The following is a Gaslight etext....
A message to you about copyright and permissions
Back to Playwriting menu
IT may be remembered that, in the last chapter, we left our hero engaged in a fearful struggle with a matinée. We will now retrace our steps, and return to our story at the point where the villain of this tale (the manager I mean, of course) had accepted the play, and arranged for its production. The matinée affair was really all a dream. Our author was very tired and sleepy when the letter of which we spoke was brought to him, and suddenly dropped off to sleep with the envelope unopened in his hand, and dreamed the events recorded. Now, however, it is morning, and he awakes and rubs his eyes. "Then that awful matinée was all a horrid dream," he exclaims; "and I don't owe forty-seven pounds ten shillings and ninepence, and the papers haven't said that 'another three hours' drivel was served up at the Criterion yesterday afternoon for the delectation of those unfortunate beings whom duty compels to frequent matinée performances.' And the letter then from the theatre, saying they were not going to do the piece after all! What!--why here it is, lying on the floor unopened? What does it say, really? 'Dear Mr. Author,--Please be down here to-morrow, Wednesday, at twelve to read Blood Stained Bill; or, the Brigand of Mount Blanc to company.--Very truly yours, T. H. E. Manager.'"
So you see everything turned out happily after all.
At twelve o'clock he, having dressed himself in his best clothes, and bought a new pair of gloves, coming along, presents himself at the stage door--not hesitatingly and nervously this time, but as if the whole place belonged to him. Other people--actors out of work and young authors mere outsiders, silly, presumptuous lads who think they can write plays, members of "the great unacted club," poor fellows! Our hero pities them, but thinks it would be better if they gave up trying to force themselves into a groove for which they are unfitted, and returned to their stools--these people are waiting about, but they are told the manager will be unable to see anybody that morning, as he has an important engagement. Will our author step down stairs into the green room?
In the green room he finds the stage-manager talking to a couple of gentlemen and three ladies. The stage-manager greets him pleasantly, and introduces him. The gentlemen bow, the ladies bow and smile, and our hero thinks he shall like being a dramatic author very much. Others soon arrive, and everybody seems to have their best clothes on, and our hero is glad he put his on. Everybody is a little nervous, too, and subdued. Altogether, the affair is not unlike a wedding.
The manager arrives at last, and, all the company being there, the reading at once takes place. This is a very much more jovial matter than was the former reading. There is no anxiety or doubt on either side, no up-hill fighting against chilly disbelief and assured boredness. On the contrary, the company have been told that the play is going to be a good one, and everyone is in an encouragingly prepared-to-be-pleased mood. They form an excellent audience, too, any company of actors (and be it enacted that whenever "actors" are spoken of in these papers in the masculine gender the same shall extend to either sex), and it is a pleasure to read to them. They laugh in the right places, and become properly pensive during the sad situations. They do not, when Edwin clasps Angelina to his bosom with "And now, my own, my darling girl, one last farewell before we part, perhaps never more to meet upon this earth," giggle behind their handkerchiefs, nor double up with a shriek, and try to lie down in their seats when the villain, saying "Die, then!" murders the good old man. They will grasp every point. They will understand the full significance of every line. The reading is rattled through amid laughter, murmurs of delight, and even, perhaps, slight applause; and, at the end, the company rise to beam smiles and congratulations upon our modest friend. Let us hope he is modest. That of itself will confer upon him a certain amount of distinction among the ranks of dramatic authors.
At least, this is what takes place, provided the play is an undoubtedly good one. Very often, however, the company is assembled to hear a piece which has only been accepted in desperation, and because nothing else could be found, and something must be had. Then the proceedings are by no means so smooth, and the author, especially, has a very rough time of it. There is depressing silence, broken only by coughs and fidgetings during his reading. Stoical resignation is the pervading expression of countenance, and everybody carefully avoids catching anybody else's eye. If anybody does by accident do so, the look that is exchanged between those two is charged with a meaning which it would be difficult to express shortly in words. Some of the more complaining among the Psalms, together with selections from the book of Job and the Lamentations of Jeremiah would seem, though, to imply the idea. At the end, there is an ominous silence, and the audience rise, anxious to get outside and relieve their feelings by telling each other what they think of it. "Well, there you are; that's it," says the manager, defiantly, and nobody contradicts him. The author looks pale and jaded, and sits, saying nothing, till one or two have left. Then he smiles feebly and asks the stage-manager what he thinks of it. The stage-manager replies in a pre-occupied air "Ah--well--we must see what we can do with it," and prefers to keep his opinion to himself till he finds the manager alone (the stage-manager has great influence as regards the final acceptance or refusal of a play. His voice is, indeed, the casting vote). The author, very meek and generally apologetic, then puts it in low whisper to one or two of the company what they think of it, whereupon they recollect that they have trains to catch, and murmuring evasive replies slide out; upon which the author buttonholes the youngest member of the company (who is nervous and doesn't know how to get away), and proves to him that the play is an A 1 affair and bound to succeed.
Under these circumstances, the piece rarely comes to a head.
