You would smile, I take it, at the thought of DeWolf Hopper as Lear or Hamlet or the hunchback Richard. Yet I was much more obviously equipped by nature for the heroic than for buffoonery, and it was by chance that I have sported the motley of the clown rather than worn the dark cloak of tragedy on the American stage these more than forty years.
The actor and the actress, I have said earlier, do not, like the most of mankind, drift into their life jobs by accident or inanition. They are obsessed by the stage and seek it out as June bugs do a street light. But once behind the footlights, their careers are subject to the same caprices of chance that dog the steps of Tom and Dick and Harriet.
There never was a clown, it is said, who did not yearn to make his audience weep or tremble. Miss Fannie Brice, for instance, who is one of the funniest women on our stage, is a positive genius of the comic. Does she glory in that distinction? She does not. She is very seriously determined, on the contrary, to make herself a dramatic actress and has enlisted, I understand, no less a person than David Belasco in the enterprise. And I know it to be true by something more than common report and the case of Miss Brice, for I have nurtured such an ambition, and of all the rôles I have played in the theater, my favorite is that of Jack Point in Gilbert and Sullivan's "Yeomen of the Guard",—a strolling jester who dies of a broken heart. I revel in that little touch of pathos.
Had I seen myself as Hamlet or Brutus in my freshman days I might not have this secret sorrow now, but I saw myself only as an actor; what genre of actor mattered little then. I had the first two physical essentials of the classics, stature and voice; not singing voice, but speaking voice, that deep-chested volume and resonance of speech demanded by the heroic roles of blank verse. My stature is not so uncommon, but such chest tones are, and suggest the classics at once. Something more than six feet, a bass rumble and proper enunciation are essential to tragedy, of course, but I know of no reason why I could not have acquired the other ingredients. And my early experience in the theater was in the drama.
But when I returned from four years on the road, in which I had lost the money left me by my father, and Annie Louise Cary heard me singing "The Palms" in my mother's home and advised my mother that I had a fine natural voice which should be cultivated, I was turned toward the singing stage.
I did not find work for my newly educated singing voice at once. After a season on the road in "Hazel Kirke" with a Madison Square Theater traveling company, I was given the part of Owen Hathaway in "May Blossom" with the resident troupe in a summer run at the Madison Square. My mother never missed a performance, nor did she ever fail to start and direct the applause by rapping vigorously on the floor with her umbrella.
As the summer was hot and business was none too good, this moral support was appreciated by the company; so much so that they presented her with a handsome gold-headed umbrella at the close of the last performance, Daniel Frohman, manager of the company, making the presentation speech.
In "May Blossom" one of the male characters was required to sing a few bars of a popular song offstage. The actor cast for the rôle was no singer, and the bit was given to me. Georgia Cayvan, the leading woman, who had become very fond of my mother, and sympathetic with her boundless ambition for me, asked Colonel John A. McCaull to drop into the theater sometime and hear me sing. McCaull, who had been one of Morgan's guerrillas that harried the Indiana and Ohio shores during the Civil War, then was the great man of comic opera.
He came and heard and offered me a place as first barytone in one of his half dozen companies. I accepted, naturally, but I never sang first barytone for McCaull. Had I done so the probabilities are that I either still would be an obscure barytone at seventy-five or one hundred dollars a week, or that I would have strayed into grand opera. I had studied the operatic rôles of St. Bris in "Les Huguenots", Sparefucile in "Rigoletto", Baldasori in "La Favorita", the basso rôle in "La Juive" and Mephisto in "Faust." My mother was ready and anxious to finance two years' study abroad, which she envisioned as a prelude to stardom at the Metropolitan Opera House.
But through unexpected and enforced changes in two of McCaull's companies, Mark Smith, Junior, a recognized first barytone, was shifted to the company I was joining. Having me on his hands, McCaull, with many misgivings, tried me out in the comedy rôle of Pomeret in "Désirée", John Philip Sousa's first opera.
We opened at the Broad Street Theater, Philadelphia, one of the few theaters of my youth still standing and housing first-class productions, and I was an unexpected and considerable success.
I never have been able to live down that success. At the outset I was hugely gratified with it, as one is likely to be with first victories, and when I had tired of it, it was too late. I was catalogued in the card index of the theater and of theatergoers as a singing comedian and a singing comedian I have remained. There are worse destinies.
