ENID BAGNOLD is the author of Serena Blandish, National Velvet, The Door of Life, and The Loved and the Envied. Her first novel became a Broadway hit when it was dramatized by S. N. Behrman in 1925, and in 1951 she was persuaded to bring a new play to America, a comedy entitled Gertie which opened in New York last January and closed after four days. The throes of such an experience are something to remember.
by ENID BAGNOLD
IN the spring of last year I wrote a play. The producer who flew over from America to see me persuaded me (one night on the telephone) to fly to New York. I said I would. I said I would because tests have to be met. But not being in the habit of flying anywhere, of leaving my family, I packed in a horrible apprehension and sinking of heart. We drove up from the country and dined at the airport. Then, already sick for home, in the dark, and with my little talent like a goldfish in my breast, I climbed into the plane.
The flight was as horrible as I had thought it would be. There would have been an empty seat beside me but Death sat in it. Once or twice he tapped a forefinger on my knee. At Gander he turned sharply and looked at me. The descent seemed vertical. I can see how public opinion can keep one quiet at the end. But in the morning we arrived alive in New York and in a few hours made our home in a hotel.
In spite of my sixty years the old life was gone like a dream. New York was there around me and below me, but I hardly noticed it. The tremendous new relationship, far more exciting than the experience of a city, was between my director and me. I had written the play. He was going to put it on. Not only “on” the stage, “on” at a theater, but “on" its feet. The imagined story that had lain flat on the page was to be bidden stand up.
We spent ten happy days discussing it, and I rewriting at his suggestions. Just before the first rehearsal he made me a striking speech. He said: “I want to tell you — though I shall hate it to happen — that you and I will end in dreadful battle, that you may leave America loathing me.”
“Because from tomorrow . . . But you’ll see.”
I saw — in time. He was right about the battle, but not right about my leaving America loathing him.
At the first rehearsal the company of seven sat in a row on seven chairs and read my play aloud in quiet tones. My director and I had each a separate table on the stage, with note pads. I listened. What was to come — for good or evil — stirred like a faint spring in a dried garden. I had spent so much time over the play already that the very first reading bored me. In the succeeding days the movements were mapped out, first of one act, then of another; and with the movements the “ readings” passed into memorizing, and the memorizing into “living,” and it had to be noted that which lived and that which died in the hand.
If I speak of my “talent ” it is because that was my part, my offering to the hard work, and the reason why I had been brought to New York. It is not utterly impossible that I should write a good play, I cannot really be disposed of as a novelist who has drifted onto the boards, but the pinning down of my “veracities” (the thing that strikes true) is done in slow and monotonous circumstances. I am, I suppose, an instinctive writer (that is to say not strong on judgment), with, when I sit still enough and listen carefully enough, a good ear. A natural ear for truth and a good ear for words.
But if I am pressed out of this tiresomely slow condition I respond, not with inhibition and a safe silence, but with a delusive vitality. I leap confidently into a shower of words which, offered up in the theater, show as plainly as what’s wrong with one’s face in the glass. I have to say this because it was the comedy and tragedy of everything to come. I had brought the goldfish with me but he had never been out into the open. Whenever I faced him up with the icy water he began to turn on his back and show his pale belly.
At first (like a train passenger when one is reading) I hardly noticed New York. Except for little shocks. Such as the weight of the Sunday newspapers, that mounted police chewed gum, the charming shrieking of the air raid sirens, and that everyone had better manners than in England (but this is always the illusion when you change countries).
Writing in my hotel in an old summer dress I would at length issue out into an inferno of wind and ice on the street and have to be elevated back to my high floor to do a total redressing. (Against this I bought a window thermometer.) At some time in the day, after hours of rewriting, I would climb into the warm slug of a bus up Sixth Avenue (with its rotation of delicatessens, flash jewelry, and leather shops). When Sixth Avenue reached Forty-fifth Street it ended for me forever. I got out and hurried towards Broadway, scalded by the ice in the wind. After Broadway I entered the short street of hopes, where the names of plays hung in lights, one close after the other—birds already touched by critics’ frost, soon to fall frozen to the pavement. Passing the Booth Theatre and the Plymouth I pressed on the heavy stage door of the Golden. There, immediately, in the dust-laden heat, was the desultory story — two ghosts spoke the words aloud which echoed what I must once have felt.
