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Short stories : About Play-Acting by Mark Twain

Mark Twain-1

About Play-Acting
by Mark Twain

I have a project to suggest. But first I will write a chapter of introduction.

I have just been witnessing a remarkable play, here at the Burg Theatre in Vienna. I do not know of any play that much resembles it. In fact, it is such a departure from the common laws of the drama that the name ‘play’ doesn’t seem to fit it quite snugly. However, whatever else it may be, it is in any case a great and stately metaphysical poem, and deeply fascinating. ‘Deeply fascinating’ is the right term: for the audience sat four hours and five minutes without thrice breaking into applause, except at the close of each act; sat rapt and silent– fascinated. This piece is ‘The Master of Palmyra.’ It is twenty years old; yet I doubt if you have ever heard of it. It is by Wilbrandt, and is his masterpiece and the work which is to make his name permanent in German literature. It has never been played anywhere except in Berlin and in the great Burg Theatre in Vienna. Yet whenever it is put on the stage it packs the house, and the free list is suspended. I know people who have seem it ten times; they know the most of it by heart; they do not tire of it; and they say they shall still be quite willing to go and sit under its spell whenever they get the opportunity.

There is a dash of metempsychosis in it–and it is the strength of the piece. The play gave me the sense of the passage of a dimly connected procession of dream-pictures. The scene of it is Palmyra in Roman times. It covers a wide stretch of time–I don’t know how many years–and in the course of it the chief actress is reincarnated several times: four times she is a more or less young woman, and once she is a lad. In the first act she is Zoe–a Christian girl who has wandered across the desert from Damascus to try to Christianise the Zeus-worshipping pagans of Palmyra. In this character she is wholly spiritual, a religious enthusiast, a devotee who covets martyrdom–and gets it.

After many years she appears in the second act as Phoebe, a graceful and beautiful young light-o’-love from Rome, whose soul is all for the shows and luxuries and delights of this life–a dainty and capricious feather- head, a creature of shower and sunshine, a spoiled child, but a charming one. In the third act, after an interval of many years, she reappears as Persida, mother of a daughter who is in the fresh bloom of youth. She is now a sort of combination of her two earlier selves: in religious loyalty and subjection she is Zoe: in triviality of character and shallowness of judgement–together with a touch of vanity in dress–she is Phoebe.

After a lapse of years she appears in the fourth act as Nymphas, a beautiful boy, in whose character the previous incarnations are engagingly mixed.

And after another stretch of years all these heredities are joined in the Zenobia of the fifth act–a person of gravity, dignity, sweetness, with a heart filled with compassion for all who suffer, and a hand prompt to put into practical form the heart’s benignant impulses.

There are a number of curious and interesting features in this piece. For instance, its hero, Appelles, young, handsome, vigorous, in the first act, remains so all through the long flight of years covered by the five acts. Other men, young in the firs act, are touched with gray in the second, are old and racked with infirmities in the third; in the fourth, all but one are gone to their long home, and this one is a blind and helpless hulk of ninety or a hundred years. It indicates that the stretch of time covered by the piece is seventy years or more. The scenery undergoes decay, too–the decay of age assisted and perfected by a conflagration. The fine new temples and palaces of the second act are by-and-by a wreck of crumbled walls and prostrate columns, mouldy, grass- grown, and desolate; but their former selves are still recognisable in their ruins. The ageing men and the ageing scenery together convey a profound illusion of that long lapse of time: they make you live it yourself! You leave the theatre with the weight of a century upon you.

Another strong effect: Death, in person, walks about the stage in every act. So far as I could make out, he was supposably not visible to any excepting two persons–the one he came for and Appelles. He used various costumes: but there was always more black about them than any other tint; and so they were always sombre. Also they were always deeply impressive and, indeed, awe-inspiring. The face was not subjected to changes, but remained the same first and last–a ghastly white. To me he was always welcome, he seemed so real–the actual Death, not a play-acting artificiality. He was of a solemn and stately carriage; and he had a deep voice, and used it with a noble dignity. Wherever there was a turmoil of merry-making or fighting or feasting or chaffing or quarreling, or a gilded pageant, or other manifestation of our trivial and fleeting life, into it drifted that black figure with the corpse- face, and looked its fateful look and passed on; leaving its victim shuddering and smitten. And always its coming made the fussy human pack seem infinitely pitiful and shabby, and hardly worth the attention of either saving or damning.

In the beginning of the first act the young girl Zoe appears by some great rocks in the desert, and sits down exhausted, to rest. Presently arrive a pauper couple stricken with age and infirmities; and they begin to mumble and pray to the Spirit of Life, who is said to inhabit that spot. The Spirit of Life appears; also Death–uninvited. They are (supposably) invisible. Death, tall, black-robed, corpse-faced, stands motionless and waits. The aged couple pray to the Spirit of Life for a means to prop up their existence and continue it. Their prayer fails. The Spirit of Life prophesies Zoe’s martyrdom; it will take place before night. Soon Appelles arrives, young and vigorous and full of enthusiasm: he has led a host against the Persians and won the battle; he is the pet of fortune, rich, honoured, believed, ‘Master of Palmyra’. He has heard that whoever stretches himself out on one of those rocks there and asks for a deathless life can have his wish. He laughs at the tradition, but wants to make the trial anyway. The invisible Spirit of Life warns him! ‘Life without end can be regret without end.’ But he persists: let him keep his youth, his strength, and his mental faculties unimpaired, and he will take all the risks. He has his desire.

