In 1899, Arthur Machen suffered a horrific blow from the death of his first wife, Amy. After a happy marriage that lasted over twelve years, the writer found himself suddenly alone and bereft of comfort. The traumatic impact of her death can be most felt in the total absence of Amy from Machen’s public writings. Even in his memoirs, her name is never mentioned, despite the otherwise candid discussion of the black period Machen had suffered.
At some point, the pain Machen felt became so great that he executed an experiment to find relief. His terminology is vague, and while it may have been mystical in nature, we cannot be exactly sure what he meant, for as with Amy, he made mention of the experience without crucial details. In later years, he would say the experiment was akin to hypnotism, but that leads us nowhere. Whatever he did, he was able to move forward.
Rather quickly after this undertaking, and with the encouragement of his friend A. E. Waite, Machen joined the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn in 1900. Much has been made of the sequence of these events, but because of the nature of Victorian occult groups, we know very little of what transpired for him in the organization. What does seem clear is Machen’s lukewarm attitude to that whole affair, for by the end of the year, he seems to already have drifted from the activities of the group. In the ensuing decades, Machen would provide copious criticism of the entire occult scene and its nonsense.
Yet, Machen did survive the difficult ordeal and continued to produce literature for another forty years. If mystical experiments and occult hoodoo are somewhat exaggerated reasons for his return to form, what truly reinvigorated his zeal for life?
The answer is quite a curious one: the stage.
In January 1901, Machen joined the Benson acting company and toured across England. Playing parts in melodrama, comedies and Shakespearian classics, he soon relished in the life of an actor. Some fellow actors spoke of him as a glorious ham, but he was a personable performer and a fan favorite.
Despite the hectic life of an actor, Machen published his classic on literary criticism, Hieroglyphics and early serializations of Fragment of a Life and Hill of Dreams. In regard to Hieroglyphics, Machen records with good humor a review of the newly published book with the critic quipping: “I do not know whether Mr. Machen is to be described as an actor who amuses his leisure with writing books or as an author who fills up his evenings by appearing on the stage.”
Also during this time, he met Dorothy Purefoy Hudleston, also on the stage, who would become his second wife. Additionally, Machen returned to his theological roots by embracing Anglo-Catholicism. In a few short years, the widower had not only found relish for life, but the beginnings of a family and the stable outlook of a mature thinker.
After 1903, Machen’s acting slowed down as he realized the need for a less transient lifestyle. His final performance would be in 1909, yet he would often attend Benson reunions and take opportunities to write upon the life of an actor in numerous articles and essays. Below, we provide a five-part series Machen provided to Vanity Fair. In it, one may find Machen’s enthusiasm for those years and experiences which so transformed his life.
Partial Listing of Stage Work
The Merchant of Venice (1901)
As You Like It (1901)
The Merry Wives of Windsor (1901)
Paolo and Francesca (1902)
If I Were King (1902) See the program below.
The Silent Vengeance (1902)
The Varsity Belle (1902)
Old Heidelberg (1903)
A Midsummer Night’s Dream (1903)
The Libation Bearers (1903)
The Furies (1903)
Mice and Men (1905)
His House in Order (1905)
Henry VI (1909) Last performance.
Some Jesuit in the eighteenth century said of Ælillar the younger that he was ingeniousus puer sed insignis nebulo; and I always think that the phrase applies most beautifully and perfectly to Mr George Moore. He is a mighty clever chap—and a confirmed ‘rotter’. His last book, a sort of pocket Casanova, is the work of a ‘rotter,’ and his nonsense about the English language being worn out is the talk of a rotter. Casanova is inimitable (luckily, on the whole, I think), and the English language is infinitely the finest in the world, if people will give themselves the trouble to learn how to use it.
But one work of Mr George’s is in a different category: the Mummers Wife is quite a good story as far as it goes; it is perhaps the only work in English which attempts the problem of writing about the stage in a serious spirit. There are plenty of other books of course on the same subject, some of them very amusing, some of them great nonsense (Mr Horace Wyndham should know that the stage manager does not put up the train calls), but the Mummer’s Wife is easily the best of the lot. B
ut the stage is such a big subject. George Moore’s book is, I should think, an excellent transcript of life in a Cloches de Corneville touring company (c. 1880), and it isn’t a bit like the stage life that I knew something about, and I have seen some varieties and odd contrasts too.
I first used grease paints at the Comedy Theatre, about seven years ago. I went up a good many flights of stairs and found myself in an odd, bare little room, on the door of which my name was written with others. It was an excellent dressing-room, really; experience has told me that, but at the time it struck me as uncomfortable. A wardrobe man came in presently and gave me a bundle of clothes, and I put on the trunk hose and a sort of russet cassock and girdle. When I had just finished buttoning the thing up, the wardrobe man came in again, and explained that it fastened at the back. We made the alteration. Costumes mostly button up the back, I suppose to ensure the existence of the race of dressers. So I was all right, except for my face. Then, happily for me, old Gobbo came in, and I asked him how about ‘make up’. He said, ‘What do you want to look like?’ and I told him that as a member of the Venetian mob, I thought an olive hue would be the correct thing. He translated ‘olive’ into the words ‘Three, Eight, and Ten,’ and went into the next room to borrow sticks of grease paint of these numbers from Morocco. Morocco was busy; he was bellowing like an angry bull at two unfortunate Doge’s Trumpeters, who were ‘breathing’ their instruments; and the bellowing of Morocco was louder than the blast of the horns.
