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
"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
"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?" 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
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
"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?"