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Mark Twain > A Tramp Abroad > Chapter IX

A Tramp Abroad

Chapter IX


[What the Beautiful Maiden Said]

One day we took the train and went down to Mannheim
to see "King Lear" played in German. It was a mistake.
We sat in our seats three whole hours and never understood
anything but the thunder and lightning; and even that
was reversed to suit German ideas, for the thunder came
first and the lightning followed after.

The behavior of the audience was perfect. There were
no rustlings, or whisperings, or other little disturbances;
each act was listened to in silence, and the applauding
was done after the curtain was down. The doors opened at
half past four, the play began promptly at half past five,
and within two minutes afterward all who were coming were
in their seats, and quiet reigned. A German gentleman
in the train had said that a Shakespearian play was an
appreciated treat in Germany and that we should find the
house filled. It was true; all the six tiers were filled,
and remained so to the end--which suggested that it is
not only balcony people who like Shakespeare in Germany,
but those of the pit and gallery, too.

Another time, we went to Mannheim and attended a shivaree--
otherwise an opera--the one called "Lohengrin." The
banging and slamming and booming and crashing were
something beyond belief. The racking and pitiless
pain of it remains stored up in my memory alongside
the memory of the time that I had my teeth fixed.
There were circumstances which made it necessary for me
to stay through the hour hours to the end, and I stayed;
but the recollection of that long, dragging, relentless season
of suffering is indestructible. To have to endure it
in silence, and sitting still, made it all the harder.
I was in a railed compartment with eight or ten strangers,
of the two sexes, and this compelled repression;
yet at times the pain was so exquisite that I could hardly
keep the tears back. At those times, as the howlings
and wailings and shrieking of the singers, and the ragings
and roarings and explosions of the vast orchestra rose
higher and higher, and wilder and wilder, and fiercer
and fiercer, I could have cried if I had been alone.
Those strangers would not have been surprised to see
a man do such a thing who was being gradually skinned,
but they would have marveled at it here, and made remarks
about it no doubt, whereas there was nothing in the
present case which was an advantage over being skinned.
There was a wait of half an hour at the end of the first act,
and I could not trust myself to do it, for I felt that I
should desert to stay out. There was another wait
of half an hour toward nine o'clock, but I had gone
through so much by that time that I had no spirit left,
and so had no desire but to be let alone.

I do not wish to suggest that the rest of the people there
were like me, for, indeed, they were not. Whether it
was that they naturally liked that noise, or whether it
was that they had learned to like it by getting used to it,
I did not at the time know; but they did like--this was
plain enough. While it was going on they sat and looked
as rapt and grateful as cats do when one strokes their backs;
and whenever the curtain fell they rose to their feet,
in one solid mighty multitude, and the air was snowed thick
with waving handkerchiefs, and hurricanes of applause
swept the place. This was not comprehensible to me.
Of course, there were many people there who were not
under compulsion to stay; yet the tiers were as full at
the close as they had been at the beginning. This showed
that the people liked it.

It was a curious sort of a play. In the manner
of costumes and scenery it was fine and showy enough;
but there was not much action. That is to say,
there was not much really done, it was only talked about;
and always violently. It was what one might call a
narrative play. Everybody had a narrative and a grievance,
and none were reasonable about it, but all in an offensive
and ungovernable state. There was little of that sort
of customary thing where the tenor and the soprano stand
down by the footlights, warbling, with blended voices,
and keep holding out their arms toward each other and drawing
them back and spreading both hands over first one breast
and then the other with a shake and a pressure--no,
it was every rioter for himself and no blending.
Each sang his indictive narrative in turn, accompanied by
the whole orchestra of sixty instruments, and when this had
continued for some time, and one was hoping they might come
to an understanding and modify the noise, a great chorus
composed entirely of maniacs would suddenly break forth,
and then during two minutes, and sometimes three, I lived
over again all that I suffered the time the orphan asylum burned
down.