I got the paints and put on a fairly successful coat of colour for a first attempt. The reason why old Gobbo did not lend me paints himself was that he did not use them. His skin was sensitive, and he painted it in water-colours with a camels-hair brush. He was (and is) a great artist in make up, with an eye for detail. I remember I saw him putting a little grey crêpe-hair on the tip of his nose, to indicate extreme old age. I got on the stage in good time: they were just beginning to call ‘Overture and Beginners, gentlemen, please,’ and I stayed on it a couple of minutes, and then I had nothing to do till the Trial Scene was called, and then I went down and helped to hoot Shylock from a rostrum something like a flowerpot stand in a greenhouse. The hooting was easy enough, but the ‘displaying of emotion’ in dumb show was quite the most difficult task that was ever given to me on the stage. Englishmen are not gesticulatory, and when they do use gesture in common life, their gestures are usually horribly ungraceful; but when they try to use gestures on the stage they are ridiculous, especially if they are new beginners. I must have looked from the front like a bad case of St Vitus’s dance, complicated with idiocy. Still, I had ‘gone on the stage’.
It has happened, since then, that the people who were so good to me, a middle-aged ignoramus, have got on. Old Gobbo is one of the cleverest and best-known character actors in London, and Morocco—he that drowned the blast of the trumpets—is the manager of a great London theatre at the present moment; and there are many others whom I have not mentioned who are as celebrated as these two, and deserve all the fame that has come to them. For the greatest good fortune that can befall a beginner had been given me; I had joined Mr F.R. Benson’s company.
One must be patient with heresy: I suppose the Inquisition was rather a mistake. So one must bear as quietly as one can the statement that is sometimes made—that there are other companies besides Benson’s. Of course I know that this proposition is ridiculous on the face of it: I always move away from a man who talks like that; he is sure to be on the verge of mania, and of violent mania too. Before I joined the company I used to meet such persons occasionally. They told me that the Bensonians were very nice gentlemanly fellows, who played cricket and football capitally—it was a pity they couldn’t act. Later, when I knew more, I understood the value of this criticism and something of the status of the critics. These were mostly people who had been touring with the ‘Gramophone Girl Company Number Three’ and the ‘Baron and Barmaid Company Number Four’ for quite a number of years. One of them had played the same part in Charley’s Aunt on tour since the early nineties; he was very severe on the Bensonian lack of talent. People who have seen Mr Oscar Asche’s Maldonado and Petruchio say that he has quite a good notion of acting, and Mr Lyall Swete has his admirers, I understand. And one has gathered that, Mr O.B. Clarence’s ‘old men’ are rather excellent in their way.
But the best days with the Bensonians were the days on tour, and, above all, at Stratford-on-Avon. The Memorial Theatre there is quite hideous—a sort of cross between a German town hall and an Independent meeting-house—but it stands on a meadow by the river, and one could sometimes escape by a newel stair for a few minutes and listen to the nightingales’ chorus sounding from the other banks. And the old town is quite wonderful; and there at night one realises the tremendous force of the phrase about hearing the chimes at midnight. At eleven o’clock Stratford-on-Avon is all dark and quiet.
There is a tavern there where they make real beer—an operation which one had supposed to be a lost secret, like the arts of the old glass painters, and the fashioners of raised gold glories in illuminated manuscripts. Some people whisper that at the Windmill, Stratford-on-Avon, they make beer out of malt and hops; and I believe the big brewers think that that sort of thing ought to be put a stop to. There were great gatherings at the Windmill and at the Shakespeare too. I agree with Dr Johnson. He had a very poor opinion of a man who did not mind his belly. I go further, I think nothing of a man who neglects his beer. Such an one is probably a Protestant; and I can’t say worse than that. We Bensonians would, I think, have satisfied Mr Belloc of our Catholicity—‘wine’ being taken in its universal rather than in its particular sense. There were great gatherings then in the old taverns; and it must be remembered that the Benson company of those days was a sodality of old friends who had vagabonded over England together for ten years and upwards. They must have been something like a company of wandering craftsmen in the Middle Ages, with their sense of companionships and their sense of their craft. For they really liked their job and took it seriously; and I believe it is quite archaic now for a workman to take his work seriously. In time, no doubt, when we get really advanced, engine-drivers and pilots and signal-men will all be dashing amateurs—like ‘modern’ actors and novelists. Then there will be some sport in travelling. I am afraid I was too old and stupid to learn very much from the Bensonians; but, at all events, I know that one has to kneel on the knee next to the audience.
We played about twelve plays in the fortnight we spent at that exquisite and lovely Stratford-on-Avon, They gave me little ‘bits’ in most of the plays; sometimes I spoke the words, sometimes a great horror of forgetfulness seized me and I ‘dried’. There is no feeling like the sensation of ‘drying’: you are sailing along with tolerable complacency through a sentence, and four or five words from the full stop you realise with lightening-like suddenness that you haven’t the remotest idea of how to begin the next phrase! Your heart does something strange and unpleasant, you grow white under the paint, the stage swims round you, and you hear your voice dying away to a miserable quaver. Very likely the prompter is away from his corner; or if he is there one is usually too far gone to profit by his remarks. I ‘dried’ horribly in ‘Mouldy’, and I haven’t forgotten it yet, though it is a good many years ago. But I managed to utter all ‘Joseph’s Servant’s’ remarks; and impersonated no end of ‘Lords’ and ‘Countrymen’ and ‘Messengers’ who flit through the great Histories. And then, on the last Saturday of our stay at Stratford-on-Avon, the stage-manager told me that I was to play ‘Nym’ in the Merry Wives on Monday night at Worcester.
It certainly was ‘a bit of a pill’. I mean that for a beginner to be word-perfect in ‘Nym’ and to be easy in all the business and positions at such short notice was something of an undertaking. But here one gets a glimpse of the various regions and dialects of the stage. If I had used the phrase ‘bit of a pill’ to a Bensonian he would not have understood what I meant, or if by some chance he knew the idiom he would have told me with a coldly corrective air that the Benson company had no part in the worlds of musical comedy and melodrama.
