Juanita sighed, "I wanted to give one speech like Ethel Barrymore would, if she was in a play like this. (Harry and I heard her one time in Minneapolis — we had dandy seats, in the orchestra — I just know I could imitate her.) Carol didn't pay any attention to my suggestion. I don't want to criticize but I guess Ethel knows more about acting than Carol does!"
"Say, do you think Carol has the right dope about using a strip light behind the fireplace in the second act? I told her I thought we ought to use a bunch," offered Raymie. "And I suggested it would be lovely if we used a cyclorama outside the window in the first act, and what do you think she said? 'Yes, and it would be lovely to have Eleanora Duse play the lead,' she said, 'and aside from the fact that it's evening in the first act, you're a great technician,' she said. I must say I think she was pretty sarcastic. I've been reading up, and I know I could build a cyclorama, if she didn't want to run everything."
"Yes, and another thing, I think the entrance in the first act ought to be L. U. E., not L. 3 E.," from Juanita.
"And why does she just use plain white tormenters?"
"What's a tormenter?" blurted Rita Simons.
The savants stared at her ignorance.
Carol did not resent their criticisms, she didn't very much resent their sudden knowledge, so long as they let her make pictures. It was at rehearsals that the quarrrels broke. No one understood that rehearsals were as real engagements as bridge-games or sociables at the Episcopal Church. They gaily came in half an hour late, or they vociferously came in ten minutes early, and they were so hurt that they whispered about resigning when Carol protested. They telephoned, "I don't think I'd better come out; afraid the dampness might start my toothache," or "Guess can't make it tonight; Dave wants me to sit in on a poker game."
When, after a month of labor, as many as nine-elevenths of the cast were often present at a rehearsal; when most of them had learned their parts and some of them spoke like human beings, Carol had a new shock in the realization that Guy Pollock and herself were very bad actors, and that Raymie Wutherspoon was a surprisingly good one. For all her visions she could not control her voice, and she was bored by the fiftieth repetition of her few lines as maid. Guy pulled his soft mustache, looked self-conscious, and turned Mr. Grimm into a limp dummy. But Raymie, as the villain, had no repressions. The tilt of his head was full of character; his drawl was admirably vicious.
There was an evening when Carol hoped she was going to make a play; a rehearsal during which Guy stopped looking abashed.
From that evening the play declined.
They were weary. "We know our parts well enough now; what's the use of getting sick of them?" they complained. They began to skylark; to play with the sacred lights; to giggle when Carol was trying to make the sentimental Myrtle Cass into a humorous office-boy; to act everything but "The Girl from Kankakee." After loafing through his proper part Dr. Terry Gould had great applause for his burlesque of "Hamlet." Even Raymie lost his simple faith, and tried to show that he could do a vaudeville shuffle.
Carol turned on the company. "See here, I want this nonsense to stop. We've simply got to get down to work."
Juanita Haydock led the mutiny: "Look here, Carol, don't be so bossy. After all, we're doing this play principally for the fun of it, and if we have fun out of a lot of monkey-shines, why then — — "
"You said one time that folks in G. P. didn't get enough fun out of life. And now we are having a circus, you want us to stop!"
Carol answered slowly: "I wonder if I can explain what I mean? It's the difference between looking at the comic page and looking at Manet. I want fun out of this, of course. Only — — I don't think it would be less fun, but more, to produce as perfect a play as we can." She was curiously exalted; her voice was strained; she stared not at the company but at the grotesques scrawled on the backs of wing-pieces by forgotten stage-hands. "I wonder if you can understand the 'fun' of making a beautiful thing, the pride and satisfaction of it, and the holiness!"
The company glanced doubtfully at one another. In Gopher Prairie it is not good form to be holy except at a church, between ten-thirty and twelve on Sunday.
"But if we want to do it, we've got to work; we must have self-discipline."
They were at once amused and embarrassed. They did not want to affront this mad woman. They backed off and tried to rehearse. Carol did not hear Juanita, in front, protesting to Maud Dyer, "If she calls it fun and holiness to sweat over her darned old play — well, I don't!"
