s in New York. Of course, his school was not so large as Wheatcroft’s, but, as he explained, this was in its favor, for at Ladd — he always said ’at Ladd,’as one would say ‘at Yale’ or ‘at Princeton’ — the student body was not so large as to preclude individual instruction. And yet the student body at Ladd could not be called small. At one time the enrollment reached twentyseven.

The parlor was not used for classroom purposes. It served as reception room and matriculation office, and there were several comfortable chairs in the room for consultations between a parent and Mr. Ladd, or bet ween a student and Mr. Ladd. At such times Mr. Ladd would draw the sliding doors that led into the hall, not so much for the sake of privacy as for concentration.

In the space between the two parlor windows there was a large, hand-lettered wall motto which read: ‘The holiness of attitude is rewarded on earth.’ The thought was Mr. Ladd’s own, but modesty and taste forbade him to add the ascription ‘Ladd.’ In the enormous sitting room at the rear of the second floor there was another of Mr. Ladd’s mottoes, hanging above the mantel. It read: ‘Attitude is rectitude.’ This too was unascribed.

Mr. Ladd was profuse with such concisions of thought, all of them combining nicely ethics and æsthetics. As I often heard him say, if all the world were a stage and men and women were only players, it would be a far more beautiful world. It was the mission of his life to make such a world — at seventy-five dollars a semester, books extra.

The faculty at Ladd was composed of Mr. Ladd and the woman we all knew as Mrs. Ladd. She was a fubby, chubby little lady who might have been sixty or forty, one’s guess depending upon a choice of clues: sixty if you considered the bygoneness of her own barnstorming anecdotes, forty if you considered only her rouged complexion. When I was at Ladd, at the age of seventeen, Mrs. Ladd had two phases: professional and domestic. Professionally, she divided the pedagogical duties with Mr. Ladd; domestically, she cooked and did all the cleaning, and even scrubbed the white stone steps and window trims, but this she would do early in the morning so none of the neighbors would see her. In this way the fact of the Ladds’ not having a servant was kept from all the blind neighbors, of whom there were none in Franklin Street.

Professionally, Mrs. Ladd divided the pedagogical duties with Mr. Ladd, he taking the advanced students, she the beginners. When, at the end of a semester, each group would give a play in a regular theatre, it was difficult to understand how the Ladds were able to distinguish advanced pupils from beginners.

In certain of the plays Mr. Ladd himself would participate, especially when Shakespeare was given.

‘It were sacrilege,’ he always said, ‘to let a student read the lines of Lear or Hamlet. Besides, it were better for a student to see how these should be played than to see them butchered.’

For Lear Mr. Ladd’s beard could easily be hidden behind a flowing false one, but for Hamlet, refusing to shave off his own natural ornament, he was thrown squarely upon the resources of pure histrionic illusion. What happened was a Hamlet who looked like the grandfather of his own mother, the Queen, played by Adele Statz, one of the ‘more promising’ students. Adele wore a wig and was heavily made up; Mr. Ladd wore his beard and wrinkled black tights over his spindles.

‘Won’t it look funny?’ I asked Mrs. Ladd, one day at rehearsal.

‘The incongruity will only be momentary,’ she assured me, ‘just for the bat of an eye on Mr. Ladd’s first entrance. After that, artistry will remove the beard and create the illusion of no beard.’

The playing of Hamlet with a beard was made the subject of a class talk by Mr. Ladd a few days before the play.

‘The great actor,’ he declared, ‘makes the unreal real and the real unreal.’

This was commendably terse and full of pith, but I didn’t understand it. He went on: —

‘It is the supreme task of an actor to reveal the soul of the character he is portraying. When the soul is seen, the outward details of the character become unimportant and disappear. Now take, for example, my own Hamlet, which all of you will have the privilege of seeing next Friday afternoon. I am told by those whose opinion I value that what the audience sees is not my beard, but only my suffering, Hamlet’s ineffable suffering, the suffering that the Immortal Bard wrote with his heart’s blood.’

II

Whatever it was that the audience saw, it could not have been so acute as what it felt. What suffering there was was not Mr. Ladd’s alone; he shared it bountifully.

All went off well — or well enough — that Friday afternoon till the graveyard scene in the fifth act was reached. Then came a mishap. Mr. Ladd, turning from Horatio, asked to examine Yorick’s skull. Jakey Seil, who was playing First Gravedigger, must have handed it to him carelessly, for the thing, made of plaster, fell from Mr. Ladd’s hand and smashed to smithereens. At first the audience snickered only mildly, but the kid who played Second Gravedigger laughed so convulsively that somehow it infected the whole house, and gradually the laughter swelled to a boisterous wowing that drowned the ‘Alas, poor Yorick’ speech. Mr. Ladd stepped to the footlights and implored the audience to be orderly.

‘Quiet, please!’ he shouted, holding his hand aloft. ‘Let us have quiet! The play must go on.’

