Across America with 'Junius Brutus Booth' by Elizabeth Robins
Published in The Universal Review.
Edited by Harry Quiller. Vol. VII, No. 27 (July 1890). London: Swan Sonneschein and Co.
Printed by Richard Caly and Sons,. Ltd. London and Bungary. Issue 27 is paginated 331-480. Vol. VII binds together the May to August 1890 issues.
Hypertext formatting by Joanne E. Gates.
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IT is impossible for any one who has not travelled our great country week after week, making gigantic 'jumps,' as the railroad journeys are airily termed, rushing from one 'night stand' to another, sleeping seldom twice in the same bed, almost losing track of time and the great world's happenings in the breathless chase after early-morning and midnight trains, and the struggle for breakfasts served in the dawn by yawning waiters, lunch-basket dinners, and suppers snatched while trains are 'shunting,' rejoicing in broken sleep in a Pullman berth, if a traveller is lucky, or if not, in a long night's endeavour to keep from rolling off the seat--it is impossible for any one, in fact, who has not been through all this to imagine the delight of the members of Mr. Edwin Booth's and Mr. Lawrence Barrett's Company who were invited to share the hospitality of the tragedians' private car during the winter and spring of 1888. It was in Virginia, in January, that the Worcester Excursion Car, refurnished and renamed 'Junius Brutus Booth,' was sent from the Wilmington shops and taken possession of at the end of the Richmond engagement. The members of the company who were not in the last night's bill were invited to leave their hotels and go to the car early in the evening. We wandered through the smoky station among coal cars and snorting engines until some obliging being with a sooty countenance pointed out the 'Junius Brunnius Booth' a long way up the dark side track. Indeed, it looked unattractive enough, looming before our advance, with curtains
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drawn, no gleam of light or sign of life,--like the dismasted hull of some great man of war stranded useless on the shore. We climbed the high steps and felt in the dark for the electric bell, the door opened, and there in the uncertain light stood a tall mulatto servant in livery. We explained our errand, gave up our bags and wraps to the porter and went through the narrow passage to the body of the car. The lights were turned up, and we saw how little like an ordinary palace car was this latter endeavour of American taste and ingenuity to supply the comforts of home while speeding one about the world at so many miles an hour. The car was longer and wider than any we had seen, an effect of unusual roominess and ease was given by doing away with stationary seats and chairs, and by the absence of upper berths to contract the space at the sides. Beautifully furnished in hard wood and panelled with mirrors, furnished luxuriously with easy chairs and divans, one might almost imagine the car to be the cosy sitting room in some private house. A piano stood at the end, the centre table was brightened by a vase of flowers, and the latest papers and magazines were scattered over it. The most wilfully discontented could make but one objection: 'It's all very charming, but where are we to sleep?' William, the mulatto porter, with an ornate manner peculiar to his race, offered to do the honours of the establishment and show us about. At the end of the car is Mr. Booth's private room and lavatory, and behind it a smoking room with Mr. Barrett's writing desk and a small library. Passing through the body of the car again, William shows us the kitchen and presents the cook. The latter grins amiably and pulls a paper cap off his wooly head in response to our greeting. It is to this day a marvel to me how that man survived the season, for in his tiny kitchen he was almost as near the fire as our well-cooked dishes--he seemed to be always steaming hot, and I can vouch for hs being 'done very brown.' William points out another large lavatory--his refirgerators, closets and pantry, apologizing for some unnoticeable disorder by saying, 'It is the remains of the debreeze of my dinner.' Before we are yet acquainted with our new quarters in comes the party from the theatre, and soon the little centre table is expanded into a hospitable board to comfortably seat eight, and we sit down to supper for the first time, to enjoy a cuisine that was always admirable, and a service that is quite faultless, to say nothing of the far greater privileges of such company. As soon as supper is over the gentlemen disappear towards the smoking room, and we sit back to watch the table cleared and disposed of, and like the work of some enchanter our well-made and curtained beds spring into existence. Although it seemed that I closed my eyes one moment on the supper table and opened them the next in
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a dormitory, it may be as well to explain that the frame work was built up by rods and bars of brass fitting into grooves and sockets in floor and wall, and across the lower frame of each compartment a canvas was stretched and buckled. Out of the closets came matresses, linen, blankets, &c. A heavy tapestry curtain midway in the whilom supper room shut off our half of the establishment from the regions beyond. The metamorphosis completed we retired, and instead of being called at some unearthly hour to catch the train for Charleston, South Carolina, I have no clear recollection of the time when this solid and beautiful house of our hosts, swaying and trembling a little, moved southwards in the night. About 9 o'clock the next morning I opened my eyes and began to wonder where I was. I pulled up the curtain and looked out upon a vision of a sluggish river almost crossed, and some impish little negro children enjoying life in front of a log cabin on the sand bank! In that moment of passing I noticed that one member of the family was munching what seemed a generous wedge of hoe cake, while her sister sat on a tree stump near the track, and vigorously waved a tattered hat at the thundering train. For one instant the beady eyes met mine.
