Main Street, by Sinclair Lewis

Chapter 18

SHE hurried to the first meeting of the play-reading committee. Her jungle romance had faded, but she retained a religious fervor, a surge of half-formed thought about the creation of beauty by suggestion.

A Dunsany play would be too difficult for the Gopher Prairie association. She would let them compromise on Shaw — on “Androcles and the Lion,” which had just been published.

The committee was composed of Carol, Vida Sherwin, Guy Pollock, Raymie Wutherspoon, and Juanita Haydock. They were exalted by the picture of themselves as being simultaneously business-like and artistic. They were entertained by Vida in the parlor of Mrs. Elisha Gurrey’s boarding-house, with its steel engraving of Grant at Appomattox, its basket of stereoscopic views, and its mysterious stains on the gritty carpet.

Vida was an advocate of culture-buying and efficiency- systems. She hinted that they ought to have (as at the committee-meetings of the Thanatopsis) a “regular order of business,” and “the reading of the minutes,” but as there were no minutes to read, and as no one knew exactly what was the regular order of the business of being literary, they had to give up efficiency.

Carol, as chairman, said politely, “Have you any ideas about what play we’d better give first?” She waited for them to look abashed and vacant, so that she might suggest “Androcles.”

Guy Pollock answered with disconcerting readiness, “I’ll tell you: since we’re going to try to do something artistic, and not simply fool around, I believe we ought to give something classic. How about ‘The School for Scandal’?”

“Why —— Don’t you think that has been done a good deal?”

“Yes, perhaps it has.”

Carol was ready to say, “How about Bernard Shaw?” when he treacherously went on, “How would it be then to give a Greek drama — say ‘Oedipus Tyrannus’?”

“Why, I don’t believe ——”

Vida Sherwin intruded, “I’m sure that would be too hard for us. Now I’ve brought something that I think would be awfully jolly.”

She held out, and Carol incredulously took, a thin gray pamphlet entitled “McGinerty’s Mother-in-law.” It was the sort of farce which is advertised in “school entertainment” catalogues as:

Riproaring knock-out, 5 m. 3 f., time 2 hrs., interior set, popular with churches and all high-class occasions.

Carol glanced from the scabrous object to Vida, and realized that she was not joking.

“But this is — this is — why, it’s just a —— Why, Vida, I thought you appreciated — well — appreciated art.”

Vida snorted, “Oh. Art. Oh yes. I do like art. It’s very nice. But after all, what does it matter what kind of play we give as long as we get the association started? The thing that matters is something that none of you have spoken of, that is: what are we going to do with the money, if we make any? I think it would be awfully nice if we presented the high school with a full set of Stoddard’s travel-lectures!”

Carol moaned, “Oh, but Vida dear, do forgive me but this farce —— Now what I’d like us to give is something distinguished. Say Shaw’s ‘Androcles.’ Have any of you read it?”

“Yes. Good play,” said Guy Pollock.

Then Raymie Wutherspoon astoundingly spoke up:

“So have I. I read through all the plays in the public library, so’s to be ready for this meeting. And —— But I don’t believe you grasp the irreligious ideas in this ‘Androcles,’ Mrs. Kennicott. I guess the feminine mind is too innocent to understand all these immoral writers. I’m sure I don’t want to criticize Bernard Shaw; I understand he is very popular with the highbrows in Minneapolis; but just the same —— As far as I can make out, he’s downright improper! The things he SAYS—— Well, it would be a very risky thing for our young folks to see. It seems to me that a play that doesn’t leave a nice taste in the mouth and that hasn’t any message is nothing but — nothing but —— Well, whatever it may be, it isn’t art. So —— Now I’ve found a play that is clean, and there’s some awfully funny scenes in it, too. I laughed out loud, reading it. It’s called ‘His Mother’s Heart,’ and it’s about a young man in college who gets in with a lot of free- thinkers and boozers and everything, but in the end his mother’s influence ——”

Juanita Haydock broke in with a derisive, “Oh rats, Raymie! Can the mother’s influence! I say let’s give something with some class to it. I bet we could get the rights to ‘The Girl from Kankakee,’ and that’s a real show. It ran for eleven months in New York!”

“That would be lots of fun, if it wouldn’t cost too much,” reflected Vida.

