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C.D. Warner, et al., comp.  The Library of the World’s Best Literature.
An Anthology in Thirty Volumes.  1917.
 
In the Green-Room
By Charles Reade (1814–1884)
 
From ‘Peg Woffington’

“MR. CIBBER, what do you understand by an actor? Tell me; for I am foolish enough to respect your opinion on these matters!”  1
  “An actor, young lady,” said he gravely, “is an artist who has gone deep enough in his art to make dunces, critics, and greenhorns take it for nature; moreover, he really personates, which your mere man of the stage never does. He has learned the true art of self-multiplication. He drops Betterton, Booth, Wilkes, or—a-hem—”  2
  “Cibber,” inserted Sir Charles Pomander. Cibber bowed.  3
  “—in his dressing-room, and comes out young or old, a fop, a valet, a lover, or a hero, with voice, mien, and every gesture to match. A grain less than this may be good speaking, fine preaching, deep grunting, high ranting, eloquent reciting; but I’ll be hanged if it is acting!”  4
  “Then Colley Cibber never acted,” whispered Quin to Mrs. Clive.  5
  “Then Margaret Woffington is an actress,” said M. W.: “the fine ladies take my Lady Betty for their sister; in Mrs. Day I pass for a woman of seventy; and in Sir Harry Wildair I have been taken for a man. I would have told you that before, but I didn’t know it was to my credit,” said she slyly, “till Mr. Cibber laid down the law.”  6
  “Proof!” said Cibber.  7
  “A warm letter from one lady, diamond buckles from another, and an offer of her hand and fortune from a third: rien que cela.”  8
  Mr. Cibber conveyed behind her back a look of absolute incredulity; she divined it.  9
  “I will not show you the letters,” continued she, “because Sir Harry, though a rake, was a gentleman: but here are the buckles;” and she fished them out of her pocket, capacious of such things. The buckles were gravely inspected: they made more than one eye water; they were undeniable.  10
  “Well, let us see what we can do for her,” said the Laureate. He tapped his box, and without a moment’s hesitation produced the most execrable distich in the language:—
  “Now who is like Peggy, with talent at will?
A maid loved her Harry, for want of a Bill.”
  11
  “Well, child,” continued he, after the applause which follows extemporary verses had subsided, “take me in. Play something to make me lose sight of saucy Peg Woffington, and I’ll give the world five acts more before the curtain falls on Colley Cibber.”  12
  “If you could be deceived,” put in Mr. Vane, somewhat timidly. “I think there is no disguise through which grace and beauty such as Mrs. Woffington’s would not shine, to my eyes.”  13
  “That is to praise my person at the expense of my wit, sir, is it not?” was her reply.  14
  This was the first word she had ever addressed to him; the tones appeared so sweet to him that he could not find anything to reply for listening to them; and Cibber resumed:—  15
  “Meantime I will show you a real actress: she is coming here to-night to meet me. Did ever you children hear of Ann Bracegirdle?”  16
  “Bracegirdle!” said Mrs. Clive: “why, she has been dead this thirty years; at least I thought so.”  17
  “Dead to the stage. There is more heat in her ashes than in your fire, Kate Clive! Ah! here comes her messenger,” continued he, as an ancient man appeared with a letter in his hand. This letter Mrs. Woffington snatched and read, and at the same instant in bounced the call-boy. “Epilogue called,” said this urchin, in the tone of command which these small-fry of Parnassus adopt; and obedient to his high behest, Mrs. Woffington moved to the door with the Bracegirdle missive in her hand, but not before she had delivered its general contents: “The great actress will be here in a few minutes,” said she; and she glided swiftly out of the room.  18
  People whose mind or manners possess any feature, and are not as devoid of all eccentricity as half-pounds of butter bought of metropolitan grocers, are recommended not to leave a roomful of their acquaintances until the last but one. Yes, they should always be penultimate. Perhaps Mrs. Woffington knew this; but epilogues are stubborn things, and call-boys undeniable.  19
  “Did you ever hear a woman whistle before?”  20
  “Never; but I saw one sit astride of an ass in Germany!”  21
  “The saddle was not on her husband, I hope, madam?”  22
