My earliest recollection of the theatre is of a dramatization of “David Copperfield.” It was called “Little Em’ly,” and of course featured that young female’s unfortunate infatuation. I recall the concluding tableau—Little Em’ly on the dock, embarking amid tears for a new life in Australia. Why she had to go to Australia was at the time incomprehensible to me, as was the embarrassment of my parents at my demand for an explanation. I was then six. It remains, alas! incomprehensible to me at sixty. But better still I recall the impersonation of Uriah Heep, whose hypocritical hand rubbings fascinated me, and whom I so successfully imitated the following day that the neighbors were called in to witness the feat. Bluff Dan Peggotty I liked, and that lone lorn creetur’, Mrs. Gum-midge, and the old ship they lived in (what a fascinating house!). It was but a step from seeing the play to hunting out the book in father’s library to look at the pictures, and not many steps from that to reading the text. My initial impulse into the world of Dickens came from the stage, from “Little Em’ly” and “Dombey and Son” particularly.
This stage was the old Boston Museum, a peculiar local institution which had opened in the ‘40’s literally as a museum, with a show thrown in, to smother the Puritan objection to amusement under the Puritan passion for education. Even in my childhood this theatre, which stood on Tremont Street just north of King’s Chapel burial ground, was entered first through a spacious lobby filled with dusty cases of still dustier mineral specimens, stuffed birds, and the like. You simply had to be subjected to these informative objects before you could reach the ticket chopper. Once past him, however, you found yourself in an intimate and charming old theatre where a skillful and famous stock company operated, and where it was entirely proper for children to be taken on a Saturday afternoon.
But my second most vivid theatrical memory is of another theatre, the Hollis Street, converted from an old church, where at the age of eight I was taken with my sister, two years older than I, to see the first Boston performance of a new work called “The Mikado.” We knew already the tunes from “Pinafore” and “The Pirates,” and from “Patience,” too, but had never seen one of these fabulous works on the stage. The solemn antics and unco-ordinated legs of Koko roused me to such a pitch of mirth that my sister, proper as only a girl-child in the Boston of those days could be, tried to hush me. Whereupon an elderly gentleman in the seat behind touched her on the shoulder and said, “Let the little fellow laugh I” She was indignant, but obeyed. Indeed, there was no hushing me. The actor who played Koko was irresistible. His name, by the way, was Richard Mansfield.
Mansfield at this time had already made his hit as the dissipated Baron in “A Parisian Romance,” and was reluctant to be forced back on the lyric stage. In fact, I think this was his last engagement in musical comedy. But he had been rehearsed by Gilbert himself in London, and had sung in “Pinafore” in New York, and knew well the Savoyard style. Fifty years later, when I saw Martyn Green play Koko in the D’Oyly Carte company, this memory of Mansfield came rushing back upon me. A hundred intervening Kokos were forgotten and I realized how completely the D’Oyly Carte players have preserved a style and kept it vital.
We had another famous theatre in the city, the Boston Theatre, a huge affair in the early and mid-nineteenth century conventional horse-shoe pattern, with a “family circle” and four balconies. It must have seated, I suppose, close to three thousand people. The stage apron projected on a curve so that the footlights in the centre were at least twenty feet in front of the curtain line. You could always tell when the end of a scene was coming because the actors out on the apron, where of course they liked to get in order to be seen and heard, began playing back so they would not get caught in front of the descending curtain. This apron, of course, though I did not know it, was a relic of Garrick’s stage, even of Shakespeare’s. But it was not Shakespeare which I saw in the vast spaces of this playhouse. It was Joe Jeiferson in “Rip Van Winkle.” In those days it was a part of every American child’s education to see Jefferson as Rip. J. Ranken Towse, the Englishman who for so many years was dramatic critic of the New York Evening Post, used to say “Rip Van Winkle” was the most immoral of plays because it created tremendous sympathy for a shiftless loafer and none at all for his abused wife and neglected children. There is certainly no question but in Jefferson’s hands it created sympathy for Rip in my infant bosom to such an extent that when his wife drove him out into the storm I howled with grief. My tears were so unrestrained and my grief so vocal that as soon as the act was over my father announced we’d go home. Whereupon, of course, I howled the more, having no desire to go home. I must stay to see what became of poor Rip. So we stayed, and the weird little men rolled great silent balls across the stage to crash in thunder as they hit invisible pins, and they menaced Rip with awful silence, and nodded their yard-long beards as he downed the drink. And then Rip woke in rags, and his gun fell to pieces, and first nobody knew him, but then they did, and it was all right, and my eyes were red, and I’d been sitting on my hat, and why was this Washington Street out here when it ought to be the Catskill Mountains?