Carol’s was the only vote cast against “The Girl from Kankakee.”

II

She disliked “The Girl from Kankakee” even more than she had expected. It narrated the success of a farm-lassie in clearing her brother of a charge of forgery. She became secretary to a New York millionaire and social counselor to his wife; and after a well-conceived speech on the discomfort of having money, she married his son.

There was also a humorous office-boy.

Carol discerned that both Juanita Haydock and Ella Stowbody wanted the lead. She let Juanita have it. Juanita kissed her and in the exuberant manner of a new star presented to the executive committee her theory, “What we want in a play is humor and pep. There’s where American playwrights put it all over these darn old European glooms.”

As selected by Carol and confirmed by the committee, the persons of the play were:

John Grimm, a millionaire . . . . Guy Pollock
His wife. . . . . . . . . Miss Vida Sherwin
His son . . . . . . . . . Dr. Harvey Dillon
His business rival. . . . . Raymond T. Wutherspoon
Friend of Mrs. Grimm . . .  . . . Miss Ella Stowbody
The girl from Kankakee . . . . . Mrs. Harold C. Haydock
Her brother. . . . . . .  . . . Dr. Terence Gould
Her mother . . . . . . .  . . . Mrs. David Dyer
Stenographer . . .  . . . . Miss Rita Simons
Office-boy . . . . . . .  . . . Miss Myrtle Cass
Maid in the Grimms’ home . . Mrs. W. P. Kennicott
Direction of Mrs. Kennicott

Among the minor lamentations was Maud Dyer’s “Well of course I suppose I look old enough to be Juanita’s mother, even if Juanita is eight months older than I am, but I don’t know as I care to have everybody noticing it and ——”

Carol pleaded, “Oh, my DEAR! You two look exactly the same age. I chose you because you have such a darling complexion, and you know with powder and a white wig, anybody looks twice her age, and I want the mother to be sweet, no matter who else is.”

Ella Stowbody, the professional, perceiving that it was because of a conspiracy of jealousy that she had been given a small part, alternated between lofty amusement and Christian patience.

Carol hinted that the play would be improved by cutting, but as every actor except Vida and Guy and herself wailed at the loss of a single line, she was defeated. She told herself that, after all, a great deal could be done with direction and settings.

Sam Clark had boastfully written about the dramatic association to his schoolmate, Percy Bresnahan, president of the Velvet Motor Company of Boston. Bresnahan sent a check for a hundred dollars; Sam added twenty-five and brought the fund to Carol, fondly crying, “There! That’ll give you a start for putting the thing across swell!”

She rented the second floor of the city hall for two months. All through the spring the association thrilled to its own talent in that dismal room. They cleared out the bunting, ballot- boxes, handbills, legless chairs. They attacked the stage. It was a simple-minded stage. It was raised above the floor, and it did have a movable curtain, painted with the advertisement of a druggist dead these ten years, but otherwise it might not have been recognized as a stage. There were two dressing-rooms, one for men, one for women, on either side. The dressing-room doors were also the stage-entrances, opening from the house, and many a citizen of Gopher Prairie had for his first glimpse of romance the bare shoulders of the leading woman.

There were three sets of scenery: a woodland, a Poor Interior, and a Rich Interior, the last also useful for railway stations, offices, and as a background for the Swedish Quartette from Chicago. There were three gradations of lighting: full on, half on, and entirely off.

This was the only theater in Gopher Prairie. It was known as the “op’ra house.” Once, strolling companies had used it for performances of “The Two Orphans,” and “Nellie the Beautiful Cloak Model,” and “Othello” with specialties between acts, but now the motion-pictures had ousted the gipsy drama.

Carol intended to be furiously modern in constructing the office-set, the drawing-room for Mr. Grimm, and the Humble Home near Kankakee. It was the first time that any one in Gopher Prairie had been so revolutionary as to use enclosed scenes with continuous side-walls. The rooms in the op’ra house sets had separate wing-pieces for sides, which simplified dramaturgy, as the villain could always get out of the hero’s way by walking out through the wall.

