Brann the Iconoclast— Volume 10

Contents:
Author: William Cowper Brann

The Footlight Favorites.

BY ETHELYN LESLIE HUSTON.

In the December ICONOCLAST there appeared a tirade on "The Stage and Stage Degenerates" that was as sweeping in its assertions as it was narrow in its views. The writer revels in reminiscences of his newspaper associations with the cheap beer-drinking, sand-floor class, swings their vices and vulgarities before the public, describes them as garbed in "loud patterned" trousers and snowwhite overcoats and epitomizes the whole thing as an Augean stable, impure, impossible, vile, vulgar and bad. He then tells us calmly that "these are the representatives of their profession, so far as America is concerned," and he gives them to us as the "middle class of the people of the footlights."

If these are the "middle class," what is the next grade below? Where does he place the dividing line? Does he make no distinction between the vaudeville, continuous performance buffoons and the thousands who are "not stars," but working well and perhaps hoping? Does he call our scullery-maids and stable-boys "representative American middle class?" Does he call Mable Strickland and other dainty little hard-workers in minor parts typical of the hideous coarseness and vice he has described? Does he bracket THEM with his beer-drunk, easy-virtue "chorus-girls?" Does he realize all he means when he says of those he depicts "there were no stars among them, and none of the lower stratum?" Briefly, did he know what he was writing about?

When a man sits down on a curb stone with his feet in the gutter to "study life" and imagines himself a philosopher, while he moralizes on the muddy feet that pass him, he would probably feel grieved if the strong hand of some clear-headed individual lifted him up out of the gutter’s filth and he was informed that much depended upon one’s view being from a level, not an incline. We do not Judge our middle-class citizens by our cooks, and it is apt to suggest unwisdom, to express it very mildly, to gauge the men and women workers of the stage by beer-hall habitues and fleshling courtesans.

This an age of work and a generation of workers. The times, the conditions, the needs of the century are driving women out into the world as never before in the world’s history. They must work to live and to help others live and in every line of work possible is woman found. The stage gives employment to thousands of women eminently fitted to entertain and amuse the public. Under ordinary conditions the great army of players find its lot a not unpleasant one. Women bears its harness lightly, to whom manual labor would be a mental and physical crucifixion. It is a labor of brain as well as body, of the soul as well as the senses, of the artistic as well as the prosaic. Its temptations are many and its pitfalls are many, but they are little, if any, more than are the temptations in many other fields of self-support for women. And notwithstanding the gentleman’s profound deductions, there are a number of good women on the American stage even if they are not "given credit for being so by their fellow professionals"—and iconoclastic writers. And by these I do not mean the weary females described by Lizzie Annandale as reclining on the shoulders of their men companions, in mal-adorous day coaches on cross-continent "jumps." These women, if he will pardon the contradiction, are not the "representative middle class of the American stage." They are the scullery-maid class, for they are on the lowest rung of the professional ladder and few ever ascend from that lowest rung. It is their native element.

But these women who are neither "stars or the lower stratum," who study and labor, even though the labor be light through being one of love for their profession, who give a refinement and a sweetness to the many little dramas that appeal to critique and common folk alike, who speak to us of wife and sister and mother and sweetheart, and whose voices are as sweet and gestures as gentle and personalities as refined as are those of our own home women nestling safe in the firelight of our ingle-nook—these women are not immoral in a ratio of "ten to one." And with them, as with our home women, it is not their sense of morality that is their greatest safe-guard. It is their sense of refinement. It is a mistake to think that only Christian and moral women are virtuous. "Passion leaps o’er cold decree," and Christian precepts and moral teaching are cold and distant things when the blood leaps like molton lava through heart and brain. With Marguerite telling her beads, the prayers become but a babble of empty sound on her lips when the sweet poison of her lover’s teachings crept through ear and heart and opened to her wondering, frightened dreams a Paradise of sense and sound and sweetness and dreamy, swooning loveliness before which her pictured pearl and golden heaven waxed chill and distant and austere. Prayers did not save Francesca from the sweet torment of her Passion and her Purgatory. Prayers save but rarely, for they are to darkness and to mystery that give back only the awful weight of silence—silence under which the frantic heart struggles and stifles as beneath a pall. Prayers reach out to an infinity that is shrouded always, but the lover’s lips are sweet and the caress is close and the arms are warm and human. What wonder if the brain forgets when the heart thirsts and pleads? What wonder if the reason waver and faint when the winged god nestles close in the breast? What woman if the woman wake and thrill and "answers to the touch of one musician’s hand" as an instrument that is silent till the master touch sweep the strings? What wonder if the marble warm and waken and throb to quick life beneath the passion of Pygmalion’s kiss? What wonder if women love with an answering love if their God have so created? And what wonder if their prayer to him faint on their lips beneath the surging diapason of the waking heart beneath? If he so created, what then? If he "saw them made and said ’twas good," what then? If he made love chief, to deity and then destroy, its ecstacy blending with agony "as swells and swoons, across the wold the tinkling of the camel’s bell," what then? If he made the greatest thing in the world and life speaks to life as a magnet to the pole, what then? Can you break that strong, silent current by a breathed invocation? Did not the Man cry from the cross in his exquisite agony, "Eli, Eli, lama sabachthani!" And if his divine faith fainted on the threshold of his kingdom, is it strange if human faith sink beneath life’s crucifixion and the babble of priest grow poor and harsh before the sweetness of "a little laughter and a little love"—the only hyssop in the sponge of vinegar? And we wander so far to find so little!

