From Out of Soundings,
Copyright 1931 by H. M. Tomlinson, New York and London:
Harper & Brothers Publishers, Chapter 8, p116-134.
From A Mingled Yarn, Copyright 1953 by H. M. Tomlinson, Indianapolis and New York, Bobbs-Merrill Company, Inc. Chapter 8, p74-83. [The word 'murk' spelled as 'mirk'.]
Beauty and the Beast
H. M. Tomlinson
A NIGHT or two ago I was persuaded to a first experience of The Talkies. It was explained that life is incomplete for one who has failed to watch a photographic story accompanied by appropriate words from a talking machine. A wonderful invention. It is a measure of our advance to higher and richer perceptions.
I confess I was reluctant to go. I do not remember that twenty years ago we were at all excited by the "talkies"; they were not wonderful then, but common to the week, and it was usual to attend them, for entertainment. Not so long ago, when our Victorian souls desired light refreshment, we inclined to this or that music-hall, and we went to hear Marie Lloyd talk to us. Good talk it was, too.
Though not good enough to-day, so we are told. We are assured it would not be good enough to-day. We have changed. There was a time, too, when we enjoyed witnessing a favourite conductor evoke from his instrumentalists Beethoven in a symphony; and then, in a dream, we could see that the tympanist, a vague presiding figure high above the rest of the orchestra, was Zeus himself, leisurely beating a measure for the spheres. That respectful silence of the listeners at the end of it, that brief pause when only the echoes of the music were sounding in one's mind, that was something, too; for we do not applaud on the instant what is noble, as though it were a trick by a conjuror. We do not applaud because there is no surprise; there is but wonder. Our faith has always been that man, at rare intervals, may rise to such a height, and when he does so we are not surprised, but silenced.
Yet you cannot, by "wireless," see Zeus above measuring his thunder and flashes to the music. The radio set, that static little box of tricks we substitute for a musician evoking from a concert of artists the triumph of a master, is impersonal. Not by its aid did shepherds, one night, while watching their flocks, delude themselves with the wild notion that the stars had good tidings for them. Let us agree that the little box will do what the amateur at the piano could never do. Our ration of music, good and bad, now comes in from the main like our supply of water. We turn a button, and it is there. Nor has anything to be done for it; it is as certain as the income-tax. It also enlarges, on occasion, the voices of kings, premiers, and presidents. When they desire an urgent word with us they have a means to hand which the angels did not use because it was not there. They have that advantage over the angels. That new ability of the great and important to communicate directly with us is a bond between them and the humble. The King speaks in the kitchen. It is very agreeable for a household to be advised by the august voice of the Premier. Still, though while we sit at our fireside, listening-in after supper, flattered by a Chief of State assuring us that so far the likelihood of war next morning need not keep us awake, we certainly know that St. Michael, if ever he overcame the incoherence of the atmosphere, would not have an earthly chance. St. Michael cannot compete with a Chancellor of the Exchequer. If he tried to get a word through to us we should recognize at once an improper interruption; for we know well enough, we know it instinctively and sorrowfully, that the message he had for us, if any, would not come that way; it would be a personal word.
A personal word! Nobody else would hear it; nor might another fellow believe it if we reported a voice from beyond. But the radio is impersonal, and therefore it is right. All but the deaf may hear it. It makes announcements as valid as the public notices once less effectively posted outside town halls, or left to the public press to issue. It has no heart. It is common news. It is not an intimation. It tells us that we are to be taxed a little more, or that, luckily, we may not have to shoulder arms for a month or two. What we hear is a louder speaker in the hurly-burly; the confused uproar becomes articulate, for a moment, with the heartening communication that the steep place is a little less steep, and that for the time being the herd is not rushing down. Which is gratifying enough; yet once I met a man who casually remembered, while lighting his pipe, that he used to know an ancient who had shaken hands with Beethoven. What, did the gods once live? Were they seen? Is it possible that this earth is habitable, for gods?
I went to the Talkies. It is no good trying to resist. We must accept the improvements on life made by machinery. The Engine, we are aware, is dominant, and it rules us. We must submit to its governance. It has deposed Jehovah. It is the new God, the latest thing made out of our highest thoughts, and it must be worshipped, or the priests will certainly excommunicate us and make our ways hard.
