My Unknown Chum Part 12

My Unknown Chum -

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Yet what a shadowy, intangible thing the reputation of a great actor would seem to be! We simply know of him that in certain characters his genius held the crowded theatre in willing thraldom, and made the hearts of hundreds of spectators throb like that of one man. Those who felt his wondrous power have pa.s.sed away like himself; and all that remains of him who once filled so large a s.p.a.ce in the public eye is an ill-written biography or a few hastily penned sentences in an encyclopdia.

I was too full of wonder at the extent of that vast stage, however, to think much of its ancient a.s.sociations. Those lumbering stacks of scenery that filled a large building at the rear of the stage, and ran over into every available corner, told the story of the scenic efforts of Old Drury during nearly half a century. How many dramas, produced "without the slightest regard to expense," and "on a scale of unparalleled splendour," must have contributed to the building up of those mighty piles! The labyrinthine pa.s.sages, the rough brick walls, darkened by time and the un-Penelope-like spiders of Drury Lane, were in striking contrast to the stage of that theatre as it appears from the auditorium. The green-room had been placed in mourning for the "goodlie companie" that once filled it, by the all-pervading, omnipresent smoke of London. Up stairs the sight was still more wonderful. The s.p.a.ce above the stage was crowded full of draperies, and borders, and dusty ropes, and wheels, and pulleys. Davenport enjoyed my amazement, and led me through a darksome, foot-wide pa.s.sage above the stage, through that wilderness of cordage to the machinists gallery. Take all the rope-walks that you have ever visited, dear reader, and add to them the running gear of several first-cla.s.s s.h.i.+ps, and you may obtain something of an idea of the sight that then met my view. I have often heard an impatient audience hiss at some trifling delay in the s.h.i.+fting of a scene. If they could see the complicated machinery which must be set in motion to produce the effects they desire, their impatience would be changed to wonder at the skill and care which are so constantly exerted and make so few mistakes. A glance into two or three of the dressing-rooms, and a hasty visit to the dark maze of machinery beneath the stage for working the trapdoors, completed my survey of Old Drury, and I left its ancient walls with an increased respect for them, and a feeling of self-gratulation that I was neither an actor nor a manager.

Not long after the above visit, I availed myself of an opportunity to make a similar inspection of the _Thtre Franais_, in the Palais Royal at Paris. The old establishment is not so extensive as that of Drury Lane, but its main features are the same. There was an air of government patronage about it which was apparent in its every department. The stage entrance was through a long and well-lighted corridor that might have led to a banking-house. Its green-room was a luxurious saloon, with a floor of tessellated walnut and oak, waxed and polished so highly that you could see your figure in it, and could with difficulty avoid becoming a lay figure upon it. Its frescoed ceiling and gilded cornices, its immense mirrors, and its walls covered with the portraits of several generations of players, whose genius has made the very name of that theatre venerable throughout the civilized world, were very different from most of the green-rooms that I had seen. In the ancient colleges in Italy the walls of the cla.s.srooms are hung with portraits of the distinguished scholars, ill.u.s.trious prelates, and sometimes of the canonized saints, who once studied under their time-honoured roofs. In the same spirit, the green-room of the _Thtre Franais_ is adorned with busts and pictures; and the chairs that once were occupied by a Talma, a Mars, and a Rachel are held in honour in the place where their genius received its full development. The dressing-rooms of the brilliant company which sustains the high reputation of that house are in perfect keeping with its green-room. Each of the leading actors and actresses has a double room, furnished in a style of comfortable elegance. In the wardrobe and property rooms, the imperial patronage is visible in the richness of the stage furniture and the profusion of dresses made of the costliest silks and velvets. The stage, however, is very much like that of any other theatre. There were the same obscure pa.s.sages, the same stupendous collection of intricate machinery, and the same mysterious odour, as of gas and musty scenery, pervaded the whole.

I was permitted to view all its arcana, from the wheels that revolve in dusty silence eighty or ninety feet above the stage to the ponderous balance weights that dwell in the darkness of the second and third stories below it; and enjoyed it so keenly that I regretted to be told that I had seen all, and to find myself once more in the dazzling suns.h.i.+ne of the Rue de Richelieu.

We are accustomed to speak of the theatre as a repository of shams and unrealities, and to contrast it with the actualities of every-day life.

