Some Lessons From The School Of Morals by William Dean Howells
Some Lessons From The School Of Moral
Any study of suburban life would be very imperfect without some glance at that larger part of it which is spent in the painful pursuit of pleasures such as are offered at the ordinary places of public amusement; and for this reason I excuse myself for rehearsing certain impressions here which are not more directly suburban, to say the least, than those recounted in the foregoing chapter.
It became, shortly after life in Charlesbridge began, a question whether any entertainment that Boston could offer were worth the trouble of going to it, or, still worse, coming from it; for if it was misery to hurry from tea to catch the inward horse-car at the head of the street, what sullen lexicon will afford a name for the experience of getting home again by the last car out from the city? You have watched the clock much more closely than the stage during the last act, and have left your play incomplete by its final marriage or death, and have rushed up to Bowdoin Square, where you achieve a standing place in the car, and, utterly spent as you are with the enjoyment of the evening, you endure for the next hour all that is horrible in riding or walking. At the end of this time you declare that you will never go to the theatre again; and after years of suffering you come at last to keep your word.
While yet, however, in the state of formation as regards this resolution, I went frequently to the theatre–or school of morals, as its friends have humorously called it. I will not say whether any desired amelioration took place or not in my own morals through the agency of the stage; but if not enlightened and refined by everything I saw there, I sometimes was certainly very much surprised. Now that I go no more, or very, very rarely, I avail myself of the resulting leisure to set down, for the instruction of posterity, some account of performances I witnessed in the years 1868-69, which I am persuaded will grow all the more curious, if not incredible, with the lapse of time.
There is this satisfaction in living, namely, that whatever we do will one day wear an air of picturesqueness and romance, and will win the fancy of people coming after us. This stupid and commonplace present shall yet appear the fascinating past; and is it not a pleasure to think how our rogues of descendants–who are to enjoy us aesthetically–will be taken in with us, when they read, in the files of old newspapers, of the quantity of entertainment offered us at the theatres during the years mentioned, and judge us by it? I imagine them two hundred years hence looking back at us, and sighing, “Ah! there was a touch of the old Greek life in those Athenians! How they loved the drama in the jolly Boston of that day! That was the golden age of the theatre: in the winter of 1868-69, they had dramatic performances in seven places, of every degree of excellence, and the managers coined money.” As we always figure our ancestors going to and from church, they will probably figure us thronging the doors of theatres, and no doubt there will be some historical gossiper among them to sketch a Boston audience in 1869, with all our famous poets and politicians grouped together in the orchestra seats, and several now dead introduced with the pleasant inaccuracy and uncertainty of historical gossipers. “On this night, when the beautiful Tostee reappeared, the whole house rose to greet her. If Mr. Alcott was on one of his winter visits to Boston, no doubt he stepped in from the Marlborough House,–it was a famous temperance hotel, then in the height of its repute,–not only to welcome back the great actress, but to enjoy a chat between the acts with his many friends. Here, doubtless, was seen the broad forehead of Webster; there the courtly Everett, conversing in studied tones with the gifted So-and-so. Did not the lovely Such-a-one grace the evening with her presence? The brilliant and versatile Edmund Kirke was dead; but the humorous Artemas Ward and his friend Nasby may have attracted many eyes, having come hither at the close of their lectures, to testify their love of the beautiful in nature and art; while, perhaps, Mr. Sumner, in the intervals of state cares, relaxed into the enjoyment,” etc. “Vous voyez bien le tableau!”
That far-off posterity, learning that all our theatres are filled every night, will never understand but we were a theatre-going people in the sense that it is the highest fashion to be seen at the play; and yet we are sensible that it is not so, and that the Boston which makes itself known in civilization–in letters, politics, reform–goes as little to the theatre as fashionable Boston.