My town, quite near to London, of late has added to its many new buildings a palace for the drama of the cinematograph. Once upon a time we had several theatres and music-halls, rather old and shabby places, and to these we went, following the ways of the people of old Athens, to see the life which puzzled us interpreted by a chosen company of cleverer fellow mortals; but the camera has dispossessed us. Those shabby old places have gone, outdated, mere memories now not kept by our children.
The magnitude of this new place, which we have in their stead, was astonishing. In central London, not Shakespeare or Handel, not any mind of the first magnitude, could keep it open for a profitable month. Yet what does that matter? For evidently the camera and the talking machine can do it. Its vast space was filled that night, though not, so far as I could see, with my neighbours. I could not see what had filled it, though full it was. Its dim gulfs were uneasy with a stirring and a muttering, as of a tide in the dark. Sitting near me in an immense and dubious gloom I thought I recognized human shapes, a fond hope which had little comfort, because those shapes merged at no distance into an obscure mass which was awful in its sameness, extent, and ambiguity. That uncertain murk was not of men and women. A doubt came that this modern palace, where science employed its devices upon an unknown quantity, might be a station for charging a mysterious and inordinate power, latent there for the Devil knew what. For the power had no eyes and no voice. It was only a murmuring and a stirring, as of a wind at sea at night. If the wind should rise!
I suppose I was in a gallery. My feeling was that I was suspended in mid-air with a multitude of unauthentic beings. There were coloured auroral glowings on bastions and far rafters of night, but they did not illuminate. They had no apparent origin; there was but a spectral waxing and waning of colours which did not throw light on any complete and reasonable shape. Below me was a twilight steep of which I knew nothing but a whispering and movement in the abyss; and ranged on either hand were vague masks, something human-like, that were lost in infinity, that continued, I fancied, into the ultimate dark. I prepared myself for a portentous and apocalyptic drama. I felt sure it would be that; I should get no human communication there. But there was a bare chance I was not absolutely sundered from my own sort, because I had a suspicion that one of the bodiless spectres near me, one of the hovering masks, was chewing peppermint.
A curtain rose, remotely and below, on the diminished simulacrum of a lighted stage. A company of acrobatic puppets appeared, and these dolls contorted their bodies to entertain us while we waited for the greater shadow show to begin. On a vaudeville stage of the past such agility would have won applause. I heard no applause there. Perhaps spectres do not applaud puppets. The murk about me was silent. What was there to applaud? Puppets are not of flesh and blood; those flgures were too distant to have backbones and bowels, so why should they not twist their bodies in a way impossible to a man? They were not cheered. They vanished. Other puppets came and sang mechanically or played musical instruments with a virtuosity remarkable in dummies; and they also departed in silence.
The smell of peppermint still reminded me of old earth, and I was glad it did, for I felt alone, and more than a little disquieted by this vast unreality. Yet unreal? How could one be sure it was not moved inimicably by laws that concerned the asteroids and Saturn, but not the meek at heart? The immensity of this interior, which I could only suspect, the murmuring of the power which was phantom but potent, and that glowing upon detached bastions and cornices of undivulged lights, were too suggestive of the mechanistic compulsion which directs the multitudes in modern cities into uniform herds, orienting heads and tails according to influences from an inscrutable Zodiac. A boisterous if drunken laugh down below, a shout of ribald gaiety, would have been a godsend. I could have rejoiced in the knowledge of another lost mortal soul.
There was a pause. I was about to experience this new miracle of science, this shadow show with a voice. A magic lantern threw on a white screen lengthy indications of a great affair to come, and of its official sanction by the State censor, and portraits of the shadows who were "featuring," and solemn pauses which gave me time to read the meanings of sentences in a two-syllabic jargon for which a child at school would be reproved. The Talkie began.
It was my first and last. I judged that the masks and spectres about me might more usefully and amusingly haunt graveyards, than hover silently at this kind of entertainment. I used to think that the producers of the Movies had learned, after many trials, the limitations of their art. They knew the best use to make of their material. They had almost reached the point--Charlie Chaplin reached it very quickly--where they would have seen that the power of the cinematograph was in the allegorical presentation of life. The magic lantern was taking its place with music and poetry. It could do what a great poem could not do. It could appeal directly to the multitude, and almost instantaneously, with an interpretative vision of man's affairs simple enough for all to understand and as immune from argument as the Pilgrim's Progress. It could persuade observers to a change of heart by a casual display of incidents in the life of the humble, which were of destiny and inevitable. The cinematograph, in the hands of imaginative genius, could have excelled poetry in its direct challenge to the ugliness in our institutions and traditional rites and manners; and that it was silent was the secret of its power.
But the spell of a symbol is broken when a bore explains what it means. The story conveyed by the Talkie in that immense and expensive palace was barely strong enough to support one number of an old-fashioned penny novelette. It concerned a despised singer, who was loved by no one but his mother. She thought he could sing, but nobody else who knew him thought so. We might, in the silent drama, have assumed his loving mother was right, yet that night, most indiscreetly, he sang. We could hear that his mother was misinformed. We could plainly hear a nasal chant out of a Californian tin. In one of the shabby music-halls of the past the soloist would have "got the bird" for making such a noise. It is certain, however, that the manager of a music-hall would never have permitted him a nearer approach to the footlights than the cab-rank. The fable was so strangely foolish that it might have been conceived and produced by a simple-minded reader inspired by the serial stories which are proper to the cheaper picture-papers; the artless child would have supposed that to be the kind of thing the public wants. Its sentimental tedium was as slow as a leak of heavy stuff. Our theatres have been diminished, our music-halls retired, and Charlie Chaplin advised that he is out of date, and the latest mechanism from the physical laboratories secured by men with too much money, in order that we should be gratified in a spacious new building by a display less appropriate than the label on a jam pot.
It was not possible for me to get out of the palace at once, so I mused and regretted the past, while waiting. I remembered that, not far from this modern vacuous wonder of a picture palace, with its puppets, and its dismal magnitude in which all communion with one's fellow sinners was lost, I had heard Marie Lloyd for the last time. It was in a dingy little music-hall. You could have recognized a friend in its remotest corner; and the hall was full that night. Marie Lloyd was coming.
I had never seen her, but I knew the legend. When I was a boy I had heard men gossiping in an office, who should have been intent upon ledgers and commercial documents, and the subject which animated them more than duty was a young lady, unknown to me, but probably most attractive, named Marie Lloyd. One of the men would lower his voice when he came to the point of an anecdote, and presently they were all loudly gay. Not seldom in later life stories about her were enticingly outlined to willing listeners, so that she was shadowed forth, and it was easy to believe she was a character. Still, here I was in a suburban music-hall, in another age, and Marie Lloyd, though gifted with the complete art of femininity, would be getting on. I thought that night, while waiting for her, that I must be all too late for her full charm; I was expecting too much. A lanky figure in a diminutive bowler hat, his trousers too short, his loose hands and wrists dangling well beyond his coat sleeves, with a cane, and a red nose, appeared on the platform. He tottered round it in agitation twice, and then stopped to inform us that his wife had gone away with the lodger. He made a song about it. Nobody present seemed to suffer very much, perhaps because they had heard something like it before. Another man followed, and jeopardized a number of dinner plates. The audience maintained its amiability.
There was some hesitation on the part of the management--the stage remained empty too long, while the audience murmured its expectancy and a growing impatience. Then an electric Number 10 suddenly flashed beside the proscenium.
The audience stirred, became quiet, and settled itself. The orchestra played an air which everybody but myself appeared to know well. Interrupting the music, a woman, wearing a dress that was an absurd caricature of the raiment supposed to appertain to a naughty lady, paraded insolently to the footlights. She only looked at us, in handsome weariness. There was a merry call from the gods. She sang a song in careless confidence, a little hoarsely, making hardly a movement, except of a shapely arm and an eloquent hand; sometimes there was a show of an ankle, which a woman might give who could do more, but merely wishes to annoy us. This was Marie Lloyd. Nothing was certain about her then except that my neighbours were fully under her control. She knew them, but she was as indifferent as a sultana in a tedious court. She lifted slightly her cloud of silk, mocked us with the prelude to a dance, and abruptly left us, with a grace that was contumelious. Just as she reached the wings she turned her head, and gave us a look.
The immediate cry of delight which greeted the empty stage did not take me unaware. It is possible that I was in it. It is not easy to be dumb when taken by a glad surprise. If this was elderly Marie Lloyd then she was eternal youth. Age she would never know . . . but was this all? For she could do more than this. Would she come again? We could wait. It was far from midnight; or next morning would not be too late.
She appeared again, but I was not prepared for her. I knew at once I had not seen her before. Who was she now? A little shabby London woman, whose household was flitting, and somehow she had taken the wrong road. She had been following the van, but had lost it. She was carrying the family linnet in a cage, and a handbag. She was tired, too, and I suspect she had been thirsty. She complained, in a droll way, in a language known to that house, of her tribulations. We laughed with her. What was she now? She was London. She was all the Cockneys. We laughed at ourselves.
Yet what is a Cockney? It is so hard to say that you will rarely find one in a book. There is Sam Weller, but not enough in literature to give Sam adequate companionship. The Cockney is a dangerous subject, and betrays most artists and authors. He is nearly as old as the Chinaman, and is something like that fellow, because of the antiquity of his civilization and its stress. He has worked for two thousand years, and still works, so he does not expect much. He is a hereditary unbeliever. He resists conversion to a new faith; the gods have upset his apple-barrow too often. He has seen the death of many kings, and of so many great causes that he thinks it enough if he can keep his own barrow on two wheels for one day. He is sentimental, but protects his easy pity with a dry derision. He wears the mask of a cynic, and comments on affairs through restrained lips. Things have so often gone awry for him, notwithstanding the laws and the prophets, that it has ceased to be amusing; but this has given him patience, and his philosophy a bleak humour. He loves his fellow men, but has no faith in them; he has seen too many of them, and too much.
How did Marie Lloyd convey this, and more? Well, how did Dickens manage it? And how often has Dickens been born again? Marie Lloyd, somehow, held communion with us. She did not have to speak. When she assumed that we knew, most certainly we knew, and laughed. As a Cockney lady who had lost the van conveying her household goods, which was a grievous thing, though not without its fun, she would hesitate in an explanation of the accident, tongue-tied, and at once our sympathy flowed. Or she would, failing in her tired state to understand what it was she really wanted to do, ask us an innocent and irrelevant question. It was our own moving job that was lost. But when she came, not to the fine points of conduct, such as the way one may innocently behave after several calls on a dry road in the hope of conjuring up a heart refreshed, but to the elements of life, Marie Lloyd's deranging candour would have moved Sir John Falstaff to one of his grand and moving periods. Her sallies shocked the house into surprise as deep as silence, just before it shook with the fun of it. We had heard the truth, and knew it almost at once. We understood each other better, as we went home.
But here was this new great palace, and a new age, and The Talkies. Now we are separate in heart, though our bodies are herded; not Londoners, Cockneys no more; we are the mob, through the irresistible magic of another machine. Science assembles us, art does not unite us. Influences that in a new jargon are called mergers and syndicates have deprived us of contact with the artist. We gape, and hardly know why, at a distant and bloodless wonder. We have grown distrustful of what is within ourselves; for that, we have learned, is no longer of importance. Space and science insulate us from the sympathy of humane communication. And there is no compensation for our loss. Our ways of life, under the compulsion of mechanical powers with which it would be useless to argue--they have no heads, as kings had, to be cut off--are shaping us into flocks with the same faces, the same wool, and the same desires. Our heads instinctively turn in one direction. We are losing our personal oddities and characteristics, for these are of no use, and are even dangerous to flockmasters. It is becoming hard to tell one sheep from another. We read the same newspapers, are prompted by the same loudspeakers, dance to the same music, and stampede before decisions not our own. There may be more than we think in that myth of the Gorgon's head; but instead of into stone its modern victims are changed into mutton.