The inhabitants of the Humble Home were supposed to be amiable and intelligent. Carol planned for them a simple set with warm color. She could see the beginning of the play: all dark save the high settles and the solid wooden table between them, which were to be illuminated by a ray from offstage. The high light was a polished copper pot filled with primroses. Less clearly she sketched the Grimm drawing-room as a series of cool high white arches.

As to how she was to produce these effects she had no notion.

She discovered that, despite the enthusiastic young writers, the drama was not half so native and close to the soil as motor cars and telephones. She discovered that simple arts require sophisticated training. She discovered that to produce one perfect stage-picture would be as difficult as to turn all of Gopher Prairie into a Georgian garden.

She read all she could find regarding staging, she bought paint and light wood; she borrowed furniture and drapes unscrupulously; she made Kennicott turn carpenter. She collided with the problem of lighting. Against the protest of Kennicott and Vida she mortgaged the association by sending to Minneapolis for a baby spotlight, a strip light, a dimming device, and blue and amber bulbs; and with the gloating rapture of a born painter first turned loose among colors, she spent absorbed evenings in grouping, dimming-painting with lights.

Only Kennicott, Guy, and Vida helped her. They speculated as to how flats could be lashed together to form a wall; they hung crocus-yellow curtains at the windows; they blacked the sheet-iron stove; they put on aprons and swept. The rest of the association dropped into the theater every evening, and were literary and superior. They had borrowed Carol’s manuals of play-production and had become extremely stagey in vocabulary.

Juanita Haydock, Rita Simons, and Raymie Wutherspoon sat on a sawhorse, watching Carol try to get the right position for a picture on the wall in the first scene.

“I don’t want to hand myself anything but I believe I’ll give a swell performance in this first act,” confided Juanita. “I wish Carol wasn’t so bossy though. She doesn’t understand clothes. I want to wear, oh, a dandy dress I have — all scarlet — and I said to her, ‘When I enter wouldn’t it knock their eyes out if I just stood there at the door in this straight scarlet thing?’ But she wouldn’t let me.”

Young Rita agreed, “She’s so much taken up with her old details and carpentering and everything that she can’t see the picture as a whole. Now I thought it would be lovely if we had an office-scene like the one in ‘Little, But Oh My!’ Because I SAW that, in Duluth. But she simply wouldn’t listen at all.”

Juanita sighed, “I wanted to give one speech like Ethel Barrymore would, if she was in a play like this. (Harry and I heard her one time in Minneapolis — we had dandy seats, in the orchestra — I just know I could imitate her.) Carol didn’t pay any attention to my suggestion. I don’t want to criticize but I guess Ethel knows more about acting than Carol does!”

“Say, do you think Carol has the right dope about using a strip light behind the fireplace in the second act? I told her I thought we ought to use a bunch,” offered Raymie. “And I suggested it would be lovely if we used a cyclorama outside the window in the first act, and what do you think she said? ‘Yes, and it would be lovely to have Eleanora Duse play the lead,’ she said, ‘and aside from the fact that it’s evening in the first act, you’re a great technician,’ she said. I must say I think she was pretty sarcastic. I’ve been reading up, and I know I could build a cyclorama, if she didn’t want to run everything.”

“Yes, and another thing, I think the entrance in the first act ought to be L. U. E., not L. 3 E.,” from Juanita.

“And why does she just use plain white tormenters?”

“What’s a tormenter?” blurted Rita Simons.

The savants stared at her ignorance.

III

Carol did not resent their criticisms, she didn’t very much resent their sudden knowledge, so long as they let her make pictures. It was at rehearsals that the quarrrels broke. No one understood that rehearsals were as real engagements as bridge-games or sociables at the Episcopal Church. They gaily came in half an hour late, or they vociferously came in ten minutes early, and they were so hurt that they whispered about resigning when Carol protested. They telephoned, “I don’t think I’d better come out; afraid the dampness might start my toothache,” or “Guess can’t make it tonight; Dave wants me to sit in on a poker game.”

When, after a month of labor, as many as nine-elevenths of the cast were often present at a rehearsal; when most of them had learned their parts and some of them spoke like human beings, Carol had a new shock in the realization that Guy Pollock and herself were very bad actors, and that Raymie Wutherspoon was a surprisingly good one. For all her visions she could not control her voice, and she was bored by the fiftieth repetition of her few lines as maid. Guy pulled his soft mustache, looked self-conscious, and turned Mr. Grimm into a limp dummy. But Raymie, as the villain, had no repressions. The tilt of his head was full of character; his drawl was admirably vicious.

