A Small Boy and others, by Henry James


I allude of course in particular here to the æsthetic clue in general, with which it was that we most (or that I at any rate most) fumbled, without our in the least having then, as I have already noted, any such rare name for it. There were sides on which it fairly dangled about us, involving our small steps and wits; though others too where I could, for my own part, but clutch at it in the void. Our experience of the theatre for instance, which had played such a part for us at home, almost wholly dropped in just the most propitious air: an anomaly indeed half explained by the fact that life in general, all round us, was perceptibly more theatrical. And there were other reasons, whether definitely set before us or not, which we grasped in proportion as we gathered, by depressing hearsay, that the French drama, great, strange and important, was as much out of relation to our time of life, our so little native strain and our cultivated innocence, as the American and English had been directly addressed to them. To the Cirque d’Été, the Cirque d’Hiver, the Théâtre du Cirque we were on occasion conducted — we had fallen so to the level of circuses, and that name appeared a safety; in addition to which the big theatre most bravely bearing it, the especial home at that time of the glittering and multitudinous féerie, did seem to lift the whole scenic possibility, for our eyes, into a higher sphere of light and grace than any previously disclosed. I recall Le Diable d’Argent as in particular a radiant revelation — kept before us a whole long evening and as an almost blinding glare; which was quite right for the donnée, the gradual shrinkage of the Shining One, the money-monster hugely inflated at first, to all the successive degrees of loose bagginess as he leads the reckless young man he has originally contracted with from dazzling pleasure to pleasure, till at last he is a mere shrivelled silver string such as you could almost draw through a keyhole. That was the striking moral, for the young man, however regaled, had been somehow “sold”; which we hadn’t in the least been, who had had all his pleasures and none of his penalty, whatever this was to be. I was to repine a little, in these connections, at a much later time, on reflecting that had we only been “taken” in the Paris of that period as we had been taken in New York we might have come in for celebrities — supremely fine, perhaps supremely rank, flowers of the histrionic temperament, springing as they did from the soil of the richest romanticism and adding to its richness — who practised that braver art and finer finish which a comparatively homogenous public, forming a compact critical body, still left possible. Rachel was alive, but dying; the memory of Mademoiselle Mars, at her latest, was still in the air; Mademoiselle Georges, a massive, a monstrous antique, had withal returned for a season to the stage; but we missed her, as we missed Déjazet and Frédéric Lemâitre and Mélingue and Samson; to say nothing of others of the age before the flood — taking for the flood that actual high tide of the outer barbarian presence, the general alien and polyglot, in stalls and boxes, which I remember to have heard Gustave Flaubert lament as the ruin of the theatre through the assumption of judgeship by a bench to whom the very values of the speech of author and actor were virtually closed, or at the best uncertain.

I enjoyed but two snatches of the older representational art — no particular of either of which, however, has faded from me; the earlier and rarer of these an evening at the Gymnase for a spectacle coupé, with Mesdames Rose Chéri, Mélanie, Delaporte and Victoria (afterwards Victoria–La-fontaine). I squeeze again with my mother, my aunt and my brother into the stuffy baignoire, and I take to my memory in especial Madame de Girardin’s Une Femme qui Déteste son Mari; the thrilling story, as I judged it, of an admirable lady who, to save her loyalist husband, during the Revolution, feigns the most Jacobin opinions, represents herself a citoyenne of citoyennes, in order to keep him the more safely concealed in her house. He flattens himself, to almost greater peril of life, behind a panel of the wainscot, which she has a secret for opening when he requires air and food and they may for a fearful fleeting instant be alone together; and the point of the picture is in the contrast between these melting moments and the heroine’s tenue under the tremendous strain of receiving on the one side the invading, investigating Terrorist commissaries, sharply suspicious but successfully baffled, and on the other her noble relatives, her husband’s mother and sister if I rightly remember, who are not in the secret and whom, for perfect prudence, she keeps out of it, though alone with her, and themselves in hourly danger, they might be trusted, and who, believing him concealed elsewhere and terribly tracked, treat her, in her republican rage, as lost to all honour and all duty. One’s sense of such things after so long a time has of course scant authority for others; but I myself trust my vision of Rose Chéri’s fine play just as I trust that of her physique ingrat, her at first extremely odd and positively osseous appearance; an emaciated woman with a high bulging forehead, somewhat of the form of Rachel’s, for whom the triumphs of produced illusion, as in the second, third and fourth great dramas of the younger Dumas, had to be triumphs indeed. My one other reminiscence of this order connects itself, and quite three years later, with the old dingy Vaudeville of the Place de la Bourse, where I saw in my brother’s company a rhymed domestic drama of the then still admired Ponsard, Ce qui Plaît aux Femmes; a piece that enjoyed, I believe, scant success, but that was to leave with me ineffaceable images. How was it possible, I wondered, to have more grace and talent, a rarer, cooler art, than Mademoiselle Fargeuil, the heroine? — the fine lady whom a pair of rival lovers, seeking to win her hand by offering her what will most please her, treat, in the one case, to a brilliant fête, a little play within a play, at which we assist, and in the other to the inside view of an attic of misery, into which the more cunning suitor introduces her just in time to save a poor girl, the tenant of the place, from being ruinously, that is successfully, tempted by a terrible old woman, a prowling revendeuse, who dangles before her the condition on which so pretty a person may enjoy every comfort. Her happier sister, the courted young widow, intervenes in time, reinforces her tottering virtue, opens for her an account with baker and butcher, and, doubting no longer which flame is to be crowned, charmingly shows us that what pleases women most is the exercise of charity.

