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The Obliterated Man

I was--you shall hear immediately why I am not now--Egbert Craddock
Cummins. The name remains. I am still (Heaven help me!) Dramatic Critic to
the _Fiery Cross_. What I shall be in a little while I do not know. I
write in great trouble and confusion of mind. I will do what I can to make
myself clear in the face of terrible difficulties. You must bear with me a
little. When a man is rapidly losing his own identity, he naturally finds
a difficulty in expressing himself. I will make it perfectly plain in a
minute, when once I get my grip upon the story. Let me see--where
_am_ I? I wish I knew. Ah, I have it! Dead self! Egbert Craddock
Cummins!

In the past I should have disliked writing anything quite so full of "I"
as this story must be. It is full of "I's" before and behind, like the
beast in Revelation--the one with a head like a calf, I am afraid. But my
tastes have changed since I became a Dramatic Critic and studied the
masters--G.A.S., G.B.S., G.R.S., and the others. Everything has changed
since then. At least the story is about myself--so that there is some
excuse for me. And it is really not egotism, because, as I say, since
those days my identity has undergone an entire alteration.

That past!... I was--in those days--rather a nice fellow, rather shy--
taste for grey in my clothes, weedy little moustache, face "interesting,"
slight stutter which I had caught in my early life from a schoolfellow.
Engaged to a very nice girl, named Delia. Fairly new, she was--
cigarettes--liked me because I was human and original. Considered I was
like Lamb--on the strength of the stutter, I believe. Father, an eminent
authority on postage stamps. She read a great deal in the British Museum.
(A perfect pairing ground for literary people, that British Museum--you
should read George Egerton and Justin Huntly M'Carthy and Gissing and the
rest of them.) We loved in our intellectual way, and shared the brightest
hopes. (All gone now.) And her father liked me because I seemed honestly
eager to hear about stamps. She had no mother. Indeed, I had the happiest
prospects a young man could have. I never went to theatres in those days.
My Aunt Charlotte before she died had told me not to.

Then Barnaby, the editor of the _Fiery Cross_, made me--in spite of
my spasmodic efforts to escape--Dramatic Critic. He is a fine, healthy
man, Barnaby, with an enormous head of frizzy black hair and a convincing
manner, and he caught me on the staircase going to see Wembly. He had been
dining, and was more than usually buoyant. "Hullo, Cummins!" he said. "The
very man I want!" He caught me by the shoulder or the collar or something,
ran me up the little passage, and flung me over the waste-paper basket
into the arm-chair in his office. "Pray be seated," he said, as he did so.
Then he ran across the room and came back with some pink and yellow
tickets and pushed them into my hand. "Opera Comique," he said, "Thursday;
Friday, the Surrey; Saturday, the Frivolity. That's all, I think."

"But--" I began.

"Glad you're free," he said, snatching some proofs off the desk and
beginning to read.

"I don't quite understand," I said.

"_Eigh_?" he said, at the top of his voice, as though he thought I
had gone and was startled at my remark.

"Do you want me to criticise these plays?"

"Do something with 'em... Did you think it was a treat?"

"But I can't."

"Did you call me a fool?"

"Well, I've never been to a theatre in my life."

"Virgin soil."

"But I don't know anything about it, you know."

"That's just it. New view. No habits. No _clichés_ in stock. Ours is
a live paper, not a bag of tricks. None of your clockwork professional
journalism in this office. And I can rely on your integrity----"

"But I've conscientious scruples----"

He caught me up suddenly and put me outside his door. "Go and talk to
Wembly about that," he said. "He'll explain."

As I stood perplexed, he opened the door again, said, "I forgot this,"
thrust a fourth ticket into my hand (it was for that night--in twenty
minutes' time) and slammed the door upon me. His expression was quite
calm, but I caught his eye.