We only had one brief little season of heaven and heaven's
sweet ecstasy and peace during all this long and diligent
and acrimonious reproduction of the other place.
This was while a gorgeous procession of people marched around
and around, in the third act, and sang the Wedding Chorus.
To my untutored ear that was music--almost divine music.
While my seared soul was steeped in the healing balm
of those gracious sounds, it seemed to me that I could
almost resuffer the torments which had gone before,
in order to be so healed again. There is where the deep
ingenuity of the operatic idea is betrayed. It deals so
largely in pain that its scattered delights are prodigiously
augmented by the contrasts. A pretty air in an opera is
prettier there than it could be anywhere else, I suppose,
just as an honest man in politics shines more than he
would elsewhere.

I have since found out that there is nothing the Germans
like so much as an opera. They like it, not in a mild
and moderate way, but with their whole hearts.
This is a legitimate result of habit and education.
Our nation will like the opera, too, by and by, no doubt.
One in fifty of those who attend our operas likes
it already, perhaps, but I think a good many of the other
forty-nine go in order to learn to like it, and the
rest in order to be able to talk knowingly about it.
The latter usually hum the airs while they are being sung,
so that their neighbors may perceive that they have been
to operas before. The funerals of these do not occur
often enough.

A gentle, old-maidish person and a sweet young girl
of seventeen sat right in front of us that night at the
Mannheim opera. These people talked, between the acts,
and I understood them, though I understood nothing
that was uttered on the distant stage. At first they
were guarded in their talk, but after they had heard
my agent and me conversing in English they dropped their
reserve and I picked up many of their little confidences;
no, I mean many of HER little confidences--meaning
the elder party--for the young girl only listened,
and gave assenting nods, but never said a word. How pretty
she was, and how sweet she was! I wished she would speak.
But evidently she was absorbed in her own thoughts,
her own young-girl dreams, and found a dearer pleasure
in silence. But she was not dreaming sleepy dreams--no,
she was awake, alive, alert, she could not sit still
a moment. She was an enchanting study. Her gown was
of a soft white silky stuff that clung to her round
young figure like a fish's skin, and it was rippled
over with the gracefulest little fringy films of lace;
she had deep, tender eyes, with long, curved lashes;
and she had peachy cheeks, and a dimpled chin, and such
a dear little rosebud of a mouth; and she was so dovelike,
so pure, and so gracious, so sweet and so bewitching.
For long hours I did mightily wish she would speak.
And at last she did; the red lips parted, and out leaps her
thought--and with such a guileless and pretty enthusiasm,
too: "Auntie, I just KNOW I've got five hundred fleas
on me!"

That was probably over the average. Yes, it must have been
very much over the average. The average at that time
in the Grand Duchy of Baden was forty-five to a young
person (when alone), according to the official estimate
of the home secretary for that year; the average for older
people was shifty and indeterminable, for whenever a
wholesome young girl came into the presence of her elders
she immediately lowered their average and raised her own.
She became a sort of contribution-box. This dear young
thing in the theater had been sitting there unconsciously
taking up a collection. Many a skinny old being in our
neighborhood was the happier and the restfuler for her coming.

In that large audience, that night, there were eight very
conspicuous people. These were ladies who had their hats
or bonnets on. What a blessed thing it would be if a lady
could make herself conspicuous in our theaters by wearing
her hat. It is not usual in Europe to allow ladies
and gentlemen to take bonnets, hats, overcoats, canes,
or umbrellas into the auditorium, but in Mannheim this
rule was not enforced because the audiences were largely
made up of people from a distance, and among these were
always a few timid ladies who were afraid that if they had
to go into an anteroom to get their things when the play
was over, they would miss their train. But the great mass
of those who came from a distance always ran the risk
and took the chances, preferring the loss of a train
to a breach of good manners and the discomfort of being
unpleasantly conspicuous during a stretch of three or four hours.

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