Once many years ago Augustus Thomas was stricken with a great idea. He asked me to go with him to call upon Charles Frohman, without taking me into confidence as to his mission. When we were in Frohman's office, Thomas, to my abashed surprise, began something like this:
"Charley, here is your chance to do a big thing for the theater. Hopper's talents are being thrown away in comedy. He has the frame and the voice for tragedy. Heroics demand the heroic, but who have we among our tragedians that fills the bill? Look at Thomas W. Keene and E. H. Sothern! Splendid actors, I grant you, but neither with the robust voice or the stature. Here is Will, a man intended by Nature for the heroic, and the stage is using him as a clown. You are the manager to rectify this blunder, to give our stage a tragedian who looks the part."
And more in that vein. Frohman listened tolerantly to Thomas' enthusiasm and when the latter had run down, said:
"What you say is substantially true, no doubt, Gus, with the important exception that it can't be done. Will has all the physical attributes of tragedy and he is a first-rate actor, but his public expects him to be funny and would resent his being anything else. They have labeled him as comic and comic he must be."
Frohman, of course, was right. In the theater and out, the public likes to catalogue all the ingredients of life; insists upon doing so. That is good, this is bad; this is right, that is wrong; this is funny, that is sad; this is wise, that is foolish; this to be desired, that to be avoided; all deep blacks or spotless whites and all neatly ticketed and indexed. It is a thought-saving process and few of us like to think. It is so much easier to look into the back of the book and find the answers all worked out for us.
So it is the audiences more than the managers who are at fault for the type system which has grown to be such an evil in the legitimate theater, sentencing this man to play an irascible old man all his life because he once did such a part very well; that woman to a lifetime of slangy chorus girls because she first attracted notice in such a rôle. Hundreds of actors and actresses are confined to-day in such strait-jackets, the most of them competent to play well any part within the limitations of their sex and age.
When Al Jolson, for instance, blacked his face and fixed himself in the public mind as a surpassing minstrel, he forever limited his usefulness. In each of his shows Mr. Jolson is careful to appear once during the performance in white-face, but it is too late. Conceive of the public bewilderment and disgust if he should announce a season of dramatic repertoire. Yet, in my opinion, Mr. Jolson is an actor of infinite possibilities.
So only once in my life have I had the gratification of playing the heroic. At the Lambs' Gambol in 1909 I played Mark Antony in the funeral-oration scene from "Julius Cæsar", seriously intended and seriously performed.
The Lambs in their annual Gambols seek a fare not to be had in the theater at large. From the Lambs' point of view it would have been pointless to have heard Robert Mantell, Louis James, Frederick B. Warde or William Farnum, all actors associated with the rôle, deliver Antony's oration. Such actors were put in the mob and the major rôles given to men identified with the frivolous in the theater. In the mob of fifty-three that listened to my guarded eulogy of the murdered Cæsar were sixteen actors who had played Antony themselves.
As Shakespeare wrote it, Antony enters in advance of Cæsar's body, but even before an audience largely composed of fellow professionals I was fearful of the effect my reputation as a comedian might have upon their risibilities, and I insisted upon entering behind the bearers carrying the body.
"They won't laugh at a corpse at any rate," I grimly told Gus Thomas.
This was the last performance of mine that my mother witnessed. She was very feeble and died the following January. My son helped her into the Metropolitan Opera House by a side entrance and sat with her this night. All my stage career she had been torn between two ambitions, one to see me one of the great of the dramatic stage, the other as one of that glittering company of the elect at the Metropolitan Opera House. This night she saw me on the stage of that house in one of the great rôles of Shakespeare and she saw me successful. Much of my success was born of the surprise of the house that I could do it at all, but a success I was, gratifyingly so, before as stage-wise an audience as an actor may play to.
We went directly from the theater to the train, and as I would not see my mother again for some days, I rushed around to say good night to her as soon as I was quit of the stage. She could only put her arms around me and sob. A son, if only for a moment, had lived up to his mother's expectations.