I hate arguments. I decided that I would take his hint and become (to my
own destruction) a Dramatic Critic. I walked slowly down the passage to
Wembly. That Barnaby has a remarkable persuasive way. He has made few
suggestions during our very pleasant intercourse of four years that he has
not ultimately won me round to adopting. It may be, of course, that I am
of a yielding disposition; certainly I am too apt to take my colour from
my circumstances. It is, indeed, to my unfortunate susceptibility to vivid
impressions that all my misfortunes are due. I have already alluded to the
slight stammer I had acquired from a schoolfellow in my youth. However,
this is a digression... I went home in a cab to dress.

I will not trouble the reader with my thoughts about the first-night
audience, strange assembly as it is,--those I reserve for my Memoirs,--nor
the humiliating story of how I got lost during the _entr'acte_ in a
lot of red plush passages, and saw the third act from the gallery. The
only point upon which I wish to lay stress was the remarkable effect of
the acting upon me. You must remember I had lived a quiet and retired
life, and had never been to the theatre before, and that I am extremely
sensitive to vivid impressions. At the risk of repetition I must insist
upon these points.

The first effect was a profound amazement, not untinctured by alarm. The
phenomenal unnaturalness of acting is a thing discounted in the minds of
most people by early visits to the theatre. They get used to the fantastic
gestures, the flamboyant emotions, the weird mouthings, melodious
snortings, agonising yelps, lip-gnawings, glaring horrors, and other
emotional symbolism of the stage. It becomes at last a mere deaf-and-dumb
language to them, which they read intelligently _pari passu_ with the
hearing of the dialogue. But all this was new to me. The thing was called
a modern comedy, the people were supposed to be English and were dressed
like fashionable Americans of the current epoch, and I fell into the
natural error of supposing that the actors were trying to represent human
beings. I looked round on my first-night audience with a kind of wonder,
discovered--as all new Dramatic Critics do--that it rested with me to
reform the Drama, and, after a supper choked with emotion, went off to the
office to write a column, piebald with "new paragraphs" (as all my stuff
is--it fills out so) and purple with indignation. Barnaby was delighted.

But I could not sleep that night. I dreamt of actors--actors glaring,
actors smiting their chests, actors flinging out a handful of extended
fingers, actors smiling bitterly, laughing despairingly, falling
hopelessly, dying idiotically. I got up at eleven with a slight headache,
read my notice in the _Fiery Cross_, breakfasted, and went back to my
room to shave, (It's my habit to do so.) Then an odd thing happened. I
could not find my razor. Suddenly it occurred to me that I had not
unpacked it the day before.

"Ah!" said I, in front of the looking-glass. Then "Hullo!"

Quite involuntarily, when I had thought of my portmanteau, I had flung up
the left arm (fingers fully extended) and clutched at my diaphragm with my
right hand. I am an acutely self-conscious man at all times. The gesture
struck me as absolutely novel for me. I repeated it, for my own
satisfaction. "Odd!" Then (rather puzzled) I turned to my portmanteau.

After shaving, my mind reverted to the acting I had seen, and I
entertained myself before the cheval glass with some imitations of
Jafferay's more exaggerated gestures. "Really, one might think it a
disease," I said--"Stage-Walkitis!" (There's many a truth spoken in jest.)
Then, if I remember rightly, I went off to see Wembly, and afterwards
lunched at the British Museum with Delia. We actually spoke about our
prospects, in the light of my new appointment.

But that appointment was the beginning of my downfall. From that day I
necessarily became a persistent theatre-goer, and almost insensibly I
began to change. The next thing I noticed after the gesture about the
razor was to catch myself bowing ineffably when I met Delia, and stooping
in an old-fashioned, courtly way over her hand. Directly I caught myself,
I straightened myself up and became very uncomfortable. I remember she
looked at me curiously. Then, in the office, I found myself doing "nervous
business," fingers on teeth, when Barnaby asked me a question I could not
very well answer. Then, in some trifling difference with Delia, I clasped
my hand to my brow. And I pranced through my social transactions at times
singularly like an actor! I tried not to--no one could be more keenly
alive to the arrant absurdity of the histrionic bearing. And I did!

