The Tragic Muse, by Henry James


As many people know, there are not, in the famous Théâtre Français, more than a dozen good seats accessible to ladies.[*] The stalls are forbidden them, the boxes are a quarter of a mile from the stage and the balcony is a delusion save for a few chairs at either end of its vast horseshoe. But there are two excellent baignoires d’avant-scène, which indeed are by no means always to be had. It was, however, into one of them that, immediately after his return to Paris, Sherringham ushered Mrs. Rooth and her daughter, with the further escort of Basil Dashwood. He had chosen the evening of the reappearance of the celebrated Mademoiselle Voisin — she had been enjoying a congé of three months — an actress whom Miriam had seen several times before and for whose method she professed a high though somewhat critical esteem. It was only for the return of this charming performer that Peter had been waiting to respond to Miriam’s most ardent wish — that of spending an hour in the foyer des artistes of the great theatre. She was the person whom he knew best in the house of Molière; he could count on her to do them the honours some night when she was in the “bill,” and to make the occasion sociable. Miriam had been impatient for it — she was so convinced that her eyes would be opened in the holy of holies; but wishing as particularly as he did to participate in her impression he had made her promise she wouldn’t taste of this experience without him — not let Madame Carré, for instance, take her in his absence. There were questions the girl wished to put to Mademoiselle Voisin — questions which, having admired her from the balcony, she felt she was exactly the person to answer. She was more “in it” now, after all, than Madame Carré, in spite of her slenderer talent: she was younger, fresher, more modern and — Miriam found the word — less academic. She was in fine less “vieux jeu.” Peter perfectly foresaw the day when his young friend would make indulgent allowances for poor Madame Carré, patronising her as an old woman of good intentions.

[*: 1890]

The play to-night was six months old, a large, serious, successful comedy by the most distinguished of authors, with a thesis, a chorus embodied in one character, a scène à faire and a part full of opportunities for Mademoiselle Voisin. There were things to be said about this artist, strictures to be dropped as to the general quality of her art, and Miriam leaned back now, making her comments as if they cost her less, but the actress had knowledge and distinction and pathos, and our young lady repeated several times: “How quiet she is, how wonderfully quiet! Scarcely anything moves but her face and her voice. Le geste rare, but really expressive when it comes. I like that economy; it’s the only way to make the gesture significant.”

“I don’t admire the way she holds her arms,” Basil Dash wood said: “like a demoiselle de magasin trying on a jacket.”

“Well, she holds them at any rate. I daresay it’s more than you do with yours.”

“Oh yes, she holds them; there’s no mistake about that. ‘I hold them, I hope, hein?’ she seems to say to all the house.” The young English professional laughed good-humouredly, and Sherringham was struck with the pleasant familiarity he had established with their brave companion. He was knowing and ready and he said in the first entr’acte — they were waiting for the second to go behind — amusing perceptive things. “They teach them to be ladylike and Voisin’s always trying to show that. ‘See how I walk, see how I sit, see how quiet I am and how I have le geste rare. Now can you say I ain’t a lady?’ She does it all as if she had a class.”

“Well, to-night I’m her class,” said Miriam.

“Oh I don’t mean of actresses, but of femmes du monde. She shows them how to act in society.”

“You had better take a few lessons,” Miriam retorted.

“Ah you should see Voisin in society,” Peter interposed.

“Does she go into it?” Mrs. Rooth demanded with interest.

Her friend hesitated. “She receives a great many people.”

“Why shouldn’t they when they’re nice?” Mrs. Rooth frankly wanted to know.

“When the people are nice?” Miriam asked.

“Now don’t tell me she’s not what one would wish,” said Mrs. Rooth to Sherringham.

“It depends on what that is,” he darkly smiled.

“What I should wish if she were my daughter,” the old woman rejoined blandly.

“Ah wish your daughter to act as well as that and you’ll do the handsome thing for her!”

“Well, she seems to feel what she says,” Mrs. Rooth piously risked.

“She has some stiff things to say. I mean about her past,” Basil Dashwood remarked. “The past — the dreadful past — on the stage!”

“Wait till the end, to see how she comes out. We must all be merciful!” sighed Mrs. Rooth.

“We’ve seen it before; you know what happens,” Miriam observed to her mother.

“I’ve seen so many I get them mixed.”

“Yes, they’re all in queer predicaments. Poor old mother — what we show you!” laughed the girl.

“Ah it will be what you show me — something noble and wise!”

“I want to do this; it’s a magnificent part,” said Miriam.

“You couldn’t put it on in London — they wouldn’t swallow it,” Basil Dashwood declared.

“Aren’t there things they do there to get over the difficulties?” the girl inquired.

“You can’t get over what she did!”— her companion had a rueful grimace.

“Yes, we must pay, we must expiate!” Mrs. Rooth moaned as the curtain rose again.

When the second act was over our friends passed out of their baignoire into those corridors of tribulation where the bristling ouvreuse, like a pawnbroker driving a roaring trade, mounts guard upon piles of heterogeneous clothing, and, gaining the top of the fine staircase which forms the state entrance and connects the statued vestibule of the basement with the grand tier of boxes, opened an ambiguous door composed of little mirrors and found themselves in the society of the initiated. The janitors were courteous folk who greeted Sherringham as an acquaintance, and he had no difficulty in marshalling his little troop toward the foyer. They traversed a low, curving lobby, hung with pictures and furnished with velvet-covered benches where several unrecognised persons of both sexes looked at them without hostility, and arrived at an opening, on the right, from which, by a short flight of steps, there was a descent to one of the wings of the stage. Here Miriam paused, in silent excitement, like a young warrior arrested by a glimpse of the battle-field. Her vision was carried off through a lane of light to the point of vantage from which the actor held the house; but there was a hushed guard over the place and curiosity could only glance and pass.

