Woman in the Emotional Drama
May 17, 1893 — Congress of Representative Women, Chicago World’s Fair, Chicago IL
First and foremost let me say that, standing here by the right of kindly invitation, before this great body of brainy, big-hearted women — earnest workers, not for themselves alone, God help them, but for the welfare of the whole race — I feel I am receiving the highest honor of my life. Honored and proud I am, but I am vexed. I suppose you all know what happens when a read flag is waved in the face of an angry bull? You may not have tried the experiment personally — neither have I — but the books say that such an act results in frenzy to the bull, who proceeds to mix things up and generally to hurt somebody. Now I don’t want to hurt any one, but when a lady asks me to stand up and make some remarks about the emotional drama she flaunts in my face the very reddest red flag to be found in all this big, beautiful city. Emotional drama, indeed! Whenever I hear the term “emotional actress” it always suggests to me a darkened room, an hysterical woman, and a strong odor of ether — it has such a weak, whimpering, soppy sound. Don’t think I am venturing to find fault with the drama, particularly the very branch in which I have longest served. No, I only quarrel with that dreadful word “emotional,” as applied to plays and players. All dramas deal with the human emotions. To be sure, some of the old-time playwrights treated their human emotions in a most inhuman way. They swathed them up in bombastic language, then mounted them upon the stilts of pomposity and affectation. Thus accoutered it would, of course, become difficult to recognize the humanist sort of an emotion. The whole body of actors of the natural school came near being made ridiculous through having that wretched title tacked to them. The idea prevailed for a time that an emotional play must be a tearful play. A synopsis might read like this: First Act. — A tiny, tearful trickle. Second Act. — A widening, weeping woe. Third Act. — A flood; tumultuous torrent of tears. Fourth Act. — Everything washed away.
But after a time it came to be understood that there were other human emotions than that of grief — such as love, hate, hypocrisy, jealousy, and the like — and that the deadliest grief, the bitterest anguish may be quite dry and tearless; that, in fact, an emotional actress is not of necessity a human reservoir. But one thing is certain, this school or style of acting, whatever it may be called, we owe to woman, just as to woman we owe the existence of those wonderful modern plays, those studies of human life, in which one almost sees the movement of the living brain, so closely is thought followed; one almost feels the host throbbing of the human heart, so fiercely are its secrets sought for.
There came a time in the history of the drama when, woman’s influence growing ever stronger, the writer of plays began to think about her, to study her, to write of he and for her. Poor male student of womankind! May a time he must have felt that the regally repellent riddle of the desert was easier to guess than any one of the living riddles about him. He found women who, seeming scarcely capably of the fierceness of an angry dove, yet possessed the endurance and tenacity of the bull dog; women with ambition as high as men’s, but purer; nay, sometimes even a woman with passions strong enough to wreck Othello, but in her — so curbed, so coerced were they by her will — they paced primly quiet, to suit conventional demand, her whole life through.
Finding this subject interest himself, he doubtless argued that the public might find it interesting too; and so one night in France the young son of a mighty father, in the face of all artistic Paris, cast his gauntlet down. Many of course there were who rushed to take it up, but paused amazed. That night there was a miracle performed, for before their awed and startled eyes there passed a fallen woman’s soul. Marguerite Gautier, with laughing face and anguished heart, seemingly unconscious of observers, laid bare before them the biter mockery of her mirth, her secret shame, her love, her hope, her torture and despair, until at last she bowed her weak shoulders beneath her self-made cross and stumbled blindly to her grave. Surely that night was an epoch in play making.
Two lilies, broken both, I often dream of. One tall, and fair, and sweet, oh, heavenly sweet, with all its perfume still about it, broken by too strong a wind, lies all its fair length upon the grass, green and cool with sparkling dew — broken but pure — and that the Lily Maid of Astolat. The other, which had been a bud of equal promise, grown equal tall, and fair, and sweet, oh, honey-sweet, is broken too, broken and cast by an evil hand upon the city street, where every passer-by may seen ground into the sweet whiteness of its face the smirch and bruise of a man’s boot-hell — broken and soiled — and that is Marguerite Gautier, poor Queen of the Camelias.
I am wandering too far a-field. Oh, dear mistress of ceremonies, before I take my seat let me cast aside the limitations put upon me to speak only of the emotional drama, and say a word of my profession as a whole. Already you have been addressed upon this subject by those far better fitted for the task than I, but, even so, you will allow me to express my gratitude to the profession that has given me under God every good thing I ever had — the dear profession that has always been woman’s friend. Hundreds of years ago, when every other profession was locked against her, and most of them had a man on guard outside that she might not learn too much about the size and shape of the keyhole, the doors of the theater stood wide, and to the woman who would enter there were two questions put: “Can you act?” “Will you work?” for women must work. They may weep, too, if they want to, but they work on a perfect equality with man, and, what is more, are as wll paid for their work. And, further still, has one been without previous education, what a teacher is this profession! It takes you by the hand and leads you by paths of romance and dramatic incident from land to land, from age to age, and, best of all, from poet to poet, till you reach the knees of Shakespeare’s self. There our greatest and mightiest have stood with the humility f little children to learn the ABC of that great art we call acting. She acts best who is not held bound to one narrow school. Doubtless, who serves Shakespeare serves best. There is a lady here this moment who illustrates my meaning, for will she not one night declaim her uncrowned, death-sentenced queen right royally, and the next night, in her laughing rush through Arden Forest, seem at times almost to catch the master’s very mantle in her bonnie, reckless hands?
To the great student of Shakespeare here present I humbly bow my head, and to the other sisters present I offer greeting and God-speed to the goal of their desires.
Surely our profession is great and beautiful, a very temple of art. A temple with many courts, full crowded; and altars, some of art, some to nature; but it is within the seven fold sanctuary, before the grand high altar erected to art and nature, that one finds the little band of mighty ones, who, having hearts to feel with, eyes to see with, brains to think with, have with loving, loyal labor won the right to enter there.
Now, my last words I speak to those whose eyes my eyes have never met; whose hands my hands have never grasped — to the actresses of the future. Through a veil of to-morrows I see dim forms struggling forward; from them I would exact a promise that when they enter this profession which they have chosen above all other professions, when they stand upon the threshold of that great temple, they will take a solemn vow that whether they win name and fame within, or whether they pass their whole life in some outer court, at the end, when all is done, they will leave upon its altar the pure white flower of a blameless life.
Source: The World’s Congress of Representative Women, ed. May Wright Sewall (Chicago: Rand, McNally & Company) 1894, pp. 175-179.