Before The Curtain

"A neat, snug study on a winter's night;

A book, friend, single lady, or a glass

Of claret, sandwich, and an appetite,

Are things which make an English evening pass,

Though certes by no means so grand a sight,

As is a theatre, lit up with gas."--BYRON.

The night is a cold one; the snow is falling in large, heavy flakes, and

those who are fond of the fri
id, but exhilarating amusement of

sleighing, are in hopes that by the morrow they will be able to pass

like lightning from one part of the city to the other; in a sleigh

decked with warm, gaily trimmed furs; filled with a merry company, and

drawn by two high-headed, dashing trotters. The gas lights are just

discernible from corner to corner. The number of people in the streets

is steadily decreasing, and the sound of their foot-fall is muffled in

the snow. About the theatres and the opera house, however, crowds of the

idle and curious, gaping at those who are entering these buildings, make

it necessary for the police to pace to and fro, ordering back the more

presumptuous loiterers, who press forward and obstruct the approach to

the doors.

Query? Why does the crowd always stare at those who are going into a

theatre or opera? The latter are attired somewhat strangely to be sure,

but still they don't look exactly like Choctaws.

The cab and chaise-men muffled up in their cold-defying great-coats and

woolen comforters, are opening the doors of their several vehicles, out

of which ladies enveloped in cloaks and hoods are dismounting under

cover of umbrellas, held probably by the "best of brothers," but more

probably by gentlemen in no way related to them. In the opera house all

is bustle and commotion. The officials are selling tickets, receiving

tickets, and directing to their places bevies of ladies and gentlemen

bewildered in a maze of passages. The audience is impatiently preparing

itself for a delightful evening's entertainment. The dandies, who are

so unfortunate as not to have accompanied ladies have already brought

themselves up to the attack, and have levelled their opera-glasses on

all the points where they know well-established objects of admiration

are likely to be found. Now and then they bow their recognition in a

reserved inclination, or in a careless smiling way that bespeaks the

freedom of familiar intimacy.

The fast-men are standing at the doors in knots of three and four,

talking over the last trot of Suffolk, or the probable chance of victory

in the next day's dog-fight, and making a few, no doubt very fast, but

not very proper allusions to the shoulders of some rather sparingly

habited belles. The Cubans in the parquette, who, by the by, during

their sojourn in this country will best preserve their liberty by

remaining north of Mason and Dixon's line, are clearing their voices in

very doubtful Spanish, for those animated bravos, which we must admit

they always administer in the very best taste, both as to time and

quantity. Here and there, some lone young man, desolate in a crowd, who

has seldom before been exposed to the full blaze of the all-discovering

gas light, not exactly knowing what to do with himself, is

endeavouring, with a fictitious indifference, to fill up the vacancies

of attention by smoothing down the stubborn folds of badly selected

white kids. Five collegians just escaped from the studious

universities for a high week in town, have established themselves all

together, and commenced a running commentary, carried on chiefly in the

Virginia dialect, on men, women, and things, much to the annoyance of a

very foreign gentleman behind them--so foreign that he is almost

black--who looks stilettos at his cheerful but over-loquacious

neighbours. One youth in an excessively white, though unpleasantly stiff

cravat, is assisting an equally stiff old chaperon into her place, at

the expense of great physical efforts, till his cheeks are thereby

suffused with a tint strongly resembling the color of a juvenile beet,

while the distended veins of his forehead would make a fine anatomical

study for the laborious medical student, if that fabulous biped were

still extant. The chaperon being disposed of, four young ladies under

her surveillance, two in opera cloaks and hoods, and two in

antediluvian mantles and pre-adamitic head-gear, assuring the existence

of rural cousinship, by four minor efforts of the same gentleman, are

at length safely landed in their places. But now commences a new round

of confusion. Each of the four young ladies discovers that she has

placed herself on some article of clothing belonging to her companion.

Whereupon she half rises, and having drawn forth the disturbing

habiliment, resumes her former position: and as this movement is

performed by each one of them without regard to the order in which they

have placed themselves, and is repeated half a dozen times in as many

minutes, the unconscious fair ones become the subjects of the allusions

of the fast-men, who immediately institute comparisons between them and

various animate and inanimate objects. One of these gentlemen observing

that their motions remind him of a flock of aquatic fowl, known by the

name of divers, a facetious friend replies that probably he means diving

bells; which being considered an extremely happy pun, it meets with a

hearty laugh of approbation. But an ambitious fast wit, fearing that his

reputation is likely to be lost forever, if he remain silent, says that

the whole group of uneasy females recalls the line of Coleman,

"For what is so gay as a bag full of fleas."