It began to dawn on me what it all meant. The acting, I saw, was too much
for my delicately-strung nervous system. I have always, I know, been too
amenable to the suggestions of my circumstances. Night after night of
concentrated attention to the conventional attitudes and intonation of the
English stage was gradually affecting my speech and carriage. I was giving
way to the infection of sympathetic imitation. Night after night my
plastic nervous system took the print of some new amazing gesture, some
new emotional exaggeration--and retained it. A kind of theatrical veneer
threatened to plate over and obliterate my private individuality
altogether. I saw myself in a kind of vision. Sitting by myself one night,
my new self seemed to me to glide, posing and gesticulating, across the
room. He clutched his throat, he opened his fingers, he opened his legs in
walking like a high-class marionette. He went from attitude to attitude.
He might have been clockwork. Directly after this I made an ineffectual
attempt to resign my theatrical work. But Barnaby persisted in talking
about the Polywhiddle Divorce all the time I was with him, and I could get
no opportunity of saying what I wished.

And then Delia's manner began to change towards me. The ease of our
intercourse vanished. I felt she was learning to dislike me. I grinned,
and capered, and scowled, and posed at her in a thousand ways, and
knew--with what a voiceless agony!--that I did it all the time. I tried to
resign again, and Barnaby talked about "X" and "Z" and "Y" in the _New
Review,_ and gave me a strong cigar to smoke, and so routed me. And
then I walked up the Assyrian Gallery in the manner of Irving to meet
Delia, and so precipitated the crisis.

"Ah!--_Dear_!" I said, with more sprightliness and emotion in my
voice than had ever been in all my life before I became (to my own
undoing) a Dramatic Critic.

She held out her hand rather coldly, scrutinising my face as she did so. I
prepared, with a new-won grace, to walk by her side. "Egbert," she said,
standing still, and thought. Then she looked at me.

I said nothing. I felt what was coming. I tried to be the old Egbert
Craddock Cummins of shambling gait and stammering sincerity, whom she
loved, but I felt even as I did so that I was a new thing, a thing of
surging emotions and mysterious fixity--like no human being that ever
lived, except upon the stage. "Egbert," she said, "you are not yourself."

"Ah!" Involuntarily I clutched my diaphragm and averted my head (as is the
way with them).

"There!" she said.

"_What do you mean_?" I said, whispering in vocal italics--you know
how they do it--turning on her, perplexity on face, right hand down, left
on brow. I knew quite well what she meant. I knew quite well the dramatic
unreality of my behaviour. But I struggled against it in vain. "What do
you mean?" I said, and, in a kind of hoarse whisper, "I don't understand!"

She really looked as though she disliked me. "What do you keep on posing
for?" she said. "I don't like it. You didn't use to."

"Didn't use to!" I said slowly, repeating this twice. I glared up and down
the gallery with short, sharp glances. "We are alone," I said swiftly.
"_Listen!_" I poked my forefinger towards her, and glared at her.
"I am under a curse."

I saw her hand tighten upon her sunshade. "You are under some bad
influence or other," said Delia. "You should give it up. I never knew
anyone change as you have done."

"Delia!" I said, lapsing into the pathetic. "Pity me, Augh! Delia!
_Pit_--y me!"

She eyed me critically. "_Why_ you keep playing the fool like this I
don't know," she said. "Anyhow, I really cannot go about with a man who
behaves as you do. You made us both ridiculous on Wednesday. Frankly, I
dislike you, as you are now. I met you here to tell you so--as it's about
the only place where we can be sure of being alone together----"

"Delia!" said I, with intensity, knuckles of clenched hands white. "You
don't mean----"

"I do," said Delia. "A woman's lot is sad enough at the best of times. But
with you----"

I clapped my hand on my brow.

"So, good-bye," said Delia, without emotion.

"Oh, Delia!" I said. "Not _this_?"