I remember an illustration of this diversity of language happening at a London theatre a year or two after I had gone on the stage. Blank (a very good actor and a Bensonian) was rehearsing, and spoke a line something in this fashion:
‘I remember with what an air y’ flung y’r verses at me.’
‘Not so much of the “old,” Blank, not so much of the “old,”’said the actor-manager, who was taking the rehearsal.
Blank did not know what the manager meant. He had been more years on the stage than I had spent months, but his experience had not been so various as mine. I was able to explain that the manager had expressed a desire for a less melodramatic style of elocution; for ‘you’ and ‘your,’ instead of’y’ and ‘y’r.’ The Bensonians have a dialect of their own; they and they alone are aware that the tavern nearest to the theatre is a properly called ‘The Hog and Bristles,’ whatever its sign may be; to ‘boil’ with a man signifies to occupy the same rooms on tour; and ‘ancient stoal’ and ‘aged mackerel’ are ways of indicating an elderly individual. Then, again, there is another region and another language: dubious these and verging on the ‘portables’ or booths. There are exceptions, of course but, as a rule, it would be unwise to associate over intimately with an actor who knows the meaning of the phrases ‘nix munjare’ and ‘omee of the caser’. Experts in thieves’ slang will recognise the words, and I have met players who could carry on a conversation of some length in this dialect.
By the way, I wonder whether Dickens was right in his interpretation of the important word ‘ponging’.
‘Missed his tip at the banners, too, and was lax in his ponging,’ said Master Kidderminster, and member of Mr Sleary’s Horseriding Company, in Hard Times. ‘Was short in his leaps and bad in his tumbling,’ Mr Childers (another member of the company) interpreted.
Now, a Bensonian who said, ‘I went on and ponged for all I was worth,’ would mean that he rolled out his speeches in a declamatory manner; but with the actors of the booths the word implies improvising, inventing speeches and dialogue on the spur of the moment.
Well, anyhow, that ‘Nym’ was a bit of a pill. We had been rehearsing Richard III all the morning of Saturday; it was the only rehearsal that we had. There was a matinee in the afternoon, and the performance of Richard III at night; and when that was done the company adjourned in a body to a certain inn and stayed there. There is a legend that a round of drinks came to eighteen shillings on that occasion, but I think this must be an exaggeration. But there was no time for learning ‘Nym’ on Saturday, so I did my best with it on Sunday afternoon at Worcester. Of course, an actor of experience would have had the part at his fingers’ ends in an hour; but I was an actor of inexperience and my heart sank. I had a rehearsal next morning; it was in itself terrible. The leading man, who played Ford, did not come, and I don’t blame him; so one had to imagine his presence, and the prompter read his lines. One had to imagine a lot. The rehearsal was in a tavern room, and a table stood for a house, and a three-legged stool for a grassy bank, and a terrace and a flight of steps remained without symbols of any kind whatever. It was all a dreadful and confusing game of make-believe—for a beginner. My name is Corporal Nym: and I speaks and I avouch ’tis true:—
My name is Nym, and Falstaff loves your wife—Adieu.
‘Up the steps and half-way along the terrace at adieu, Mr Dash,’ said the prompter. I climbed the steps that weren’t there, and went along that noumenal terrace.
I love not the humour of bread and cheese; and there’s the humour of it. Adieu.
‘Now, then, go off left and turn on your exit and say’:
My name is Nym, and Falstaff loves your wife.
‘Thank you: that’ll be all right at night.’
I did not think it would be all right. I felt sick; my sensations reminded me of the first day of term after the holidays. And it was an awful experience. There were three scenes: Act I, Scene I, where Falstaff and his followers meet Shallow; the room in the Garter Inn; and the scene with Page. I ‘grinned like an idiot’ (in Coleridge’s phrase) as I uttered that final Falstaff loves your wife, and went up to change into one of Ford’s servants who bear the luck basket. I believe I got through pretty well, considering: I know the Old Woman clapped me on the back afterwards and said something about ‘the nervous ones doing best’; and I remember that my terror rose to such a height in that last, rather ‘tricky’ speech, that it soared above me, as it were, and I forgot all about it I was only conscious of being intensely annoyed by Page’s attitude of smiling incredulity; and I suppose that is the mode in which a player should do his playing—if he can only keep control over his memory.
Well, that was the Bensonian system of rehearsing; it was a case of learning to swim by being pitched into the water. No end of things were left to the player’s own taste and fancy. I believe that in the whole history of the great company there are only legends of two dress rehearsals having taken place; one, I think, for Richard II and one for Anthony and Cleopatra. The rehearsal which I have described was exceptionally sketchy; we often rehearsed on the stage with the scene set (more or less). I remember that we had five rehearsals in all for that year’s production at Stratford-on-Avon—King John—and everybody felt comfortable—except myself. I had to pull away the cloak from the body of Prince Arthur, saying: Who killed this prince? It sounds simple enough, but I wasn’t. A took me aside and showed that the action must precede the word, B pointed out that the contrary process was far more effective, and C demonstrated over a tankard that words and movement should be simultaneous. And then Mr Benson asked me what my opinion was. I said I hadn’t got any; and he laughed. It was a little confusing perhaps; but one sees by such an incident how the Bensonians interested themselves in the show as a whole; how they were ready to help a raw beginner over his fag and trifle of a part. I am afraid that the average actor cares no twopence for any part except his own, and is not apt to worry himself over other people’s performances—unless these performances affect him personally.
