Strolling Manager, by Washington Irving

Tales of a Traveller

As I was walking one morning with Buckthorne, near one of the Principal theaters, he directed my attention to a group of those equivocal beings that may often be seen hovering about the stage-doors of theaters. They were marvellously ill-favored in their attire, their coats buttoned up to their chins; yet they wore their hats smartly on one side, and had a certain knowing, dirty-gentlemanlike air, which is common to the subalterns of the drama. Buckthorne knew them well by early experience.

These, said he, are the ghosts of departed kings and heroes; fellows who sway sceptres and truncheons; command kingdoms and armies; and after giving way realms and treasures over night, have scarce a shilling to pay for a breakfast in the morning. Yet they have the true vagabond abhorrence of all useful and industrious employment; and they have their pleasures too: one of which is to lounge in this way in the sunshine, at the stage-door, during rehearsals, and make hackneyed theatrical jokes on all passers-by.

Nothing is more traditional and legitimate than the stage. Old scenery, old clothes, old sentiments, old ranting, and old jokes, are handed down from generation to generation; and will probably continue to be so, until time shall be no more. Every hanger-on of a theater becomes a wag by inheritance, and flourishes about at tap-rooms and six-penny clubs, with the property jokes of the green-room.

While amusing ourselves with reconnoitring this group, we noticed one in particular who appeared to be the oracle. He was a weather-beaten veteran, a little bronzed by time and beer, who had no doubt, grown gray in the parts of robbers, cardinals, Roman senators, and walking noblemen.

"There's something in the set of that hat, and the turn of that physiognomy, that is extremely familiar to me," said Buckthorne. He looked a little closer. "I cannot be mistaken," added he, "that must be my old brother of the truncheon, Flimsey, the tragic hero of the strolling company."

It was he in fact. The poor fellow showed evident signs that times went hard with him; he was so finely and shabbily dressed. His coat was somewhat threadbare, and of the Lord Townly cut; single-breasted, and scarcely capable of meeting in front of his body; which, from long intimacy, had acquired the symmetry and robustness of a beer-barrel. He wore a pair of dingy white stockinet pantaloons, which had much ado to reach his waistcoat; a great quantity of dirty cravat; and a pair of old russet-colored tragedy boots.

When his companions had dispersed, Buckthorne drew him aside and made Himself known to him. The tragic veteran could scarcely recognize him, or believe that he was really his quondam associate "little gentleman Jack." Buckthorne invited him to a neighboring coffee-house to talk over old times; and in the course of a little while we were put in possession of his history in brief.

He had continued to act the heroes in the strolling company for some time after Buckthorne had left it, or rather had been driven from it so abruptly. At length the manager died, and the troop was thrown into confusion. Every one aspired to the crown; every one was for taking the lead; and the manager's widow, although a tragedy queen, and a brimstone to boot, pronounced it utterly impossible to keep any control over such a set of tempestuous rascallions.

Upon this hint I spoke, said Flimsey—I stepped forward, and offered my services in the most effectual way. They were accepted. In a week's time I married the widow and succeeded to the throne. "The funeral baked meats did coldly furnish forth the marriage table," as Hamlet says. But the ghost of my predecessor never haunted me; and I inherited crowns, sceptres, bowls, daggers, and all the stage trappings and trumpery, not omitting the widow, without the least molestation.

I now led a flourishing life of it; for our company was pretty strong And attractive, and as my wife and I took the heavy parts of tragedy, it was a great saving to the treasury. We carried off the palm from all the rival shows at country fairs; and I assure you we have even drawn full houses, and being applauded by the critics at Bartlemy fair itself, though we had Astley's troupe, the Irish giant, and "the death of Nelson" in wax-work to contend against.

I soon began to experience, however, the cares of command. I discovered that there were cabals breaking out in the company, headed by the clown, who you may recollect was a terribly peevish, fractious fellow, and always in ill-humor. I had a great mind to turn him off at once, but I could not do without him, for there was not a droller scoundrel on the stage. His very shape was comic, for he had to turn his back upon the audience and all the ladies were ready to die with laughing. He felt his importance, and took advantage of it. He would keep the audience in a continual roar, and then come behind the scenes and fret and fume and play the very devil. I excused a great deal in him, however, knowing that comic actors are a little prone to this infirmity of temper.

