Abroad with Mark Twain and Eugene Field/Dire Consequences of American Horseplay


At the time when Eugene Field was in London, Oscar Wilde and Henry Irving were undoubtedly leaders of the intellectual circles, and with both of these men Gene had quarreled. No open rupture, but he had played practical jokes on them—during their American tours—something an Englishmen never forgives. And if he wanted to, his friends and compatriots wouldn't let him.

It may be true or not that Henry Irving laughed at Gene's caricatures of himself, done before his very eyes, as well as behind his back in Chicago, but that doesn't argue that Irving did not resent Gene's merry-making. Irving had many eccentricities in person and speech, but still more dignity. And the dignity of his profession was very dear to his heart. Hence there was no companionship between the Chicago writer and the great English actor-manager while Gene was trying to establish himself in London. If he had come to London under an engagement as critic or editorial writer, it would have been different, but Gene was only a struggling literary man like so many others. So the Henry Irving literary circles were closed against the Chicago newspaper man as a matter of course.

But that didn't sour Gene's judgment of Irving's art. I remember a Macbeth night at the Lyceum Theatre. As a production, Irving's Macbeth was the last word in stage effects. I reminded Gene of the sensation caused in Chicago by the red velvet draw curtain which Irving had brought from London. Up to that time Chicago had only known paper or canvas curtains, variously painted.

"Look at the scenery," Gene kept on saying at the Lyceum. "It's all solid, vast, monumental. Chicago would go crazy about that set piece."

In the lobby we met several critics, among them the critic of the Standard. The Standard man repeated his published charge, namely, that Irving was sinning against tradition, that Macready and Kemble alone had understood how to present Macbeth. Irving, this critic insisted, ought to know "that his Macbeth was unacceptable to the best judgment."

"Best judgment—fiddlesticks! You merely state your personal opinion. We all do so. For my part I like Irving's reading with its poetry and romanticism," said Field hotly. "The King of Scots was full of irresolution, but was often dejected in spirits—Irving's portrait of a shrinking, faltering King is what it ought to be, since it holds the mirror up to history. As to tradition—that be damned—it is largely in the critic's mind and nowhere else, except perhaps with some dotard, gabbing about old times."

That was Gene all over. If the cause was just he would as lief fight the battles of a man like Irving, who ignored him, as of his best friend.

Here is another illustration of that golden rule—by contrary.

He liked Ellen Terry, liked her immensely, but he did not fail to criticise her severely. You may remember Macbeth's line:

"What if we fail?"

Lady Macbeth answers:

"We fail—"

Now Terry pronounced these two words as if she meant to indicate—well if we fail there's an end to it.

"All wrong," said Gene. "She ought to pronounce it:

"We fail!"

"It ought to sound like: 'Failure is a thing not to be thought of.'"

"I will tell Terry about it when I see her," he said. Whether he carried out that intention or not I don't know. He always spoke about Ellen Terry as the wonderful woman on the stage. "Think what she makes her body do, how she makes it respond to the demands of every role. Her eyes are pale, her nose is too long, her mouth is only ordinary, yet she makes these faulty features tell on the stage, and the audience never knows how deficient she is as to mouth, eyes and nose. And her complexion isn't good—naturally that doesn't matter so much. Her hair is an indecent tow color. And how she makes that lean and bony figure of hers cut ice is wonderful. I forgot about her feet. But her hands are too large for a woman. Indeed they are masculine, yet her audience is never allowed to see that. She gets you, and she entrances you by her innate grace—such grace as graces the world only once in a hundred years."

His troubles in America with Oscar Wilde closed another set of literary salons in Eugene's face while in London. For it must be remembered that Oscar's disgrace took place years later, in 1895, and that until his quarrel with Lord Queensbury, he was a figure to be reckoned with in London society. He was at least as important in certain social circles as Lillie Langtry, and was a Mason-brother of the Prince of Wales.

"What a fool I was, estranging Oscar," Gene confessed. "At the time I thought it exquisitely funny, but the British can't see through our American horseplay. They think it undignified and that's enough to kill even the loudest laugh."

"What did you do to Oscar?" I asked.

"The day before his arrival in Denver, where I was doing the Tribune Primer, I impersonated Oscar in the mask of Bunthorne of Patience, driving through Denver in an elegant landau and pair, and creating a riot of mirth. Oscar thought it a good advertisement for his lecture, and as a matter of fact it was, but as to the humor of the thing, he hadn't the slightest notion, and treated me, who had made hundreds for him, with studied coldness."

"Yet," continued Gene, "for all I know he may be living on the proceeds of my joke even now, for they say he earns next to nothing and depends on the money he saved in the United States, from the proceeds of his tour. But give the devil his due, Oscar does the Prince-chap business in great style. His game is to impress ordinary folks, the grocer and the glovemaker, that a litterateur is not necessarily a Bohemian living in a garret, sporting frayed collars, having no money for cigarettes in the morning and no dinner money in the evening. And to demonstrate, he dines at the swellest hotels and restaurants and tries to cut a big swath everywhere."

On another occasion. Gene told a few things about Oscar that he had heard at the Herald office. "Our fine American girl, Mary Anderson, has given that fop Oscar a commission, duly signed, to write a drama for her. It's going to be called 'The Duchess of Padua.' Oscar may make five or ten thousand dollars out of it. If I wasn't by nature so much inclined to humor, I might get an honorable commission like that. But people think I am only fit for cracking jokes and writing jocular and sentimental poetry."

"Well," I said, "Gene, everybody to his groove. While Oscar does the highfalutin', you make people laugh. If you really want to make money you ought to go on the stage. There your gift of mimicry and imitation ought to get you big returns, for you could hold your own with Goodwin and Henry Dixey."

"I have been told that before," said Gene; "they drummed it into my head in Denver and in Chicago, but somehow or other I prefer the writing game to any other, even if it keeps one on a level with proletarians."

Though not mixing with Oscar Wilde's crowd. Gene heard a lot of gossip concerning the author of "Salome," and "Lady Windemere's Fan." Likewise some stories about Lady Wilde, Oscar's mother, a most eccentric woman, whose motto was said to be: "Only shopkeeper's are respectable."

"Why, in his own mother's house, Oscar started a 'Society for the Suppression of Virtue,'" vowed Gene.

Then there was the famous yarn about original sin that we heard right off the griddle. It ran this way:

Said a Famous Beauty, friend of the Prince of Wales, to Wilde:

"Is it not a fact that original sin began with Adam and came down direct to you, Oscar?"

Oscar, shielding his mouth with his hand, for he had bad teeth, responded:

"No, my dear, sin commenced with Eve, Cleopatra carried it on and with our dear Lillie the future of sin may be safely left, being in expert hands."