Side Talks with Girls/Chapter 5

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HER LETTER AND MY ANSWER

THIS is her letter:

"It has become necessary for me to earn my own living. I have been delicately reared and well educated, but I am not very strong physically. People say I am pretty. From my earliest childhood I have had a great desire to go on the stage. I think of making it my life work. What would you advise me to do?"

My answer is this: Take up any honest employment in preference to becoming an actress. You come from the South, where women are tenderly brought up, where great care is taken of their surroundings, of the mode of speech used to them, and where consideration is the keynote of a man's attitude to women. You are imaginative and ambitious, you believe in yourself, and although you have in a vague way a slight idea of the temptations of the stage, you think you are strong enough to withstand them. Suppose you did; suppose you were as pure as snow, you would not escape calumny. Do you think that your work would be sufficient reward for the innuendoes, the shrugs, and, in many instances, the outspoken words of contempt? I am going to speak to you very plainly. I am going to tell you what I know to be true, because I have many friends on the stage, and yet among them there is not one who, when I have put the question: "If you had your life to go over would you go on the stage?" has not answered, "No; most positively no."

THE LIFE OF AN ACTRESS

What is the life of an actress? Unlike other women she has no home, for in this great country there are not more than five or six stock companies, and naturally the number of actors in them is limited. A woman wants the protective influence, the regular living, and the deferences paid to moral laws only possible in an established place of living. To-day you are in the North, next week in the South, the week after in the West, and you never have the time to make for yourself an abiding place, to surround yourself with friends, or to think about the advisability of living regularly. You arrive in a strange town at three o'clock in the morning; the advance agent has not notified you about the hotels, and it is possible that if you wish to go to a respectable one you have to pay more than you can afford, because you cannot take any chances at that time in the morning. In a large city there may be a hotel carriage, or a cab at the station; in a small one you may look about in vain for any such accommodation. You have no maid; shall you go hunting for a hotel in a strange place by yourself?

Some man in the company, who sees your plight, kindly takes your bag, goes to the hotel with you, and speaks to the clerk about your room. As you say good-night you thank him, oh! so heartily, and as you lay your head on your pillow you think to yourself how untrue it is that actors are not gentlemen. The days go on, the kindness continues, for it is meant as kindness; you know, poor little soul, that you are going to be looked after, and after awhile, quite unconsciously, you rely on this care. Very soon you and he are calling each other by your first names, then one night when you go back to the hotel, tired and hungry, your escort suggests that he buy some supper, bring it to your room, and you have it together. You are very particular to keep your door open, and it is all proper. But just stop and think, my dear girl; the end is always disastrous, it is the first little step that counts. What is the end of it? Think it out for yourself.

THE ATMOSPHERE OF THE FOOT-LIGHTS

You think it will not be different from any other, but it will, and it is. It seems to cause the growth of envy, and a good deal of uncharitableness. Your friend of yesterday, to whom you wondered how you would get along, is your enemy of to-day. Why? Because you had a round of applause, and a line of approbation in the morning paper. The stage director orders you at a certain time to take the centre of the stage, the leading man is indignant at your being pushed forward; he revenges himself at night by moving his face in such away, "mugging" is the stage slang, that the audience is attracted to him, and from you. The next day he is reprimanded before the whole company, and the result of it all is that you have made a bitter enemy, innocently enough, and one who does not speak to you the entire season, but who is only too ready to speak against you. You think men do not do this off the stage? My dear, they do it on. This is not the worst. When two or three or four or five members of the theatrical profession meet, what do they talk about? Great plays? Great actors? Or the value of study? Oh! no. The successes and failures and follies of each other. What you hear will shock you at first, though you get to think nothing after awhile of the absolute lack of reverence shown for anything that is good. The woman who tries to lead a good life is laughed at. I do not mean by this that there are not good women on the stage, but I do know that in almost every case their goodness, instead of being a subject for praise, is treated not only by the stage people, but by the newspapers, half scornfully.

