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Romance And Reticence Post by :lordg Category :Essays Author :Heywood Broun Date :November 2011 Read :3850

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Romance And Reticence

Whenever a man remarks "I've had a mighty adventurous life, I have," we usually set him down as a former king of the Coney Island carnival or a recently returned delegate from an Elks' convention in Kansas City. It has been our somewhat bitter experience that the man who pictures himself as a great adventurer is almost invariably spurious. As a matter of fact, the rule holds good for great wits, great lovers and great drinkers. But it applies with particular pertinence to romantic folk.

A wise professor at Harvard once remarked that he didn't believe that the ancients realized that they were ancients. We have somewhat the same feeling about quaint people and romantic people and adventurous people.

Of course we must admit the existence in life and in literature of authentic but sophisticated romantic figures. Cyrano was one and, to a lesser extent, d'Artagnan. Porthos is on our side. But the best example we can remember is Huckleberry Finn. Tom Sawyer pictured himself as a romantic figure. Huck didn't. When Huck went a-wandering he thought it was because the store clothes the widow had given him were uncomfortable. It was actually another itch, but he did not know its name. This to our mind is the essence of true adventure. When a man comes to recognize romance he is in a position to bargain and parley. He is not the true adventurer. Things no longer just happen to him. He has to go out and seek them. He has lost his amateur standing.

Huck, who didn't know what it was all about, had much more exciting adventures than Tom and he was a more fascinating figure in the happening. Jim would also come into our category of true adventurers, and, to skip back a bit, Tom Jones is almost type perfect. Just so Sancho Panza seems to us more fundamentally romantic than Don Quixote, and we have always been more interested in what happened to Doctor Watson than in the adventures of Sherlock Holmes. Sherlock foresaw things--and that is fatal to romance.

The Prodigal Son belongs in our list, and Andrew Jackson, and Lot's wife, and Eddie Rickenbacker, and Lord Jim, and Ajax, and Little Red Riding Hood, and Thomas Edison, and the father of the Katzenjammer Kids, and most of Bluebeard's wives and all the people who refused to go into the ark.

While we are willing to admit that there are other types who are successfully romantic, in spite of self-consciousness, they are the exceptions. We are hardly willing to accept them in a group. This brings us to Mrs. Fiske's new play, Mis' Nelly, of N'Orleans, at which we have been aiming throughout the article.

There are nine characters in the play, and the author pictures each of them as being distinctly aware that he is an adventurous character, in a quaint garden, in a romantic city, in a mad story. It is true that these people do some romantic and adventurous things, but never without first predicting that they are going to be romantic, and then explaining after it is all over that they have been romantic. From our point of view there is too much challenge in this. Whenever a man or woman in a play or in life promises that he is about to do something quaint we have an irresistible desire to lay him 6 to 5 that it won't be any such thing. Then if the decision is left to us we always decide against him.

The method of the preliminary puff and the subsequent official confirmation is decidedly a mistake in the case of the character portrayed by Mrs. Fiske in Mis' Nelly, of N'Orleans. Mrs. Fiske showed herself quite capable of carrying the rôle of a spirited, romantic and adventurous belle, and it was unnecessary to have her triumph so carefully prepared in advance by the predictions of her servants as to what she would do when she "got her Jim Crow up."

We might have been content to accept some of the other characters as sure enough romantic figures if they had not been so confoundedly confident that they were. They fairly challenged us into disbelief. The author, to our mind, was wrong from the beginning in describing his comedy on the program as a comedy of "moonshine, madness and make-believe." Moonshine and madness are both elusive stage qualities. An author is fortunate indeed if he can achieve them. He is foolish to take the risk of predicting them. If he succeeds in presenting authentic moonshine and madness he will not need to inform the audience of the fact by means of the program and still less through his characters. Mis' Nelly, of N'Orleans left us much more convinced of the make-believe.

A play which affected us in somewhat similar fashion was The Gipsy Trail, produced here a season or so ago. In this play the author presented a character who seemed to be a truly romantic figure for at least half the play. Then he was suddenly trapped into a confession that he was romantic. Somebody asked him about it, and, most unfortunately, he set out to prove that he was an adventurer in a long speech beginning "I have fried eggs on top of the Andes" or in some such manner, and from that moment we grew away from him. We knew him as no true adventurer, but as a man who would eventually write a book or at best a series of articles for a Sunday magazine.

The real tragedy of romance is that any man who appreciates his own loses it. In this workaday world we can live only by taking in the other fellow's adventures.

(The end)
Heywood Broun's essay: Romance And Reticence

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