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Theatre – ii

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When the two men had gone she looked through the photographs again before putting them back.

“Not bad for a woman of forty-six,” she smiled. “They are like me, there’s no denying that.” She looked round the room for a mirror, but there wasn’t one. “These damned decorators. Poor Michael, no wonder he never uses this room. Of course I never have photographed well.”

She had an impulse to look at some of her old photographs. Michael was a tidy, business-like man, and her photographs were kept in large cardboard cases, dated and chronologically arranged. His were in other cardboard cases in the same cupboard.

“When someone comes along and wants to write the story of our careers he’ll find all the material ready to his hand,” he said.

With the same laudable object he had had all their press cuttings from the very beginning pasted in a series of large books.

There were photographs of Julia when she was a child, and photographs of her as a young girl, photographs of her in her first parts, photographs of her as a young married woman, with Michael, and then with Roger, her son, as a baby. There was one photograph of the three of them, Michael very manly and incredibly handsome, herself all tenderness looking down at Roger with maternal feeling, and Roger a little boy with a curly head, which had been an enormous success. All the illustrated papers had given it a full page and they had used it on the programmes. Reduced to picture-postcard size it had. sold in the provinces for years. It was such a bore that Roger when he got to Eton refused to be photographed with her any more. It seemed so funny of him not to want to be in the papers.

“People will think you’re deformed or something,” she told him. “And it’s not as if it weren’t good form. You should just go to a first night and see the society people how they mob the photographers, cabinet ministers and judges and everyone. They may pretend they don’t like it, but just see them posing when they think the camera-man’s got his eye on them.”

But he was obstinate.

Julia came across a photograph of herself as Beatrice. It was the only Shakespearean part she had ever played. She knew that she didn’t look well in costume; she could never understand why, because no one could wear modern clothes as well as she could. She had her clothes made in Paris, both for the stage and for private life, and the dressmakers said that no one brought them more orders. She had a lovely figure, everyone admitted that; she was fairly tall for a woman, and she had long legs. It was a pity she had never had a chance of playing Rosalind, she would have looked all right in boy’s clothes, of course it was too late now, but perhaps it was just as well she hadn’t risked it. Though you would have thought, with her brilliance, her roguishness, her sense of comedy she would have been perfect. The critics hadn’t really liked her Beatrice. It was that damned blank verse. Her voice, her rather low rich voice, with that effective-hoarseness, which wrung your heart in an emotional passage or gave so much humour to a comedy line, seemed to sound all wrong when she spoke it. And then her articulation; it was so distinct that, without raising her voice, she could make you hear her every word in the last row of the gallery; they said it made verse sound like prose. The fact was, she supposed, that she was much too modern.

Michael had started with Shakespeare. That was before she knew him. He had played Romeo at Cambridge, and when he came down, after a year at a dramatic school, Benson had engaged him. He toured the country and played a great variety of parts. But he realized that Shakespeare would get him nowhere and that if he wanted to become a leading actor he must gain experience in modem plays. A man called James Langton was running a repertory theatre at Middlepool that was attracting a good deal of attention; and after Michael had been with Benson for three years, when the company was going to Middlepool on its annual visit, he wrote to Langton and asked whether he would see him. Jimmie Langton, a fat, bald-headed, rubicund man of forty-five, who looked like one of Rubens’ prosperous burghers, had a passion for the theatre. He was an eccentric, arrogant, exuberant, vain and charming fellow. He loved acting, but his physique prevented him from playing any but a few parts, which was fortunate, for he was a bad actor. He could not subdue his natural flamboyance, and every part he played, though he studied it with care and gave it thought, he turned into a grotesque. He broadened every gesture, he exaggerated every intonation. But it was a very different matter when he rehearsed his cast; then he would suffer nothing artificial. His ear was perfect, and though he could not produce the right intonation himself he would never let a false one pass in anyone else.

“Don’t be natural,” he told his company. “The stage isn’t the place for that. The stage is make-believe. But seem natural.”

He worked his company hard. They rehearsed every morning from ten till two, when he sent them home to learn their parts and rest before the evening’s performance. He bullied them, he screamed at them, he mocked them. He underpaid them. But if they played a moving scene well he cried like a child, and when they said an amusing line as he wanted it said he bellowed with laughter. He would skip about the stage on one leg if he was pleased, and if he was angry would throw the script down and stamp on it while tears of rage ran down his cheeks. The company laughed at him and abused him and did everything they could to please him. He aroused a protective instinct in them, so that one and all they felt that they couldn’t let him down. Though they said he drove them like slaves, and they never had a moment to themselves, flesh and blood couldn’t stand it, it gave them a sort of horrible satisfaction to comply with his outrageous demands. When he wrung an old trooper’s hand, who was getting seven pounds a week, and said, by God, laddie, you’re stupendous, the old trooper felt like Charles Kean.