I hope that you will excuse me, gentle reader, for venturing to deny the justice of all such figures of speech. They are as false as that common use of the expressions "sunrise" and "sunset," when we know that the sun does not really rise or set at all. No, it is the theatre that is the reality, and the life we see on every side the sham. The theatre is all that it pretends to bea scenic illusion; and if we compare it to the world around us, with its loving couples, my-dearing each other before folks, and exchanging angry words over the solitary tea-tray,its politicians, seeking nominations and votes, and then reluctantly giving up their private interests and comforts for the "public good," (as the spoils of office are facetiously termed,)its so-called ministers of the gospel, who speak of an offer of increased salary as "an opportunity to labour in a wider sphere of usefulness,"and its funerals, where there is such an imposing show of black and bombazine, but where the genuine mourning commences only after the reading of the will of the deceased,I am sure that we shall be justified in concluding that the fict.i.tious affair which we try to dignify with the t.i.tle of "real life"

is a far less respectable illusion than the mimic scene that captivates us in the hours of relaxation.


Be not dismayed, kind reader,I have no intention of impressing you for a tiresome cruise in the high and dangerous lat.i.tudes of German metaphysics; nor do I wish to set myself up as a critic of pure reason.

In spite of Noah Webster and his inquisitorial publishers, I still cherish a partiality for correct orthography; and I would not be understood as referring in the caption of this article to the celebrated founder of the transcendental school of philosophy. I cannot but respect Emmanuel Kant as a remarkable intellectual man; and I hope to be pardoned for saying that his surname might properly be anglicized, by spelling it with a C instead of a K. Neither did I allude to the useful art of saying "No" opportunely, which an excellent friend of mine (whose numerous virtues are neutralized by his propensity to fabricate puns in season and out of season) insists upon denominating the "philosophy of cant." That faculty which is, in more senses than one, a negative virtue, is unhappily a much harder thing to find than the vice of which I have a few words to say.

I do not mean cant in the worse sense of the word, as exemplified in the characters of Pecksniff, Stiggins, Chadband, and Aminadab Sleek, nor even in those of that large school of wors.h.i.+ppers of propriety and bond-servants of popular opinion, who reverse the crowning glory of the character of Porcius Cato, and prefer to seem, rather than to be, good.

The cant I allude to is the technical phraseology of the various virtues, which some people appear to think is the same thing as virtue itself. They do not remember that a greasy bank-note is valueless save as the representative of a given quant.i.ty of bullion, and that pious and virtuous language is of no account except its full value be found in the pure gold of virtue stored away in the treasure-chambers of the heart.

For such cant as this I have less respect than for downright hypocrisy; for there is something positive about the character of your genuine villain, which certainly does not repel me so strongly as the milk-and-watery characteristics of that numerous cla.s.s of every-day people who (not being good enough to serve as examples, nor bad enough to be held up as warnings) are of no use whatever in their day and generation. What possible solace can he who deals in the set phrases of consolation administer to the afflicted spirit in that hour, when (even among the closest friends) "speech is silver, but silence is golden"?

There is scarcely a subject upon which men converse, in which this species of cant does not play its part; but there are some matters in which it makes itself so conspicuous that I cannot resist the temptation to pay particular attention to them. And, as the subject is rather an extensive one, I will parley no longer in its vestibule, but pull off my overcoat, and make myself at home in its front parlour. I wish to make a few observations on cant as it manifests itself in regard to morality, philanthropy, religion, liberty, and progress. My notions will excite the sneers of some of my younger readers, I doubt not, and perchance of some older ones; but, while I claim the privilege of age in speaking out my mind, I shall try to avoid the testiness which senility too often manifests towards those who do not respect its opinions. Convinced that mine are true, I can afford to emulate "Messire de Mauprat" in his patience, and wait to see my fellow-men pa.s.s their fortieth birthday, and, leaving their folly and enthusiasm behind them, come round to my position.