  “No, sir: the husband walked by his kinsfolk’s side, and made the best of a bad bargain, as Peggy’s husband will have to.”  23
  “Wait till some one ventures on the gay Lothario,—illi æs triplex; that means he must have triple brass, Kitty.”  24
  “I deny that, sir; since his wife will always have enough for both.”  25
  “I have not observed the lady’s brass,” said Vane, trembling with passion; “but I observed her talent, and I noticed that whoever attacks her to her face comes badly off.”  26
  “Well said, sir,” answered Quin; “and I wish Kitty here would tell us why she hates Mrs. Woffington, the best-natured woman in the theatre?”  27
  “I don’t hate her,—I don’t trouble my head about her.”  28
  “Yes, you hate her; for you never miss a cut at her, never!”  29
  “Do you hate a haunch of venison, Quin?” said the lady.  30
  “No! you little unnatural monster,” replied Quin.  31
  “For all that, you never miss a cut at one, so hold your tongue!”  32
  “Le beau raisonnement!” said Mr. Cibber. “James Quin, don’t interfere with nature’s laws: let our ladies hate one another,—it eases their minds; try to make them Christians and you will not convert their tempers, but spoil your own. Peggy there hates George Anne Bellamy because she has gaudy silk dresses from Paris, by paying for them as she could, if not too stingy. Kitty here hates Peggy because Rich has breeched her, whereas Kitty, who now sets up for a prude, wanted to put delicacy off and small-clothes on in Peg’s stead; that is where the Kate and Peg shoe pinches,—near the femoral artery, James.  33
  “Shrimps have the souls of shrimps,” resumed this censor castigatorque minorum. “Listen to me, and learn that really great actors are great in soul, and do not blubber like a great schoolgirl because Anne Bellamy has two yellow-silk dresses from Paris, as I saw Woffington blubber in this room, and would not be comforted; nor fume like Kitty Clive, because Woffington has a pair of breeches and a little boy’s rapier to go a-playing at acting with. When I was young, two giantesses fought for empire upon this very stage, where now dwarfs crack and bounce like parched peas. They played Roxana and Statira in the ‘Rival Queens.’ Rival queens of art themselves, they put out all their strength. In the middle of the last act the town gave judgment in favor of Statira. What did Roxana? Did she spill grease on Statira’s robe, as Peg Woffington would? or stab her, as I believe Kitty here capable of doing? No! Statira was never so tenderly killed as that night: she owned this to me. Roxana bade the theatre farewell that night, and wrote to Statira thus—I give you word for word: ‘Madam, the best judge we have has decided in your favor. I shall never play second on a stage where I have been first so long, but I shall often be a spectator; and methinks none will appreciate your talent more than I, who have felt its weight. My wardrobe, one of the best in Europe, is of no use to me: if you will honor me by selecting a few of my dresses you will gratify me, and I shall fancy I see myself upon the stage to greater advantage than before.’”  34
  “And what did Statira answer, sir?” said Mr. Vane eagerly.  35
  “She answered thus: ‘Madam, the town has often been wrong, and may have been so last night, in supposing that I vied successfully with your merit; but thus much is certain,—and here, madam, I am the best judge,—that off the stage you have just conquered me. I shall wear with pride any dress you have honored, and shall feel inspired to great exertions by your presence among our spectators, unless indeed the sense of your magnanimity and the recollection of your talent should damp me by the dread of losing any portion of your good opinion.’”  36
  “What a couple of stiff old things!” said Mrs. Clive.  37
  “Nay, madam, say not so,” cried Vane warmly: “surely this was the lofty courtesy of two great minds, not to be overbalanced by strife, defeat, or victory.”  38
  “What were their names, sir?”  39
  “Statira was the great Mrs. Oldfield. Roxana you will see here to-night.”  40
  This caused a sensation.  41
  Colley’s reminiscences were interrupted by loud applause from the theatre: the present seldom gives the past a long hearing.  42
  The old war-horse cocked his ears.  43
  “It is Woffington speaking the epilogue,” said Quin.  44
  “Oh! she has got the length of their foot, somehow,” said a small actress.  45
  “And the breadth of their hands, too,” said Pomander, waking from a nap.  46
