Copyright
Charles Dudley Warner.

Backlog Studies online

. (page 8 of 12)
Online LibraryCharles Dudley WarnerBacklog Studies → online text (page 8 of 12)
Font size
QR-code for this ebook


the builders even seem to have brought over the ancient air from one
of the churches of the Middle Ages, - you would declare it had n't been
changed in two centuries.

I am expected to fix my attention during the service upon one man, who
stands in the centre of the apse and has a sounding-board behind him in
order to throw his voice out of the sacred semicircular space (where the
altar used to stand, but now the sounding-board takes the place of
the altar) and scatter it over the congregation at large, and send it
echoing up in the groined roof I always like to hear a minister who is
unfamiliar with the house, and who has a loud voice, try to fill the
edifice. The more he roars and gives himself with vehemence to the
effort, the more the building roars in indistinguishable noise and
hubbub. By the time he has said (to suppose a case), "The Lord is in
his holy temple," and has passed on to say, "let all the earth keep
silence," the building is repeating "The Lord is in his holy temple"
from half a dozen different angles and altitudes, rolling it and
growling it, and is not keeping silence at all. A man who understands
it waits until the house has had its say, and has digested one passage,
before he launches another into the vast, echoing spaces. I am expected,
as I said, to fix my eye and mind on the minister, the central point
of the service. But the pillar hides him. Now if there were several
ministers in the church, dressed in such gorgeous colors that I could
see them at the distance from the apse at which my limited income
compels me to sit, and candles were burning, and censers were swinging,
and the platform was full of the sacred bustle of a gorgeous ritual
worship, and a bell rang to tell me the holy moments, I should not mind
the pillar at all. I should sit there, like any other Goth, and enjoy
it. But, as I have said, the pastor is a friend of mine, and I like
to look at him on Sunday, and hear what he says, for he always says
something worth hearing. I am on such terms with him, indeed we all are,
that it would be pleasant to have the service of a little more social
nature, and more human. When we put him away off in the apse, and set
him up for a Goth, and then seat ourselves at a distance, scattered
about among the pillars, the whole thing seems to me a trifle unnatural.
Though I do not mean to say that the congregations do not "enjoy their
religion" in their splendid edifices which cost so much money and are
really so beautiful.

A good many people have the idea, so it seems, that Gothic architecture
and Christianity are essentially one and the same thing. Just as many
regard it as an act of piety to work an altar cloth or to cushion a
pulpit. It may be, and it may not be.

Our Gothic church is likely to prove to us a valuable religious
experience, bringing out many of the Christian virtues. It may have
had its origin in pride, but it is all being overruled for our good. Of
course I need n't explain that it is the thirteenth century ecclesiastic
Gothic that is epidemic in this country; and I think it has attacked the
Congregational and the other non-ritual churches more violently than any
others. We have had it here in its most beautiful and dangerous forms. I
believe we are pretty much all of us supplied with a Gothic church now.
Such has been the enthusiasm in this devout direction, that I should not
be surprised to see our rich private citizens putting up Gothic churches
for their individual amusement and sanctification. As the day will
probably come when every man in Hartford will live in his own mammoth,
five-story granite insurance building, it may not be unreasonable to
expect that every man will sport his own Gothic church. It is beginning
to be discovered that the Gothic sort of church edifice is fatal to
the Congregational style of worship that has been prevalent here in
New England; but it will do nicely (as they say in Boston) for private
devotion.