I had another trouble of a nearer and dearer nature to struggle with; which was, the affection of my wife. As ill luck would have it, she took it into her head to be very fond of me, and became intolerably jealous. I could not keep a pretty girl in the company, and hardly dared embrace an ugly one, even when my part required it. I have known her to reduce a fine lady to tatters, "to very rags," as Hamlet says, in an instant, and destroy one of the very best dresses in the wardrobe; merely because she saw me kiss her at the side scenes;—though I give you my honor it was done merely by way of rehearsal.

This was doubly annoying, because I have a natural liking to pretty faces, and wish to have them about me; and because they are indispensable to the success of a company at a fair, where one has to vie with so many rival theatres. But when once a jealous wife gets a freak in her head there's no use in talking of interest or anything else. Egad, sirs, I have more than once trembled when, during a fit of her tantrums, she was playing high tragedy, and flourishing her tin dagger on the stage, lest she should give way to her humor, and stab some fancied rival in good earnest.

I went on better, however, than could be expected, considering the weakness of my flesh and the violence of my rib. I had not a much worse time of it than old Jupiter, whose spouse was continually ferreting out some new intrigue and making the heavens almost too hot to hold him.

At length, as luck would have it, we were performing at a country fair, when I understood the theatre of a neighboring town to be vacant. I had always been desirous to be enrolled in a settled company, and the height of my desire was to get on a par with a brother-in-law, who was manager of a regular theatre, and who had looked down upon me. Here was an opportunity not to be neglected. I concluded an agreement with the proprietors, and in a few days opened the theatre with great eclát.

Behold me now at the summit of my ambition, "the high top-gallant of my joy," as Thomas says. No longer a chieftain of a wandering tribe, but the monarch of a legitimate throne—and entitled to call even the great potentates of Covent Garden and Drury Lane cousin.

You no doubt think my happiness complete. Alas, sir! I was one of the Most uncomfortable dogs living. No one knows, who has not tried, the miseries of a manager; but above all, of a country management—no one can conceive the contentions and quarrels within doors, the oppressions and vexations from without.

I was pestered with the bloods and loungers of a country town, who infested my green-room, and played the mischief among my actresses. But there was no shaking them off. It would have been ruin to affront them; for, though troublesome friends, they would have been dangerous enemies. Then there were the village critics and village amateurs, who were continually tormenting me with advice, and getting into a passion if I would not take it:—especially the village doctor and the village attorney; who had both been to London occasionally, and knew what acting should be.

I had also to manage as arrant a crew of scapegraces as were ever collected together within the walls of a theatre. I had been obliged to combine my original troupe with some of the former troupe of the theatre, who were favorites with the public. Here was a mixture that produced perpetual ferment. They were all the time either fighting or frolicking with each other, and I scarcely knew which mood was least troublesome. If they quarrelled, everything went wrong; and if they were friends, they were continually playing off some confounded prank upon each other, or upon me; for I had unhappily acquired among them the character of an easy, good natured fellow, the worst character that a manager can possess.

Their waggery at times drove me almost crazy; for there is nothing so Vexatious as the hackneyed tricks and hoaxes and pleasantries of a veteran band of theatrical vagabonds. I relished them well enough, it is true, while I was merely one of the company, but as manager I found them detestable. They were incessantly bringing some disgrace upon the theatre by their tavern frolics, and their pranks about the country town. All my lectures upon the importance of keeping up the dignity of the profession, and the respectability of the company were in vain. The villains could not sympathize with the delicate feelings of a man in station. They even trifled with the seriousness of stage business. I have had the whole piece interrupted, and a crowded audience of at least twenty-five pounds kept waiting, because the actors had hid away the breeches of Rosalind, and have known Hamlet stalk solemnly on to deliver his soliloquy, with a dish-clout pinned to his skirts. Such are the baleful consequences of a manager's getting a character for good nature.

I was intolerably annoyed, too, by the great actors who came down starring, as it is called, from London. Of all baneful influences, keep me from that of a London star. A first-rate actress going the rounds of the country theatres, is as bad as a blazing comet, whisking about the heavens, and shaking fire, and plagues, and discords from its tail.

