A Breath Of Life by A. A. Milne

This is the story of a comedy which nearly became a tragedy. In its way it is rather a pathetic story.

The comedy was called The Wooing of Winifred. It was written by an author whose name I forget; produced by the well-known and (as his press-agent has often told us) popular actor-manager, Mr. Levinski; and played by (among others) that very charming young man, Prosper Vane–known locally as Alfred Briggs until he took to the stage. Prosper played the young hero, Dick Seaton, who was actually wooing Winifred. Mr. Levinski himself took the part of a middle-aged man of the world with a slight embonpoint; down in the programme as Sir Geoffrey Throssell but fortunately still Mr. Levinski. His opening words, as he came on, were, “Ah, Dick, I have a note for you somewhere,” which gave the audience an interval in which to welcome him, while he felt in all his pockets for the letter. One can bow quite easily while feeling in one’s pockets, and it is much more natural than stopping in the middle of an important speech in order to acknowledge any cheers. The realization of this, by a dramatist, is what is called “stagecraft.” In this case the audience could tell at once that the “technique” of the author (whose name unfortunately I forget) was going to be all right.

But perhaps I had better describe the whole play as shortly as possible. The theme–as one guessed from the title, even before the curtain rose–was the wooing of Winifred. In the First Act Dick proposed to Winifred and was refused by her, not from lack of love, but for fear lest she might spoil his career, he being one of those big-hearted men with a hip-pocket to whom the open spaces of the world call loudly; whereupon Mr. Levinski took Winifred on one side and told the audience how, when he had been a young man, some good woman had refused him for a similar reason and had been miserable ever since. Accordingly in the Second Act Winifred withdrew her refusal and offered to marry Dick, who declined to take advantage of her offer for fear that she was willing to marry him from pity rather than from love; whereupon Mr. Levinski took Dick on one side and told the audience how, when he had been a young man, he had refused to marry some good woman (a different one) for a similar reason, and had been broken-hearted ever afterwards. In the Third Act it really seemed as though they were coming together at last; for at the beginning of it Mr. Levinski took them both aside and told the audience a parable about a butterfly and a snap-dragon, which was both pretty and helpful, and caused several middle-aged ladies in the first and second rows of the upper circle to say, “What a nice man Mr. Levinski must be at home, dear!”–the purport of the allegory being to show that both Dick and Winifred were being very silly, as indeed by this time everybody but the author was aware. Unfortunately at that moment a footman entered with a telegram for Miss Winifred, which announced that she had been left fifty thousand pounds by a dead uncle in Australia; and, although Mr. Levinski seized this fresh opportunity to tell the audience how in similar circumstances Pride, to his lasting remorse, had kept him and some good woman (a third one) apart, nevertheless Dick held back once more, for fear lest he should be thought to be marrying her for her money. The curtain comes down as he says, “Good-bye … good ber-eye.” But there is a Fourth Act, and in the Fourth Act Mr. Levinski has a splendid time. He tells the audience two parables–one about a dahlia and a sheep, which I couldn’t quite follow–and three reminiscences of life in India; he brings together finally and for ever these hesitating lovers; and, best of all, he has a magnificent love-scene of his own with a pretty widow, in which we see, for the first time in the play, how love should really be made–not boy-and-girl pretty-pretty love, but the deep emotion felt (and with occasional lapses of memory explained) by a middle-aged man with a slight embonpoint who has knocked about the world a bit and knows life. Mr. Levinski, I need not say, was at his best in this Act.

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. . . . .

I met Prosper Vane at the club some ten days before the first night, and asked him how rehearsals were going.

“Oh, all right,” he said. “But it’s a rotten play. I’ve got such a dashed silly part.”

“From what you told me,” I said, “it sounded rather good.”

“It’s so dashed unnatural. For three whole acts this girl and I are in love with each other, and we know we’re in love with each other, and yet we simply fool about. She’s a dashed pretty girl, too, my boy. In real life I’d jolly soon—-“

“My dear Alfred,” I protested, “you’re not going to fall in love with the girl you have to fall in love with on the stage? I thought actors never did that.”

“They do sometimes; it’s a dashed good advertisement. Anyway, it’s a silly part, and I’m fed up with it.”

“Yes, but do be reasonable. If Dick got engaged at once to Winifred what would happen to Levinski? He’d have nothing to do.”

