Short Stories
All Titles

In Association with Amazon.com

Home > Authors Index > Browse all available works of Heywood Broun > Text of Adventure Made Painless

An essay by Heywood Broun

Adventure Made Painless

Title:     Adventure Made Painless
Author: Heywood Broun [More Titles by Broun]

One of my favorite characters in all fiction is D'Artagnan. He was forever fighting duels with people and stabbing them, or riding at top speed over lonely roads at night to save a woman's name or something. I believe that I glory in D'Artagnan because of my own utter inability to do anything with a sword. Beyond self-inflicted razor wounds, no blood has been shed by me. Horseback riding is equally foreign to my experience, and I have done nothing for any woman's name. And why should I? D'Artagnan does all these things so much better that there is not the slightest necessity for personal muddling. When he gallops I ride too, clattering along at breakneck speed between ghostly lines of trees. Only there is no ache in my legs the next morning. Nor heartache either over heroines.

He is my substitute in adventure. After an evening with him I can go down to the office in the morning and go through routine work without the slightest annoying consciousness that it is, after all, pretty dull stuff. I am not tempted to put on my hat and coat and fling up my job in order to go out to seek adventures with swordsmen and horses and provocative ladies in black masks.

Undoubtedly there must be some longing in me for all this or I would not have such a keen interest in The Three Musketeers, but, having read about it, there is no craving for actual deeds. Possibly, after a long evening with a tale of adventure, I may swagger a little the next day and puzzle a few office boys with a belligerent manner to which they are not accustomed; but they do not fit into the picture perfectly enough to maintain the mood. It has been satisfied, and when it begins to tug again there are other books which will serve to gratify my keen desire to hear the clink of blades and the sound of running footsteps on the cobbles as the miscreants give way. The scurvy knaves! The system saves time and expense and arnica. Without it I might not be altogether reconciled to Brooklyn.

In my opinion, most of the men and women whom I know find the same relief in books and plays and motion pictures. The rather stout lady on the floor below us has three small children. I imagine that they are a fearful nuisance, but recently, after getting them to bed, she has been reading "The Sheik." Her husband--he is one of these masterful men--told me that he had glanced at the book himself and found it silly and highly colored. He said that he was going to tell her to stop. I agreed with him as to the silliness of the book, but it seemed to me that his wife had earned her right to a fling on the desert. If I knew him a little better, I would go on to say that it ought to comfort him to have his wife reading such a highly flavored romance. He is excessively jealous, and he ought to be pleased to have a possibly roving fancy so completely occupied by an intense interest in an Arab chieftain who never lived--no, not even in Arabia or any place at all outside the pages of a book. The husband has no need to worry. There is no one in our neighborhood who resembles Ben Ahmed Abdullah--or whatever his fool name may be.

Once, when my neighbor found me at the door of his apartment, where I had gone to borrow half an orange, he seemed unusually surly. That was certainly a groundless suspicion. At the time I was entirely absorbed in "The Outline of History." Mrs. X--of course I can't give her name or even provide any description which might serve to identify her--was entirely safe from my attentions, for during that particular week I was rather taken with Cleopatra, even though Wells did speak slightingly of her. Unfortunately we have no adequate idea of Cleopatra's appearance. Wells attempts no description. The only existing portrait is one of those conventionalized Egyptian things with the arms held out stiffly as if the siren of the Nile was trying to indicate to the clerk the size of the shoe which she desired. Still, we can imply something from the enthusiasm of Antony and the others. Somehow or other, I have always felt sure that there was not the slightest resemblance between Cleopatra and Mrs. X.

Here is what I am trying to get at. Mr. X sells something or other, and apparently nobody in New York wants it, which makes it necessary for him to go on long journeys in which he touches Providence, Boston, New Bedford, and Bangor. Practically all my evenings are spent at home.

I have spoken of the stairs, but it is only a short flight. Mrs. X is sentimental and I am romantic. And we are both quite safe, and Mr. X can go peacefully and enthusiastically around Bangor selling whatever it is which he has to sell. I resemble the Sheik Ben Ahmed Abdullah even less than Mrs. X resembles Cleopatra. Mr. Smith (we might as well abandon subterfuges and come out frankly with the name, since I have already been indiscreet enough for him to identify the personages concerned) has no rival but a phantom one.

Realizing how much Smith and I and Mrs. Smith owe to the protecting consolations of fiction, which includes history as written by Wells, I feel that I ought to go on to generalize in favor of many much-abused types of entertainment. Whenever a youngster steals anything, or a wife runs away from home, the motion pictures are blamed. Censorship is devoted to removing all traces of bloodshed from the films. Police magistrates are called in to suppress farces dealing with folk given to high jinks, on the ground that they threaten the morals of the community. We assume, of course, that the censors are thinking of morals in terms of deeds. They can hardly be ambitious enough to hope to curtail the thoughts of a community.

And I deny their major premise. Evil instincts are in us all. Practically everybody would enjoy robbing a bank or running away with somebody with whom he ought not to run away. These lawless instincts are invariably drained off by watching their mimic presentment in novels and films and plays.