THE WAYS AND MANNERS

You do not expect to find stage-hands with the manners and courtesy of properly trained servants, but do you expect to find the greatest familiarity existing and also to hear some profane language? "To swear like a stage carpenter" is an ordinary comparison. What effect is it going to have on you in time? It is possible you may not grow equally profane, but you will become so accustomed to it that it will no longer offend you. Long, tiresome rides, with little or no food, lunch of the kind furnished at a railroad station, making it easy for you to learn to take a little something to strengthen you, and after you have been assured again and again that there is no harm and a great amount of consolation in a cigarette, you try one. Who can blame you? Not I for what you do, but I am telling you this to keep you from putting yourself in a position where such temptations may come to you. Let me tell you what a manager said to me the other day. He was talking of one woman who had been in his company, and who had been discharged. On my asking him the reason, he said: "Her great charm was her womanliness. She called it personal magnetism; but it was because she was such a real woman that she held an audience. Now, after two seasons on the road, she may be a better actress, but she is not as attractive, she has become like all the rest of them, and her charm is gone." Was it her fault? I cannot say. I only know if she had been living out a more protected life she would have remained her own sweet self much longer.

THE QUESTION OF WAGES

But you claim that women make more money on the stage. Do they? Have you ever counted it up? Have you ever thought out the number of rich actresses? The salary offered seems large to you; there are few professions in which you would get, as a beginner, twenty-five, thirty-five, or possibly fifty dollars a week. But in what other profession is the outlay so great? Few companies are on the road more than nine months during the year, many of them not that long. So even if you are re-engaged there are three months when you earn nothing at all. Then during the long, busy days of the rehearsal you receive no salary. During that time your clothes have to be got, and unless you have been provident and have saved some money, you are obliged to go in debt for them, and this means paying more for them than you would if you could give ready money.

It is necessary for you when travelling to go to a respectable hotel, and these are seldom cheap; of course, in some of the large cities you may find some less expensive place, but when you are only going to be in a town for a few days, you have not the time to hunt up a boarding-house. You are obliged to look well, and the wear and tear on your clothes is very hard. It is possible that one of your stage costumes is an elaborate evening dress—the average dressing-room is a dirty, uncarpeted place, that in your own home you would not offer to the lowest servant. From the dressing-room to the stage the walk is rough and dusty, and the stage itself is too often covered by a carpet, when it has one at all, that is heavy with dust. The expensive gown is soon soiled, a new one has to be had, and even though you do have your gowns cleaned, this process is expensive. When the outlay is considered, I do not think the average actress—the average one, remember—earns much more money than the girl who stands behind the counter in a good shop.

HOPES OF THE GIRL IN FRONT

You have an idea that as travelling improves most people, the going through the country will do the same for you. How many actresses know anything about the places where they have been? Thoroughly tired out after the night's performance they sleep until late the next day, and then, if there is not a rehearsal, seem to find more pleasure in staying in their rooms, reading novels or playing cards until it is time to go to the theatre again. Too often all they know about a place is the distance from the station to the hotel and from the hotel to the theatre itself. I am not stating this as a surmise; I absolutely know it to be true. The life inclines one to indolence, and the thought of going out to take a walk or to see the places of interest never seems to enter the head of the average actress. You think she talks well and is versatile. She talks easily—her profession has given her control of words; it is to her advantage to be able to sing a little, play a little, and dance well, but most of her accomplishments are superficial. She has neither the time nor the inclination to take up any studies, or to think out questions that are not of immediate use to her.

You had hoped by going to that well of English undefiled, the works of Shakespeare, to improve yourself so much mentally, that you would stand out as an intellectual woman as well as an actress. My dear child, the average actress in reading Shakespeare looks for the "business" that it will give and does not trouble herself about the meaning of the words, or the subtlety of the character as painted by the great writer. After you have been laughed at, you will, in a little while, get to be like the rest of them, for, as on the stage you imitate somebody else, so off it you will unconsciously exercise your mimetic power.