  “It is the depth of their hearts she has sounded,” said Vane.  47
  In those days, if a metaphor started up, the poor thing was coursed up hill and down dale, and torn limb from jacket; even in Parliament, a trope was sometimes hunted from one session into another.  48
  “You were asking me about Mrs. Oldfield, sir,” resumed Cibber rather peevishly. “I will own to you, I lack words to convey a just idea of her double and complete supremacy. But the comedians of this day are weak-strained farceurs compared with her, and her tragic tone was thunder set to music.  49
  “I saw a brigadier-general cry like a child at her ‘Indiana.’ I have seen her crying with pain herself at the wing (for she was always a great sufferer): I have seen her then spring upon the stage as Lady Townley, and in a moment sorrow brightened into joy; the air seemed to fill with singing-birds, that chirped the pleasures of fashion, love, and youth, in notes sparkling like diamonds, and stars, and prisms. She was above criticism,—out of its scope, as is the blue sky; men went not to judge her,—they drank her, and gazed at her, and were warmed at her, and refreshed by her. The fops were awed into silence; and with their humbler betters thanked Heaven for her, if they thanked it for anything.  50
  “In all the crowded theatre, care and pain and poverty were banished from the memory whilst Oldfield’s face spoke and her tongue flashed melodies; the lawyer forgot his quillets; the polemic, the mote in his brother’s eye; the old maid, her grudge against the two sexes; the old man, his gray hairs and his lost hours. And can it be that all this, which should have been immortal, is quite, quite lost, is as though it had never been?” he sighed. “Can it be that its fame is now sustained by me? who twang with my poor lute, cracked and old, these feeble praises of a broken lyre—
  “‘Whose wires were golden, and its heavenly air
More tunable than lark to shepherd’s ear,
When wheat is green, when hawthorn buds appear.’”
  51
  He paused, and his eye looked back over many years; then with a very different tone he added:—  52
  “And that Jack Falstaff there must have seen her, now I think on’t.”  53
  “Only once, sir,” said Quin; “and I was but ten years old.”  54
  “He saw her once, and he was ten years old; yet he calls Woffington a great comedian, and my son The’s wife, with her hatchet face, the greatest tragedian he ever saw! Jemmy, what an ass you must be!”  55
  “Mrs. Cibber always makes me cry, and t’other always makes me laugh,” said Quin stoutly: “that’s why.”  56
  Ce beau raisonnement met no answer but a look of sovereign contempt.  57
  A very trifling incident saved the ladies of the British stage from further criticism. There were two candles in this room, one on each side; the call-boy had entered, and poking about for something, knocked down and broke one of these.  58
  “Awkward imp!” cried a velvet page.  59
  “I’ll go to the Treasury for another, ma’am,” said the boy pertly, and vanished with the fractured wax.  60
  I take advantage of the interruption to open Mr. Vane’s mind to the reader. First he had been astonished at the freedom of sarcasm these people indulged in without quarreling; next at the non-respect of sex.  61
  “So sex is not recognized in this community,” thought he. Then the glibness and merit of some of their answers surprised and amused him. He, like me, had seldom met an imaginative repartee except in a play or a book. “Society’s” repartees were then, as they are now, the good old three in various dresses and veils: Tu quoque, tu mentiris, vos damnemini; but he was sick and dispirited on the whole, such very bright illusions had been dimmed in these few minutes.  62
  She was brilliant: but her manners, if not masculine, were very daring; and yet when she spoke to him, a stranger, how sweet and gentle her voice was! Then it was clear nothing but his ignorance could have placed her at the summit of her art.  63
  Still he clung to his enthusiasm for her. He drew Pomander aside. “What a simplicity there is in Mrs. Woffington!” said he: “the rest, male and female, are all so affected; she is so fresh and natural. They are all hot-house plants; she is a cowslip with the May dew on it.”  64
  “What you take for simplicity is her refined art,” replied Sir Charles.  65
  “No!” said Vane: “I never saw a more innocent creature!”  66