This being regarded as the acme of brilliancy, there is no telling what

might be the consequences if their attention were not drawn into another

channel by the entrance of a distinguished belle, who is immediately

pronounced to be a "stunner" and the question is raised as to who the

man is who acts as "bottle holder," reference thereby being had to the

gentleman who is so polite as to hand the lady to her place, and aid her

in disposing of her divers little appliances of operatic necessity. The

belle scarcely takes her seat before she commences to hum snatches of

Italian airs, in a very careless indifferent way, just to show how much

she is at home in such a place, and probably to attract a little more


Query? Why do the handsomest women at an opera always talk and laugh

the loudest?

That portion of the audience comprised in the gentler sex is here in all

the attraction of natural loveliness and adventitious ornament, putting

to flight a notion once prevalent, that beauty when unadorned is then

adorned the most.

The noise of conversation which now lulls, now swells out in gentle

crescendos, is chiefly the production of this taciturn part of the

audience. All at once the gas is let on in a gush of light, the buzz of

voices, which up to this time has been carried on in a subdued tone,

bursts out into full force, with a suddenness that seems to render it

probable that the conversation has been issuing all the while from the

gas jets. The augmented light brings down another volley from the foci

of a thousand lorgnettes. At this moment the musicians begin to enter

the orchestra which has been void of occupants all the evening, with the

exception of one meaningless old fellow, who has been attempting to

restore order among the stands, seats, and books, but whose laudable

efforts have ended in what every single gentleman at lodgings knows all

endeavours to "set things to rights," are sure to effect--a state of

affairs in which confusion is considerably worse confounded. But after

all a music-stand must be adjusted by the performer himself; no one can

put the hat of another on the head of the latter so as to be comfortable

to him. The latter must pose it for himself. This law applies with

peculiar force to music-stands.

The violinists proceed to tighten or slacken the hair of their bows, to

throw back the coat collar, or stuff a white handkerchief under it, in

order to adjust the violin to the peculiar crook of each neck, with as

much apparent anxiety as if they had not been doing the same thing for

the last thirty years, and some of their heads had not become bald over

the sound-post. In the meantime, the other members of this well-bearded

corps are streaming in with their instruments under the arm, and are

placing their music books and lamps at the proper elevation on the

stands, all the while talking, nodding, and smiling as if rehearsing

half the day, and playing half the night, were a mighty good joke.

And then ascend to the highest parts of the house--to the regions of the

operatic "paradise," those most singular of all instrumental sounds,

those fifty or sixty antagonistic voluntaries with which all the

audience would voluntarily dispense, consisting of chromatics in twenty

different keys, violin octaves, harmonics, thirds and fifths, clarionet

shakes, flute staccatos, horn growlings, ophicleide rumblings,

triangular vibrations, and drum concussions.

"See to their desks Apollo's sons repair--

Swift rides the rosin o'er the horse's hair!

In unison their various tones to tune,

Murmurs the hautboy, growls the hoarse bassoon.

In soft vibration sighs the whispering lute,

Twang goes the harpsicord, too too the flute,

Brays the loud trumpet, squeaks the fiddle sharp,

Winds the French horn, and twangs the tingling harp."

About the time that the observer has made up in his mind an answer to

the following mental queries--how many nights the first violinist could

play without getting a crick in the neck--whether the flutist may not

sometime blow his eyes so far out of his head that he may never be able

to get them back again--how long it would take the operator on the

cornet a piston to learn to play on the magnetic telegraph--why such a

small man should be suffered to perform on such a big thing as an

ophicleide, and how a person with such a huge moustache can get the

piccola up to lips defended by such a bulwark of hair, a fermentation is

observable in the midst of this musical whirlpool, which indicates the

presence of some higher power. Place is given by the humble members of

the orchestra, and the director is seen to stand forth in the attitude

of mounting the tribunal from whence he guides his submissive subjects

with despotic sway. He is a neat figured little man, with a profusion of

methodically adjusted curls, a moustache that would render his

physiognomy excessively ferocious, if an occasional smile playing over

the distinguishable parts of his face, did not modify this expression.

He is attired in the costume of the ball room, bearing in his button

hole the most delicate rosebud of the conservatory, and in his perfectly

gloved hand, an amber headed baton, the sceptre of command. At his

appearance a wave of applause floats up from the audience, and the head

and breast of the director bend down to meet it in a graceful and

reverential bow, accompanied by a smile expressing the highest possible

amount of inward gratification. This little acknowledgment of a becoming

respect for the good opinion of the house is repeated once or twice, and

then with the air of a man who has important business on hand, he mounts

his elevated seat. He gives one or two magical taps on the stand, and

the chaos of sounds is annihilated with the exception of the

lamentations of one refractory violin, over which the owner has been for

the last half hour repeatedly, first inclining his head in a horizontal

position, and then tugging away at the screws. At this the director

seems to be much annoyed, and the poor violinist, more annoyed, mutters

to a companion that he wishes himself an unspeakably long way

hence--probably in Italy where he could procure some good strings.

