Love and Lady Macbeth

Love and Lady Macbeth  (1903) 
by Clara Morris

From The Idler, Vol 23, 1903. Illustrations omitted. The famed actress Clara Morris's reminiscences about cats, Lady Macbeth—and a proposal.

The wonder to me is that I ever married at all. In the first place, my love affairs ran a course so far from smoothness, so tangled and so rough, that a map of them would resemble the work of gutters a heavy rain storm cuts in garden paths and driveways. Then, again, I had a bad start in my matrimonial proposals. Those cats not only spoiled the first one, but seemed to some extent to interfere with the others.



Illustrated by W. Glackens

THERE is no habit more tenacious than the habit of work. Once acquire it, and you are helpless. You may never "loaf and invite soul," you cannot lounge about with your hands in your lap, doing nothing the fair long day. In reality, to the victim of the working habit there are no long days; they are all short days. Like many another, I realised my danger when too late. When I came to New York, and the continued run of a play left me some hours of the day without work, I immediately went forth and hunted work to fill them up with. It was thus I came to make the acquaintance of that Monsieur Fasquelle of France, who had so much anxiety as to the whereabouts of his brother-in-law's hat and the butcher's candlestick. An excellent grammarian, Monsieur Fasquelle, but a bit eccentric as a conversationalist, it always seems to me. I saw my danger then, but the habit was already too strong, and alas! it is not broken yet. Therefore it is not surprising that when I began to star, finding considerable time in which I used to study plays unoccupied, I turned my attention to the subject of matrimony. And let me say here that the actress, even the sentimental one, generally arranges her marriage with brevity, celerity, and despatch. She cannot for her life bring herself to look upon her wedding as a matter of world-moving importance, as does the girl in private life, who, judging by her own excitement, pride, display, and momentary supremacy, decides that her marriage is nothing short of a social cataclysm.

Late in the sixties actors still had their costumes carried to and from the theatre in champagne baskets by the "basket-boy," and the very first and most important duty of the actor or actress, after rehearsal, was to get the basket ready and place it outside the door; then, only, one might feel free.

Well, Cupid had been taking a little flyer behind the scenes, and a young comedian had been stricken with love for a bit of a girl who danced between the first play and the farce. One day he saw the old leader of the orchestra tap her cheek with his bow, and the awful familiarity was too much to be endured—silently. He walked home with her, and, in the boarding-house hall, he spoke. A minister's name was mentioned—a number—a street—something about a license. Nothing seemed very clear, except his love and his desire to get married at once—at once!

"Oh, Lizzie, will you marry me? Dear little Lizzie! will you?" he implored.

And Lizzie, who was about the height of a nine years' old child, but was full sixteen, very pink and very pleased, looked coyly up, then modestly down, and answered; "I'm awfully glad you love me, Ted, but—but, really, you know, you'll have to wait a little!"

Down went Ted's face. "Wait!" he cried, in a tragic voice. "Wait! Good kingdom! Why? What for? How long?"

And Lizzie, with wide, reproachful blue eyes, said: "Why, Ted, you know well enough you'll have to wait till I get my basket ready."

And when he heard the thump of that article at his sweetheart's door, he issued forth from his room, tied the strings of her bonnet under her chin, and they sallied forth and were married. And it is gratifying to know that that knot was not only simply and swiftly tied, but securely, too, for though they endured many hardships, faced many troubles, lost two wee lambs from the little flock sent to them, while the blackest kind of a small goat was spared for them to struggle with, yet the sorrow and shame of divorce came never near them—never! And love lasted while life lasted.

