Multitude and Solitude
Author of "The Everlasting Mercy," "The Widow
in the Bye Street," "The Daffodil Fields,"
"Captain Margaret," etc.
THE MACMILLAN COMPANY
MULTITUDE AND SOLITUDE
What play do they play? Some confounded play or other.
Let's send for some cards. I ne'er saw a play had anything in't.
A True Widow.
Roger Naldrett, the writer, sat in his boxwith a friend, watching the second act of histragedy. The first act had been receivedcoldly; the cast was nervous, and the house, critical asa first-night audience always is, had begun to fidget.He watched his failure without much emotion. He hadlived through his excitement in the days before theproduction; but the moment interested him, it was sounreal. The play was not like the play which he hadwatched so often in rehearsal. Unless some speechjarred upon him, as failing to help the action, he foundthat he could not judge of it in detail. In the manuscript,and in the rehearsals, he had tested it only in detail.Now he saw it as a whole, as something new, asa rough and strong idea, of which he could makenothing. Shut up there in the box, away from the emotionsof the house, he felt himself removed from time, theonly person in the theatre under no compulsion toattend. He sat far back in the box, so that his friend,John O'Neill, might have a better view of the stage.He was conscious of the blackness of John's head againstthe stage lights, and of a gleam of gilt on the oppositeboxes. Sometimes when, at irregular intervals, he sawsome of the cast, on the far left of the stage, he feltdisgust at the crudity of the grease paint smeared on theirfaces.
Sometimes an actor hesitated for his lines, forgot afew words, or improvised others. He drew in hisbreath sharply, whenever this happened, it was like afalse note in music; but he knew that he was the onlyperson there who felt the discord. He found himselfadmiring the address of these actors; they had nerve;they carried on the play, though their memories were awhirl of old tags all jumbled together. It was whenthere was a pause in the action, through delay at anentrance, that the harrow drove over his soul; for in thesilence, at the end of it, when those who wanted tocough had coughed, there sometimes came a singlehalf-hearted clap, more damning than a hiss. At those timeshe longed to be on the stage crying out to the actors howmuch he admired them. He was shut up in his box,under cover, but they were facing the music. Theywere playing to a cold wall of shirt-fronts, not yethostile, but puzzled by the new mind, and vexed by it.They might rouse pointed indifference in the shirt-fronts,they might rouse fury, they would certainly winno praise. Roger felt pity for them. He wished thatthe end would come swiftly, that he might be decentlydamned and allowed to go.
Towards the middle of the act the leading lady madea pitiful brave effort to save the play. She played withher whole strength, in a way which made his spirit riseup to bless her. Her effort kept the house for amoment. That dim array of heads and shirt-fronts becamepolite, attentive; a little glimmer of a thrill began topass from the stalls over the house, as the communicablemagic grew stronger. Then the second lady, who, asRoger knew, had been feverish at the dress rehearsal,struggled for a moment with a sore throat which madethe performance torture to her. Roger heard her voicebreak, knowing very well what it meant. He longed tocry out to comfort her; though the only words whichcame to his heart were: "You poor little devil." Thena man in the gallery shouted to her to "Speak up,please." Half a dozen others took up the cry. Theywreaked on the poor woman's misfortune all the venomwhich they felt against the play. Craning far forward,the author saw the second lady bite her lip withchagrin; but she spoke up like a heroine. After that thespell lost hold. The act dragged on, people coughedand fidgeted; the play seemed to grow in absurdunreality, till Roger wondered why there was no hissing.The actors, who had been hitherto too slow, began tohurry. They rushed through an instant of dramaticinterest, which, with a good audience, would have gonesolemnly. The climax came with a rush, the act ended,the last speech was spoken. Then, for five, ten, fifteen,twenty fearful seconds the curtain hesitated. Theabsurd actors stood absurdly waiting for the heavy redcloth to cloak them from the house. Something hadjammed, or the flyman had missed his cue. When thecurtain fell half the house was sniggering. Thehalf-dozen derisive claps which followed were intended forthe flyman.
The author's box happened to be the royal box, witha sitting-room beyond it, furnished principally withchairs and ash-trays. When the lights brightened,Roger walked swiftly into the sitting-room and lighteda cigarette. John O'Neill came stumbling after him.
"It's very good. It's very good," he said withvehemence. "It's all I thought it when you read it. Theaudience don't know what to make of it. They'repuzzled by the new mind. It's the finest thing that's beendone here since poor Wentworth's thing." He pausedfor a second, then looked at Roger with a hard, shrewd,medical look. "I don't quite like the look of yourleading lady. She's going to break down."
"They'll never stand the third act," said Roger."There'll be a row in the third act."
At this moment the door opened. Falempin, themanager of the theatre, a gross and cheerful gentleman,with the relics of a boisterous vinous beauty in his face,entered with a mock bow.