The moment one of these "heavenly bodies" appeared on my horizon, I was sure to be in hot water. My theatre was overrun by provincial dandies, copper-washed counterfeits of Bond street loungers; who are always proud to be in the train of an actress from town, and anxious to be thought on exceeding good terms with her. It was really a relief to me when some random young nobleman would come in pursuit of the bait, and awe all this small fry to a distance. I have always felt myself more at ease with a nobleman than with the dandy of a country town.

And then the injuries I suffered in my personal dignity and my managerial authority from the visits of these great London actors. Sir, I was no longer master of myself or my throne. I was hectored and lectured in my own green-room, and made an absolute nincompoop on my own stage. There is no tyrant so absolute and capricious as a London star at a country theatre.

I dreaded the sight of all of them; and yet if I did not engage them, I was sure of having the public clamorous against me. They drew full houses, and appeared to be making my fortune; but they swallowed up all the profits by their insatiable demands. They were absolute tape-worms to my little theatre; the more it took in, the poorer it grew. They were sure to leave me with an exhausted public, empty benches, and a score or two of affronts to settle among the townsfolk, in consequence of misunderstandings about the taking of places.

But the worst thing I had to undergo in my managerial career was patronage. Oh, sir, of all things deliver me from the patronage of the great people of a country town. It was my ruin. You must know that this town, though small, was filled with feuds, and parties, and great folks; being a busy little trading and manufacturing town. The mischief was that their greatness was of a kind not to be settled by reference to the court calendar, or college of heraldry. It was therefore the most quarrelsome kind of greatness in existence. You smile, sir, but let me tell you there are no feuds more furious than the frontier feuds, which take place on these "debatable lands" of gentility. The most violent dispute that I ever knew in high life, was one that occurred at a country town, on a question of precedence between the ladies of a manufacturer of pins and a manufacturer of needles.

At the town where I was situated there were perpetual altercations of the kind. The head manufacturer's lady, for instance, was at daggers drawings with the head shopkeeper's, and both were too rich and had too many friends to be treated lightly. The doctor's and lawyer's ladies held their heads still higher; but they in their turn were kept in check by the wife of a country banker, who kept her own carriage; while a masculine widow of cracked character, and second-hand fashion, who lived in a large house, and was in some way related to nobility, looked down upon them all. She had been exiled from the great world, but here she ruled absolute. To be sure her manners were not over-elegant, nor her fortune over-large; but then, sir, her blood—oh, her blood carried it all hollow, there was no withstanding a woman with such blood in her veins.

After all, she had frequent battles for precedence at balls and assemblies, with some of the sturdy dames of the neighborhood, who stood upon their wealth and their reputations; but then she had two dashing daughters, who dressed as fine as dragons, and had as high blood as their mother, and seconded her in everything. So they carried their point with high heads, and every body hated, abused, and stood in awe of the Fantadlins.

Such was the state of the fashionable world in this self-important little town. Unluckily I was not as well acquainted with its politics as I should have been. I had found myself a stranger and in great perplexities during my first season; I determined, therefore, to put myself under the patronage of some powerful name, and thus to take the field with the prejudices of the public in my favor. I cast round my thoughts for the purpose, and in an evil hour they fell upon Mrs. Fantadlin. No one seemed to me to have a more absolute sway in the world of fashion. I had always noticed that her party slammed the box door the loudest at the theatre; had most beaux attending on them; and talked and laughed loudest during the performance; and then the Miss Fantadlins wore always more feathers and flowers than any other ladies; and used quizzing glasses incessantly. The first evening of my theatre's reopening, therefore, was announced in flaring capitals on the play bills, "under the patronage of the Honorable Mrs. Fantadlin,"

Sir, the whole community flew to arms! The banker's wife felt her Dignity grievously insulted at not having the preference; her husband being high bailiff, and the richest man in the place. She immediately issued invitations for a large party, for the night of the performance, and asked many a lady to it whom she never had noticed before. The fashionable world had long groaned under the tyranny of the Fantadlins, and were glad to make a common cause against this new instance of assumption.—Presume to patronize the theatre! insufferable! Those, too, who had never before been noticed by the banker's lady, were ready to enlist in any quarrel, for the honor of her acquaintance. All minor feuds were therefore forgotten. The doctor's lady and the lawyer's lady met together; and the manufacturer's lady and the shopkeeper's lady kissed each other, and all, headed by the banker's lady, voted the theatre a bore, and determined to encourage nothing but the Indian Jugglers, and Mr. Walker's Eidonianeon.