The stage is not an Institution with us, I should say; yet it affords recreation to a very large and increasing number of persons, and while it would be easy to over-estimate its influence for good or evil even with these, there is no doubt that the stage, if not the drama, is popular. Fortunately an inquiry like this into a now waning taste in theatricals concerns the fact rather than the effect of the taste otherwise the task might become indefinitely hard alike for writer and for reader. No one can lay his hand on his heart, and declare that he is the worse for having seen “La Belle Helene,” for example, or say more than that it is a thing which ought not to be seen by any one else; yet I suppose there is no one ready to deny that “La Belle Helene” was the motive of those performances that have most pleased the most people during recent years. There was something fascinating in the circumstances and auspices under which the united Irma and Tostee troupes appeared in Boston–_opera bouffe_ led gayly forward by _finance bouffe_, and suggesting Erie shares by its watered music and morals; but there is no doubt that Tostee’s grand reception was owing mainly to the personal favor which she enjoyed here and which we do not vouchsafe to every one. Ristori did not win it; we did our duty by her, following her carefully with the libretto, and in her most intense effects turning the leaves of a thousand pamphlets with a rustle that must have shattered every delicate nerve in her; but we were always cold to her greatness. It was not for Tostees singing, which was but a little thing in itself; it was not for her beauty, for that was no more than a reminiscence, if it was not always an illusion; was it because she rendered the spirit of M. Offenbach’s operas so perfectly, that we liked her so much? “Ah, that movement!” cried an enthusiast, “that swing, that–that–wriggle!” She was undoubtedly a great actress, full of subtle surprises, and with an audacious appearance of unconsciousness in those exigencies where consciousness would summon the police–or should; she was so near, yet so far from, the worst that could be intended; in tones, in gestures, in attitudes, she was to the libretto just as the music was, now making it appear insolently and unjustly coarse, now feebly inadequate in its explicit immodesty.
To see this famous lady in “La Grande Duchesse” or “La Belle Helene” was an experience never to be forgotten, and certainly not to be described. The former opera has undoubtedly its proper and blameless charm. There is something pretty and arch in the notion of the Duchess’s falling in love with the impregnably faithful and innocent Fritz; and the extravagance of the whole, with the satire upon the typical little German court, is delightful. But “La Belle Helene” is a wittier play than “La Grande Duchesse,” and it is the vividest expression of the spirit of _opera bouffe_. It is full of such lively mockeries as that of Helen when she gazes upon the picture of Leda and the Swan: “J’aime a me recueiller devant ce tableau de famille! Mon pere, ma mere, les voici tous les deux! O mon pere, tourne vers ton enfant un bec favorable!”–or of Paris when he represses the zeal of Calchas, who desires to present him at once to Helen: “Soit! mais sans lui dire qui je suis;–je desire garder le plus strict incognito, jusq’au moment ou la situation sera favorable a un coup de theatre.” But it must be owned that our audiences seemed not to take much pleasure in these and other witticisms, though they obliged Mademoiselle Tostee to sing “Un Mari sage” three times, with all those actions and postures which seem incredible the moment they have ceased. They possibly understood this song no better than the strokes of wit, and encored it merely for the music’s sake. The effect was, nevertheless, unfortunate, and calculated to give those French ladies but a bad opinion of our morals. How could they comprehend that the taste was, like themselves, imported, and that its indulgence here did not characterize us? It was only in appearance that, while we did not enjoy the wit we delighted in the coarseness. And how coarse this travesty of the old fable mainly is! That priest Calchas, with his unspeakable snicker his avarice, his infidelity, his hypocrisy, is alone infamy enough to provoke the destruction of a city. Then that scene interrupted by Menelaus! It is indisputably witty, and since all those people are so purely creatures of fable, and dwell so entirely in an unmoral atmosphere, it appears as absurd to blame it as the murders in a pantomime. To be sure there is something about murder, some inherent grace or refinement perhaps, that makes its actual representation upon the stage more tolerable than the most diffident suggestion of adultery. Not that “La Belle Helene” is open to the reproach of over-delicacy in this scene, or any other, for the matter of that, though there is a strain of real poetry in the conception of this whole episode of Helen’s intention to pass all Paris’s love-making off upon herself for a dream,–poetry such as might have been inspired by a muse that had taken too much nectar. There is excellent character, also, as well as caricature in the drama; not only Calchas is admirably done, but Agamemnon, and Achilles, and Helen, and Menelaus, “pas un mari ordinaire … un mari epique,”–and the burlesque is good of its kind. It is artistic, as it seems French dramatic effort must almost necessarily be. It could scarcely be called the fault of the _opera bouffe_ that the English burlesque should have come of its success; nor could the public blame it for the great favor the burlesque won in those far-off winters, if indeed the public wishes to bestow blame for this. No one, however, could see one of these curious travesties without being reminded, in an awkward way, of the _morale_ of the _opera bouffe_, and of the _personnel_–as I may say–of “The Black Crook,” “The White Fawn,” and the “Devil’s Auction.” There was the same intention of merriment at the cost of what may be called the marital prejudices, though it cannot be claimed that the wit was the same as in “La Belle Helene;” there was the same physical unreserve as in the ballets of a former season; while in its dramatic form the burlesque discovered very marked parental traits.