  Pomander laughed in his face: this laugh disconcerted him more than words; he spoke no more—he sat pensive. He was sorry he had come to this place, where everybody knew his goddess, yet nobody admired, nobody loved, and alas! nobody respected her.  67
  He was roused from his reverie by a noise; the noise was caused by Cibber falling on Garrick, whom Pomander had maliciously quoted against all the tragedians of Colley Cibber’s day.  68
  “I tell you,” cried the veteran, “that this Garrick has banished dignity from the stage, and given us in exchange what you and he take for fire; but it is smoke and vapor. His manner is little; like his person, it is all fuss and bustle. This is his idea of a tragic scene: A little fellow comes bustling in, goes bustling about, and runs bustling out.” Here Mr. Cibber left the room to give greater effect to his description, but presently returned in a mighty pother, saying: “‘Give me another horse! Well, where’s the horse? don’t you see I’m waiting for him? Bind up my wounds! Look sharp now with these wounds. Have mercy, Heaven! but be quick about it, for the pit can’t wait for Heaven.’ Bustle! bustle! bustle!”  69
  The old dog was so irresistibly funny that the whole company were obliged to laugh; but in the midst of their merriment Mrs. Woffington’s voice was heard at the door.  70
  “This way, madam.”  71
  A clear and somewhat shrill voice replied, “I know the way better than you, child;” and a stately old lady appeared on the threshold.  72
  “Bracegirdle,” said Mr. Cibber.  73
  It may well be supposed that every eye was turned on this new-comer,—that Roxana for whom Mr. Cibber’s story had prepared a peculiar interest. She was dressed in a rich green-velvet gown with gold fringe. Cibber remembered it: she had played the ‘Eastern Queen’ in it. Heaven forgive all concerned! It was fearfully pinched in at the waist and ribs, so as to give the idea of wood inside, not woman.  74
  Her hair and eyebrows were iron-gray, and she had lost a front tooth, or she would still have been eminently handsome. She was tall and straight as a dart, and her noble port betrayed none of the weakness of age; only it was to be seen that her hands were a little weak, and the gold-headed crutch struck the ground rather sharply, as if it did a little limbs’-duty.  75
  Such was the lady who marched into the middle of the room, with a “How do, Colley?” and looking over the company’s heads as if she did not see them, regarded the four walls with some interest. Like a cat, she seemed to think more of places than of folk. The page obsequiously offered her a chair.  76
  “Not so clean as it used to be,” said Mrs. Bracegirdle.  77
  Unfortunately, in making this remark, the old lady graciously patted the page’s head for offering her the chair; and this action gave, with some of the ill-constituted minds that are ever on the titter, a ridiculous direction to a remark intended, I believe, for the paint and wainscots, etc.  78
  “Nothing is as it used to be,” remarked Mr. Cibber.  79
  “All the better for everything,” said Mrs. Clive.  80
  “We were laughing at this mighty little David, first actor of this mighty little age.”  81
  Now if Mr. Cibber thought to find in the new-comer an ally of the past in its indiscriminate attack upon the present, he was much mistaken; for the old actress made onslaught on this nonsense at once.  82
  “Ay, ay,” said she, “and not the first time by many hundreds. ’Tis a disease you have. Cure yourself, Colley. David Garrick pleases the public; and in trifles like acting, that take nobody to heaven, to please all the world is to be great. Some pretend to higher aims, but none have ’em. You may hide this from young fools, mayhap, but not from an old ’oman like me. He! he! he! No, no, no,—not from an old ’oman like me.”  83
  She then turned round in her chair, and with that sudden, unaccountable snappishness of tone to which the brisk old are subject, she snarled: “Gie me a pinch of snuff, some of ye, do.”  84
  Tobacco dust was instantly at her disposal. She took it with the points of her fingers, delicately, and divested the crime of half its uncleanness and vulgarity—more an angel couldn’t.  85
  “Monstrous sensible woman, though,” whispered Quin to Clive.  86
  “Hey, sir! what do you say, sir? for I’m a little deaf.” (Not very to praise, it seems.)  87
  “That your judgment, madam, is equal to the reputation of your talent.”  88