There isn't a finer or purer church than ours any where, inside and
outside Gothic to the last. The elevation of the nave gives it even that
"high-shouldered" appearance which seemed more than anything else to
impress Mr. Hawthorne in the cathedral at Amiens. I fancy that for
genuine high-shoulderness we are not exceeded by any church in the city.
Our chapel in the rear is as Gothic as the rest of it, - a beautiful
little edifice. The committee forgot to make any more provision for
ventilating that than the church, and it takes a pretty well-seasoned
Christian to stay in it long at a time. The Sunday-school is held there,
and it is thought to be best to accustom the children to bad air before
they go into the church. The poor little dears shouldn't have the
wickedness and impurity of this world break on them too suddenly. If the
stranger noticed any lack about our church, it would be that of a spire.
There is a place for one; indeed, it was begun, and then the builders
seem to have stopped, with the notion that it would grow itself from
such a good root. It is a mistake however, to suppose that we do not
know that the church has what the profane here call a "stump-tail"
appearance. But the profane are as ignorant of history as they are of
true Gothic. All the Old World cathedrals were the work of centuries.
That at Milan is scarcely finished yet; the unfinished spires of the
Cologne cathedral are one of the best-known features of it. I doubt if
it would be in the Gothic spirit to finish a church at once. We can tell
cavilers that we shall have a spire at the proper time, and not a minute
before. It may depend a little upon what the Baptists do, who are to
build near us. I, for one, think we had better wait and see how high the
Baptist spire is before we run ours up. The church is everything that
could be desired inside. There is the nave, with its lofty and beautiful
arched ceiling; there are the side aisles, and two elegant rows of stone
pillars, stained so as to be a perfect imitation of stucco; there is
the apse, with its stained glass and exquisite lines; and there is an
organ-loft over the front entrance, with a rose window. Nothing was
wanting, so far as we could see, except that we should adapt ourselves
to the circumstances; and that we have been trying to do ever since. It
may be well to relate how we do it, for the benefit of other inchoate
Goths.

It was found that if we put up the organ in the loft, it would hide the
beautiful rose window. Besides, we wanted congregational singing, and
if we hired a choir, and hung it up there under the roof, like a cage of
birds, we should not have congregational singing. We therefore left
the organ-loft vacant, making no further use of it than to satisfy our
Gothic cravings. As for choir, - several of the singers of the church
volunteered to sit together in the front side-seats, and as there was no
place for an organ, they gallantly rallied round a melodeon, - or perhaps
it is a cabinet organ, - a charming instrument, and, as everybody knows,
entirely in keeping with the pillars, arches, and great spaces of a real
Gothic edifice. It is the union of simplicity with grandeur, for which
we have all been looking. I need not say to those who have ever heard a
melodeon, that there is nothing like it. It is rare, even in the finest
churches on the Continent. And we had congregational singing. And it
went very well indeed. One of the advantages of pure congregational
singing, is that you can join in the singing whether you have a voice
or not. The disadvantage is, that your neighbor can do the same. It is
strange what an uncommonly poor lot of voices there is, even among good
people. But we enjoy it. If you do not enjoy it, you can change your
seat until you get among a good lot.

So far, everything went well. But it was next discovered that it was
difficult to hear the minister, who had a very handsome little desk in
the apse, somewhat distant from the bulk of the congregation; still, we
could most of us see him on a clear day. The church was admirably built
for echoes, and the centre of the house was very favorable to them. When
you sat in the centre of the house, it sometimes seemed as if three or
four ministers were speaking.

It is usually so in cathedrals; the Right Reverend So-and-So is
assisted by the very Reverend Such-and-Such, and the good deal Reverend
Thus-and-Thus, and so on. But a good deal of the minister's voice
appeared to go up into the groined arches, and, as there was no one up
there, some of his best things were lost. We also had a notion that some
of it went into the cavernous organ-loft. It would have been all right
if there had been a choir there, for choirs usually need more preaching,
and pay less heed to it, than any other part of the congregation. Well,
we drew a sort of screen over the organ-loft; but the result was not
as marked as we had hoped. We next devised a sounding-board, - a sort of
mammoth clamshell, painted white, - and erected it behind the minister.
It had a good effect on the minister. It kept him up straight to his
work. So long as he kept his head exactly in the focus, his voice
went out and did not return to him; but if he moved either way, he was
assailed by a Babel of clamoring echoes. There was no opportunity for
him to splurge about from side to side of the pulpit, as some do. And if
he raised his voice much, or attempted any extra flights, he was liable
to be drowned in a refluent sea of his own eloquence. And he could
hear the congregation as well as they could hear him. All the coughs,
whispers, noises, were gathered in the wooden tympanum behind him, and
poured into his ears.