Of course, there is something to be said against this scant and somewhat conversational method of preparing a piece. It is not likely, perhaps, to make for a show that goes like clockwork—smooth, complete, polished to the last degree. I daresay that there were a few rough edges in a Benson production till the company settled down into their parts. But there may be something of truth in William Morris’s indictment of nineteenth-century art and craft as being altogether too smooth for perfection, too much polished by mechanical means to give true pleasure. And I think this dictum applies to a certain extent to stage-work, especially to the playing of the minor parts and to the management of crowds and tumults. You get ease and certainty and polish, doubtless, with your two months’ rehearsal at the London theatre; but it is a question whether you do not lose vigour and ‘go’ and the dash of originality that often accompanies technical deficiency. The piano-organ makes no mistakes, and the greatest player may blunder once or twice in a piece. I believe the Bensonian London crowd was a wonderful piece of work, and Sir Henry Irving’s trained supers are said to have run round in rings like mechanical mice. So much for the audience’s point of view; there is, of course, no question that the Bensonian method is infinitely better for the actor. It makes him think, it makes him inventive, he feels that he has some responsibility and some importance. The other way produces automata, who naturally act like automata. Besides, thinking it over calmly, is the audience’s point of view of any consequence? No artist worth his salt cares what his readers or his audience think about his work: his object in life is to express himself in his art to the very best of his ability—and by so doing he does please the only audience that matters: the audience of the intelligent and understanding. As for the people who go to theatres and enjoy the ‘drill’ of musical comedy—they don’t count; not as critics of legitimate stage-work, at all events. Their taste, such as it is, is most fitly gratified at the Military Tournament or at a review; and there is certainly something to be said from one point of view for symmetrical order. But the play, the Shakespeare play, I mean, should have its rough edges, its counterfeits of the odd corners and varieties of life; and this end is certainly best attained by few rehearsals and large individual liberties.
We stayed a week at Worcester. It was an old ramshackle theatre in those days, thick with dirt, and a happy hunting-ground of insects. Some of our ladies suffered horribly, and one of them, I believe, used to undress every night over a sheet with a view to making captures. It was all done up and clean and bright when I returned to Worcester two or three years ago; and the mention of that second visit reminds me of how some actors were deceived by a minor canon of the cathedral. The good ecclesiastic had no intention of deceiving; the actors’ disappointment was of their own contrivance. It happened thus: The company in question was being ‘feted’ to a certain extent; I believe that one hospitable woman went to the length of asking all of us to afternoon tea—I do not know whether meat and eggs were provided. Anyhow, the players who went were certain, for once in a way, of a meal of some sort, and it was, no doubt, very gratifying to the intellect and fashion of Worcester to see live actors eating. On the top of this wild revel there was an invitation from the Cathedral to the men of the company if they liked to come round one of the minor canons would be happy to show them certain parts of the building to which the ordinary public were not admitted.
Now, the average actor, I am sorry to say, knows but little of Gothic art; but he generally has an indistinct notion that the medieval architects were occasionally guilty of marvellous improprieties; and, then, the invitation was to ‘men only’. On the whole, the affair looked promising, and a joyous band sallied forth, their eyes round with anticipation. They only saw some odd corners of the crypt, and a disused chapel or two: Worcester had no musée privée for their amusement. It was felt that a rather ungenerous deception had been practiced on a simple and unsuspecting race.
Mr Benson turned me out at the end of six months. I wanted more money, and the management, I suppose, felt (with some reason) that beginners should be cheap; and so I left. I should have been content with what I had, for I might almost say that six months’ practice with Benson is worth six years with another company. I remember a lad (who is now a ‘star’) asking where else he would have the chance of playing three several parts (each with, some ‘character’ in it) in the course of one evening: one can imagine the difference between such a training as this and the usual ‘‘oh’ and ‘ah’ with others’ part, which may go on, night after night, for six months on end. I did not see this at the time, so I left, having previously got an engagement at an important London theatre for a great production. The manager had happened to look in on one of our performances at a suburban house, and I was playing a ‘bit’ so unimportant that it was not mentioned in the cast; it was an official who says a couple of dozen words and reads a letter in one of the Shakespeare plays. I believe I ‘scored’ by being simply official and indifferent, instead of displaying a vivid, almost an hysterical interest in the progress of events; anyhow, the great man gave me an engagement—which lasted for two years. This story has two morals. The first is, that it as wise to do one’s ‘bit’ as well as possible, even if the part be beneath contempt, the place a rather out of the way theatre, and the occasion a Bank-Holiday matinée. The second moral, which is much more important, is that it was all bad luck. I have played a very important part at a very important theatre in London for several months as well as I knew how—and nothing whatever came of it, except the weekly salary. It would be easy to say, of course, that while I might read a letter and keep quiet well enough a real part was beyond me, but I believe this explanation to be untrue, though unflattering. One of the most promising of our dramatists wrote of his own accord to me, saying that I had played the part ‘quite admirably’—but his admiration had no practical results, so far as I was concerned. Nevertheless, it is wise to do one’s ‘bit’ as well as possible, whether it be Hamlet or a Sea Captain, and whether the scene be set in a West End theatre or in a barn at Stow-on-the-Marsh. Anyhow, one will have the satisfaction of knowing that one is co-operating with the angels. The other plan always annoys me. I think the actor who ‘cods’ and ‘fluffs’ and ‘dries’—I should say the actor who plays jokes on the stage, knows his words imperfectly, and breaks down—because the management is poor or unimportant, or because he thinks there is nobody of consequence in front, is a dirty dog, and a dishonest dog too.
The production for which I was engaged was not due for several months—it turned out to be nine—and I wanted to ‘fill in’. To begin with, I got a three weeks’ engagement in ‘Pastorals’. Nearly all of the players were Bensonians, so I was still amongst friends. We had three wonderful weeks, which are still dear in my memory. The sun shone all the time, and under such conditions the theatrical shepherd’s life is a delightful one, though it is sometimes rather laborious.