'Hi! hi! da! hello!' and she waved the hat with redoubled enthusiasm as I looked back. Her mouth stretched from ear to ear, white teeth flashed, and two stiff black pig-tails, standing upright on the head like small Satanic horns, made me remember the darkey speculation, 'Don' you' s'pose Gawd mus' a laffed w'en he got her done?'
William's voice outside the bed-curtains comes to me in a muffled whisper, 'Ready for yo' cup o' cawfee, miss?' I put out my hand for the welcome beverage, and as I luxuriously sip it, and glance out at the familiar Southern scenery flying past, I wonder what would our ease-loving, slave-holding grandfathers have said to such comfort as this. In an hour we are dressed and the dormitory vanishes, the curtains are folded and put away, good-mornings exchanged, and soon we are sitting at little tête-à tête tables--merely a tablet of polished wood fitting into the wall near each window--discussing such a breakfast as only the black cooks of the South know how to prepare, and I am told only Americans eat and live. First, the great Florida oranges, then hominy and milk, bacon and eggs, fried potatioes, sweet as well as white, hot biscuits, johnny cake and coffee, and at last smoking buckwheat cakes and maple syrup. In the hours that follow there are reading, letter-writing, studying, games of backgammon and checkers--as we call the English draughts--a chance for unlimited fancy work for the
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ladies and smoking for the gentlemen, and the interest of an ever-changing panorama from every window. At threee the breakfast and work stands are taken out and the long dinner table spread in the middle of the car. With Mr. Booth at one end and Mr. Barrett at the other, no one who has had the privilege of knowing either could doubt that we enjoy an interesting and brilliant hour. The talk flows on, telling day by day throughout the long tour of hard or amusing early experiences of foreign travel, of famous men and women each had known; of books of Art; in short, we have sometimes cause to feel ourselves favoured onlookers at some modern symposium. In the evening, about seven o'clock, we reach Charleston. The bill is 'Othello;' the house is crowded, the enthusiasm boundless.
The play over, no time is lost in returning to the car. William has the long table generously spread, and the atmosphere of light and warmth are a grateful exchange for the raw dampness of the outer air. We hear the events of the evening and something of old Charleston 'befo' de wah.' I remember, too, we are assured that the great buzzards (scavanger birds we have seen through the day stupidly sailing about) are creatures of great reasoning powers and unimpeachable orthodoxy. They wait in rows on fences and roofs near the Charleston markets at a certain time every day except Sunday on the look-out for the refuse, but no one has ever seen a buzzard so lost to all sense of decorum as to go to market on the Christian Sabbath when such places are properly closed. On Sunday, Mr. Barrett suggests, these pious birds 'prey' in the fields.
The next morning, about noon, we find ourselves in Savannah. As the afternoon is lovely, some of us drive out to beautiful, mysterious Bonaventura--the most unconventional and appropriate 'place of graves' I have seen. Imagine acres and acres of apparently endless natural woodland, spots of rough sunlit grass and reaches of densest shade, bowers of tangled vines and reddening winter berries along the wide
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'shell road' that winds through this silent place of peace. The trees are chiefly live oak, and scarcely one but is swathed and festooned by the hanging grey moss. As one's carriage rolls softly over the white road, the mighty trees, reaching out to shake giant hands, meet over our heads, and we find the sunlight shut out for a space. The ghostly grey banners of moss wave a solemn welcome as we pass, and Nature seems in the tender, reverent mood that meets her children's needs when they look on death. Here is no trim lawn and no fantastic flower-bed to mock the poor sightless sleeper underneath, no close crowding of mound against mound and ghastly mosaic of gravestones as far as eye can reach--simply miles of woodland and wind-swayed mourning moss, and here and there, at the foot of some great oak, a tired traveller lies rolled in his soft earth blanket often with no stone at his head.