Another actress-bride in New York, being unable to leave town, though the heat was appalling, was married in the parlour in "a going-away gown of pale grey," the paper said; and the reverend gentleman who had officiated having departed, straightway the bridal pair also went away upon their wedding journey—away upstairs, up a ladder, through a scuttle, out upon the roof, where, in a hammock swung between the chimneys, the bride ensconced herself, and was sweetly served with ice-cream and angel cake by a very handsome, kneeling groom, who, finding the gravel hard and sharp, folded the napkin into a pad and placed it beneath his bruised knee. And when the cream and angel cake were gone, their honeymoon rose and found them there with inwreathing arms and waving palm-leaf fans, still at their banquet, but now supping of the nectar of confessed love, each listening to the other's tale of how, and when, and where the first spark of love flew into an innocent and unsuspecting heart. Nor was the element of danger quite absent from this wedding journey, for the bride was a large woman, though a darkly handsome one; large was she and heavy, and the scuttle was small and the ladder almost straight and weak to shakiness. There was an earnest discussion along towards dawn as to which one should first descend. Finally the bride declared for the groom's advance. "You see, should I stick fast, dear, you might half starve up here before our condition was discovered; but if you go first, and I, in following, stick fast, you are ready to give the alarm and call upon the fire department for assistance—for scuttles, I think, are in the line of fire work."

So she came last, and though most of the rungs of the ladder came down with her, she was safely back from her wedding journey.

Three weeks afterwards, at a birthday dinner on Staten Island, I sat opposite this bride. Our hostess had been speaking of favourite places on the Hudson and suddenly she asked of my vis-à-vis: "Your honeymoon was on the Hudson! How sensible! And did you go up or down?"

Pushing a tiny bone from the fish on her plate, she answered calmly: "I went up." Then, as all the blood in my body seemed to be pumping up into my face, she gave me a reproachful look, and asked: "Don't you admire the country about Newburgh?" And that woman prided herself upon her truthfulness!

In contrast to these two rather exceptional abrupt ceremonies, I recall the fact that at the first wedding I had the pleasure of attending, the young girl-bride had so worn out her strength in preparations, in shopping, in fitting, in receiving and acknowledging, in planning and arranging and rehearsing, that grave doubts were expressed by the family physician of her ability to pass through the church ceremony and the home reception without collapsing utterly; and the bridesmaids found themselves "shouldered about" (as they declared), by doctor and nurse, and when the maid of honour came to entreat for the frantic groom, one word with the bride—one single word, just through the merest crack of the door—that tormented young person burst forth with a "NO!" and a passionate declaration that "she wished she had never seen him, and if he sent her another message she would never look at him again as long as she lived!" There were nerves for you, and oh! the pity of it. I saw a small bottle of chloral slipped into the travelling bag of that bride.

Yes, the girl in private life and the actress hold widely differing views of weddings—weddings, mind you, not marriage. An actress loves as warmly, promises as truly, hopes as fairly as does the outsider, who makes the ancient vow that is yet ever new—to love, to honour, to obey! Only the girl in private life often finds in her wedding her sole opportunity for personal display. It is her day of power and authority—when she plays the leading part, when she is the head and front, the beginning and the ending; when, as a slangy little woman remarked to me a week or two ago, "She is the bride, and the bride is the whole show!" Hence her joy in the great spectacular wedding. But the actress is on exhibition every day of her life—she is a mimic bride over and over again, and to a sensitive woman there is almost an immodesty in a public wedding for an actress.

All of which, when the time came, I elaborately, carefully, and I hope lucidly, explained to the family of my adoption. The wonder to me is that I ever married at all. In the first place, my love affairs ran a course so far from smoothness, so tangled and so rough, that a map of them would resemble the work of gutters a heavy rain storm cuts in garden paths and driveways. Then, again, I had a bad start in my matrimonial proposals. Those cats[1] not only spoiled the first one, but seemed to some extent to interfere with the others. You are sceptical, perhaps, because I, who am not beautiful, speak of loves and proposals? But you should not be, for the woman who is plain and knows it, often sees in her plainness a challenge from fate, and if she amiably and gaily takes it up, is apt to win, well, lovers among other things. Many women are in love with love long before the special lover arrives upon the scene, and while there is flirtation that is silly and flirtation that is cruel, there is, too, that flirtation which means attention without intention that is quite a charming pastime, and one that is popular alike with homely or handsome women. Only the beauty often says to herself, after a new conquest: "It's this lovely mask he cares for. If my hair became thin, if my skin became sallow, my eyes dull—would he care for me then? could I hold him?" While the woman whose mirror shows her, perhaps only clear eyes and general wholesomeness, knows that keenest triumph, "It's I whom he cares for—I, my very self for here is no rare beauty of feature or colouring to attract his eye!"