Of course, the conditions are very different in many ways from those of the theatre. The finer touches are impossible—it is out of the question to cultivate the nuance, the delicate tone of meaning in the open air. All such shade and half-tones of significance would be drowned by the noise of the wind amongst the leaves, or would vanish into empty space. Some ‘pitches’ are much better than others. I remember a delightful one amongst the pine-woods of Hampshire. The players strolled down a hillside, through trees and bushes, bracken and heather, and the rising ground behind the ‘stage’ reverberated their voices to the audience. Near Derby, too, there is a pleasant dell, in which the conditions were somewhat similar; but even in such favoured spots as these ‘breadth’ is essential, and the real delicacies of such a part as Malvolio are apt to be lost. Then, again—a point of purely technical interest—the make-up has to be very different from that of the theatre. Under the electric light of the ‘limes’ many things are possible. A streak of ‘blue-liner’ will look like a natural shadow, and dark red, properly applied to the eyebrows, will give the effect of black much better than black itself—dead blacks are nearly always weary on the stage, they look hard, unnatural, obvious paint, and the same maxim may be applied to crépe-hair. But on a sunny afternoon, on a smooth lawn, with your audience perhaps a yard away, it is out of the question to smear your face with blue and crimson: one must go more closely to nature, and I fancy that people who have been in pastorals always make up better than those who only limelight know. There is, of course, a school which thinks that the more crazy a make-up looks in the dressing-room, the better it will appear from the front, sed de hoc dubito. Breadth is no doubt essential; a maze of little lines, a ‘Clapham Junction’ make-up, cannot possibly carry for more than the first few rows of the stalls; and there are many actors who do not seem to be aware that the most cunning effects, if they be not large, simply merge into a pale white patch from the point of view of the dress-circle. Everything must be enlarged; eyebrows must be broader than they are by nature, a high light must be painted on the nose that it may stand out, and so forth; but one must be aware of certain conventional exaggerations, such as light patches of colour laid on spots which are not naturally highly coloured. ‘Juvenile’ actors, for instance think that dabs of carmine on the temples give them a youthful appearance; but they are probably mistaken. In the pastoral play make-up is necessary, because the ‘character’ parts have to paint to obtain their effects, and the natural hues of those playing ‘straight’ parts would look dull by force of contrast; but the tinting should be delicate and slight, and powder should be used with a very sparing and judicious hand.
We went to some odd places on our tour. I remember being hugely pleased at Northampton. I had been recommended to some rooms, and, knocking, the door was opened to me by a very nice old lady with ringlets. She spoke with that pleasant distinction which the old English bourgeoisie once possessed, and we were coming to terms when she asked suddenly whether I was one of the actors. I said yes, and the good old soul drew herself up and said: ‘We are poor, but we have not quite come to that yet. Good-day and thank you.’ So I had to go to a ‘temperance hotel’. There is one good temperance hotel in England: it is not at Northampton, but at Newark-on-Trent. I have never been at a dirty temperance hotel, and I have never known an establishment of this sort except that one that was not infinitely more disgusting than the dirtiest cabin in Ireland. I do not know why these places are so nauseous; it may be the pitchpine panelling, or it may be the thick glasses from which one drinks.
We were giving our show—As You Like It and The Two Gentlemen of Verona—in the grounds of a large lunatic asylum at Northampton. It was melancholy to hear the howls of the raging maniacs from within the asylum, it was more melancholy to see the blank, settled misery on the faces of our audience. Our Touchstone was a merry fellow, but his quips and grimaces did not break through that gloomy curtain of melancholia. We fixed on one man as the maddest of all—on his face alone there was a constant chuckle, a distillation of infinite imbecility. We heard afterwards that he was the chaplain of the asylum, and the chuckle was in appreciation of our efforts.
There are some strange exits and entrances in the Pastoral Play. I remember once—it was at Stafford, I think—our green room was a haystack by a stream, the side of the haystack furthest removed from the audience. This position was not far from the audience, and we could hear the dialogue pretty well—when the wind did not sound too loudly in the willows. A man would wait, in great comfort and security till he heard the play approaching to within a page of his entrance; then it was necessary to climb an iron fence, walk down a little lane, and cross a bridge. Some shelter was afforded by the trees and bushes that grew by the bank of the stream; he would creep cautiously along in their shadow as the dialogue went on, and at last break away, and crossing another bridge, enter the ‘stage’. Of course, all this was a matter of some judgement; it is one of the varieties which lend charm to the pastoral life. Sometimes there is a regular stand; a stage is built up and screened with canvas, and one gets on and off the stage at a minion’s warning, as though in an ordinary theatre. I reprobate this practice; it is not ‘playing the game,’ in my opinion. I remember once in Hampshire, Rosalind and Orlando, Jaques and Touchstone, and the rest of that company of forest wanderers, made their entrance by strolling down under the pines, knee deep in heather and bracken; and I should think those fantastic figures, glinting amongst the green, must have added no small charm to the show.