This English burlesque, this child of M. Offenbach’s genius, and the now somewhat faded spectacular muse, flourished at the time of which I write in three of our seven theatres for months,–five, from the highest to the lowest being in turn open to it,–and had begun, in a tentative way, to invade the deserted stage even so long ago as the previous summer; and I have sometimes flattered myself that it was my fortune to witness the first exhibition of its most characteristic feature in a theatre into which I wandered one sultry night because it was the nearest theatre. They were giving a play called “The Three Fast Men,” which had a moral of such powerful virtue that it ought to have reformed everybody in the neighborhood. Three ladies being in love with the three fast men, and resolved to win them back to regular hours and the paths of sobriety by every device of the female heart, dress themselves in men’s clothes,–such is the subtlety of the female heart in the bosoms of modern young ladies of fashion,–and follow their lovers about from one haunt of dissipation to another and become themselves exemplarily vicious,–drunkards, gamblers, and the like. The first lady, who was a star in her lowly orbit, was very great in all her different _roles_, appearing now as a sailor with the hornpipe of his calling, now as an organ-grinder, and now as a dissolute young gentleman,–whatever was the exigency of good morals. The dramatist seemed to have had an eye to her peculiar capabilities, and to have expressly invented edifying characters and situations that her talents might enforce them. The second young lady had also a personal didactic gift, rivaling, and even surpassing in some respects, that of the star; and was very rowdy indeed. In due time the devoted conduct of the young ladies has its just effect: the three fast men begin to reflect upon the folly of their wild courses; and at this point the dramatist delivers his great stroke. The first lady gives a _soiree dansante et chantante_, and the three fast men have invitations. The guests seat themselves, as at a fashionable party, in a semicircle, and the gayety of the evening begins with conundrums and playing upon the banjo; the gentlemen are in their morning-coats, and the ladies in a display of hosiery which is now no longer surprising, and which need not have been mentioned at all except for the fact that, in the case of the first lady, it seemed not to have been freshly put on for that party. In this instance an element comical beyond intention was present, in three young gentlemen, an amateur musical trio, who had kindly consented to sing their favorite song of “The Rolling Zuyder Zee,” as they now kindly did, with flushed faces, unmanageable hands, and much repetition of
Ing Zuyder Zee,
Then the turn of the three guardian angels of the fast men being come again they get up and dance each one a breakdown which seems to establish their lovers (now at last in the secret of the generous ruse played upon them) firmly in their resolution to lead a better life. They are in nowise shaken from it by the displeasure which soon shows itself in the manner of the first and second ladies. The former is greatest in the so-called Protean parts of the play, and is obscured somewhat by the dancing of the latter; but she has a daughter who now comes on and sings a song. The pensive occasion, the favorable mood of the audience, the sympathetic attitude of the players, invite her to sing “The Maiden’s Prayer,” and so we have “The Maiden’s Prayer.” We may be a low set, and the song may be affected and insipid enough, but the purity of its intention touches, and the little girl is vehemently applauded. She is such a pretty child with her innocent face, and her artless white dress, and blue ribbons to her waist and hair, that we will have her back again; whereupon she runs out upon the stage, strikes up a rowdy, rowdy air, dances a shocking little dance, and vanishes from the dismayed vision, leaving us a considerably lower set than we were at first, and glad of our lowness. This is the second lady’s own ground, however, and now she comes out–in a way that banishes far from our fickle minds all thoughts of the first lady and her mistaken child–with a medley of singing and dancing, a bit of breakdown, of cancan, of jig, a bit of “Le Sabre de mon Pere,” and of all memorable slang songs, given with the most grotesque and clownish spirit that ever inspired a woman. Each member of the company follows in his or her _pas seul_, and then they all dance together to the plain confusion of the amateur trio, whose eyes roll like so many Zuyder Zees, as they sit lonely and motionless in the midst. All stiffness and formality are overcome. The evening party in fact disappears entirely, and we are suffered to see the artists in their moments of social relaxation sitting as it were around the theatrical fireside. They appear to forget us altogether; they exchange winks, and nods, and jests of quite personal application; they call each other by name, by their Christian names, their nicknames. It is not an evening party, it is a family party, and the suggestion of home enjoyment completes the reformation of the three fast men. We see them marry the three fast women before we leave the house.
