A theatrical memory


This article was originally published in Theatre Magazine, Vol. 31, No. 5. Avery Hopwood. New York: Theatre Magazine Company, 1920. p. 368.

IT is winter, in the early Nineteen Hundred and Something. I am an undergraduate at Ann Arbor. The coming of Mrs. Fiske is announced, in Ibsen's "Hedda Gabler." The collegiate proletariat are unmoved. The collegiate intelligentsia are wildly excited.

The great night arrives. The theatre -- to the shame of Ann Arbor -- is only partly filled. There is much munching of peanuts -- the audience, apparently, feeling the need of physical as well as of intellectual nourishment.

The first act transpires. Mrs. Fiske is superb. The audience, for the most part vaguely uncomprehensive, goes on munching its peanuts. The husks fall to the floor -- are scrunched by restless feet. I am in the fifth row, with four other Ibsenian addicts. The munching and the scrunching of the peanuts annoy us. We do not realize it, but it annoys some one else, who is much more important.

The second act develops. Mrs. Fiske, seated at a small table, is having her long scene with Judge Brack. The munching and scrunching of peanuts continues. Suddenly Mrs. Fiske murmurs to her dramatic colleague across the table -- "I can't stand this!" I am startled. I know the published version of "Hedda Gabler" from cover to cover. I cannot recall that the line which Mrs. Fiske has just spoken is in my copy of the Ibsen masterpiece. The actor playing Judge Brack looks suddenly worried, but the scene continues. Not, however, for more than a minute. Then, abruptly, Mrs. Fiske turns away from Judge Brack and addresses the audience.

"Ladies and gentlemen -- there is so much noise that I cannot possibly continue!" And then, turning to the wings: "Ring down the curtain!"

The curtain falls. The audience, for a moment, is startled into complete silence. The proletariat are benumbed -- the intelligentsia applaud. A pause, then the Leading Man, looking rather pallid, comes before the curtain.

"Ladies and gentlemen -- Mrs. Fiske cannot give a satisfactory performance of so difficult a rôle, amid the munching and scrunching of peanuts. If you will be kind enough to assist her by refraining from unnecessary noise, she will be glad to continue."

More applause. The performance is resumed -- not, however, from the point where the interruption took place, but from the beginning of the second act. There is no more munching of peanuts -- but the husks are on the floor, and there is an occasional, inevitable scrunch. Whenever this occurs, there runs through the house a vociferous "Shoosh!" Every one of these "Shooshes" make more noise than did all the disturbing peanuts. Perhaps the audience realizes this -- perhaps, with collegiate humor, they "shoosh" more than is absolutely necessary. Mrs. Fiske, possibly, is conscious of this. There is, at moments, the suspicion of a smile in her eyes. But only at moments. And then, as the play develops, peanuts and "shooshes" alike subside. The greatest actress on the English speaking stage proceeds, triumphantly, in one of her greatest performances. She has the audience in the hollow of her hand. With increasingly dazzling virtuosity, she sweeps on, brilliantly, relentlessly, to the tormented, tragic climax.

The curtain falls. We, who sat in the fifth row, wait outside the theatre for one of our members, the editor of the college magazine. He has gone back stage to ask Mrs. Fiske for a brief interview. We wait five minutes -- ten -- fifteen -- then he emerges. His eyes are glowing -- his whole face illuminated. We ply him with questions. He tries, breathlessly, to give us the gist of his interview. And then, as a climax, he breaks out: "When I was going, she put her hand on my shoulder and wished me good luck!" "Which shoulder?" we demand. He indicates the consecrated shoulder. We pay it reverence. And then, under the clear, star-hung Winter's night, we troop garrulously homeward. Ah -- yes -- the stars above are very bright -- but we have seen a brighter!

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