Life on the Stage
|Clara Morris (1848-1925) began her New York theatre career playing the lead role of Anne Sylvester in a dramatisation of Wilkie Collins's play Man and Wife. Her autobiography Life on the Stage gives an account of getting the part and her debut on the New York stage at Augustin Daly's Fifth Avenue Theatre. The play opened on 13 September 1870 and ran for ten weeks. There is nothing about Wilkie Collins himself, whom she probably never met and the version of Man and Wife produced by Daly was his own. Daly and Collins later became close and Daly staged The New Magdalen with Collins's help in 1873. Later Collins presented Daly with the manuscript of his first unpublished novel Iolani which remained unidentified until the 1990s. Clara Morris's account gives a vivid insight into the acting community in New York in 1870. This long extract, is the whole of chapters 33 and 34 and the first paragraphs of chapter 35. Morris is reported to have played other parts in Collins's plays - including Mercy Merrick in The New Magdalen at the Union Square Theatre in 1882. She makes no mention of these other roles.
THE original Fifth Avenue Theatre was a tiny affair, with but small accommodation for the public and none at all for the actor, unless he burrowed for it beneath the building; and indeed the deep, long basement was wonderfully like a rabbit-warren, with all its net-work of narrow passageways, teeming with life and action. The atmosphere down there was dreadful — I usually prefer using a small word instead of a large one, but it would be nonsense to speak of the "air" in that green-room, because there was none. Atmosphere was there stagnant, heavy, dead, with not even an electric fan to stir it up occasionally, and the whole place was filled with the musty, mouldy odor that always arises from carpets spread in sunless, airless rooms. Gas, too, burned in every tiny room, in every narrow slip of passageway, and though it was all immaculately clean, it was still wonderful how human beings endured so many hours imprisonment there.
It was on a very hot September morning that the company was called together in the green-room of the Fifth Avenue Theatre. This first "call" of the season is generally given over to greetings after the vacation, to chattings, to introductions, to welcomes, and a final distribution of parts in the first play, and a notification to be on hand promptly next morning for work. With a heavily throbbing heart I prepared for the dreaded first meeting with all these strange people, and when I grew fairly choky, I would say to myself, "What nonsense, Mr. Daly or the prompter will be there, and in the general introductions you will, of course, be included, and after that you will be all right — a smile, a bow, or a kind word will cost no more in a New York theatre than in any other one," which goes to prove what a very ignorant young person I was then. In looking back to that time, I often drop into the habit of considering myself as another person, and sometimes I am sorry for the girl of that day, and say: "You poor thing, if you had only known!" or again, "What wasted trust — what needless sorrow, too!" But I was then like the romping, trusting, all-loving puppy-dog who believes every living being his friend, until a kick or a blow convinces him to the contrary.
I had two dresses, neither one really fit for the occasion, but I put on the best one, braided my mass of hair into the then proper chatelaine braids, and found comfort in them, and encouragement in a fresh, well-fitting pair of gloves. At half-past ten o’clock I entered the underground green-room. Two young men were there before me. I slightly bent my head, and one responded doubtfully, but the other, with the blindness of stone in his eyes, bowed not at all. I sat down in a corner — the stranger always seeks a comer; can that be an instinct, a survival from the time when a tribe fell upon the stranger, and with the aid of clubs informed him of their strength and power? Anyway, as I said, I sat in a corner. There was the carpet, the great mirror, the cushioned bench running clear around the room, and that was all — oh, no! on the wall, of course, there hung that shallow, glass-covered frame or cabinet called, variously, "the call-board," the "call-case," or even the "Callbox." It is the official voice of the manager — when the "call-case" commands, all obey. There, in writing, one finds the orders for next day’s rehearsal; there one finds the cast of characters in the plays; there, too, the requests for the company’s aid, on such a day, for such a charity benefit appears. Ah, a great institution is the "call-case," being the manager’s voice, but not his ears, which is both a comfort and an advantage at times to all concerned.
That day I glanced at it; it was empty. The first call and cast of the season would be put up presently. I wondered how many disappointments it would hold for me. Then there was a rustle of skirts, a tapping of heels, a young woman gayly dressed rushed in, a smile all ready for — oh! she nodded briefly to the young men, then she saw me — she looked full at me. The puppy-dog trust arose in me, I was a stranger, she was going to bow, perhaps smile! Oh, how thankful I am that I was stopped in time, before I had betrayed that belief to her. Her face hardened, her eyes leisurely scorched up and down my poor linen gown, then she turned frowningly to the lass, patted her bustle into shape, and flounced out again. I felt as though I had received a blow. Then voices, loudly laughing male voices, approached, and three men came in, holding their hats and mopping their faces. They "bah-Joved" a good deal, and one, big and noisy, with a young face topped with perfect baldness, bowed to me courteously, the others did not see me.
