Short Stories
All Titles

In Association with Amazon.com

Home > Authors Index > Browse all available works of George William Curtis > Text of At The Opera In 1864

An essay by George William Curtis

At The Opera In 1864

Title:     At The Opera In 1864
Author: George William Curtis [More Titles by Curtis]

It was a strange chance that took the Easy Chair, the other evening, to the opera in the midst of a terrible war. But there was the scene, exactly as it used to be. There were the bright rows of pretty women and smiling men; the white and fanciful opera-cloaks; the gay rich dresses; the floating ribbons; the marvellous _chevelures_; the pearl-gray, the dove, and "tan" gloves, holding the jewelled fans and the beautiful bouquets--the smile, the sparkle, the grace, the superb and irresistible dandyism that we all know so well in the days of golden youth--they were all there, and the warm atmosphere was sweet with the thick odor of heliotrope, the very scent of _haute societe_.

The house was full: the opera was "Faust," and by one of the exquisite felicities of the stage, the hero, a mild, ineffective gentleman, sang his ditties and passionate bursts in Italian, while the poor Gretchen vowed and rouladed in the German tongue. Certainly nothing is more comical than the careful gravity with which people of the highest civilization look at the absurd incongruities of the stage. After the polyglot love-making, Gretchen goes up steps and enters a house. Presently she opens a window at which she evidently could not appear as she does breast high, without having her feet in the cellar. The Italian Faust rushes, ascends three steps leading to the window, which could not by any possibility appropriately be found there, and reclines his head upon the bosom of the fond maid. We all look on and applaud with "sensation." But ought we not to insist, however, that ladies in the play shall stand upon the floor, and that the floor in a stately mansion shall not be two feet below the front door-sill? And ought we not to demand that Faust shall woo Gretchen in their mother-tongue?

But we, the ludicrous public, who snarl at the carpenter and shoemaker if the fitness of things be not observed; we, the shrewd critics, who pillory the luckless painter who dresses a gentleman of the Restoration in the ruff of James First's court, gaze calmly on the most ridiculous anachronisms and impossibilities, and smite our perfumed gloves in approbation. It is no excuse to say that the whole thing is absurd; that people do not carry on the business of life in song, nor expire in recitative. That is true, but even fairy tales have their consistency. Every part is adapted to every other, and, in the key, the whole is harmonious. Hermann, for instance, the basso, who sang Mephistopheles, would have been quite perfect if he had only remembered this. But he forgot that Mephisto is a sly and subtle devil. He caricatured him. He made him a buffoon and repulsive. Such extravagance could not have imposed upon Faust or Martha; yet we all agreed that it was very fine, and amiably applauded what no opera-goer of sense could seriously approve.

You think that this is taking syllabub seriously, and that the circumstances of the time had made the Easy Chair hypercritical. No; it was only that there comes a time in theatre-going when the boxes are more interesting than the stage. The mimic life fades before the real. In the midst of the finest phrases of the impassioned Herr Faust, what if your truant eyes stray across the parquette and see a slight, pale figure, and recognize one of the bravest and most daring Union generals, whose dashing assaults upon the enemy's works carried dismay and victory day after day? Herr Faust trills on, but you see the sombre field and the desperate battle and the glorious cause. Gretchen musically sighs, but you see the brave boys lying where they fell: you hear the deep, sullen roar of the cannonade; you catch far away through the tumult of war the fierce shout of victory. And there sits the slight, pale figure with eyes languidly fixed upon the stage; his heart musing upon other scenes; himself the unconscious hero of a living drama.

Or, if you choose to lift your eyes, you see that woman with the sweet, fair face, composed, not sad, turned with placid interest towards the loves of Gretchen and Faust. She sees the eager delight of the meeting; she hears the ardent vow; she feels the rapture of the embrace. With placid interest she watches all--she, and the sedate husband by her side. And yet when her eyes wander it is to see a man in the parquette below her on the other side, who, between the acts, rises with the rest and surveys the house, and looks at her as at all the others. At this distance you cannot say if any softer color steals into that placid face; you cannot tell if his survey lingers longer upon her than upon the rest. Yet she was Gretchen once, and he was Faust. There is no moonlight romance, no garden ecstasy, poorly feigned upon the stage, that is not burned with eternal fire into their memories. Night after night they come. They do not especially like this music. They are not infatuated with these singers. They have seats for the season; she with her husband, he in the orchestra chairs. She has a pleasant home and sweet children and a kind mate, and is not unhappy. He is at ease in his fortunes, and content. They do not come here that they may see each other. They meet elsewhere as all acquaintances meet. They cherish no morbid repining, no sentimental regret. But every night there is an opera, and the theme of every opera is love; and once, ah! once, she was Gretchen and he was Faust.

Do you see? These are three out of the three thousand. There is nothing to distinguish them from the rest. Look at them all, and reflect that all have their history; and that it is known, as this one is known, to some other old Easy Chair, sitting in the parquette and spying round the house. "All the world's a stage, and men and women merely players."

Is it quite so? Are these players? The young pale general there, the placid woman, the man in the orchestra stall, have they been playing only? There are scars upon that young soldier's body; in the most secret drawer of that woman's chamber there is a dry, scentless flower; the man in the orchestra stall could show you a tress of golden hair. If they are players, who is in earnest?

[The end]
George William Curtis's essay: At The Opera In 1864