The Lambs then had not yet ceased to take their annual Gambols on tour, and so I played Antony in eleven other cities, my last appearance in the classical drama. Twice, previously, I had played in special performances of a classic, once as Falstaff, the other time as David in "The Rivals", but as the former brought me under the tutelage of William H. Crane and Mrs. John Drew, and the latter of Joseph Jefferson, I should prefer to leave these stories to another time.Mr. Thomas was mistaken or carried away by his argument when he told Charles Frohman that my stature and voice were thrown away in comedy. Nothing is thrown away in comedy: there is nothing but what is useful, and my height and sounding voice have greatly extended the range of my clowning by providing that sublime-to-the-ridiculous contrast that is the very juice of most comic situations. I do not intend to imply that a comedian of five-feet-two with the voice of a penny whistle is thereby prevented from being as funny as I am. A great comedian may achieve his results with very few tools in his kit. Take any comedy situation to pieces to see what makes it tick, and you will discover that its mainspring lies in the art of the comedian. The comic value of the equipment is secondary, the physical equipment of the actor last. That is why the jokes that were so excruciating in the theater
From the photo. by Falk. Collection of Albert Davis, Brooklyn, N. Y.
Digby Bell and Mr. Hopper as Young Men
last evening so often prove to have soured on you overnight when you open them at the office the next day.
For five years I worked for Colonel McCaull without a rest. We played fifty-two weeks a season, twenty-two in New York City and thirty on the road. In ten years, in fact, I had just two weeks vacation. Opera bouffe, light opera, operetta or comic opera, as you will, was in its hey-day. Musical comedy and the revue were yet unborn. In numbers and importance light opera ranked second only to the drama itself. Musically the United States had produced little of its own beyond Stephen Foster's negro songs, and we imported virtually all of our light operas from Austria, Germany and France, with the notable exception—Gilbert and Sullivan, who had just burst upon a delighted world. One McCaull company headed by Digby Bell was singing Gilbert and Sullivan and paying the authors' royalties; half a dozen other troupes were pirating the same.
The European flavor of light opera was, no doubt, one of its weaknesses in America and an explanation of why it had been all but driven from our stage by musical comedy fifteen years later. The former was purely romantic and far removed from American life. Musical comedy was of our own soil, its wit was native, its book topical, its music generally livelier, if cheaper, and it bore down heavily upon the comedy.
But musical comedy never ceased to be a technical monstrosity, a bearded lady. In opera in any form the music helps the story; the story suggests the music. It is the artful blending of the two. In musical comedy the story and the score often were as friendly and mutually helpful as the North and South of Ireland. Either they ignored each other, or the story was kept leaping madly from the cane fields of Louisiana to Greenland's icy mountains, to India's coral strands, and back to a Montana ranch by way of the Bowery, to keep up with the changing costumes of the chorus. The peasants and soldiers, having rollicked a Heidelberg drinking song, gave way for a moment to the low comedy of the Cincinnati brewer and the English silly ass in love with the heroine, and were back as cotton pickers cakewalking to the strains of Georgia Camp Meeting, the story arriving badly out of breath in its dash from Mitteleuropa. The song cues frequently were the funniest things in the show. To the last, musical comedy maintained the polite fiction that the songs had something to do with the book, and cued each musical number. In order to do this it was necessary now and then for the tenor to be reminded by a catchup bottle in a Vienna rathskeller of Apple Blossom Time in Delaware. Or the story at the moment having been left stranded on the island of Sulu and the authors having a song about Doctor Cook, gumdrops and Eskimos on their hands, the dialogue would run something like this:
She: Isn't it warm here in Sulu?
He: It is indeed. I wish I were back again in dear old Franz Josef Land.
The conductor, who had been waiting with poised baton, would give it a flourish and the pack would be off in full cry on the gumdrop song.
When the padded-shouldered young Harvard football hero and Policeman O'Rourke's daughter, Kathleen, the heroine, popped up in Sherwood Forest from Bar Harbor, I always used to enjoy seeing Kathleen register surprise at finding a grand piano in the heart of the forest.
"Who could have left this piano here?" she would exclaim.
"How fortunate!" would be Padded-Shoulders' line. "Now you can play again for me that song you sang that night we first met under the elms of old Cambridge. You remember, When It's Stogy Time in Wheeling, West Vee Ay."
