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"ON Saturday next will be produced an entirely new and original comedy, entitled (give it an attractive title, that is half the battle, something short, impressive, and easily remembered), written by"--well, by you, you know. Such is the announcement that appears one morning among the theatrical advertisements, an announcement which you read over a good many times to yourself with a quiet smile, though half doubting if all is not a dream. There have been so many difficulties to overcome, so many disappointments to be borne, such a long and bitter battle to fight! Over and over again have you seemed on the point of victory, and over and over again have you been driven back defeated: it seems impossible to believe that success has actually, at last, come home to you. Do not be too certain of it even then. It is just possible that in the next day's papers, when you look, you will be greeted with an advertisement stating that some revival of an old piece, or a continuation of the present one, will take the place of the production previously announced. Such things have been on more than one occasion. Of course, established and successful authors would not be played with. Men like Grundy and Pinero would require a written agreement, by which the manager would bind himself to produce their play within some specified time, to be entered into, before they would commence to write a play at all. But then managers have no wish to break agreements with established and successful authors. On the contrary, it is they, the managers, who are the parties most anxious to keep them. A popular author is fought after like a pretty girl at a picnic, and can dictate his own terms. W.S. Gilbert used to make it a stipulation that any play of his--whether successful or not--should be run for a hundred nights at least; and, seeing that £200 a week can very easily be lost upon an unsuccessful piece, the fact that such terms were eagerly swallowed proves what a scarcity of good dramatic writers there must be.
But in the case of young and unknown authors, the boot is entirely on the other foot. The manager, even if he likes the play, has no particular anxiety to produce it. Let us, in the theatrical world, say what we like, it is an undoubted fact that there is a prejudice against new authors, merely as new authors, and quite apart from any question of their inexperience. Why managers should endeavour to narrow the market from which they draw their supply is a mystery which a business man would find it difficult to solve, but they themselves appear to see nothing extraordinary in such a course. Indeed, they seem more eager to maintain a dramatic "corner" than even are the members of that very corner, and I believe they would rather lose a thousand pounds over a play by an old hand than win a thousand pounds upon the work of a fresh man. This clannism will irritate you at the beginning of your career, but when you have once forced your way within the magic circle where it reigns, you will be loud in praise of the system, and indignant at any thought of interference with it.
However, when matters have gone so far that the play has actually been advertised for production, even a new author may, as a rule, take it that the piece is safe; and his anxiety then passes from the manager and fixes itself upon the public and the Press. I do not think you need give yourself much concern as to your first piece being a success. If a play by an unknown man has been accepted by a London manager, and has passed the various stages up to production, it is tolerably sure to be received, if not with acclamation, at all events with no disfavour; for, although how it read will be but a poor guide to how it will act, the rehearsals, as they progressed, would soon show what it would play like, and, if these rehearsals were not perfectly satisfactory, very little hesitation would be shown in giving the whole thing up.
As for the mere reading, that is never a test as to how a piece will play. A man with a vivid imagination, who concentrated all his efforts in conjuring up, as it was read to him, a complete picture of the play being performed, might be able to say decisively how anything would go; but it is very difficult to do this. Often a scene which has read delightfully plays weakly; and a piece that seems foolish when read may act quite smartly and brightly. As I said in a previous chapter, it is only action that can properly fill a stage, and this, to be judged of, must be seen. A narrative that would thrill us when read, sounds wearisome when two people sit R. and L. and let it off at one another across a stage. The scene between the two women, in Westland Marston's Under Fire, read quite excitingly; when one came to sit in a stall and see it one yawned. In the same way, scenes that, perhaps, read crudely and confusedly may act forcibly. The church scene in Much ado about Nothing is not the same in the book as it was at the Lyceum.
Theatrical people, in particular, make very bad judges of how a play will go with the public. The artist appreciates the technique of the art. The public care about the picture as a whole. Your actor is loud in praise of the way in which a scene is built up, or a situation led to, or an acting opportunity afforded. Your public doesn't care twopence for anything so long as they are amused and interested. To sum up, public and artistes view a work from diametrically opposite points of view: the latter from "behind," where they see and criticise the weaving of the threads; the former from "the front," where the finished fabric is seen as a whole, and the pattern pleases or displeases.
Now, after this little digression, we will, if you please, return to our subject, viz., the first night and its attendant circumstances.