Well, beautiful women—who are the flowers of the human race—can afford to suffer a mild twinge or two; they have only to look into the nearest pair of eyes to find comforting admiration and be happy again. But oh, what a tragedy is the fading of a great beauty! A splendid creature once lost her nearest and dearest, and she brought herself to say: "The Lord gave, the Lord taketh away, blessed be the name of the Lord!" But when her beauty began to fade with startling rapidity, she stood before her glass, in the presence of a friend, and forcing a smile, she said: "Oh, well! the Lord gave and the Lord taketh away, blessed—oh, I can't!" she shrieked. "I can't bless His name! Why, oh, why give me beauty, only to rob me of it. It's cruel, cruel!" Anyone who saw that agony of loss express itself in uncontrollable cries and writhings must have felt that sometimes one pays a penalty for being unusually beautiful; but I do truly believe that no woman would be deterred, even by such a sight, from wishing to be fair to see.

Did you ever open your mother's Bible without finding a pressed rose, or a pansy, or a violet there? To you it looks yellow and dry as dust and meaningless—but she knows what you do not, and it is rich with the colour and sweetness her memory endows it with. Just so a woman has closed between the long-past years the love affairs of her girlhood—mere names, dull and meaningless they may seem to you, but her memory gives to them eye-sparkle, smile-flash, the swift word, the knightly act, and no matter what change time and the world may have wrought upon these men, in the heart of the woman whom they once loved, they remain ever young, ever admirable.

For my part, when I sort out my own little bunch of beaux, I feel a sort of maternal tenderness for them, and my tormenting spine almost straightens itself with pride as I recall the fact that every man jack of them made his name stand for something worth while and wrote it high enough to be clearly read by his fellow citizens, before retiring from the great struggle we call life.

The demands of my profession received my first consideration: therefore in the character of sweetheart I was pretty severely criticised now and then; while as a friend I was declared a creature of superlative perfection. One resentful male creature remarked, as he grabbed his hat: "Love? Love's nothing but a miserable little side issue in your life! And yet some donkey has written that 'Love is only an incident in a man's life, and is the whole world to a woman'—much he knew about it!"

John Cockerill, after kicking the hassock downstairs, declared that "if all girls were as prudent and cautious as I was, every cottage in the suburbs would be to let, and a wedding would become a nine days' wonder;" while a soldier solemnly vowed that every single time he tried to deploy his tender sentiments, his admiration, and his love before me, I left the reviewing stand to see if a wig was properly dressed for the night or pulled a "part" over to me to make quite sure of my lines in some infernal stage love scene. But out of the detritus of crumbling loves, what splendid friendships came—frank and true and lasting to the grave!

It is curious, too, the way in which my small love affairs are all tangled up with certain plays. My taking of a husband is so tied up with the production of Macbeth, that I simply cannot think of my wedding without hearing a swirl of the "Around—around—around—around! About—about—about—about!" music of the witches' cave scene:

"Double, double, toil and trouble,
Fire burn; and, cauldron bubble."

Dear me! dear me! how those two memories do braid themselves together! First of all it was the man I was engaged to marry—John A. Cockerill—who gave Mr. F. C. Harriott his letter of introduction to me. Then, to our mutual joy and happiness, John and I wisely snapped our betrothal bonds and became our peaceable law-abiding selves again; and, that becoming known to Mr. Harriott, he concluded that he would now enter the lists—which was right enough, only his courtship would have been much simplified if Lady Macbeth had not come upon the scene at almost the same time—for, place aux dames, the lady was the first consideration. What a state of mind I was in, to be sure! I could not accept the traditional, martially stalking drum-major of a woman, who spoke in sepulchral tones and splashed about in blood as though she were quite used to it; who spoke of dashing out the brains of her suckling, with a fiendish satisfaction in her own nerve that made her final remorseful breaking-down of brain and heart a contradiction—almost an impossibility.

