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AND now it is twelve o'clock on Thursday, and here we are at the stage door as the clock is striking. Ah, we shall not be quite so punctual when we are a little more familiar with the theatrical world, and know that its time is arranged on auctioneer's principles, and that twelve is for twelve-thirty o'clock precisely.
We have, it is probable, had a glass of sherry or a nip of brandy coming along, but even that has not made our knees quite as steady and our voice quite as clear as we could wish; and there is a guilty huskiness about our manner of asking the stage doorkeeper if the manager is in, suggestive of our having come to borrow money, or sell him a dog.
He is a slightly gruffy party, the stage doorkeeper, and a little hard of hearing. He rises and comes towards us with his newspaper in his hand, and we repeat our question. He regards us with great suspicion, and says no, the manager isn't there, his tone implying that it is the last place in the world where any sensible man would expect to find him. We remark "Oh!" upon this, and look round vacantly. Then Cerberus asks us if we have any appointment with the manager, and on our eagerly responding in the affirmative, he says, "Wait a bit," and pulls open the inner door, and calls out for Harry. Harry, an intelligent lad--call boy, errand boy--emerges, whistling, with an empty beer can in his hand, and to him Cerberus appeals as to the probability of the manager's coming or not coming. Harry knows all about the matter, and expects the manager any minute, and if you are Mr. Blank (you are Mr Blank) you are to go down stairs and wait for him. So down you go.
The inside of a theatre is a dismal place by daylight. The empty stage is dimly lighted by one flaring gas jet issuing from an upright T in the centre of the footlights. A shadowy figure in a white jacket is hovering about at the back, hauling "wings" and "flats" about, and carrying on a conversation with an unseen "Bill," whose answers appear to come from high up, or low down, you can't tell which. But it all seems very ghostly. The curtain is up, and the house looks small and dingy. The stalls and decorations are shrouded in dirty white cloths. The sunshine streams in here and there, and makes the place look still more dreary. You walk about, and get the hump.
Every step you hear, and the banging of every door, you fancy is the manager coming, and you rush to the stairs to see. You wonder if he has come and doesn't know you are there. You wonder if he has forgotten the appointment. You wonder if anything has happened to him.
At last! after waiting about half an hour (don't be too surprised though if he doesn't turn up at all. I said in a previous chapter that a theatre was a house of business, and so it is, but the folks in connection with it might be more business-like for all that. Some of them are, in our idiomatic language of Cockaigne, fair cough-drops). In the present case, we suppose that our man is a tolerably well-behaved member of his class, and, as I was saying, he, after half an hour or so, arrives, accompanied by his stage-manager, and the three of you then proceed to either the great man's own private sanctum, or else to the green-room, and the business of the day begins.
It is a trying ordeal, under any circumstances, the reading of a play; and listening to one is just fifty times worse. I never could have believed what a terrible punishment hearing a play read was until some two years ago, when one was read for the first time to me. We started at seven o'clock in the evening, all as jolly as sandboys (I haven't the ghost of a notion what a sandboy is, or why it should be jolly; but it's a good old well-established simile, and I always use it when I get a chance. My poor father was fond of it too, I remember. It has always heen a favourite with our family). Yes, as jolly then as sand boys we were at seven--two of us to listen and one to read. "Go it, old man," we said; and he coughed, and went it.
We laughed at all the jokes in the first act, and criticised the characters, and argued about the plot, and said we thought it very good. The second act began at nine. We discussed it less at detail. The jokes in that act were not so good; the interest in the story was not so absorbing as it had been. I and the rest of the audience got into a sort of habit of looking somewhat frequently at our watches, and shaking them to see if they had stopped. I and the rest of the audience agreed, at the end of the act, that the play was still very good, but that it would want cutting. On the author, however, showing an inclination to argue the point, we gave in, and agreed that it didn't want cutting, and begged him to get on with the third act. The reading of the third act commenced at 10.35; at 10.40 the rest of the audience wanted to know what time the last train left for Battersea. Why, seeing that he resided in the next street but two, he wanted the last train to Battersea, I have never been able to understand. I said I believed it went at 11.55. But he said no; he thought it was 10.50, and, murmuring something about its being a matter of life or death, and having only just recollected it, he left without another word.
So I listened to the remainder of the play by myself, but what it was about I couldn't tell you to save my life. Whether the hero married the heroine, and who turned out to be the rightful heir, I don't know--and I didn't care. Somebody died about the middle of the act, and I was glad of it. That is all I recollect, most of my energies having been concentrated at the time upon my endeavours to yawn without opening my mouth. It is a difficult and exhausting feat. You swell inwardly, your nostrils dilate, your lips and eyebrows are compressed, and give you a vicious, murderous appearance. At last the water comes into your eyes, and you breathe hard, and it is over. And then the whole process immediately commences again.