Prosper Vane grunted. As he seemed disinclined for further conversation I left him.

. . . . .

The opening night came, and the usual distinguished and fashionable audience (including myself), such as habitually attends Mr. Levinski’s first nights, settled down to enjoy itself. Two acts went well. At the end of each Mr. Levinski came before the curtain and bowed to us, and we had the honour of clapping him loud and long. Then the Third Act began….

Now this is how the Third Act ends:–

Exit Sir Geoffrey.

Winifred (breaking the silence). Dick, you heard what he said. Don’t let this silly money come between us. I have told you I love you, dear. Won’t you–won’t you speak to me?

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Dick. Winifred, I—- (He gets up and walks round the room, his brow knotted, his right fist occasionally striking his left palm. Finally he comes to a stand in front of her.) Winifred, I—- (He raises his arms slowly at right angles to his body and lets them fall heavily down again.) I can’t. (In a low, hoarse voice) I–can’t! (He stands for a moment with bent head; then with a jerk he pulls himself together.) Good-bye! (His hands go out to her, but he draws them back as if frightened to touch her. Nobly) Good ber-eye.

[He squares his shoulders and stands looking at the audience with his chin in the air; then with a shrug of utter despair, which would bring tears into the eyes of any young thing in the pit, he turns and with bent head walks slowly out.


That is how the Third Act ends. I went to the dress rehearsal, and so I know.

How the accident happened I do not know. I suppose Prosper was nervous; I am sure he was very much in love. Anyhow, this is how, on that famous first night, the Third Act ended:–

Exit Sir Geoffrey.

Winifred (breaking the silence). Dick, you heard what he said. Don’t let this silly money come between us. I have told you I love you, dear. Won’t you–won’t you speak to me?

Dick (jumping up). Winifred, I—- (with a great gulp) I LOVE YOU!!!

Whereupon he picked her up in his arms and carried her triumphantly off the stage … and after a little natural hesitation the curtain came down.

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. . . . .

Behind the scenes all was consternation. Mr. Levinski (absolutely furious) had a hasty consultation with the author (also furious), in the course of which they both saw that the Fourth Act as written was now an impossibility. Poor Prosper, who had almost immediately recovered his sanity, tremblingly suggested that Mr. Levinski should announce that, owing to the sudden illness of Mr. Vane, the Fourth Act could not be given. Mr. Levinski was kind enough to consider this suggestion not entirely stupid; his own idea having been (very regretfully) to leave out the two parables and three reminiscences from India and concentrate on the love-scene with the widow.

“Yes, yes,” he said. “Your plan is better. I will say you are ill. It is true; you are mad. To-morrow we will play it as it was written.”

“You can’t,” said the author gloomily. “The critics won’t come till the Fourth Act, and they’ll assume that the Third Act ended as it did to-night. The Fourth Act will seem all nonsense to them.”

“True. And I was so good, so much myself, in that Act.” He turned to Prosper. “You–fool!”

“Or there’s another way,” began the author. “We might—-“

And then a gentleman in the gallery settled it from the front of the curtain. There was nothing in the programme to show that the play was in four acts. “The Time is the present day and the Scene is in Sir Geoffrey Throssell’s town-house,” was all it said. And the gentleman in the gallery, thinking it was all over, and being pleased with the play and particularly with the realism of the last moment of it, shouted “Author!” And suddenly everybody else cried “Author! Author!” The play was ended.

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. . . . .

I said that this was the story of a comedy which nearly became a tragedy. But it turned out to be no tragedy at all. In the three acts to which Prosper Vane had condemned it the play appealed to both critics and public; for the Fourth Act (as he recognised so clearly) was unnecessary, and would have spoilt the balance of it entirely. Best of all, the shortening of the play demanded that some entertainment should be provided in front of it, and this enabled Mr. Levinski to introduce to the public Professor Wollabollacolla and Princess Collabollawolla, the famous exponents of the Bongo-Bongo, that fascinating Central African war dance which was soon to be the rage of society. But though, as a result, the takings of the Box Office surpassed all Mr. Levinski’s previous records, our friend Prosper Vane received no practical acknowledgment of his services. He had to be content with the hand and heart of the lady who played Winifred, and the fact that Mr. Levinski was good enough to attend the wedding. There was, in fact, a photograph in all the papers of Mr. Levinski doing it.

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