Discussion of the famous character grew warm—reached the papers, and even the public in the persons of Constant Reader, Old Play-goer, and Veritas, wrestled with the great question anent the femininity or the masculinity of Lady Macbeth. Occasionally, my view of her character met with approval, but oftener I got a rap over the knuckles by being sharply reminded that my age and inexperience only fitted me to follow—not to lead; that Mrs. Siddons, Miss Cushman, Madame Janauschek had clung to a traditional Lady Macbeth—and that was the only one the public knew or wanted. I meekly reminded Veritas that Mrs. Sarah Siddons, late in life, had herself declared for a distinct feminine Lady Macbeth, fully confessing the error of her own characterisation, but adding that she had not had the courage to alter the presentation the public knew so well.

An actress in the West, who was not overburdened with reverence, once remarked in my hearing, that "Lady Macbeth was a fraud—that if the part were given out without a name, any decently fair actress would accept it without a second thought, but tack on the name 'Lady Macbeth,' and the best pair of knees in the profession would begin to tremble—besides which, the part was greater to write about than it was to act!"—in her opinion.

There was truth in the first part of that assertion. There is a sort of traditional terror that wraps Lady Macbeth as with a robe. You find all the greatness of the mighty Pritchard, Siddons, Cushman, and the rest, looming up between you and the part you are studying. They and their "business," their reading of certain lines—Siddon's "We fail!" Cushman's "Give me the daggers!" go whirling through your brain. You feel smaller and smaller, and, worst of all, these great traditions are frightening you away from Shakespeare's Lady Macbeth. You forget you have the same material to build with that they had—Shakespeare's own words; that you have the right to construe those words according to the best effort of your God-given intelligence—and very often custom is too strong and one more Lady Macbeth is monumental, declamatory, gory-minded, and domineering.

Yet Macbeth loved the fair-faced hypocrite and petted her with endearing terms. She was his "Chuck!" his "dearest Chuck!" his "dear love!" Even to his king, he openly shows his love for her, when he asks the royal permission, to himself act as harbinger:

"And make joyful the hearing of my wife,
With your approach."

He makes no pretence of hastening ahead to prepare for the king's reception and bestowal—not he; only "to make joyful the hearing of his wife." Very well, then, granted he loved and cosseted her and was a fine soldier, big and bluff and physically brave—and "in joining contrasts lieth love's delight,"—then his contrast would be the slender, slight, possibly small woman, fair, soft, tender in seeming, this "dearest Chuck!" whose soft body housed a soul of fire, whose brain seethed with plans to gratify her devouring ambition. Nor was this pet and darling of the rough soldier's love supported in her dread deeds by her own mere normal strength. Crafty and subtle as she was, clever as her reading of Macbeth's character proves her to have been, she only becomes terrible as a fate through her absolute reliance upon this supernatural power of the witches. There is something appalling in her ready faith and eager summoning of the "spirits of evil" to her aid, and right in that invocation I find my proof that Lady Macbeth was naturally womanly, pitiful—capable of repentance for wrong done, and had sufficient belief in God to at least fear Him. For in that moment of exaltation, when the promise of the crown was tightening every thrilling nerve to a mad determination, her first demand of the "murdering ministers" is that they shall "unsex her," that they shall fill her from the crown to the toe top-full of "direct cruelty." Further, she wants the access and passage to remorse stopped up. Fearing the softening influence of her little child, she prays the evil spirits to "take her milk for gall"; and apparently already convinced that she may have to do the awful deed herself, she prays for "thick night, that her keen knife see not the wound it makes; nor heaven peep through the blanket of the dark to cry 'Hold! hold!'"

She is graceful, suave, and gracious to the king. She flatters and cajoles Macbeth, and when her boldness startles him and he would gain time and "speak further," with assurance that is almost patronage she bids him: "Only look up clear—and leave all the rest to her!"