"Good-bye, Mr. Cummins," she said.

By a violent effort I controlled myself and touched her hand. I tried to
say some word of explanation to her. She looked into my working face and
winced. "I _must_ do it," she said hopelessly. Then she turned from
me and began walking rapidly down the gallery.

Heavens! How the human agony cried within me! I loved Delia. But nothing
found expression--I was already too deeply crusted with my acquired self.

"Good-baye!" I said at last, watching her retreating figure. How I hated
myself for doing it! After she had vanished, I repeated in a dreamy way,
"Good-baye!" looking hopelessly round me. Then, with a kind of
heart-broken cry, I shook my clenched fists in the air, staggered to the
pedestal of a winged figure, buried my face in my arms, and made my
shoulders heave. Something within me said "Ass!" as I did so. (I had the
greatest difficulty in persuading the Museum policeman, who was attracted
by my cry of agony, that I was not intoxicated, but merely suffering from
a transient indisposition.)

But even this great sorrow has not availed to save me from my fate. I see
it; everyone sees it: I grow more "theatrical" every day. And no one could
be more painfully aware of the pungent silliness of theatrical ways. The
quiet, nervous, but pleasing E.C. Cummins vanishes. I cannot save him. I
am driven like a dead leaf before the winds of March. My tailor even
enters into the spirit of my disorder. He has a peculiar sense of what is
fitting. I tried to get a dull grey suit from him this spring, and he
foisted a brilliant blue upon me, and I see he has put braid down the
sides of my new dress trousers. My hairdresser insists upon giving me a
"wave."

I am beginning to associate with actors. I detest them, but it is only in
their company that I can feel I am not glaringly conspicuous. Their talk
infects me. I notice a growing tendency to dramatic brevity, to dashes and
pauses in my style, to a punctuation of bows and attitudes. Barnaby has
remarked it too. I offended Wembly by calling him "Dear Boy" yesterday. I
dread the end, but I cannot escape from it.

The fact is, I am being obliterated. Living a grey, retired life all my
youth, I came to the theatre a delicate sketch of a man, a thing of tints
and faint lines. Their gorgeous colouring has effaced me altogether.
People forget how much mode of expression, method of movement, are a
matter of contagion. I have heard of stage-struck people before, and
thought it a figure of speech. I spoke of it jestingly, as a disease. It
is no jest. It is a disease. And I have got it badly! Deep down within me
I protest against the wrong done to my personality--unavailingly. For
three hours or more a week I have to go and concentrate my attention on
some fresh play, and the suggestions of the drama strengthen their awful
hold upon me. My manners grow so flamboyant, my passions so professional,
that I doubt, as I said at the outset, whether it is really myself that
behaves in such a manner. I feel merely the core to this dramatic casing,
that grows thicker and presses upon me--me and mine. I feel like King
John's abbot in his cope of lead.

I doubt, indeed, whether I should not abandon the struggle altogether--
leave this sad world of ordinary life for which I am so ill fitted,
abandon the name of Cummins for some professional pseudonym, complete my
self-effacement, and--a thing of tricks and tatters, of posing and
pretence--go upon the stage. It seems my only resort--"to hold the mirror
up to Nature." For in the ordinary life, I will confess, no one now seems
to regard me as both sane and sober. Only upon the stage, I feel
convinced, will people take me seriously. That will be the end of it. I
_know_ that will be the end of it. And yet ... I will frankly confess
... all that marks off your actor from your common man ... I
_detest_. I am still largely of my Aunt Charlotte's opinion, that
play-acting is unworthy of a pure-minded man's attention, much more
participation. Even now I would resign my dramatic criticism and try a
rest. Only I can't get hold of Barnaby. Letters of resignation he never
notices. He says it is against the etiquette of journalism to write to
your Editor. And when I go to see him, he gives me another big cigar and
some strong whisky and soda, and then something always turns up to prevent
my explanation.

H.G. Wells