At a Dime Museum
by William Dean Howells
“I see,” said my friend, “that you have been writing a good deal about the theatre during the past winter. You have been attacking its high hats and its high prices, and its low morals; and I suppose that you think you have done good, as people call it.”
This seemed like a challenge of some sort, and I prepared myself to take it up warily. I said I should be very sorry to do good, as people called it; because such a line of action nearly always ended in spiritual pride for the doer and general demoralization for the doee. Still, I said, a law had lately been passed in Ohio giving a man who found himself behind a high hat at the theatre a claim for damages against the manager; and if the passage of this law could be traced ever so faintly and indirectly to my teachings, I should not altogether grieve for the good I had done. I added that if all the States should pass such a law, and other laws fixing a low price for a certain number of seats at the theatres, or obliging the managers to give one free performance every month, as the law does in Paris, and should then forbid indecent and immoral plays–
“I see what you mean,” said my friend, a little impatiently. “You mean sumptuary legislation. But I have not come to talk to you upon that subject, for then you would probably want to do all the talking yourself. I want to ask you if you have visited any of the cheaper amusements of this metropolis, or know anything of the really clever and charming things one may see there for a very little money.”
“Ten cents, for instance?”
I answered that I would never own to having come as low down as that; and I expressed a hardy and somewhat inconsistent doubt of the quality of the amusement that could be had for that money. I questioned if anything intellectual could be had for it.
“What do you say to the ten-cent magazines?” my friend retorted. “And do you pretend that the two-dollar drama is intellectual?”
I had to confess that it generally was not, and that this was part of my grief with it.
Then he said: “I don’t contend that it is intellectual, but I say that it is often clever and charming at the ten-cent shows, just as it is less often clever and charming in the ten-cent magazines. I think the average of propriety is rather higher than it is at the two-dollar theatres; and it is much more instructive at the ten-cent shows, if you come to that. The other day,” said my friend, and in squaring himself comfortably in his chair and finding room for his elbow on the corner of my table he knocked off some books for review, “I went to a dime museum for an hour that I had between two appointments, and I must say that I never passed an hour’s time more agreeably. In the curio hall, as one of the lecturers on the curios called it–they had several lecturers in white wigs and scholars’ caps and gowns–there was not a great deal to see, I confess; but everything was very high-class. There was the inventor of a perpetual motion, who lectured upon it and explained it from a diagram. There was a fortune-teller in a three-foot tent whom I did not interview; there were five macaws in one cage, and two gloomy apes in another. On a platform at the end of the hall was an Australian family a good deal gloomier than the apes, who sat in the costume of our latitude, staring down the room with varying expressions all verging upon melancholy madness, and who gave me such a pang of compassion as I have seldom got from the tragedy of the two-dollar theatres. They allowed me to come quite close up to them, and to feed my pity upon their wild dejection in exile without stint. I couldn’t enter into conversation with them, and express my regret at finding them so far from their native boomerangs and kangaroos and pinetree grubs, but I know they felt my sympathy, it was so evident. I didn’t see their performance, and I don’t know that they had any. They may simply have been there ethnologically, but this was a good object, and the sight of their spiritual misery was alone worth the price of admission.
“After the inventor of the perpetual motion had brought his harangue to a close, we all went round to the dais where a lady in blue spectacles lectured us upon a fire-escape which she had invented, and operated a small model of it. None of the events were so exciting that we could regret it when the chief lecturer announced that this was the end of the entertainment in the curio hall, and that now the performance in the theatre was about to begin. He invited us to buy tickets at an additional charge of five, ten, or fifteen cents for the gallery, orchestra circle, or orchestra.
“I thought I could afford an orchestra stall, for once. We were three in the orchestra, another man and a young mother, not counting the little boy she had with her; there were two people in the gallery, and a dozen at least in the orchestra circle. An attendant shouted, ‘Hats off!’ and the other man and I uncovered, and a lady came up from under the stage and began to play the piano in front of it. The curtain rose, and the entertainment began at once. It was a passage apparently from real life, and it involved a dissatisfied boarder and the daughter of the landlady. There was not much coherence in it, but there was a good deal of conscience on the part of the actors, who toiled through it with unflagging energy. The young woman was equipped for the dance she brought into it at one point rather than for the part she had to sustain in the drama. It was a very blameless dance, and she gave it as if she was tired of it, but was not going to falter. She delivered her lines with a hard, Southwestern accent, and I liked fancying her having come up in a simpler-hearted section of the country than ours, encouraged by a strong local belief that she was destined to do Juliet and Lady Macbeth, or Peg Woffington at the least; but very likely she had not.
“Her performance was followed by an event involving a single character. The actor, naturally, was blackened as to his skin, but as to his dress he was all in white, and at the first glance I could see that he had temperament. I suspect that he thought I had, too, for he began to address his entire drama to me. This was not surprising, for it would not have been the thing for him to single out the young mother; and the other man in the orchestra stalls seemed a vague and inexperienced youth, whom he would hardly have given the preference over me. I felt the compliment, but upon the whole it embarrassed me; it was too intimate, and it gave me a publicity I would willingly have foregone. I did what I could to reject it, by feigning an indifference to his jokes; I even frowned a measure of disapproval; but this merely stimulated his ambition. He was really a merry creature, and when he had got off a number of very good things which were received in perfect silence, and looked over his audience with a woe-begone eye, and said, with an effect of delicate apology, ‘I hope I’m not disturbing you any,’ I broke down and laughed, and that delivered me into his hand. He immediately said to me that now he would tell me about a friend of his, who had a pretty large family, eight of them living, and one in Philadelphia; and then for no reason he seemed to change his mind, and said he would sing me a song written expressly for him–by an expressman; and he went on from one wild gayety to another, until he had worked his audience up to quite a frenzy of enthusiasm, and almost had a recall when he went off.