Where, I thought, was the manager all this time? Then more laughter, and back came my flouncy young woman and two of her kind with her; pretty, finely dressed, badly bred women, followed by one whom I knew instantly. One I had heard much of, one to whom I had a letter of introduction — I have it still, by the way. She was gray even then, plain of feature, but sweet of voice and very gentle of manner. I lifted my head higher. Of course she would not know me from sole-leather, but she would see I was a stranger and forlornly alone, and besides, being already secure in her position in the company — she was its oldest member — and therefore, in a certain measure, a hostess, and as my mere presence in the greenroom showed I was a professional of some sort or quality, both authority and kindness would prompt her to a bow, a smile, perhaps a pleasant word, I looked hungrily at her, her bright, small eyes met mine, swept swiftly over me, and then she slowly turned her black silk back upon me, the stranger in her gate; and as I swallowed hard at the lump Mrs. Gilbert’s gentle indifference had brought to my throat, my old sense of fun came uppermost, and I said to myself: "No morning is lost in which one learns something, and I have discovered that covering a club neatly in velvet improves its appearance, without in the least detracting from the force of its blow."
And then the passage resounded with laughter and heel-taps, the small room filled full; there was a surging of silken gowns, a mingling of perfumes and of. voices, high and excited, and, I must add, affected; much handshaking, many explosive kisses, and then, down, the other passageway, came more gentlemen. They were a goodly crowd — well groomed, well dressed, manly fellows, and all in high good-humor, except Mr. Davidge, but, in mercy’s name l who ever saw, who would have wished to see "rare old Bill" in a good humor?
Such gay greetings as were exchanged around about and even over me, since my hat was twice knocked over my eyes by too emphatic, embracings in such crowded quarters — and still no manager, no prompter. When they quieted down a bit, everyone took stock of me. It would have been a trying position even had I been properly gowned, but as it was the ill-suppressed titters of two extravagantly gowned nonentities and the swift, appraising glances of the others kept me in agony.
Suddenly a quick step was heard approaching. I nearly laughed aloud in all my misery at their lightning-quick change of manner. Silence, as of the grave, came upon them. They all faced toward the coming steps — anxious-eyed, but with smiles just ready to tremble on to their lips at an instant’s notice. Never had I seen anything so like trick-poodles. They were ready to do "dead dog," or jump over a chair, or walk on two legs — ready, too, for either the bone or the blow. I knew from their strained attitude of attention who was coming, and next moment, tall and thin and dour, Mr. Daly stood in the doorway. He neither bowed nor smiled, but crossly asked: "Is Miss Morris here?"
Everyone looked reproachfully at everyone else for not being the desired persona Then as the managerial frown deepened, from my corner I lifted a rather faint voice m acknowledgment of my presence, saying: "Yes, sir, I am here," and he gave that peculiar "huh!" of his, which seemed to be a combination of groan and snort, and instantly disappeared again.
Oh, dear! oh, dear! I had felt myself uncomfortable before, but now? It was as if I had sprung up and shouted: "Say! I’m Miss Morris!" Everyone gazed at me openly now, as if I were a conundrum and they were trying to guess me. I honestly believe I should have broken down under the strain in a moment more, but fortunately a slender little man made his silent appearance at one of the doors and took off his immaculate silk hat, revealing the thin, blond hair, the big, pale blue pop-eyes of James Lewis. Twenty minutes ago my heart would have jumped at sight of him, but I had had a lesson. I expected no greeting now, even from a former friend. I sat quite still, simply grateful that his coming had taken the general gaze from my miserable face. He shook hands all round, glanced at me and passed by, then looked back, came back, held out his hand, saying "You stuck-up little brute, I knew you in aprons and pig-tails, and now you ain’t going to speak to me; how are you, Clara?"
While I was huskily answering him, a big woman appeared at the door. Her garments were aggressively rich, and lockets (it was a great year for lockets dangled from both wrists, from her watch-chain, and from her neck-chain. She glittered with diamonds — in a streetdress which might also have answered for a dinner-dress. I laughed to myself as I thought what a prize she would be for pirates. Then I looked at her handsome face and, as our eyes met, we recognized each other perfectly, but my lesson being learned I made no sign, I had no wish to presume, and she — looked over my head.
M. Bčnot, the Frenchman who died in harness early in the season, poor little gentleman l carne in then with the MSS. and the parts of the play, "Man and Wife." Silence came upon the company. As M. Bčnot called Mr. or Miss So-and-so, he or she advanced and received the part assigned to them. "Miss Clara Morris!" I rose stiffly — I had sat so long in my corner, — and received rather a bulky part. I bowed silently and resumed my seat, but the place was for a moment only a black, windy void; I had seen the name on my part — I was cast for Blanche, a comedy part!
As I came back to my real surroundings, M. Bčnot was saying: "Eleven o’clock sharp to-morrow, ladies and gentlemen, for rehearsal."
People began hurrying out. I waited a little, till nearly all were gone, whispering "Miss Ethel for Anne, Miss Ethel for Anne" when the handsome "Argosy of wealth" sailed up to me, and, in a voice of sweet uncertainty, said: "I wonder if you can possibly recognize me?"
"Oh, yes," I answered, smiling broadly, "we recognized each other at the moment you entered, Miss Newton."