But the sounding-board was an improvement, and we advanced to bolder
measures; having heard a little, we wanted to hear more. Besides, those
who sat in front began to be discontented with the melodeon. There are
depths in music which the melodeon, even when it is called a cabinet
organ, with a colored boy at the bellows, cannot sound. The melodeon was
not, originally, designed for the Gothic worship. We determined to have
an organ, and we speculated whether, by erecting it in the apse, we
could not fill up that elegant portion of the church, and compel the
preacher's voice to leave it, and go out over the pews. It would of
course do something to efface the main beauty of a Gothic church; but
something must be done, and we began a series of experiments to test the
probable effects of putting the organ and choir behind the minister. We
moved the desk to the very front of the platform, and erected behind
it a high, square board screen, like a section of tight fence round the
fair-grounds. This did help matters. The minister spoke with more ease,
and we could hear him better. If the screen had been intended to stay
there, we should have agitated the subject of painting it. But this was
only an experiment.

Our next move was to shove the screen back and mount the volunteer
singers, melodeon and all, upon the platform, - some twenty of them
crowded together behind the minister. The effect was beautiful. It
seemed as if we had taken care to select the finest-looking people in
the congregation, - much to the injury of the congregation, of course, as
seen from the platform. There are few congregations that can stand
this sort of culling, though ours can endure it as well as any; yet it
devolves upon those of us who remain the responsibility of looking as
well as we can.

The experiment was a success, so far as appearances went, but when the
screen went back, the minister's voice went back with it. We could not
hear him very well, though we could hear the choir as plain as day. We
have thought of remedying this last defect by putting the high screen in
front of the singers, and close to the minister, as it was before. This
would make the singers invisible, - "though lost to sight, to memory
dear," - what is sometimes called an "angel choir," when the singers (and
the melodeon) are concealed, with the most subdued and religious effect.
It is often so in cathedrals.

This plan would have another advantage. The singers on the platform, all
handsome and well dressed, distract our attention from the minister,
and what he is saying. We cannot help looking at them, studying all the
faces and all the dresses. If one of them sits up very straight, he is
a rebuke to us; if he "lops" over, we wonder why he does n't sit up; if
his hair is white, we wonder whether it is age or family peculiarity; if
he yawns, we want to yawn; if he takes up a hymn-book, we wonder if he
is uninterested in the sermon; we look at the bonnets, and query if that
is the latest spring style, or whether we are to look for another; if
he shaves close, we wonder why he doesn't let his beard grow; if he has
long whiskers, we wonder why he does n't trim 'em; if she sighs, we feel
sorry; if she smiles, we would like to know what it is about. And,
then, suppose any of the singers should ever want to eat fennel, or
peppermints, or Brown's troches, and pass them round! Suppose the
singers, more or less of them, should sneeze!

Suppose one or two of them, as the handsomest people sometimes will,
should go to sleep! In short, the singers there take away all our
attention from the minister, and would do so if they were the homeliest
people in the world. We must try something else.

It is needless to explain that a Gothic religious life is not an idle
one.





EIGHTH STUDY




I

Perhaps the clothes question is exhausted, philosophically. I cannot
but regret that the Poet of the Breakfast-Table, who appears to have
an uncontrollable penchant for saying the things you would like to
say yourself, has alluded to the anachronism of "Sir Coeur de Lion
Plantagenet in the mutton-chop whiskers and the plain gray suit."

A great many scribblers have felt the disadvantage of writing after
Montaigne; and it is impossible to tell how much originality in others
Dr. Holmes has destroyed in this country. In whist there are some men
you always prefer to have on your left hand, and I take it that
this intuitive essayist, who is so alert to seize the few remaining
unappropriated ideas and analogies in the world, is one of them.

No doubt if the Plantagenets of this day were required to dress in a
suit of chain-armor and wear iron pots on their heads, they would be as
ridiculous as most tragedy actors on the stage. The pit which recognizes
Snooks in his tin breastplate and helmet laughs at him, and Snooks
himself feels like a sheep; and when the great tragedian comes
on, shining in mail, dragging a two-handed sword, and mouths the
grandiloquence which poets have put into the speech of heroes, the
dress-circle requires all its good-breeding and its feigned love of the
traditionary drama not to titter.