Alas for poor Pillgarlick! I little knew the mischief that was brewing against me. My box book remained blank. The evening arrived, but no audience. The music struck up to a tolerable pit and gallery, but no fashionables! I peeped anxiously from behind the curtain, but the time passed away; the play was retarded until pit and gallery became furious; and I had to raise the curtain, and play my greatest part in tragedy to "a beggarly account of empty boxes."

It is true the Fantadlins came late, as was their custom, and entered like a tempest, with a flutter of feathers and red shawls; but they were evidently disconcerted at finding they had no one to admire and envy them, and were enraged at this glaring defection of their fashionable followers. All the beau-monde were engaged at the banker's lady's rout. They remained for some time in solitary and uncomfortable state, and though they had the theatre almost to themselves, yet, for the first time, they talked in whispers. They left the house at the end of the first piece, and I never saw them afterwards.

Such was the rock on which I split. I never got over the patronage of the Fantadlin family. It became the vogue to abuse the theatre and declare the performers shocking. An equestrian troupe opened a circus in the town about the same time, and rose on my ruins. My house was deserted; my actors grew discontented because they were ill paid; my door became a hammering-place for every bailiff in the county; and my wife became more and more shrewish and tormenting, the more I wanted comfort.

The establishment now became a scene of confusion and peculation. I Was considered a ruined man, and of course fair game for every one to pluck at, as every one plunders a sinking ship. Day after day some of the troupe deserted, and like deserting soldiers, carried off their arms and accoutrements with them. In this manner my wardrobe took legs and walked away; my finery strolled all over the country; my swords and daggers glittered in every barn; until at last my tailor made "one fell swoop," and carried off three dress coats, half a dozen doublets, and nineteen pair of flesh-colored pantaloons.

This was the "be all and the end all" of my fortune. I no longer hesitated what to do. Egad, thought I, since stealing is the order of the day, I'll steal too. So I secretly gathered together the jewels of my wardrobe; packed up a hero's dress in a handkerchief, slung it on the end of a tragedy sword, and quietly stole off at dead of night—"the bell then beating one,"—leaving my queen and kingdom to the mercy of my rebellious subjects, and my merciless foes, the bum-bailiffs.

Such, sir, was the "end of all my greatness." I was heartily cured of All passion for governing, and returned once more into the ranks. I had for some time the usual run of an actor's life. I played in various country theatres, at fairs, and in barns; sometimes hard pushed; sometimes flush, until on one occasion I came within an ace of making my fortune, and becoming one of the wonders of the age.

I was playing the part of Richard the Third in a country barn, and Absolutely "out-Heroding Herod." An agent of one of the great London theatres was present. He was on the lookout for something that might be got up as a prodigy. The theatre, it seems, was in desperate condition—nothing but a miracle could save it. He pitched upon me for that miracle. I had a remarkable bluster in my style, and swagger in my gait, and having taken to drink a little during my troubles, my voice was somewhat cracked; so that it seemed like two voices run into one. The thought struck the agent to bring me out as a theatrical wonder; as the restorer of natural and legitimate acting; as the only one who could understand and act Shakespeare rightly. He waited upon me the next morning, and opened his plan. I shrunk from it with becoming modesty; for well as I thought of myself, I felt myself unworthy of such praise.

"'Sblood, man!" said he, "no praise at all. You don't imagine that I think you all this. I only want the public to think so. Nothing so easy as gulling the public if you only set up a prodigy. You need not try to act well, you must only act furiously. No matter what you do, or how you act, so that it be but odd and strange. We will have all the pit packed, and the newspapers hired. Whatever you do different from famous actors, it shall be insisted that you are right and they were wrong. If you rant, it shall be pure passion; if you are vulgar, it shall be a touch of nature. Every one shall be prepared to fall into raptures, and shout and yell, at certain points which you shall make. If you do but escape pelting the first night, your fortune and the fortune of the theatre is made."