In Jean Paul’s cry "How lonely is everyone in this wide charnal of the universe!"—is the explanation of—much.

We are as we are. And Allah is great.

And because we are as we are, it is fallacy to think that the good women, in the accepted sense of the term, are the only virtuous ones. Women of the stage and of the world ponder little on Moses and the prophets. Their lives are too full of grinding fact to reck much of unsubstantial fancies. And Prayer and Priest save women from little if Personality be not there. Teachings of virtue and morality are lip service and things of air. But when a woman’s self rises to defend her honor—an honor that is a sacred thing in its own worth, not a question that will but win her reward in other life, then does true morality speak and then does woman find her greatest safeguard. A woman is but a weak thing who must cower behind the skirts of her religion to guard her purity. And these women of the stage who are its "middle class" are also its gentlewomen. For unfortunately its "stars" many of them but rival the other "stratum" in lawless infamy. In that, did the writer in December make his supreme mistake.

Temptation in the footlight world is strong, but a woman’s pride is stronger. Under temptation’s test, her religion might was dim, but her refinement would rise as a battlement in defense. Her church and creed might waver and sink, but that undefinable innocence which we call womanhood, would lead her, a Dian, through the fires of hell. In society and the slums a large percentage of women are courtesans by choice. The one has a refinement that is but a veneer, and the other has no refinement at all. And as with the world, so with the stage. In the middle class are found the truer gentlewomen. Women of the drama must of necessity be gentlewomen, the refinement must be innate, or they would fail utterly. An actress who is a gentlewoman can with her art stoop to portray sin, but an actress who is a common woman cannot rise to portray a refinement of which her coarse nature has no conception. Mrs. Kendal a woman who is as the wife of Caesar, can become a "Second Mrs. Tanguery" before the footlights. But Lizzie Annadale’s chorus girl could never enact the role of a Mrs. Kendal on or off the stage. The former is a comparatively light task. The latter is an impossibility. And because they are refined women, though not necessarily "good" women, are they as a class virtuous women. Their instinctive womanhood would shrink from an impure life as quickly as they would lift their skirts from the mire of the gutter. The deadly chill of physical repulsion would be as strong in one case as in the other. In individual cases they have "sinned" as we term it, but qui voulez vous! The ratio on the stage is little larger than that of the world’s middle class and not at all larger than that of the world’s society women. I also object to those wild fanatics who would "elevate the stage," not because it would be Herculean labor, but because the aforesaid fanatics would find larger and more fruitful fields for their efforts in the shadow of their own church spire. Let them leave the women of the footlights alone and turn their attention to the women in the boxes. It would give a bored public relief and be distinctly and beautifully amusing—as an experiment. Waco, Texas, December 11, 1897.

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Chicago: William Cowper Brann, "The Footlight Favorites.," Brann the Iconoclast— Volume 10 in Brann the Iconoclast—Volume 10 (New York: The Century Co., 1899), Original Sources, accessed February 6, 2023, http://www.originalsources.com/Document.aspx?DocID=94IMFLRFVAEH8DG.

MLA: Brann, William Cowper. "The Footlight Favorites." Brann the Iconoclast— Volume 10, in Brann the Iconoclast—Volume 10, New York, The Century Co., 1899, Original Sources. 6 Feb. 2023. http://www.originalsources.com/Document.aspx?DocID=94IMFLRFVAEH8DG.

Harvard: Brann, WC, 'The Footlight Favorites.' in Brann the Iconoclast— Volume 10. cited in 1899, Brann the Iconoclast—Volume 10, The Century Co., New York. Original Sources, retrieved 6 February 2023, from http://www.originalsources.com/Document.aspx?DocID=94IMFLRFVAEH8DG.