The Tragic Muse, by Henry James


When they had descended to the street Miriam mentioned to Peter that she was thirsty, dying to drink something: upon which he asked her if she should have an objection to going with him to a café.

“Objection? I’ve spent my life in cafés! They’re warm in winter and you get your lamplight for nothing,” she explained. “Mamma and I have sat in them for hours, many a time, with a consommation of three sous, to save fire and candles at home. We’ve lived in places we couldn’t sit in, if you want to know — where there was only really room if we were in bed. Mamma’s money’s sent out from England and sometimes it usedn’t to come. Once it didn’t come for months — for months and months. I don’t know how we lived. There wasn’t any to come; there wasn’t any to get home. That isn’t amusing when you’re away in a foreign town without any friends. Mamma used to borrow, but people wouldn’t always lend. You needn’t be afraid — she won’t borrow of you. We’re rather better now — something has been done in England; I don’t understand what. It’s only fivepence a year, but it has been settled; it comes regularly; it used to come only when we had written and begged and waited. But it made no difference — mamma was always up to her ears in books. They served her for food and drink. When she had nothing to eat she began a novel in ten volumes — the old-fashioned ones; they lasted longest. She knows every cabinet de lecture in every town; the little, cheap, shabby ones, I mean, in the back streets, where they have odd volumes and only ask a sou and the books are so old that they smell like close rooms. She takes them to the cafés — the little, cheap, shabby cafés too — and she reads there all the evening. That’s very well for her, but it doesn’t feed me. I don’t like a diet of dirty old novels. I sit there beside her with nothing to do, not even a stocking to mend; she doesn’t think that comme il faut. I don’t know what the people take me for. However, we’ve never been spoken to: any one can see mamma’s a great lady. As for me I daresay I might be anything dreadful. If you’re going to be an actress you must get used to being looked at. There were people in England who used to ask us to stay; some of them were our cousins — or mamma says they were. I’ve never been very clear about our cousins and I don’t think they were at all clear about us. Some of them are dead; the others don’t ask us any more. You should hear mamma on the subject of our visits in England. It’s very convenient when your cousins are dead — that explains everything. Mamma has delightful phrases: ‘My family is almost extinct.’ Then your family may have been anything you like. Ours of course was magnificent. We did stay in a place once where there was a deer-park, and also private theatricals. I played in them; I was only fifteen years old, but I was very big and I thought I was in heaven. I’ll go anywhere you like; you needn’t be afraid; we’ve been in places! I’ve learned a great deal that way — sitting beside mamma and watching people, their faces, their types, their movements. There’s a great deal goes on in cafés: people come to them to talk things over, their private affairs, their complications; they have important meetings. Oh I’ve observed scenes between men and women — very quiet, terribly quiet, but awful, pathetic, tragic! Once I saw a woman do something that I’m going to do some day when I’m great — if I can get the situation. I’ll tell you what it is sometime — I’ll do it for you. Oh it is the book of life!”

So Miriam discoursed, familiarly, disconnectedly, as the pair went their way down the Rue de Constantinople; and she continued to abound in anecdote and remark after they were seated face to face at a little marble table in an establishment Peter had selected carefully and where he had caused her, at her request, to be accommodated with sirop d’orgeat. “I know what it will come to: Madame Carré will want to keep me.” This was one of the felicities she presently threw off.

“To keep you?”

“For the French stage. She won’t want to let you have me.” She said things of that kind, astounding in self-complacency, the assumption of quick success. She was in earnest, evidently prepared to work, but her imagination flew over preliminaries and probations, took no account of the steps in the process, especially the first tiresome ones, the hard test of honesty. He had done nothing for her as yet, given no substantial pledge of interest; yet she was already talking as if his protection were assured and jealous. Certainly, however, she seemed to belong to him very much indeed as she sat facing him at the Paris café in her youth, her beauty, and her talkative confidence. This degree of possession was highly agreeable to him and he asked nothing more than to make it last and go further. The impulse to draw her out was irresistible, to encourage her to show herself all the way; for if he was really destined to take her career in hand he counted on some good equivalent — such for instance as that she should at least amuse him.

“It’s very singular; I know nothing like it,” he said —“your equal mastery of two languages.”