The next day we are in Macon, and then away to thriving, busy Atlanta, where we play two nights. It is on our way to Nashville, our next town, that Mr. Booth talks of his Sandwich Island expereince as Lessee of the Royal Hawaian Theatre, of how the natives took 'Richard the Third,' and of his travels in Australia and the South Sea Islands. He tells of his youthful struggles in his own and other lands, managing his own company, playing a round of the most ambitious Shakespeareean rôles, and once reduced to doing his own bill-posting, Mr. Barrett talks about the 'palmy days' of the drama, when leading men received twelve dollars a week and stars got paper promises. Mr. Booth remembers his father's returning from Western tours with a box full of 'wild-cat scrip' and with empty pockets. Both would sometimes deepen the sense of contrast between them and now by recalling the happy-go-lucky 'Wander Jahre,' when they carried light hearts in their breasts and their wordly possessions in a champagne basket--when their stock wardrobe consisted of 'the other shirt' and a stage costume of so elastic a kind that it could by some trifling addition or subtraction be made to grace any period, from biblical times down to our own day. They tell us we have no idea of the frequency of intemperance in the 'good old times' among both actors and actresses, and one relates his saying to a clergyman how changed is the Dramatic Profession in this respect; when the man of God, being old enough to look back many years, replied, 'My good sir, I notice a similar change in my own.'
From Nashville we pass to Memphis, and then to Chattanooga, where we are again on historic ground. We listen to animated descriptions of the Civil War, and during our stay we take the 'inclined plane car' up
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Look-out Mountain, an experience no one fond of a sensation and a noble view should miss while in Tennessee. At 'Summit' we go by a narrow-gauge train around the top of the mountain to Sunset Rock, and are richly rewarded for our pains.
The next day, for we play two nights here, we drive to 'Missionary Ridge.' General Bragg's camp is pointed out, and then across 'Cedar Nob,' Grant's position, and, like a ghastly supplement to the story, we pass the National Cemetery on our way home; and, further on, the smooth green sward is rippled by a thousand Confederate graves.
Stopping at only the larger towns, on we go--over mountains and plains, crossing great rivers, flying past cotton and sugar plantations, past alligator and snake-haunted swamps, till early February finds us in New Orleans. Here we stay a week at the Hotel Royal. Canal Street near by looks very familiar, but wears a sober air as contrasted with my last sight of it about Mardi Gras time. I go down Royal Street to the St. Louis Cathedral and walk between the rows of myrtle trees in Jackson Square. One hears cheifly French spoken here, and the houses are of a quaint old-world style. My walks this week are chiefly in the French quarter; one is easily attracted by the persistence of the Gallic type and its contrast with the Newer Orleans that has grown up about the town of Colonial days. At the old French market, which one must visit about 6A.M. to see well a curious patios that I fancy would puzzle a Parisian is the only speech I hear, until I am answered in broken English on asking for a cup of their delicious coffee, boiled over a handful of charcoal. A Creole and his wife keep this stall, and bustle about amont the piles of squirming turtles, shrimps, and crawfish, with a cat and a parrot to complete the heterogeneous household. They ungenerously berate the beast that cannot 'answer back,' and cajole the other in their curious staccato French, while the haughty parrot condemns them, one and all, to hell-fire and damnation in choice sailor-Spanish. Going home in the pale early sunlight, along Decatur Street, and past the Cathedral, I come unexpectedly on the Old Bank in Toulouse Street; some one has told me it has a history, and just as we have felt in looking into some faces, that those eyes have seen life in strange and tragic places, so one may feel that even so unromantic a building as a bank, when it wears a front like this, must have played a great part in stirring scenes. At all events, in the days when 'cotton was king,' the rich planters of the South brought their gold to store here with no suspicion that their monarch would be dethroned, their fortunes lost, and their portionless children look up at the mighty storehouse
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of their wealth one day, to see it half ruined and deserted, and instead of busy merchants and planters coming and going, a troop of twittering doves and quarrelsome sparrows fluttering about the eaves, in and out of the balmy sunshine, mocking man's broken effigies of History of Trade by holding high carnival on the headless, armless figures sculptured over the doorway.