The cant of Morality is so common that it is mistaken by many excellent people for morality itself. To leave unnoticed the people who consider it very iniquitous to go to the theatre, but perfectly allowable to laugh at Mr. Warren on the stage of the Museum; who enjoy backgammon, but shrink from whist with holy horror; and who hold up their hands and cry out against the innocent Sunday recreations of continental Europe, yet think themselves justified in reading their Sunday newspapers and the popular magazines, or talking of the style of the new bonnets which made their first appearance at the morning service,to say nothing about the moralists of this school, I am afraid that the prevailing notions on matters of greater import than mere amus.e.m.e.nt are not such as would stand a very severe moral test. When I see so much circ.u.mspection with regard to external propriety, joined with such an evident want of principle, it seems to me as if the Ten Commandments of the Old Law had been superseded by an eleventh: _Thou shalt not be found out_. When I see people of education in a city like Boston, dignifying l.u.s.t under the t.i.tle of a spiritual affinity, and characterizing divorce as obedience to the highest natural law,and still more, when I see how little surprise the enunciation of such doctrines occasions,I no longer wonder at infidelity, for I am myself tempted to ask whether there is any such thing as abstract right or abstract wrong, and to question whether morality may not be an antiquated inst.i.tution, which humanity is now sufficiently advanced to dispense with. It is a blessed thing that we have not the power to read one anothers hearts. To pa.s.s by the unhappiness it would cause us, what changes it would occasion in our moral cla.s.sifications! How many men, clad in picturesque and variegated costumes, are labouring in the public workshops of Charlestown, or Sing Sing, or Pentonville, who, if the heart were seen, would be found worthier by far than some of those ornaments of society who are always at the head of their pews, and whose names are found alike on false invoices and subscription lists for evangelizing some undiscovered continent! What a different balance would be struck between so-called respectability in its costly silks and its comparative immunity from actual temptation, and needy wantonness displaying its rouge and Attleborough jewelry all the more boldly because it feels that the ban of society is upon it!

And this brings me to the cant of Philanthropy. That excellent word has been so shamefully abused of late years, by being applied to the empirical schemes of adventurers and social disorganizers, that you cannot now say a much worse thing of a man than that he is a "philanthropist." That term ought to designate one of the n.o.blest representatives of the unselfish side of human nature; but to my mind, it describes a sallow, long-haired, whining fellow, who has taken up with the profession of loving all men in general, that he may better enjoy the satisfaction of hating all men in particular, and may the more effectually prey upon his immediate neighbours; a monomaniac, yet with sufficient "method in his madness" to make it pay a handsome profit; a knave whose telescopic vision magnifies the spiritual dest.i.tution of Tching-tou, and can see nothing wanting to complete our Christian civilization but a willingness to contribute to the "great and good work," and whose commissions for disbursing the funds are frightfully disproportionate to the amount collected and the work done. But there is a great deal of the cant of philanthropy pa.s.sing current even among those who have no respect for the professional philanthropist. With all possible regard for the spirit of the age, I do not believe that modern philanthropy can ever be made to take the place of old-fas.h.i.+oned Christian charity. Far be it from me to underrate the benevolent efforts which are made in this community; but I cannot help seeing that while thousands are spent in alms, we lack that blessed spirit of charity which imparted such a charm to the benevolent inst.i.tutions of the middle ages. They seemed to labour among the poor on the principle which Sir Thomas Browne laid down for his charities"I give no alms to satisfy the hunger of my brother, but to fulfil and accomplish the will and command of my G.o.d; I draw not my purse for his sake that demands it, but His that enjoined it." We irreverent moderns have tried to improve upon this, and the result is seen in legal enactments against mendicancy, in palatial prisons for criminals, and in poorhouses where the needy are obliged to a.s.sociate with the vicious and depraved. The "dark ages" (as the times which witnessed the foundation of the greatest universities, hospitals, and asylums the world ever saw, are sometimes called) were not dark enough for that.

Do what we may to remedy this defect in our solicitude for the suffering, the legal view of the matter will still predominate. We may imitate the kindliness of the ancient times, but we cannot disguise the fact that pauperism is regarded not only as a great social evil, but as an offence against our laws. While this is so, we shall labour in vain to catch the tone of the days when poverty was enn.o.bled by the virtues of the apostolic Francis of a.s.sisi and the heroic souls that relinquished wealth and power to share his humble lot. The voice of our philanthropy may be the voice of Jacob, but the hand will be the hand of Esau. That true gentleman and kind-hearted knight whom I have already quoted, had no patience with this contempt for poverty which was just growing into sight in his time, but is now so common; and he administered to it a rebuke which has lost none of its force by the lapse of more than two hundred years: "Statists that labour to contrive a commonwealth without poverty, take away the object of charity, not understanding only the commonwealth of a Christian, but forgetting the prophecy of Christ."

