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The Handicap of Beauty


The Handicap of Beauty .
Its Hampering Influence on Theatrical Ambition

By VIRGINIA TRACY
Author of "The Web," "Persons Unknown," etc.


THERE is none, of course, if your beauty is all your stock. Beauty is not a handicap to nothingness. Even to that agreeable talent which aims only at doing the best possible with limited means in a hard world, it opens more doors than it bars. Let us admit at once that it is a handicap that all of us would like to try. What, then, is the complainant's charge?

When I speak of beauty's handicap, I am not joining the general chorus of beauty's detractors. The handicap I refer to is not that which will be only too readily granted me—the handicap from within, the temptation of one's mirror, the desire of loveliness to shine and dazzle. No, my fellows in the audience, the essential handicap is the handicap from without, the handicap of our making—nothing more or less than the public's terrible preoccupation with appearance; the very thing, of course, that is commonly supposed to work in beauty's favor.

We are all only too well acquainted with the perennial questions in the women's magazines: What is the first requisite for success on the stage? How far is a handsome appearance necessary? We know too well that the actress with the handsome appearance will reply that it is wholly unnecessary, all results depending upon health and hard work. And when the actress without the handsome appearance answers that it is the whole question, and that without it you have about as much chance to rise as a blind mute in a cellar with three-pile felt nailed over the hatchway, we all know how something in the weary acid of that retort bites the more convincingly into our nerves. Between the Scylla, then, of being too plain and the Charybdis of being too lovely, the steering is somewhat difficult—Scylla hung with the united warnings of the world in screaming crape while Charybdis flaunts the legend of popular conception, "Safe pilot into port!" It is against this popular misconception, this idea that a fair face carries all before it, no matter where it wishes to go, the somehow slurring indictment, "Beauty is nine tenths of the battle," that we should do well sometime to lift at least the challenge, What battle?

For if you are what Mr. Barnum used naïvely to advertise as a "ten-thousand-dollar beauty," and what you desire is to wear pretty clothes and marry a millionaire, then shove your beauty to its hilt. Personal loveliness, as I have said, is a handicap to the person who means business, not to the person who, as far as the stage is concerned, means nothing at all. But suppose that behind your beauty you bear the world the true dramatic gift, and insist upon its being "thoroughly worn out before you are thrown on the scrap-heap." If the beauty that you see is not your own, but glows like the bright face of variety and impersonation, so that you want to play neither Lady Lillian, the Hero's Bride, nor Goldy Locks, the Dressmaker's Delight, but, let us say. The Chorus Lady and Leah and Hedda, Salvation Nell, Topsy, and Meg Merrilies, Norah and Madame X—— and a reckless coster girl and the Thane of Cawdor's helpful spouse—well, since you are a ten-thousand-dollar beauty, then, as long as you are young, wear a veil, or a ring in your nose, or stain your skin and buy a hump and keep your head shaved, at the very least be sure to have your beauty scratched with briers; it will be the better for you in the end.

For then you will have kept yourself free—free, at least, of that rosy net we begin to weave for you at first sight. And by the time you are fifty you may get a quiet moment in which the stage is vacant of any other interest "to thrust one naked phrase like a lean knife between the ribs of Time." How you are to have lived up to that moment I cannot tell you.

No instance of the public's preoccupation can be nearer to hand than an evening of a few weeks ago enriched by Miss Elsie Ferguson's extraordinary performance in "Outcast." Even from a seat far sidewise against the second box one was aware, during the first act, of something unusual going forward. The little bedraggled, tawdry figure of the street girl—rescued from a midnight storm by three young fellows, and watchful only to see just what was required of her—shivered, winced, and swaggered, but never asked our sympathy with a false sweet note of that husky slang nor veiled from our repulsion her smeared and dampened rouge, her brassy, elaborate, tousled head, her run-down high heels, her "jakey" gait, cringing and yet plucky, would-be sprightly, sullen, exhausted. Technically the thing was simply an amazing tour de force; emotionally it was a "human document" the keenest, cruelest stabs of which were made even more enlightening by a humor that reached the healing of our tears. What did the theater party behind me object to? The pain, the vulgarity, the moral, or the lack of moral? Not at all.

"She looks so queer! I hate to see her look like that."

"I should think she 'd hate to look like that herself."

"She looks horrid."

Not another comment. The other aspects, good or bad, were not simply dismissed; they never came up.