Carol attended the only professional play which came to Gopher Prairie that spring. It was a "tent show, presenting snappy new dramas under canvas." The hard-working actors doubled in brass, and took tickets; and between acts sang about the moon in June, and sold Dr. Wintergreen's Surefire Tonic for Ills of the Heart, Lungs, Kidneys, and Bowels. They presented "Sunbonnet Nell: A Dramatic Comedy of the Ozarks," with J. Witherbee Boothby wringing the soul by his resonant "Yuh ain't done right by mah little gal, Mr. City Man, but yer a-goin' to find that back in these-yere hills there's honest folks and good shots!"
The audience, on planks beneath the patched tent, admired Mr. Boothby's beard and long rifle; stamped their feet in the dust at the spectacle of his heroism; shouted when the comedian aped the City Lady's use of a lorgnon by looking through a doughnut stuck on a fork; wept visibly over Mr. Boothby's Little Gal Nell, who was also Mr. Boothby's legal wife Pearl, and when the curtain went down, listened respectfully to Mr. Boothby's lecture on Dr. Wintergreen's Tonic as a cure for tape-worms, which he illustrated by horrible pallid objects curled in bottles of yellowing alcohol.
Carol shook her head. "Juanita is right. I'm a fool. Holiness of the drama! Bernard Shaw! The only trouble with 'The Girl from Kankakee' is that it's too subtle for Gopher Prairie!"
She sought faith in spacious banal phrases, taken from books: "the instinctive nobility of simple souls," "need only the opportunity, to appreciate fine things," and "sturdy exponents of democracy." But these optimisms did not sound so loud as the laughter of the audience at the funny-man's line, "Yes, by heckelum, I'm a smart fella." She wanted to give up the play, the dramatic association, the town. As she came out of the tent and walked with Kennicott down the dusty spring street, she peered at this straggling wooden village and felt that she could not possibly stay here through all of tomorrow.
It was Miles Bjornstam who gave her strength — he and the fact that every seat for "The Girl from Kankakee" had been sold.
Bjornstam was "keeping company" with Bea. Every night he was sitting on the back steps. Once when Carol appeared he grumbled, "Hope you're going to give this burg one good show. If you don't, reckon nobody ever will."
It was the great night; it was the night of the play. The two dressing-rooms were swirling with actors, panting, twitchy pale. Del Snafflin the barber, who was as much a professional as Ella, having once gone on in a mob scene at a stock-company performance in Minneapolis, was making them up, and showing his scorn for amateurs with, "Stand still! For the love o' Mike, how do you expect me to get your eyelids dark if you keep a-wigglin'?" The actors were beseeching, "Hey, Del, put some red in my nostrils — you put some in Rita's — gee, you didn't hardly do anything to my face."
They were enormously theatric. They examined Del's makeup box, they sniffed the scent of grease-paint, every minute they ran out to peep through the hole in the curtain, they came back to inspect their wigs and costumes, they read on the whitewashed walls of the dressing-rooms the pencil inscriptions: "The Flora Flanders Comedy Company," and "This is a bum theater," and felt that they were companions of these vanished troupers.
Carol, smart in maid's uniform, coaxed the temporary stage-hands to finish setting the first act, wailed at Kennicott, the electrician, "Now for heaven's sake remember the change in cue for the ambers in Act Two," slipped out to ask Dave Dyer, the ticket-taker, if he could get some more chairs, warned the frightened Myrtle Cass to be sure to upset the waste-basket when John Grimm called, "Here you, Reddy."
Del Snafflin's orchestra of piano, violin, and cornet began to tune up and every one behind the magic line of the proscenic arch was frightened into paralysis. Carol wavered to the hole in the curtain. There were so many people out there, staring so hard — —
In the second row she saw Miles Bjornstam, not with Bea but alone. He really wanted to see the play! It was a good omen. Who could tell? Perhaps this evening would convert Gopher Prairie to conscious beauty.
She darted into the women's dressing-room, roused Maud Dyer from her fainting panic, pushed her to the wings, and ordered the curtain up.