But Mr. Ladd was up against a threealarm uproar, the blaze of hilarity having spread even to the members of the cast, who by now had come from the wings to see what had happened. In the crisis, his appeals having failed, Mr. Ladd had the admirable presence of mind to order the lowering of the curtain; it had the signal effect of subduing the laughter, proving once again, if such things need proof, that there is nothing like a cool head in an emergency.

After a few minutes Mr. Ladd came before the curtain to make a brief speech. He was greeted with hand clapping which he acknowledged with too many bows. Then he spoke.

‘As it is getting late,’ he said, ‘and the scene we’ve just played was in the last act anyway, I think perhaps no harm will be done if we bring our endeavors to a close at this point.’

Clearing his throat, the better to put a choke in his voice, he continued: ‘I must thank the audience for having given our efforts today such a generous reception. I count it as a tribute not only to Mrs. Ladd and myself for our labors, but to what the students themselves are accomplishing at Ladd.’

With this he back-bowed off, saying, ‘We thank you, we thank you, we thank you,’ and there seemed to be more wrinkles than ever in his oversized tights.

Backstage looked like a convention of locusts, with everybody telling everybody else how wonderful was the performance. Mrs. Ladd, puffy and nervous, and beady about the forehead, was surrounded by parents and friends, receiving congratulations.

‘It was perfectly wonderful,’ said Adele Statz’s mother. ‘How does the play end?’

‘Hamlet dies,’ said Mrs. Ladd. ‘He takes poison.’

‘Oh, heavens!’ exclaimed Mrs. Statz. ‘I’m glad I didn’t see it.’

Far upstage, hemmed in by more parents and friends, stood Mr. Ladd and Jakey Seil, having it out in a battle of lungs.

‘You’re supposed to hand it to me, not throw it at me,’ Mr. Ladd shouted angrily.

‘I can’t help it if you’ve got butter fingers,’ said Jakey, resenting the blame.

‘It’s not a football, you clumsy fool!’ Mr. Ladd burst out, with alarming vehemence. ‘It’s a skull — a human skull — Yorick’s skull! You ruined one of Hamlet’s finest speeches for me.’

The thought of the loss must have melted his tone to butter, for he struck an attitude that was pure Armour and, in his liquescent best, said: ‘Alas, poor Yorick! I knew him, Jakey. He was a fellow of infinite jest, who hath borne me on his back a thousand times, whose lips I’ve kissed I know not how oft.’

He took Jakey’s hand in his own, smiled a little sourly, and spoke with the deep compassion of a school head named Ladd who had an eye on the matriculation for another semester by a pupil named Jakey.

‘Reconciliation is friendship’s firmest cement,’ he said.

It was all sixes to Jakey, for he was through at Ladd anyway. But Mr. Ladd had not yet been told, and Jakey seemed still to be a good prospect for a reorder.

At this point Adele’s mother came up to spray compliments all over Mr. Ladd.

‘It was perfectly wonderful,’ she said, shaking his hand. ‘I’m so glad you stopped before you took the poison.’

Adele, still in the make-up of the Queen, joined us and stood alongside of Mr. Ladd, holding his arm. She would look up at him as he spoke and sup admiringly on his every word, a kind of lassitude coming over her under the spell of his voice.

‘I thought Adele was very good, too,’ said Mrs. Statz, with every justification.

‘She has some rough spots,’ Mr. Ladd replied, casting a mysterious code glance at Adele, ‘but I’ll smooth them out — won’t I, Adele?’ As he said this he gave her a slight squeeze, and one could not but think that the relationship between tutor and pupil can be one of the most beautiful in all the world.

III

That same week Mrs. Ladd came to see my mother about my enrolling for the next term. She reported that Mr. Ladd had said it would be a pity for me to quit just as I was beginning to show such marked progress.

My mother’s reply was that she would have to talk it over with my father, which was no less than the truth. My mother thought she could detect a change in me since I had started at Ladd; my father was certain he did. He said: ‘You’ll be a damn nance if you keep on going.’

We wrangled it out, and his argument seemed to be that what I was getting was not poise but pose; that in the case of a girl it didn’t matter, for all girls, more or less, are born with pose, but for a boy to add lavender and lace to his manner meant the unfitting of him for the higher qualities of manhood. That winter I must have gone completely cuckoo, practising the lordly graces that express the Holiness of Attitude, for I recall getting one evening a magnificently aimed kick from my father for putting on fancy airs round the house. The house wasn’t large enough for two sets of airs, however dissimilar — his and mine.

Before signing up for the second term I first made certain that Adele Statz was returning. Adele was unlike other girls. She was tall and dark, with languishing eyes that sometimes gave you a funny feeling in the pit of your stomach.

‘Of course I’m going back,’ she said when I asked her. ‘Professor Ladd has offered to coach me privately.’

