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Full Online Book HomeLong StoriesThe Story Of A Play: A Novel - Chapter 8
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The Story Of A Play: A Novel - Chapter 8 Post by :kskrob02 Category :Long Stories Author :William Dean Howells Date :May 2012 Read :3423

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The Story Of A Play: A Novel - Chapter 8

CHAPTER VIII

There was no letter from Godolphin in the morning, but in the course of the forenoon there came a newspaper addressed in his handwriting, and later several others. They were Midland papers, and they had each, heavily outlined in ink, a notice of the appearance of Mr. Launcelot Godolphin in a new play written expressly for him by a young Boston _litterateur_. Mr. Godolphin believed the author to be destined to make his mark high in the dramatic world, he said in the course of a long interview in the paper which came first, an evening edition preceeding the production of the piece, and plainly meant to give the public the right perspective. He had entered into a generous expression of his own feelings concerning it, and had given Maxwell full credit for the lofty conception of an American drama, modern in spirit, and broad in purpose. He modestly reserved to himself such praise as might be due for the hints his life-long knowledge of the stage had enabled him to offer the dramatist. He told how they had spent the summer near each other on the north shore of Massachusetts, and had met almost daily; and the reporter got a picturesque bit out of their first meeting at the actor's hotel, in Boston, the winter before, when the dramatist came to lay the scheme of the play before Godolphin, and Godolphin made up his mind before he had heard him half through, that he should want the piece. He had permitted himself a personal sketch of Maxwell, which lost none of its original advantages in the diction of the reporter, and which represented him as young, slight in figure, with a refined and delicate face, bearing the stamp of intellectual force; a journalist from the time he left school, and one of the best exponents of the formative influences of the press in the training of its votaries. From time to time it was hard for Maxwell to make out whose words the interview was couched in, but he acquitted Godolphin of the worst, and he certainly did not accuse him of the flowery terms giving his patriotic reasons for not producing the piece first in Toronto as he had meant to do. It appeared that, upon second thoughts, he had reserved this purely American drama for the opening night of his engagement in one of the most distinctively American cities, after having had it in daily rehearsal ever since the season began.

"I should think they had Pinney out there," said Maxwell, as he and his wife looked over the interview, with their cheeks together.

"Not at all!" she retorted. "It isn't the least like Pinney," and he was amazed to find that she really liked the stuff. She said that she was glad, now, that she understood why Godolphin had not opened with the play in Toronto, as he had promised, and she thoroughly agreed with him that it ought first to be given on our own soil. She was dashed for a moment when Maxwell made her reflect that they were probably the losers of four or five hundred dollars by the delay; then she said she did not care, that it was worth the money. She did not find the personal account of Maxwell offensive, though she contended that it did not do him full justice, and she cut out the interview and pasted it in a book, where she was going to keep all the notices of his play and every printed fact concerning it. He told her she would have to help herself out with some of the fables, if she expected to fill her book, and she said she did not care for that, either, and probably it was just such things as this interview that drew attention to the play, and must have made it go like wildfire that first night in Midland. Maxwell owned that it was but too likely, and then he waited hungrily for further word of his play, while she expected the next mail in cheerful faith.

It brought them four or five morning papers, and it seemed from these that a play might have gone like wildfire, and yet not been seen by a very large number of people. The papers agreed in a sense of the graceful compliment paid their city by Mr. Godolphin, who was always a favorite there, in producing his new piece at one of their theatres, and confiding it at once to the judgment of a cultivated audience, instead of trying it first in a subordinate place, and bringing it on with a factitious reputation worked up from all sorts of unknown sources. They agreed, too, that his acting had never been better; that it had great smoothness, and that it rose at times into passion, and was full of his peculiar force. His company was well chosen, and his support had an even excellence which reflected great credit upon the young star, who might be supposed, if he had followed an unwise tradition, to be willing to shine at the expense of his surroundings. His rendition of the role of Haxard was magnificent in one journal, grand in another, superb in a third, rich, full and satisfying in a fourth, subtle and conscientious in a fifth. Beyond this, the critics ceased to be so much of one mind. They were, by a casting vote, adverse to the leading lady, whom the majority decided an inadequate Salome, without those great qualities which the author had evidently meant to redeem a certain coquettish lightness in her; the minority held that she had grasped the role with intelligence, and expressed with artistic force a very refined intention in it. The minority hinted that Salome was really the great part in the piece, and that in her womanly endeavor to win back the lover whom she had not at first prized at his true worth, while her heart was wrung by sympathy with her unhappy father in the mystery brooding over him, she was a far more interesting figure than the less complex Haxard; and they intimated that Godolphin had an easier task in his portrayal. They all touched more or less upon the conduct of the subordinate actors in their parts, and the Maxwells, in every case, had to wade through their opinions of the playing before they got to their opinions of the play, which was the only vital matter concerned.

Louise would have liked to read them, as she had read the first, with her arm across Maxwell's shoulder, and, as it were, with the same eye and the same mind, but Maxwell betrayed an uneasiness under the experiment which made her ask: "Don't you _like to have me put my arm round you, Brice?"