But the second act lifted the heroine to higher opulence, and by the third we had the gratification of beholding Miss Ferguson coiled amid silk-cushioned luxury and looking like a candy angel dressed by Worth. Whatever way her days decline, this young lady is still able to act, though that disturbed us no more than before; with a sigh of relief we settled back.

Said the large lady in the box on my right:

"She certainly can wear clothes!"

"Did you see her last year in that—I forget the name of the play? She played a French woman. She wore the most beautiful costumes!"

The theater party behind me again:

"She looks better now."

"She looks lovely."

The swain before me:

"Well, now, is n't she all right? I was afraid you would n't see her looking like herself at all."

His Dulcinea:

"Do you like the man that plays the hero? I don't believe I like him near so well as usual. He does n't look so handsome as he generally does."

"But you admit, now you 've seen her looking like herself, that she's an awfully pretty girl?"

"Sweet!"

Five years or more ago I said to one of the theatrically wise that it was a great pity no better use was being made of Miss Ethel Barrymore's personality than to light up dramatic tea-parties with it.

Despite all the preaching of the higher esthetics against dramatized novels, most of us cherish some beloved exception, and to me there is no figure more dramatically suggestive, more thrillingly brilliant, than that fair and baleful girl—strangest portrait in the whole gallery of Henry James—the Princess Casamassima. The part would be hard to cast, because beauty is essential to it—an essential for which no substitute of whatever grace or charm would avail; and this beauty must be of the highest and most illustrious sort, capable of out-queening a background of the courts of Europe while still dressed in white muslin and blue ribbons. I have not yet decided, should I, in George Ade's hopeful phrase, "step out into the alley some morning and pick up a million-dollar bill," who is to dramatize for me that cosmopolitan world; but I said then, to the theatrically wise, that the night Miss Barrymore and the Princess Casamassima stepped before it in one and the same person would be a grand night for our sick friend, the higher drama. But the theatrically wise replied:

"Well, I hope you 'll never put it into her head! She 's hard enough to keep within bounds as it is."

This time I was really puzzled.

"But what 's wrong with it as a box-office attraction? She could look as heavenly as if she were playing Little Eva, her gowns would be the best that Paris could do, the action occurs in the highest of high life, and we should simply be presented with the bonus of a real play."

"Yes, but why should the management worry with real plays when she draws packed houses without them? What 's the sense of racing round trying to throw a new light on her, when all the public asks is just to look at her as she is."

But as I understand the more articulate voices from the audience, all this "box-office" pressure, all this clamor that fairness must be pink and smiling, all this hampering indifference to newer and finer uses for personal beauty, comes from the riffraff—from the matinée girl and the tired business man. It is true that an actor's audience does consist of three estates: the general public, to which, of course, nobody belongs; the superior public, to which we all belong; and the professional critics. It is this general public of nobodies, then, which rivets beauty's chains?

And if so, were it left to its own convictions, there would be little quarrel with it. The contention is, I believe, that these poor creatures elevate beauty to undue heights by not knowing what they want; that, with their power over the box-office, they push a good-looking inferior artist to the center of the stage because they confuse acting with good looks, and beauty is nine tenths of the battle because they mistake any beauty for a great actress. Believe me, they make no such mistake; their confusion is not along those lines, and they know what they want well enough if they were not afraid to say so.

Three overtopping beauties, for instance, obsessed America in my childhood, Lillian Russell, Lily Langtry, and Mary Anderson. These ladies were all great popular beauties, all great, as may be said, public characters, and they w^ere all upon the stage. But was there really any popular confusion whatever about their respective merits as actresses? Certainly one little girl received from the dumb populace the impression that Miss Anderson was a serious actress of great beauty, that Miss Russell was a beautiful woman with a sweet voice, and that Mrs. Langtry was a beauty with no complications. Does the superior public now reverse or modify that judgment? If not, no confusion of the public mind is indicated by the fact that it carried large bodies of worshipers to all three so different shrines.

People went to see Mrs. Langtry, for instance, quite frankly, as they might go to see a sacred ibis or a municipal Christmas-tree. And if, then and always, they would carry their frankness one step further, all would be, if not well, greatly better; if they would not attempt dressing up what they wish to see in a play, then at least the beauties who can act would not be weighed down by the precedent of the beauties who can't. People will always desire beautiful things, and so long as life in general is pretty dull, so long will they desire them excessively. The sight of beauty is, in itself, excitement; and if only those whom endless days composed largely of constant shopping and waiting for trolley-cars have set starving for excitement would assert boldly that whenever they can get beauty well framed and well lighted, they will be great fools not to take a stare at it, we shall perhaps have enlightened tableaux vivants as well as Russian ballets, without the shame-faced pretension that we ought somehow to be tied up in a plot.