How little a writer understands his own mind! Words come plunging out of a personal experience and there’s a stream runs gay and strong from the heart (or from the mind, or God knows where). But how long will it run?
Yet it must be finished. If it’s not to be lost it must be canalized. Ah, then the difficulties begin.
Long ago, before rehearsals, when my director read my manuscript and chose it to do, he must have liked my play because of some bubble of yeast in himself. For some secret reason, probably unknown to him, the dough rose in his mind as he read. Now, as he sees the water slowing (the author’s weakness), it rises again. He also, like every good director, is a creator. Now he will either add to what I’ve done or diverge from it. The battle will open. Everything is fluid and on the move. That curious certain thing first done in silence is suddenly missing. It’s anybody’s moment. The truth-authority is gone.
So — building in a panic the cement sides to my stream— I know (but I don’t say) there’s not the same blow of wind on the water. The quality’s changed. It’s too late to be pernickety. It’s too late for silence. There’s a roar behind me. There’s a “date” in front of me. Oh, what will wring and command absorption on that Night for which we are working! What is “dramatic”? What is “undramatic”? Lost to judgment, in half a dozen minds, terrible guesses are made on the bare boards. (But all will know, and at once, when they sit in the red velvet seats.)
My director — whom I will now call X—was a man of great experience, great integrity, kindness, and rage. Even after rehearsals began he was able from time to time to speak to me dispassionately. In one of these moments of crystal he begged me always to speak my mind. When I did he always flew into a rage. But in yet another such moment he said I must continue.
In ordinary life I am as much a coward as other people, and as regretful for the things I haven’t dared to say under pressure. But under X’s system I rose to an urgency of speech which was like a football tackle. I got to pick up words as quick as an urchin picks up a stone. There was practically nothing I could not say at once.
I have a face which takes on a mask of rage much greater than I feel. So had he. His face would pale and his eyes would color to the shade of maroon in leather. Being bald he wore his hat continually against draft. The pitch of his hat became for me the bathing flag when the sea’s rough.
This is the principle. The director runs the rehearsals. He’s the Captain. His word’s law. He knows the rules. He knows what he wants, and he’s agreed with me what I want, (but you never can do that). The form of his language is intelligible to the actors, He’s familiar with difficulties that have to do with illusion and space. I’m sitting at his side, vaguely for reverification at the source, but actually for rewriting words that won’t “say” themselves, to superintend omissions and inclusions, for necessary rearrangements, for a dozen reasons. I’m supposed to be a silent counsel. And one who drew up the case. But . . . how far can I contain myself? The theory is that I should cover a large pad with notes, in total silence, and have a “conference” with my director at the end. But at the end of what? It makes me laugh when I think that I told X when I arrived in New York that I was an elderly lady who had to go to bed at ten.
SUDDENLY we moved out of rehearsal and took a train to New Haven. The traditional round had begun — “out of town.” The night before, at dinner, I had said to S. N. Behrman, “Tell me. Is the rewriting one does during rehearsal ever any good?” He looked at me with so much conjecture, he said with such richness of uncertainty, “I wonder.” It was as though he thoughtfully undid in his mind the seams of innumerable garments, half a lifetime of plays and their intangible compromises. We both left New York next day on our tryouts. He to Philadelphia, I to New Haven and Boston.
The set-model had been shown to me — as a tiny box. One could hold it near a lamp and make the lamp cast shadows. What a mistake! I blessed it perfunctorily and forgot it. It seemed to become the immutable stage-set in a leap overnight. When next I saw it, it was beyond recall.
When we got to New Haven, X and I had already boxed many rounds. When I saw the set there we became wrestlers, with no one to cry “Break!” Leaning, at seven in the evening, on the worn velvet rim at the back of the orchestra, choosing my words with my new aim and violence, I made him personally responsible for the loss of the “room in my head.” That “room” which was the result of the remembered and the imagined. Now it had also been through the “practical.”
“And WHAT,” I ended, “on top of all that, are those eight ginger pots doing!”
“Those are Ming vases.”
“Eight! Ming! All the same size!”
“Do you want them different sizes?”
