Stage Confidences Part 9

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"What social conditions exist behind the scenes?"

This fourth question is one that Charles d.i.c.kens would have called an "agriwator," and as it is repeated every now and again, I ask myself where is the curiosity about the theatre, its people, and its life to end? The question is, What social conditions exist behind the scenes?

Now to be quite frank, the first few times this query appeared, I was distinctly aggravated. I said to myself, do these ladies and gentlemen--yes, three males are in this inquiring group--do they think we are a people so apart from all others that we require a separate and distinctly different social code; that we know nothing of the law governing the size, style, and use of the visiting card; that congratulations, condolences, are unknown rites; that invitations, acceptances, and regrets are ancient Hebrew to us, and calls, teas, dinners, and dances are exalted functions far above our comprehension?

And then I read the question again, and saw I was making a ninny of myself--an easy thing to do with the thermometer at ninety-nine in the shade. That it said "behind the scenes," and with a laugh I recalled the little child who had delightedly witnessed her first Christmas pantomime; and being told afterward I was one of the people of the play, she watched and listened eagerly some time before coming and resting a dimpled hand on mine, to ask disappointedly, "Please, does all the actin' people have 'emselves jes' same as any one?"

Poor blue-eyed tot, she had expected at least a few twirls about the room, a few bounds and hand kisses; and here I was "'having" just like any one. So all my mistaken vexation gone, I'll try to make plain our social condition behind the scenes.

In the first place, then, a theatrical company is almost exactly like one large family. Our feeling for one another is generally one of warm good-fellows.h.i.+p. In our manners there is an easy familiarity which we would not dream of using outside of our own little company circle. We are a socially inclined people, communicative, fond of friendly conversation, and hopelessly given over to jokes, or, as we put it, "to guying."

But don't imagine there's any _socialism_ about a theatre that means community of property and a.s.sociation; on the contrary, we enter into the keenest compet.i.tion with one another.

I dare say an outsider, as the non-professional has been termed time out of mind, watching our conduct for a few days and nights, would conclude that, though quite harmless, we are all a little _mad_. For the actor's funny habit of injecting old, old lines of old, old plays into his everyday conversation must be somewhat bewildering to the uninitiated:--

If an elderly, heavy breathing, portly gentleman, lifting his hat to a gentle, dignified little lady, remarks, "Beshrew me, but I do love thee still. Isn't it hot this morning; take this chair." Or if a very slender pop-eyed young comedian, while wiping his brow, says, "Now could I drink hot blood and hold it not a sin," and some one else calmly answers, "You haven't got those words right, and you couldn't drink anything hot to-day without having a fit." Or if two big, stalwart men, meeting in the "entrance," fall suddenly into each other's arms, with a cry of "Camille!" "Armand!" Or if a man enters the greenroom with his hat on, and a half-dozen people call, "Do you take this for an ale-house, that you can enter with such a swagger?" and the hat comes off with a laughing apology. Or if the man with the cane is everlastingly practising "carte and tierce" on somebody, or doing a broadsword fight with any one who has an umbrella. If a woman with her eyes cast down, reading a letter, and some one says, "In maiden meditation, fancy free." If she eats a sandwich at a long rehearsal, and some one instantly begins, "A creature not too bright nor good for human nature's daily food." If she appears in a conspicuously new gown and some one cries, "The riches of the s.h.i.+p have come on sh.o.r.e," ten to one she replies, "A poor thing, but mine own."

These things will look and sound queer and flighty to the outsider, who, not acquainted with the lines or the plays they are from, cannot of course see how aptly some of them adapt themselves to the situation. But this one is plain to all. A young girl, who was a very careless dresser, was trailing along the "entrance" one evening, when behind her the leading man, quoting Juliet, remarked, "'Thou knowest the mask of night is on my cheek,' or I would not dare tell you your petticoat is coming off;" a perfect gale of laughter followed, in which the little sloven joined heartily.

Then one morning, rehearsal being dismissed, I was hurrying away, intending to enjoy a ride on horse-back, when Mr. Davidge, Mr. Daly's "old man," lifting his hat politely, and twisting Macbeth's words very slightly, remarked, "I wish your horse swift and sure of foot, and so I do commend you to its back," and as I laughed, "Macbeth, Act III," we parted in mutual admiration for each other's knowledge of the great play.

The gentlemen are attentive to the ladies' small needs, providing seats when possible, bringing a wrap, a gla.s.s of water, fanning you if you are warm, carrying your long train if it is heavy; but never, never losing the chance to play a joke on you if they can.