Who browbeat us into that pretension? The superior public.

In that chill bosom curdles the beginning of the conspiracy against beauty; thence we receive those icy sips which presently poison and pervert the natural human greed for it. The grown-up child who laughs with joy at sight of the pretty lady is turned into the grown-up child who apes the intellectual disdain of "mere beauty," and, while insisting on the despised quality, has to pretend that it wants something more complicated; thereby creating, indeed, a confusion of which, left to itself, it was quite innocent.

It is a healthy human impulse to defy the influence of Circe. And there is, indeed, a barefaced pomp of beauty—beauty that cannot enter a room without giving the whole house a shock; beauty that, as Mr. Kipling vigorously says, "hits you right between the eyes and knocks you flat"—of which the mere existence carries a challenge to stand up against that avalanche. I do well remember a certain opening night when Miss Maxine Elliott sat throned in a stage box, and the emotions of the whole audience beat and broke upon that imperturbable statue, icily regular, splendidly null. About that beauty the shivering mortal mind fluttered in hope of some reassuring blemish, slipped along the glacier without finding a crack, and, blinded by excessive light, fell away, baffled. It was natural to revolt against that.

Yet here, exactly, was a beauty which did itself injustice as a tableau vivant, and became in action greatly different. But our superior public never allowed us to admit that. If we enjoyed Miss Elliott's performance, it shrugged, "She 's a very beautiful woman," and we hushed ourselves, rebuked. Is the second instinct, then, of the superior public, in its attitude of elegant snippishness to poor handsome creatures, merely the proving of its superiority to the general? Incredibly, inescapably, yes, it is.

It behaves like a visitor from the quiet country-side who was welcomed to a simple and noisy city of the West by a theater party to "Captain Jinks of the Horse Marines" when "Captain Jinks" was in its flower. Amidst all the acclamation of curtain-calls, the visitor turned to her host and said of the star, with freezing calm, "I think she 's as homely as mud." It was not only with astonishment that she petrified the party, but with reluctant admiration. Here was some one with a standard above theirs. The girl who could think Ethel Barrymore as homely as mud achieved, if only as an oddity, a quoted prestige. Had her sophistication traveled a step further, she would have changed her phrase to, "She 's a very beautiful woman," colored by the tolerance of a softly withering smile, and her penetration and authority would have been even more subtly proved.

Great physical beauty remains forever completely democratic. It can be seen with the naked eye, it can be felt by very ordinary nerves, and, while the superior public is mainly concerned with its own subtleness of perception, no subtle perception is proved by pointing out what everybody is gaping at already. Of course, if you can be at once beautiful and cryptic, like the near-ugly, twilight eeriness of Mrs. Patrick Campbell's earlier phase, you may please the most particular.

For that pale breast and lingering charm
Came from a more dream-heavy hour,

needed interpretation, and were therefore acceptable.

But to look again upon the brilliant sunlight of Maxine Elliott, why was it impossible for the superior public to say clearly that between the beauty struggling with her genius and the beauty with no dramatic fortune but her face, here was a happy medium—a medium most happy indeed? Why could it never say that she was a very pleasing actress without stiffening its backbone, as though nothing could be admirable but the unpleasant? Where was that subtle perception which could so easily have pointed out that in the dramatic uses of her beauty Miss Elliott was an expert, her skilled hands shaping and clearing and pointing her material with that most legitimate tool? Her beauty, I dare say, gave her in the first place the rich and splendid assurance which formed, as it were, the soil from which she so confidently drew her effects of harvested abundance. She was, besides, an admirably intelligent reader, with a sort of lively thoughtfulness running like a current behind her lines; she was adroit in the clear making and naturalistic subduing of "points"; and she had—I dare say she has—a rich, a ringing voice, full of the mellower, the gayer, all the more chivalrous sorts of scorn and pride—a voice in which, indeed, reason reigned rather than tenderness, but with an utterance so high-hearted, valiant, buoyant, and balanced that its effect was tonic; a fresh wind, but sun in plenty. Then, when she took her beauty from her armory, with what aptness, with what skill and justice, she could fill with it those radiant pauses! How she could barb with it those deep and brilliant glances upon which, for her more serious effects, she so largely relied! And does all this make a great actress? No, I can re- ply with equal indignation, but it does make a comédienne of considerable finish, whereof we have too few. The superior public would have laughed languidly if Miss Elliott had attempted to play Portia otherwise than all in the day's work as her husband's leading woman; but her Portia, none the less, at least showed us a great lady. No procession of Ellen Terrys can be confidently looked for, and Miss Elliott did achieve a very princely person, full of the breeding and gay valor as essential to most of Shakspere as even that soul of poetry, that essence of pure spirit, which Miss Marlowe breathes there. The latter name seems to come like a thunderbolt out of the blue to deny the handicap of beauty.