Every one who goes to New Orleans goes to Lake Pontchartrain and the Spanish fort, as nearly everyone has an attack of the gambling fever, and, inveighing against the practice, invests more or less heavily in the Louisiana lottery. In the shop windows the tickets dangle before the passer's eyes, and one sees rich and poor alike studying the numbers and generally unable to go on without one or more possible certificates to a princely fortune in the well-lined or ragged pocket. If you give a starving negro here the price of a dinner you may know that ten minutes later the poor wretch is as happy as he is capable of being, for, although he is still very hungry, he has a bit of paper in his hand, and in his wooly head visions of hog and hominy to repletion on Lottery Day, 'an' fo' eber an' eber. Amen.'
The week over, we leave the orange groves and myrtles behind us, and returning to the 'J.B.B.' begin a twelve days' trip through Texas, visiting Galveston, Dallas, and half a dozen other towns. We grow too familiar with the sight of great ranches, herds of cattle and the genus 'Cowboy' to even notice them, but the fine spring-like weather at Waco rouses our enthusiasm. Two of us take a long tramp to Procter Springs, several miles beyond the town, find the first delicate spring flowers already in bloom. With hands full of white stars and pink bells we return to decorate the car with our treasures, but we find the appreciative maidens of Waco have already supplied the tragedians with a large box of violets and a graceful note. Of course all over the country the Booth-Barrett private car created great interest, to the no small discomfort of the tragedians. They became gradually inured to the congregation of the inhabitants on the station platform as we entered a town, the eager scanning of our windows with craned necks and sharp eyes, cries of 'That's Barrett, I know him,' from some ragamuffin, and 'Which is Junius Brutus Booth?' But as orders were quickly given to leave the car for the future in some side track a little out of town, we usually dined in peace, but not always. The disappointed populace once or twice pursued the Junius Brutus Booth to his final stand, and finding that without a platform they could see only the tops of the two august heads, they skirmished
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about for an old barrel, a tub and a box or two, mounted whereon the enterprising Texan could see the Show to his heart's content. We are hardly seated, when tubs, barrels, and boys are comfortably range on the other side of the track. Down come the curtains, and we finish dinner by artificial light. Some time after, thinking the interest must have subsided, a blind is cautiously raised. There sits a patient row of Texan small boys. 'Curtain's up!' one yells delightedly; several pretty girls walk by with eyes fixed on the car windows; an open carriage driving past is brought to a sudden standstill, and the occupants calmly study the situation.
We are two nights in San Antonio--long enough to renew our acquaintance with the old and new so oddly mixed. Modern shops and hotels, with a Spanish cathedral front the square, where the half-breed Indians and cow-boys lounge and traffic by day, while at night the Mexicans keep up the old custom of serving coffee, 'chile concarne' and 'toumalis' piping hot from the open-air fires in the Plaza. Again we drive to the noble ruins of the old Jesuit missions some miles away. San José attracts us most, and we wander about under the close espionage of a shrivelled old Mexican dame, who understands no English except that stamped on a silver coin. Maybe she thinks we want to carry off the stone image of the Virgin at the entrance, whose companion statue was actually stolen by some vandal, and afterwards identified in a curiosity shop in New York. The sculptured portal is very interesting, and the tracery of the one great window left is delicate and beautiful. The carving on the fast-decaying doors is wonderful when one remembers the work was all done by the priests and their Indian converts. We are told these missions were the pioneer settle-
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MISSION HOUSE OF SAN JOSÉ
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ments in a barren and hostile land. They were church, cloister, farm, and fortress, set down by a river in the wilderness, surrounded by strong stone walls, and defended by a little band of cowled and hooded soldiery, until the inhospital red men were turned from bitter enemies into friends and fellow-workers.
