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An essay by Richard Le Gallienne

A Plea For The Old Playgoer

Title:     A Plea For The Old Playgoer
Author: Richard Le Gallienne [More Titles by Le Gallienne]

He's a nuisance, of course. But to see only that side of him is to think, as the shepherd boy piped, 'as though' you will 'never grow old.' Does he never appeal to you with any more human significance, a significance tearful and uncomfortably symbolic? Or are you so entirely that tailor's fraction of manhood, the _fin de siecle_ type, that your ninth part does not include a heart and the lachrymal gland?

You suspect him at once as you squeeze past his legs to your stall, for he cannot quite conceal the hissing twinge of gout; and you are hardly seated ere you are quite sure that a long night of living for others is before you.

'You hardly would think it, perhaps,' he begins, 'but I saw Charles Young play the part--yes, in 1824.'

If you are young and innocent, you think--'What an interesting old gentleman!' and you have vague ideas of pumping him for reminiscences to turn into copy. Poor boy, you soon find that there is no need of pumping on your part. He is entirely self-acting, and the wells of his autobiography are as deep as the foundations of the world.

If you are more experienced, you make a quick frantic effort to escape; you try to nip the bud of his talk with a frosty 'Indeed!' and edge away, calling upon your programme to cover you. You never so much as turn the sixteenth part of an eye in his direction, for even as the oyster-man, should the poor mollusc heave the faintest sigh, is inside with his knife in the twinkling of a star; even as a beetle has but to think of moving its tiniest leg for the bird to swoop upon him,--even so will the least muscular interest in your neighbour give you bound hand and foot into his power.

But really and truly escape is hopeless. You are beyond the reach of any salvage agency whatsoever. Better make up your mind to be absolutely rude or absolutely kind: and the man who can find in his heart to be the former must have meeting eyebrows, and will sooner or later be found canonised in wax at Madame Tussaud's. To be the latter, however, is by no means easy. It is one of the most poignant forms of self-sacrifice attained by the race. In that, at least, you have some wintry consolation; and the imaginative vignette of yourself wearing the martyr's crown is a pretty piece of sacred art.

If you wished to make a bag of old playgoers, or meditated a sort of Bartholomew's Eve, a revival of _Hamlet_ would, of course, be the occasion you would select for your purpose: for the old playgoer, so to speak, collects Hamlets. At a first night of _Hamlet_ every sixth stall-holder is a Dr. Doran up to date, his mind a portfolio of old prints.

That is why a perambulation of the stalls is as perilous as to pick one's way through hot ploughshares. You can hardly hope always to pass through unscathed. You are as sure some night to find yourself seated beside him, as you will some day be called to serve on the jury. And then--

'O limed soul, that, struggling to be free,
Art more engaged!'

However, 'sudden the worst turns best to the brave,' and 'there is much music' in this old fellow if only you have the humanity to listen.

To begin with, he has probably a distinguished face, with a bunch of vigorous curly hair, white as hawthorn. He has a manner, too. Suppose you try and enter into his soul for a moment. It does us good to get outside ourselves for a while, and this old man's soul is a palace of memory. Those lines that, may be, have been familiar to you for sixteen years, have been familiar to him for sixty. That is why he knows them off so well, why he repeats them under his breath--Look at his face!--like a Methodist praying, anticipating the actor in all the fine speeches. Do look at his face! How it shines, as the golden passages come treading along. How his head moves in an ecstasy of remembrance, in which there is a whole world of tears. How he half turns to you with a wistful appeal to feel what he is feeling: an appeal that might kindle a clod. It is the old wine laughing to itself within the old bottle.

And, one thing you will notice, it is the poetry that moves him: the great metaphor, the sonorous cadence, the honeysuckle fancy. He belongs to an age that had an instinct for beauty, and loved style--an age that, in the words of a modern wit, had not grown all nose with intellect, an age that went to the theatre to dream, not to dissect.

For you there may be here and there a flower of remembrance stuck within the leaves of the play, but for him it is stained through with the sweets of sixty springs. His youth lies buried within it like a thousand violets.

Practically he is Death at the play. To you there is but one ghost in _Hamlet_, to him there are fifty, and they all dance like shadows behind 'the new Hamlet,' and even sit about the stalls.

If your love be with you, forbear to press her hand in the love-scenes, or, at least, don't let the old man see you: because he used to punctuate those very passages he is muttering in just the same way--sixty years ago, when she whose angel face he will kiss no more, unless it be in the heavenly fields, sat like a flower at his side. Poor old fellow, can you be selfish to him? Can you say, 'These tedious old fools!' Fool thyself, this night shall thy youth be required of thee.

You might think of this next time you drop across the old playgoer. It was natural in Hamlet to swear at Polonius--who, you will remember, was an old playgoer himself--but, being a gentleman, it was natural in him, too, to recall the first player with, 'Follow that lord; but look you mock him not!'

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Richard Le Gallienne's essay: Plea For The Old Playgoer