Here, indeed, is one who is beautiful upon the mountains, whose comeliness has never held her from the highest heights. But it was a special providence which watched over Miss Marlowe when, just at that psychological moment, as the heavens were being scanned for Mary Anderson's successor, the wise guardians and capitalists who had mapped out her career from its beginning brought forward the youngest daughter of an elder and more serious day than this. Julia Marlowe's strength was wasted in no preliminary skirmishes or capitulations; backed, so to speak, to run in Shakspere, she was sent straight into her capital, and crowned there as a classic artist at the start. But even at that gait New York City was ten years learning to accept Miss Marlowe, continuing to refer to her merely as "a photographic beauty," though the supposedly ingenuous mere rest of the country had followed her from the first. There is room for beauty in Shakspere: once it can get there it is at home; the background is sufficient to harmonize any individuality, and people can gulp down personal loveliness along with the scenery, the costumes, and the blank verse without being enough aware of it to get unduly excited.

But in those few after years when Miss Marlowe was left unShakspered by managerial manœuvering, did that beauty which is nine tenths of the battle endow her with any liberty or power of choice? Here was the opportunity to show that searching and specific modern touch which certain of her moments in "The Cavalier" tantalizingly indicated; to show it despite the sad fact that among modern conditions the best parts represent ladies of at least "a disheveled reputation." Later on, as an older woman, and no longer a single star, Miss Marlowe did play Salome. No one who heard the loud, sodden, dastardly laugh that burst so unexpectedly from that Persian kitten can doubt her ability to sound other than angelic melodies, and the highest heights must become very monotonous at times. In the bad middle days of "Barbara Frietchie" I remember hearing a very animated description of Miss Marlowe's desire to secure the part of Zaza and the determination the powers had had to display in refusing to risk her popularity. No matter whether or not one admires Zaza, it certainly offers to a Juliet and a Rosalind that variety and impersonation which we pretend to demand from actresses, and which beauties are supposed perversely to deny us. Here was a beauty with prestige, popularity, and money, a star of extraordinary, of unquestioned, powers; here was the part she tried to get—and she could not get it.

It would be interesting to know, when one of our dramatic heroines does actually make such a struggle not to become standardized, how much support she gets from the superior public. One hears so much wistful criticism about the drama's bondage to pretty women who never play anything but themselves that one fancies all culture rushing to the support of the actress who determines not to play herself. And to certain obscure attempts—particularly obscure foreign attempts—it does quite generously rush. But it passes over the effort of the obvious popular beauty without trial. And to subdue the crass average enthusiast it whispers, Ah, one would hardly believe the effect created by that flat-nosed young Polish girl, dressed in a simple coal-sack, whom it heard merely utter a few cries from a dark stage in a side show near Dkrmzyglovskaia.

No matter that it leaves us a little bewildered as to whether the excellence of this flat-nosed young girl lay in the fact that no one else had seen her or that it took a very exceptional person to admire her when she was seen. Enough that it has differentiated itself from the thoughtless and the insufficiently particular.

Now, of course, much of this is special pleading, or, rather, special attack. The superior public is not made up of the esthetic specialists alone, but, let me repeat, of that desire for superiority in the heart of every one of us which makes us fall such easy and clamorous victims to the hints not only of judgment from without, but of prejudgment from within—the prejudgment that if you have beauty, you are not very likely to have anything else.

It is a dreadful fog through which to try to make your goal, this atmosphere of incredulity. Every one who has done work requiring personal initiative knows how baffling and how chilly. Surely it would be well-nigh impossible for people to find their way without guide-posts. There are guide-posts, then? Oh, yes, indeed; there are the critics!