From this time forth, act after act, the troubles and sorrows and misfortunes and humiliations of life beat upon him without pity or respite; but he will not give up, he will not confess his mistake. Whenever he meets Death he still furiously defies him–but Death patiently waits. He, the healer of sorrows, is man’s best friend: the recognition of this will come. As the years drag on, and on, and on, the friends of the Master’s youth grow old; and one by one they totter to the grave: he goes on with his proud fight, and will not yield. At length he is wholly alone in the world; all his friends are dead; last of all, his darling of darlings, his son, the lad Nymphas, who dies in his arms. His pride is broken now; and he would welcome Death, if Death would come, if Death would hear his prayers and give him peace. The closing act is fine and pathetic. Appelles meets Zenobia, the helper of all who suffer, and tells her his story, which moves her pity. By common report she is endowed with more than earthly powers; and since he cannot have the boon of death, he appeals to her to drown his memory in forgetfulness of his griefs–forgetfulness ‘which is death’s equivalent’. She says (roughly translated), in an exaltation of compassion:

‘Come to me!

Kneel; and may the power be granted me To cool the fires of this poor tortured brain, And bring it peace and healing.’

He kneels. From her hand, which she lays upon his head, a mysterious influence steals through him; and he sinks into a dreamy tranquility.

‘Oh, if I could but so drift Through this soft twilight into the night of peace, Never to wake again!

(Raising his hand, as if in benediction.)

O mother earth, farewell! Gracious thou were to me. Farewell! Appelles goes to rest.’

Death appears behind him and encloses the uplifted hand in his. Appelles shudders, wearily and slowly turns, and recognises his life-long adversary. He smiles and puts all his gratitude into one simple and touching sentence, ‘Ich danke dir,’ and dies.

Nothing, I think, could be more moving, more beautiful, than this close. This piece is just one long, soulful, sardonic laugh at human life. Its title might properly be ‘Is Life a Failure?’ and leave the five acts to play with the answer. I am not at all sure that the author meant to laugh at life. I only notice that he has done it. Without putting into words any ungracious or discourteous things about life, the episodes in the piece seem to be saying all the time, inarticulately: ‘Note what a silly poor thing human life is; how childish its ambitions, how ridiculous its pomps, how trivial its dignities, how cheap its heroisms, how capricious its course, how brief its flight, how stingy in happinesses, how opulent in miseries, how few its prides, how multitudinous its humiliations, how comic its tragedies, how tragic its comedies, how wearisome and monotonous its repetition of its stupid history through the ages, with never the introduction of a new detail; how hard it has tried, from the Creation down, to play itself upon its possessor as a boon and has never proved its case in a single instance!’

Take note of some of the details of the piece. Each of the five acts contains an independent tragedy of its own. In each act someone’s edifice of hope, or of ambition, or of happiness, goes down in ruins. Even Appelles’ perennial youth is only a long tragedy, and his life a failure. There are two martyrdoms in the piece; and they are curiously and sarcastically contrasted. In the first act the pagans persecute Zoe, the Christian girl, and a pagan mob slaughters her. In the fourth act those same pagans–now very old and zealous–are become Christians, and they persecute the pagans; a mob of them slaughters the pagan youth, Nymphas, who is standing up for the old gods of his fathers. No remark is made about this picturesque failure of civilisation; but there it stands, as an unworded suggestion that civilisation, even when Christianised, was not able wholly to subdue the natural man in that old day–just as in our day the spectacle of a shipwrecked French crew clubbing women and children who tried to climb into the lifeboats suggests that civilisation has not succeeded in entirely obliterating the natural man even yet. Common sailors a year ago, in Paris, at a fire, the aristocracy of the same nation clubbed girls and women out of the way to save themselves. Civilisation tested at top and bottom both, you see. And in still another panic of fright we have this same tough civilisation saving its honour by condemning an innocent man to multiform death, and hugging and whitewashing the guilty one.

In the second act a grand Roman official is not above trying to blast Appelles’ reputation by falsely charging him with misappropriating public moneys. Appelles, who is too proud to endure even the suspicion of irregularity, strips himself to naked poverty to square the unfair account, and his troubles begin: the blight which is to continue and spread strikes his life; for the frivolous, pretty creature whom he brought from Rome has no taste for poverty and agrees to elope with a more competent candidate. Her presence in the house has previously brought down the pride and broken the heart of Appelles’ poor old mother; and her life is a failure. Death comes for her, but is willing to trade her for the Roman girl; so the bargain is struck with Appelles, and the mother is spared for the present.