There is generally some ringleader of greenroom fun; for most actors are very impatient of "waits" between the scenes, and would rather pa.s.s such time in pranks than in quiet conversation. On one occasion some of the actors had made noise enough to reach the managerial ear, and they were forfeited. The actresses laughed at their discomfiture, and revenge was at once in order. Next night, then, four young men brought bits of calico and threaded needles with them, and when their "wait" came, they all sat quietly in a row and sewed steadily. The sight was so ludicrous the women went off into unbounded laughter, and were in their turn forfeited.

Nothing excuses the use of swear words behind the scenes, and even a very mild indulgence is paid for by a heavy forfeit. One actor, not too popular with the company, used always to be late, and coming into the dressing room, he would fling everything about and knock things over, causing any amount of annoyance to his room-mates. He went on in but one act, the third, and the lateness of the hour made his lack of business prompt.i.tude the more marked. A joke was, of course, in order, and a practical joke at that.

One evening he was extra late, and that was the opportunity of the joking room-mates. They carefully dropped some powerful, strong-holding gum into the heels of his patent leather shoes, and had barely put them in place, when the ever-late actor was heard coming on the run down the pa.s.sage. In he tore, flinging things right and left, overturning make-ups, and knocking down precious silk hats. He grabbed his shoes, jammed his foot into one, scowled and exclaimed disgustedly, "What the deuce! there's something in this shoe. Bah," he went on, "and in this one, too!"

"Take them off and shake 'em," suggested the dropper of the gum.

"No time," growled the victim; "I'll get docked if I'm a second late.

But these confounded things feel damp in the heels," and he kicked and stamped viciously.

"Damp in the heels?" murmured the guilty one, interrogatively. "In the heels, said you? What a very odd place for dampness to acc.u.mulate. Now, personally, I find my heels are dry and smooth and hard, like--like a china nest-egg, don't you know; but _damp heels_, it doesn't sound right, and it must feel very uncomfortable. I don't wonder you kick!"

And another broke in with: "I say, old fellow, that was my India ink you spoiled then. But never mind, I suppose your heels trouble you," then asked earnestly, as the victim hastily patted a grey beard into place, "Is that good gum you have there? Will it hold that beard securely?"

"Will it hold? It's the strongest gum ever made, it can hold a horse. I have hard work to get it to dissolve nights with pure alcohol." This while the guilty one was writhing with that malicious joy known in its fulness to the practical joker alone.

[Ill.u.s.tration: _Clara Morris in "The Sphinx"_]

The victim, rus.h.i.+ng from the room, reached the stage at the very moment his cue was spoken, and made his entrance so short of breath he could scarcely speak. The act was very long, the gum in his shoes dried nicely, the curtain fell. He went below to his room to dress for the street. He tried to remove and lay aside his patent leathers. Alas, alas! he laid aside instead his manners, his temper, his self-restraint, his self-respect. The gum proved itself worthy of his praise; it stuck, it held. The shoes were willing to come off on one condition only,--that they brought both sock and skin with them.

Three men, with tears in their eyes, had pencils, and kept tally of his remarks as he danced about after each frantic tug at a glued-on shoe.

One took down every wounding, malicious word. A second caught and preserved every defamatory word. While the third and busiest one secured every profane word that fell from his enraged lips.

Finally he poured the contents of the alcohol bottle into his shoes and, swearing like a madman, waited for the gum to soften. And the manager, who was not deaf, proved that his heart was harder than the best gum and could not be softened at all. And to this day no member of the company knows how much of the victim's salary was left to him that week after forfeits for bad words were all paid up. But some good came from the affair, for the actor was never again so late in arriving as not to have time to look into his shoes for any strange substance possibly lurking there.

Personally, I detest the practical joke, but I have, alas! never been above enjoying my share of the greenroom fun. Some members of Mr. Daly's company were very stately and dignified, and he would have been glad had we all been like them. But there were others who would have had fun with the tombs of the Egyptian kings, and who could wring smiles from a graven image. Mr. Daly forfeited at last so recklessly, that either the brakes had to be put upon our fun or some one would have to do picket duty. The restless element had a wait of an entire long act in one play, and among those who waited was a tiny little bit of an old, old man. He wore rags in his "part," and on the seat of his trousers was an enormous red patch. He had been asked to stand guard in the greenroom door, and nothing loath, he only argued deprecatingly: "You'll all get caught, I'm afraid. You see, Mr. Daly's so sharp, if I cough, he'll hear me, too, and will understand. If I signal, he'll see me, and we'll all get forfeited together."

For a moment we were silently cast down. Then I rose to the occasion beautifully. I took the wee little man and placed him in the greenroom doorway, leaning with his back against the door-jamb. When he saw Mr.