She reddened and stammered something about "not being quite sure — and out West, and now here," and as she was even prettier than when I had last seen her, I told her so, and — we were happy ever after.
Then I slipped out of the theatre and crossed to Twentyfirst Street safely, but could control my grief and pain, my mortification and my disappointment, no longer. Tears would have their way, and I held my sunshade low before my tear-washed, grieving face. Those little ill-suppressed smiles at my clothes, those slightly lifted eyebrows, and there was not even a single introduction to shelter me to-morrow, and as to Blanche, oh, I thought "let her wait till I get home!"
At last mother opened the door for me. I flung the hat from my aching head, and as she silently tied a wet handkerchief about my throbbing temples, I blurted out three words: "A comedy part!" and fell face downward on the bed, and cried until there was not a tear left in me, and considering my record as a shedder of tears, that’s saying a good deal. Afterward I knelt down and hid my shamed face in the pillow and asked forgiveness from the ever-pitiful and patient One above, and prayed for a clear understanding of the part entrusted to me.
Oh, don’t be shocked. I have prayed over my work all my life long, and I can’t think the Father despises any labor that is done to His honor. And I humbly gave over my further thought of Anne, and praying pardon for the folly of "kicking against the pricks" and wasting my scant strength in useless passion, I retired, at peace with myself, the world, and even Blanche.
Next morning a curious thing happened. I heard, or thought I heard, the words: "The first shall be last and the last shall be first," and I called from my bed: "Did you speak to me, mother?" and she answered, "No."
As I sat over my coffee and rolls, I said, absently — "The first shall be last, and the last shall be first."
"What do you mean?" mother asked.
"Nothing," I said. " The words were in my ears when I awoke, and they keep coming back to me."
I rose and dressed for rehearsal. As I drew on my gloves I heard a hurried voice asking for me in the hall. I recognized it as M. Bčnot’s. My heart sank like lead — was even the comedy part to be taken from me? I opened the door. Out of breath, the little man gasped: "I so come quite quick for Monsieur Da-lay. He make me to ask you right away, very quick, can you play that part of Anne?"
My breath came in gasps, I might have been the runner! I answered, briefly: "Yes!"
"Then," said he, "here give you to me that other part, Blanche."
I gave it joyously.
"Take you now this of Anne and make of the great haste to Monsieur Da-lay’s office, before — comprenez-vous — before that you go on the stage, or see anyone else, he want you to make some lies, I tink, so you best hurry!"
"Mother, mother!" I cried. As she ran, I held out to her the part, Anne Sylvester, written large on it. She looked, and said: "The last shall be first!" and kissing me, pushed me toward the stairs.
I almost ran in my anxiety to obey orders; my mind was in a state of happy confusion — what could it all mean? The announcement had been distinctly made only yesterday that Miss Agnes Ethel would play Anne. Was she ill? Had she met with an accident? And why should Mr. Daly wish to see me privately? Could he be going to ask me to read the part over to him? Oh, dear, heaven forbid! for I could much more successfully fly up into the blue sky.
The stairs that led down from the sidewalk to the stage-door passed across the one, the only, window of the entire basement, which let a modicum of light into a tiny den, intended originally for the janitor’s use, but taken by Mr. Daly for his private office. Here the great guiding intelligence of the entire establishment was located. Here he dreamed dreams and spun webs, watching over the incomings, the outgoings, the sayings and the doings of every soul in the company. He would have even regulated their thoughts, if he could. I once said to him, after a rehearsal: "If you could, sir, while in the theatre at least, you would force us all to think only ‘Hail, Daly!’"
He laughed a little, and then rather grimly remarked "That speech made to anyone else would have cost you five dollars, Miss Morris. But if you have absolutely no reverence, neither have you fear, so let it pass," and I never said "Thank you" more sincerely in my life, for I could ill afford jests at five dollars apiece.
But that morning of the first rehearsal, as I hurried down the stairs, the shade was drawn up high; and through the window I saw Mr. Daly sitting, swinging about, in his desk-chair. Before I could tap, he called for me to enter. He was very pale, very rumpled, very tired-looking. He wasted no time over greetings or formalities, but curtly asked: "Can you play Anne Sylvester? And, almost as curtly, I answered: "Yes, sir!"
The calm certainty of my tone seemed to comfort him; he relaxed his seemingly strained muscles, and sank back into his chair. He passed his long, thin fingers wearily across his closed eyes several times, then, as he opened them, he asked, sharply: "Can you obey orders?"
"Yes," I answered, "I’ve been obeying orders all my life long."
"Well," he said, "can you keep quiet — that’s the thing. Can you keep quiet about this part?"
I stared silently at him.
"This thing is between ourselves. Now, are you going to tell the people all about when you received it?"
I smiled a little bitterly as I replied: "I am hardly likely to tell my business affairs to people who do not speak to me."
He looked up quickly, for I stood all the time, and asked: "What’s that, don’t speak to you? Were you not welcomed"
I broke his speech with laughter, but he would not smile: "Were you not properly treated? Who was lacking in courtesy?"