All your friends will, of course, expect stalls or boxes. Well, you will have to let them expect. Nearly every booked seat in the house will be required for the critics, managers, authors, actors, and distinguished people generally, who are always invited to every theatrical event. The list numbers some two or three hundred. You will have to put your friends in the pit and gallery, where, by-the-bye, too, they will be much more useful to you, seeing that they will be able to applaud, and shout "Bravo," and call for "author!" there--conduct they could not pursue if in the stalls or circle. Mind, though, for goodness sake, that they don't make themselves and you (which is more important still) ridiculous over this applauding business. As a rule, the friends of the author do more on a first night to damn his play than ever he, and the manager, and the actors all put together do. They roar applause at everything--good, bad, and indifferent, more especially the bad and indifferent; and that riles the people who are not friends; and they--the people who are not friends--then tell the people who are friends to "shut up," and "go home," and "stow it"; and there's a general row and riot all through. A dozen discreet friends (if you happen to be lucky enough to possess so large a number), who will never let it be seen that they are your friends; who will only hint applause, and never persist in it if it is not taken up; who will know the right word and the right moment to gently deprecate any opposition, and not, by boisterous abuse, to only increase it; who will laugh, when they do laugh, as if they were really amused, and not as if they were merely trying to make a noise; and who will express approval in the usual method, without making an exhibition of themselves--that dozen will be of far more service to you than a gross of the regulation first night "friend." See, too, that they distribute themselves about the house in twos and threes, not get together all in a heap.
As for yourself, you will probably have a box into which you will go with your nearest and your dearest, and any aunt or uncle or other person from whom you may have any expectations. You will sit well back in the darkest corner and listen breathlessly--not to the play, but to the house. Will they laugh at your jokes? Will there run round a suppressed murmur of delight at your poetry? a burst of applause at your heroic sentiments? Some of your best lines (at least, so they are sure to seem to you) will be missed out, and much of the wit and humour you had most reckoned on will fall flat. This will be counterbalanced by lines you had never thought anything particular about being taken up and applauded.
You will not be wanted behind until the very end (if the piece turns out a failure it might be as well not to go even then), and you will be far better not there. The excitement and nervousness "behind" during a first night is something almost comical, and anybody who gets in anybody else's way there stands a very good chance of being brutally murdered, and his mangled remains put outside the stage door. I used to think that I had a good share of suppressed nervousness ready for most occasions) but I look upon myself as a happy, thoughtless child on a first night compared with the company. They can't help it. It is the acting temperament. I have heard the late John Clayton--a man whom to look at, you would not think troubled with nervousness--say that no success could ever compensate him for the agony he suffered on a first night.
If, however, the piece is a success you will slip out during the last act and make your way round so as to be ready for the possible and probable "call."
And now a word or two as to this call. Some folks hold that authors should never, under any circumstances, take calls, and argue that they have no business before the curtain at all, their place being the study and not the stage. But that's all nonsense. No doubt, from an artistic point of view, it is quite correct, but there is a nature side to the question. Authors are only human (though to judge by the airs that we give ourselves you might be led to think this impossible), and they like applause. Applause, indeed, in one form or another, is what we all live for, from the statesman to the mountebank, and the sweetest form in which it can be offered us is the form that we can see and hear--the hand clappings and the cheers like the roar of the waves upon a shingly beach, the waving hats and handkerchiefs like a tossing forest before our half-dazed eyes. Very childish and little-minded it may be, perhaps, to love and long for such mere tinsel, but we men are only childish and little-minded at the best, and always shall be. Mr. Wills does, it is true, as we poor lesser lights are often reminded, rise superior to this weakness, and never appears before the curtain; but then Mr. Wills is a philosopher of the kind you read about but very seldom meet, a man who cares more about his long clay and his glass of grog and his quiet chat than about all the theatres, and plays and playgoers, ever built. As for the average author, he, so long as reason holds a seat in his distracted brain, will be eager to take a "call."
A young author will, naturally, be especially eager to do so, and by all means let him. The only thing I have to say is, be careful that it is a genuine, unanimous call. Do not force yourself, as it were, before the curtain; and do not go if there has been much opposition to the piece during its progress, even if you are called. If you do, you will receive what is termed a "mixed reception."