I exaggerate, but not so much as you may think. The musical-comedy success of last season was "No, No, Nanette." It contained one song number, "Tea for Two", that had traveled around the earth within sixty days after the show opened in Chicago. If you should happen to see "No, No, Nanette", observe how the song arrives as abruptly as a man falling through a skylight. Nanette and Tom are quarreling. They have not been to tea, they are not going to tea, they are in no mood for tea, but suddenly amidst their reproaches they burst into song about the delights of a tender, intimate tea. And having sung it and been encored until they are breathless, they return to their quarrel. I single this out only because the show still is a current success and the melody is familiar to all the world.I have seen musical comedy fade away into the revue, glorified vaudeville where all pretense of plot has been scrapped and nakedness substituted for the story, and now I am seeing the return of light opera. I doubt that the
From the photo, by Hall, N. Y . Collection of Albert Davis, Brooklyn, N. Y.
Marguerite Clark and DeWolf Hopper in "The Pied Piper"
Shuberts ever have made as much money on any two other productions in their history as they did recently with "Blossom Time", an operetta fashioned around the life and music of Franz Schubert. Arthur Hammerstein's "Rose-Marie", another light opera, has run a year on Broadway now to capacity houses, and "The Student Prince", in one company of which I am playing, has been enormously profitable.
Light opera may or may not be back to stay. It will be the public's loss if it is not, but I walk warily in the paths of prophecy. I have a prediction, however, which I am prepared to shout from any housetop. That is that Gilbert and Sullivan will never die. They are to the English-speaking musical stage what Shakespeare is to the drama. The analogy is not strained.
Although I love these operas best and made my entry on to the singing stage when they were in their first furore, I never heard or sang in a Gilbert and Sullivan production until 1911, nearly thirty years later. I had been playing almost continuously for those three decades. Actors frequently are accused of having little or no interest in any play with which they have not been identified. The true explanation often lies in the fact that the actor has almost no opportunity of seeing other plays.
The Shuberts had revived "The Mikado" in 1910 with such success that they were about to try "Pinafore" for a short summer run when I returned to New York from a 25,000-mile tour in "The Matinee Idol." They offered me the role of Dick Deadeye, but I was worn out and looking forward to a summer's rest. The salary offered and the promise that the run would be for four weeks only led me to accept. Instead "Pinafore" ran most of the summer and all of the next season. Deadeye is the least interesting to play of all the Gilbert and Sullivan comedy roles, but since then I have sung in all their operas save three, "The Gondoliers", "Princess Ida" and "The Grand Duke."
Gilbert and Sullivan are immortal because each was a genius with an infinite appreciation of the other. W. S. Gilbert was the greatest comic poet of the language. Arthur Sullivan was an accomplished composer in any company—in his particular field, without compare—and together they rose to heights that neither could have attained singly. Here is the perfect union of sense and sound. Sullivan's music matches wit for wit, whimsey for whimsey and gibe for gibe with Gilbert's book and lyrics. Not a note but what is in harmony with the spirit of the words, not a lyric or a phrase but what tells the story. There is no padding, no stuffing, no irrelevancies.
Much of Gilbert's swordplay was directed at follies of the day and institutions peculiarly British. The lapse of time and the subtlety of his shafts have removed the sting and left some of his most famous lyrics merely delightful nonsense to the bulk of present-day audiences. Such auditors, hearing a Gilbert and Sullivan opera for the first time, too, will recognize endless catch phrases and popular allusions, the original source of which they have not suspected—such as the Lord Chancellor's "Said I to Myself, Said I" song in "Iolanthe." The man who grumbled that Shakespeare's plays were nothing but a lot of quotations might have brought a similar charge against "The Mikado", "Pinafore" and others.
There are not so many laughs in the best of plays that the cast is apt to overlook them in rehearsal, yet we continually find new ones in Gilbert. I discovered one only last season in "Pinafore" that I had wasted for many seasons. So is it a rare sight to see a performer laughing to himself over his own lines. Gilbert has done that to all of us.
I should have liked to know W. S. Gilbert, but I should not have cared to know him too well perhaps. All of his wit is not to be found in the operas. His friends, his neighbors and actors were victims of some of his sharpest shafts. There is the story of the rehearsal of "Pinafore" at which he directed Rutland Barrington, who played the captain, to sit pensively upon the skylight of the good ship. The actor sat down and the skylight collapsed beneath him.