If only accurate statistics were available, I would wager and win on the proposition that not half of 1 per cent of all the cracksmen in America have ever seen Alias Jimmy Valentine. No burglar could watch the play without being shamed out of his job by sheer envy. An ounce of self-respect--and there are figures to show that yeggs average three and a quarter--would keep a crook from continuing in his bungling way after observing the manner in which Jimmy Valentine opens the door of a safe merely by sandpapering his fingers. What sort of person do you suppose could go and buy nitroglycerine ungrudgingly after that? Even by the least optimistic estimate of human nature, the worst we could expect from a criminal who had seen the play would be to have him make a gallant and sincere effort to employ the touch system in his own career. Such attempts would be easy to frustrate. Night watchmen could creep up on the idealists and catch them unaware. They could be traced by their cursing. And, of course, the police might keep an eye open at the doors of the sandpaper shops.

Kiki, David Belasco's adaptation from the French, taps another rich vein of human depravity and allows it to be exploited and exhausted by means of drama. The heroine of the play is a rowdy little baggage. She has a civil word for no man. The truth is not in her. Now, every child born into the world would like to lie and be impertinent. There is practically no fun in being polite, and truth-telling is most indifferent judged solely as an indoor sport. Manners and veracity are things which people learn slowly and painfully. Undoubtedly both are useful, though I am not at all sure that their importance is not somewhat exaggerated. Community life demands certain sacrifices, particularly as the pressure of civilization increases. The men of a primitive tribe do not get up in the subway to give their seats to ladies, because they have no subways. Likewise, having no hats, they are not obliged to take them off. Of course it goes deeper than that. Even a primitive civilization has weather, and yet one seldom hears an Indian in his native state observing: "Isn't it unusually warm for November?"

Once everybody was primitive, and the most intensive training cannot wholly obliterate the old longing to be done with strange and self-imposed trappings. Until it is licked out of them, children are savagely rude. Training can alter practice, but even the most severe chastisement cannot get deep enough to affect an instinct. We all want to be rude, and we would, now and again, break loose in unrestrained spells of boorishness if it were not for an occasional Kiki who does the work for us. Accordingly, one of the most salutary forms of entertainment is the comedy of bad manners which recurs in our theater every once in so often.

"But," I hear somebody objecting, "no matter how much each of us may like to be rude, we don't care much about it when it is done to us. In real life we would all run from Kiki because her monstrous bragging would irritate us, and her vulgarity and bad manners would be most annoying."

All that would be true but for one factor. In any play which achieves success a curious transference of personality takes place. Before a play begins the audience is separated from the people on the stage by a number of barriers. First of all, there is the curtain, but by and by that goes up. The orchestra pit and the footlights still stand as moats to keep us at our distance. Then the magic of the playhouse begins to have its effect. If the actors and the playwrights know the tricks of the business, they soon lift each impressionable person from his seat and carry him spiritually right into the center of the happenings. He becomes one or more persons in the play. We do not weep when Hamlet dies because we care anything in particular about him. His death can hardly come as a surprise. We knew he was going to die. We even knew that he had been dead for a long time.

Probably a few changes have been made in adapting Kiki from the French. Kiki is made just a bit more respectable than she was in the French version, but she remains enough of a gamin and a rebel against taste and morals to satisfy the outlaw spirit of an American audience. She is for the New York stage "a good girl," but since this seems to be only the slightest check upon her speech and conduct, there can be no violent objection. Of course the type is perfectly familiar in the American theater, but this time it seems to us better written than usual, and much more skillfully and warmly played. Indeed, in my opinion, Miss Ulric's Kiki is the best comedy performance of the season. Even this is not quite enough. It has been a lean season, and this particular piece of acting is good enough to stand out in a brilliant one. The final scene of the play, in which Kiki apologizes for being virtuous, seems to me a truly dazzling interpretation of emotions. It is comic because it is surprising, and it is surprising because it concerns some of the true things which people neglect to discuss.

By seeing Alias Jimmy Valentine, the safe-cracking instinct which lies dormant in us may be satisfied. Kiki allows us to indulge our fondness for being rude without alienating our friends. But more missionary work remains. In The Idle Inn, Ben-Ami appears as a horse thief. Personally, I have no inclination in that direction. I would not have the slightest idea what to do with a horse after stealing him. My apartment is quite small and up three flights of stairs. However, there are other vices embodied in the rôle which are more appealing to me. The rôle is that of a masterful man, which has always been among my thwarted ambitions. In the second act Ben-Ami breaks through a circle of dancing villagers and, seizing the bride, carries her off to the forest. Probably New York will never realize how many weddings have been carried on without mishap this season solely because of Ben-Ami's performance in The Idle Inn. In addition to entrusting him with all my eloping for the year, I purpose to let Ben-Ami swagger for me. He does it superbly. To my mind this young Jewish actor is one of the most vivid performers in our theater. His silences are more eloquent than the big speeches of almost any other star on Broadway.

The play is nothing to boast about. Once it was in Yiddish, and as far as spirit goes it remains there. Once it was a language, and now it is words. The usually adroit Arthur Hopkins has fallen down badly by providing Ben-Ami with a mediocre company. He suffers like an All-America halfback playing on a scrub team. The other players keep getting in his way.

One more production may be drawn into the discussion, but only by extending the field of inquiry a little. The Chocolate Soldier, which is based on Shaw's Arms and the Man, can hardly be said to satisfy the soldiering instinct in us by a romantic tale of battle. Shaw's method is more direct. He contents himself with telling us that the only people who do get the thrill of adventure out of war are those who know it only in imagination. His perfect soldier is prosaic. It is the girl who has never seen a battle who romances about it. Still, Shaw does make it possible for us to practice one vice vicariously. After seeing a piece by him the spectator does not feel the need of being witty. He can just sit back and let George do it.

[The end]
Heywood Broun's essay: Adventure Made Painless