Setting: a stage … anywhere and everywhere.
Character: ACTRESS, a regal, graceful woman of advanced years
(LIGHTS UP. ACTRESS enters from the wings. She is dressed in softly flowing silks and chiffons, a delicate scarf around her neck, a belt of silver mesh around her tiny waist. Her dress is long sleeved; it is tight around the arms and accentuates her long, graceful, and expressive hands. Her shoes, high heels and seductive for a woman of her age, match the rich colors of her dress.
She comes to center stage and regards the audience, her arms thrusting gracefully out, spreading widely to encircle them, then come back and are clasped together at her heart. She then puts her hands out, palms toward to audience—a signal to them that she is about to speak.)
I could never understand—even comprehend—why they always called Helen Hayes the “First Lady of the American Theatre.”
The First Lady of the American Theatre!
(She does a kind of regal wave, mock humility bow; arms open wide acknowledging grand applause and adulation.)
She didn’t do that much theatre, you ask me. Oh, back in its infancy! Right after the somewhat truncated run of “Our American Cousin.” With the Drews and early Barrymores. Maude Adams. Back in the days when Tallulah was a virgin, dahling! But she got out when the going got good! I’ve never been a big follower of athletics, but that Mr. Vincent Lombardi said one or two bright things. You know … that pithy little aphorism about “when the going got tough … you know. Well, never mind.
Helen took one of the first trains out of Grand Central headed toward Hollywood!
(She says the word with loathing and repulsion.)
Oh, I don’t want to sound petty. I hope I’m not sounding petty. I don’t want to. There is so much pettiness in our business as it is. Mostly among agents … and producers … and casting directors … and other actors. I hope I haven’t arrived at my age, all of my experiences, all my successes trailing off behind me like so much stardust only to find myself petty. It is an occupational hazard in a business that depends almost exclusively on the good graces of others.
Where was I? Oh, yes, I just never understood why people kept referring to Helen as the First Lady of… well, you know the rest. She went into films as fast as her short little legs could carry her. Oh, didn’t I say that? Helen was short of stature … very short … almost short enough to call her a perfectly formed dwarf. She played Queen Victoria! Big deal! Excuse my vulgarity. But really, dear friends, who in this country had ever seen Queen Victoria? Who in this country has ever seen a real queen?
(She pauses and looks at the audience coyly.)
I’m not going there! That would be too easy … I know what side my theatrical bread is buttered on … if you will excuse the preposition.
There were other actresses in the theatre; there have been other actresses in the theatre at the same time and since Miss Hayes who have given their life to the performance of live theatre. Living theatre! Every night being on a stage in front of hundreds of hungry eyes who come to you as some sort of priestess … to remove their sins, their fears …their boredom. And, year after year, show after show, failure after success you stay on the stage. You don’t go running off in search of the fast buck or the bubble notoriety! Someone has to stay and tend the flame! Someone has to give up their life to remain and fight the nightly battles. And what do you have to show for it, you might ask? Oh, my darlings, my dear ones, you have such memories! Along the way you even pick up a few awards, little trinkets of appreciation that need an occasional dusting, get an article or two in Time magazine or the New York Times—I have my very own Hirshfeld—a paragraph or two in a biography of some notable playwright, especially if you endure. If you endure you rapidly become an anomaly. That’s because everyone else has decamped for California, where, like sweet little Rosemary DeCamp they begin playing mothers when they should be playing Hedda!
(She lowers her voice and speaks conspiratorially.)
I played Hedda! I was very good. I was a very good Hedda! Very good. My Hedda was so good no one wanted me to shoot myself. Imagine … a Hedda you could love. They loved me.
Well, never mind. I also played ingénues and the most delicious villainesses … there’s more esses in that than in Cleopatra’s basket! By the way, you should have seen my Ftatateeta! Judith Anderson was green! She was also, like Helen, … short!
Did I say Helen was a dwarf? Anyway, she … Helen … abandoned the stage … I didn’t! Why then is she called the First Lady of the American Theatre? Can you answer me that?
She also married! She had a life. She had something to go home to. Those of us who are dedicated, working, dedicated actresses had none of that. If we were lucky … and I have been very lucky I must say that … have had to be satisfied with a string of lovers. Some of us had … and this is not a lame analogy … a stable of lovers.
(She pauses and smiles.)
But never … I repeat … I am emphatic about this … would I—we ever allow them to move in with us. Absolutely not! My lover, if you will, is the stage. It is a jealous lover. It takes your time your energy, your sweat, your tears, and … oh, all right, you expect me to say it so I will … your blood! Everything. Everything. It demands your soul. Your … being. Your essence. Your life.
I have no children. I have no family. I have no home … oh, I have a lovely rent-controlled apartment in a perfect location here in Manhattan. And there is no truth at all to the rumor that I paid my first month’s rent with beads and wampum! Although I have been there a long time. I have my little day job teaching acting at the college to all those fresh faced, shining, eager young collegians who arrive here daily with hopes of being a servant of the stage. I can spot those who are artificial, who really want stardom! Who really want the money. To be a personality! To be on the cover of People Magazine! Repulsive. New York often just becomes a waiting room for a Los Angeles casting director. As soon as they are noticed, they leave … like Helen. If they have the face that … I am not a conventional beauty, by the way. I know that. Robert Benchley once said that I had a face that “launched a thousand quips!” Not bad for an inebriate!
Helen’s face was pretty enough in a sort of treacly, saccharine way. Her little turned up nose which worked wonderfully for those Peg-O-My-Heart parts that she was born to play. She also had a very small upper lip. Did you ever notice that? She did. Look at the pictures! Almost no upper lip at all. She was a chink in the classical beauty mold.
And although I wasn’t beautiful, in the conventional sense, I had luminosity. I had presence. You can’t teach that, learn that, buy that or concoct it out of artful lighting! And I have it. I have it in spades!
So, tell me, please, why is Helen Hayes called the “First Lady of American Theatre” when I have been working here for nearly fifty years, not running after celebrity but serving the plays, the glorious words of brilliant minds, with luminosity, with presence, and am known only by that select little group called “my peers? Why is that?
Helen had a better press agent. Here is what I propose: Since I am a dinosaur … oh, my darlings … look around and here I am—
(She extends her arms, she walks around, throws her arms up over her head and slides her hands down her sides to rest on her hips, a la Sadie Thompson.)
(She goes into as much of a grand “Pavlova bow” as possible.)
… the last of a vanishing breed … a stage actress. An actress of and for the stage!
I’m getting a press agent, I think. After all these years, I’m getting a press agent. At my age, I’ll appreciate the celebrity. Here I am:
(Her arms go over her head, the line of her body arcing and stretching from the tip of her toe to her fingertips.)
The TALLEST Lady of the American Theatre!
(Lights bump out)
copyright © 2010 Robert Michael Morris. All rights reserved. ___________________________________________
Robert Michael Morris graduated from Catholic University of America, receiving a Shubert Fellowship in Playwriting and a Master of Fine Arts Degree (Playwriting). His work has been produced on both coasts and several states in-between. He has completed over 72 plays.