Many years later, when Wallack’s Theatre in New York was to be torn down, the manager gave me out of the old property room a gun which Jefferson had carried when he once acted the role at that playhouse. Later still, when we were about to revive the play at the Berkshire Playhouse with Donald Meek as Rip, I brought the gun for him to carry and told him Jefferson had used it. Meek took it in silence, raised the barrel to his lips, and kissed it. That will sound a little silly only to those who never saw Joseph Jef-ferson, and who know nothing of the reverence all true actors have for the departed great ones of their profession. Donald Meek, I might add, is the only actor I have ever seen in a revival of “Rip Van Winkle” who could bring the old play to even a semblance of life again.
It is a strange thing to me now that in my childhood, when I was taken to the theatre so often, I never saw any Shakespeare. Why I was not taken to witness Booth’s Hamlet I cannot imagine. I saw only his Richelieu, when he was an old man, and recall only my terror as he launched the curse of Rome, towering in his cardinal-red robe full nine feet high while I cowered behind the seat in front. It may be that my emotions were too unrestrained in public, and would have embarrassed a Shakespearian audience in Boston, not to mention my parents. At any rate, my knowledge of Shakespeare, until I reached college age, was confined to Lamb’s “Tales,” which bored me, and later to a study of the texts provided in prep school, where in common with all my schoolmates I loathed the plays with a loathing only exceeded by that which I felt for the also compulsory minor poems of John Milton and the Sir Roger de Coverley papers. It took the combined labors of Irving and Terry and Mansfield to undo the work of my teachers. That Shakespeare has survived the educational process all these years is indeed a miracle.
In my fifteenth year a new play came to the Museum and my father bade me take a week-end from school and go to see it. He sent me money, too, for the luxury of an orchestra seat—$1.50. He did not tell me why I should see the play nor could I fathom his reason after the curtain rose and the drama unfolded. Most of the play took place in a New England kitchen remarkably like my grandmother’s kitchen, and the leading character was an old fellow remarkably like my grandfather. Why should I spend a precious dollar-and-a-half seeing him? There was one good scene, to be sure. This old man’s brother tended the light and during a storm he refused to light it because his enemy was off shore and could thus be done away with. But the old man fought him at the foot of the lighthouse stairs, threw him down, and staggered up the steps to set the beacon going. I liked that scene, so much so that when I went back to school I plagiarized it in a short story which helped me “make” the school paper. But the rest of the play was hardly a play at all, nothing happened that you might not expect in almost any family, and when the old man, at the end, had straightened out all the family troubles and put everybody to bed, he tilted the stove lids, kicked the hooked rug against the crack under the door to keep out the cold, blew out the kerosene lamp, and went off to bed himself, leaving the old kitchen to hold the stage. Grandmother’s kitchen 1 Why did the audience applaud that? I returned to school a disappointed lad, little knowing that in seeing James A. Heme play “Shore Acres” I had witnessed the beginning of a revolution in American dramatic art.
Heme, of course, prodded by Howells and Hamlin Garland, had written and produced “Margaret Fleming” three years earlier, but it had failed. The melodrama in the lighthouse was put into “Shore Acres” as a deliberate compromise, and the need for it in 1893 was possibly evidenced by my reaction. Yet five or six years later we were hurrying across the Charles to Boston to see Mansfield in “The Devil’s Disciple” by a new fellow named Shaw (even that one didn’t scorn melodrama entirely), we were reading Ibsen and even seeing an incredibly dull performance of one of his plays by a stage society from New York, we were captivated by the surface texture of reality Gillette inv parted to “Secret Service,” and above all we were enthralled by the art of Mrs. Fiske. Night after night we paid our quarter-of-a-dollar and hung over the second balcony of the Tremont Theatre, following the tragic fortunes of her Tess. At the same period, to be sure, we were also captivated by E. H. Sothern in “The Prisoner of Zenda,” and in fact by a whole flock of “cloak and sword” dramas which shed over the stage of the 90’s a calcium moonlight glow. There was the same paradox in fiction. We were reading Frank Norris and Stephen Crane with excited enthusiasm and quoting Kipling by the yard, while yielding readily to the lush spell of Richard Le Gallienne’s “Quest of the Golden Girl.” Melodrama and romance were dying gracefully in the theatre and on the printed page, and it was another decade before we really knew that they had died. (To be born again, of course, in the movies).