We hear of the schools the priests founded, the useful arts they taught the Indians, and we see the great circular stones, worn with grinding maize for themselves and all the neighbourhood. The mission was the heart of a thriving settlement, they tell us, two hundred years ago; but to-day, looking from the belfry out over the San Antonio plain, we find no trace of the Indian village--the cornfields and gardens have gone back to the wilderness, the irrigating ditches are dry and choked with weeds. Our busy generation might never have heard it was here a body of brave, hard-working priests planted civilization and solved the much-vexed 'Indian Question' if it were not for a half-ruined chapel, some broken cloister arches, and a crumbling outer wall. The famous 'Alamo,' about which the town of San Antonio has grown up, was one of these early missions, but is oftener mentioned as a beleaguered fortress than a 'house of prayer.' We are told the flags of five different factions have waved over the grey old walls, and we remember it was here one of our heroes held out so long against the barbarous Santa Anna. David Crockett, with a handful of men and women, kept the Mexican leader and his well-equipped army at bay as long as ammunition lasted. When the final charge was fired, the barricade forced, and the day surely lost, Santa Anna called for surrender. Crockett and his men refused. They dropped their useless gins and fought their way to death with bowie-knives. The battle ended only when Davy Crockett's body fell lifeless across the mission threshold; and the story of the vengeance of the Mexicans on the few survivors is recited by an old soldier, who sits alone in the dim place ready to tell a chance wayfarer 'this is where Davy Crockett fought like a lion; and here is a picture of the Alamo as it looks to-day--when the door's shut. Take two! Davy Crockett was a great man, miss!' The short day is closing as we bid the enthusiastic veteran good-bye--a white moon shines over the Alamo and lends it new impressiveness. We stop in a side street to buy some Indian pottery and silver filigree work, and especially one or two of the wax groups of figures correctly-dressed in national dress, represented engaged in various trades and native pursuits in the midst of appropriate surroundings. So faithful an impression do they give of Mexican and Indian life that the Smithsonian
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Institution in Washington had, several years ago, a case of these figures in the biological department. We go out of San Antonio after the play that night at a swinging pace; the supper service slides about, and those who care to preserve an upright position hold fast to the table--it was a remarkable and perilous run, so engineers have assured us--but we arrived safely in El Paso the next day at four o'clock. Bent on exploring, as usual, some of us leave the United States and go for an hour's stroll in a foreign country, El Paso being on the Texas side of the Colorado River, and Paso del Norte, a wretched little adobe village, across the Mexican line. We go into some of the shops to price the serapes and opals--then to the inevitable Plaza to look for a few minutes into the old Mission Cathedral 'Guadalupe.' A venerable white-haired priest leads a crowd of women from cross to cross with soft-voiced prayers and gentle benedictions, and all the women devoutly kneel and cross themselves, and touch the floor with their foreheads, while the children and dogs follow them unconcernedly, playing about from station to station. The cathedral is over 350 years old, but in excellent preservation. With such materials as they had those indefatigable Jesuit missionaries built strongly and well. The women here all seem to wear a scarf or shawl over the head, while the glory of Mexican manhood is the gorgeous sombrero of felt, beaver, or straw, heavily decorated with gold or silver braid. Many of the men wear ponchos, a sort of blanket wrap of native weaving and gay colours, and, hot as the day is, each wearer is enveloped to the eyes, as though shutting out an imaginary Boreal blast. Crossing the long open bridge over the Colorado on our return, we get a lurid, wonderful sunset effect. The wide mud flats and great plains beyond are dyed with dusky red, and the huddled groups of adobe houses seem etched in flame, for the West to-night is 'not colour, but conflagration.' Fascinating as it is, we must not stay to see the fire put out, for Portia and Calphurnia are expected in Rome in an hour. We leave El Paso the next day on our way to California, by the Southern Pacific Railroad, through hundreds of miles of sand and sage brush, and across the Yuma Desert, where we see a beautiful mirage--palm trees and limpid lakes on a horizon where we know a scorching sun beats down on miles of treeless plain. At the settlement of Yuma wer are received by a score or more of Indians, who come down to the train in war-paint and feathers, to sell bows and arrows, bead necklaces, and strings of shells. All that the women appear to wear is a large sheet-like square of red cotton or flannel--it seems to matter little whether the material is thick or thin so long as it is red. They paint even the babies in arms,
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ALAMO AT SAN ANTONIO
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and smear their own and their children's coarse black hair with red and yellow paint.