There was an evening when Carol hoped she was going to make a play; a rehearsal during which Guy stopped looking abashed.

From that evening the play declined.

They were weary. “We know our parts well enough now; what’s the use of getting sick of them?” they complained. They began to skylark; to play with the sacred lights; to giggle when Carol was trying to make the sentimental Myrtle Cass into a humorous office-boy; to act everything but “The Girl from Kankakee.” After loafing through his proper part Dr. Terry Gould had great applause for his burlesque of “Hamlet.” Even Raymie lost his simple faith, and tried to show that he could do a vaudeville shuffle.

Carol turned on the company. “See here, I want this nonsense to stop. We’ve simply got to get down to work.”

Juanita Haydock led the mutiny: “Look here, Carol, don’t be so bossy. After all, we’re doing this play principally for the fun of it, and if we have fun out of a lot of monkey- shines, why then ——”

“Ye-es,” feebly.

“You said one time that folks in G. P. didn’t get enough fun out of life. And now we are having a circus, you want us to stop!”

Carol answered slowly: “I wonder if I can explain what I mean? It’s the difference between looking at the comic page and looking at Manet. I want fun out of this, of course. Only —— I don’t think it would be less fun, but more, to produce as perfect a play as we can.” She was curiously exalted; her voice was strained; she stared not at the company but at the grotesques scrawled on the backs of wing-pieces by forgotten stage-hands. “I wonder if you can understand the ‘fun’ of making a beautiful thing, the pride and satisfaction of it, and the holiness!”

The company glanced doubtfully at one another. In Gopher Prairie it is not good form to be holy except at a church, between ten-thirty and twelve on Sunday.

“But if we want to do it, we’ve got to work; we must have self-discipline.”

They were at once amused and embarrassed. They did not want to affront this mad woman. They backed off and tried to rehearse. Carol did not hear Juanita, in front, protesting to Maud Dyer, “If she calls it fun and holiness to sweat over her darned old play-well, I don’t!”

IV

Carol attended the only professional play which came to Gopher Prairie that spring. It was a “tent show, presenting snappy new dramas under canvas.” The hard-working actors doubled in brass, and took tickets; and between acts sang about the moon in June, and sold Dr. Wintergreen’s Surefire Tonic for Ills of the Heart, Lungs, Kidneys, and Bowels. They presented “Sunbonnet Nell: A Dramatic Comedy of the Ozarks,” with J. Witherbee Boothby wringing the soul by his resonant “Yuh ain’t done right by mah little gal, Mr. City Man, but yer a-goin’ to find that back in these-yere hills there’s honest folks and good shots!”

The audience, on planks beneath the patched tent, admired Mr. Boothby’s beard and long rifle; stamped their feet in the dust at the spectacle of his heroism; shouted when the comedian aped the City Lady’s use of a lorgnon by looking through a doughnut stuck on a fork; wept visibly over Mr. Boothby’s Little Gal Nell, who was also Mr. Boothby’s legal wife Pearl, and when the curtain went down, listened respectfully to Mr. Boothby’s lecture on Dr. Wintergreen’s Tonic as a cure for tape-worms, which he illustrated by horrible pallid objects curled in bottles of yellowing alcohol.

Carol shook her head. “Juanita is right. I’m a fool. Holiness of the drama! Bernard Shaw! The only trouble with ‘The Girl from Kankakee’ is that it’s too subtle for Gopher Prairie!”

She sought faith in spacious banal phrases, taken from books: “the instinctive nobility of simple souls,” “need only the opportunity, to appreciate fine things,” and “sturdy exponents of democracy.” But these optimisms did not sound so loud as the laughter of the audience at the funny-man’s line, “Yes, by heckelum, I’m a smart fella.” She wanted to give up the play, the dramatic association, the town. As she came out of the tent and walked with Kennicott down the dusty spring street, she peered at this straggling wooden village and felt that she could not possibly stay here through all of tomorrow.

It was Miles Bjornstam who gave her strength — he and the fact that every seat for “The Girl from Kankakee” had been sold.

