Anyhow They Mean Well
by Leslie Howard
If there is one ordeal worse than another in an actor’s life (and this might sometimes be difficult to determine), it is surely the grueling he receives at the hands of slight acquaintances of the lay world who come round to see him at the end of the play, not to mention at divers occasions outside of the theatre. One particularly malignant form of this evil lies in the action of the well-intentioned person who calls you up on your arrival in a strange town, informs you he is the friend of a friend of yours and desires to show you the city. This would be bad enough for a normal person under normal conditions, but the actor is rarely a very normal person, and his conditions are invariably anything but normal. It is, it may thus be gathered, particularly hard on him.
I have in mind a certain play which shall be nameless – “Outward Bound,” to wit – and which underwent its première not so long ago at Atlantic City, having a reception there which was somewhat nerve-shattering. Not that I am blaming the good folk of Atlantic City. No. One can understand the annoyance of people who expect a jolly crook play and suddenly discover they have been inveigled into viewing one man’s conception of the judgement day and life in the hereafter. But this didn’t help the actors who had to stand up nightly and receive the slings and arrows and to spend the days being experimented upon in rehearsal. So that when we arrived the next week at a certain slightly Southern city, where we knew not what might be in store for us, the familiar friend of a mutual friend called up, I was, to say the least, in a somewhat disconcerted mood. I had just got into my hotel room – a perfectly beastly room – after an indecent fight for taxis at the station, when the bell rang. It was a female voice.
“Hallo,” it said, “is that Mr. Howard?” I had not the presence of mind to deny it.
“Mrs. Brown speaking. I am a friend of Mr. Tomatoes.” (At least it sounded like that.)
“Mr. Tomatoes– of Long Beach- you know.”
“Oh yes- yes- good old Tomatoes- well, well.”
“He told me you were very anxious to see our city. I’d just love to show you around. I’ll call for you-”
“I’m afraid,” I said, “I’ll be rehearsing every day.”
“Rehearsing? Whatever for?”
“Oh, I don’t know. Just-” in desperation I attempted jocularity, “-just for fun.”
“Oh, you actors,” chortled the voice. “Well, you must come to dinner then.”
So after some harangue I agreed to dine after the Wednesday matinee, and hung up with a few harsh thoughts for Tomatoes. The hour of 5:30 on Wednesday, therefore, saw me with an elderly lady speeding in her car to her house. I was tired, physically and emotionally, after a morning spent on the stage trying to forget how we played the thing the night before and to remember how we played it on Monday. The lady, getting very little conversation from me, did most of the talking herself.
“My husband hates the theatre,” she commenced, by way of encouragement. “Never can get him into one. Doesn’t like actors, either- says they’re of no value economically: of course, he doesn’t understand them, you see. But my daughter, now – why she’s just crazy about the stage – this is State Street we’re on now. They do talk of changing it to Coolidge Avenue – yes, she always wanted to act. In fact, she produces a play every Christmas at the high school for the students – she’s dying to meet you; you’ll be able to a have a great talk together – that’s the new Court House, built on the site of the old one, where General Jackson ate the famous apple.”
I craned my neck, looked the wrong way and nodded vigorously.
We arrived at the house and I met the party – the husband who disliked actors, a fine, bluff old fellow (I thought he must be an old Southern gentleman till some one mentioned he came from Bucksport, Me.); the daughter who was crazy about the stage, and a young man who was crazy about the daughter, and a number of other people, who regarded me intently with a peculiar zoological interest. The old gentleman presented me with an enormous glass of gin.
“I’m told this is the favorite beverage of you fellows,” he exclaimed, jocularly.
“Only a very small one, please,” I said politely, “before work, you know.”
“Work, eh?” The splendid old chap shouted with mirth quite inordinately at this, and, thus put on good terms with one another, we moved into the dining room, where we sat in a blinding glare of light, ate a vast Southern dinner and conversed amiably about the theatre.
The dear old boy sat at the end of the table and glanced around with a twinkle in his eye which plainly said, “Ladies and gentlemen, we have with us tonight a rare specimen of an interesting anthropoid. Make the most of this opportunity to observe him at close quarters.”
To change the subject, I talked about their beautiful city.
“I haven’t had much time to see it,” I explained.
“I suppose not,” bellowed the old gentleman. “You fellows usually breakfast in bed about 4:30 in the afternoon, don’t you?”
I wanted to tell him we were working about fourteen hours a day just then, but I hated to disappoint him. He was such a fine old fellow. The old lady then spoke up.
“Why, I’m sure it must be quite hard work,” she said, “remembering all those words. There must be pages of them.”
“I’ll say there are.” This from the daughter. “Remember the job I had in ‘She Stoops to Conquer’? It’s not only the words; you have to learn all the actions too, don’t you?”
Thus the time passed merrily till I rose to leave for the theatre. But they had not finished with me yet.
“We’re all coming to see your play tonight,” they announced. Even the old boy promised to look in during the evening and see us all amusing ourselves.
“Can’t come at the beginning,” he explained. “Got an important lodge meeting.”
“We’ll all come back and see you between the acts,” some one remarked jovially.
“Come at the end,” I begged and fled.
They all came. I waited for them at the little door that leads from the stage to the auditorium. They came in single file and in a seemingly endless procession, which terminated abruptly in the person of the fine old fellow from Bucksport who brought up the rear.
I said “How d’you do” a number of times, and then we all stood in silence in a circle while a few of us made apt remarks such as “Ah!” and “Well!” Finally I gave them understand I hoped they weren’t too bored with the play.
“Oh, no-no,” said everybody. “No. No, indeed.”
That seemed to confirm that. Then some one was more explicit.
“Well – it’s kind of queer, isn’t it?”
They all seized on that.
“You said it, May – queer, what it is.”
“Yes–certainly is queer.”
“Mind you, ” said the daughter, “it’s interesting.”
“Sure. It’s interesting, all right.”
“Difficult to follow though, at times.”
“Well,” I ventured, “It’s really very simple.”
“Some of it, yes. I liked that bit where you all find out you’re in a ship at the bottom of the sea.”
“It isn’t at the bottom of the sea,” I tried to explain, “in fact, it isn’t really a ship at all.”
“Well, I call that confusing. It looks just like a ship. Still, it’s certainly very thrilling where you and the girl die at the end.”
“We don’t die. We come back to life.”
“You do? Well, that’s the worst of these problem plays.”
The fine old fellow butted in.
“I didn’t come in till the end of the second act, but I saw enough to seize it up, and what I say is, give me a good laugh. When I go to the theatre I want to be amused – not that I ever go, anyway.”
(New York Times, May 11, 1924)