“Say of half-a-dozen,” Miriam smiled.

“Oh I don’t believe in the others to the same degree. I don’t imagine that, with all deference to your undeniable facility, you’d be judged fit to address a German or an Italian audience in their own tongue. But you might a French, perfectly, and they’re the most particular of all; for their idiom’s supersensitive and they’re incapable of enduring the baragouinage of foreigners, to which we listen with such complacency. In fact your French is better than your English — it’s more conventional; there are little queernesses and impurities in your English, as if you had lived abroad too much. Ah you must work that.”

“I’ll work it with you. I like the way you speak.”

“You must speak beautifully; you must do something for the standard.”

“For the standard?”

“Well, there isn’t any after all.” Peter had a drop. “It has gone to the dogs.”

“Oh I’ll bring it back. I know what you mean.”

“No one knows, no one cares; the sense is gone — it isn’t in the public,” he continued, ventilating a grievance he was rarely able to forget, the vision of which now suddenly made a mission full of possible sanctity for his companion. “Purity of speech, on our stage, doesn’t exist. Every one speaks as he likes and audiences never notice; it’s the last thing they think of. The place is given up to abominable dialects and individual tricks, any vulgarity flourishes, and on top of it all the Americans, with every conceivable crudity, come in to make confusion worse confounded. And when one laments it people stare; they don’t know what one means.”

“Do you mean the grand manner, certain pompous pronunciations, the style of the Kembles?”

“I mean any style that is a style, that’s a system, a consistency, an art, that contributes a positive beauty to utterance. When I pay ten shillings to hear you speak I want you to know how, que diable! Say that to people and they’re mostly lost in stupor; only a few, the very intelligent, exclaim: ‘Then you want actors to be affected?’”

“And do you?” asked Miriam full of interest.

“My poor child, what else under the sun should they be? Isn’t their whole art the affectation par excellence? The public won’t stand that today, so one hears it said. If that be true it simply means that the theatre, as I care for it, that is as a personal art, is at an end.”

“Never, never, never!” the girl cried in a voice that made a dozen people look round.

“I sometimes think it — that the personal art is at an end and that henceforth we shall have only the arts, capable no doubt of immense development in their way — indeed they’ve already reached it — of the stage-carpenter and the costumer. In London the drama is already smothered in scenery; the interpretation scrambles off as it can. To get the old personal impression, which used to be everything, you must go to the poor countries, and most of all to Italy.”

“Oh I’ve had it; it’s very personal!” said Miriam knowingly.

“You’ve seen the nudity of the stage, the poor, painted, tattered screen behind, and before that void the histrionic figure, doing everything it knows how, in complete possession. The personality isn’t our English personality and it may not always carry us with it; but the direction’s right, and it has the superiority that it’s a human exhibition, not a mechanical one.”

“I can act just like an Italian,” Miriam eagerly proclaimed.

“I’d rather you acted like an Englishwoman if an Englishwoman would only act.”

“Oh, I’ll show you!”

“But you’re not English,” said Peter sociably, his arms on the table.

“I beg your pardon. You should hear mamma about our ‘race.’”

“You’re a Jewess — I’m sure of that,” he went on.

She jumped at this, as he was destined to see later she would ever jump at anything that might make her more interesting or striking; even at things that grotesquely contradicted or excluded each other. “That’s always possible if one’s clever. I’m very willing, because I want to be the English Rachel.”

“Then you must leave Madame Carré as soon as you’ve got from her what she can give.”

“Oh, you needn’t fear; you shan’t lose me,” the girl replied with charming gross fatuity. “My name’s Jewish,” she went on, “but it was that of my grandmother, my father’s mother. She was a baroness in Germany. That is, she was the daughter of a baron.”

Peter accepted this statement with reservations, but he replied: “Put all that together and it makes you very sufficiently of Rachel’s tribe.”

“I don’t care if I’m of her tribe artistically. I’m of the family of the artists — je me fiche of any other! I’m in the same style as that woman — I know it.”

“You speak as if you had seen her,” he said, amused at the way she talked of “that woman.” “Oh I know all about her — I know all about all the great actors. But that won’t prevent me from speaking divine English.”