It happened that when Michael kept the appointment he had asked for, Jimmie Langton was in need of a leading juvenile. He had guessed why Michael wanted to see him, and had gone the night before to see him play. Michael was playing Mercutio and he had not thought him very good, but when he came into the office he was staggered by his beauty. In a brown coat and grey flannel trousers, even without make-up, he was so handsome it took your breath away. He had an easy manner and he talked like a gentleman. While Michael explained the purpose of his visit Jimmie Langton observed him shrewdly. If he could act at all, with those looks that young man ought to go far.

“I saw your Mercutio last night,” he said. “What d’you think of it yourself?”

“Rotten.”

“So do I. How old are you?”

“Twenty-five.”

“I suppose you’ve been told you’re good-looking?”

“That’s why I went on the stage. Otherwise I’d have gone into the army like my father.”

“By gum, if I had your looks what an actor I’d have been.”

The result of the interview was that Michael got an engagement. He stayed at Middlepool for two years. He soon grew popular with the company. He was good-humoured and kindly; he would take any amount of trouble to do anyone a service. His beauty created a sensation in Middlepool and the girls used to hang about the stage door to see him go out. They wrote him love letters and sent him flowers. He took it as a natural homage, but did not allow it to turn his head. He was eager to get on and seemed determined not to let any entanglement interfere with his career. It was his beauty that saved him, for Jimmie Langton quickly came to the conclusion that, notwithstanding his perseverance and desire to excel, he would never be more than a competent actor. His voice was a trifle thin and in moments of vehemence was apt to go shrill. It gave then more the effect of hysteria than of passion. But his gravest fault as a juvenile lead was that he could not make love. He was easy enough in ordinary dialogue and could say his lines with point, but when it came to making protestations of passion something seemed to hold him back. He felt embarrassed and looked it.

“Damn you, don’t hold that girl as if she was a sack of potatoes,” Jimmie Langton shouted at him. “You kiss her as if you were afraid you were standing in a draught. You’re in love with that girl. You must feel that you’re in love with her. Feel as if your bones were melting inside you and if an earthquake were going to swallow you up next minute, to hell with the earthquake.”

But it was no good. Notwithstanding his beauty, his grace and his ease of manner, Michael remained a cold lover. This did not prevent Julia from falling madly in love with him. For it was when he joined Langton’s repertory company that they met.

Her own career had been singularly lacking in hardship. She was born in Jersey, where her father, a native of that island, practised as a veterinary surgeon. Her mother’s sister was married to a Frenchman, a coal merchant, who lived at St. Malo, and Julia had been sent to live with her while she attended classes at the local lycée. She learnt to speak French like a Frenchwoman. She was a born actress and it was an understood thing for as long as she could remember that she was to go on the stage. Her aunt, Madame Falloux, was “en relations” with an old actress who had been a sociétaire of the Comédie Française and who had retired to St. Malo to live on the small pension that one of her lovers had settled on her when after many years of faithful concubinage they had parted. When Julia was a child of twelve this actress was a boisterous, fat old woman of more than sixty, but of great vitality, who loved food more than anything else in the world. She had a great, ringing laugh, like a man’s, and she talked in a deep, loud voice. It was she who gave Julia her first lessons. She taught her all the arts that she had herself learnt at the Conservatoire and she talked to her of Reichenberg who had played ingénues till she was seventy, of Sarah Bernhardt and her golden voice, of Mounet-Sully and his majesty, and of Coquelin the greatest actor of them all. She recited to her the great tirades of Corneille and Racine as she had learnt to say them at the Française and taught her to say them in the same way. It was charming to hear Julia in her childish voice recite those languorous, passionate speeches of Phèdre, emphasizing the beat of the Alexandrines and mouthing her words in that manner which is so artificial and yet so wonderfully dramatic. Jane Taitbout must always have been a very stagy actress, but she taught Julia to articulate with extreme distinctness, she taught her how to walk and how to hold herself, she taught her not to be afraid of her own voice, and she made deliberate that wonderful sense of timing which Julia had by instinct and which afterwards was one of her greatest gifts.

“Never pause unless you have a reason for it,” she thundered, banging with her clenched fist on the table at which she sat, “but when you pause, pause as long as you can.”

When Julia was sixteen and went to the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art in Gower Street she knew already much that they could teach her there. She had to get rid of a certain number of tricks that were out of date and she had to acquire a more conversational style. But she won every prize that was open to her, and when she was finished with the school her good French got her almost immediately a small part in London as a French maid. It looked for a while as though her knowledge of French would specialize her in parts needing a foreign accent, for after this she was engaged to play an Austrian waitress. It was two years later that Jimmie Langton discovered her. She was on tour in a melodrama that had been successful in London; in the part of an Italian adventuress, whose machinations were eventually exposed, she was trying somewhat inadequately to represent a woman of forty. Since the heroine, a blonde person of mature years, was playing a young girl, the performance lacked verisimilitude. Jimmie was taking a short holiday which he spent in going every night to the theatre in one town after another. At the end of the piece he went round to see Julia. He was well enough known in the theatrical world for her to be flattered by the compliments he paid her, and when he asked her to lunch with him next day she accepted.

