The following is a chapter from a book entitled "Stage Confidences" by Canadian actress Clara Morris (see foot of page). It is made up of a series of reminiscences from her stage career which spanned over fourty years. This particular chapter discusses what were the advantages of the stage as an occupation for a woman in her era (when gender equality was still a thing of the future). Although Clara's career and experience was limited solely to Canada and the USA, in most of the issues she discusses the situation would not have been very different for an actress living and performing in England. It provides an interesting insight into why many women chose to follow a career on the stage. If you would like to read the whole book click here to download it as an ebook file for Microsoft Reader.
A chapter from "Stage Confidences", by Clara Morris
(London, Charles H. Kelly, 1902)
The Stage As An Occupation for women
In looking over my letters from the gentle "Unknown," I find that the question, "What advantage has the stage over other occupations for women?" is asked by a Mrs. Some One more often than by the more impulsive and less thoughtful girl writer, and it is put with frequency and earnestness.
Of course there is nothing authoritative in these answers of mine, nothing absolute. They are simply the opinion of one woman, founded upon personal experience and observation. We must, of course, to begin with, eliminate the glamour of the stage--that strange, false lustre, as powerful as it is intangible--and consider acting as a practical occupation, like any other. And then I find that in trying to answer the question asked, I am compelled, after all, to turn to a memory.
I had been on the stage two years when one day I met a schoolmate. Her father had died, and she, too, was working; but she was bitterly envious of my occupation. I earnestly explained the demands stage wardrobe made upon the extra pay I drew; that in actual fact she had more money for herself than I had. Again I explained that rehearsals, study, and preparation of costumes required time almost equal to her working hours, with the night work besides; but she would not be convinced.
"Oh, don't you see," she cried, "I am at service, that means I'm a dependant, I labour for another. You serve, yes, but you labour for yourself," and lo! she had placed her stubby little finger upon the sore spot in the working-woman's very heart, when she had divined that in the independence of an actress lay her great advantage over other workers.
Of course this independence is not absolute; but then how many men there are already silver-haired at desk or bench or counter who are still under the authority of an employer! Like these men, the actress's independence is comparative; but measured by the bondage of other working-women, it is very great. We both have duties to perform for which we receive a given wage, yet there is a difference. The working-girl is expected to be subservient, she is too often regarded as a menial, she is ordered. An actress, even of small characters, is considered a necessary part of the whole. She assists, she attends, she obliges. Truly a difference.
Again, women shrink with passionate repugnance from receiving orders from another woman; witness the rarity of the American domestic. A pity? Yes; but what else can you expect? The Americans are a dominant race. Free education has made all classes too nearly equal for one woman to bend her neck willingly and accept the yoke of servitude offered by another woman.
And even this is spared to the actress, since her directions are more often received from the stage manager or manager than from a woman star. True, her life is hard, she has no home comforts; but, then, she has no heavy duties to perform, no housework, bed-making, sweeping, dish-washing, or clothes-washing, and when her work is done, she is her own mistress. She goes and comes at her own will; she has time for self-improvement, but best of all she has something to look forward to. That is a great advantage over girls of other occupations, who have such a small chance of advancement.
Some impetuous young reader who speaks first and thinks afterward may cry out that I am not doing justice to the profession of acting, even that I discredit it in thus comparing it with humble and somewhat mechanical vocations; so before I go farther, little enthusiasts, let me remind you of the wording of this present query. It does not ask what advantage has acting over other professions, over other arts, but "What advantage has it over other occupations for women?"
A very sweeping inquiry, you see; hence this necessary comparison with shop, factory, and office work. As to the other professions, taking, for instance, law or medicine, preparations for practice must be very costly. A girl puts her family to a great strain to pay her college expenses, or if some family friend advances funds, when she finally passes all the dreaded examinations, and has the legal right to hang out her shingle, she starts in the race of life handicapped with crushing debts.
The theatre is, I think, the only place where a salary is paid to students during all the time they are learning their profession; surely a great, a wonderful advantage over other professions to be self-sustaining from the first.
Then the arts, but ah! life is short and art, dear Lord, art is long, almost unto eternity. And she who serves it needs help, much help, and then must wait, long and wearily, for the world's response and recognition, that, even if they come, are apt to be somewhat uncertain, unless they can be cut on a marble tomb; then they are quite positive and hearty. But in the art of acting the response and recognition come swift as lightning, sweet as nectar, while you are young enough to enjoy and to make still greater efforts to improve and advance.
So it seems to me the great advantage of acting over work is one's independence, one's opportunity to improve oneself. Its advantage over the professions is that it is self-sustaining from the start. Its advantage over the arts is its swift reward for earnest endeavour.
It must be very hard to endure the contempt so often bestowed upon the woman who simply serves. I had a little taste of it once myself; and though it was given me by accident, and apologies and laughter followed, I remember quite well that even that tiny taste was distinctly unpleasant--yes, and bitter. I was abroad with some very intimate friends, and Mrs. P----, an invalid, owing to a mishap, was for some days without a maid. We arrived in Paris hours behind time, late at night, and went straight to our reserved rooms, seeing no one but some sleepy servants.
Early next morning, going to my friends' apartments, I came upon this piteous sight: Mrs. P----, who had a head of curly hair, was not only without a maid, but also without the use of her right arm. The fame of Charcot had brought her to Paris. Unless she breakfasted alone, which she hated, her hair must be arranged. Behold, then, the emergency for which her husband, Colonel P----, had, boldly not to say recklessly, offered his services.