On another occasion, two suburban friends of the drama beheld a more explicit precursor of the coming burlesque at one of the minor theatres last summer. The great actress whom they had come to see on another scene was ill, and in their disappointment they embraced the hope of entertainment offered them at the smaller playhouse. The drama itself was neither here nor there as to intent, but the public appetite or the manager’s conception of it–for I am by no means sure that this whole business was not a misunderstanding–had exacted that the actresses should appear in so much stocking, and so little else, that it was a horror to look upon them. There was no such exigency of dialogue, situation, or character as asked the indecorum, and the effect upon the unprepared spectator was all the more stupefying from the fact that most of the ladies were not dancers, and had not countenances that consorted with impropriety. Their faces had merely the conventional Yankee sharpness and wanness of feature, and such difference of air and character as should say for one and another, shop-girl, shoe-binder, seamstress; and it seemed an absurdity and an injustice to refer to them in any way the disclosures of the ruthlessly scant drapery. A grotesque fancy would sport with their identity: “Did not this or that one write poetry for her local newspaper?” so much she looked the average culture and crudeness, and when such a one, coldly yielding to the manager’s ideas of the public taste, stretched herself on a green baize bank with her feet towards us, or did a similar grossness, it was hard to keep from crying aloud in protest, that she need not do it; that nobody really expected or wanted it of her. Nobody? Alas! there were people there–poor souls who had the appearance of coming every night–who plainly did expect it, and who were loud in their applauses of the chief actress. This was a young person of a powerful physical expression, quite unlike the rest,–who were dyspeptic and consumptive in the range of their charms,–and she triumphed and wantoned through the scenes with a fierce excess of animal vigor. She was all stocking, as one may say, being habited to represent a prince; she had a raucous voice, an insolent twist of the mouth, and a terrible trick of defying her enemies by standing erect, chin up, hand on hip, and right foot advanced, patting the floor. It was impossible, even in the orchestra seats, to look at her in this attitude and not shrink before her; and on the stage she visibly tyrannized over the invalid sisterhood with her full-blown fascinations. These unhappy girls personated, with a pathetic effect not to be described, such arch and fantastic creations of the poet’s mind as Bewitchingcreature and Exquisitelittlepet, and the play was a kind of fairy burlesque in rhyme, of the most melancholy stupidity that ever was. Yet there was something very comical in the conditions of its performance, and in the possibility that public and manager were playing at cross- purposes. There we were in the pit, an assemblage of hard-working Yankees of decently moral lives and simple traditions, country-bred many of us and of plebeian stock and training, vulgar enough perhaps, but probably not depraved, and, excepting the first lady’s friends, certainly not educated to the critical enjoyment of such spectacles; and there on the stage were those mistaken women, in such sad variety of boniness and flabbiness as I have tried to hint, addressing their pitiable exposure to a supposed vileness in us, and wrenching from all original intent the innocent dullness of the drama, which for the most part could have been as well played in walking-dresses, to say the least.