"Oh, please," I hurried, "don’t blame anyone. You see there were no introductions made, and of course I should have remembered that the hospitality of the East is more — er — well, cautious than that of the West, and besides I must look very woolly and wild to your people."
"Ah!" he broke in, "then in a measure the fault is mine, since worry and trouble kept me away from the green-room. But Bčnot should have made introductions in my place — and — well, I’m ashamed of the women! cats! cats!"
"Oh, no!" I laughed, "not yet, surely not yet!" Suddenly he returned to the part: "You will tell the people that you were to play Anne in the first place." "But, Mr. Daly," I cried, "the whole company saw me receive the part of Blanche."
He gnawed at the end of his mustache in frowning thought. "One woman to whom it belongs refuses the part," he said; "another woman, who can’t play it, demands it from me, and I want to stop her mouth by making her believe the part was given to you before I knew her desire for it — do you see?"
Yes, with round-eycd astonishment, I saw that this almost tyrannically high-handed ruler had someone to placate — someone to deceive. "You will therefore tell the people you received Anne last night."
I was silent, hot, miserable. "Do you hear?" he asked, angrily. "Good God! everything goes wrong. The idiot that was to dramatize the story of "Man and Wife" for me has failed in his work; the play is announced, and I have been up all night writing and arranging a last act for it myself. If Miss Davenport thinks she has been refused Anne, she will take her revenge by refusing to play Blanche, and the cast is so full it will require all my people—you must say you received the part last night!" "Mr. Daly," I said, "won’t you please trust to my discretion. I don’t like lying, even for my daily bread, but if silence is golden, a discreet silence is away above rubies."
He struck his hand angrily on the desk before him: "Miss Morris, when I give an order—"
Up went my head: "Mr. Daly, I have nothing to do with your private affairs; any business order —
Heaven knows where we would have brought up had not a sudden darkness come into the little room — a woman quickly passed the window. Mr. Daly sprang to his feet, caught my fingers in a frantic squeeze, and pushing me from the door rapidly, said: " Yes — yes — well, do your best with it. I’m very glad Bčnot found you last night!" Then turning to the new-comer who had not been present the day before, he cheerfully exclaimed: "Well, you didn’t lose to-day’s train, I see! I have a charming comedy part for you — come in!" She went in, and the storm broke, for as I felt my way through the passage leading to the stage-stairs, I heard its robing and rumbling, and two dimly-seen men in front of me laughed, while one, pointing over his shoulder, toward the office, sneered, meaningly: "Ethel stock is going down, isn’t it?"
And almost I wished I was back in a family theatre.
UP-STAIRS I found a bare stage, as is often the case for a first mere reading of parts, and most of the company sitting on camp-stools, chatting and laughing. Already M. Bčnot had announced the change in the cast, and people looked at me in perfect stupefaction: "Good heavens! what a risk he is taking! Who on earth is she, anyway?" and I cleared my throat in mercy to the speaker, who didn’t know I stood behind her.
That morning I was introduced to a number of the ladies and gentlemen, but it was a mere baptism of water, not of the spirit. I was not one of them. Understand, no one was openly rude to me, everyone bowed a " good-morning," but, well, you can bow a good-morning over a large iron fence with a fast-locked gate in it. That my dresses of gray linen or of white linen struck them as being funny in September is not to be wondered at, yet they must have known that necessity forced me to wear them, and that their smiles were not always effaced quickly enough to spare me a cruel pang. And my amazement grew day by day at their own extravagance of dress. Some of the ladies wore a different costume each day during the entire rehearsal of the play. How, I wondered, could they do it? Two of them, Miss Kate Claxton and Miss Newton, had husbands to pay their bills, I found, and Miss Linda Diets — the gentlest, most sweetly-courteous creature imaginable — had parents and a home; but the magnificence of the others remained an unsolvable mystery.
Another thing against me was, I could not act even the least bit at rehearsal. Foreign actors will act in cold blood at a daylight rehearsal, but few Americans can do it. I read my lines with intelligence, but gave no sign of what I intended to do at night. Of course that made Mr. Daly suffer great anxiety, but he said nothing, only looked at me with such troubled, anxious eyes that I felt sorry for him. One gentleman, however, decided that I was — not to put too fine a point upon it — "a lunkhead." He treated me with supercilious condescension, varied occasionally with overbearing tyranny. Just one person in the theatre knew that I was really a good actress, of considerable experience, and that was James Lewis; and from a tricksy spirit of mischief he kept the silence of a graven image, and when Mr. Dan Harkins took me aside to teach me to act, Lewis would retire to a quiet spot and writhe with suppressed laughter.
One day he said to me: "Say, you ain’t cooking up a huge joke on these gas-balloons, are you, Clara? And upon my soul you are doing it well — you act as green as a cucumber."
