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Chapter 9

CHAPTER IX [What the Beautiful Maiden Said]

One day we took the train and went down to Mannheim to see "King Lear"
played in German. It was a mistake. We sat in our seats three whole
hours and never understood anything but the thunder and lightning; and
even that was reversed to suit German ideas, for the thunder came first
and the lightning followed after.

The behavior of the audience was perfect. There were no rustlings, or
whisperings, or other little disturbances; each act was listened to in
silence, and the applauding was done after the curtain was down. The
doors opened at half past four, the play began promptly at half past
five, and within two minutes afterward all who were coming were in their
seats, and quiet reigned. A German gentleman in the train had said that
a Shakespearian play was an appreciated treat in Germany and that
we should find the house filled. It was true; all the six tiers were
filled, and remained so to the end--which suggested that it is not only
balcony people who like Shakespeare in Germany, but those of the pit and
gallery, too.

Another time, we went to Mannheim and attended a shivaree--otherwise an
opera--the one called "Lohengrin." The banging and slamming and booming
and crashing were something beyond belief. The racking and pitiless pain
of it remains stored up in my memory alongside the memory of the time
that I had my teeth fixed. There were circumstances which made it
necessary for me to stay through the hour hours to the end, and I
stayed; but the recollection of that long, dragging, relentless season
of suffering is indestructible. To have to endure it in silence, and
sitting still, made it all the harder. I was in a railed compartment
with eight or ten strangers, of the two sexes, and this compelled
repression; yet at times the pain was so exquisite that I could hardly
keep the tears back. At those times, as the howlings and wailings and
shrieking of the singers, and the ragings and roarings and explosions
of the vast orchestra rose higher and higher, and wilder and wilder,
and fiercer and fiercer, I could have cried if I had been alone. Those
strangers would not have been surprised to see a man do such a thing who
was being gradually skinned, but they would have marveled at it here,
and made remarks about it no doubt, whereas there was nothing in the
present case which was an advantage over being skinned. There was a
wait of half an hour at the end of the first act, and I could not trust
myself to do it, for I felt that I should desert to stay out. There was
another wait of half an hour toward nine o'clock, but I had gone through
so much by that time that I had no spirit left, and so had no desire but
to be let alone.

I do not wish to suggest that the rest of the people there were like
me, for, indeed, they were not. Whether it was that they naturally
liked that noise, or whether it was that they had learned to like it by
getting used to it, I did not at the time know; but they did like--this
was plain enough. While it was going on they sat and looked as rapt
and grateful as cats do when one strokes their backs; and whenever the
curtain fell they rose to their feet, in one solid mighty multitude, and
the air was snowed thick with waving handkerchiefs, and hurricanes of
applause swept the place. This was not comprehensible to me. Of course,
there were many people there who were not under compulsion to stay; yet
the tiers were as full at the close as they had been at the beginning.
This showed that the people liked it.

It was a curious sort of a play. In the manner of costumes and scenery
it was fine and showy enough; but there was not much action. That is
to say, there was not much really done, it was only talked about; and
always violently. It was what one might call a narrative play. Everybody
had a narrative and a grievance, and none were reasonable about it, but
all in an offensive and ungovernable state. There was little of that
sort of customary thing where the tenor and the soprano stand down by
the footlights, warbling, with blended voices, and keep holding out
their arms toward each other and drawing them back and spreading both
hands over first one breast and then the other with a shake and a
pressure--no, it was every rioter for himself and no blending. Each sang
his indictive narrative in turn, accompanied by the whole orchestra of
sixty instruments, and when this had continued for some time, and one
was hoping they might come to an understanding and modify the noise, a
great chorus composed entirely of maniacs would suddenly break forth,
and then during two minutes, and sometimes three, I lived over again all
that I suffered the time the orphan asylum burned down.

We only had one brief little season of heaven and heaven's sweet ecstasy
and peace during all this long and diligent and acrimonious reproduction
of the other place. This was while a gorgeous procession of people
marched around and around, in the third act, and sang the Wedding
Chorus. To my untutored ear that was music--almost divine music. While
my seared soul was steeped in the healing balm of those gracious sounds,
it seemed to me that I could almost resuffer the torments which had
gone before, in order to be so healed again. There is where the deep
ingenuity of the operatic idea is betrayed. It deals so largely in pain
that its scattered delights are prodigiously augmented by the contrasts.
A pretty air in an opera is prettier there than it could be anywhere
else, I suppose, just as an honest man in politics shines more than he
would elsewhere.

I have since found out that there is nothing the Germans like so much as
an opera. They like it, not in a mild and moderate way, but with their
whole hearts. This is a legitimate result of habit and education. Our
nation will like the opera, too, by and by, no doubt. One in fifty of
those who attend our operas likes it already, perhaps, but I think a
good many of the other forty-nine go in order to learn to like it, and
the rest in order to be able to talk knowingly about it. The latter
usually hum the airs while they are being sung, so that their neighbors
may perceive that they have been to operas before. The funerals of these
do not occur often enough.

A gentle, old-maidish person and a sweet young girl of seventeen sat
right in front of us that night at the Mannheim opera. These people
talked, between the acts, and I understood them, though I understood
nothing that was uttered on the distant stage. At first they were
guarded in their talk, but after they had heard my agent and me
conversing in English they dropped their reserve and I picked up many
of their little confidences; no, I mean many of HER little
confidences--meaning the elder party--for the young girl only listened,
and gave assenting nods, but never said a word. How pretty she was,
and how sweet she was! I wished she would speak. But evidently she was
absorbed in her own thoughts, her own young-girl dreams, and found a
dearer pleasure in silence. But she was not dreaming sleepy dreams--no,
she was awake, alive, alert, she could not sit still a moment. She was
an enchanting study. Her gown was of a soft white silky stuff that clung
to her round young figure like a fish's skin, and it was rippled over
with the gracefulest little fringy films of lace; she had deep, tender
eyes, with long, curved lashes; and she had peachy cheeks, and a
dimpled chin, and such a dear little rosebud of a mouth; and she was so
dovelike, so pure, and so gracious, so sweet and so bewitching. For long
hours I did mightily wish she would speak. And at last she did; the red
lips parted, and out leaps her thought--and with such a guileless and
pretty enthusiasm, too: "Auntie, I just KNOW I've got five hundred fleas
on me!"

That was probably over the average. Yes, it must have been very much
over the average. The average at that time in the Grand Duchy of Baden
was forty-five to a young person (when alone), according to the official
estimate of the home secretary for that year; the average for older
people was shifty and indeterminable, for whenever a wholesome young
girl came into the presence of her elders she immediately lowered their
average and raised her own. She became a sort of contribution-box. This
dear young thing in the theater had been sitting there unconsciously
taking up a collection. Many a skinny old being in our neighborhood was
the happier and the restfuler for her coming.

In that large audience, that night, there were eight very conspicuous
people. These were ladies who had their hats or bonnets on. What a
blessed thing it would be if a lady could make herself conspicuous in
our theaters by wearing her hat. It is not usual in Europe to allow
ladies and gentlemen to take bonnets, hats, overcoats, canes, or
umbrellas into the auditorium, but in Mannheim this rule was not
enforced because the audiences were largely made up of people from a
distance, and among these were always a few timid ladies who were afraid
that if they had to go into an anteroom to get their things when the
play was over, they would miss their train. But the great mass of those
who came from a distance always ran the risk and took the chances,
preferring the loss of a train to a breach of good manners and the
discomfort of being unpleasantly conspicuous during a stretch of three
or four hours.

Mark Twain