As I look back on those years, it seems to me that theatre going was peculiarly exciting and rewarding because of this very paradox. We who were young could find a critical creed under which to enlist in the eternal battle with our elders, and we could also satisfy our sentimental cravings without resort to the subterfuges now required, And for the high, the true Romance, which custom never stales, there were Irving and Terry and Coquelin and Bernhardt and Mansfield in “Richard III” and later “Peer Gynt.” The best seat in the theatre cost $1.50 and the second balcony but a quarter, nor was anybody ashamed to sit in it. It was as easy and cheap to go to the theatre as to go to the movies today, and the fare was far more varied and infinitely more sustaining. Shakespeare, Ibsen, the new man Shaw, another new man, J. M. Barrie, a French Romantic named Rostand, plays about American life creeping closer to a real rendering of that life, the shining miracle of Bernhardt, the misty miracle of Duse, the staccato glitter of Mrs. Fiske as Becky Sharp, a hundred plays and players, one, two, three a week sometimes, which roused the emotions, jogged the intelligence, and now and again left you blinking with wonder at this exciting lamp of illusion, the theatre.
But participation in an art is of course a more potent influence than mere spectator enjoyment. It chanced that during my school and college years there was a lad in my town whose parents were actors. They had wisely sent him to our village so that he could go to school and have a normal boyhood. But the stage was in his blood and he was not happy till he and I had organized a dramatic club. We called it the Melpomene Club, a name nobody in town ever pronounced correctly and which was a misnomer anyway since we produced nothing but comedies. Our stage was the Unitarian vestry, our plays mostly such farces as we could secure without payment of royalty, our furniture and properties were appropriated from the homes of the players, with or without parental consent. What made us different, so far as we were different, from thousands of other adolescent groups was the instinct for rehearsal discipline displayed by our young founder (who was also our chief comedian), and the fact that both he and I had a constant itch to rewrite scenes in the plays we gave, or even to write plays of our own. The late Anthony Hope never knew that without benefit of permission or royalty payment I adapted his “Dolly Dialogues” to the stage, and at the tender age of eighteen (or it was tender in those days) I made sophisticated love to a plump and pleasing little person who responded admirably. She is now a grandmother, I fear, and has probably forgotten all about it.
The boy who founded the Melpomene Club was named Frank Craven. He later wrote many plays, one of which ran for eight hundred performances on Broadway, and became one of our best known actors. The club was but a step to him in a predestined career. Buy I had no predestination. I dreamed of architecture, of law, of teaching, and finally settled upon journalism. I had been on a newspaper only three years, however, when I gravitated by irresistible compulsion to the dramatic department. I became a critic of the stage, which is a sad and rather back-handed method of dramatic expression, to be sure, but took me to the playhouse. It kept my mind on the problems of the theatre and my spirit alert to the delights of illusion. To this day the theatre has been my major concern and my chief enjoyment. If I were forced to confess the chief regret of my life, I suppose it would be, if you caught me just after I had witnessed a good play well acted, that my Puritan reticence, or self-consciousness, or whatever you choose to call it, prevented my ever so much as trying to be a professional actor. My first performance as Uriah Heep at the age of six would probably have remained my best.
The Boston Theatre was torn down a decade or more ago and a movie “palace” erected on its site. When the wreckers removed the great staircase they found beneath it almost the entire front wall of an early eighteenth century dwelling which the theatre builders had not bothered to demolish. Two centuries of Boston life were thus obliterated to make a Hollywood holiday. The Museum was demolished many years earlier. On the front of the so-called manager’s box was a swing decoration beautifully carved from a single piece of wood, it is said, by a Salem ship carpenter during the winter lay-off. He had evidently looked long at the work of Samuel Mclntire. This piece of carving, repainted and gilded to its pristine state, is now the central feature over my library mantel. In fact, the entire room was designed around it. Sitting before my fire, I sometimes look at it and reflect how different my life might have been had I not gone to the old Museum in my earliest years and seen the lamp of illusion lighted before my enchanted eyes. I may not have known why Little Em’ly had to go to Australia, but I knew thereafter where my happiest hours would be spent. And so it has been.