And yet it was a very good play, and, when it came out about nine months afterwards, proved a smart and rattling piece enough.
That experience taught me two useful lessons. One was not to ever read a play to anybody except as a matter of painful necessity, and, in the interests of your friends, I strongly recommend the rule to you. Very young authors rather fancy they are conferring a favour in giving their fellow-mortals an opportunity of listening to their compositions, but I can assure you the fellow-mortals do not regard it in any festive light at all. It only bores them, and their manner shows this, whatever their conventional gush may say; and then the young author is in the depths of despair, and loses all belief in himself and his work. Don't worry your friends at all about your work. You don't really want their opinion; you only want their praise. They know this, and tell you that the piece is lovely--the finest thing they have ever heard--will be sure to make a great success--no difficulty about getting that out, they should think, etc., etc.--but: "never had such a fearful four hours in all my life" is what they say to each other when they get outside. If they do express their views honestly--give you "their candid opinion," as you have begged of them--it will in nine cases out of ten be to tell you that they do not like it, and that will upset you and do no good. To attempt to follow their suggestions would be to expose your play to the fate of the old man's donkey. You must judge your work for yourself, and rely upon your own opinion. Especially, above all things, do not ask another literary man his views about it. Each artist looks at his art from his own platform. He cannot see it from a brother artist's standpoint, and consequently all work but his own, however perfect it may be, must of necessity appear distorted to his eyes. Shakespeare's work seems to me in many ways to be false and faulty; and were Shakespeare alive, he would, I am convinced, object to my methods. Thus do artists disagree.
The second lesson that I learned by that reading was not to despair when other people yawned and dozed while listening to the reading of a piece of mine. A play is written to be acted, not read, and that it does not sound exciting at the desk is no proof that it will be dull when on the stage. Besides, I doubt whether listening to some two or three steady hours' reading of the best novel or tale--things which are written for reading--would prove exhilarating. I shouldn't care to sit out a whole morning of even "Middlemarch."
But we are wandering away from the little room where the manager and the stage-manager are waiting to hear our play. Let us return there and read it.
It will, as I say, be a trying ordeal for you. It will always be so, right up to the end of your career.
If you are a young author, full of hope and belief in yourself, and with corresponding capacity for disappointment and despair, the strain is pretty well as much as you can bear. When you are an old one, with your reputation, not to make, but--far more difficult--to maintain, and when managerial confidence in you, once shaken, would be impossible to re-establish, the tension is even still more severe.
The room is cold and cheerless, and you feel that your two companions and yourself make but a poor show in it. The manager is opening and reading his letters in an abstracted manner, and appears to have forgotten who you are, and to be fitfully wondering why you are there, and why he is there, and what it is all about. As for the stage-manager, he makes no attempt to disguise his opinion that the whole proceeding is a piece of foolishness; and before the reading commences you have come to view the thing in the same light yourself, and to wish that you were the proprietor of a prosperous fried fish shop, and had never bothered your head about plays at all.
Then the manager requests you to "Fire away," and you sit down and open your MS., and begin.
Much depends upon how you read. A poor play can be given the semblance of sparkle and wit by a clever reader, but authors, generally speaking, are not good readers--F.C. Burnand and W.S. Gilbert being the exceptions that only prove the rule--and more often a piece with real humour and "go" in it will sound flat, stale, and unprofitable to the two weary listeners who form its first audience. Also, it is difficult to read with any spirit at all under the circumstances. A crowd of two is not an invigorating one to perform before, even when both are sympathetic and admiring, and to interest or amuse a manager or stage-manager in any play is like trying to excite a newspaper editor about politics. They have heard plays till they are sick of the very word play. They know all your jokes by heart. They have been familiar with all your novel situations for years, They can tell you the whole of your plot after hearing the first fifty lines. The speeches at which you have pictured the whole house rising with enthusiasm they sit through unmoved, only remarking at the end that it will want cutting; and the humour that you have feared would be almost dangerous as likely to send weak persons into too severe convulsions, they sit and stare at with fixed, glassy eye.
And yet you can very soon tell if the piece is "going" with them. They do not laugh, they do not smile, they do not say anything. There is no outward sign whatever from which you can gather any opinion. But an intangible, undefinable, electric current seems to run round from one to the other, and you feel that they are in sympathy with you, and that you are carrying them with you as you read.
Sometimes a startlingly strong and novel piece will work them up to such a degree that they actually show emotion. If the manager titters upon the first or second witty line, and goes on to laugh heartily as you turn over the pages, you can begin to think about the terms that you will ask. I have heard tell of an instance in which the stage-manager was observed to wipe away a tear during the reading of the pathetic part of a play. If so, the situation must have been wondrously sad. I rather doubt the whole story though myself.
