Story type: Essay
The condescension to literature and to the stage is one of the notable characteristics of this agreeable time. We have to admit that literature is rather the fashion, without the violent presumption that the author and the writer have the same social position that is conferred by money, or by the mysterious virtue there is in pedigree. A person does not lose caste by using the pen, or even by taking the not-needed pay for using it. To publish a book or to have an article accepted by a magazine may give a sort of social distinction, either as an exhibition of a certain unexpected capacity or a social eccentricity. It is hardly too much to say that it has become the fashion to write, as it used to be to dance the minuet well, or to use the broadsword, or to stand a gentlemanly mill with a renowned bruiser. Of course one ought not to do this professionally exactly, ought not to prepare for doing it by study and severe discipline, by training for it as for a trade, but simply to toss it off easily, as one makes a call, or pays a compliment, or drives four-in-hand. One does not need to have that interior impulse which drives a poor devil of an author to express himself, that something to say which torments the poet into extreme irritability unless he can be rid of it, that noble hunger for fame which comes from a consciousness of the possession of vital thought and emotion.
The beauty of this condescension to literature of which we speak is that it has that quality of spontaneity that does not presuppose either a capacity or a call. There is no mystery about the craft. One resolves to write a book, as he might to take a journey or to practice on the piano, and the thing is done. Everybody can write, at least everybody does write. It is a wonderful time for literature. The Queen of England writes for it, the Queen of Roumania writes for it, the Shah of Persia writes for it, Lady Brassey, the yachtswoman, wrote for it, Congressmen write for it, peers write for it. The novel is the common recreation of ladies of rank, and where is the young woman in this country who has not tried her hand at a romance or made a cast at a popular magazine? The effect of all this upon literature is expansive and joyous. Superstition about any mystery in the art has nearly disappeared. It is a common observation that if persons fail in everything else, if they are fit for nothing else, they can at least write. It is such an easy occupation, and the remuneration is in such disproportion to the expenditure! Isn’t it indeed the golden era of letters? If only the letters were gold!
If there is any such thing remaining as a guild of authors, somewhere on the back seats, witnessing this marvelous Kingdom Come of Literature, there must also be a little bunch of actors, born for the stage, who see with mixed feelings their arena taken possession of by fairer if not more competent players. These players are not to be confounded with the play-actors whom the Puritans denounced, nor with those trained to the profession in the French capital.
In the United States and in England we are born to enter upon any avocation, thank Heaven! without training for it. We have not in this country any such obstacle to universal success as the Theatre Francais, but Providence has given us, for wise purposes no doubt, Private Theatricals (not always so private as they should be), which domesticate the drama, and supply the stage with some of the most beautiful and best dressed performers the world has ever seen. Whatever they may say of it, it is a gallant and a susceptible age, and all men bow to loveliness, and all women recognize a talent for clothes. We do not say that there is not such a thing as dramatic art, and that there are not persons who need as severe training before they attempt to personate nature in art as the painter must undergo who attempts to transfer its features to his canvas. But the taste of the age must be taken into account. The public does not demand that an actor shall come in at a private door and climb a steep staircase to get to the stage. When a Star from the Private Theatricals descends upon the boards, with the arms of Venus and the throat of Juno, and a wardrobe got out of Paris and through our stingy Custom-house in forty trunks, the plodding actor, who has depended upon art, finds out, what he has been all the time telling us, that all the world’s a stage, and men and women merely players. Art is good in its way; but what about a perfect figure? and is not dressing an art? Can training give one an elegant form, and study command the services of a man milliner? The stage is broadened out and re-enforced by a new element. What went ye out for to see?
A person clad in fine raiment, to be sure. Some of the critics may growl a little, and hint at the invasion of art by fashionable life, but the editor, whose motto is that the newspaper is made for man, not man for the newspaper, understands what is required in this inspiring histrionic movement, and when a lovely woman condescends to step from the drawing-room to the stage he confines his descriptions to her person, and does not bother about her capacity; and instead of wearying us with a list of her plays and performances, he gives us a column about her dresses in beautiful language that shows us how closely allied poetry is to tailoring. Can the lady act? Why, simpleminded, she has nearly a hundred frocks, each one a dream, a conception of genius, a vaporous idea, one might say, which will reveal more beauty than it hides, and teach the spectator that art is simply nature adorned. Rachel in all her glory was not adorned like one of these. We have changed all that. The actress used to have a rehearsal. She now has an “opening.” Does it require nowadays, then, no special talent or gift to go on the stage? No more, we can assure our readers, than it does to write a book. But homely people and poor people can write books. As yet they cannot act.