I set off for London, therefore, full of new hopes. I was to be the restorer of Shakespeare and nature, and the legitimate drama; my very swagger was to be heroic, and my cracked voice the standard of elocution. Alas, sir! my usual luck attended me. Before I arrived in the metropolis, a rival wonder had appeared. A woman who could dance the slack rope, and run up a cord from the stage to the gallery with fire-works all round her. She was seized on by the management with avidity; she was the saving of the great national theatre for the season. Nothing was talked of but Madame Saqui's fire-works and flame-colored pantaloons; and nature, Shakespeare, the legitimate drama, and poor Pillgarlick were completely left in the lurch.

However, as the manager was in honor bound to provide for me, he kept his word. It had been a turn-up of a die whether I should be Alexander the Great or Alexander the copper-smith; the latter carried it. I could not be put at the head of the drama, so I was put at the tail. In other words, I was enrolled among the number of what are called useful men; who, let me tell you, are the only comfortable actors on the stage. We are safe from hisses and below the hope of applause. We fear not the success of rivals, nor dread the critic's pen. So long as we get the words of our parts, and they are not often many, it is all we care for. We have our own merriment, our own friends, and our own admirers; for every actor has his friends and admirers, from the highest to the lowest. The first-rate actor dines with the noble amateur, and entertains a fashionable table with scraps and songs and theatrical slip-slop. The second-rate actors have their second-rate friends and admirers, with whom they likewise spout tragedy and talk slip-slop; and so down even to us; who have our friends and admirers among spruce clerks and aspiring apprentices, who treat us to a dinner now and then, and enjoy at tenth hand the same scraps and songs and slip-slop that have been served up by our more fortunate brethren at the tables of the great.

I now, for the first time in my theatrical life, knew what true pleasure is. I have known enough of notoriety to pity the poor devils who are called favorites of the public. I would rather be a kitten in the arms of a spoiled child, to be one moment petted and pampered, and the next moment thumped over the head with the spoon. I smile, too, to see our leading actors, fretting themselves with envy and jealousy about a trumpery renown, questionable in its quality and uncertain in its duration. I laugh, too, though of course in my sleeve, at the bustle and importance and trouble and perplexities of our manager, who is harassing himself to death in the hopeless effort to please every body.

I have found among my fellow subalterns two or three quondam managers, who, like myself, have wielded the sceptres of country theatres; and we have many a sly joke together at the expense of the manager and the public. Sometimes, too, we meet like deposed and exiled kings, talk over the events of our respective reigns; moralize over a tankard of ale, and laugh at the humbug of the great and little world; which, I take it, is the very essence of practical philosophy.

Thus end the anecdotes of Buckthorne and his friends. A few mornings after our hearing the history of the ex-manager, he bounced into my room before I was out of bed.

"Give me joy! give me joy!" said he, rubbing his hands with the utmost glee, "my great expectations are realized!"

I stared at him with a look of wonder and inquiry. "My booby cousin is dead!" cried he, "may he rest in peace! He nearly broke his neck in a fall from his horse in a fox-chase. By good luck he lived long enough to make his will. He has made me his heir, partly out of an odd feeling of retributive justice, and partly because, as he says, none of his own family or friends know how to enjoy such an estate. I'm off to the country to take possession. I've done with authorship.—That for the critics!" said he, snapping his fingers. "Come down to Doubting Castle when I get settled, and egad! I'll give you a rouse." So saying he shook me heartily by the hand and bounded off in high spirits.

A long time elapsed before I heard from him again. Indeed, it was but a short time since that I received a letter written in the happiest of moods. He was getting the estate into fine order, everything went to his wishes, and what was more, he was married to Sacharissa: who, it seems, had always entertained an ardent though secret attachment for him, which he fortunately discovered just after coming to his estate.

"I find," said he, "you are a little given to the sin of authorship which I renounce. If the anecdotes I have given you of my story are of any interest, you may make use of them; but come down to Doubting Castle and see how we live, and I'll give you my whole London life over a social glass; and a rattling history it shall be about authors and reviewers."

If ever I visit Doubting Castle, and get the history he promises, the
Public shall be sure to hear of it.