If this sort of acting, which is supposed to have come down to us from
the Elizabethan age, and which culminated in the school of the Keans,
Kembles, and Siddonses, ever had any fidelity to life, it must have
been in a society as artificial as the prose of Sir Philip Sidney. That
anybody ever believed in it is difficult to think, especially when we
read what privileges the fine beaux and gallants of the town took behind
the scenes and on the stage in the golden days of the drama. When a part
of the audience sat on the stage, and gentlemen lounged or reeled across
it in the midst of a play, to speak to acquaintances in the audience,
the illusion could not have been very strong.

Now and then a genius, like Rachel as Horatia, or Hackett as
Falstaff, may actually seem to be the character assumed by virtue of a
transforming imagination, but I suppose the fact to be that getting
into a costume, absurdly antiquated and remote from all the habits and
associations of the actor, largely accounts for the incongruity and
ridiculousness of most of our modern acting. Whether what is called the
"legitimate drama" ever was legitimate we do not know, but the advocates
of it appear to think that the theatre was some time cast in a
mould, once for all, and is good for all times and peoples, like the
propositions of Euclid. To our eyes the legitimate drama of to-day is
the one in which the day is reflected, both in costume and speech, and
which touches the affections, the passions, the humor, of the present
time. The brilliant success of the few good plays that have been written
out of the rich life which we now live - the most varied, fruitful, and
dramatically suggestive - ought to rid us forever of the buskin-fustian,
except as a pantomimic or spectacular curiosity.

We have no objection to Julius Caesar or Richard III. stalking about in
impossible clothes, and stepping four feet at a stride, if they want to,
but let them not claim to be more "legitimate" than "Ours" or "Rip Van
Winkle." There will probably be some orator for years and years to come,
at every Fourth of July, who will go on asking, Where is Thebes? but
he does not care anything about it, and he does not really expect an
answer. I have sometimes wished I knew the exact site of Thebes, so that
I could rise in the audience, and stop that question, at any rate. It is
legitimate, but it is tiresome.

If we went to the bottom of this subject, I think we should find that
the putting upon actors clothes to which they are unaccustomed makes
them act and talk artificially, and often in a manner intolerable.

An actor who has not the habits or instincts of a gentleman cannot be
made to appear like one on the stage by dress; he only caricatures and
discredits what he tries to represent; and the unaccustomed clothes and
situation make him much more unnatural and insufferable than he would
otherwise be. Dressed appropriately for parts for which he is fitted,
he will act well enough, probably. What I mean is, that the clothes
inappropriate to the man make the incongruity of him and his part more
apparent. Vulgarity is never so conspicuous as in fine apparel, on or
off the stage, and never so self-conscious. Shall we have, then, no
refined characters on the stage? Yes; but let them be taken by men
and women of taste and refinement and let us have done with this
masquerading in false raiment, ancient and modern, which makes nearly
every stage a travesty of nature and the whole theatre a painful
pretension. We do not expect the modern theatre to be a place of
instruction (that business is now turned over to the telegraphic
operator, who is making a new language), but it may give amusement
instead of torture, and do a little in satirizing folly and kindling
love of home and country by the way.

This is a sort of summary of what we all said, and no one in particular
is responsible for it; and in this it is like public opinion. The
Parson, however, whose only experience of the theatre was the endurance
of an oratorio once, was very cordial in his denunciation of the stage
altogether.

MANDEVILLE. Yet, acting itself is delightful; nothing so entertains
us as mimicry, the personation of character. We enjoy it in private.
I confess that I am always pleased with the Parson in the character of
grumbler. He would be an immense success on the stage. I don't know but
the theatre will have to go back into the hands of the priests, who once
controlled it.

THE PARSON. Scoffer!

MANDEVILLE. I can imagine how enjoyable the stage might be, cleared of
all its traditionary nonsense, stilted language, stilted behavior, all
the rubbish of false sentiment, false dress, and the manners of
times that were both artificial and immoral, and filled with living
characters, who speak the thought of to-day, with the wit and culture
that are current to-day. I've seen private theatricals, where all the
performers were persons of cultivation, that....

OUR NEXT DOOR. So have I. For something particularly cheerful, commend
me to amateur theatricals. I have passed some melancholy hours at them.