I can see them now. She, with clenched teeth of physical suffering and uplifted eye of the forgiving martyr, sat in combing jacket before him; and he, with the maid's white apron girt tight about him just beneath his armpits, had on his soldierly face an expression of desperate resolve that suggested the leading of a forlorn hope. A row of hair-pins protruded sharply from between his tightly closed lips; a tortoise-shell back-comb, dangling from one side of his full beard where he placed it for safety, made this amateur hairdresser a disturbing sight both for gods and men.
With legs well braced and far apart, his arms high lifted like outspread wings, he wielded the comb after the manner of a man raking hay. For one moment all my sympathy was for the shrinking woman; then, when suddenly, in despite of the delicious morning coolness, a great drop of perspiration splashed from the Colonel's corrugated brow, down into the obstreperous curly mass he wrestled with, I pitied him, too, and cried:--
"Oh, I'll do that. Take care, you'll swallow a pin or two if you contradict me. Your spirit is willing, Colonel, but your flesh, for all you have such a lot of it, is weak, when you come to hair-dressing!"
And regardless of his very earnest protest, I took the tangled, tormented mass in hand and soon had it waving back into a fluffy knot; and just as I was drawing forth some short locks for the forehead, there came a knock and in bounced the mistress of the house, our landlady, Mme. F----, who, missing our arrival the night before, came now to bid us welcome and inquire as to our satisfaction with arrangements, etc. She was a short woman, of surprising breadth and more surprising velocity of speech. She could pronounce more words to a single breath than any other person I have ever met. She was German by birth, and spoke French with a strong German accent, while her English was a thing to wring the soul, sprinkled as it was with German "unds," "ufs," and "yousts," and French "zees" and "zats." Our French being of the slow and precise kind, and her English of the rattling and at first incomprehensible type, the conversation was somewhat confused. But even so, my friends noticed with surprise, that Madame did not address one word of welcome to me. They hastened to introduce me, using my married name.
A momentary annoyance came into her face, then she dropped her lids haughtily, swept me from head to foot with one contemptuous glance, and without even the faintest nod in return to my "Bon jour, Madame," she turned to Mrs. P----, who, red with indignation, was trying to sputter out a demand for an explanation, and asked swiftly:--
"Und zat ozzer lady? you vas to be t'ree--n'est-ce pas? She hav' not com' yed? to-morrow, perhaps, und--und" (I saw what was coming, but my companions suspected nothing), "und"--she dropped her lids again and indicated me with a contemptuous movement of the head--"she, zat maid, you vant to make arrange for her? You hav' not write for room for zat maid?"
I leaned from the window to hide my laughter, for it seemed to me that Colonel P---- jumped a foot, while the cry of his wife drowned the sound of the short, warm word that is of great comfort to angry men. Before they could advance one word of explanation, an aproned waiter fairly burst into the room, crying for "Madame! Madame! to come quick, for that Jules was at it very bad again!" And she wildly rushed out, saying over her shoulder, "By und by we zee for zat maid, und about zat udder lady, by und by also," and so departed at a run with a great rattling of starch and fluttering of cap ribbons; for Jules, the head cook, already in the first stages of delirium tremens, was making himself interesting to the guests by trying to jump into the fountain basin to save the lives of the tiny ducklings, who were happily swimming there, and Madame F---- was sorely needed.
Yes, I laughed--laughed honestly at the helpless wrath of my friends, and pretended to laugh at the mistake; but all the time I was saying to myself, "Had I really been acting as maid, how cruelly I should have suffered under that contemptuous glance and from that withheld bow of recognition." She had found me well-dressed, intelligent, and well-mannered; yet she had insulted me, because she believed me to be a lady's maid. No wonder women find service bitter.
We had retired from the breakfast room and were arranging our plans for the day, when a sort of whirlwind came rushing through the hall, the door sprang open almost without a pronounced permission, and Madame F---- flung herself into the room, caught my hands in hers, pressed them to her heart, to her lips, to her brow, wept in German, in French, in English, and called distractedly upon "Himmel!" "Ciel!" and "Heaven!" But she found her apologies so coldly received by my friends that she was glad to turn the flood of her remorse in my direction, and for very shame of the scene she was making I assured her the mistake was quite pardonable--as it was. It was her manner that was almost unpardonable. Then she added to my discomfort by bursting out with fulsome praise of me as an actress; how she had seen me and wept, and so on and on, she being only at last walked and talked gently out of the room.
But that was not the end of her remorse. A truly French bouquet with its white paper petticoat arrived in about an hour, "From the so madly mistooken Madame F----," the card read, and that act of penance was performed every morning as long as I remained in Paris. But one day she appealed to the Colonel for pity and sympathy.
"Ah!" said she, "I hav' zee two tr'ubles, zee two sorrows! I hav' zee grief to vound zee feelin's of zat so fine actrice Americaine--zat ees one tr'ubles, und den I hav' zee shame to mak' zat grande fool meestak'--oh, mon Dieu! I tak' her for zee maid, und zare my most great tr'uble come in! I hav' no one with zee right to keek me--to keek me hard from zee back for being such a fool. I say mit my husband dat night, 'Vill you keek me hard, if you pleas'?' Mais, he cannot, he hav' zee gout in zee grande toe, und he can't keek vurth one sou!--und zat is my second tr'uble!"
Behind her broad back the Colonel confessed that had she expressed such a wish on the occasion of the mistake, he would willingly have obliged her, as he was quite free from gout.
So any woman who goes forth to win her living as an actress will at least be spared the contemptuous treatment bestowed on me in my short service as an amateur lady's maid.
Born: Toronto, Canada, 17th March 1846.
Died: 20th November 1925.