Bjornstam was “keeping company” with Bea. Every night he was sitting on the back steps. Once when Carol appeared he grumbled, “Hope you’re going to give this burg one good show. If you don’t, reckon nobody ever will.”

V

It was the great night; it was the night of the play. The two dressing-rooms were swirling with actors, panting, twitchy pale. Del Snafflin the barber, who was as much a professional as Ella, having once gone on in a mob scene at a stock- company performance in Minneapolis, was making them up, and showing his scorn for amateurs with, “Stand still! For the love o’ Mike, how do you expect me to get your eyelids dark if you keep a-wigglin’?” The actors were beseeching, “Hey, Del, put some red in my nostrils — you put some in Rita’s — gee, you didn’t hardly do anything to my face.”

They were enormously theatric. They examined Del’s makeup box, they sniffed the scent of grease-paint, every minute they ran out to peep through the hole in the curtain, they came back to inspect their wigs and costumes, they read on the whitewashed walls of the dressing-rooms the pencil inscriptions: “The Flora Flanders Comedy Company,” and “This is a bum theater,” and felt that they were companions of these vanished troupers.

Carol, smart in maid’s uniform, coaxed the temporary stage- hands to finish setting the first act, wailed at Kennicott, the electrician, “Now for heaven’s sake remember the change in cue for the ambers in Act Two,” slipped out to ask Dave Dyer, the ticket-taker, if he could get some more chairs, warned the frightened Myrtle Cass to be sure to upset the waste-basket when John Grimm called, “Here you, Reddy.”

Del Snafflin’s orchestra of piano, violin, and cornet began to tune up and every one behind the magic line of the proscenic arch was frightened into paralysis. Carol wavered to the hole in the curtain. There were so many people out there, staring so hard ——

In the second row she saw Miles Bjornstam, not with Bea but alone. He really wanted to see the play! It was a good omen. Who could tell? Perhaps this evening would convert Gopher Prairie to conscious beauty.

She darted into the women’s dressing-room, roused Maud Dyer from her fainting panic, pushed her to the wings, and ordered the curtain up.

It rose doubtfully, it staggered and trembled, but it did get up without catching — this time. Then she realized that Kennicott had forgotten to turn off the houselights. Some one out front was giggling.

She galloped round to the left wing, herself pulled the switch, looked so ferociously at Kennicott that he quaked, and fled back.

Mrs. Dyer was creeping out on the half-darkened stage. The play was begun.

And with that instant Carol realized that it was a bad play abominably acted.

Encouraging them with lying smiles, she watched her work go to pieces. The settings seemed flimsy, the lighting commonplace. She watched Guy Pollock stammer and twist his mustache when he should have been a bullying magnate; Vida Sherwin, as Grimm’s timid wife, chatter at the audience as though they were her class in high-school English; Juanita, in the leading role, defy Mr. Grimm as though she were repeating a list of things she had to buy at the grocery this morning; Ella Stowbody remark “I’d like a cup of tea” as though she were reciting “Curfew Shall Not Ring Tonight”; and Dr. Gould, making love to Rita Simons, squeak, “My — my — you — are — a — won’erful — girl .”

Myrtle Cass, as the office-boy, was so much pleased by the applause of her relatives, then so much agitated by the remarks of Cy Bogart, in the back row, in reference to her wearing trousers, that she could hardly be got off the stage. Only Raymie was so unsociable as to devote himself entirely to acting.

That she was right in her opinion of the play Carol was certain when Miles Bjornstam went out after the first act, and did not come back.

VI

Between the second and third acts she called the company together, and supplicated, “I want to know something, before we have a chance to separate. Whether we’re doing well or badly tonight, it is a beginning. But will we take it as merely a beginning? How many of you will pledge yourselves to start in with me, right away, tomorrow, and plan for another play, to be given in September?”

They stared at her; they nodded at Juanita’s protest: “I think one’s enough for a while. It’s going elegant tonight, but another play —— Seems to me it’ll be time enough to talk about that next fall. Carol! I hope you don’t mean to hint and suggest we’re not doing fine tonight? I’m sure the applause shows the audience think it’s just dandy!”

Then Carol knew how completely she had failed.

