A FIRST NIGHTCategory: Theatre
In bygone years she had been intolerably nervous before a first night. She had felt slightly sick all day and as the hours passed got into such a state that she almost thought she would have to leave the stage. But by now, after having passed through the ordeal so many times, she had acquired a certain nonchalance. Throughout the early part of the day she felt only happy and mildly excited; it was not till late in the afternoon that she began to feel ill-at-ease. She grew silent and wanted to be left alone. She also grew irritable, and Michael, having learnt from experience, took care to keep out of her way. Her hands and feet got соld and by the time she reached the theatre they were like lumps of ice. But still the apprehension that filled her was not unpleasant.
Julia had nothing to do that merning but go down to the Siddons for a word-rehearsal at noon, so she lay in bed till late. Her intention was to rest all the afternoon; Miss Phillips was coming at six to give her a light massage, and by seven she wanted to be at the theatre. But when she awoke she felt so much refreshed that it irked her to stay in bed, so she made up her mind to get up and go for a walk.
Four hours later it was all over. The play went well from the beginning; the audience, notwithstanding the season a fashionable one, were pleased after the holidays to find themselves once more in a playhouse, and were ready to be amused. It was an auspicious beginning for the theatrical season. There had been great applause after each act and at the end a dozen curtain-calls; Julia took two by herself, and even she was startled by the warmth of her reception. She had made the little halting speech, prepared beforehand which the occasion demanded. There had been a final call of the entire company and then the orchestra had struck up the National Anthem. Julia, pleased, excited and happy, went to her dressing-room. She had never felt more sure of herself. She had never acted with greater brilliance, variety and resource. The play ended with a long tirade in which Julia castigated the flippancy, the uselessness, the immorality of the idle set into which her marriage had brought her. It was two pages long, and there was not another actress in England who could have held the attention of the audience while she delivered it. With her exquisite timing, with the modulation of her beautiful voice, with her command of the gamut of emotions, she had succeeded by a miracle of technique in making it a thrilling, almost spectacular climax to the play. A violent action could not have been more exciting. The whole cast had been excellent with thj3 exception of Avice Crichton. Julia hummed in an undertone as she went into her dressing-room. Michael followed her in almost at once.
“It looks like a winner all right”. He threw his arsm round her and kissed her. “By God, what a performance you gave.’’
“You were not so bad yourself, dear.”
“That’s the sort of part I can play on my head”, he answered carelessly, modest as usual about his own acting. “Did you hear them during your long speech? That ought to knock the critics.” “Oh, you know what they are. They’ll give all their attention to the blasted play and then three lines at the end to me.”
“You’re the greatest actress in the world, darling, but by God, you’re a bitch.”
Julia opened her eyes very wide in an expression of the most naive surprise.
“Michael, what do you mean?”
“Don’t look so innocent, you know perfectly well. Do you think you can cod an old trouper like me?”
He was looking at her with twinkling eyes, and it was very difficult for her not to burst out laughing.
“I am as innocent as a babe unborn.”
“Come off it. If anydne ever deliberately killed a performance you killed Avice’s. I couldli’t be angry with you, it was so beautifully done.” Now Julia simply could not conceal the little smile that curled her lips. Praise is always grateful to the artist. Avice’s one big scene was in the second act. It was with Julia, and Michael had rehearsed it so as to give it all to the girl. This was indeed what the play demanded, and Julia, as always, had in rehearsals accepted his directions. To bring out the colour of her blue eyes and to emphasize her fair hair they had dressed Avice in pale blue. To contrast with this Julia had chosen a dress of an agreeable yellow. This she had worn at the dress-rehearsal. But she had ordered another dress at the same time, of sparkling silver, and to the surprise of Michael and the consternation of Avice it was in this that she made her entrance in the second act. Its brilliance, the way it took the light, attracted the attention of the audience. Avice’s blue looked drab by comparison. When they reached the important scene they were to have together Julia produced, as a conjurer produces a rabbit from his hat, a large handkerchief of scarlet chiffon and with this she played. She waved it, she spread it, as though to look at it she screwed it up, she wiped her brow with it, she delicately blew her nose. The audience, fascinated, could not take their eyes away frorfl the red rag. And she moved up-stage so that Avice to speak to her had to turn her back on the audience, and when they were sitting on a sofa together she took her hand, in an impulsive way that seemed to the public exquisitely natural, and sitting well back herself forced Avice to turn her profile to the house. Julia had noticed early in rehearsals that in profile Avice had a sheep-like look.
The author had given Avice lines to say that had so much amused the cast at the first rehearsal that they had all burst out laughing. Before the audience had quite realized how funny they were Julia had cut in with her reply, and the audience, anxious to hear it, suppressed their laughter. The scene, which was devised to be extremely amusing, took on a sardonic colour, and the character Avice played acquired a certain odiousness. Avice in her inexperience, not getting the laughs she had expected, was rattled; her voice grew hard and her gestures awkward. Julia took the scene away from her and played it with miraculous virtuosity. But her final stone was accidental. Avice had a long speech to deliver, and Julia nervously ‘ screwed her red handkerchief into a ball; the action almost automatically suggested an expression; she looked at Avice with troubled eyes and two heavy tears rolled down her cheeks. You felt the shame with which the girl’s flippancy affected her, and you saw her pain because her poor little ideals of uprightness, her hankering for goodness were so brutally mocked. The episode lasted no more than a minute, but in that minute, by those tears and by the anguish of her look, Julia laid bare the sordid misery of the woman’s life.
That was the end of Avice.
“And I was such a dammed fool, I thought of giving her a contract,” said Michael.
“Why don’t you?”
“When you’ve got your knife into her? Not on our life. You’re a naughty little thing 1 о be so jealous. You don’t really think she means anything to me, do you? You ought to know by now that you’re the only woman in the world for me.’
Michael thought that Julia had played this trick on account of the rather violent flirtation he had been having with Avice, and though, of course, it was hard liick on Avice, he could not help being a trifle flatterd.
“You old donkey,” smiled Julia, kmnving exactly what he was thinking and tickled to death at his mistake. “After all, you are the handsomest man in London.”
(From Theatre by W. S. Maugham)