Then it was I first beheld that extraordinary veteran of the stage, Mademoiselle Pierson, almost immemorially attached, for later generations, to the Théâtre Français, the span of whose career thus strikes me as fabulous, though she figured as a very juvenile beauty in the small féerie or allegory forming M. Ponsard’s second act. She has been playing mothers and aunts this many and many a year — and still indeed much as a juvenile beauty. Not that light circumstance, however, pleads for commemoration, nor yet the further fact that I was to admire Mademoiselle Fargeuil, in the after-time, the time after she had given all Sardou’s earlier successes the help of her shining firmness, when she had passed from interesting comedy and even from romantic drama — not less, perhaps still more, interesting, with Sardou’s Patrie as a bridge — to the use of the bigger brush of the Ambigu and other homes of melodrama. The sense, such as it is, that I extract from the pair of modest memories in question is rather their value as a glimpse of the old order that spoke so much less of our hundred modern material resources, matters the stage of today appears mainly to live by, and such volumes more of the one thing that was then, and that, given various other things, had to be, of the essence. That one thing was the quality, to say nothing of the quantity, of the actor’s personal resource, technical history, tested temper, proved experience; on which almost everything had to depend, and the thought of which makes the mere starved scene and medium of the period, the rest of the picture, a more confessed and more heroic battle-ground. They have been more and more eased off, the scene and medium, for our couple of generations, so much so in fact that the rest of the picture has become almost all the picture: the author and the producer, among us, lift the weight of the play from the performer — particularly of the play dealing with our immediate life and manners and aspects — after a fashion which does half the work, thus reducing the “personal equation,” the demand for the maximum of individual doing, to a contribution mostly of the loosest and sparest. As a sop to historic curiosity at all events may even so short an impression serve; impression of the strenuous age and its fine old masterful assouplissement of its victims — who were not the expert spectators. The spectators were so expert, so broken in to material suffering for the sake of their passion, that, as the suffering was only material, they found the æsthetic reward, the critical relish of the essence, all adequate; a fact that seems in a sort to point a moral of large application. Everything but the “interpretation,” the personal, in the French theatre of those days, had kinds and degrees of weakness and futility, say even falsity, of which our modern habit is wholly impatient — let alone other conditions still that were detestable even at the time, and some of which, forms of discomfort and annoyance, linger on to this day. The playhouse, in short, was almost a place of physical torture, and it is still rarely in Paris a place of physical ease. Add to this the old thinness of the school of Scribe and the old emptiness of the thousand vaudevillistes; which part of the exhibition, till modern comedy began, under the younger Dumas and Augier, had for its counterpart but the terrible dead weight, or at least the prodigious prolixity and absurdity, of much, not to say of most, of the romantic and melodramatic “output.” It paid apparently, in the golden age of acting, to sit through interminable evenings in impossible places — since to assume that the age was in that particular respect golden (for which we have in fact a good deal of evidence) alone explains the patience of the public. With the public the actors were, according to their seasoned strength, almost exclusively appointed to deal, just as in the conditions most familiar today to ourselves this charge is laid on almost everyone concerned in the case save the representatives of the parts. And far more other people are now concerned than of old; not least those who have learned to make the playhouse endurable. All of which leaves us with this interesting vision of a possibly great truth, the truth that you can’t have more than one kind of intensity — intensity worthy of the name — at once. The intensity of the golden age of the histrion was the intensity of his good faith. The intensity of our period is that of the “producer’s” and machinist’s, to which add even that of architect, author and critic. Between which derivative kind of that article, as we may call it, and the other, the immediate kind, it would appear that you have absolutely to choose.


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