In making any allusion to religious cant, I am sensible that I tread on very dangerous ground. Still, in an essay on such a subject as the present, revivalism ought not to go unnoticed. G.o.d forbid that a man at my time of life should pen a light word against any thing that may draw men from their worldliness to a more intimate union with their Creator.

But the revival extravagances which last year made the profane laugh and the devout grieve, merit the deprecation of every person who does not wish to see religion itself brought into contempt. I do not believe in the application of the high-pressure system to the spiritual life. Some persons seem to regard a religious excitement as an evidence of a healthy spiritual state. As well might they consider a fever induced by previous irregularity to be a proof of returning bodily health. As the physician of the body would endeavour to restore the patient to his normal state, so too the true physician of the soul would labour to banish the religious fever from the mind of his patient, and to plant therein the sure principles of spiritual healtha clearly-defined dogmatic belief, and a deep conviction of the sinfulness of sin. We all need to be from time to time reminded that true religion is not a mere effervescence, not a vain blaze, but a reality which reflects something of the unchangeable glory of its divine Author. It is not a volcano, treasuring within its bosom a fierce, destructive element, sullenly smouldering and smoking for years, and making intermittent exhibitions of a power as terrible as it is sublime. No; it is rather a majestic and deep-flowing river, taking its rise amid lofty mountains whose snowy crags and peaks are pure from the defilement of our lower world, fed from heaven, bearing in its broad current beauty, and fertility, and refreshment, to regions which would else be sterile and joyless, and emptying at last into a sh.o.r.eless and untroubled sea, whose bright surface mirrors eternally the splendour of the skies.

That the cant of Liberty should be popular with the American tongue is not, perhaps, to be wondered at. A young nation,which has achieved its own independence in a contest with one of the most powerful governments in the world,which has grown in territory, population, and wealth beyond all historical precedent,and which has a new country for its field of action, so that its progress is unimpeded by the relics of ancient civilization or the ruins of dead empires,could not reasonably be expected to resist all temptations to self-glorification. The American eagle is no mere barnyard fowlcontent with a secure roost and what may be picked up within sight of the same. He is the most insatiable of birds. His fierce eye and bending beak look covetous, and his whole aspect is one of angry anxiety lest his prey should be s.n.a.t.c.hed from him, or his dominion should be called in question. In this regard he differs greatly from his French relative, who squats with such a conscious air of superiority on the tops of the regimental standard-poles of the imperial army, and surveys the forest of bayonets in which he makes his nest as if he felt that his power was undisputed.

And we Americans are not less uneasy and wild than the bird we have chosen for our national emblem, and appear to think that the essential part of liberty consists in keeping up an endless talk about it. Our cant of freedom needs to be reminded of Tom Hoods observation concerning religious cant:

"Tis not so plain as the old hill of Howth, A man has got his bellyful of meat, Because he talks with victuals in his mouth!"

With all our howling about liberty, we Americans are abject slaves to a theory of government which we feel bound to defend under all circ.u.mstances, and to propagate even in countries which are entirely unfitted for it. This const.i.tutional theory is a fine thing to talk about; few topics afford so wide a range to the imaginative powers of a young orator. It is not therefore to be wondered at, that the subject should be so often forced upon us, and that so many startling contrasts should be drawn between our governmental experiment and the thousand-years-old monarchies of Europe. These comparisons (which some people who make republicanism such an article of faith, that they must find it hard to repeat the clause of the Lords prayer, "Thy _kingdom_ come,"are so fond of drawing) remind me of the question that was discussed in the Milesian debating society"Which was the greatest man, St. Patrick or the Fourth of July?" and the conclusions drawn from them are very like the result of that momentous debate, which was decided in the affirmative.