And never did I succeed in convincing him that I had not engineered a great joke on the company by deceptive rehearsing. One tiny incident seemed to give Mr. Daly a touch of confidence in me. In the "Inn scene" a violent storm was raging, and at a critical moment the candle was supposed to be blown out by a gust of wind from the left door, as one of the characters entered. They were using a mechanical device for extinguishing the candle, and it was tried several times one morning, and always, to my surprise, from the right side of the stage. No one seemed to notice anything odd, though the flame streamed out good and long in the wrong direction before going out. At last I ventured, as I was the principal in the scene: "I beg your pardon, gentlemen, but is it not the wind from the open door that blows that light out? Then, quick and sharp, mine enemy was upon me: "This is our affair, Miss Morris."
"Yes," I answered," but the house will laugh if the candle goes out against the storm," and Mr. Daly sprang up, and, smiling his first kindly smile at me, said: "What the deuce have we all been thinking of — you’re right, the candle must be extinguished from the left," and as I glanced across the stage I saw Lewis doing some neat little dancing steps all by himself.
The rehearsals were exhausting in the extreme, the heat was unnatural, the walk far too long, and, well, to be frank, I had not nearly enough to eat. My anxiety was growing hourly, my strength began to fail, and at the last rehearsals, white as wax from weakness, I had to be carried up the stairs to the stage. Having such a quick study, requiring but few rehearsals, I was from the fourth day ready at any moment to go on and play my part. Fancy, then, what a waste of strength there was in forcing me, day after day, to go over long, important scenes — three, five, even seven times of a morning — for the benefit of one amateur actress, who simply could not remember to-day what she had been told yesterday. It was foolish, it was risking a breakdown, when they had no one to put in my place. Mr. William Davidge was the next greatest sufferer, and as an experienced old actor he hotly resented. being called back to go over a scene, again and again, "that a ‘walking vanity’ might be taught her business at his expense!"
And though I liked and admired the "walking vanity" (who did not in the least deserve the name), I did think the manner of her training was costly and unjust, and one morning, just before the production of the play, I — luckily as it would seem — lost my self-control for a moment, and created a small sensation. In my individual case, fainting is always preceded by a moment of total darkness, and that again by a sound in my ears of a rushing wind. That morning, as I finished the sixth repetition of Anne’s big scene with Lady Glenarm, the warning whir was already in my ears, when the order came to go over it again, "that Mrs. Glenarm might be quite easy." ‘ It was too much — a sudden rage seized upon me: "Mrs. Glenarm will only be quite easy; when the rest of us are dead!" I remarked as I took my place again, and when I received my cue I whirled upon her with the speech: "Take care, Mrs. Glenarm, I am not naturally a patient woman, trouble has done much to tame my temper, but endurance has its limits!"
It was given with such savage passion that Miss Dietz burst into frightened tears and forgot utterly her lines, while a silence that thrilled, absolute, dead, came upon the company for a moment. Hastily I controlled myself, but there were whispers and amazed looks everywhere. Mr. George Brown, who played the pugilist, said aloud to a group: "She’s done the whole crowd — she’s an actress to the core!"
Mr. Daly sat leaning forward at the prompt-table, white as he could well be. His eyes were wide and bright, and, to my surprise, he spoke quite gently to me as he said: "Spare yourself — just murmur your lines, Miss Morris." And Miss Dietz said: "Oh, Mr. Daly, I am so glad I am prepared; I should have fallen in my tracks if she had done that to me at night, without warning."
When I left the stage, one of the ladies swept her dress aside, and said: "Sit here by me; how tired you must be!" It was the first friendly advance made to me. Before rehearsal ended I overheard the young man with the bald head saying: "She has sold us all, and I bet she will completely change the map of the Fifth Avenue Theatre." "Oh, no, she won’t," answered Lewis, shortly, "she’s not that type of woman!"
"Well, at all events, on the strength of that outburst, I ain’t afraid to bet twenty good dollars that she makes pie out of Ethel’s vogue!" Then, seeing me, he removed his hat hurriedly, offering his shoulder for me to lean upon as I descended the winding-stairs, and I said to myself: Yesterday this would have been a kindly service; to-day — to-day it is not far from an humiliation."
Hitherto I had known neither clique nor cabal in a theatre; now I found myself in a network of them. The favorite — who, I had supposed, lived only in the historic novel — I now met in real life, and found her as charming, as treacherous, and as troublesome in the theatre as she could ever have been in a royal court. There was no one to explain to me the nature or progress of the game that was being played when I came upon the scene; but I soon discovered there were two factions in the theatre, Miss Agnes Ethel heading one, Miss Fanny Davenport the other. Each had a following, but Miss Ethel, who had been all-powerful, had overestimated her strength when she refused, point-blank, to play Anne Sylvester giving as her reason "the immorality of Anne." This from the lady who had been acting all season in "Fernande" and "Frou-Frou" — as a gambler’s decoy and an adulterous wife abandoning child and home — satisfactorily proved the utter absence of a sense of humor from her charming make-up.
Mr. Daly, like every other man, could be managed with a little patient finesse, but he would not be bullied in business affairs by any living creature, as he proved when, rather than change the play to please the actress he then regarded as his strongest card, he trusted a great part to the hands of an unknown, untried girl, and gave out to the newspapers that Miss Ethel had sprained her ankle, and, though in perfect health, could not walk well enough to act. And, after my momentary outburst, the anti-Ethelites suddenly placed me on one of the sixty-four squares of their chess-board; but I knew not whether I was castle, knight, bishop, or pawn, I only knew that I had become a piece of value in their game, and they hoped to move me against Ethel.