These long Western journeys become tedious; after the eager eyes of the young traveller have grown accustomed to the half-mysterious desolation of the great American desert, the dull-hued fantastic vegetation, giant cacti and prickly pear armed cap-à-pie, the sharp grey-green leaves of the Spanish bayonet, menacing and shadeless--the silence and sameness are too prolonged to be discounted by glimpses of an emigrant's white-covered waggon lumbering through the sand--a Mexican 'greaser' on a broncho, some antelopes in the distance, or a prairie dog village, or at long intervals a green line of agriculture along an irrigation canal, like a patch of soft new fabric set on a garment coarse and old. But when we are tired of all this, and further on of the wild gorges and awful heights of the Southern Sierras, we turn from the vision without to the hospitable cheer within. These were days when we lingered long at dinner, forgetful of time, listening to the brilliant talk and good-humoured badinage between our hosts. We might be forgiven for sometimes thinking such clever impromptus deserved a Boswell's fidelity to record them, instead of falling on ears that could only appreciate and not retain. But we shall long have some remembrance of stories told of Charlotte Cushman, of her rugged ways and tender heart, her kindness to Mr. Barrett once when he was ill and far from home, and how by the sick bed her great sonorous voice would soften to a gentle crooning as of a mother over her child. Then the chat would drift across the Atlantic to speak of Millais's princely present of a picture of Mr. Henry Irving to the Garrick Club in London, and then Mr. Barrett would break into enthusiastic eulogy of Garrick, 'poet, dramatist, scholar, wit, and genial gentleman.' Mr. Booth refers to his anachronistic dressing of some of his rôles, the more wonderful in that he costumed such a part as 'Don Felix' so correctly, as shown by his portrait in a medallion over our heads in the rechristened J.B.B., formerly 'the Garrick.' Mr. Barrett quotes his favourite lines to Goldsmith, and Mr. Booth, loving justice, gives us 'Goldie's' side. Some trick of memory that forgets better things, and fastens recollection on a trifle, makes me think of a certain actress they told us of, whose genius had profoundly impressed these gentlemen long years ago--a marvellous magnetic creature, they say, who would have out-rivalled all the rest but for her love of drink, her terrific temper, and misuse of energy in a constant struggle to get rid of one husband in order to marry another. One remembers playing Thane of Fife to her
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Lady Macbeth, and holding her up in a state of unspeakable bliss while she wept and staggered through the scene. Another recalls the astonishment of the townspeople in the vicinity of her hotel one day at something fluttering at her window and the sight of the distinguished lady hung out by the waistband, a tiny fury in the strong hand of the husband of that period, while he shrieked over her with a thick brogue, 'One! Will ye 'pologize?' 'Never,' from the lady. 'When I say three I'll dhrop ye.' Awful pause, populace transfixed with horror. 'Two! Will ye 'pologize?' 'Hold on!' from the vanquished wife, and she was drawn in to 'pologize.
Our first stand in California is Los Angeles. Here we find roses and lilies in bloom, and that pride of Eastern hot-houses, the 'calla' is cut out of the gardens in great sheaves and thrown away because it spreads, and chokes out other flowers. Our modest bush of lemon verbena is here a tree, and the heliotrope reaches to the second story windows. From our hotel we have a glorious view of the green foot-hills and snowy mountains of the San Bernadino Range, for this is the 'Ramona' country. Mr. Booth tells us of Helen Hunt's lonely grave on a mountain top near Manitou, Colorado, and this Southern California seems full of her memory.
There is the Citrus Fair to interest us; the trip to Pasadena, drives to Baldwin's and Rose's ranches and the Ostrich Farms. A week here, and we are again on the wing, marvelling at the engineering skill that finds a way along these 'bleak tremendous heights,' skirting shadowy abysses, doubling on its own track, twisting through the famous 'loop,' flying over cañon and chasm, and descending safely at last into the fair San Joaquin Valley--on of Nature's vast flower gardens--hundreds of miles of vivid green lit with yellow poppies.