"Pensively, Rutland, pensively—not expensively," the author chided.
It was Gilbert who when asked by Lady Tree how he had liked Sir Herbert Beerbohm Tree's first venture in "Hamlet," replied, "It was funny without being vulgar, I thought." But my favorite Gilbertian anecdote is that of his rejoinder to the baronet, a partner in a house famous throughout the empire for its relishes, pickles, jams, jellies and preserves, who was a neighbor of Gilbert's in the country. The baronet had grown very touchy about the source of his wealth and his title, and was rather a hoity-toity neighbor.
Gilbert's dogs killed a pheasant or two on his acres and the latter wrote a curt note of protest to the author. Gilbert wrote back politely:
Dear Sir Alfred: I am extremely sorry about the loss of your pheasants, and I am taking steps to prevent my dogs from trespassing on your preserves in the future.
W. S. Gilbert.
P.S. You will pardon my use of the word "preserves", won't you?
Some one once challenged Gilbert to make up a verse offhand riming the words "Timbuctoo" and "cassowary." He studied for a moment and recited:
"If I were a cassowary in Timbuctoo,
I'd eat a missionary and his hymn book too."
In my second season with McCaull, I sang in "Clover." Charles W. Dungan, a second barytone of note, was under contract with McCaull at no small salary. McCaull had no spot where he could use Dungan that summer and suggested that the actor take a vacation. Dungan, it developed, was not in a vacation mood, and McCaull was confronted with the necessity of paying him for a summer of leisure. Rather than do that, the colonel did what many another manager has been known to do—he cast the actor in an insignificant role in "Clover" in the hope that Dungan would refuse the part as beneath his dignity and his reputation.
Dungan was such a conscientious actor that I never have been able to decide whether he accepted the part out of a sense of obligation or whether he sensed McCaull's strategy and was determined to confound it, but take it he did. He appeared in one act only and had exactly one line:
"My Lord, the King is dead!"
yet he made up for it as carefully as if he were playing Hamlet.
The rest of us got a good deal of malicious sport out of the situation and made it as difficult for Dungan as possible. We tried every trick known to actors in an effort to break him up in the delivery of his one line. I used to tap my wooden shoes on the stage at his entrance in imitation of a galloping horse. But when he did trip at last the catastrophe was purely accidental.
The moral of "Clover" was the vanity of undue ambition. The hero leaving home on a quixotic quest wins at length a victory at a heroic cost. That victory is made futile by the unexpected death of the king. At Dungan's entrance with the grievous tidings, the entire company would fall to their knees, the quartet at the front of the stage, and sing a very lovely prayer, closing the act. The solo parts were sung by Eugene Oudin, who played the hero.
At Wallack's Theater one summer evening toward the close of the run, Dungan tripped on the scabbard of his sword as he entered and fell flat center stage with the words, "My Lord——"
I never have known another such utter collapse to overtake a company. We had heckled him for weeks to no result, and now, when we had given up, he had fallen over his own sword. With one exception none of us, principals or chorus, could utter a note. Marion Manola, the prima donna, became so hysterical that she fainted. The orchestra was silent; the conductor, Adolph Nowak, had laid down his baton and buried his head on the stand. All by himself Oudin lifted his voice and sang that prayer unaided. He sang not only his solo part but the concerted bits as well, and he never sang better or with more feeling in his life. The audience, convulsed by Dungan's mishap at first, was listening breathlessly to Oudin before he finished. When the curtain dropped, the rest of us rolled on the stage helpless in our mirth.
Oudin and I shared a dressing room. He had married Louise Parker, a prima donna, the previous year and they had a three months' old child whom they adored madly.
"How in the name of heaven did you do it?" I asked him when we were in the dressing room and I was able to speak again.
"I did it," he explained without a smile, "by picturing Louise and me in the first carriage following a white-plumed hearse carrying little Louise to her grave."
The child's death was purely supposititious. She was perfectly well then and she is living in England to-day.
When I first joined McCaull I noticed a painting of a magnificent horse on his office wall and commented upon it. The colonel was much affected. The horse was a stallion, a noble animal of Kentucky breeding and much endeared to him. In a bad season he had been forced to sell him in order that he might pay the chorus salaries, and he had lost all trace of the animal.