“I don’t want them at all ”
“You don’t like them?”
“They’re Tottenham Court Koad. Oh God, what’s Tottenham Court Road in American/”
“I can only tell you” (dogged) “that in the finest American houses . . .”
“THIS is an ENGLISH house! ” (I moved a pace back, to gather force.) “Or until you made it a lodging house . . . near Euston.” We were shouting. I turned and stalked to the glass exit doors. And turned again. “AND one that takes in Indians!”
On this last shot, which should have seen a glorious exit, I had trouble with the glass doors. My agent stooped and pulled up a bolt and I passed through. (My “agent”? I would sooner say my Wizard. But first I must finish the “row.”)
I strode next door into the Taft Hotel, went up to my room, put the telephone under the pillow, and cried. Only angry tears.
A quarter of an hour later, sheepishly, I came back to the set. The blue and white Mings had gone. Remorseful but silent I had already learned seldom to apologize; and never on the same day.
My agent the Wizard - for whom Z shall be the mystic letter—entered more and more upon my scene. Only bit by bit did I realize that he had made himself my other self. The first time I knew it was when he stooped to the bolt and said plainly, in the smallest possible voice, “Fine. That will shake them.”
Z had in his voice the most astonishing gift. He could make it as small as an insect’s, while it remained, to the addressee, bell-clear. He didn’t hush it: he reduced it. He had in his house an ambulating apparatus (like a towel horse) on which hung his six telephones. His wife would wheel it in to dinner and stand it behind him. He never apologized for telephoning in the middle of a conversation or a course of food, because there was no need. Owing to his gift he could reach behind him for a telephone and speak into it in the accents of a grasshopper or a daddy longlegs; infinitely tiny, clear only to the far recipient, and yet carry on the talk as we dined. This had become so interwoven and skillful that one was no more aware that he was telephoning (to Terence Rattigan in London or Henry Irving in Heaven) than if he had taken a handkerchief from his pocket. It hardly impacted even on the guests’ subconscious. He knew the world-connection-system backwards.
Although he had a large office and a charming home it was usual for him in the daytime to be found sitting half in and half out of a street telephone booth (the corner of his overcoat dragged to the pavement by the weight of nickels in the pocket) and set a call going to Vienna or receive a call from Italy whose timing he had judged to be just about ripe.
While X was in a rage Z was in a calm. He never emphasized. His advice fell soft as dew. One hardly noticed it, until the quality was gleaming. He was ardently, uniquely one’s own. It was only by degrees that I discovered that he could also perform the same extraordinary service (spiritual and actual) at the same time for Sam Behrman and for Mary Chase at simultaneous tryouts in cities far apart.
At New Haven we rehearsed once more for two days in the Shubert Theatre, keying up patches that seemed to waver, trying on the clothes that had just arrived. I could no longer sleep, but thought I did quite well without it. It was thought, however, that I didn’t. Sleeping pills were ordered from the drugstore. Later there was a knock on my door and a young man came into the room.
“I’m the boy from the drugstore,” he said, putting the parcel within my reach. “Are you a writer?” (Manuscript was all over the bed and even hung from hooks attached to a cord that ran from my chair to a safety pin on the curtains.)
“Well, I’ve written the play that’s opening next door.”
“I hope it’s good,” he said. “I’m going Saturday.”
The friend who ordered the pills also sent an instruction. “Take one as you undress. When you get into bed prick the other with a needle. It works quicker.”
The pills, when the box was opened, were like bombs, blue shading into green. One that I took while undressing almost dropped me in the bathroom. I tottered to the bed with a pin in my hand, pricked the other, and went out for ten hours. I woke next morning ready to rewrite the play. (I did, in Boston.)
WE opened. Terrible lapses were perceived. Laughs came in odd places and were absent where thought to have been certain. The play, instead of having a subterranean and mysterious quality, seemed long and frail.
Now, without knowing it, I abandoned the only guide I had. I took my eyes off the horizon and thought only of the audience; and watching them in New Haven, and listening to the cockeyed laughs, it really seemed to me that, the play must be a comedy. I asked Z. But he didn’t answer. He was watching too. X couldn’t be asked. He was in roaring despair. He had thought it Strindberg. Now, forgetting all former designs, I aimed as straight as I could at mass-acclaim — that sea anemone, now open, now shut, according to the tide. And about this sea beast the specialist is nearly as ignorant as the amateur. If it were not so, every director would make his fortune.