On March 5th we complete our ocean-to-ocean tour with our arrival at Oakland, and our first glimpse of San Francisco Bay and the Golden Gate. We play three weeks in San Francisco, and while we are enjoying the plentiful fruits and flowers and the summer weather, our friends in New York are going through the awful experiences of the great blizzard of '88, streets and tracks choked with snow--horrible suffering and death from cold, while for days all communication with the rest of America is suspended. A gentleman in New York at this time needing to hear from Boston, was obliged to send a cable message via London. And so, when people abroad ask us about the climate in our country, we are naturally a little puzzled to reply.
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Although we are duly impressed by the California Street palaces and by the breathless run down the steepest of all possible streets on a cable car dummy, I think nothing interests us so much in that country of contrasts as China town. In the heart of this bustling bran-new American prosperity, is set down a few square acres of Asia. There is not the faintest sign of amalgamation; the Chinese quarter has a pig-tailed population, trades, a system of religion, a theatre, laws and penalties (we are told), and surely an atmospere all its own. No shop is kept by any 'Melican' man, no white face is seen in the dirty narrow streets, unless it be a tourist's. Only Oriental wares are sold in the shops, and in the foul-smelling markets nothing is in sight that would tempt a starving Christian. The people are all in native dress, oftentimes very gorgeous; the distinguishing mark of the merchant being a red knob, made of beads, on his cap. There is comparatively little display in the bric-à-brac shops; all the best things are tucked away, but we find the shopkeepers adepts at driving a close bargain, and we learn that their mechanical contrivance for arithmetical computation--little wooden beads strung on wires in a frame--enables them to arrive at results more quickly than is possible to any of our 'lightning calculators.'
With some San Franciscans we go one evening to the swell Chinese restaurant, gay with flags and coloured lanterns. The building is several stories high and the further up one goes, the more luxurious and expensive the accommodation, till on the top floor we find a room furnished with richly inlaid chairs, ranged around a marble and teak wood table, with Chinese pictures on the walls, which are carved, and one side pannelled with glass, a divan in the alcove for the opium smokers' siesta, while a small room near by is presumably used for religious purposes, for a grotesque picture of a three-headed god is over what might be called an altar, on which, in vases filled with earth, the sandal-scented joss sticks are 'smoking the devil out of the house.' We have tea Chinese fashion, made and served in a 'gook cheung,' and marvellous good tea it is! We discover what delicious perserves the Celestials make, and that our borrowed custom of serving salted almonds for table use is an old Mongolian habit. As we go out we are taken through a large room adjoining ours, where a party of rich Chinese merchants are having dinner. The hubbub is deafening, for in the intervals of deftly emptying bowls of rice, &c., with chop sticks, these gentlemen are playing a gambling game, which seems to consist of the holding up of one or more fingers, and all are howling in unison. Many are past this intellectual enjoyment, for at least half the company are in the various
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stages of opium intoxication, some, just beginning to feel the poison, blink absently in our direction, others, no longer able to sit up, are half reclining on the tables hardly able to heat and roll the soft black pill of poison for the final pipe; others again completely overcome, lie in a death-like stupor on the divans, some with wide fixed eyes, glassy and horrible. One never forgets an opium den, even if it is not one of the subterranean holes that honeycomb Chinatown, half a dozen stories under the earth, where men lie on shelves, one above another, from floor to ceiling, smoking as long as the yellow fingers can hold the pipe--probably escaping death in the pestilent air by some anitdotal virtue of the artificial poison.