It was all very bewildering, but I had other things to think about, and more important. My money had run so low I was desperately afraid I could not get dresses for the play, and for the white mousseline necessary for the croquet — party of the first act I was forced to go to a very cheap department store, a fact the dress nightly proclaimed aloud from every inch of its surface. Shawl dresses were the novelty of that season, and at Stewart’s I found a modestly priced dark-gray shawl overskirt and jacket that I could wear over a black alpaca skirt for two acts. The other two dresses I luckily had in my wardrobe, and when my new shoes, a long gray veil, and two pairs of gray gloves were laid into the dressing-room basket, I had in the whole world $2.38, on which we had to live until my first week’s salary came to me. But, oh, that last awful day before the opening night. I was suffering bodily as well as mentally. I had had an alarming attack of pleurisy. My mother had rung the bell and left a message at the first house that carried a doctor’s sign. He came; he was far gone in liquor; he was obstinate, almost abusive-to be brief, he blistered me shockingly; another doctor had to be called to dress and treat the hideous blisters the first had produced; and the tight closing of dress-waists about me was an agony not yet forgotten. But what was that to the nervous terror, the icy chill, the burning fever, the deadly nausea! I could not swallow food — I could not! My mother stood over me while, with tear-filled eyes, I disposed of a raw, beaten egg, and then she was guilty of the dreadful extravagance of buying two chops, of which she made a cup of broth, and fearing a breakdown if I attempted without food five such acts as awaited me, she almost forced me to swallow it to the last drop after my hat was on and I was ready to start. I always kiss my mother good-by, and that night my lips were so cold and stiff with fright that they would not move. I dropped my head for a moment upon her shoulder, she patted — me silently with one hand and opened the door with — the other. My little dog, escaping from the room; rushed to me, leaping against my knees. I caught her up, and she covered my troubled, veiled face with frantic kisses. I passed her to mother and crept painfully down the steps. I glanced back — mother waved her hand and innocently called: "Good luck! God bless you!"
The astonishing conjunction of superstition and orthodox faith touched my sense of the ridiculous. I laughed aloud, Bertie barked excitedly, I faced about and went forward almost gayly to meet — what? As I reached Broadway, I remember quite distinctly that I said aloud, to myself: "Well, God’s good to the Irish, and at all events I was born on St. Patrick’s day — so Garryowen forever!"
The pendulum was swinging to the other extreme, I was in high spirits; nor need you be surprised, for such is the acting temperament.
I had not on that first night even the comfort of a dressing-room to myself, but shared one of the tiniest closets with Mrs. Roberta Norwood, in whose chic blonde person I failed utterly to see a future friend. The terrible heat, the crowding, the strange companion, all brought back the memory of that far-away first night of all in Cleveland; but now there was no Mrs. Bradshaw to go to for advice or commendation. The sense of utter loneliness came upon me suddenly, and I bent my head low over the buckling of my shoe that my rising tears might not be noticed. We were directly beneath the auditorium parquet, and every seat flung down by the ushers seemed to strike a blow upon our heads, while applause shook dust into our eyes and hair. Forced occupation is the beat cure for nervousness, and in the hurried making-up and dressing I for the time forgot my fright. Two or three persons had come to the door to speak to Mrs. Norwood, and it seemed to me they were all made up unusually pale. I looked at myself in the glass, I hesitated, at last I turned and asked if I wore too much color — if I was too, red, and the answer I received was: "That’s a matter of taste."
Now it was not a matter of taste, but a matter of business. She was familiar with the size and the lighting of the theatre, and I was not, yet either from extreme self-occupation or utter indifference she allowed me to go upon that tiny stage painted like an Indian about to take the war-path. Truly I was climbing up a thorny stem to reach the flower of success.
The overture was at its closing bars, all were rushing to the stairs for the first act. I stopped behind the dressing-room door and bent my head for one dumbly pleading moment, then muttering " Amen- amen," I, too, hurried up the stairs to face the awful first appearance before a New York audience.
I had always been rehearsed to enter with the crowd of guests. The cue came, and as I stepped forward, a strong hand caught my arm. Mr. Daly had suddenly changed his mind, he held me fast till all were on, then let me go, whispering, "Now — now," and I went on alone.
I had to retire to the back of the stage and wait a few moments till spoken to. Never shall I forget the sort of horror the closeness of the audience caused me, I felt I should step upon the upturned faces; I wanted to put out my hands and push the people back, and their use of opera-glasses filled my eyes with angry tears. Suddenly I understood the meaning of the lightly painted faces. I raised my handkerchief and wiped some of the red from my cheeks, while somewhat bitterly, I am afraid, I thought that "love ye one another" and "thy neighbor as thyself" had been relegated to the garret with "God bless our home."