On the train going to Boston I compacted the first act into two scenes instead of three. Very businesslike. I made a list of what I thought “good” things and retained them. I dropped out what had bored me most when I had been listening. It ought to have worked. When we played the act in Boston it had been cured of its length; but something had died in it. Afterwards it was always played that way — a dead little act.
Boston was fascinating. Except to the theater I only went out twice in the whole fortnight, because something startling and terrible had happened to the third act. In the Ritz Carlton I sat like a redeyed spider spinning in a web, and lifting my eyes now and then to gaze on Bulfinch’s golden dome and the drama of the indigo skyscraper behind it. Sleep went, food was ignored, exercise didn’t exist. Every hour or so of the morning I would telephone to X in his room below, “Come up and listen to this! It’s wonderful!” When he came he never had any hesitation in shaking his head. I never had any hesitation in accepting it.
“All right. I’ve thought of another way. I’ve thought of a splendid way.” My own words hallucinated me for a few minutes each time after they were written. We were lost, without knowing it.
I rewrote the third act four times, and four times the company nobly accepted the horror of relearning it. The fifth and last time was like this.
We were two days “off" New York. Not from the date itself, but from the journey there. Counting a matinee, we had three more performances in Boston. It was Thursday night. Z came up many hours in the train and ran, dinnerless, into the theater as the curtain rose. There was a lump, undigested, of alien drama in the third act. It could not be obliterated but we had moved it backwards and forwards like a shunting operation. Each time it was moved it had involved a nightmare of hooking and unhooking. The company was going mad relearning the same idea written in five different ways. Now we thought we had it right. Z was telephoned for to give his blessing.
He had left some trouble behind with a cage of canaries in S. N. Behrman’s play in Philadelphia but this he did not mention. He went straight up into the dress circle to sit alone and watch.
At the end of ihe performance, as the audience poured away, X and I waited for him in silence leaning against the rim at the back of the orchestra. He walked towards us, compact with certainty, and shook his head. X, who was wearing his leather eyes that night, burst into action. “She must do it now. Tomorrow’s too late. Here. Now. In a dressing room. I’ll get it typed tonight.” He was urging me down the ramp, taking my arm. Z followed, his coat over his arm, his face sphinx-like.
Unprotesting I was given a foolscap pad and a blunt pencil. (A sharp one would have made no difference.) The creams and pots were swept aside on the table in one of the dressing rooms. The script of tonight, the scripts of the other nights, were propped beside me, slipping and intermingling. The door was torn shut on me in a frenzy ... a frenzy that cried, “Compose!”
The walls were of tissue paper. Two of the company were having a party in the next dressing room. I looked idly round me. After a time I heard a mouse-noise outside the door. I opened it and Z Stood there, his coat still neat on his arm, a protecting sentry, silently ready to miss his train back to New York. I made him catch it. Even so he would arrive home at five in the morning. I sauntered back to the hotel. It was one. X had melted. Some new and terrible urgency had withdrawn him.
Next morning I altered the act again, but without conviction. Once more the company bravely learned it.
Now the towered obelisks of New York were leaning right into Boston. No more time. Impedimenta, bags, boxes, drama, near-drama, guesses a battered script, its living components we all got onto the train. Equally we might have been entrained for Monte Carlo and the gaming tables. Not another word now to be typed or written. We stood or fell by the luck we placed on the red.
During Boston, and up till the last minute of moving, the plays in New York had been falling. At one moment ten had gone and Forty-fifth Street for a day was empty. We had quite a choice of theaters.
My part was over. The spider, stretching its feet, walked out of the web. I was free look at New York now, while carpenters, electricians, upholsteresses, painters, the two scene designers (my particular enemies), thronged and occupied the stage. The designers were married to each other. They looked up details of English housedecoration in a book and were breathtakingly set on their discoveries.