When Mrs. Ladd called again to get my mother’s answer, the answer being favorable, she spent a good part of the afternoon with us in our parlor. Over coffee and cake — and later a glass of Tokay, and still later three good pulls at my father’s Bourbon — she told us that she had met Mr. Ladd in her early barnstorming days.

‘It was in Jackson, Mississippi,’ she said. ‘We both were members of a traveling troupe. I was young, and Mr. Ladd was young, and we both were lonely, playing strange cities where we didn’t know a soul.’

Averting her eyes and looking wistfully into her glass of Bourbon, she said, ‘I guess it was a case of love at first sight.’

That had been thirty-three years ago. She was younger then — and not stout.

‘Mr. Ladd was very proud of me,’ she said, again looking into the Bourbon.

They played together when they could and separated when they had to.

‘The separations were always hard,’ she said, with the kind of sigh that tells of hardships braved. ‘There were temptations, but I was always loyal, as God in heaven knows.’

She sipped her Bourbon.

‘We’ve had our good times and our bad times, but we’ve taken them all together,’ she said. ‘Naturally, I must make allowances. You always have to with an artist. Sometimes I think I might have been better off had I not been married to a genius. Geniuses are so peculiar. You never know when they’re going to bite. But they don’t mean to hurt. They’re more like children.’

When my mother asked Mrs. Ladd to refill her glass, Mrs. Ladd politely indicated that she had had enough, without actually saying so.

‘Go ahead,’ my mother insisted. ‘That’s what it’s here for.’

Completely convinced, Mrs. Ladd poured herself another drink and went on: —

‘I’ve tried to be a good helpmate. When Mr. Ladd’s memory began to fail about twelve years ago and he gave up the stage, it was I who suggested that we both take up teaching. I thought it would make a permanent home for him — something he had never had — and still give his genius something to work on.’

My mother commended her foresight.

‘Yes,’ Mrs. Ladd said, ‘we were very successful at the start in Chicago. I had my own servant and we were able to save quite a little money. But then things took a turn. Mr. Ladd got sick and I had to keep him in a sanitarium for nearly three years. Nervous breakdown. His mind was a blank. But, thank God, I was able to give him the best of medical attention. I took a position in a department store, and with my salary and what we had saved we managed to pull through. You can do an awful lot when you have to.’

She wet her lips with the Bourbon and my mother said her bravery had been rewarded.

Mrs. Ladd corrected her. ‘It hasn’t been rewarded yet,’ she said, ‘if you except Mr. Ladd’s recovery. We still have a hard struggle making both ends meet. I do all my own work. I clean and cook, and even scrub the floors. But I don’t mind. Mr. Ladd has his health again, thank God, and I think there’s room for a school like ours in this neighborhood. It’ll take a little time before we get known, but, Rome wasn’t built in a day, I always say.’

When Mrs. Ladd had gone, my mother said, ‘I’d like to see them get on. They deserve it.’

The second term, at least for me, was a waste of time and money. Of the old girls, only Adele and Sadie Voulk returned. In fact, the classes had become preponderantly male, with about sixteen boys to four girls, which is hardly enough girl to go around. It wouldn’t have been so bad had not Adele taken an unaccountable chill to me. It was the kind of chill that almost boasted of some other fellow having cut me out. Who the fellow might be I didn’t know, except that I knew it was no one at Ladd, for there she gave none of us so much as a blink.

One afternoon I caught her coming out of the reception room. I stopped to speak to her, but she ran past me and cut straight for the street. One sliding door was open a little, enough to have let Adele through, and in the parlor I noticed Mr. Ladd before a mirror straightening his hair and beard with his pocket comb. For the purposes of a conclusion, it wasn’t much to jump at; but it was something — it was enough to warrant my watching Mr. Ladd and Adele closely and sitting on the bench in the hall when the parlor doors were closed, waiting for one or the other to come out, always with a ready-made explanation on my lips to excuse my being there.

I caught them a few times, but each time Mr. Ladd opened the door it would be with such guiltless apathy that I began to doubt the cleanliness of my own mind for having suspected the worst. As the term wore on I became indifferent to Adele, to Mr. Ladd, and to the closed doors. I began to cut the Tuesday class and then cut the one on Friday as well. I made no secret of it to my parents, and my father said, ‘At last you’re coming to your senses.’

That spring the Ladd Institute was to give Romeo and Juliet, with Mr. Ladd as Romeo and Adele as Juliet. Mrs. Ladd, we heard, was to make her first appearance in many years as the nurse. Mainly because of her liking for Mrs. Ladd, my mother thought she would like to attend. But the performance never came off. This Romeo and this Juliet took their love, not to some distant sky, but to parts unknown, for the note that Mr. Ladd left behind for Mrs. Ladd spoke only of his love for Adele and hers for him, and said that only together could they find happiness in this world.

‘Try to forgive and forget,’ were Mr. Ladd’s last words.

On the day Mrs. Ladd moved from Franklin Street she came to see my mother, to say good-bye and to thank her for our patronage. She hadn’t yet made any plans for the future.