The force against it is too powerful, and after floundering through one or two rehearsals, it sinks into the great quagmire of stillborn drama, and is never heard of again.
But we are not thinking of such pieces as these. We are dealing in this chapter with the brilliantly clever comedy that you, my young friend, have penned--the comedy that is welcomed by the whole company with effusion. We will even go so far as to suppose that they are all pleased with their parts, and that even the low comedy is not absolutely dissatisfied with his. Such being the case, the first rehearsal is appointed for eleven, on the next day but one, and at 11.30 on that day you will all be standing on the stage, waiting for the leading lady, who has been delayed owing to the death of a near relative.
The first few rehearsals will be mainly devoted to "positions," entrances, and exits, movements, situations, and such like. They will not become interesting from an artistic point of view until, say, after the first week, by which time the mechanic a portion of the work being fairly in hand, and "parts" having been mastered, the "character" comes in for attention. During this first week's rehearsals, however, the parts will be read, heroes, heroines, villains, and comic lovers, all trapesing about the stage with books in their hands, and gabbling through your witty or poetic lines in a way calculated to break your heart.
Not that they do not appreciate them. No one will do so more, and even ill the hurry and worry of these early times a frequent laugh, and a constant "What a lovely line!" "Isn't this a pretty scene?" "What a splendid situation!" tell that, notwithstanding seeming indifference, the play is being followed and understood.
But, of course, as I have said, the words and
ideas are of secondary importance just now. The
"business" of the scenes is the chief thing to be
HERO. "I love you,
Anastasia, with a passion so transcendental that neither
earth, nor Heaven, nor even--." Well, now where do I
take he hand? "At earth?"
STAGE MANAGER. No, no, my boy. When you get to
COMIC MAN (waiting his turn at the
wings). Never will get there. You will arrange for it to
come off at the third place mentioned, if you take my
STAGE MANAGER (who very properly regards rehearsals
from a serious point of view--severely). We are here to
rehearse a play, Mr.
----, if you please. Not to play the fool. (Comic Man
unostentatiously withdraws from the scene, and is heard no
HEROINE. Well, then, am
I to stand stock still all through his speech?
STAGE MANAGER. No, no, of course not. You--what are the
PROMPTER (at table
C). "Stands proud and erect. Left Centre."
(laughing). Well, I can't stand "proud and
erect" for five minutes. I shall have some gallery boy
asking "if it's alive."
AUTHOR. No, no, Miss ----. You understand the idea, surely. You're being made love
to. You don't want to jump about.
STAGE MANAGER (who has his own opinion about the
author's opinions concerning these matters). Well, my
boy, she's quite right. No woman would stand like a dummy
for five or six minutes even to be made love to.
AUTHOR (who fancies
he knows all that is to be known about human nature, and
about the habits and manners of women in particular).
Well, what would she do?
STAGE MANAGER. Well, she'd toy with her fan or something
or make some movement towards him.
MANAGER (who has
entered during the argument, and been listening to it
unobserved, now coming forward). How would it be to
break up Laurence's speech and let her answer him at the
beginning. Then she could sit all the while he was telling
her about his mother.
STAGE MANAGER. That's the very thing I've been arguing for
all along You'll find you'll have to do it too when you come
to see the thing worked out.
AUTHOR. Well, I
particularly don't want to. I want that exact situation. It
will be all right you'll see when the speeches are properly
given. You can't judge of it now at all.
MANAGER. Well, leave
that now. We can easily see about it afterwards.
HERO. "I love you, Anastasia, with a passion so transcendental that neither earth, nor Heaven, nor even--." Well, now where do I take he hand? "At earth?"
STAGE MANAGER. No, no, my boy. When you get to "Heaven."
COMIC MAN (waiting his turn at the wings). Never will get there. You will arrange for it to come off at the third place mentioned, if you take my advice.
STAGE MANAGER (who very properly regards rehearsals from a serious point of view--severely). We are here to rehearse a play, Mr. ----, if you please. Not to play the fool. (Comic Man unostentatiously withdraws from the scene, and is heard no more).
HEROINE. Well, then, am I to stand stock still all through his speech?
STAGE MANAGER. No, no, of course not. You--what are the stage directions?
PROMPTER (at table C). "Stands proud and erect. Left Centre."
HEROINE (laughing). Well, I can't stand "proud and erect" for five minutes. I shall have some gallery boy asking "if it's alive."
AUTHOR. No, no, Miss ----. You understand the idea, surely. You're being made love to. You don't want to jump about.
STAGE MANAGER (who has his own opinion about the author's opinions concerning these matters). Well, my boy, she's quite right. No woman would stand like a dummy for five or six minutes even to be made love to.
AUTHOR (who fancies he knows all that is to be known about human nature, and about the habits and manners of women in particular). Well, what would she do?
STAGE MANAGER. Well, she'd toy with her fan or something or make some movement towards him.
MANAGER (who has entered during the argument, and been listening to it unobserved, now coming forward). How would it be to break up Laurence's speech and let her answer him at the beginning. Then she could sit all the while he was telling her about his mother.