It is a pity that one cannot be a pastoral player all the year. In a wicked, tiresome world such as this is, when men earn their living for the most part by ‘doing business’ or by such other evil and squalid tricks, there seems nothing more innocent or more charming than this device of wandering from wood to wood in odd dresses, in doublets and trunk hose, with false beards and painted faces, speaking Shakespeare’s lines, and trying to murmur the airs of Arden in the fairy age to this dull and gloomy time. But the pastoral hour is, by force of circumstances, a short one; and odd things succeed it. I found myself back in London without work, and going along Fleet Street one Sunday I ran across a former stage-manager coming out of vanished Thanet Place. I told him firmly that I wanted a shop, and after a few moments’ reflection, he remembered that he had accepted an engagement, which he could not possibly fulfil, in a moment of enthusiasm late the night before. So he passed on the address to me, and in some dim southern suburb I interviewed the management. It was a lurid little drama of love, jealousy, and intrigue, called The Just Punishment, and we played it at a theatre which I will call The Old Jago Varieties. The street where the house was situated has been described by East End experts; it is one of the seething pits of modern civilisation; I should doubt whether there was an honest house within a mile of it. There was a notice in the front of the house, relating the adventures of a client who had argued with the business manager. The Jago gentleman had made his points with a broken ginger-beer bottle, applied to the manager’s skull: ‘two months hard’ was the end and term of his story. The stage-door-keeper, a gigantic Highlander, who told me that he spoke ‘the Gaelic,’ and that his real name was something like Vich Ian Vohr M’Callum Conochie, informed me that the real industry of the district was coining; robbery with violence and picking pockets being diversions and sports of leisure hours. The dressing-rooms were dark and dingy dens, just behind the orchestra; I should think I dressed within two feet of the big drum. Rats ran in and out like kittens, and sometimes popped up cheerfully from the one wash-hand basin at the end of the passage. I played a comic (but good-hearted) Irish servant; and that Jago audience were even more terrible than the pastoral audience of old ladies following one in the text of As You Like Itat a distance of three feet off. In the ordinary theatre people usually keep quiet till they find the actor intolerable and not to be endured; at the Jago one entered on the scene and confronted a howling mob, yelling, fighting, shouting, roaring. The actor simply had to roar them down—if he could. It was a great training of the nerves.
The Sketch lasted for a fortnight; and then I went into melodrama. It was an odd play enough. A naval lieutenant had rescued a gorilla, who lay wounded somewhere on the West Coast of Africa. The grateful animal had become fondly attached to the lieutenant, who, for reasons to me obscure, brought the beast to France and housed him in a barber’s shop. I gather that the lieutenant had retired from our Navy; but he wore the uniform on all occasions, and the band heralded his entrances by a few bars of They all Love Jack. I cannot attempt to unfold all the tortuous windings of the story. There was a golden-haired woman called ‘Pretty Louise,’ who eventually became the lieutenant’s own; she had been brought up by an old gentleman, who was the father of one of the worst of men. I forget what his criminal associates called him; but he wore a black moustache, and smoked no end of cigarettes. He killed the old man in the first act, and did something illegal and tortuous as well, which had the effect of driving out Pretty Louise into the world, penniless and unprotected. The villain—who had, of course, the worst designs—hoped that she would be at his mercy; but she fled and took a garret above the barber’s shop where the gorilla lived, where two comic French Gendarmes resorted for shaving, where a very cheerful soubrette brought home the barber’s (comic) wash. There, I cannot tell the whole story; but, looking back, I don’t think that the gorilla came from the West Coast of Africa, or from anything like it. I think he came straight out of the Murders in the Rue Morgue. He climbed up to the garret at the end of the play, in the nick of time, for Pretty Louise lay helpless at the villain’s feet. The gorilla did not precisely make short work of the scoundrel, for they had a regular set-to to weird music; but I need scarcely say that justice was done. I should have said that earlier in the play the Bad Man had tried to purchase the gorilla, with a view to torturing the poor beast with boiling water and white hot irons. The lieutenant looked at him fixedly for a moment, strode down to the footlights, and said:
‘Sir, this Ape is my friend; and we Englishmen don’t sell our friends.’
I think the horridly pathetic death of the beast, which ended the piece, was a mistake in melodramatic art, for the tour only lasted six weeks. We had opened in Leeds, had gone north to Byker, an ugly suburb of Newcastle-on-Tyne, had descended then on Ipswich—a charming place with notable Pickwickian associations, where the stage is supposed to have a greater ‘rake’ than any other theatre in England, or in the world for all that I know. Then a week in Margate—quite empty, and quite pleasant, and quite useless, from the theatrical point of view; and finally the ‘drama’ house at Eastbourne saw the last of the Gorilla and the Villain, and Pretty Louise. I was a family lawyer in the first act, and I had been so conscientious as to buy my collars and neckties at a Soho draper’s. I looked all right, I believe, but I didn’t look in the least like any French notaire that I have seen, and I have known several. But, then, a French notaire in real life is not a bit like the English idea of a lawyer, and it does not pay to be too realistic, least of all in melodrama. In the second act, and for the rest of the play, I was the barber. It was a tolerably quick change, but an easy one. The hair wetted and brushed to a peak on the forehead gave the notion of a close French crop; the frock coat was replaced by a white apron, and moustaches and an Imperial made the disguise complete. The lawyer was more or less intelligible, but the barber, though a much longer part was to me a puzzle, and prolonged reflection has failed to suggest that the barber meant anything at all. His conversation was distinguished by a complete lack of point or purpose.
Before I packed from a very pleasant, though unfortunate, management, I had got another engagement, and after a week’s rehearsal we opened at Maidenhead in a piece which I shall call The Professor and the Poppet. I had been ‘under-rehearsed,’ the part was rather long, things were not going very well with me generally, from London to Maidenhead (inclusive) there was a thick, cold, white fog, and the theatre at Maidenhead is, or was, much less comfortable than a decent barn. It was a damp, chilly barn, without anything so pleasant as straw in it, the ethos of the company did not much appeal to me, I was hideously nervous—on the whole I was, perhaps, more thoroughly miserable than I have ever been, before or since. I am afraid I did but little justice to my part of a drunken (and impossible) actor-manager of a provincial company.
I had about six weeks with the farcical comedy which I have called, I think, The Professor and the Poppet. At the end of the fourth week—to use, a technical expression—I ‘bunged in my notice,’ not being able to stand the management any longer. The management was, I believe, the most honest and the most offensive that I have ever encountered. Its word was its bond, and was never broken; its manners were beastly! Mr Williamson, as I will call it, had a curious experience, which was, perhaps, accountable for a good deal that was not charming. He was a Yorkshireman to begin with, and frankly, I don’t like the Yorkshire character. A man in the train observed to me the other day that the Yorkshireman says what he thinks; ‘and the worst of it is,’ he went on, ‘he always thinks such nasty things’. Then Mr Williamson had gone on the stage via the ‘Gramophone Girl,’ Number 3 Company; he had sung in the chorus, and had done a little business managing. This was his experience of the theatre when somebody left him money, and he started The Professor and the Poppet on its foolish, but fortunate, career. He had the most futile ideas as to the way to manage a company; he compared the art to that of the trainer of a restive, or even vicious horse; ‘one must keep one’s company well in hand,’ he observed to me; and the way in which he kept his company well in hand was by making the most offensive remarks that he could imagine. Nothing was ever right; a man’s show was ‘rotten,’ his collars were too high, his coat was too short, his voice was too low, in his great scene he ‘just missed it’; and so on and so on.