You see, already she is relying utterly upon the supernatural power of the witches, and it is her faith in them that sustains her through the awful ordeals that follow. And when at last it is borne in upon her that they have played her husband false—that, all stained with crime, they two are left to face an outraged God—how quickly the delicate woman becomes a physical wreck!

Masculine? Never! Could a masculine woman show such tender pity and patience as Lady Macbeth shows for Macbeth in the banquet scene? Oh, the weariness, yet the wifely, almost maternal gentleness of that line to the broken man:

"You lack the season of all natures, sleep."

So I was busy defending my idea of the feminine Lady Macbeth, in trying to arrange some business for my exit after the banquet scene; for alas! I had become a star and had no one to "direct" me now. Instead, in an agony of embarrassment and shyness, I had to direct everything myself. How I blessed my old days of service in the ballet, just then, for I was so familiar with the time-honoured music of Locke, with every bit of business for the apparitions, soldiers, supers, et al., that not even the oldest witch chasséing about the caldron could find a chance to sneer at my ignorance, modern as I was. It was only business for my own part that gave me pause.

Then one day that fine old actress, Mrs. Farren, who was an honour to her profession all her long life, and who had been Lady Macbeth before I was I at all, said to me very kindly, as she pressed my aching head between her cool hands:

"Don't, my dear! Give it up!"

"Don't what, Mrs. Farren?" I asked, leaning my head against her breast for a few restful moments. "Give up what?"

"Your foolish idea of a coaxing, crafty, womanly Lady Macbeth. Forgive my plain speaking, my child, but you work so hard, and I fear you are pouring your strength upon the dry earth. I hate to see such waste. My dear, I starred for years as Lady Macbeth, and the louder, more violent, more declamatory I was, the better the people liked me. They expect to see Macbeth bullied into action, to speak frankly."

"But," I asked, "what makes her break down, if she is such a sergeant of a woman? The public must think that——"

"Ah, my dear," interrupted Mrs. Farren, "that's where you blunder. The public does not think—that's one of your new notions. Now, my child, you are sensitive, so why not save yourself unkind criticism? Cut your cloth by the good old-fashioned pattern—you know it well. Oh! that's your cue. Run along."

Imagine my heaviness of heart after that, for I knew the dear woman spoke with the kindest intention, and I was deeply touched; for at that time she was almost a stranger to me.

And if you can believe it, that being also a Friday, Mr. Harriott concluded that that afternoon was a fit and proper occasion for a proposal, and being a man of considerable decision of character, he proposed. And lo! we both made the discovery that in the breast of this meek and humble Clara there dwelt a certain pride, stiff-necked and exacting—for, you see, I was an actress, otherwise a nobody, and this gentleman who addressed me was an outsider and a member of an old and well-known family. And I said: "When your people are acquainted with your intentions and——" And of course he interrupted with the time-honoured remark about marrying him, not, &c. But I, having been made quite savage by the Macbeth rehearsal, was determined to marry the whole family or not at all. No! not even would I try on a ring, let alone wear one, until the Harriotts on one side, and the Havemeyers on the other, knew and approved of the proposed marriage.

And he went forth to seek his family, while I sought bay-rum, a handkerchief, and a play-book of Macbeth. And the proposal of marriage hung in the air like Mahomet's coffin. But what could you expect of a proposal made on Friday?

  1. With regard to the cats, it may be stated that this is not a reference to women rivals, as might perhaps be supposed. Those who read Miss Morris' book, "Life on The Stage," published by Isbister and Co., will understand the allusion. Clara's first proposal occurred after theatre hours, somewhere about midnight, by the front gate of a suburban residence. At the most tender juncture the silence was shattered by the fierce yell of a big cat which came plump down between the lovers, causing the girl to laugh and the man to swear; effectually scattering sentiment to the winds.—Editor.

This work is in the public domain in the United States because it was published before January 1, 1928.

The longest-living author of this work died in 1925, so this work is in the public domain in countries and areas where the copyright term is the author's life plus 97 years or less. This work may be in the public domain in countries and areas with longer native copyright terms that apply the rule of the shorter term to foreign works.