THE OLD SPIRIT’S GONECategory: Theatre
By the time Otley had gone, Alfred Leathers had drawn up a chair near Cheveril’s and was sitting there quietly ruminating. Cheveril regarded his battered old trouper’s face with affection. They had often worked together, and there was more than one Second Act curtain and tricky Third Act in a Cheveril play’that old Alfred negotiated with his solid and long experience. And now as he sat there, an old actor glad of a short rest, he reminded Cheveril of somebody else he had met recently.
Alfred stared hard at a bunion that threatened to burst out of his left shoe.
“Martin, my boy, I’ve been acting too long — and — as the youngsters like to say — I’ve had it.”
“No, no. Mean what I say. In fact, the Theatre’s had it. We’ve had one or two hold-ups on the stage this last hour, and Pauline and Jimmy Whitefoot and I have been arguing a bit, in that nervy way we have during last rehearsals. And I think you’re right — and they’re wrong. The Theatre’s finished and we might as well admit it.” And he wagged his massive old head.
Cheveril did some wagging too. “It was different,” he said smoothly, “when you were young, of course — eh?”
“Different?” cried Alfred at once expanding. “I should think it was.”
“You’ve seen some great nights in the Theatre, I imagine,, Alfred, eh?” It was like a prompt.
“I have, Martin. Great nights. And they’ll never come again. Don’t forget that in my time I’ve played with Irving, Ellen Terry, Tree, Mrs Pat.”
“Great names, Alfred!”
“Ah — but the Theatre was the Theatre in those days, Martin. It was all the public had, and so we all did our best with it. None of your films and radio and television and the rest of ’em then. It was the Theatre — and the Theatre as it ought to be. Now they’ll go to anything —”
“Just a rage for silly amusement ”
“You’ve taken the words out of my mouth,” cried Alfred. “Yes, silly amusement, old boy. And it’s all money, money> money —”
Cheveril wanted to laugh, but he continued prompting: “The Theatre’s dying — though it may last out your time —”
“Yes, thank god! But I don’t give it much longer.”
“The old spirit’s gone,” said Cheveril with mock solemnity. “Right! The plays aren’t the same —n “The audiences aren’t the same —”
“And the actors,” said Alfred; and Cheveril finished it with him, “aren’t the same.”
“Here, I say,” Alfred added, “this is a duet.”
Cheveril smiled at him. “Well, you see, Alfred, I know that speech about the dying Theatre. I’ve heard it before.”
Alfred gave his right knee a sharp slap. “Exactly. And everything goes to prove —”
“That you’re an elderly actor, Alfred, and that the Theatre’s dying for you. It’s always been dying for the old hands. And it’s always being born again for the new ones. And that’s not its weakness — that’s its strength. It lives — really lives and not merely exists, but lives as humanity lives — just because it’s for ever dying and being born, because it’s always renewing its life.”
“Now what’s been happening to you?” And Alfred gave him a shrewd old man’s look.
“Dreaming. But we were wrong about the Theatre, Alfred, and the others were right.”
He was not convinced. “Now wait. It’s dying for me, we’ll say, but who is it being born for?”
“Miss Seward’s here,” said-Otley at the door.
“Send her in,” Cheveril told him. Then he looked at Alfred. “Your answer’s here.”
(From Jenny Villiers: a Story of the Theatre by J. B. Priestley)