To read on against a strengthening conviction that your labour is useless, that they do not care for the piece, and are sure not to accept it, is terribly depressing work. The silence of the room, broken only by the sound of your own voice, grows more oppressive every moment. The air seems to get colder. You go on grinding out the lines in a dull, hopeless, mechanical manner. You have no sense of what you are reading, and you give no sense to the words. Your throat is dry and parched. You try to rouse yourself up, to throw some fire into your reading, but it is useless. The deadness only deepens, and you feel as thankful as the other two, when at last it is all over, and the manager has thanked you for giving him the pleasure of hearing the piece, and you have thanked the manager for giving you the pleasure of reading it to him, and you are outside in the open air and can breathe.
When, on the other hand, however, it is plain that your manager is enjoying the play more and more as it goes on, and his acceptance of it appears more and more certain every moment, then your reading becomes almost ecstatic. You rattle through the comic scenes with unctuous gusto, and the manager laughs and shakes in his seat, and the stage-manager gravely guffaws. The heroine recounts her woes, and your voice quavers with emotion, and the manager blows his nose, and the stage-manager quietly sighs and looks at his boots. Your hero thunders forth his magnificent defiance of the villain, and the room resounds with your passionate tones, and the manager's eye fires, and his fist clenches in sympathy, and the stage-manager shakes his head and looks determined. And when you have finished, the manager jumps up and turns to the stage- manager with--"Well, I think that's the sort of thing we want, isn't it?" and the stage-manager, though less enthusiastic in his manner, smiles, and says that he thinks they can do with it.
After that, terms are discussed. (These not being quite so brilliant for the author as is generally supposed. But of this more anon); and, when they are settled, the "casting" is argued out, and arranged.
"Well, Annie Hughes will play Maria, I suppose," says the manager, turning to the stage-manager.
"Isn't she rather affected?" says the stage-manager.
The stage-manager never likes anybody's acting, and makes a virtue of always speaking his mind.
"Ah, how charming she was in that thing of Rae's at the Criterion," murmurs the manager, thoughtfully.
"I think she's all right," strikes in the author, "if she's kept well in hand."
"Ah, that's all very well to say, but will you keep her well in hand?" replies the stage-manager; "I don't care for the job, I tell you frankly."
"I think that will be all right, Tom," says the manager. "She must understand that she's not to play about in it."
"Oh, very well. We can but try."
"Who'll play Angelina?"
"You won't better Cissy Grahame for that," says the stage-manager.
"We wan't someone very strong for that," puts in the author, anxiously. "That's the part I'm more nervous about than any."
"Well, my dear boy, you couldn't want anyone stronger. She's been doing some very good work lately, Cissy has." (The stage-manager always regards himself as a permanent opposition. If the author or the manager fancy anyone, he regards that person as a duffer. If they are doubtful of anyone, he is that person's champion.)
"Oh, all right, as long as you are satisfied about her strength. I don't remember her in anything, myself, lately."
"Oh, you'll find her all right," adds the manager assuringly.
"Now, what about Granthorne?" asks the author.
"Yes, that's our difficulty," remarks the manager.
"You'll have to engage someone for that," says his lieutenant.
The three people stare at one another for a bit, and ponder.
"What do you think of Bassett Roe?" suggests the opposition.
"Hardly his style," replies the
"Lewis Waller has been coming to the front a good deal lately," is the second suggestion of the stage-manager.
"H'm," says the author. "Think he'd do?"
"It is a most difficult thing to put your hands on a good juvenile lead nowadays," parenthetically observes the chief.
"How do you like Waring?" hazards the author.
"He'd do all right, but we can't get him."
"Cartwright," suddenly exclaims the author, as if he'd just guessed a riddle.
"Not your man at all," says the stage-manager.
"What would he want?" asks the manager.
"Oh, you'd get him for ten."
"Nearer twenty," says the opposition.
"Well, say fifteen," says the author gaily, who, not having to pay, looks upon this arguing about five or ten pounds a week as foolish.
"Bucklaw," says the manager, musingly.
"Bucklaw's your man," says the other; "and you'd get him for about ten or twelve."
"Do you think he could do it?" inquires the author.
"Well, he's been playing all Wilson Barrett's parts in the provinces. He ought to."
"Bucklaw, Bucklaw," mutters the author, "wasn't that the man at the Opera Comique?"
"Yes--he played the lover--the young Scotchman."
"Oh, yes--Oh, he'd do splendidly."
"I wonder if he's
"Soon find out."
"Well, we'll take it that he is for the present."
And so on, and so on, till the casting is complete. Then the manager, saying he will write and let you know when the reading before the company is fixed for, shakes hands and wishes you good morning; and leaving the MS. on his table, you go out much easier in your mind than you came in.
The dingy little street is a radiant road, the London air is sweet and pleasant in your nostrils. The dirty urchins round about are your brothers, and you love them all. You love everybody. Even your wife's relations you do not positively dislike, for the moment.
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