Then she came with her companions to a sort of parlour with a polished floor, not large and rather vacant, where her attention flew delightedly to a coat-tree, in a corner, from which three or four dresses were suspended — dresses she immediately perceived to be costumes in that night’s play — accompanied by a saucer of something and a much-worn powder-puff casually left on a sofa. This was a familiar note in the general impression of high decorum which had begun at the threshold — a sense of majesty in the place. Miriam rushed at the powder-puff — there was no one in the room — snatched it up and gazed at it with droll veneration, then stood rapt a moment before the charming petticoats (“That’s Dunoyer’s first underskirt,” she said to her mother) while Sherringham explained that in this apartment an actress traditionally changed her gown when the transaction was simple enough to save the long ascent to her loge. He felt himself a cicerone showing a church to a party of provincials; and indeed there was a grave hospitality in the air, mingled with something academic and important, the tone of an institution, a temple, which made them all, out of respect and delicacy, hold their breath a little and tread the shining floors with discretion.

These precautions increased — Mrs. Rooth crept about like a friendly but undomesticated cat — after they entered the foyer itself, a square, spacious saloon covered with pictures and relics and draped in official green velvet, where the genius loci holds a reception every night in the year. The effect was freshly charming to Peter; he was fond of the place, always saw it again with pleasure, enjoyed its honourable look and the way, among the portraits and scrolls, the records of a splendid history, the green velvet and the waxed floors, the genius loci seemed to be “at home” in the quiet lamplight. At the end of the room, in an ample chimney, blazed a fire of logs. Miriam said nothing; they looked about, noting that most of the portraits and pictures were “old-fashioned,” and Basil Dashwood expressed disappointment at the absence of all the people they wanted most to see. Three or four gentlemen in evening dress circulated slowly, looking, like themselves, at the pictures, and another gentleman stood before a lady, with whom he was in conversation, seated against the wall. The foyer resembled in these conditions a ball-room, cleared for the dance, before the guests or the music had arrived.

“Oh it’s enough to see this; it makes my heart beat,” said Miriam. “It’s full of the vanished past, it makes me cry. I feel them here, all, the great artists I shall never see. Think of Rachel — look at her grand portrait there! — and how she stood on these very boards and trailed over them the robes of Hermione and Phèdre.” The girl broke out theatrically, as on the spot was right, not a bit afraid of her voice as soon as it rolled through the room; appealing to her companions as they stood under the chandelier and making the other persons present, who had already given her some attention, turn round to stare at so unusual a specimen of the English miss. She laughed, musically, when she noticed this, and her mother, scandalised, begged her to lower her tone. “It’s all right. I produce an effect,” said Miriam: “it shan’t be said that I too haven’t had my little success in the maison de Molière.” And Sherringham repeated that it was all right — the place was familiar with mirth and passion, there was often wonderful talk there, and it was only the setting that was still and solemn. It happened that this evening — there was no knowing in advance — the scene was not characteristically brilliant; but to confirm his assertion, at the moment he spoke, Mademoiselle Dunoyer, who was also in the play, came into the room attended by a pair of gentlemen.

She was the celebrated, the perpetual, the necessary ingénue, who with all her talent couldn’t have represented a woman of her actual age. She had the gliding, hopping movement of a small bird, the same air of having nothing to do with time, and the clear, sure, piercing note, a miracle of exact vocalisation. She chaffed her companions, she chaffed the room; she might have been a very clever little girl trying to personate a more innocent big one. She scattered her amiability about — showing Miriam how the children of Molière took their ease — and it quickly placed her in the friendliest communication with Peter Sherringham, who already enjoyed her acquaintance and who now extended it to his companions, and in particular to the young lady sur le point d’entrer au théâtre.

“You deserve a happier lot,” said the actress, looking up at Miriam brightly, as if to a great height, and taking her in; upon which Sherringham left them together a little and led Mrs. Rooth and young Dashwood to consider further some of the pictures.

“Most delightful, most curious,” the old woman murmured about everything; while Basil Dashwood exclaimed in the presence of most of the portraits: “But their ugliness — their ugliness: did you ever see such a collection of hideous people? And those who were supposed to be good-looking — the beauties of the past — they’re worse than the others. Ah you may say what you will, nous sommes mieux que ça!” Sherringham suspected him of irritation, of not liking the theatre of the great rival nation to be thrust down his throat. They returned to Miriam and Mademoiselle Dunoyer, and Peter asked the actress a question about one of the portraits to which there was no name attached. She replied, like a child who had only played about the room, that she was toute honteuse not to be able to tell him the original: she had forgotten, she had never asked —“Vous allez me trouver bien légère!” She appealed to the other persons present, who formed a gallery for her, and laughed in delightful ripples at their suggestions, which she covered with ridicule. She bestirred herself; she declared she would ascertain, she shouldn’t be happy till she did, and swam out of the room, with the prettiest paddles, to obtain the information, leaving behind her a perfume of delicate kindness and gaiety. She seemed above all things obliging, and Peter pronounced her almost as natural off the stage as on. She didn’t come back.

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