The scene was not less amusing, as regarded the audiences, the ensuing winter, when the English burlesque troupes which London sent us, arrived; but it was not quite so pathetic as regarded the performers. Of their beauty and their abandon, the historical gossiper, whom I descry far down the future, waiting to refer to me as “A scandalous writer of the period,” shall learn very little to his purpose of warming his sketch with a color from mine. But I hope I may describe these ladies as very pretty, very blonde, and very unscrupulously clever, and still disappoint the historical gossiper. They seemed in all cases to be English; no Yankee faces, voices, or accents were to be detected among them. Where they were associated with people of another race, as happened with one troupe, the advantage of beauty was upon the Anglo-Saxon side, while that of some small shreds of propriety was with the Latins. These appeared at times almost modest, perhaps because they were the conventional _ballerine_, and wore the old-fashioned ballet-skirt with its volumed gauze,–a coyness which the Englishry had greatly modified, through an exigency of the burlesque,–perhaps because indecorum seems, like blasphemy and untruth, somehow more graceful and becoming in southern than in northern races.
As for the burlesques themselves, they were nothing, the performers personally everything. M. Offenbach had opened Lempriere’s Dictionary to the authors with “La Belle Helene,” and there, was commonly a flimsy raveling of parodied myth, that held together the different dances and songs, though sometimes it was a novel or an opera burlesqued; but there was always a song and always a dance for each lady, song and dance being equally slangy, and depending for their effect mainly upon the natural or simulated personal charms of the performer.
It was also an indispensable condition of the burlesque’s success, that the characters should be reversed in their representation,–that the men’s _roles_ should be played by women, and that at least one female part should be done by a man. It must be owned that the fun all came from this character, the ladies being too much occupied with the more serious business of bewitching us with their pretty figures to be very amusing; whereas this wholesome man and brother, with his blonde wig, his _panier_, his dainty feminine simperings and languishings, his falsetto tones, and his general air of extreme fashion, was always exceedingly droll. He was the saving grace of these stupid plays; and I cannot help thinking that the _cancan_, as danced, in “Ivanhoe,” by Isaac of York and the masculine Rebecca, was a moral spectacle; it was the _cancan_ made forever absurd and harmless. But otherwise, the burlesques were as little cheerful as profitable. The playwrights who had adapted them to the American stage–for they were all of English authorship–had been good enough to throw in some political allusions which were supposed to be effective with us, but which it was sad to see received with apathy. It was conceivable from a certain air with which the actors delivered these, that they were in the habit of stirring London audiences greatly with like strokes of satire; but except where Rebecca offered a bottle of Medford rum to Cedric the Saxon, who appeared in the figure of ex-President Johnson, they had no effect upon us. We were cold, very cold, to suggestions of Mr. Reverdy Johnson’s now historical speech- making and dining; General Butler’s spoons moved us just a little; at the name of Grant we roared and stamped, of course, though in a perfectly mechanical fashion, and without thought of any meaning offered us; those lovely women might have coupled the hero’s name with whatever insult they chose, and still his name would have made us cheer them. We seemed not to care for points that were intended to flatter us nationally. I am not aware that anybody signified consciousness when the burlesque supported our side of the Alabama controversy, or acknowledged the self-devotion with which a threat that England should be made to pay was delivered by these English performers. With an equal impassiveness we greeted allusions to Erie shares and to the late Mr. Fiske.