“I was rather glad to be rid of him, and I was glad that the next performers, who were a lady and a gentleman contortionist of Spanish- American extraction, behaved more impartially. They were really remarkable artists in their way, and though it’s a painful way, I couldn’t help admiring their gift in bowknots and other difficult poses. The gentleman got abundant applause, but the lady at first got none. I think perhaps it was because, with the correct feeling that prevailed among us, we could not see a lady contort herself with so much approval as a gentleman, and that there was a wound to our sense of propriety in witnessing her skill. But I could see that the poor girl was hurt in her artist pride by our severity, and at the next thing she did I led off the applause with my umbrella. She instantly lighted up with a joyful smile, and the young mother in the orchestra leaned forward to nod her sympathy to me while she clapped. We were fast becoming a domestic circle, and it was very pleasant, but I thought that upon the whole I had better go.”
“And do you think you had a profitable hour at that show?” I asked, with a smile that was meant to be sceptical.
“Profitable?” said my friend. “I said agreeable. I don’t know about the profit. But it was very good variety, and it was very cheap. I understand that this is the kind of thing you want the two-dollar theatre to come down to, or up to.”
“Not exactly, or not quite,” I returned, thoughtfully, “though I must say I think your time was as well spent as it would have been at most of the plays I have seen this winter.”
My friend left the point, and said, with a dreamy air: “It was all very pathetic, in a way. Three out of those five people were really clever, and certainly artists. That colored brother was almost a genius, a very common variety of genius, but still a genius, with a gift for his calling that couldn’t be disputed. He was a genuine humorist, and I sorrowed over him–after I got safely away from his intimacy–as I should over some author who was struggling along without winning his public. Why not? One is as much in the show business as the other. There is a difference of quality rather than of kind. Perhaps by-and-by my colored humorist will make a strike with his branch of the public, as you are always hoping to do with yours.”
“You don’t think you’re making yourself rather offensive?” I suggested.
“Not intentionally. Aren’t the arts one? How can you say that any art is higher than the others? Why is it nobler to contort the mind than to contort the body?”
“I am always saying that it is not at all noble to contort the mind,” I returned, “and I feel that to aim at nothing higher than the amusement of your readers is to bring yourself most distinctly to the level of the show business.”
“Yes, I know that is your pose,” said my friend. “And I dare say you really think that you make a distinction in facts when you make a distinction in terms. If you don’t amuse your readers, you don’t keep them; practically, you cease to exist. You may call it interesting them, if you like; but, really, what is the difference? You do your little act, and because the stage is large and the house is fine, you fancy you are not of that sad brotherhood which aims to please in humbler places, with perhaps cruder means–”
“I don’t know whether I like your saws less than your instances, or your instances less than your saws,” I broke in. “Have you been at the circus yet?”
“Yet?” demanded my friend. “I went the first night, and I have been a good deal interested in the examination of my emotions ever since. I can’t find out just why I have so much pleasure in the trapeze. Half the time I want to shut my eyes, and a good part of the time I do look away; but I wouldn’t spare any actor the most dangerous feat. One of the poor girls, that night, dropped awkwardly into the net after her performance, and limped off to the dressing-room with a sprained ankle. It made me rather sad to think that now she must perhaps give up her perilous work for a while, and pay a doctor, and lose her salary, but it didn’t take away my interest in the other trapezists flying through the air above another net.
“If I had honestly complained of anything it would have been of the superfluity which glutted rather than fed me. How can you watch three sets of trapezists at once? You really see neither well. It’s the same with the three rings. There should be one ring, and each act should have a fair chance with the spectator, if it took six hours; I would willingly give the time. Fancy three stages at the theatre, with three plays going on at once!”
“No, don’t fancy that!” I entreated. “One play is bad enough.”
“Or fancy reading three novels simultaneously, and listening at the same time to a lecture and a sermon, which could represent the two platforms between the rings,” my friend calmly persisted. “The three rings are an abuse and an outrage, but I don’t know but I object still more to the silencing of the clowns. They have a great many clowns now, but they are all dumb, and you only get half the good you used to get out of the single clown of the old one-ring circus. Why, it’s as if the literary humorist were to lead up to a charming conceit or a subtle jest, and then put asterisks where the humor ought to come in.”
“Don’t you think you are going from bad to worse?” I asked.
My friend went on: “I’m afraid the circus is spoiled for me. It has become too much of a good thing; for it is a good thing; almost the best thing in the way of an entertainment that there is. I’m still very fond of it, but I come away defeated and defrauded because I have been embarrassed with riches, and have been given more than I was able to grasp. My greed has been overfed. I think I must keep to those entertainments where you can come at ten in the morning and stay till ten at night, with a perpetual change of bill, only one stage, and no fall of the curtain. I suppose you would object to them because they’re getting rather dear; at the best of them now they ask you a dollar for the first seats.”
I said that I did not think this too much for twelve hours, if the intellectual character of the entertainment was correspondingly high.
“It’s as high as that of some magazines,” said my friend, “though I could sometimes wish it were higher. It’s like the matter in the Sunday papers–about that average. Some of it’s good, and most of it isn’t. Some of it could hardly be worse. But there is a great deal of it, and you get it consecutively and not simultaneously. That constitutes its advantage over the circus.”
My friend stopped, with a vague smile, and I asked:
“Then, do I understand that you would advise me to recommend the dime museums, the circus, and the perpetual-motion varieties in the place of the theatres?”
“You have recommended books instead, and that notion doesn’t seem to have met with much favor, though you urged their comparative cheapness. Now, why not suggest something that is really level with the popular taste?”