We finish our explorations by going to the theatre, where we have a box. In the body of the house the men sit all together with hats on, smoking. In the gallery sit the women, not those of good position, for a Chinese 'lady' never is seen 'at the play'--but those of an humbler class, that nevertheless show some really pretty faces and charming costumes. The acting is on a rectangle of red carpet in the middle of a raised stage. Only what happens on that bit of tapestry belongs to the play, and you are not to be distracted by spectators and stage hands standing or sitting about, or the hard-worked orchestra behind this little island of dramatic action, keeping up unceasing din with gongs, rude fiddles, cymbals, pipes and drums. To be heard above this horrible noise requires great force of lung, but in that sense these are 'powerful actors.' Occasionally the immobile faces in front relax with something like a grin, and a wave of sluggish amusement rolls over the Celestial throng. The actors' make-ups are remarkable; triangles of unshaded red adorn their high cheek bones, and impossible wigs and beards are sported with a childish indifference to their unreality--in fact, the Chinese stage seems a sort of nursery 'pretend theatre.' They have no scenery and few properties. Men play women's parts in falsetto tones and a supposed ladylike manner in flourishing the hands. The dresses are often gorgeous, and the mincing gait of the small-footed women is imitated by a short man mounted on wooden pegs, which are fitted with tiny shoes, and on these miniature stilts the Chinese 'leading lady' walks into the affections of the hero. The plays are so long, it takes sometimes six months to perform one, each evening's bill is only a section of the work, although the players begin about 5P.M., and keep it up till midnight. One of our friends brings a Chinese gentleman into the box, who tells us in excellent English about the performance. He explains that a court-room scene is in
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progress, a woman is to be tried for deserting her husband! Witnesses are called and surely lack not power in argument; they scream and gesticulate singly and en masse, the fiddles scrape, the cymbals clash, the wife protests in a shrill monotone, the husband, maddened, we think, by the strife of pipes and horns, howls dismally, beats the air and then his wife, in contempt perhaps of 'the law's delays.' The offended judge rises from his chair of state and condemns the too demonstrative plaintiff to a 'dungeon cell,' so he is dragged off, and the scene being over, the judge and the rest scamper away in undignified haste, behind the scenes. Enter two pig-tailed menials to 'set' the next scene; they remove the judge's chair and bring into the magic square a bamboo like a short fishing rod, which is secured upright between two chairs. Then the heroine comes mincing on and in a pathetic soliloquy declares that life is not worth living, and decides to hang herself. We are now to imagine she is walking in a wood; she sees the bamboo; she pantomimes, 'This is the very thing! On this sturdy tree will I hang the burden of my sorrow.' She unties a silk scarf from her wasit, she drops on her knees for a moment's frantic prayer, and then with a mad rush of agony she tries to climb the chair, we beg her pardon, 'the tree,' she falls half fainting from the dangerous ascent, finally she stands secure on the dizzy height, she throws one end of her scarf over a small splinter of bamboo, fastened a foot from the top of the pole to simulate a bough, very cautiously, lest she snap the rudimentary limb; she draws down the other end of the scarf and knots the two under her chin; she meekly drops her head on one side and is supposed to be duly hanged. On comes the husband, a scene of grief insupportable: the villain appears painted half black and half white, lest we should not recognise him as a deceitfuly two-faced son of the Prince of Darkness. Husband insists on duel, swords are brought, villain is vanquished as in England and America. As he falls two supers appear, and while they hear the victim behind the curtain the hero drags from under a table a papier-mache head, which he swings about by the matted hair, intimating with grotesque gestures and savage glee that this is the gory head of his adversary. On the whole, our Western 'point of view,' or critics may think 'professional jealousy,' inclines us to the opinion that the Chinese are less successful as actors than as deft artisans and vendors of the fruits of the kindly earth, which they grow so successfully in their tiny gardens and sell to the 'Melican,' that they may buy for thier own consumption tainted fish and other dainties. Every morning, in the suburbs of San Francisco, one sees the white-aproned Chinaman calling from house to house with his two large vegetable baskets suspended from
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a horizontal pole across his shoulders, rather a picturesque object with his spotless dress and curious yellow face, trotting about our shining New World streets, the great baskets swinging like giant pendulums on either side.
Our last Shakespearean performance in San Francisco is 'The Merchant of Venice.' Never could the grand old play have gone better, never could a vast housefull have been stirred by enthusiasm more contagious than that which lifts this great audience to its feet and gives it one voice to cry 'Bravo' and 'Farewell!' Speeches of grace and feeling from the two great men, and a presentation of laurel wreaths and crowns of victory by the band-boxful.
The curtain falls for the last time, the crowds surge out, the lights go down, and in place of the brilliant echo-waking throng, darkness and silence sit in gallery and stall, our ocean-to-ocean tour has ended.
Citation for this document:
Robins, Elizabeth. "Across America With 'Junius Brutus Booth'." The Universal Review. Vol. 7, no. 27 (July 1890), 375-392. Hypertext ed. Joanne E. Gates. July 2000 [DATE OF ACCESS] URL: <http://www.jsu.edu/depart/english/robins/docshort/acramjbb.htm>. Pagination indicated is from this printing.
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