THE ACTRESS AND THE WOMAN

You think I am severe. You think that you can live your own life as you wish it without giving a thought to the people about you. My child, this is impossible. Unconsciously, we are impressed by our environment, and people with whom we are thrown in contact, day by day, are each doing something for or against us. They may never know it. I do not like to think any human being would wilfully set a bad example, and yet the mere lives of some people make the difference between good and evil seem less. You imagine you can keep to yourself. You might if you were the star of the company, but as you are not, as you dress in the room with someone else, you are forced, if only for your own comfort, to be civil to all those around you. And civility and familiarity are almost synonymous back of the foot-lights. A very curious habit increases this familiarity—somebody wants a little rouge, somebody wants a little powder; "would you mind lending a pair of stockings to somebody else?" At first you resent this lack of recognition as to mine and thine, but after awhile you grow to be like your comrades.

At first—and now I am going to say something that because I am a woman I can say—at first, you bit your lip and blushed at the freedom with which words were used—words that you had never heard before; you lost your opportunity to stop such conversation when it began, and you will be surprised to discover, later on, how first you listen and then indulge in it yourself. I do not know why it is that back of the painted curtain there seems to crop up, like weeds, most of the small vices. You cannot get out of it by isolating yourself. I will prove this by telling you something.

FROM PERSONAL KNOWLEDGE

A woman, a young woman and a pretty woman, who has managed to keep herself free from reproach, and who is a well-known actress, never mingles with the company. Between the acts she sits in her room, and after she is dressed, usually reads. When she is waiting for her cue, her maid stands beside her, and she speaks to her in French. Not one of her fellow-actors ever comes near her. She bows when she meets them, and does her own work regularly and religiously. She never says one word against the people; she simply never discusses them; and the consequence is, she is one of the most thoroughly disliked women in the profession by the profession. They do not forgive her her success, and they are ready, only too ready, to find fault with her. She has told me that she knows she is credited with being disagreeable and haughty, and she adds: "I prefer they should think that, to being very popular and being forced to be one of them." Her safeguard consists in being disliked. Do you think that is pleasant? Do you think that any woman with a heart likes to know that the men and women around her do not forgive her her successes, that they begrudge her her happinesses and are glad if she has sorrows? I cannot explain this to you. I can only say that I know it to be true, and that this dislike sometimes takes the form of acts as well as of words.

You give a shrug of your pretty shoulders, and doubt this. But you have not as yet lived on the other side of the foot-lights, and so I will tell you what I saw myself. I went one afternoon to visit a young girl in her dressing-room; there was great excitement all around. Since the night before someone had entered the dressing-room of another actress, had taken the scissors and maliciously slit up in strips the dress which she wore in the play. There was not time to get another one. It was a peculiar dress, and so she had to be out of the bill for the afternoon. I asked if they did not think a crazy person had done it, and I was told confidentially that it was undoubtedly a member of the company, a girl who was the rival in singing and dancing of my friend. It was hard to believe this, but I was assured it was true. It is possible that you think I am severe, my dear girl, but I want you to see the other side and to realize that the applause, the gayety, the brightness belong to the audience, and that there is very little of it behind the curtain. Among my own friends I number women who are on the stage, good women, honest women, and true women, but not one of them wishes a sister or a daughter of hers to follow in her footsteps.

AN IMPORTANT QUESTION

Although you do need to earn your own living, you think that some day Prince Charming will appear and make you his wife. Suppose he happens to be an actor, suppose you are true to each other, what kind of a life will you have? You will not in reality be a helpmate and companion to the man you love, you will only bear his name. And he? Is it surprising when you two are so far apart that he should not always make you first in his thoughts? He will be away from you many months in the year. Few managers care to employ husband and wife, so if you remain on the stage you may be in one part of the country while your husband is in another, and when the vacation time comes, you just "stay some place" until the season begins again. When you were created it was intended that you should lead the the life of a woman, and living the life of a woman means having a home of your own, and making out of your life a sweet fragrance that will rise and be accepted as tribute by Him who created you. It will not be easy to do this if you lead the wandering life that the stage demands, and the very fact of your being young and pretty will tend to lessen your chance rather than to increase it. My dear, I beg of you to select any work rather than that which the stage offers you. The player's life is not calculated to bring out the virtues of a woman.