These mixed receptions are often indignantly spoken of as "author baiting," but they are really nothing of the kind, and the explanation of them is extremely simple. The pit and gallery of a theatre on a first night generally contains a certain number of "orders," who, because they are friends of the people connected with the house, or in gratitude for their free admission, can usually be reckoned upon for plenty of applause. Whether the custom is a wise one or not is a question for argument, and there is something to be said on both sides. Against the system, it may be urged that the successful houses rarely have recourse to it, and that by their indiscriminate applause the "orders," like the friends before referred to, irritate the paying portion of the audience, and create an opposition that would not otherwise arise. On the other hand, "orders" help to fill the house, and give a cheerful air to the proceedings; while in case of success, they help to swell the approval, and, in case of opposition, they can counterbalance, or, perhaps, even drown the dissentient voices. In any event, they save the piece from being received in dead silence, which would be worse for it than any amount of row.
But I did not start to argue this matter out, but merely to explain that it is these holders of orders who are mainly responsible for the doubtful welcome that an author occasionally gets. After the curtain has finally fallen on a weak or bad play--or a play that, at all events, has not pleased the paying part of the audience--the friends and the orders, together with a few of those good, honest souls, who would applaud the tom-cat if he came and sat down on the stage, at once begin cheering and calling for "author." The regular playgoers thereupon yell out, "No, no; we do not want the author." In spite of this, however, or because their voices are not distinguished in the hubbub, out he steps. The one section cheer vociferously. The other, as a protest against it being assumed that the play is approved of, think it their duty to howl at him as if he were a villain of the deepest dye, or belonged to the opposite political party.
Therefore, make sure, before you accept a seeming call, that it is a sure thing. You can easily forecast, during the playing of the piece, whether this will be so or not. If your work is not appreciated, unfavourable comments, ironical laughter, and occasional hisses will be heard during the acts.
But assuming that the success is certain, and the call harmonious, then take it by all means--not by rushing in before the curtain is well down, and in front of the actors: I have seen that done, and it doesn't look at all pretty--but by stepping in modestly last of all. Do not appear too eager to come forward, and do not prance up to the middle of the footlights, and stand there for a couple of minutes, bowing and smirking like an organ-grinder on the look-out for coppers. This I have also seen done, and it also does not look pretty. Move two or three steps from the boxes, bow as gracefully as Nature and nervousness will permit, and retire promptly and quietly. Of course, you have rehearsed all this in the privacy of your apartment beforehand; but you will not find such preparation of much use, as if, at the time, you can recollect who you are and what you are doing there it will be as much as you can manage.
If by any chance the play is a frost, and you do get hissed instead of cheered, well, you must grin and bear it. It won't kill you. It will be a hard knock for you, that is all; and hard knocks we all have to take our share of in the battle of life. Cowards cry out, and want to lie down when they get hit; brave men fight on, careless of blows. Besides, a play may fail on the first night, and yet work up into a success. The Private Secretary was hooted at on its first production, and "slated" next morning by the Press. But it brought Mr. Hawtrey in something like a hundred thousand pounds for all that.
But I am harping on the chances of failure. Let us imagine that your reception is en enthusiastically cordial one, that the house "rises" to receive you, and breaks into cheer after cheer. Then drink it in and enjoy it, for it will be the sweetest music your ears will ever hear. Make the most of it, and remember it, for you will never hear such strains twice. The same applause and the same cheers may greet you another time, but they will be to you merely an index from which you can judge the price your play will fetch.
You will not get much sleep that night, and the next morning you will be up betimes, and off to the newspaper shop. You will, in all probability, have paid either Messrs. Romeike or Messrs. Curtice a guinea, for which sum they will send you a hundred "notices." If these are flattering, and describe you as "promising," or "coming," you will consider it the cheapest guinea's worth of pleasure you have ever bought. If the papers consider your play a "weak and crude production," and wonder how any manager could have been induced to put on such a farrago of nonsense and ill taste, then you will wish that you had spent your one pound one in having rides on the switchback railway. But, on the whole, the notices are likely to be favourable and encouraging. To the two extremes of authorship, the very old and well established, and the beginners, the critics are very gentle.
You will not have had patience, however, to wait for Messrs. Curtice or Romeike's little boys, and will, as I have said, be off to buy newspapers the first thing in the morning. You will come back, reading one as you walk along, and carrying the rest under your arm, and will wander into the road, and up against carts and cabs, and step on people, and look up, when they swear at you, with a vacant, gaping expression.
This excitement, also, will hardly outlive your first play. After a little while, the only opinion you will care for will be the opinion of the public as expressed at the box-office.
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