No one’s life escapes the blight. Timoleus, the gay satirist of the first two acts, who scoffed at the pious hypocrisies and money-grubbing ways of the great Roman lords, is grown old and fat and blear-eyed and racked with disease in the third, has lost his stately purities, and watered the acid of his wit. His life has suffered defeat. Unthinkingly he swears by Zeus–from ancient habit–and then quakes with fright; for a fellow-communicant is passing by. Reproached by a pagan friend of his youth for his apostasy, he confesses that principle, when unsupported by an assenting stomach, has to climb down. One must have bread; and ‘the bread is Christian now.’ Then the poor old wreck, once so proud of his iron rectitude, hobbles away, coughing and barking.

In that same act Appelles give his sweet young Christian daughter and her fine young pagan lover his consent and blessing, and makes them utterly happy–for five minutes. Then the priest and the mob come, to tear them apart and put the girl in a nunnery; for marriage between the sects is forbidden. Appelles’ wife could dissolve the rule; and she wants to do it; but under priestly pressure she wavers; then, fearing that in providing happiness for her child she would be committing a sin dangerous to her own, she goes over to the opposition, and throws the casting vote for the nunnery. The blight has fallen upon the young couple, and their life is a failure.

In the fourth act, Longinus, who made such a prosperous and enviable start in the first act, is left alone in the desert, sick, blind, helpless, incredibly old, to die: not a friend left in the world–another ruined life. And in that act, also, Appelles’ worshipped boy, Nymphas, done to death by the mob, breathes out his last sigh in his father’s arms–one more failure. In the fifth act, Appelles himself dies, and is glad to do it; he who so ignorantly rejoiced, only four acts before, over the splendid present of an earthly immortality–the very worst failure of the lot!


Now I approach my project. Here is the theatre list for Saturday, May 7, 1898, cut from the advertising columns of a New York paper:

[graphic here]

Now I arrive at my project, and make my suggestion. From the look of this lightsome feast, I conclude that what you need is a tonic. Send for ‘The Master of Palmyra.’ You are trying to make yourself believe that life is a comedy, that its sole business is fun, that there is nothing serious in it. You are ignoring the skeleton in your closet. Send for ‘The Master of Palmyra.’ You are neglecting a valuable side of your life; presently it will be atrophied. You are eating too much mental sugar; you will bring on Bright’s disease of the intellect. You need a tonic; you need it very much. Send for ‘The Master of Palmyra.’ You will not need to translate it; its story is as plain as a procession of pictures.

I have made my suggestion. Now I wish to put an annex to it. And that is this: It is right and wholesome to have those light comedies and entertaining shows; and I shouldn’t wish to see them diminished. But none of us is always in the comedy spirit; we have our graver moods; they come to us all; the lightest of us cannot escape them. These moods have their appetites–healthy and legitimate appetites–and there ought to be some way of satisfying them. It seems to me that New York ought to have one theatre devoted to tragedy. With her three millions of population, and seventy outside millions to draw upon, she can afford it, she can support it. America devotes more time, labour, money and attention to distributing literary and musical culture among the general public than does any other nation, perhaps; yet here you find her neglecting what is possibly the most effective of all the breeders and nurses and disseminators of high literary taste and lofty emotion–the tragic stage. To leave that powerful agency out is to haul the culture-wagon with a crippled team. Nowadays, when a mood comes which only Shakespeare can set to music, what must we do? Read Shakespeare ourselves! Isn’t it pitiful? It is playing an organ solo on a jew’s-harp. We can’t read. None but the Booths can do it.

Thirty years ago Edwin Booth played ‘Hamlet’ a hundred nights in New York. With three times the population, how often is ‘Hamlet’ played now in a year? If Booth were back now in his prime, how often could he play it in New York? Some will say twenty-five nights. I will say three hundred, and say it with confidence. The tragedians are dead; but I think that the taste and intelligence which made their market are not.

What has come over us English-speaking people? During the first half of this century tragedies and great tragedians were as common with us as farce and comedy; and it was the same in England. Now we have not a tragedian, I believe, and London, with her fifty shows and theatres, has but three, I think. It is an astonishing thing, when you come to consider it. Vienna remains upon the ancient basis: there has been no change. She sticks to the former proportions: a number of rollicking comedies, admirably played, every night; and also every night at the Burg Theatre–that wonder of the world for grace and beauty and richness and splendour and costliness–a majestic drama of depth and seriousness, or a standard old tragedy. It is only within the last dozen years that men have learned to do miracles on the stage in the way of grand and enchanting scenic effects; and it is at such a time as this that we have reduced our scenery mainly to different breeds of parlours and varying aspects of furniture and rugs. I think we must have a Burg in New York, and Burg scenery, and a great company like the Burg company. Then, with a tragedy-tonic once or twice a month, we shall enjoy the comedies all the better. Comedy keeps the heart sweet; but we all know that there is wholesome refreshment for both mind and heart in an occasional climb among the solemn pomps of the intellectual snow-summits built by Shakespeare and those others. Do I seem to be preaching? It is out of my life: I only do it because the rest of the clergy seem to be on vacation.



Mark Twain

Mark Twain-2


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