“You must learn lots of verse; you must repeat it to me,” Sherringham went on. “You must break yourself in till you can say anything. You must learn passages of Milton, passages of Wordsworth.”

“Did they write plays?”

“Oh it isn’t only a matter of plays! You can’t speak a part properly till you can speak everything else, anything that comes up, especially in proportion as it’s difficult. That gives you authority.”

“Oh yes, I’m going in for authority. There’s more chance in English,” the girl added in the next breath. “There are not so many others — the terrible competition. There are so many here — not that I’m afraid,” she chattered on. “But we’ve got America and they haven’t. America’s a great place.”

“You talk like a theatrical agent. They’re lucky not to have it as we have it. Some of them do go, and it ruins them.”

“Why, it fills their pockets!” Miriam cried.

“Yes, but see what they pay. It’s the death of an actor to play to big populations that don’t understand his language. It’s nothing then but the gros moyens; all his delicacy perishes. However, they’ll understand you.”

“Perhaps I shall be too affected,” she said.

“You won’t be more so than Garrick or Mrs. Siddons or John Kemble or Edmund Kean. They understood Edmund Kean. All reflexion is affectation, and all acting’s reflexion.”

“I don’t know — mine’s instinct,” Miriam contended.

“My dear young lady, you talk of ‘yours’; but don’t be offended if I tell you that yours doesn’t exist. Some day it will — if the thing comes off. Madame Carré‘s does, because she has reflected. The talent, the desire, the energy are an instinct; but by the time these things become a performance they’re an instinct put in its place.”

“Madame Carré‘s very philosophic. I shall never be like her.”

“Of course you won’t — you’ll be original. But you’ll have your own ideas.”

“I daresay I shall have a good many of yours”— and she smiled at him across the table.

They sat a moment looking at each other. “Don’t go in for coquetry,” Peter then said. “It’s a waste of time.”

“Well, that’s civil!” the girl cried.

“Oh I don’t mean for me, I mean for yourself I want you to be such good faith. I’m bound to give you stiff advice. You don’t strike me as flirtatious and that sort of thing, and it’s much in your favour.”

“In my favour?”

“It does save time.”

“Perhaps it saves too much. Don’t you think the artist ought to have passions?”

Peter had a pause; he thought an examination of this issue premature. “Flirtations are not passions,” he replied. “No, you’re simple — at least I suspect you are; for of course with a woman one would be clever to know.”

She asked why he pronounced her simple, but he judged it best and more consonant with fair play to defer even a treatment of this branch of the question; so that to change the subject he said: “Be sure you don’t betray me to your friend Mr. Nash.”

“Betray you? Do you mean about your recommending affectation?”

“Dear me, no; he recommends it himself. That is, he practises it, and on a scale!”

“But he makes one hate it.”

“He proves what I mean,” said Sherringham: “that the great comedian’s the one who raises it to a science. If we paid ten shillings to listen to Mr. Nash we should think him very fine. But we want to know what it’s supposed to be.”

“It’s too odious, the way he talks about us!” Miriam cried assentingly.

“About ‘us’?”

“Us poor actors.”

“It’s the competition he dislikes,” Peter laughed.

“However, he’s very good-natured; he lent mamma thirty pounds,” the girl added honestly. Our young man, at this information, was not able to repress a certain small twinge noted by his companion and of which she appeared to mistake the meaning. “Of course he’ll get it back,” she went on while he looked at her in silence a little. Fortune had not supplied him profusely with money, but his emotion was caused by no foresight of his probably having also to put his hand in his pocket for Mrs. Rooth. It was simply the instinctive recoil of a fastidious nature from the idea of familiar intimacy with people who lived from hand to mouth, together with a sense that this intimacy would have to be defined if it was to go much further. He would wish to know what it was supposed to be, like Nash’s histrionics. Miriam after a moment mistook his thought still more completely, and in doing so flashed a portent of the way it was in her to strike from time to time a note exasperatingly, almost consciously vulgar, which one would hate for the reason, along with others, that by that time one would be in love with her. “Well then, he won’t — if you don’t believe it!” she easily laughed. He was saying to himself that the only possible form was that they should borrow only from him. “You’re a funny man. I make you blush,” she persisted.