Then the astonishing beauty of, the women on the stage struck me with dismay; their exquisite lacy dresses, their jewel-loaded fingers. Oh! I thought, how can I ever hope to stand with them. I grew sick and cold. Then there dully reached my ears the words of Lady Lundy: " I choose — Anne Sylvester." It was my cue. I came slowly down; no one knew me, no one greeted me. I opened my lips, but no sound came. I saw a frightened look on Miss Newton’s face; I tried again, and in a husky whisper, answered: "Thank you; I’d rather not play."
Out in front one actor friend, John W. Norton, watched and prayed for a success for me; when he heard the hoarse murmur, he dropped his head and groaned: "A failure — total and complete!" But I also had noted that hoarse croak, and it had acted like a mighty spur.
I was made desperate by it. I threw up my , and answered my next cue with: "No, Lad Lundy, nothing is the matter; I am not very well, but I will play if; you wish it."
I gave the words so bell-clear and with so much insolent humility that a round of applause of lightning quickness followed them. It was the first bit of genuine hearty kindness I had received in the city of New York. In my pleasure I forgot the character of Anne completely, and turned to the audience a face every feature of which, from wide, surprised eyes to more widely-smiling lips,, radiated such satisfaction and good-fellowship that they first laughed aloud and then a second time applauded.
At last! I was starting fair, we had shaken hands, my audience and I; my nerves were steady, my heart strong, the "part" good. I would try hard, I would do my best. I made my whispered appointment to meet Geoffrey, and when I returned and stood a moment, silently watching him, there came upon the house the silence that my soul loves — the silence that might thrill a graven image into acting, and I was not stone.
Our scene began. Anne, striving desperately to restrain her feelings, said: "You are rich, a scholar, and a gentleman ; are you something else besides all these — are you a coward and a villain, sir?"
Clear and distinct from the right box, in suppressed tones, came the words: "Larmes de la voix! larmes de la voix!" Many glanced at the box, a few hissed impatiently at the new mayor, Oakey Hall, who had spoken.
Our interview was interrupted by Lady Lundy (Miss Newton) and Sir Patrick Lundy (Mr. Lewis). I was dismissed by the first and left the stage. Applause broke forth — continued. Mr. Lewis and Miss Newton:. began to speak — the applause redoubled. I turned angrily." What bad manners I " I said. Mr. Daly ran up to me, waving his hands: "Go on! go on! It’s you, you fool!" I know it," I replied, "but I’m not going to insult any actor by taking a call in the middle of his scene."
"Confound you!" he said, "will you do as I tell you?" He caught me, whirled me about and, putting his hand between my shoulders, literally pitched me on to the stage, where I stood ashamed and mortified by what I honestly felt to be a slight to those two waiting to proceed. After that the evening’s triumph, like the rolling snowball, grew as it advanced. At the end of the quarrel act with Mrs. Glenarm the curtain was raised on the stage picture — once, twice, three times. Then M. Bčnot said to Mr. Daly: "They want her," and Mr. Daly answered, sharply: "I know what they want, and I know what I don’t want — ring up again!"
He did so; no use, the applause went on. Then Mr. Daly said to me: "Take Mrs. Glenarm on with you, and acknowledge this call."
We went on together; retired; more applause. Again we went on together; no use, the applause would not stop. "Oh, well, ring up once more," said Mr. Daly, "and here, you, take it yourself."
I went on alone, and the audience rose as one individual. I saw them, all blurred through happy tears. I held my hands out to them, with a very passion of love. The house blossomed with white waving handkerchiefs, in answer. The curtain fell and, before I moved, rose once more, and then, as I live by bread! I saw pass between me and those applauding people a little crying child carrying a single potato in her hand. Of course that was nerves; but I saw her, I tell you I saw her! and surely I should know myself!
In the fourth act, which was a triumph for all concerned in it — and that meant nearly everyone in the cast — I received a compliment that I prize still. There is a certain tone which should be reserved for short important speeches only in strong and exciting scenes, where, by force of contrast, it has a great effect; so, in tones low, level, clear and cold as ice, Anne had scarcely taken her solemn oath: " I swear it, on my honor as a Christian woman, sir!" when from end to end of their riled-in semicircle the musicians broke into swift applause. Catching the effect, their foreign impetuosity made them respond more quickly than could the Americans who seconded their action, while mere recognition from these play-worn, blasé men was to me veritable incense. In the last act, Mrs. Gilbert, as Hester Detheridge, the supposed dumb woman, proved herself an artist to the finger-tips. Later I saw many Hesters, but never one to equal hers.
At last, and late, far too late, the play ended in a blaze of glory. The curtain was raised for final compliments. All the actors in the play had been summoned — we all stood in line, a bowing, smiling, happy line — facing a shouting, hat, handkerchief, or cane-waving crowd of pleased, excited people. As I saw how many eyes were turned my way, with a leap of the heart I repeated: "If you make a favorable impression I will — yes, I will double that salary."