Some three years later Morris, McCaull's negro body servant, now servant to Francis Wilson, burst into the office of the Broad Street Theater, Philadelphia, with the news that he had found the stallion.
The colonel jumped into a runabout pulled by two fine bays which were hitched in front of the theater, and asked me to go along. Morris sat on the floor of the rig, his feet hanging out, and we drove out North Broad Street to a German grocery. McCaull described the horse to the grocer, who admitted that the animal was in his stables.
"But he is mad, mad," the grocer protested. "A wicked brute. He nearly murdered my boy and me. For days now no one goes near him. It makes no matter if he was your horse, if you go near him he would kill you."
McCaull stepped to a side door of the grocery and called once. The stallion thrust his head out of the stable door and whinnied excitedly. His former owner walked to the stable door unhesitatingly and the horse laid his head on the colonel's shoulder and whimpered. If a horse can sob that horse did. McCaull led him away and two weeks later, curried and clipped, his coat shining, his head high and his tail a plume, that stallion proudly stepped through Fairmount Park, McCaull and I riding behind him. When we were well into the park the colonel tossed the reins on to the animal's back and drove him the rest of the way by the sound of his voice and the gentlest touch of a whip.I left McCaull in 1890 to star for the first time in "Castles in the Air" by Gus Kerker, who later wrote "The Belle of New York", a pioneer among musical comedies. Locke and Davis, who were managing the enterprise, also owned the Emma Juch Grand Opera Company, and although we played to good business, all our profits went to keeping the Juch company going. Lacking a reserve fund, one losing week in Cincinnati broke our company. Delia Fox, then an unknown from St. Louis, was soubrette in the troupe. I saw an opportunity to take over the company for one dollar and assumption of the liabilities, and told the members of the company that if they would refuse to open in Chicago until they were paid for the Cincinnati engagement I would manage. This was largely bravado on my part. I lacked the money to
From the photo., copyright, 1894, by Napoleon Sarony. Collection of Albert Davis, Brooklyn, N. Y.
Della Fox in "The Little Trooper"
get the company to Chicago, neither did I know where I could get it with any certainty. Delia Fox overheard a whispered conversation between B. D. Stevens, my personal manager, and me. That evening I found a note in my box at the hotel. It contained eight hundred dollars, her savings of the season, and a note that read:
"Please accept this and don't make a fuss about it."
We did accept it, the only occasion on which I ever borrowed money from a woman, and signed a receipt for it. The receipt came back torn in fragments and with a note that said: "Friends do not do business on this basis."
We returned the $800 to her in Chicago and finished out the season with a profit.
The next season Miss Fox was my leading woman in "Wang", the first great success of either of us. "Wang", which was rather burletta than light opera, was a great entertainment of its kind. I played it two seasons, should have played it four, revived it three times in later years, and it has been played repeatedly by others. J. Cheever Goodwin and Woolson Morse wrote the piece. With characteristic irresponsibility, Goodwin sold all his interest for fifty dollars a week, and made only a bare living from it. Had he possessed a rudder, Goodwin might have become the American Gilbert. Gilbert himself never excelled Goodwin's "The Man with an Elephant on His Hands" song in "Wang", but lacking that rudder Goodwin is forgotten.
"Panjandrum", purposely so named to force the public to accustom itself to asking for seats for Hopper rather than seats for the play, followed "Wang", and when Delia Fox graduated to stardom in 1896, Edna Wallace became my leading woman in "El Capitan" by John Philip Sousa and Charles Klein, and later my wife,—the same lady who now is playing vaudeville very successfully billed as The Sixty-Two-Year-Old Flapper. I saw her in Philadelphia when we both chanced to be playing that city last summer and she looked as young and charming as the night we opened in "El Capitan" at the Tremont Theater, Boston, May 13, 1896.
Both authors had protested against such an ominous opening date, and each declined to come near the theater when after much argument we overruled their objections. But they were both of them in the house the second night, when the opera's success was assured. It ran for two seasons.
I did not, it will be noted, share their distrust of the thirteenth, specifically May thirteenth.
It had been an earlier May thirteenth when I first recited "Casey at the Bat."