As an example (and I found I had scribbled this down on an envelope — overcome with self-congratulatory surprise) of the new speech I wielded: “Good God — has an old Englishwoman got to argue with a young American about taste! It comes to something! Georgian, Regency, Empire. Boulle, just plain Victorian ... it comes from us! From your old homes in England, Germany, France. If you can’t remember it through your haze of radio, television, supermarkets, and whining sirens — when I come here to tell you, you’ve got to take it!”
During two days I looked at New York (and Fifth Avenue); but I was bound to find the outer world dull. Whomever I met, wherever I went, I was drawn back on a heartstring to the stage door. I hung around X—who had overnight become a man of business. Wonderful Box Office talk fragments filled my ears. Sums in dollars as though for a petroleum gush: arrangements for the Opening Night which had the quality of a coronation. I was not even nervous, but wax-coated. Immune. I could not see how we could succeed, but I stopped thinking about it.
“ Where shall I be sitting?”
X was taken aback. “Do you want a seat?”
“Why not? I’m dining. They’ve got tickets. Won’t I be sitting with them?”
“Sit with your friends! You can bear to!
“Why, where will you be?”
“I? Here. But you won’t find me.”
NOTHING magical happened on the Opening Night. The play was as I had last seen it. To the private judgments going on around me I had no clue. I only remember that a very baleful man got up in our row before the end, carrying his black wideawake hat in his hand. Was he the critic of the New York Times? He went like a surgeon called on to operate.
At the start of the evening X took his beautiful wife to the heating room below the stage. It’s a gray room, where rows and rows of pipes line the walls, cobwebs hang in festoons, and crossed fire axes, scarlet, are pinned to the walls. There s a little table. It’s the electrician’s. By a fallen screwdriver and some wire you can see it’s where he mends the connections.
I had given X a little champagne as an offering. He carried it down there, with two glasses. Here they sat all the evening. They couldn’t hear a word but they could tell the play’s progress, movements, intermissions, by the shuffle and direction of the feet above their heads. (John Gabriel Borkman.) Not a sound from the audience reached them.
For me, up in the audience, the whole huge experience was nearly over. If it should be success or failure I was going away, going home. Success would bring money, and pride to my family. I hoped deeply for it. But nothing could take away what I had felt —bn the theater. Nor the sense of this tremendous America, seen through bedroom windows, but taken in none the less, in that peculiar way which does not need eyes or ears.
After the theater the roses, the insulated moments in the dressing rooms, supper, and bed.
But X sat on with his wife in the heating room. They had been married not many years. Both were very real people. Both had felt, and suffered, and come up the hard way, had known grinding anxieties.
X had once said to me — of the past — “One can always manage.” And into the word he put the extremes, the very edges of how one can “manage.” I don’t know what they talked about. It must have been the past. Or perhaps the children’s futures.
They sat there till three. At three the box office manager, having eaten, let himself back into the theater with his key, having had the reviews of the New York Times and the Herald Tribune read to him over the telephone. My play, they said in effect, was written backwards when it wasn’t written sideways. And in any case static. It was the description of a crab frightened at its feast. He went down to the heating room with the results.
My turn was a few hours later.
The one thing I had flinched at was to read the papers in the morning. I had ordered them all. They lay piled outside my door in the corridor. One can stand bad news in a headline. There’s a kind of stimulation in a blow. But it’s more painful to find one’s way slowly in. I had read so many death sentences since I had been in America I knew no quarter was given. The New York critics were not fond of saying, “There’s a freshness here, or there. But the play’s all the same a failure.” They preferred to decapitate at a blow. Z had suggested he read the papers first and ring me at eight. He did.
“Midway. Less than midway.”
“And that means . . . ?”
“If there was advance booking. . . . But there’s none.”
The play, which had opened on Wednesday, was taken off on Saturday.
I stayed a few days longer, waiting for the ship, at a loose end but strangely happy (visited all the same by moments of guilt for those who had depended on me). It was shocking how the bonds had snapped.
Snapped as when an ardent candidate fails to get his majority at the polls in an election, and suddenly the faith and the flags lie in the dust.
X, who had bought me a wonderful stateroom, saw me to it in the ship at night. We drank champagne, sitting among the gifts of flowers. There was little to be said. Some mystical thing I had seen when I’d written the play — that he had seen when he took it — had broken in our fingers, or perhaps had never after all been there. Too late to talk about it. . . .
The little goldfish had been no traveler.