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DAN AND PAUL

from _A little of everything_ (1912)
originally from _A wanderer in London_

by E.V. Lucas

IN Dan Leno England lost a man of genius whose untimely and melancholy end was yet another reminder that great wits are sure to madness near allied. Not that he was precisely a great wit: rather a great droll; but great within his limits he certainly was, and probably no one has ever caused more laughter or cleaner laughter.

  That was, perhaps, Dan Leno's greatest triumph that the grimy sordid material of the Music Hall low comedian, which, with so many singers, remains grimy and sordid, and perhaps even becomes more grimy and more sordid, in his refining hands became radiant, joyous, a legitimate source of mirth. In its nakedness it was still drunkenness, quarrelsomeness petty poverty; still hunger, even crime; but such was the native cleanness of this little, eager, sympathetic observer and reader of life, such was his gift of showing the comic, the unexpected, side, that it emerged the most suitable, the gayest joke. He might be said to have been a crucible that transmuted mud to gold.

  It was the strangest contrast — the quaint, old-fashioned, half-pathetic figure, dressed in his outlandish garbs, waving his battered umbrella, smashing his impossible hat, revealing the most squalid secrets of the slums; and tho resultant effect of light and happiness, laughter irresistible, and yet never for a moment cruel, never at anything, but always with it. The man was immaculate.

  In this childlike simplicity of emotion which he manifested we can probably see the secret of his complete failure in New York. In that sophisticated city his genial elemental raptures seemed trivial. The Americans looked for cynicism, or at least a complete destructive philosophy such as their own funny men have at their finger-tips — and he gave them humour not too far removed from tears. He gave them fun, that rarest of qualities, rarer far than wit or humour — and, in their own idiom, they had "no use" for it.

  In the deserts of pantomime he was comparatively lost: his true place was the stage of a small Music Hall, where he could get on terms with his audience in a moment. Part of his amazing success was his gift of taking you into his confidence. The soul of sympathy himself, he made you sympathetic too. He addressed a Hall as though it were one intimate friend. He told you his farcical troubles as earnestly as an unquiet soul tells its spiritual ones. You had to share them. His perplexities became yours — he gathered you in with his intimate and impressive "Mark you"; and you resigned yourself to be played upon as he would. The bright security of his look told you that he trusted you, that you could not fail him. You shared his ecstasies too; and they were ecstasies!

  No matter what Dan did to his face, its air of wistfulness always conquered the pigments. It was the face of a grown-up child rather than a man, with many traces upon it of early struggles. For he began in the poorest way, accompanying his parents as a stroller from town to town, and knowing every vicissitude. This face, with its expression of profound earnestness, pointed his jokes irresistibly. I recollect one song in the patter to which (and latterly his songs were mostly patter) he mentioned a firework explosion at home that carried both his parents through tho roof. "I shall always remember it," he said, gravely, while his face lit with triumph and satisfaction, "because it was the only time that father and mother ever went out together." That is quite a good specimen of his manner, with its hint of pathos underlying the gigantic absurdity.

  Irish (of course) by extraction, his real name was George Galvin: he took Leno from his stepfather and Dan from an inspired misprint. His first triumphs were as a clog-dancer, and he danced superbly to the end, long after his mind was partially gone. But he will be remembered as the sweetest-souled comedian that ever swayed an audience with grotesque nonsense based on natural facts.

  But not even Dan Leno was to all tastes, except in the pit and gallery. It is one of the unavoidable blemishes upon the variety that governs a Music Hall entertainment, that there must be a certain section of the audience who have to endure much in order to see a little that they like. Yet there is always something that is worth seeing, always in every Hall however remote from the centre, one performance of strength or dexterity in which all the supple beauty of the human figure and its triumphs of patience and practice shine out. I would sit through an hour of rubbish (since one may talk and smoke, as one may not in any theatre) for five minutes of such a genius as Paul Cinquevalli; and him the Londoner may see any night when he is in town for sixpence or a shilling and have the honour of applauding the very Shakespeare of equilibrists.

  It is impossible to believe that greater skill and precision than Cinquevalli's will ever be attained. or my part I cannot think that we shall ever see accomplishment so great; but even if we do, I feel certain that it will lack the alliance of such charm and distinction. It is not merely that the incomparable Paul can instantly subjugate and endow with lifo every article of furniture that he touches: that in a moment billiard-balls run over his back like mice, billiard-cues assume the blind obedience of sheep; it is not only this, but take away his juggling genius and there would still remain a man of compelling arresting charm, a man visibly and fascinatingly pre-eminent. "Here is a power," one says, immediately his lithe figure enters. "Here is a power." As it happens, he goes on to prove it by neutralising the life-work of Sir Isaac Newton with exquisite grace and lightheartedness; but were he to do nothing at all — were he merely to stand there — one would be conscious of a notable personality none the less.

  No one can enjoy watching a good conjuror more than I do — I mean a conjuror who produces things from nothing, not a practitioner with machinery — but a good juggle■r is even more interesting. The conjuror's hands alone are beautiful, whereas every line and movement of the juggler's body has grace. This at least is so with Cinquevalli. As I watch him Blake's lines keep recurring to me:

 

"What immortal hand or eye
 Could frame thy fearful symmetry?"

Not that Paul is a tiger, or that the words are wholly appropriate; but the law of association is the only one which I never break, and I like to put some of its freakish manifestations on record, especially as fundamentally it always has reason.

  I suppose there has never been such mastery over matter as Paul Cinquevalli's. Like the great man and humorous artist that he is, he has deliberately set himself the most difficult tasks; one would have said the insuperable tasks. What, for example, is less tractable than a billiard-ball — a hard, round, polished, elusive thing, full of independence and original sin, that scarcely affords foothold for a fly, and often refuses to obey even John Roberts on a level table? But Cinquevalli will not only balance a billiard-ball on a cue, but will balance another ball on that, and will even run two together, one resting on the other. backwards and forwards between two parallel cues. This feat I am convinced is as much of a miracle as many of the things in which none of us believe. It is perfectly ridiculous, after seeing it performed by Cinquevalli, to come away with petty little doubts as to the unseen world. Everything has become possible.

  With Paul one may use the word "perfection" quite comfortably, without fear of molestation. And I know I am right by an infallible test. Anything perfect moves me in the way that anything pathetic ought to do; and to watch Cinquevalli performing some of his feats is to be wrought upon to a curious and, perhaps, quite comic degree. "You beauty! You beauty!" I have caught myself saying again and again as he conquered one difficulty after another with his charming ease. In talking about Cinquevalli to an artist — and a very level-headed artist, too — after the performance, he said, before I had mentioned this peculiarity of mine, "I must go and see him again. But the odd thing about Cinquevalli is that he always makes me cry." Then I confessed too; for after that I could have no shame in my emotion for, indeed, had I before; for, to quote Blake again:

"A tear is an intellectual thing."

(End.)