STAGE MANAGER. That's the very thing I've been arguing for all along You'll find you'll have to do it too when you come to see the thing worked out.
AUTHOR. Well, I particularly don't want to. I want that exact situation. It will be all right you'll see when the speeches are properly given. You can't judge of it now at all.
MANAGER. Well, leave that now. We can easily see about it afterwards.
So, for the present, it is arranged that Anastasia is to stand stock still while Laurence tells her about his mother, and that he is to take her hand when he gets to "Heaven."
Every position, every movement of a hand, every fluttering of a fan, every wink, every shrug of the shoulder is carefully worked out at rehearsal. The distance separating a husband and wife from each other during a quarrel is scrupulously measured (what a pity it is not measured and maintained in real life!), and whether Edwin's passionate kiss shall be on the right or left side of Angelina's nose is decided by the stage-manager's going round into the stalls, and seeing from there which looks most full of tenderness. Grouping, posing, and situations require an immense amount of care. That pretty picture of Letty rushing with a little cry of joy into Robin's arms, while her white-haired father rises, smiling, to greet him, has cost a vast amount of labour to produce; and Letty, and Robin, and the author, and the manager, and the stage-manager, and the white-haired father have had a fearful time over it. The stage-manager thought that Robin should come down c., and that Letty should meet him there. The author, on the other hand, would rather lose his hopes of heaven (not much of a stake for him) than allow that. He is nuts on the idea that Robin should stand at the door with his arms stretched out, and that Letty should first exclaim "Robin!" and then run towards him. Stage-manager says: "Oh, all right; do it that way, and you will spoil the whole situation." Author says, "Not at all, my dear fellow. It will be a little novel, that's all." Letty, appealed to on the quiet by the author, and not wishing to offend that party, says she feels more like running the whole way; appealed to publicly by the stage-manager, and being anxious not to affront that personage, says she does think it would take off a little from the distance if Robin came down a few steps. If the author is a young hand it is probable that the stage-manager's view will be finally adopted. If, however, the former is a man of standing, then it will probably be the stage-manager's views that will suffer.
Of course, in the case of "big" authors, no one would think of opposing their notions. A Gilbert's or a Pinero's MS. would contain all stage directions down to the very minutest, and these would be carried out without question.
It being at last settled where Letty and Robin are to embrace, the white-haired father has to be fixed. Shall he rise the moment he sees Robin, or shall he remain seated until the lovers have done cuddling, and run towards him? Will white-haired father try both ways, please, and now the other way again? "Yes; the first way is right. Will you please make a note of that, Chudleigh? You rise as Robin enters."
There will be from twenty to thirty, or even more, rehearsals of a big piece, and after the skeleton of the play, as the movements and positions may be termed, has been knocked into some sort of shape, the company begins to pay more heed to the lines. Here, also, every intonation, every accent, every laugh, every sigh is arranged, and practised, and tried again and again, until both stage-manager and author are thoroughly satisfied. The very big artistes naturally are left a good deal to themselves, but the minor ones have usually merely to give effect to their instructions. On the whole, if he is under a good stage-manager, this redounds to the actor's advantage, but it must be very annoying, if, as occasionally happens, he is pitched into by the Press for doing that very thing that he himself was most anxious not to do, but which the author or the stage-manager insisted on his doing.
From all this, it will be seen that the fortunes of a play depend much upon the stage-manager, and a good stage-manager is worth his weight in £5 notes. Do not, if you are a young author, quarrel with him. He has been born and bred in the theatre, and he naturally is somewhat imbued with "theatrical" ideas, but it is better to let him have his own way than to set him against you and your piece, and he can do it far more good than he will do harm to it. Of course, I do not mean that you should give up any vital point, or suffer any change that could really injure the play. But it is not likely that you will come to loggerheads there. It is in small matters of detail that you will fight, and, in these, he is more likely to be right than you.
On the professional stage the great aim is to rehearse exactly as the piece will be played. Back drawing amateurs who "reserve" themselves for the evening, and like to come out with "surprises," would do well to remember that men like Irving, and Willard, and Beerbohm-Tree go through their parts morning after morning in the same tones, and with the same gestures and expressions as on the opening night. "Surprises" would not be welcomed. Everyone must know what everyone else is going to do, and be prepared for it. Indeed, a final dress rehearsal is often a better performance of a piece than the one that first takes place before public. Nothing is forgotten or bungled. There is no nervousness, no apprehension.
As the rehearsals proceed you will probably enough be required to alter your piece, to cut out one scene here and write in another there, to shorten this part and "write up" that. If your manager is playing you may safely reckon that his part will want a lot of writing up, and you are lucky if it does not come to be a monologue. Your comic man will also want his part altered, and "strengthened" a good deal, and he will possibly offer to help you in your reconstruction. If there are two comic men in the piece, God help you.
To sum up shortly, the period of "Rehearsals" will be a very trying time with you, and the business will need all your tact. You will want to maintain and have carried out all your ideas, and, at the same time, not to offend the stage-manager, or differ with the manager, or quarrel with the actors. I wish you well of the job.
Go to the next chapter
Back to Playwriting menu