MANDEVILLE. That's because the performers acted the worn stage plays,
and attempted to do them in the manner they had seen on the stage. It is
not always so.

THE FIRE-TENDER. I suppose Mandeville would say that acting has got into
a mannerism which is well described as stagey, and is supposed to
be natural to the stage; just as half the modern poets write in a
recognized form of literary manufacture, without the least impulse from
within, and not with the purpose of saying anything, but of turning out
a piece of literary work. That's the reason we have so much poetry
that impresses one like sets of faultless cabinet-furniture made by
machinery.

THE PARSON. But you need n't talk of nature or naturalness in acting or
in anything. I tell you nature is poor stuff. It can't go alone. Amateur
acting - they get it up at church sociables nowadays - is apt to be as
near nature as a school-boy's declamation. Acting is the Devil's art.

THE MISTRESS. Do you object to such innocent amusement?

MANDEVILLE. What the Parson objects to is, that he isn't amused.

THE PARSON. What's the use of objecting? It's the fashion of the day to
amuse people into the kingdom of heaven.

HERBERT. The Parson has got us off the track. My notion about the stage
is, that it keeps along pretty evenly with the rest of the world; the
stage is usually quite up to the level of the audience. Assumed dress
on the stage, since you were speaking of that, makes people no more
constrained and self-conscious than it does off the stage.

THE MISTRESS. What sarcasm is coming now?

HERBERT. Well, you may laugh, but the world has n't got used to good
clothes yet. The majority do not wear them with ease. People who only
put on their best on rare and stated occasions step into an artificial
feeling.

OUR NEXT DOOR. I wonder if that's the reason the Parson finds it so
difficult to get hold of his congregation.

HERBERT. I don't know how else to account for the formality and vapidity
of a set "party," where all the guests are clothed in a manner to
which they are unaccustomed, dressed into a condition of vivid
self-consciousness. The same people, who know each other perfectly
well, will enjoy themselves together without restraint in their ordinary
apparel. But nothing can be more artificial than the behavior of
people together who rarely "dress up." It seems impossible to make the
conversation as fine as the clothes, and so it dies in a kind of inane
helplessness. Especially is this true in the country, where people have
not obtained the mastery of their clothes that those who live in the
city have. It is really absurd, at this stage of our civilization, that
we should be so affected by such an insignificant accident as dress.
Perhaps Mandeville can tell us whether this clothes panic prevails in
the older societies.

THE PARSON. Don't. We've heard it; about its being one of the
Englishman's thirty-nine articles that he never shall sit down to dinner
without a dress-coat, and all that.

THE MISTRESS. I wish, for my part, that everybody who has time to eat
a dinner would dress for that, the principal event of the day, and do
respectful and leisurely justice to it.

THE YOUNG LADY. It has always seemed singular to me that men who work
so hard to build elegant houses, and have good dinners, should take so
little leisure to enjoy either.

MANDEVILLE. If the Parson will permit me, I should say that the chief
clothes question abroad just now is, how to get any; and it is the same
with the dinners.





II

It is quite unnecessary to say that the talk about clothes ran into the
question of dress-reform, and ran out, of course. You cannot converse on
anything nowadays that you do not run into some reform. The Parson says
that everybody is intent on reforming everything but himself. We are all
trying to associate ourselves to make everybody else behave as we do.
Said -

OUR NEXT DOOR. Dress reform! As if people couldn't change their clothes
without concert of action. Resolved, that nobody should put on a clean
collar oftener than his neighbor does. I'm sick of every sort of reform.
I should like to retrograde awhile. Let a dyspeptic ascertain that he
can eat porridge three times a day and live, and straightway he insists
that everybody ought to eat porridge and nothing else. I mean to get
up a society every member of which shall be pledged to do just as he
pleases.

THE PARSON. That would be the most radical reform of the day. That
would be independence. If people dressed according to their means, acted
according to their convictions, and avowed their opinions, it would
revolutionize society.

OUR NEXT DOOR. I should like to walk into your church some Sunday and
see the changes under such conditions.

THE PARSON. It might give you a novel sensation to walk in at any time.


1 2 3 4 5 6 8 10 11 12

Online LibraryCharles Dudley WarnerBacklog Studies → online text (page 8 of 12)