The burlesque chiefly betrayed its descent from the spectacular ballet in its undressing; but that ballet, while it demanded personal exposure, had something very observable in its scenic splendors, and all that marching and processioning in it was rather pretty; while in the burlesque there seemed nothing of innocent intent. No matter what the plot, it led always to a final great scene of breakdown,–which was doubtless most impressive in that particular burlesque where this scene represented the infernal world, and the ladies gave the dances of the country with a happy conception of the deportment of lost souls. There, after some vague and inconsequent dialogue, the wit springing from a perennial source of humor (not to specify the violation of the seventh commandment), the dancing commenced, each performer beginning with the Walk-round of the negro minstrels, rendering its grotesqueness with a wonderful frankness of movement, and then plunging into the mysteries of her dance with a kind of infuriate grace and a fierce delight very curious to look upon. I am aware of the historical gossiper still on the alert for me, and I dare not say how sketchily these ladies were dressed or indeed, more than that they were dressed to resemble circus-riders of the other sex, but as to their own deceived nobody,–possibly did not intend deceit. One of them was so good a player that it seemed needless for her to go so far as she did in the dance; but she spared herself nothing, and it remained for her merely stalwart friends to surpass her, if possible. This inspired each who succeeded her to wantoner excesses, to wilder insolences of hose, to fiercer bravadoes of corsage; while those not dancing responded to the sentiment of the music by singing shrill glees in tune with it, clapping their hands, and patting Juba, as the act is called,–a peculiarly graceful and modest thing in woman. The frenzy grew with every moment, and, as in another Vision of Sin,–
“Then they started from their places,
Moved with violence, changed in hue,
Caught each other with wild grimaces,
Half-invisible to the view,
Wheeling with precipitate paces
To the melody, till they flew,
Hair, and eyes, and limbs, and faces
Twisted hard in fierce embraces,
Like to Furies, like to Graces,”–
with an occasional exchange of cuffs and kicks perfectly human. The spectator found now himself and now the scene incredible, and indeed they were hardly conceivable in relation to each other. A melancholy sense of the absurdity, of the incongruity, of the whole absorbed at last even a sense of the indecency. The audience was much the same in appearance as other audiences, witnessing like displays at the other theatres, and did not differ greatly from the usual theatrical house. Not so much fashion smiled upon the efforts of these young ladies, as upon the _cancan_ of the Signorina Morlacchi a winter earlier; but there was a most fair appearance of honest-looking, handsomely dressed men and women; and you could pick out, all over the parquet, faces of one descent from the deaconship, which you wondered were not afraid to behold one another there. The truth is, we spectators, like the performers themselves, lacked that tradition of error, of transgression, which casts its romance about the people of a lighter race. We had not yet set off one corner of the Common for a Jardin Mabille; we had not even the concert-cellars of the gay and elegant New Yorker; and nothing, really, had happened in Boston to educate us to this new taste in theatricals, since the fair Quakers felt moved to testify in the streets and churches against our spiritual nakedness. Yet it was to be noted with regret that our innocence, our respectability, had no restraining influence upon the performance; and the fatuity of the hope cherished by some courageous people, that the presence of virtuous persons would reform the stage, was but too painfully evident. The doubt whether they were not nearer right who have denounced the theatre as essentially and incorrigibly bad would force itself upon the mind, though there was a little comfort in the thought that, if virtue had been actually allowed to frown upon these burlesques, the burlesques might have been abashed into propriety. The caressing arm of the law was cast very tenderly about the performers, and in the only case where a spectator presumed to hiss,–it was at a _pas seul_ of the indescribable,–a policeman descended upon him, and with the succor of two friends of the free ballet, rent him from his place, and triumphed forth with him. Here was an end of ungenial criticism; we all applauded zealously after that.
The peculiar character of the drama to which they devoted themselves had produced, in these ladies, some effects doubtless more interesting than profitable to observe. One of them, whose unhappiness it was to take the part of _soubrette_ in the Laughable Commedietta preceding the burlesque, was so ill at ease in drapery, so full of awkward jerks and twitches, that she seemed quite another being when she came on later as a radiant young gentleman in pink silk hose, and nothing of feminine modesty in her dress excepting the very low corsage. A strange and compassionable satisfaction beamed from her face; it was evident that this sad business was the poor thing’s _forte_. In another company was a lady who had conquered all the easy attitudes of young men of the second or third fashion, and who must have been at something of a loss to identify herself when personating a woman off the stage. But Nature asserted herself in a way that gave a curious and scarcely explicable shock in the case of that dancer whose impudent song required the action of fondling a child, and who rendered the passage with an instinctive tenderness and grace, all the more pathetic for the profaning boldness of her super masculine dress or undress. Commonly, however, the members of these burlesque troupes, though they were not like men, were in most things as unlike women, and seemed creatures of a kind of alien sex, parodying both. It was certainly a shocking thing to look at them with their horrible prettiness, their archness in which was no charm, their grace which put to shame. Yet whoever beheld these burlesque sisters, must have fallen into perplexing question in his own mind as to whose was the wrong involved. It was not the fault of the public–all of us felt that: was it the fault of the hard-working sisterhood, bred to this as to any other business, and not necessarily conscious of the indecorum which pains my reader,–obliged to please somehow, and aiming, doubtless, at nothing but applause? “La Belle Helene” suggests the only reasonable explanation: _”C’est la fatalite_.”