"Naldrett," he said, with a strong French accent,"you are all right. Your play is very fine. Veryinteresting. I go to lose four thousan' poun' over yourplay. Eh? Very good. What so? Som' day I goto make forty thousan' poun' out of your play. Eh?It is all in a day's work. The peegs" (he meant hispatrons, the audience) "will not stan' your third act.It is too—it is too—" He shook his head over thethird act. "Miss Hanlon, pretty little Miss Hanlon,she go into hysterics."
"Could I go round to speak to her?" Roger asked.
"No good," said Falempin. "She cannot see anyone. She will not interrupt her illusion."
"What happened to the curtain?" O'Neill asked.
"Ah, the curtain. It was absurd. I go to see aboutthe curtain. We meet at Philippi. Eh? There willbe a row. But you are all right, Naldrett. You knowJohn O'Neill. Eh? Mr. O'Neill he tell you you areall right." He bowed with a flourish of gloved hands,and vanished through the stage door.
"John," said Roger, "the play's killed. I don'tmind about the play; but I want to know what it is thatthey hate."
"They hate the new mind," said Roger. "They'vebeen accustomed to folly, persiflage, that abortion themasculine hero, and justifications of their vices. Theylike caricatures of themselves. They like photographs.They like illuminated texts. They decorate theirminds just as they do their homes. You come to themout of the desert, all locusts and wild honey, crying outabout beauty. These people won't stand it. They arethe people in Frith's Derby Day. Worse. They thinkthey aren't."
"I'm sorry about Falempin," said Roger. "He's agood fellow. I shall lose him a lot of money."
"Falempin's a Frenchman. He would rather producea work of art than pass his days, as he calls it,selling 'wash for the peegs.' What is four thousand toa theatre manager? A quarter's rent. And what isa quarter's rent to anybody?"
"Well," said Roger, "it's a good deal to me. Let'sgo round the house and hear what they say."
They thrust their cigarettes into ash-trays, and passedthrough the stalls to the foyer. The foyer of the King'swas large. The decorations of mirrors, gilt, marble, andred velvet, gave it that look of the hotel which art'stemples seldom lack in this country. It is a concessionto the taste of the patrons; you see it in theatres andin picture galleries, wherever vulgarity has herlooking-glasses. There were many people gathered there.Half a dozen minor critics stood together comparingnotes, deciding, as outsiders think, what it would besafe to say. Roger noticed among them a short, burly,shaggy-haired man, who wore a turned-down collar.He did not know the man; but he knew at once, fromhis appearance, that he was a critic, and a person of nodistinction. He was about to look elsewhere, when hesaw, with a flush of anger, that the little burly man hadpaused in his speech, with his cigarette dropped fromhis mouth, to watch them narrowly, in the covertmanner of the ill-bred and malignant. Roger saw him givea faint nudge with his elbow to the man nearest to him.The man turned to look; three of the others turned tolook; the little man's lips moved in a mutteredexplanation. The group stared. Roger, who resented theirimpertinence, stared back so pointedly that their eyesfell. O'Neill's hands twitched. Roger becameconscious that this was one of O'Neill's feuds. Theywalked together past the group, with indifferent faces.As they passed, the little man, still staring, remarked,"One of that school." They heard his feet move roundso that he might stare after them. O'Neill turned toRoger.
"Do you know who that is?"
"That's O'Donnell, of The Box Office. He's theman who did for poor Wentworth's thing. I calledhim out in Paris. He wouldn't come."
"Oh, you're too young; you don't remember. Hewrote everywhere. He wrote a vile tract called Dramaand Decency. He nearly got Wentworth prosecuted."
"I've heard of that! So O'Donnell wrote that?"
"Who are the others?"
"Obscure dailies and illustrateds."
A little grey man, with nervous eyes, came up toRoger, claiming acquaintance on the strength of oneprevious meeting. He began to talk to Roger with theeasy patronage of one who, though impotent in art himself,and without a divine idea in him, has the taste ofhis society, its gossip, its critical cant, and anacquaintance with some of its minor bards.
"You mustn't be discouraged," he said, with impliedintellectual superiority; "I hear you have quite a littlefollowing. How do you like the acting? I don't likeMiss Hanlon's acting myself. Did you choose her?" Ashe spoke his eyes wandered over O'Neill, who stoodapart, with his back half turned to them. It wasevident that he knew O'Neill by sight, and wished to beintroduced to him. Roger remembered how this man hadcalled O'Neill a charlatan. An insult rose to his lips.Who was this fumbling little City man, with his Surreyvilla and collection of Meryon etchings, to patronise,and condemn, and to bid him not to be discouraged?
"Yes," he said coldly. "I wrote the play for her.She's the only tragic actress you've had here since MissCushman."
The little City man smiled, apparently by elongatinghis eyes. He laid up, for a future dinner table, acondemnation of this young dramatist, as too"opinionated," too "crude."
"Yes?" he answered. "By the way—my daughteris here; she wants so much to talk to you about theplay. Will you come?"
Roger had met this daughter once before. He sawher now, an anśmic girl, in a Liberty dress, standingwith her nose in the air, amid a mob of first-nighters.She, too, wished to patronise him and to criticise theoracle. The superiority of a girl of nineteen was morethan he could stand.
"Thanks," he said.