I should like to write a little catechism for managers. It would begin something like this:
Q: Are you out for your health?
A: No; I am out to make money.
Q: How are you going to make money?
A: Partly by the excellence of my ‘advance-work’ and partly by giving a good show.
Q: How do you propose to ensure a good show?
A: Firstly, by choosing my actors carefully; secondly, by rehearsing them efficiently; and, thirdly, by praising them constantly.
Q: Why should you praise them?
A: Because an actor can only play well when he is feeling pleased with himself.
Q: But suppose you praise a man and he continues to play badly?
A: Then I give him his notice.
Q: Is there no other alternative between praise and notice?
A: NONE WHATEVER.
I do not know how the other way, Mr Williamson’s way and the insane way, is ever adopted; but I am afraid it is not very uncommon. It invariably leads to the worst results, as might be expected. Fancy standing by a painter and hissing in his ear as he worked that his perspective was all wrong, his anatomy childish, and his colouring that of an oleograph in a bar-parlour. He would not produce his best; he would kick you, promptly; and here is the actor’s folly that he too often refrains from kicking. We hear on all sides lamentations as to the wretched state of the theatrical profession, and the reason of this wretched state lies wholly in two grave defects of the average actor’s character; he is a coward, and he is selfish, and selfish in a peculiarly short-sighted fashion. The men who have ‘arrived,’ who sit in the comfortable arm-chairs in the London Club, are utterly and entirely indifferent to the miseries of the less fortunate, of the unhappy hordes who stray about the country at the mercy of the ‘management’—swindled, ‘done down,’ humbugged, lied to, left to starve by the roadside now and then. It is nothing to Mr A and Mr B, who are getting £25 a week with ease and comfort, that their brothers are delivered over to wretchedness; and when Mr A is to join the society which means to fight this miserable state of things, he says: ‘What good will it do me?’ While B may observe that he strongly disapproves of Trades Unionism. A and B, in a word, are selfish brutes, without bowels of compassion, without sense of brotherhood, nay, without ordinary prudence. For, sooner or later, the wheel may turn, engagements may fail, and then A and B will descend into the pit that they have suffered to be dug for others. The cowardice of actors is much more pardonable; since it is the cowardice of slaves. So long, it seems, have the players been under the managerial heel, so often have they seen the man who has dared to resist tyranny trampled on, none of his fellows finding courage to stand by him, that they accept the present state of things as a sad necessity; not one of them has the fire in his belly to resist, to incur the stigma of being ‘a troublesome man to have in a theatre’ a managerial idiom which signifies a person who objects to being swindled. It will be incredible, probably, to craftsmen of other mysteries, but it is true that the great majority of contracts today are ‘seven-show contracts’: in plain English, the actor acts for nothing if he acts in the afternoon. Imagine a bricklayer setting his bricks gratuitously at midnight—the nearest analogy I can find for the matinée which brings in something to the management, but nothing at all to the actor. And then, again, there is another notorious trick. The actor is engaged at a certain salary for, say, twelve weeks; he accepts, weekly, small pay in consideration of the three months’ employment that (he believes) is guaranteed him. A tour list is supplied, with all the towns which are to be visited—and, it may be, after the company has been ‘on the road’ for a fortnight, the wretched players see a document on the call-board, informing them that the date from August 20th to August 27th has not yet been filled in. This means a ‘week out,’ a week without pay, and very possibly after seven more weeks another call goes up, and the company learns that the tour will terminate in a fortnight’s time. I believe that such proceedings are wholly illegal, besides being morally abominable and the actor bears it. He does not grin (except, perhaps, with the grin of incipient starvation); but he does nothing. He may talk a little in his dressing-room, but no murmur ever reaches the managerial ears, if it did, the murmurer would be set down as a ‘troublesome man in the theatre,’ and his name would be entered in the Great Black Book of the Touring Managers’ Association, and he would get no more engagements—or so he fears. Now and then, of course—very rarely the actor-worm does turn, goes to law and wins his case, if the fraud has been violent, open, and impudent in a very high degree. This is the worst offence of all, and I am sorry to say that I have known actors to discuss such a case and to side with the fraudulent management. I cannot conceive a much deeper depth of cowardice and slavery than this. It is, in itself, a witness to the power and extent of managerial oppression; it is on a level with the behaviour of Mr Squeers’s pupils, compared with it the occupation of the ‘copper’s nark’—a policeman’s spy—is of Spartan courage and of the martyr’s virtue.
A point of less consequence is the state of certain theatres ‘behind’. A week or two ago I was at a place called Gainsborough. The dressing-rooms were beneath the stage level, and they were somewhat malodorous; but these are little things. But they were lighted by unguarded gaslights; and here I think the generous heart of the public ought to be moved. De nobis facile est; scelus est comburere auditores. It wouldn’t matter, of course, if the actors were burned to death; there are plenty more of them to be found in Maiden Lane, at ‘one one,’ or ‘thirty bob a week, old chap.’ But in all probability the fire kindled by the roasting actors and their belongings would spread to the auditorium; and that would be horrible. The other case I have noted was in Morpeth, in Northumberland, and here my dressing-room steamed and ran with water. There was a great pipe high in the wall, and from this pipe the drops fell thick on the clothes hanging below; all the walls were in streams and rivulets; the air was that of a neglected crypt. If the local management would kindly provide an open grave or two the arrangements would be quite complete. And one descended, hot from the stage, into this dismal, icy and dripping vault.