As the audience seeped out she heard B. J. Gougerling the banker say to Howland the grocer, “Well, I think the folks did splendid; just as good as professionals. But I don’t care much for these plays. What I like is a good movie, with auto accidents and hold-ups, and some git to it, and not all this talky-talk.”

Then Carol knew how certain she was to fail again.

She wearily did not blame them, company nor audience. Herself she blamed for trying to carve intaglios in good wholesome jack-pine.

“It’s the worst defeat of all. I’m beaten. By Main Street. ‘I must go on.’ But I can’t!”

She was not vastly encouraged by the Gopher Prairie Dauntless:

. . .would be impossible to distinguish among the actors when all gave such fine account of themselves in difficult roles of this well-known New York stage play. Guy Pollock as the old millionaire could not have been bettered for his fine impersonation of the gruff old millionaire; Mrs. Harry Haydock as the young lady from the West who so easily showed the New York four-flushers where they got off was a vision of loveliness and with fine stage presence. Miss Vida Sherwin the ever popular teacher in our high school pleased as Mrs. Grimm, Dr. Gould was well suited in the role of young lover-girls you better look out, remember the doc is a bachelor. The local Four Hundred also report that he is a great hand at shaking the light fantastic tootsies in the dance. As the stenographer Rita Simons was pretty as a picture, and Miss Ella Stowbody’s long and intensive study of the drama and kindred arts in Eastern schools was seen in the fine finish of her part.

. . .to no one is greater credit to be given than to Mrs. Will Kennicott on whose capable shoulders fell the burden of directing.

“So kindly,” Carol mused, “so well meant, so neighborly — and so confoundedly untrue. Is it really my failure, or theirs?”

She sought to be sensible; she elaborately explained to herself that it was hysterical to condemn Gopher Prairie because it did not foam over the drama. Its justification was in its service as a market-town for farmers. How bravely and generously it did its work, forwarding the bread of the world, feeding and healing the farmers!

Then, on the corner below her husband’s office, she heard a farmer holding forth:

“Sure. Course I was beaten. The shipper and the grocers here wouldn’t pay us a decent price for our potatoes, even though folks in the cities were howling for ’em. So we says, well, we’ll get a truck and ship ’em right down to Minneapolis. But the commission merchants there were in cahoots with the local shipper here; they said they wouldn’t pay us a cent more than he would, not even if they was nearer to the market. Well, we found we could get higher prices in Chicago, but when we tried to get freight cars to ship there, the railroads wouldn’t let us have ’em — even though they had cars standing empty right here in the yards. There you got it — good market, and these towns keeping us from it. Gus, that’s the way these towns work all the time. They pay what they want to for our wheat, but we pay what they want us to for their clothes. Stowbody and Dawson foreclose every mortgage they can, and put in tenant farmers. The Dauntless lies to us about the Nonpartisan League, the lawyers sting us, the machinery-dealers hate to carry us over bad years, and then their daughters put on swell dresses and look at us as if we were a bunch of hoboes. Man, I’d like to burn this town!”

Kennicott observed, “There’s that old crank Wes Brannigan shooting off his mouth again. Gosh, but he loves to hear himself talk! They ought to run that fellow out of town!”

VII

She felt old and detached through high-school commencement week, which is the fete of youth in Gopher Prairie; through baccalaureate sermon, senior Parade, junior entertainment, commencement address by an Iowa clergyman who asserted that he believed in the virtue of virtuousness, and the procession of Decoration Day, when the few Civil War veterans followed Champ Perry, in his rusty forage-cap, along the spring-powdered road to the cemetery. She met Guy; she found that she had nothing to say to him. Her head ached in an aimless way. When Kennicott rejoiced, “We’ll have a great time this summer; move down to the lake early and wear old clothes and act natural,” she smiled, but her smile creaked.

In the prairie heat she trudged along unchanging ways, talked about nothing to tepid people, and reflected that she might never escape from them.

She was startled to find that she was using the word “escape.”

Then, for three years which passed like one curt paragraph, she ceased to find anything interesting save the Bjornstams and her baby.

http://ebooks.adelaide.edu.au/l/lewis/sinclair/main/chapter18.html

Last updated Saturday, March 1, 2014 at 20:38