  The words were hardly spoken, before the old lady rose upright as a tower. She then made an oblique preliminary sweep, and came down with such a curtsy as the young had never seen.  89
  James Quin, not to disgrace his generation, attempted a corresponding bow, for which his figure and apoplectic tendency rendered him unfit; and whilst he was transacting it, the graceful Cibber stepped gravely up, and looked down and up the process with his glass, like a naturalist inspecting some strange capriccio of an orang-outang. The gymnastics of courtesy ended without back-falls, Cibber lowered his tone:—  90
  “You are right, Bracy,—it is nonsense denying the young fellow’s talent; but his Othello, now, Bracy! be just—his Othello!”  91
  “Oh dear! oh dear!” cried she: “I thought it was Desdemona’s little black boy come in without the tea-kettle.”  92
  Quin laughed uproariously.  93
  “It made me laugh a deal more than Mr. Quin’s Falstaff. Oh dear! oh dear!”  94
  “Falstaff, indeed! Snuff!” in the tone of a trumpet.  95
  Quin secretly revoked his good opinion of this woman’s sense.  96
  “Madam,” said the page timidly, “if you would but favor us with a specimen of the old style!”  97
  “Well, child, why not? Only what makes you mumble like that? But they all do it now, I see. Bless my soul! our words used to come out like brandy-cherries; but now a sentence is like raspberry jam, on the stage and off.”  98
  Cibber chuckled.  99
  “And why don’t you men carry yourself like Cibber here?”  100
  “Don’t press that question,” said Colley dryly.  101
  “A monstrous poor actor, though,” said the merciless old woman, in a mock aside to the others,—“only twenty shillings a week for half his life;” and her shoulders went up to her ears—then she fell into a half-revery. “Yes, we were distinct,” said she; “but I must own, children, we were slow. Once in the midst of a beautiful tirade my lover went to sleep and fell against me. A mighty pretty epigram, twenty lines, was writ on’t by one of my gallants. Have ye as many of them as we used?”  102
  “In that respect,” said the page, “we are not behind our great-grandmothers.”  103
  “I call that pert,” said Mrs. Bracegirdle, with the air of one drawing scientific distinctions. “Now, is that a boy or a lady that spoke to me last?”  104
  “By its dress, I should say a boy,” said Cibber, with his glass; “by its assurance, a lady!”  105
  “There’s one clever woman amongst ye: Peg something, plays Lothario, Lady Betty Modish, and what not.”  106
  “What! admire Woffington?” screamed Mrs. Clive: “why, she is the greatest gabbler on the stage.”  107
  “I don’t care,” was the reply: “there’s nature about the jade. Don’t contradict me,” added she with sudden fury: “a parcel of children!”  108
  “No, madam,” said Clive humbly. “Mr. Cibber, will you try and prevail on Mrs. Bracegirdle to favor us with a recitation?”  109
  Cibber handed his cane with pomp to a small actor. Bracegirdle did the same; and striking the attitudes that had passed for heroic in their day, they declaimed out of the ‘Rival Queens’ two or three tirades, which I graciously spare the reader of this tale. Their elocution was neat and silvery; but not one bit like the way people speak in streets, palaces, fields, roads, and rooms. They had not made the grand discovery, which Mr. A. Wigan on the stage, and every man of sense off it, has made in our day and nation: namely, that the stage is a representation not of stage, but of life; and that an actor ought to speak and act in imitation of human beings, not of speaking machines that have run and creaked in a stage groove, with their eyes shut upon the world at large, upon nature, upon truth, upon man, upon woman, and upon child.  110
  “This is slow!” cried Cibber: “let us show these young people how ladies and gentlemen moved fifty years ago; dansons.”  111
  A fiddler was caught, a beautiful slow minuet played, and a bit of “solemn dancing” done. Certainly it was not gay, but it must be owned it was beautiful; it was the dance of kings, the poetry of the courtly saloon.  112
  The retired actress, however, had friskier notions left in her: “This is slow!” cried she, and bade the fiddler play ‘The Wind that Shakes the Barley,’—an ancient jig tune; this she danced to in a style that utterly astounded the spectators.  113
  She showed them what fun was: her feet and her stick were all echoes to the mad strain; out went her heel behind, and returning, drove her four yards forward. She made unaccountable slants, and cut them all over in turn if they did not jump for it. Roars of inextinguishable laughter arose; it would have made an oyster merry. Suddenly she stopped, and put her hands to her side, and soon after she gave a vehement cry of pain.  114