"Yes, yes," he answered, impatiently, "I like to have you put your arm around me on all proper occasions; but--it isn't favorable to collected thought."

"Why, _I think it is," she protested with pathos, and a burlesque of her pathos. "I never think half so well as when I have my arm around you. Then it seems as if I thought with your mind. I feel so judicial."

"Perhaps I feel too emotional, under the same conditions, and think with _your mind. At any rate, I can't stand it; and we can't both sit in the same chair either. Now, you take one of the papers and go round to the other side of the table. I want to have all my faculties for the appreciation of this noble criticism; it's going to be full of instruction."

He made her laugh, and she feigned a pout in obeying him; but, nevertheless, in her heart she felt herself postponed to the interest that was always first in him, and always before his love.

"And don't talk," he urged, "or keep calling out, or reading passages ahead. I want to get all the sense there doesn't seem to be in this thing."

In fact the critics had found themselves confronted with a task which is always confusing to criticism, in the necessity of valuing a work of art so novel in material that it seems to refuse the application of criterions. As he followed their struggles in the endeavor to judge his work by such canons of art as were known to them, instead of taking it frankly upon the plane of nature and of truth, where he had tried to put it, and blaming or praising him as he had failed or succeeded in this, he was more and more bowed down within himself before the generous courage of Godolphin in rising to an appreciation of his intention. He now perceived that he was a man of far more uncommon intelligence than he had imagined him, and that in taking his play Godolphin had shown a zeal for the drama which was not likely to find a response in criticism, whatever its fate with the public might be. The critics frankly owned that in spite of its defects the piece had a cordial reception from the audience; that the principal actors were recalled again and again, and they reported that Godolphin had spoken both for the author and himself in acknowledging the applause, and had disclaimed all credit for their joint success. This made Maxwell ashamed of the suspicion he had harbored that Godolphin would give the impression of a joint authorship, at the least. He felt that he had judged the man narrowly and inadequately, and he decided that as soon as he heard from him, he would write and make due reparation for the tacit wrong he had done him.

Upon the whole he had some reason to be content with the first fortune of his work, whatever its final fate might be. To be sure, if the audience which received it was enthusiastic, it was confessedly small, and it had got no more than a foothold in the public favor. It must remain for further trial to prove it a failure or a success. His eye wandered to the column of advertised amusements for the pleasure of seeing the play announced there for the rest of the week. There was a full list of the pieces for the time of Godolphin's stay; but it seemed that neither at night nor at morning was Maxwell's play to be repeated. The paper dropped from his hand.

"What is the matter?" his wife asked, looking up from her own paper. "This poor man is the greatest possible goose. He doesn't seem to know what he is talking about, even when he praises you. But of course he has to write merely from a first impression. Do you want to change papers?"

Maxwell mechanically picked his up, and gave it to her. "The worst of it is," he said, with the sardonic smile he had left over from an unhappier time of life, "that he won't have an opportunity to revise his first impression."

"What do you mean?"

He told her, but she could not believe him till she had verified the fact by looking at the advertisements in all the papers.

Then she asked: "What in the world _does he mean?"

"Not to give it there any more, apparently. He hasn't entered upon the perpetual performance of the piece. But if he isn't like Jefferson, perhaps he's like Rip; he don't count this time. Well, I might have known it! Why did I ever trust one of that race?" He began to walk up and down the room, and to fling out, one after another, the expressions of his scorn and his self-scorn. "They have no idea of what good faith is, except as something that brings down the house when they register a noble vow. But I don't blame him; I blame myself. What an ass, what an idiot, I was! Why, _he could have told me not to believe in his promises; he is a perfectly honest man, and would have done it, if I had appealed to him. He didn't expect me to believe in them, and from the wary way I talked, I don't suppose he thought I did. He hadn't the measure of my folly; I hadn't, myself!"

"Now, Brice!" his wife called out to him, severely, "I won't have you going on in that way. When I denounced Godolphin you wouldn't listen to me; and when I begged and besought you to give him up, you always said he was the only man in the world for you, till I got to believing it, and I believe it now. Why, dearest," she added, in a softer tone, "don't you see that he probably had his programme arranged all beforehand, and couldn't change it, just because your play happened to be a hit? I'm sure he paid you a great compliment by giving it the first night. Now, you must just wait till you hear from him, and you may be sure he will have a good reason for not repeating it there."

"Oh, Godolphin would never lack for a good reason. And I can tell you what his reason in this case will be: that the thing was practically a failure, and that he would have lost money if he had kept it on."

"Is that what is worrying you? I don't believe it was a failure. I think from all that the papers say, and the worst that they say, the piece was a distinct success. It was a great success with nice people, you can see that for yourself, and it will be a popular success, too; I know it will, as soon as it gets a chance. But you may be sure that Godolphin has some scheme about it, and that if he doesn't give it again in Midland, it's because he wants to make people curious about it, and hold it in reserve, or something like that. At any rate, I think you ought to wait for his letter before you denounce him."