I remember some years ago doing a week with a very important company indeed, at the Borough Theatre, Stratford, in East London. I was on the stage during the second act of a great costume play; somebody was being defied with large gestures and great rolling phrases, when, suddenly, there was a hiss (as Stevenson says) of the indignant pit: the whole stage was illumined by what might have been blue lightning-flashes, and swirls of evil smelling vapour curled slowly from the back. It was only a ‘walker-on’ narrowly escaping instant death by electrocution. I do not understand the technique of electric lighting; but, so it turned out, some simple and necessary precaution had been omitted by the local management, and the wings bristled with possible death-traps. The ‘walker-on,’ who was in full fifteenth-century armour, had sat down on what looked like a harmless piece of board—it was quite dark behind the scenes—and he was instantly surrounded by flames and flashes; he escaped destruction by happy chance.
If ‘the profession’ likes all this; if it likes to be bullied, and swindled, and humbugged, and underpaid, and cheated; if it likes to exist at the mercy of the touring managers; if it likes poisonous stinks, death by fire, death from dripping vaults, from electric currents—then there is nothing more to be said. But if it does not like these things—it had better join the Actors’ Union, and be quick about it.
One thought on “Treading the Boards”
Christopher posted “Treading the Boards” about Arthur Machen’s acting career to his website on May 13, 2021:
I made these comments on May 22, 2021:
I enjoyed Machen’s inside view of the actor’s profession that was published in “Vanity Fair.” When was this published? Has it been republished since its initial publication? There are many insiders-terms used here. I was awash in a world viewed through a haze: a world which was close, yet still nearly too distant to see. There’s a special prize (well, not really) to the first reader who counts the number of paragraphs which I begin with “Machen.”
As is so often the case, Machen is humorous here. Even when he casts dour remarks about stage managers, he does it with a tender mercy. Well, most of the time– until, at the end of part five, Machen calls for actors to rise up and revolt; to stand up for their rights. With his ending tale of the armored actor getting electrocuted, but surviving, one can hardly consider the actor’s rights to not be precious.
I goad anyone to find some of Machen’s writing where he doesn’t talk about good beer and, usually, about drinking it with friends. This is a man who would have taken the current trend of microbreweries deep inside himself and possibly created a story in which beer features as the protagonist that, perhaps in some way, invites a way toward another world. There’s no need to poke at one’s brain to open up Pan’s world when a steady supply of suds is close at hand. For me; the more bitter the beer, the better. For Machen; the beer is the better, for it calls forth one’s friends to gather round and talk. And talking is life.
I thought that “thieves slang” was made a made-up phrase for the game Dungeons & Dragons (where it is called Thieves Cant). Look at me learning here: when I read a little, I learn a little.
I have never heard the term “drying” used to mean to lose one’s thoughts onstage or to forget your lines. Whenever I used to have an aura before a seizure, Machen’s description of “drying” is very similar to how I would feel during those frightening moments. It’s as though somehow Machen learns to enjoy this freezing-up on stage.
Machen speaks of his near-continuous nervousness while acting. To me, it sounds like a type of torture, yet he seems to enjoy the pain. What does that say about him? Christopher offers us a tantalizing option here. Perhaps dealing with this pressure onstage was a way to work through his wife Amy’s death. Having lost my first wife after nine years of marriage, there sure are stranger ways to deal with someone’s loss. Maybe living in a completely different manner helped him to jump out of himself and then enabled him to jump back into his life that had changed unalterably.
I’m surprised that the introduction here doesn’t mention Machen’s description of how a writer (or artist) thinks of his own readers. It’s insightful that Machen writes for himself. This might explain why his writing survives, in its own way, to this day. He didn’t bend to what sold at the time (or he tried not to write in this manner). Instead, he bent to his own mood. I suspect that an entire essay could be written about this comment that Machen seems to make off-the-cuff: “No artist worth his salt cares what his readers or his audience think about his work: his object in life is to express himself in his art to the very best of his ability-and by so doing he does please the only audience that matters: the audience of the intelligent and understanding.”
Machen’s moral number one is essentially to do your best even when no one is watching. Can we live our own lives by this advice? It probably is more difficult to do than it sounds, especially considering that Machen says that doing our very best may not (probably will not) lead to any additional benefits. That’s what makes it hard.
Machen’s description of applying make-up for the stage could easily, it seems, be applied to describing the application of make-up for the silent film era. He lived to see that time. What did he think of “the flicks?”
Machen’s closing thoughts at the end of part three, when he describes putting on two shows at a lunatic asylum, were strange. His words were a bit funny in two senses of the word: silly and odd. Could mistaking the only sane person in the audience for the seemingly most insane person in the room be a true anecdote or is it a tall tale?
Machen drops, now and again, bits about his own outlook on life throughout this piece. He’s profound when he says, “[…] men earn their living for the most part by ‘doing business’ or by such other evil and squalid tricks […].” What method to earn a living did Machen prefer to see used by his fellow man?
I’ll leave with a moneymaking idea that would faithfully be a “squalid trick” if taken on Machen’s own terms. Let us revive the play “The Just Punishment,” as it is described by Machen. We only have to make a few changes to it, and that’s easy because the work is in the public domain (I say rubbing my hands together maliciously). The play already has a gorilla. Now, we just have to make him bigger. Taller. Meaner. Then we’ll throw in Godzilla, put it all on film and we’ll have pure joy! It’s guaranteed popcorn fun for the whole family. Gather ’round folks! The money is going to start pouring inside this here manager’s coffers any moment now!