“I must reply with the tu quoque, though I’ve not that effect on you.”

“I don’t understand,” said the girl.

“You’re an extraordinary young lady.”

“You mean I’m horrid. Well, I daresay I am. But I’m better when you know me.”

He made no direct rejoinder to this, but after a moment went on: “Your mother must repay that money. I’ll give it her.”

“You had better give it him!” cried Miriam. “If once mamma has it —!” She interrupted herself and with another and a softer tone, one of her professional transitions, remarked: “I suppose you’ve never known any one that was poor.”

“I’m poor myself. That is, I’m very far from rich. But why receive favours —?” And here he in turn checked himself with the sense that he was indeed taking a great deal on his back if he pretended already — he had not seen the pair three times — to regulate their intercourse with the rest of the world. But the girl instantly carried out his thought and more than his thought.

“Favours from Mr. Nash? Oh he doesn’t count!”

The way she dropped these words — they would have been admirable on the stage — made him reply with prompt ease: “What I meant just now was that you’re not to tell him, after all my swagger, that I consider that you and I are really required to save our theatre.”

“Oh if we can save it he shall know it!” She added that she must positively get home; her mother would be in a state: she had really scarce ever been out alone. He mightn’t think it, but so it was. Her mother’s ideas, those awfully proper ones, were not all talk. She did keep her! Sherringham accepted this — he had an adequate and indeed an analytic vision of Mrs. Rooth’s conservatism; but he observed at the same time that his companion made no motion to rise. He made none either; he only said:

“We’re very frivolous, the way we chatter. What you want to do to get your foot in the stirrup is supremely difficult. There’s everything to overcome. You’ve neither an engagement nor the prospect of an engagement.”

“Oh you’ll get me one!” Her manner presented this as so certain that it wasn’t worth dilating on; so instead of dilating she inquired abruptly a second time: “Why do you think I’m so simple?”

“I don’t then. Didn’t I tell you just now that you were extraordinary? That’s the term, moreover, that you applied to yourself when you came to see me — when you said a girl had to be a kind of monster to wish to go on the stage. It remains the right term and your simplicity doesn’t mitigate it. What’s rare in you is that you have — as I suspect at least — no nature of your own.” Miriam listened to this as if preparing to argue with it or not, only as it should strike her as a sufficiently brave picture; but as yet, naturally, she failed to understand. “You’re always at concert pitch or on your horse; there are no intervals. It’s the absence of intervals, of a fond or background, that I don’t comprehend. You’re an embroidery without a canvas.”

“Yes — perhaps,” the girl replied, her head on one side as if she were looking at the pattern of this rarity. “But I’m very honest.”

“You can’t be everything, both a consummate actress and a flower of the field. You’ve got to choose.”

She looked at him a moment. “I’m glad you think I’m so wonderful.”

“Your feigning may be honest in the sense that your only feeling is your feigned one,” Peter pursued. “That’s what I mean by the absence of a ground or of intervals. It’s a kind of thing that’s a labyrinth!”

“I know what I am,” she said sententiously.

But her companion continued, following his own train. “Were you really so frightened the first day you went to Madame Carré‘s?”

She stared, then with a flush threw back her head. “Do you think I was pretending?”

“I think you always are. However, your vanity — if you had any! — would be natural.”

“I’ve plenty of that. I’m not a bit ashamed to own it.”

“You’d be capable of trying to ‘do’ the human peacock. But excuse the audacity and the crudity of my speculations — it only proves my interest. What is it that you know you are?”

“Why, an artist. Isn’t that a canvas?”

“Yes, an intellectual, but not a moral.”

“Ah it’s everything! And I’m a good girl too — won’t that do?”

“It remains to be seen,” Sherringham laughed. “A creature who’s absolutely all an artist — I’m curious to see that.”

“Surely it has been seen — in lots of painters, lots of musicians.”

“Yes, but those arts are not personal like yours. I mean not so much so. There’s something left for — what shall I call it? — for character.”

She stared again with her tragic light. “And do you think I haven’t a character?” As he hesitated she pushed back her chair, rising rapidly.

He looked up at her an instant — she seemed so “plastic”; and then rising too answered: “Delightful being, you’ve a hundred!”

Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 11:56