But if it were not so? If the critic were just a human being like the rest of us, but feeling that his responsibilities require him to be a bit more sniffy? If his attitude to beauty were exactly like ours—wanting it greedily, like the general public; determined, like the superior public, to pretend not to want it; and therefore, with the whole public, uniting to get it and to keep it in its place, would not beauty, then, be in a fog indeed?

As the typical beauty of our day, I have no hesitation in again troubling Miss Barrymore to step forward and show us the criticisms of "Cousin Kate." We are not going to quarrel about the meting or even about the play; we are concerned only with the age of the heroine. Cousin Kate was twenty-nine. Miss Barrymore was several years younger. This difference of age was almost all the critics dealt with. They gently rebuked the enjoyment of the audience with the comment, "The audience, hypnotized by her beauty, does not observe"—that she did n't look old enough for the part; that, relying, as beauties always do, on her personal charm, she had wantonly and deliberately refused to make up for it. They did not tell us how the younger twenties are to make up for the older twenties, though there are comparatively few gray hairs at twenty-nine. What Miss Barrymore did was to pile her hair high on her head, to lengthen her face with long, dark ear-rings and very little rouge, to wear sober-colored, heavy-falling dresses, longer and more trailing than the fashion—indications perhaps sufficient for any one not hypnotized by her beauty to observe. But the exactly opposite was observed in print, and whether or not her guides on that occasion were as blinded as the unobserving audience, where, save to playing only girls of her own age, were they leading her through the fog?

Something led her, at any rate, to that introduction of Mr. Galsworthy to American audiences—"The Silver Box." About our whole reception of Galsworthy it were well not to inquire; sticking to the handicap of beauty, how about this young lady's beauty when she cast it definitely aside? Dressed in dirty calico, her roughened hair yanked back from her face, her knuckles reddened—for that part any one could see that she was made up. Did she please by this? In many long years of watching criticism I have never heard it utter such a cry of outrage. The lion at the zoo, balked of his dinner, could not have emitted a more frenzied howl of amazed resentment. Said one of the first critics of that day, "How could Miss Barrymore, in the full flower of her youth and beauty—" Did their blame rest upon her acting of the part? They said nothing of her acting; they were incapable of saying anything but, "Give us back our moon!" She gave it back to them with a revival of a society comedy, and they were calm.

Well, then, no use pretending that anything so wide-spread is unnatural. It is perfectly natural that all the public should want beauty, well dusted in rich clothes; that the superiors and critics should want also to assume that they are too clever to want it; that the managers should refuse to trifle with their public by offering it unsought wares; and that the beauties should at last succumb to their comfortable place in life—to sit on a cushion and sew a fine seam and feed upon strawberries, sugar, and cream.

Only perhaps we should pronounce the verdict, "She 's a very beautiful woman," in a humbler tone.

If not, let me ask a last question. Among our rising stars to-day—Lorette Taylor, Doris Keene, Emily Stevens, Elsie Ferguson, Florence Reed—is there not one whose beauty out-tops that of the others enough to make her typically Beauty? I do not mean Hedwig Reicher, whose loveliness is of that classic type which simply cannot be suppressed into a vanity-box, so that she has merely ceased to exist for us. I mean, of course, Jane Cowl. As her name smites upon your eye, does not a little obstinate thrill warn you that she is doomed? Does not something say, in your heart, as in mine, that, after all, it would be a great pity to disguise her, to give her over to this vaunted variety, to that abstract thing, impersonation? With all her virility and full-throated strangeness, all her suggestion of some wild ray from "faery-lands forlorn," which of us would rush to see her among the witches of "Macbeth"? Let me repeat with the populace, "I ask you!"

She may reply, she or some other young advancing conqueror: "It 's impossible. I cannot be nullified. I am too strong for them. I at least will do as I please. My beauty gave me my start. I have arrived, and now I am in power. My youth and my strength and my will, all my talent, all my popularity, all my value to the managers; then, too, this heaving movement for the uplift of the drama, crying out for variety and impersonation—will not all. this enable me to break any chains?"

"Madam, I wish it may!"


This work is in the public domain in the United States because it was published before January 1, 1924.


The author died in 1946, so this work is also in the public domain in countries and areas where the copyright term is the author's life plus 70 years or less. This work may also 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.