Maxwell laughed again at these specious arguments, but he could not refuse to be comforted by them, and he had really nothing to do but to wait for Godolphin's letter. It did not come the next mail, and then his wife and he collated his dispatch with the newspaper notices, and tried to make up a judicial opinion from their combined testimony concerning the fate of the play with the audience. Their scrutiny of the telegram developed the fact that it must have been sent the night of the performance, and while Godolphin was still warm from his recalls and from the congratulations of his friends; it could not have reached them so soon as it did in the morning if it had been sent to the office then; it was not a night message, but it had probably lain in the office over night. In this view it was not such valuable testimony to the success of the play as it had seemed before. But a second and a third reading of the notices made them seem friendlier than at first. The Maxwells now perceived that they had first read them in the fever of their joy from Godolphin's telegram, and that their tempered approval had struck cold upon them because they were so overheated. They were really very favorable, after all, and they witnessed to an interest in the play which could not be ignored. Very likely the interest in it was partly from the fact that Godolphin had given it, but apart from this it was evident that the play had established a claim of its own. The mail, which did not bring a letter from Godolphin, brought another copy of that evening paper which had printed the anticipatory interview with him, and this had a long and careful consideration of the play in its editorial columns, apparently written by a lover of the drama, as well as a lover of the theatre. Very little regard was paid to the performance, but a great deal to the play, which was skilfully analyzed, and praised and blamed in the right places. The writer did not attempt to forecast its fate, but he said that whatever its fate with the public might be, here, at least, was a step in the direction of the drama dealing with facts of American life--simply, vigorously, and honestly. It had faults of construction, but the faults were not the faults of weakness. They were rather the effects of a young talent addressing itself to the management of material too rich, too abundant for the scene, and allowing itself to touch the borders of melodrama in its will to enforce some tragic points of the intrigue. But it was not mawkish and it was not romantic. In its highest reaches it made you think, by its stern and unflinching fidelity to the implications, of Ibsen; but it was not too much to say that it had a charm often wanting to that master. It was full of the real American humor; it made its jokes, as Americans did, in the very face of the most disastrous possibilities; and in the love-passages it was delicious. The whole episode of the love between Haxard's daughter, Salome, and Atland was simply the sweetest and freshest bit of nature in the modern drama. It daringly portrayed a woman in circumstances where it was the convention to ignore that she ever was placed, and it lent a grace of delicate comedy to the somber ensemble of the piece, without lowering the dignity of the action or detracting from the sympathy the spectator felt for the daughter of the homicide; it rather heightened this.

Louise read the criticism aloud, and then she and Maxwell looked at each other. It took their breath away; but Louise got her breath first. "Who in the world would have dreamed that there was any one who could write such a criticism, _out there_?"

Maxwell took the paper, and ran the article over again. Then he said, "If the thing did nothing more than get itself appreciated in that way, I should feel that it had done enough. I wonder who the fellow is! Could it be a woman?"

There was, in fact, a feminine fineness in the touch, here and there, that might well suggest a woman, but they finally decided against the theory: Louise said that a woman writer would not have the honesty to own that the part Salome played in getting back her lover was true to life, though every woman who saw it would know that it was. She examined the wrapper of the newspaper, and made sure that it was addressed in Godolphin's hand, and she said that if he did not speak of the article in his letter, Maxwell must write out to the newspaper and ask who had done it.

Godolphin's letter came at last, with many excuses for his delay. He said he had expected the newspaper notices to speak for him, and he seemed to think that they had all been altogether favorable to the play. It was not very consoling to have him add that he now believed the piece would have run the whole week in Midland, if he had kept it on; but he had arranged merely to give it a trial, and Maxwell would understand how impossible it was to vary a programme which had once been made out. One thing was certain, however: the piece was an assured success, and a success of the most flattering and brilliant kind, and Godolphin would give it a permanent place in his _repertoire_. There was no talk of his playing nothing else, and there was no talk of putting the piece on for a run, when he opened in New York. He said he had sent Maxwell a paper containing a criticism in the editorial columns, which would serve to show him how great an interest the piece had excited in Midland, though he believed the article was not written by one of the regular force, but was contributed from the outside by a young fellow who had been described to Godolphin as a sort of Ibsen crank. At the close, he spoke of certain weaknesses which the piece had developed in the performance, and casually mentioned that he would revise it at these points as he found the time; it appeared to him that it needed overhauling, particularly in the love episode; there was too much of that, and the interest during an entire act centred so entirely upon Salome that, as he had foreseen, the role of Haxard suffered.

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CHAPTER IXThe Maxwells stared at each other in dismay when they had finished this letter, which Louise had opened, but which they had read together, she looking over his shoulder. All interest in the authorship of the article of the Ibsen crank, all interest in Godolphin's apparent forgetfulness of his solemn promises to give the rest of his natural life to the performance of the piece, was lost in amaze at the fact that he was going to revise it to please himself, and to fashion Maxwell's careful work over in his own ideal of the figure he should make in
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CHAPTER VIIJuly and August went by, and it was time for Godolphin to take the road again. By this time Maxwell's play was in as perfect form as it could be until it was tried upon the stage and then overhauled for repairs. Godolphin had decided to try it first in Toronto he was going to open, and then to give it in the West as often as he could. If it did as well as he expected he would bring it on for a run in New York about the middle of December. He would want Maxwell at the
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