The Villain by Jerome K Jerome

Story type: Essay

He wears a clean collar and smokes a cigarette; that is how we know he is a villain. In real life it is often difficult to tell a villain from an honest man, and this gives rise to mistakes; but on the stage, as we have said villains wear clean collars and smoke cigarettes, and thus all fear of blunder is avoided.

It is well that the rule does not hold off the stage, or good men might be misjudged. We ourselves, for instance, wear a clean collar–sometimes.

It might be very awkward for our family, especially on Sundays.

He has no power of repartee, has the stage villain. All the good people in the play say rude and insulting things to him, and smack at him, and score off him all through the act, but he can never answer them back–can never think of anything clever to say in return.

“Ha! ha! wait till Monday week,” is the most brilliant retort that he can make, and he has to get into a corner by himself to think of even that.

The stage villain’s career is always very easy and prosperous up to within a minute of the end of each act. Then he gets suddenly let in, generally by the comic man. It always happens so. Yet the villain is always intensely surprised each time. He never seems to learn anything from experience.

A few years ago the villain used to be blessed with a hopeful and philosophical temperament, which enabled him to bear up under these constantly recurring disappointments and reverses. It was “no matter,” he would say. Crushed for the moment though he might be, his buoyant heart never lost courage. He had a simple, child-like faith in Providence. “A time will come,” he would remark, and this idea consoled him.

Of late, however, this trusting hopefulness of his, as expressed in the beautiful lines we have quoted, appears to have forsaken him. We are sorry for this. We always regarded it as one of the finest traits in his character.

The stage villain’s love for the heroine is sublime in its steadfastness. She is a woman of lugubrious and tearful disposition, added to which she is usually incumbered with a couple of priggish and highly objectionable children, and what possible attraction there is about her we ourselves can never understand; but the stage villain–well, there, he is fairly mashed on her.

Nothing can alter his affection. She hates him and insults him to an extent that is really unladylike. Every time he tries to explain his devotion to her, the hero comes in and knocks him down in the middle of it, or the comic man catches him during one or the other of his harassing love-scenes with her, and goes off and tells the “villagers” or the “guests,” and they come round and nag him (we should think that the villain must grow to positively dislike the comic man before the piece is over).

Notwithstanding all this he still hankers after her and swears she shall be his. He is not a bad-looking fellow, and from what we know of the market, we should say there are plenty of other girls who would jump at him; yet for the sake of settling down with this dismal young female as his wife, he is prepared to go through a laborious and exhaustive course of crime and to be bullied and insulted by every one he meets. His love sustains him under it all. He robs and forges, and cheats, and lies, and murders, and arsons. If there were any other crimes he could commit to win her affection, he would, for her sweet sake, commit them cheerfully. But he doesn’t know any others–at all events, he is not well up in any others–and she still does not care for him, and what is he to do?

It is very unfortunate for both of them. It is evident to the merest spectator that the lady’s life would be much happier if the villain did not love her quite so much; and as for him, his career might be calmer and less criminal but for his deep devotion to her.

You see, it is having met her in early life that is the cause of all the trouble. He first saw her when she was a child, and he loved her, “ay, even then.” Ah, and he would have worked–slaved for her, and have made her rich and happy. He might perhaps even have been a good man.

She tries to soothe him. She says she loathed him with an unspeakable horror from the first moment that her eyes met his revolting form. She says she saw a hideous toad once in a nasty pond, and she says that rather would she take that noisome reptile and clasp its slimy bosom to her own than tolerate one instant’s touch from his (the villain’s) arms.

This sweet prattle of hers, however, only charms him all the more. He says he will win her yet.

Nor does the villain seem much happier in his less serious love episodes. After he has indulged in a little badinage of the above character with his real lady-love, the heroine, he will occasionally try a little light flirtation passage with her maid or lady friend.

The maid or friend does not waste time in simile or in metaphor. She calls him a black-hearted scoundrel and clumps him over the head.

Of recent years it has been attempted to cheer the stage villain’s loveless life by making the village clergyman’s daughter gone on him. But it is generally about ten years ago when even she loved him, and her love has turned to hate by the time the play opens; so that on the whole his lot can hardly be said to have been much improved in this direction.

Not but what it must be confessed that her change of feeling is, under the circumstances, only natural. He took her away from her happy, peaceful home when she was very young and brought her up to this wicked overgrown London. He did not marry her. There is no earthly reason why he should not have married her. She must have been a fine girl at that time (and she is a good-looking woman as it is, with dash and go about her), and any other man would have settled down cozily with her and have led a simple, blameless life.

But the stage villain is built cussed.

He ill-uses this female most shockingly–not for any cause or motive whatever; indeed, his own practical interests should prompt him to treat her well and keep friends with her–but from the natural cussedness to which we have just alluded. When he speaks to her he seizes her by the wrist and breathes what he’s got to say into her ear, and it tickles and revolts her.

The only thing in which he is good to her is in the matter of dress. He does not stint her in dress.

The stage villain is superior to the villain of real life. The villain of real life is actuated by mere sordid and selfish motives. The stage villain does villainy, not for any personal advantage to himself, but merely from the love of the thing as an art. Villainy is to him its own reward; he revels in it.

“Better far be poor and villainous,” he says to himself, “than possess all the wealth of the Indies with a clear conscience. I will be a villain,” he cries. “I will, at great expense and inconvenience to myself, murder the good old man, get the hero accused of the crime, and make love to his wife while he is in prison. It will be a risky and laborious business for me from beginning to end, and can bring me no practical advantage whatever. The girl will call me insulting names when I pay her a visit, and will push me violently in the chest when I get near her; her golden-haired infant will say I am a bad man and may even refuse to kiss me. The comic man will cover me with humorous opprobrium, and the villagers will get a day off and hang about the village pub and hoot me. Everybody will see through my villainy, and I shall be nabbed in the end. I always am. But it is no matter, I will be a villain–ha! ha!”

On the whole, the stage villain appears to us to be a rather badly used individual. He never has any “estates” or property himself, and his only chance of getting on in the world is to sneak the hero’s. He has an affectionate disposition, and never having any wife of his own he is compelled to love other people’s; but his affection is ever unrequited, and everything comes wrong for him in the end.

Our advice to stage villains generally, after careful observation of (stage) life and (stage) human nature, is as follows:

Never be a stage villain at all if you can help it. The life is too harassing and the remuneration altogether disproportionate to the risks and labor.

If you have run away with the clergyman’s daughter and she still clings to you, do not throw her down in the center of the stage and call her names. It only irritates her, and she takes a dislike to you and goes and warns the other girl.

Don’t have too many accomplices; and if you have got them, don’t keep sneering at them and bullying them. A word from them can hang you, and yet you do all you can to rile them. Treat them civilly and let them have their fair share of the swag.

Beware of the comic man. When you are committing a murder or robbing a safe you never look to see where the comic man is. You are so careless in that way. On the whole, it might be as well if you murdered the comic man early in the play.

Don’t make love to the hero’s wife. She doesn’t like you; how can you expect her to? Besides, it isn’t proper. Why don’t you get a girl of your own?

Lastly, don’t go down to the scenes of your crimes in the last act. You always will do this. We suppose it is some extra cheap excursion down there that attracts you. But take our advice and don’t go. That is always where you get nabbed. The police know your habits from experience. They do not trouble to look for you. They go down in the last act to the old hall or the ruined mill where you did the deed and wait for you.

In nine cases out of ten you would get off scot-free but for this idiotic custom of yours. Do keep away from the place. Go abroad or to the sea-side when the last act begins and stop there till it is over. You will be safe then.

Leave a Reply 0

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *