The Seen and Unseen at Stratford-On-Avon – William Dean Howells
‘The Seen and Unseen at Stratford-on-Avon’ is a fantasy in which Mr. Howells enjoys the society of the great dramatist while they leisurely go to various pageants and festivities together. Shakespeare becomes his guest for a week-end and the immortal play wright confides that he “Never felt quite happy about the way people talked of Anne.” The dialogue between them is rich in humor and quite as delicious as anything that the distinguished American author has ever done, putting many of his pungent ideas into the mouth of Shakespeare. There are some lovely descriptive nature bits and the atmosphere of English feeling and history. The showery past is wonderfully mirrored in this characteristically perfect workmanship. Perhaps one of the most interesting parts of the book is where Francis Bacon joins them and they all talk together – three hundred years being no impediment to conversation with the Shades conjured up by the author’s magic pen, which flows as easily and as convincingly as ever, showing an imagination undimmed by time and a sense of humor as keen as ever. There is no better evidence of his linking the past with the present than in his description of the Moving Picture Show which almost confronted the Shakespeare monument. Only Mr. Howells could have done this whimsical thing.
The Seen and Unseen at Stratford-On-Avon.
Excerpt from the text:
We lingered amidst the pleasant avenues and crescents of Cheltenham, chiefly taken with the stately old-fashioned Parade, where, overlooking a Roman fountain, we found an American roof-garden. That is, it called itself a roof-garden, but it was silent about being American, and was really a canopied tea-room, only one flight up from the sidewalk instead of twenty stories; the fountain did not say it was Roman, but it was of a lavish spilth, and tumbled over marble shelves among mythological men and beasts, and so was Roman enough for us. A pleasant wind lifted the leaves up and down the Parade, where we did not mind the repair of the roadway going on with stone-breakers breaking stone, and a steamroller steam-rolling the pieces into a tarry bed. We could go away from the roof-garden tea-room when we liked, and walk or drive among the lawned and embowered mansions and lodges and villas, and educational establishments for both sexes, and think of our last King, our poor George the Third, who, though he alienated our affections, discovered the virtues of the medicinal waters of Cheltenham, and established the pleasant resort in a favor long since faded, but all the fitter for the retired Indian officers who now mostly dwell there, and apter to their strictly measured means. We did not personally verify the fact of their residence, for they were away on their holidays, as Englishmen always are at the beginning of August; but there were the large handsome houses of Georgian architecture, and we easily persuaded ourselves that they lived in these when they were at home.
In other words, we were so glad of Cheltenham by day and by night that we doubted very much whether we should hurry on to Stratford-on-Avon for the Shakespearean Festivals, held there throughout the month, on the brink of whose Bank Holiday we trembled. It seemed to us that we could do much better staying in Cheltenham, say a fortnight, with that Roman fountain and American roof-garden for our solace every day, and then go to Stratford; and the very last night of our stay we almost thought we should spend our whole August there, running over to Stratford for certain plays and coming back. What brought us to this conditional decision was our pleasure in the open-air performance of “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” in the park under the stars and the stir of leaves overhead, with the fine shiver of the natural and artificial bushes which the actors went and came through. They were very good actors, or at least as good as we deserved, both men and women; and the children that danced bare-legged and gauze-winged as fairies were adorable in that moment when the lovely English children are hesitating about growing plainer instead of simply growing older. We spectators were not in multitude, but we were fairly many, and we seemed to be fairly good society. We were very willing to be pleased with the playing, and we clapped handsomely at any chance, and so almost unanimously that I was a little vexed by the reticence of two gentlemen who sat directly in front of us and whom I was disposed to wish away at first. But as the time passed I forgot my grievance with them, if it was a grievance, and began to be interested in their peculiar interest in the performance, which they did not hide from me so much as I expected. They were of fairly good height, but one was much bulkier than the other and he seemed somehow of a cheerfuler make, though I imagined this rather from his carriage than from any expression of his face, which, in fact, I could not see at once. They both wore, or appeared to wear, the fashions of a West End tailor; they had on very-well-cut lounge suits, such as Englishmen almost live in when they are not on social duty and may indulge themselves in the excess of informality which the most formal of nations then likes to abandon itself to. But as the time passed their dress seemed to change, in a manner I hardly know how to describe, to something not old-fashioned but out-fashioned. Broad flat collars grew about their necks in place of the limp turn-down outing affairs they had worn; their jackets were replaced by slashed doublets of velvet; their trousers, slightly pegtop, turned to trunk hose. But what was more puzzling was an effect of luminous transparency which their persons now presented. I found that so far from incommoding me by their interposition between me and the play, I could see it none the worse but all the better for their presence, just as I could hear the actors more clearly, or more intelligently, for the talk which the two kept up pretty constantly. I cannot yet quite account for this curious fact (whether it was an illusion or not, I hope it remains a fact of my experience) and I give it to the reader for what it is worth. They sat rather silently through the opening passages of the play, where the lovers were having their misadventures contrived for them, but became restive, both of them, in that long, long scene where Bottom and Snug and Starveling and their brother mechanicals tediously rehearse their parts for the interlude which they are to play before the Duke.
At the end of it the slighter of my neighbors leaned toward the other and said, “It always seemed to me that this was one of the places where you fell down.”
“I know,” the stout gentleman acknowledged. “But,” he said, “it always got a laugh.”
“From the groundlings.”
“From her Grace herself.”
“The taste of her Grace was not always to be trusted. In matters of humor, of fun, it was a little gross, no? A little rank?”
“She certainly had a gust for the high-flavored in anecdote; but I don’t know that this scene is exactly of that sort. Coom to think of it, Oi — “
“Coom? Oi?” the other challenged.
“Come and I, Oi mane,” the stout gentleman owned with a laugh. “I do forget my London accent mostly, now that I’ve got permanently back to my Warwickshire; it’s so easy; after a language a dialect is like slippers after tight shoes. But what I mane — mean — is that I think these mechanicals are fairly decent; much more than they would have been in life. Her Grace would have relished what they would really have said, with the loves of Pyramus and Thisbe for a theme, if I had let them give way to their sprightly fancy without restraint; they had to be held up with a strong hand at times.” The comfortable gentleman laughed with a pleasure his companion apparently did not share, though, I fancied, less from a hurt moral sense than from a natural gravity.
” I never liked your bringing such fellows in as you often were doing. They are beneath the dignity of the drama. If you had taken my advice you would certainly have left the Gravedigger out of ‘Hamlet’; and your Touchstone and Audrey — I suppose you’ll say they always got a laugh, too. And that fat rascal Falstaff, and that drunken Bardolph, and that swaggering blackguard Pistol — I never could suffer them, though I suffered enough from them.” He laughed as at a neat point he had made, and then lapsed into what appeared a habit of melancholy.
” I won’t save myself from you behind Nature’s farthingale,” the other said, gently, “and I’ll own that these fellows here are not so amusing as I once thought them. The fashion of fun changes. I’ve heard that Mark Twain used to say my humor made him want to cry; perhaps in a century or two I shall have my revenge. But now, this scene of Hermia and Helena and their lovers in the forest here, I call that rather nice — their jealous fury, I mean; it has its pathos, too, I think.”
“I don’t deny it,” the gloomier gentleman said. “But I’m not sure I like the passions painted quite so nakedly. I should have preferred a more veiled presentment of these ladies’ hate as well as love. But it’s good, very good, very good indeed; or, as we used to say, very excellent good. Ah! That was well done of Hermia!”
“Yes,” the stout gentleman sighed, acquiescing, “I never saw it done quite so well in my time, when we had boys for the part.”
He put a certain stress on the word time, as playing upon it, and the other returned in like humor: “Yes; eternity has its compensations, and actresses are of them, though one wouldn’t always think so. They’re certainly better than those beardless boys of your time.”
The stout gentleman laughed dutifully, and the two went on concurrently with the play in their talk.
The play was a good deal cut, as I thought to its advantage, and I began to hope we should escape the scene of Pyramus and Thisbe: it did seem too much to have it after the rehearsal; and the rest was so charming. But we were not to escape so lightly. Bottom and the rest came on in due course, and I wondered how I should live through the joke. Suddenly I started, as if from sleep, and found that I really had been drowsing.
This will not seem so incredible if I allege that not very long before I had slept through a stance at the dentist’s in Boston, while he filled a tooth for me with the delicate skill of American dentists. Anyone who can believe this will not doubt that I was saved from that tedious scene by Nature’s anesthetic, and that I stood up greatly refreshed, as if the operation had been entirely successful.
The wind that was still lightly fingering the leaves seemed to have grown a little chillier, and a thin cloud had blown over the stars. The people were streaming away from the seats; the scene looked all the emptier for the want of a curtain to hide its hollowness.
“Did you notice what became of those two men in front of us?” I asked. “Or which way they went?”
“What two men in front of us?” it was replied; and I began to think I had invented them in the swift dream I must have had during my life-saving nap. I suppose the reader has guessed at the identity of one of them, and I could have done so myself if I had not been rigidly principled against ever guessing in England about anything; it so unmistakably marks you for an American, and if you are trying to pass for English it is so defeating.
I said no more about the strange companions, but I declared that while I appeared to have been sleeping (as I was now promptly accused of doing) I had been thinking the whole problem over, and had decided that we had better not try to do the August rites of Stratford-on-Avon from Cheltenham, but go at once and settle in that town, and seize whatever advantages propinquity offered for enjoyment. As nobody objected I began to have some doubts of my decision; but after rather a poor night, and some very disappointing coffee at breakfast, I held firmly to it. I was all the firmer in it when I found that the head porter at our hotel had sent us to the station to take a train which did not go; I then felt that we must leave Cheltenham, even if it was not for Stratford. The railway porter who labeled our baggage for Stratford said that the first train leaving before five-forty was a motor-train, which left at three-thirty. I tried to make him tell me what a motor-train was, and he did his best, but fell back upon a solid ground of fact in assuring me that I should see.