New Statesman – , 1929
A famous actress died not long ago, and it was easy to see from the comments in the newspapers that many now middle-aged men in Fleet Street had been her adoring slaves in their youth. An odd thing about these comments was, however, that most of the writers seemed to assume that the goddesses of the stage have all but vanished in these days of the cinema, and that the theatre is no longer the haunt of adoring youth that it used to be. I fancy that the explanation is that the ex-adorers have grown older, not that the goddesses have ceased to be worshipped. So long as the theatre exists at all, it is diffcult to believe that it will not be the temple of young idolators. To fall in love with an actress at some time of one’s life is not only natural but inevitable.
There are, of course, degrees in the strength and subtlety of this passion. There are some people who are so much in love with the stage itself that they are ready to worship almost anybody who appears on it down to the little housemaid with the three-line part. They study the programme with such avidity that they could repeat months afterwards the names of the most insignificant actors and actresses who took part in the play. I was myself for a time of that disposition. To see an actor walking along the street was an exciting event. If you had told me: “There’s the chap who played Rosencranz last night going into the tobacconist’s,” I should have stared after him with a Cortesian awe. It was as if his very presence in the streets increased the dignity of my native city. It would have gratified me more to have shaken hands with him than with the Moderator of the General Assembly.
This general passion for the stage, however, is an entirely different thing from the concentrated devotion fixed on a single actor or actress. And it is only a few actors and actresses who have the power of converting an indiscriminate bewitchment with the theatre into an ecstasy of personal adoration. Even after personal adoration begins, it is true, one still continues, if not to admire all actors and actresses, at least to have particularly warm feelings for all the members of the company with whom the adored actress is playing. They must all, one feels, share one’s own adoration, and anyone who adores her is one’s friend. A scrap of gossip telling how popular she is with the chorus-girls moves the worshipper like a tale of supreme nobility of character. But, indeed, the beauty of her character is as manifest as the beauty of her face. She may sing all kinds of trivial words, such as “I wink at the boys on the sly,” but in the imagination these become touched with a strange and almost sacred loveliness and they haunt the memory as exquisitely as “Sabrina fair” itself.
Of all forms of love, this, I think, is the most disinterested. The lover is content to love without hope that he will ever even exchange a word with the adored one or shake her by the hand. Night after night he will climb up to the gallery—I went six times in a single week to one musical comedy—and wait in the darkness for the sudden entrance from the wings, more glorious than a sunrise, and the entrancing singing of the always entrancing song, “There was once a merry monkey in a cosy little cage,” the chorus ending, as the adored finger is shaken at the gallery. “Now, who was that little monkey? Was it you?” Strange the thrill produced by that shaken finger and by the glance that accompanied it. For every worshipper in the house felt that that glance was somehow—no doubt, by accident—directed at himself, and he was even embarrassed by being singled out in this fashion in the presence of so many other people. Luckily, the glance did not last long, and the dance began, in which the most beautiful woman on earth gave the most delicious imitation of the antics of a monkey. Who could have failed to encore such a heavenly song and dance? Who could have failed to encore it twice, thrice, four times and even after that to continue applauding in the wish that the song would go on for ever?
On the occasion of the first visit, perhaps, one is inclined to be impatient of the turns that occupy the stage between one of her appearances and the next. As one sees the musical comedy again and again, however, one begins under her spell to discover unexpected beauties in the other parts of the performance. The broken English of the Frenchman seems extraordinarily witty: “the green-eyed lobster,” as a description of jealousy, grows upon one curiously with repetition. Even the sentimental songs that had always seemed to unadoring ears to be the bane of musical comedy are seen here to be of noble quality.
Yes, as the tenor sings them, they do express the passion of love as it was never expressed in musical comedy before. The whole musical comedy, indeed, is, as one’s neighbour (also under the spell) confesses, a work of art quite unlike all the other pieces of the kind one has seen. It has a well-constructed and ingenious plot. The music is the best since Sullivan. The dialogue is really witty. And, as for the company, there was never such a company in the history of musical comedy.
Then home with the book of words—if not the holy writ of beauty, at least a book to be preferred to it at this rapturous hour. To re-read the songs was to live those precious moments over again. “There was once a merry monkey “—how lovely her smile was as she sang it!
Well, perhaps it was the music rather than the words that made it so poignant, so expressive of heartache. But then to the lover all words seem to fall below the height of his own unparalleled passion. That is why he turns aside even from Shakespeare and poetry himself. Not at the time, perhaps—not just after returning from the musical comedy—but weeks afterwards, when the beloved in the course of her provincial tour has arrived at Glasgow.
It is difficult to do any work during such a week. It is necessary to be in the streets as much as possible lest at any moment she should drive by. A friend—enviable and undeserving man—announces calmly that she had stopped him in the street to inquire the way to the Post Offlce. Such an event might happen to oneself, though to a reasonable mind it might seem unlikely that an actress would keep on asking the way to the Post Office when once she knew it. But love does not know reason, and the divine possibility of such an encounter lit up the streets like a Paradise. Her lovely smile as she asked her way could be imagined, the thrilled voice of the worshipper as he replied: “The Post Office? Oh, it’s the first turn to the left”—and then? Parting for ever? Or the beginning of a great friendship? But the glorious accident never happened. Still, she did drive past one day when a worshipper was there to see her and to stand and stare after her till she was out of sight. But how melancholy she looked! How wistful! How pale! How unlike the happy, laughing goddess who had sung “There was once a merry monkey” in the theatre!
It is a terrific enough experience to love a goddess who appears to be perfectly happy. But it is as nothing compared to the experience of loving a goddess who seems for some unaccountable reason to be miserable. How heroic her laughter on the stage now seems! How one longs (metaphorically, it may be) to give one’s life for her! Beautiful as the words of “There was once a merry monkey” had seemed before, they are now informed with a new and tragic beauty. The light-heartedness of the theatre is seen to be heroic. . . . Then the goddess disappears, and the city returns to darkness. Her photograph, to be sure, is on the mantelpiece; and at the end of every week the Stage arrives with an account of her appearance at Liverpool or Bradford, or wherever she had arrived in her provincial tour. Only those who have loved can know the happiness to be found in reading the provincial notes in a stage newspaper. There is a disinterested leap of the heart at sight of the words: “Cora Bandini brought the house down with her song ‘There was once a merry monkey,’ ” or “Cora Bandini, with her clever singing and dancing, established herself as a warm favourite,” or “A large audience encored Cora Bandini’s songs again and again.” When you can read sentences like that about anybody except yourself with rapture, believe me, you are in love. . .
The letter was posted, but it was never answered. It contained a poem of which any poet would no doubt be ashamed, and an offer not only of devotion, but of help, should she ever need it. Not that there would have been any use in her sending for help in money (for there was no money) or for the help of a strong right arm (for there was no strong right arm). But help was offered, just plain, vague, honest help in whatever part of the world she happened to be when she needed it. Perhaps the offer was too vague to be thought worth acknowledging. But that was not the reason why love dwindled. It simply and mysteriously dwindled. It lasted, I suppose, for a year, but at the end of about a year the Stage lost one of its most ardent and assiduous subscribers.