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Charles Frohman: Manager and Man

From Charles Frohman: Manager and Man

(1915)

An Appreciation by J. M. Barrie.


The man who never broke his word. There was a great deal more to him, but every one in any land who has had dealings with Charles Frohman will sign that.

I would rather say a word of the qualities that to his friends were his great adornment than about his colossal enterprises or the energy with which he heaved them into being; his energy that was like a force of nature, so that if he had ever "retired" from the work he loved (a thing incredible) companies might have been formed, in the land so skilful at turning energy to practical account, for exploiting the vitality of this Niagara of a man. They could have lit a city with it.

He loved his schemes. They were a succession of many-colored romances to him, and were issued to the world not without the accompaniment of the drum, but you would never find him saying anything of himself. He pushed them in front of him, always taking care that they were big enough to hide him. When they were able to stand alone he stole out in the dark to have a look at them, and then if unobserved his bosom swelled. I have never known any one more modest and no one quite so shy. Many actors have played for him for years and never spoken to him, have perhaps seen him dart up a side street because they were approaching. They may not have known that it was sheer shyness, but it was. I have seen him ordered out of his own theater by subordinates who did not know him, and he went cheerfully away. "Good men, these; they know their business," was all his comment. Afterward he was shy of going back lest they should apologize.

At one time he had several theaters here and was renting others, the while he had I know not how many in America; he was not always sure how many himself. Latterly the great competition at home left him no time to look after more than one in London. But only one anywhere seemed a little absurd to him. He once contemplated having a few theaters in Paris, but on discovering that French law forbids your having more than one he gave up the scheme in disgust.

A sense of humor sat with him through every vicissitude like a faithful consort.

"How is it going?" a French author cabled to him on the first night of a new play.

"It has gone," he genially cabled back.

Of a Scotch play of my own that he was about to produce in New York, I asked him what the Scotch would be like.

"You wouldn't know it was Scotch," he replied, "but the American public will know."

He was very dogged. I had only one quarrel with him, but it lasted all the sixteen years I knew him. He wanted me to be a playwright and I wanted to be a novelist. All those years I fought him on that. He always won, but not because of his doggedness; only because he was so lovable that one had to do as he wanted. He also threatened, if I stopped, to reproduce the old plays and print my name in large electric letters over the entrance of the theater.

A very distinguished actress under his management wanted to produce a play of mine of which he had no high opinion. He was in despair, as he had something much better for her. She was obdurate. He came to me for help, said nothing could move her unless I could. Would not I tell her what a bad play it was and how poor her part was and how much better the other parts were and how absolutely it fell to pieces after the first act? Of course I did as I was bid, and I argued with the woman for hours, and finally got her round, the while he sat cross-legged, after his fashion, on a deep chair and implored me with his eyes to do my worst. It happened long ago, and I was so obsessed with the desire to please him that the humor of the situation strikes me only now.

For money he did not care at all; it was to him but pieces of paper with which he could make practical the enterprises that teemed in his brain. They were all enterprises of the theater. Having once seen a theater, he never afterward saw anything else except sites for theaters. This passion began when he was a poor boy staring wistfully at portals out of which he was kept by the want of a few pence. I think when he first saw a theater he clapped his hand to his heart, and certainly he was true to his first love. Up to the end it was still the same treat to him to go in; he still thrilled when the band struck up, as if that boy had hold of his hand.

In a sense he had no illusions about the theater, knew its tawdriness as he knew the nails on his stages (he is said to have known every one). He would watch the performance of a play in some language of which he did not know a word and at the end tell you not only the whole story, but what the characters had been saying to one another; indeed, he could usually tell what was to happen in any act as soon as he saw the arrangement of the furniture. But this did not make him blasé—a strange word, indeed, to apply to one who seemed to be born afresh each morning. It was not so much that all the world was a stage to him as that his stage was a world, a world of the "artistic temperament"—that is to say, a very childish world of which he was occasionally the stern but usually indulgent father.

His innumerable companies were as children to him; he chided them as children, soothed them, forgave them, and certainly loved them as children. He exulted in those who became great names in that world and gave them beautiful toys to play with; but, great as was their devotion to him, it is not they who will miss him most, but rather the far greater number who never "made a hit," but set off like the rest to do it and fell by the way. He was of so sympathetic a nature, he understood so well the dismalness to them of being "failures," that he saw them as children with their knuckles to their eyes, and then he sat back cross-legged on his chair with his knuckles, as it were, to his eyes, and life had lost its flavor for him until he invented a scheme for giving them another chance.

Authors of to-day sometimes discuss with one another what great writer of the past they would like most to spend an evening with if the shades were willing to respond, and I believe (and hope) that the choice most often falls on Johnson or Charles Lamb. Lamb was fond of the theater, and I think, of all those connected with it that I have known, Mr. Frohman is the one with whom he would most have liked to spend an evening. Not because of Mr. Frohman's ability, though he had the biggest brain I have met with on the stage, but because of his humor and charity and gentle chivalry and his most romantic mind. One can conceive him as often, sitting at ease, far back in his chair, cross-legged, occasionally ringing for another ice, for he was so partial to sweets that he could never get them sweet enough, and sometimes he mixed two in the hope that this would make them sweeter.

I hear him telling stories of the stage as only he could tell them, rising now and roaming the floor as he shows how the lady of the play receives the declaration, and perhaps forgetting that you are the author of the play and telling you the whole story of it with superb gesture and gleaming eyes. Then back again cross-legged to the chair. What an essay Elia might have made of that night, none of it about the stories told, all about the man in the chair, the humorous, gentle, roughly educated, very fine American gentleman in the chair!

J. M. Barrie.

London, 1915.



James M. Barrie