They had no sooner sat down to table than he went straight to the point.

“I never slept a wink all night for thinking of you,” he said.

“This is very sudden. Is your proposal honourable or dishonourable?”

He took no notice of the flippant rejoinder.

“I’ve been at this game for twenty-five years. I’ve been a call-boy, a stage-hand, a stage-manager, an actor, a publicity man, damn it, I’ve even been a critic. I’ve lived in the theatre since I was a kid just out of a board school, and what I don’t know about acting isn’t worth knowing. I think you’re a genius.”

“It’s sweet of you to say so.”

“Shut up. Leave me to do the talking. You’ve got everything. You’re the right height, you’ve got a good figure, you’ve got an indiarubber face.”

“Flattering, aren’t you?”

“That’s just what I am. That’s the face an actress wants. The face that can look anything, even beautiful, the face that can show every thought that passes through the mind. That’s the face Duse’s got. Last night even though you weren’t really thinking about what you were doing every now and then the words you were saying wrote themselves on your face.”

“It’s such a rotten part. How could I give it my attention? Did you hear the things I had to say?”

“Actors are rotten, not parts. You’ve got a wonderful voice, the voice that can wring an audience’s heart, I don’t know about your comedy, I’m prepared to risk that.”

“What d’you mean by that?”

“Your timing is almost perfect. That couldn’t have been taught, you must have that by nature. That’s the far, far better way. Now let’s come down to brass tacks. I’ve been making inquiries about you. It appears you speak French like a Frenchwoman and so they give you broken English parts.

That’s not going to lead you anywhere, you know.”

“That’s all I can get.”

“Are you satisfied to go on playing those sort of parts for ever? You’ll get stuck in them and the public won’t take you in anything else. Seconds, that’s all you’ll play. Twenty pounds a week at the outside and a great talent wasted.”

“I’ve always thought that some day or other I should get a chance of a straight part.”

“When? You may have to wait ten years. How old are you now?”

“Twenty.”

“What are you getting?”

“Fifteen pounds a week.”

“That’s a lie. You’re getting twelve, and it’s a damned sight more than you’re worth. You’ve got everything to learn. Your gestures are commonplace. You don’t know that every gesture must mean something. You don’t know how to get an audience to look at you before you speak. You make up too much. With your sort of face the less make-up the better. Wouldn’t you like to be a star?”

“Who wouldn’t?”

“Come to me and I’ll make you the greatest actress in England. Are you a quick study? You ought to be at your age.”

“I think I can be word-perfect in any part in forty-eight hours.”

“It’s experience you want and me to produce you. Come to me and I’ll let you play twenty parts a year. Ibsen, Shaw, Barker, Sudermann, Hankin, Galsworthy. You’ve got magnetism and you don’t seem to have an idea how to use it.” He chuckled. “By God, if you had, that old hag would have had you out of the play you’re in now before you could say knife. You’ve got to take an audience by the throat and say, now, you dogs, you pay attention to me. You’ve got to dominate them. If you haven’t got the gift no one can give it you, but if you have you can be taught how to use it. I tell you, you’ve got the makings of a great actress. I’ve never been so sure of anything in my life.”

“I know I want experience. I’d have to think it over of course. I wouldn’t mind coming to you for a season.”

“Go to hell. Do you think I can make an actress of you in a season? Do you think I’m going to work my guts out to make you give a few decent performances and then have you go away to play some twopenny-halfpenny part in a commercial play in London? What sort of a bloody fool do you take me for? I’ll give you a three years’ contract, I’ll give you eight pounds a week and you’ll have to work like a horse.”

“Eight pounds a week’s absurd. I couldn’t possibly take that.”

“Oh yes, you could. It’s all you’re worth and it’s all you’re going to get.”

Julia had been on the stage for three years and had learnt a good deal. Besides, Jane Taitbout, no strict moralist, had given her a lot of useful information.

“And are you under the impression by any chance, that for that I’m going to let you sleep with me as well?”

“My God, do you think I’ve got time to go to bed with the members of my company? I’ve got much more important things to do than that, my girl. And you’ll find that after you’ve rehearsed for four hours and played a part at night to my satisfaction, besides a couple of matinées, you won’t have much time or much inclination to make love to anybody. When you go to bed all you’ll want to do is to sleep.”

But Jimmie Langton was wrong there.

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