Daly in the distance, he simply was to turn his bright red patch _toward_ us--we would do the rest.

It was a glorious success. We kept an eye on the picket, and when the red patch danger signal was shown, silence fell upon the room. Forfeits ceased for a long time. Of course we paid our watchman for his services--paid him in pies. He had a depraved pa.s.sion for bakers' pies, which he would not cut into portions, because he said it spoiled their flavour--he preferred working his way through them; and that small grey face seen near the centre of a mince pie whose rim was closing gently about his ears was a sight to make a supreme justice smile.

But our evil course was almost run: our little pie-eater, who was just a touch odd, or what people call "queer," on Thanksgiving Day permitted himself to be treated by so many drivers of pie wagons that at night he was tearful and confused, and though he watched faithfully for the coming of Mr. Daly, while we laughingly listened to a positively criminal parody on "The Bells," watched for and saw him in ample time, he, alas! confusedly turned his red patch the wrong way, and we, every one, came to grief and forfeiture in consequence.

Obliging people, generous, ever ready to give a helping hand. Behind the scenes, then, our social condition, I may say, is one of good-mannered informality, of jollity tempered by respect and genuine good-fellows.h.i.+p.



Nothing in my autobiography seems to have aroused so much comment, so much surprise, as my admission that I prayed in moments of great distress or anxiety, even when in the theatre.

One man writes that he never knew before that there was such a thing as a "praying actress." Poor fellow, one can't help feeling there's lots of other things he doesn't know; and though I wish to break the news as gently as possible, I have to inform him that I am not a _rara avis_, that many actresses pray; indeed, the woods are full of us, so to speak.

One very old gentleman finds this habit of prayer "commendable and sweet," but generally there seems to be a feeling of amazement that I should dare, as it were, to bring the profession of acting to the attention of our Lord; and yet we are authorized to pray, "Direct us, O Lord, in _all our doings_, and further us with thy continual help, that in all our work we may glorify thy holy name."

It is not the work, but the motive, the spirit that actuates the work; whether embroidering stoles, sawing wood, was.h.i.+ng dishes, or acting, if it is done honestly, for the glory of the holy name, why may one not pray for divine help?

One lady, who, poor soul, should have been born two or three hundred years ago, when her narrowness would have been more natural, is shocked, almost indignant; and though she is good enough to say she does not accuse me of "intentional sacrilege," still, addressing a prayer to G.o.d from a theatre is nothing less in her eyes than profanation. "For," says she, "you know we must only seek G.o.d in His sanctuary, the church."

Goodness, mercy! in that case some thousands of us would become heathen if we never found G.o.d save inside of a church.

Does this poor lady not read her Bible, then? Has she not heard the psalmist's cry: "If I ascend up into heaven, thou art there. If I make my bed in h.e.l.l, behold, thou art there also; whither shall I flee from thy presence?"

Surely, there are a great many places besides the church between heaven and h.e.l.l, and even in a theatre we may not flee from His presence.

But lest the young girl writers should feel abashed over their expressions of surprise at my conduct, I will show them what good company they have had.

A good many years ago a certain famous scholar and preacher of New York City called upon me one day. I was absent, attending rehearsal. The creed of his denomination was particularly objectionable to me, but having wandered into the big stone edifice on Fourth Avenue one Sunday, I was so charmed by his clear reasoning, his eloquence, and, above all, by his evident sincerity, that I continued to go there Sunday after Sunday.

In my absence he held converse with my mother as to his regret at missing me, as to the condition of the weather, as to the age, attainments, and breed of my small dog, who had apparently been seized with a burning desire to get into his lap. We afterward found she only wished to rescue her sweet cracker, which he sat upon.

In his absent-minded way he then fell into a long silence, his handsome, scholarly head drooping forward. Finally he sighed and remarked:--

"She is an actress, your daughter?"

My mother, with lifted brows, made surprised a.s.sent.

"Yes, yes," he went on gently, "an actress, surely, for I see my paper commends her work. I have noted her presence in our congregation, and her intelligence." (I never sleep in the daytime.) "Our ladies like her, too; m-m, an actress, and yet takes an interest in her soul's salvation; wonderful! I--I don't understand! no, I don't understand!" A speech which did little to endear its maker to the actress's mother, I'm afraid.

See how narrowing are some creeds. This reverend gentleman was personally gentle, kind, considerate, and naturally just; yet, knowing no actor's life, never having seen the inside of a playhouse, he, without hesitation, denounced the theatre and declared it the gate of h.e.l.l.

Stage Confidences Part 9

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Stage Confidences Part 9 summary

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