One-Night Stands by Christopher Morley

Story type: Essay

To those looking for an exhilarating vacation let us commend a week of “trouping” on one-night stands with a theatrical company, which mirthful experience has just been ours. We went along in the very lowly capacity of co-author, which placed us somewhat beneath the stage hands as far as dignity was concerned; and we flatter ourself that we have learned our station and observe it with due humility. The first task of the director who stages a play is to let the author know where he gets off. This was accomplished in our case by an argument concerning a speech in the play where one of the characters remarks, “I propose to send a mental message to Eliza.” This sounds (we contend) quite a harmless sentiment, but the director insisted that the person speaking, being an Englishman of studious disposition, would not say anything so inaccurate. “He would use much more correct language,” said the director. “He ought to say ‘I purpose to send.’” We balked mildly at this. “All right,” said our mentor. “The trouble with you is you don’t know any English. I’ll send you a copy of the Century dictionary.”

This gentleman carried purism to almost extravagant lengths. He objected to the customary pronunciation of “jew’s-harp,” insisting that the word should be “juice-harp,” and instructing the actor who mentioned this innocent instrument of melody to write it down so in his script. When the dress rehearsal came round, he was surveying the “set” for the first act with considerable complacence. This scenery was intended to represent a very ancient English inn at Stratford-on-Avon, and one of the authors was heard to remark softly that it looked more like a broker’s office on Wall Street. But the director was unshaken. “There’s an old English inn up at Larchmont,” said he, “and this looks a good deal like it, so I guess we’re all right.”

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Let any one who imagines the actor’s life is one of bevo and skittles sally along with a new play on its try-out in the one-night circuit. When one sees the delightful humour, fortitude, and high spirits with which the players face their task he gains a new respect for the profession. It is with a sense of shame that the wincing author hears his lines repeated night after night–lines that seem to him to have grown so stale and disreputably stupid, and which the ingenuity of the players contrives to instill with life. With a sense of shame indeed does he reflect that because one day long ago he was struck with a preposterous idea, here are honest folk depending on it to earn daily bread and travelling on a rainy day on a local train on the Central New England Railway; here are 800 people in Saratoga Springs filing into a theatre with naive expectation on their faces. Amusing things happen faster than he can stay to count them. A fire breaks out in a cigar store a few minutes before theatre time. It is extinguished immediately, but half the town has rushed down to see the excitement. The cigar store is almost next door to the theatre, and the crowd sees the lighted sign and drops in to give the show the once-over, thus giving one a capacity house. Then there are the amusing accidents that happen on the stage, due to the inevitable confusion of one-night stands with long jumps each day, when scenery and props arrive at the theatre barely in time to be set up. In the third act one of the characters has to take his trousers out of a handbag. He opens the bag, but by some error no garments are within. Heavens! has the stage manager mixed up the bags? He has only one hope. The girlish heroine’s luggage is also on the stage, and our comedian dashes over and finds his trousers in her bag. This casts a most sinister imputation on the adorable heroine, but our friend (blessings on him) contrives it so delicately that the audience doesn’t get wise. Then doors that are supposed to be locked have a habit of swinging open, and the luckless heroine, ready to say furiously to the hero, “Will you unlock the door?” finds herself facing an open doorway and has to invent a line to get herself off the stage.

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Going on the road is a very humanizing experience and one gathers a considerable respect for the small towns one visits. They are so brisk, so proud in their local achievements, so prosperous and so full of attractive shop-windows. When one finds in Johnstown, N. Y., for instance, a bookshop with almost as well-assorted a stock as one would see here in Philadelphia; or in Gloversville and Newburgh public libraries that would be a credit to any large city, one realizes the great tide of public intelligence that has risen perceptibly in recent years. At the hotel in Gloversville the proprietress assured us that “an English duke” had just left who told her that he preferred her hotel to the Biltmore in New York. We rather wondered about this English duke, but we looked him up on the register and found that he was Sir H. Urnick of Fownes Brothers, the glove manufacturers, who have a factory in Gloversville. But then, being a glove manufacturer, he may have been kidding her, as the low comedian of our troupe observed. But the local pride of the small town is a genial thing. It may always be noted in the barber shops. The small-town barber knows his customers and when a strange face appears to be shaved on the afternoon when the bills are announcing a play, he puts two and two together. “Are you with that show?” he asks; and being answered in the affirmative (one naturally would not admit that one is merely there in the frugal capacity of co-author, and hopes that he will imagine that such a face might conceivably belong to the low comedian) he proceeds to expound the favourite doctrine that this is a wise burg. “Yes,” he says, “folks here are pretty cagy. If your show can get by here you needn’t worry about New York. Believe me, if you get a hand here you can go right down to Broadway. I always take in the shows, and I’ve heard lots of actors say this town is harder to please than any place they ever played.”

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One gets a new viewpoint on many matters by a week of one-night stands. Theatrical billboards, for instance. We had always thought, in a vague kind of way, that they were a defacement to a town and cluttered up blank spaces in an unseemly way. But when you are trouping, the first thing you do, after registering at the hotel, is to go out and scout round the town yearning for billboards and complaining because there aren’t enough of them. You meet another member of the company on the same errand and say, “I don’t see much paper out,” this being the technical phrase. You both agree that the advance agent must be loafing. Then you set out to see what opposition you are playing against, and emit groans on learning that “The Million Dollar Doll in Paris” is also in town, or “Harry Bulger’s Girly Show” will be there the following evening, or Mack Sennett’s Bathing Beauties in Person. “That’s the kind of stuff they fall for,” said the other author mournfully, and you hustle around to the box office to see whether the ticket rack is still full of unsold pasteboard.

At this time of year, when all the metropolitan theatres are crowded and there are some thirty plays cruising round in the offing waiting for a chance to get into New York and praying that some show now there will “flop,” one crosses the trail of many other wandering troupes that are battering about from town to town. In remote Johnstown, N. Y., which can only be reached by trolley and where there is no hotel (but a very fine large theatre) one finds that Miss Grace George is to be the next attraction. On the train to Saratoga one rides on the same train with the Million Dollar Doll, and those who have seen her “paper” on the billboards in Newburgh or Poughkeepsie keep an attentive optic open for the lady herself to see how nearly she lives up to her lithographs. And if the passerby should see a lighted window in the hotel glimmering at two in the morning, he will probably aver that there are some of those light-hearted “show people” carousing over a flagon of Virginia Dare. Little does he suspect that long after the tranquil thespians have gone to their well-earned hay, the miserable authors of the trying-out piece may be vigiling together, trying to dope out a new scene for the third act. The saying is not new, but it comes frequently to the lips of the one-night stander–It’s a great life if you don’t weaken.

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