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The Actor by A. A. Milne

 

Mr Levinski, the famous actor-manager, dragged himself from beneath the car, took the snow out of his mouth, and swore heartily. Mortal men are liable to motor accidents; even kings' cars have backfired; but it seems strange that actor-managers are not specially exempt from these occurrences. Mr Levinski was not only angry; he was also a little shocked. When an actor-manager has to walk two miles to the nearest town on a winter evening one may be pardoned a doubt as to whether all is quite right with the world.

But the completest tragedy has its compensations for some one. The pitiable arrival of Mr Levinski at "The Duke's Head," unrecognized and with his fur coat slightly ruffled, might make a sceptic of the most devout optimist, and yet Eustace Merrowby can never look back upon that evening without a sigh of thankfulness; for to him it was the beginning of his career. The story has often been told since—in about a dozen weekly papers, half a dozen daily papers and three dozen provincial papers—but it will always bear telling again.

There was no train to London that night, and Mr Levinski had been compelled to put up at "The Duke's Head." However, he had dined and was feeling slightly better. He summoned the manager of the hotel.

"What does one do in this dam place?" he asked with a yawn.

The manager, instantly recognizing that he was speaking to a member of the aristocracy, made haste to reply. Othello was being played at the town theatre. His daughter, who had already been three times, told him that it was simply sweet. He was sure his lordship ...

Mr Levinski dismissed him, and considered the point. He had to amuse himself with something that evening, and the choice apparently lay between Othello and the local Directory. He picked up the Directory. By a lucky chance for Eustace Merrowby it was three years old. Mr Levinski put on his fur coat and went to see Othello.

For some time he was as bored as he had expected to be, but half-way through the Third Act he began to wake up. There was something in the playing of the principal actor which moved him strangely. He looked at his programme. "Othello—Mr EUSTACE MERROWBY." Mr Levinski frowned thoughtfully. "Merrowby?" he said to himself. "I don't know the name, but he's the man I want." He took out the gold pencil presented to him by the Emperor—(the station-master had had a tie-pin)—and wrote a note.

He was finishing breakfast next morning when Mr Merrowby was announced.

"Ah, good-morning," said Mr Levinski, "good-morning. You find me very busy," and here he began to turn the pages of the Directory backwards and forwards, "but I can give you a moment. What is it you want?"

"You asked me to call on you," said Eustace.

"Did I, did I?" He passed his hand across his brow with a noble gesture. "I am so busy, I forget. Ah, now I remember. I saw you play Othello last night. You are the man I want. I am producing 'Oom Baas,' the great South African drama, next April at my theatre. Perhaps you know?"

"I have read about it in the papers," said Eustace. In all the papers (he might have added) every day, for the last six months.

"Good. Then you may have heard that one of the scenes is an ostrich farm. I want you to play 'Tommy.'"

"One of the ostriches?" asked Eustace.

"I do not offer the part of an ostrich to a man who has played Othello. Tommy is the Kaffir boy who looks after the farm. It is a black part, like your present one, but not so long. In London you cannot expect to take the leading parts just yet."

"This is very kind of you," cried Eustace gratefully. "I have always longed to get to London. And to start in your theatre!—it's a wonderful chance."

"Good," said Mr Levinski. "Then that's settled." He waved Eustace away and took up the Directory again with a business-like air.

And so Eustace Merrowby came to London. It is a great thing for a young actor to come to London. As Mr Levinski had warned him, his new part was not so big as that of Othello; he had to say "Hofo tsetse!"—which was alleged to be Kaffir for "Down, sir!"—to the big ostrich. But to be at the St George's Theatre at all was an honour which most men would envy him, and his association with a real ostrich was bound to bring him before the public in the pages of the illustrated papers.

Eustace, curiously enough, was not very nervous on the first night. He was fairly certain that he was word-perfect; and if only the ostrich didn't kick him in the back of the neck—as it had tried to once at rehearsal—the evening seemed likely to be a triumph for him. And so it was with a feeling of pleasurable anticipation that, on the morning after, he gathered the papers round him at breakfast, and prepared to read what the critics had to say.

He had a remarkable Press. I give a few examples of the notices he obtained from the leading papers:

"Mr Eustace Merrowby was Tommy."—Daily Telegraph.

"The cast included Mr Eustace Merrowby."—Times.

"... Mr Eustace Merrowby..."—Daily Chronicle.

"We have no space in which to mention all the other performers."—Morning Leader.

"This criticism only concerns the two actors we have mentioned, and does not apply to the rest of the cast."—Sportsman.

"Where all were so good, it would be invidious to single out anybody for special praise."—Daily Mail.

"The acting deserved a better play."—Daily News.

"... Tommy..."—Morning Post.

As Eustace read the papers, he felt that his future was secure. True, The Era, careful never to miss a single performer, had yet to say, "Mr Eustace Merrowby was capital as Tommy," and The Stage, "Tommy was capitally played by Mr Eustace Merrowby"; but even without this he had become one of the Men who Count—one whose private life was of more interest to the public than that of any scientist, general or diplomat in the country.

Into Eustace Merrowby's subsequent career I cannot go at full length. It is perhaps as a member of the Garrick Club that he has attained his fullest development. All the good things of the Garrick which were not previously said by Sydney Smith may safely be put down to Eustace; and there is no doubt that he is the ringleader in all the subtler practical jokes which have made the club famous. It was he who pinned to the back of an unpopular member of the committee a sheet of paper bearing the words

KICK ME

—and the occasion on which he drew the chair from beneath a certain eminent author as the latter was about to sit down is still referred to hilariously by the older members.

Finally, as a convincing proof of his greatness, let it be said that everybody has at least heard the name "Eustace Merrowby"—even though some may be under the impression that it is the trade-mark of a sauce; and that half the young ladies of Wandsworth Common and Winchmore Hill are in love with him. If this be not success, what is?

 
 
 

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