  The laughter ceased.  115
  She gave another cry of such agony that they were all round her in a moment.  116
  “Oh! help me, ladies,” screamed the poor woman, in tones as feminine as they were heart-rending and piteous. “Oh, my back! my loins! I suffer, gentlemen,” said the poor thing, faintly.  117
  What was to be done? Mr. Vane offered his penknife to cut her laces.  118
  “You shall cut my head off sooner,” cried she with sudden energy. Don’t pity me,” said she sadly, “I don’t deserve it;” then lifting her eyes, she exclaimed with a sad air of self-reproach, “O vanity! do you never leave a woman?”  119
  “Nay, madam!” whimpered the page, who was a good-hearted girl: “’twas your great complaisance for us, not vanity. Oh! oh! oh!” and she began to blubber to make matters better.  120
  “No, my children,” said the old lady, “’twas vanity. I wanted to show you what an old ’oman could do; and I have humiliated myself, trying to outshine younger folk. I am justly humiliated, as you see;” and she began to cry a little.  121
  “This is very painful,” said Cibber.  122
  Mrs. Bracegirdle now raised her eyes (they had set her in a chair), and looking sweetly, tenderly, and earnestly on her old companion, she said to him, slowly, gently, but impressively:—  123
  “Colley, at threescore years and ten, this was ill done of us! You and I are here now—for what? to cheer the young up the hill we mounted years ago. And, old friend, if we detract from them we discourage them. A great sin in the old! Every dog his day. We have had ours.” Here she smiled, then laying her hand tenderly in the old man’s, she added with calm solemnity: “And now we must go quietly towards our rest, and strut and fret no more the few last minutes of life’s fleeting hour.”  124
  How tame my cacotype of these words compared with what they were! I am ashamed of them and myself, and the human craft of writing, which, though commoner far, is so miserably behind the godlike art of speech: Si ipsam audivisses!  125
  These ink scratches, which in the imperfection of language we have called words till the unthinking actually dream they are words, but which are the shadows of the corpses of words,—these word-shadows then were living powers on her lips, and subdued, as eloquence always does, every heart within reach of the imperial tongue.  126
  The young loved her: and the old man, softened and vanquished, and mindful of his failing life, was silent, and pressed his handkerchief to his eyes a moment; then he said:—  127
  “No, Bracy—no. Be composed, I pray you. She is right. Young people, forgive me that I love the dead too well, and the days when I was what you are now. Drat the woman,” continued he, half ashamed of his emotion: “she makes us laugh and makes us cry, just as she used.”  128
  “What does he say, young woman?” said the old lady dryly, to Mrs. Clive.  129
  “He says you make us laugh, and make us cry, madam; and so you do me, I’m sure.”  130
  “And that’s Peg Woffington’s notion of an actress! Better it, Cibber and Bracegirdle, if you can,” said the other, rising up like lightning.  131
  She then threw Colley Cibber a note, and walked coolly and rapidly out of the room, without looking once behind her.  132
  The rest stood transfixed, looking at one another and at the empty chair. Then Cibber opened and read the note aloud. It was from Mrs. Bracegirdle: “Playing at tric-trac; so can’t play the fool in your green-room to-night.—B.”  133
  On this, a musical ringing laugh was heard from outside the door, where the pseudo-Bracegirdle was washing the gray from her hair and the wrinkles from her face,—ah! I wish I could do it as easily!—and the little bit of sticking-plaster from her front tooth.  134
  “Why, it is the Irish jade!” roared Cibber.  135
  “Divil a less!” rang back a rich brogue; “and it’s not the furst time we put the comether upon ye, England, my jewal!”  136
  One more mutual glance, and then the mortal cleverness of all this began to dawn on their minds: and they broke forth into clapping of hands, and gave this accomplished mime three rounds of applause; Mr. Vane and Sir Charles Pomander leading with “Brava, Woffington!”  137
 
 
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