Surely, I thought, no one can doubt that I have made a favorable impression, and, oh, mother, we will be so happy! Just then I caught the eye of a young girl — I could have touched her outstretched hand, she was so close — she gave me a lovely smile, and taking from her bosom a bunch of scarlet carnations she threw them herself. They fell on the stage. One of the actors picked them up and, turning, handed them to Blanche. I heard the disappointed "Oh!" and caught her eye again, when, regardless of all the rules and regulations forbidding communication with the audience, smiled and kissed my hand to her. As the curtain fell, in an instant everyone was talking with everyone else. I had begun, alone — well, I must end alone. I slipped down the staircase least used, and at its foot met Mr. George Brown, who was waiting for me. He took my hands m his and gave me both commendation and congratulation, though they were stayed and braced with unconscious profanity; and I squeezed his hands hard and said: "You are so good, oh! you are so good! but please take care, I’m afraid you’ll get forfeited. "When he cried: "D—n the forfeit, it’s worth a few dollars to speak as you feel sometimes, so good-night!"
I scrambled into my street-clothes, caught up the inevitable bag, and fairly rushed from the theatre, and as I came up from that place of mouldy smell and burnt-out air, and lifted my face to the stupendous beauty of the heavens, sniffing delightedly at the cool, pure night air, suddenly I thought how delicious must have been the first long breath young Lazarus drew when, obeying the Divine command, he "came forth " from the tomb.
Tired, excited, I hurried to carry the news to the two who awaited me — my mother and my dog. At the corner of Twenty-third Street and Broadway I had to pass around a party of ladies and gentlemen who stood talk there, and a lady said as I passed: "No, no! it’s Morris, I tell you; see, here it is — Clara Morris." She held up a folded programme, pointing out the name to a gentleman beside her. I laughed happily. Odd bits of the evening’s happenings kept appearing before me like pictures. Sometimes I saw the unknown young girl’s smiling face-and the scarlet flowers I failed to receive. Sometimes ’twas Mr. Daly’s angry one as he pitched me on to the stage to acknowledge a compliment I did not want, great as it was. Most often I saw the faces of the lovely women of the company. What a galaxy of beauty they made! The stately Newton, the already full-blown, buxom Davenport, the tall, slender, deer-eyed Dietz, the oriental Volmer, the auburn-haired Claxton,. the blond Norwood! There were just two women in that company who were not beauties — Mrs. Gilbert and Miss Morris; even they were wholesome, pleasant women, who did not frighten horses by any means, but still if you speak of beauty — why, next! please!
At last I saw the lighted windows that told me home was near. Then up the stairs, where there bounded upon my breast the little black-and-tan bundle of love and devotion, called Bertie the loyal, whose fervid greetings made the removal of my hat so difficult a job that it was through the tangle of hat, veil, and wriggling dog I cried at last: "It’s all right, Mumsey — a success! Lots and lots of ‘calls,’ dear! and, oh! is there any-thing to eat — I am so hungry!"
So, while the new actress’s name was floating over many a dainty restaurant supper, its owner sat beneath one gas-jet, between mother and pet, eating a large piece of bread and a small piece of cheese; and, thankful for both, she talked to her small circle of admirers, telling them all about it, and winding up supper and talk with the declaration: "Mother, I believe the hearts are just the same, whether they beat against Western ribs or Eastern ribs!"
Then, supper over, I stumbled through my old-time "Now I lay me," and adding some blurred words of gratitude (God must be so well used to sleep thanks, but very wide-awake entreaties!) I fell asleep, knowing that through God’s mercy and my own hard work I was the first Western actress who had ever been accepted by a New York audience, and as I drowsed off, I murmured to myself: "And I’ll leave the door open, now that I have opened it — I’ll leave it open for all others"
THE following morning we were called to the theatre at eleven o’clock to have the play cut "judiciously," as old actors used to say. It was very loosely constructed, and, besides cutting, the entire drama required a tightening-up, as it were.
Mr. Daly was the first to greet me and offer hearty and genial congratulations. Everyone followed his example, and that morning I was admitted into the family circle and came into my just inheritance of equality and fraternity.
A little surprised, but very happy, I gave back smile for smile, hand-pressure for hand-pressure; for being held off at arm’s length by them all had hurt worse I’m sure than they knew, therefore when they offered me kindly greeting I did not stop to study out the cause of this effect, but shut my eyes and opened my mouth, and took what luck had sent me, and thankfully became so much one of them that I never had a clashing word with a member of the company — never saw the faintest cloud darken our good-fellowship.
That morning, as the cutting was going on, I advanced and offered my part, but Mr. Day waved me away. "No," he said, "there’s plenty of useless matter to take out, but the public won’t want Anne cut, they have none too much of her now."
He gave but few compliments, even to those he liked, and he did not like me yet, therefore that gracious speech created a sensation among the other hearers and was carefully treasured up by me.
Another of his sayings of that morning I recall. In conversation with one of the ladies, I remarked: "As a Western woman, I suppose I have various expressions to unlearn?" when Mr. Daly turned quickly from the prompt-table, saying, sharply: "Miss Morris, don’t say that again. You are a New York woman now — please remember that. You ceased to be a Westerner last night when you received the New York stamp." [pp276-300]
From Life on the Stage by Clara Morris, New York 1902
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