For my own part, I have got past the age when eloquence and poetry are of much account in matters of such vital importance as government. When I buy a pair of overshoes, my first object is to get something that is water-proof. So, too, in the matter of government, I only wish to know whether the purposes for which government is inst.i.tutedthe protection of the life, property, and personal liberty of its subjectsare answered; and, if they are, I am ready to swear allegiance to it, not caring a splinter of a ballot-box whether it be founded on hereditary succession or a roll of parchment, or whether its executive authority be vested in a president, a king, or an emperor. That is the best government which is best administered; it makes little difference what you call it, or on what theory it is built. I love my country dearly, and yield to no one in my loyalty to her government and laws; but (pardon me for being so matter-of-fact, and seemingly unpatriotic) I would willingly part with some of this boasted liberty of ours, to secure a little more wisdom in making laws, and a good deal more strength in executing them. I count the privilege of talking politics and of choosing between the various political adventurers who aspire to be my rulers, as a very insignificant affair compared with a sense of security against popular violence and the dishonesty of dealers in the necessaries of life. And I cannot help thinking, that for the inhabitants of a country where there is little reverence for authority or willing obedience to law, where the better cla.s.s of the citizens refuse to take any part in politics, and where the legislative power is enthroned, not in the Senate, nor in the House of Representatives, but in the Lobby,for the inhabitants of such a country to boast of their liberty aloud, is the most absurd of all the cants in this canting world.

Little as I respect the cant of liberty, I care even less for the cant of Progress. I never had much patience with this wors.h.i.+p of the natural sciences, which is rapidly getting to be almost the only religion among certain cultivated people in this quarter. I remember in my boyhood startling by my scientific apathy a precocious companion who used to bother his brains about the solar system, and one useless ology and another, in the precious hours which ought to have been devoted to Robinson Crusoe and the Arabian Nights Entertainments. He had been labouring hard to explain to me the law of gravitation, and concluded with the bold statement that, were it not for that law, an apple, with which he had been ill.u.s.trating his theory, instead of falling to the earth, might roll off the unprotected side of this sublunary sphere into the abyss of s.p.a.ce,or something to that effect. He could not conceal his contempt for my want of scientific ardour, when I asked him whether he should really care if it did roll off, so long as there was a plenty left! I did wrong to joke him, for he was a good fellow, in spite of his weakness. It is many years since he figured himself out of this unsatisfactory world, into a state of existence where vision is clearer even than mathematical demonstration, and where _x_ does not "equal the unknown quant.i.ty."

Pardon this digression: in complaining of the vaunted progress of this rapid age, I am making little progress myself. It appears to me that the people who laud this age so highly either do not know what true progress is, or suffer themselves to mistake the means for the end. Your cotton mills, and steam engines, and clipper s.h.i.+ps, and electric telegraphs, do not const.i.tute progress; they are means by which it may be attained. If gunpowder, immediately after its invention, had been devoted to the indiscriminate destruction of mankind, could such an invention have justly been termed progress? If the press were used only to perpetuate the blasphemies and indecencies of Mazzini and Eugene Sue, who would esteem Gutenberg and Fust as benefactors, or promoters of true progress?

And if the increased facilities for travel, and the other inventions on which this age prides itself, only tend to make mens minds narrower by absorbing them in material interests, and their souls more mean by giving them the idol of prosperity to wors.h.i.+p, then is this nineteenth century a century of progress indeed, but in the wrong direction. And if our mode of education only augments the ratio of crime among the lower cla.s.s, and makes superficial pretenders of the higher orders of society, it is not a matter which will justify our setting ourselves quite so high above past ages and the rest of the world.

I cannot see what need nor what excuse there is for all this bragging. A great many strong men lived before Agamemnon,and after him. We indeed do some things that would astonish our forefathers; but how are we superior to them on that account? We enslave the lightnings of heaven to be our messengers, and compel the sun to take our portraits; but if our electric wires are prost.i.tuted to the chicanery of trade or politics, and the faces which the sun portrays are expressive of nothing n.o.bler than mercantile shrewdness and the price of cotton, the less we boast of our achievements, the better. Thucydides never had his works puffed in a newspaper, Virgil and Horace never poetized or lectured for a lyceum; Charlemagne never saw a locomotive, nor did St. Thomas Aquinas ever use a friction match. Yet this unexampled age possesses, I apprehend, few historians who would not shrink from being compared with the famous Greek annalist, few poets worthy to wear the crowns of the friends of the great Augustus, few rulers more sagacious and firm than the first Emperor of the West, and few scholars who would not consider it a privilege to be taught by the Angelic Doctor.

True progress is something superior to your puffing engines and clicking telegraphs, and independent of them. It is the advancement of humanity in the knowledge of its frailty and dependence; the elevation of the mind above its own limited acquirements, to the infinite source of knowledge; the cleansing of the heart of its selfishness and uncleanness; in fact, it is any thing whatever that tends to a.s.similate man more closely to the divine Exemplar of perfect manhood.


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