The resisting violin having been brought to subjection, the director

casts an eye over the whole body of musicians, and having thrown back

his head and lifted up both arms, very much in the supposed attitude of

Ajax defying the thunder, he remains perfectly motionless for an

instant, and then brings forward the whole of his body from the hips

upwards, with a rapid and powerful jerk, which introduces his forehead

into close proximity with the musical score which he pretends to be

reading, the baton strikes the stand with a loud clap, and one old

drummer proceeds to touch the drum, but in so gentle a manner, that it

sounds as if, instead of using the sticks he were tossing some grains of

shot on it. You now tremble for the safety of the director, and you

enter into an arithmetical calculation with yourself, the basis of which

is, that if the director by such a dangerous inclination of the person

can only bring one poor drummer into movement, what amount of bodily

labour he will be compelled to undergo, in order to operate on all that

concourse of musicians. But your fears are dissipated in a few moments,

for you discover that great sounds and little sounds are accompanied

with about the same degree of gesticulatory emphasis. In the meantime

some horns have commenced to blow on a very small scale, not hard

enough, you would suppose, to drive the dust out of them, and if the

piston of the cornet did not rattle so, you would pronounce its playing

all a sham. The violins and flutes begin to be audible and the

violinists are suddenly struck with a simultaneous desire to pick the

strings, just as if that would make any music. All the other instruments

are now doing duty in very feeble tones, and you take a look round the

house to see who are there; and you wonder why that particular family of

Smiths, with whom you have the pleasure of an acquaintance has not yet

appeared. You think Miss Julia Brown's hair arranged with the usual want

of elegance, and then call to mind the fact that at Newport, the

previous summer, you complimented her so many times on the peculiar

taste which her coiffure always displayed. The aforesaid drummer is now

giving the drum considerable ill usage, and then for the first time, you

observe that he has two of them which he appears to beat alternately.

The director is casting his head from one side to the other, flashes of

disapprobation dart from his eyes upon the dilatory violinists, who from

time to time, stop as it were, to catch breath, and fail to "come to the

scratch" in due season. Every now and then a frown, dark as Erebus,

spreads over his brow, as some poor laggard is astray in the mazes of

sound, and can't find his place, or turns two pages instead of one, and

consequently loses the thread of his harmonious discourse. The music

grows so powerful that the conversation of the most enthusiastic and

vociferous fast man no longer meets the ear. The orchestra is going as

if they were riding an instrumental steeple chase, and the director

looks more and more involved in doubt, as to which of his followers is

to be left most in the rear.

At length when you have concluded that every musician has exhausted his

last resource in the general attempt to make a noise, you are knocked

into a start of astonishment by the introduction of a corps de

reserve, in the clash of cymbals, which sounds as if a careless servant

had stumbled in coming up stairs and mashed an entire set of Sevres

china. In the midst of this carnage of crotchets and quavers, the

director is obviously the controlling spirit who "rides in the whirlwind

and directs the storm." There he sits producing no one sound except an

occasional rap of his baton on the desk, and yet rousing to frenzy or

lulling into tranquillity the instruments of all this tumult, every now

and then, as Mr. Macaulay would say, "hurling foul scorn" at the heaps

of little black dots that are crowded over the leaves of his score.

When the intensity of the tones has been diminished and augmented some

half dozen times, the overture is concluded in four grand crashes, in

which the cymbals make the most conspicuous figure. During the overture,

however, there seems to be occasional seasons when there is a cessation

of hostilities, and a soft plaintive air is taken up by one clarionet,

violincello or oboe, with which air the audience must be very much

delighted, for they laugh and talk with the greatest earnestness, and

never turn their eyes towards the orchestra.

And now there is a new commotion among the musicians, while arranging

every thing for the more serious undertaking, the opera itself. The

director goes about like a general on the eve of battle, reconnoitres

his forces, and marshals them for the attack. He mounts the elevated

seat, gives another contortion to his frame, similar to that which was

necessary to put the overture in movement, and then the curtain rises.

Heads are slightly projected from the boxes at this movement, and many

an alabaster neck is curved forward till the lowered drapery reveals the

snowy bosom. The noise of conversation ceases, and the opera commences

in earnest.