FICTION

So Sympathetic

Drama behind the drama, with the directors wife playing the lead

LORNA SLOCOMBE February 1 1939
FICTION

So Sympathetic

Drama behind the drama, with the directors wife playing the lead

LORNA SLOCOMBE February 1 1939

So Sympathetic

Drama behind the drama, with the directors wife playing the lead

LORNA SLOCOMBE

JUNE SCRAPED a depressed blob of salmon soufflé onto one of the chipped butter plates, and slammed it into the refrigerator. She muttered, “Nuts!” She was perfectly furious. For she loathed cooking, and Eric had said, specifically, that he would be home for lunch. So she’d made the soufflé. And now it was two o'clock and he hadn’t come. This was the third time this sort of thing liad happened since he started work on the new play. June, slapping dirty dishes into the dishpan, thought, so this is how it feels to be a Neglected Wife.

But at least this was Saturday, and that meant no rehearsal tonight. At least they could have the evening together. The Bartons had phoned about bridge, and she’d said she thought they could come, and she'd let them know for sure as soon as Eric got home.

June stared vacantly at the drainer full of dishes, and tried to picture what Eric was doing down there in the empty Little Theatre. Painting flats jxirhaps, or cutting out squares of “surprise pink” gelatine for the lights. She knew he was absorbed in this new play because he grumbled so at breakfast. And of course it was the most important play of the season because right after it the board would hold their annual meeting — to reappoint or not to reappoint.

June knew that Eric’s reappointment was made a little precarious recently by the hard feelings among the various committees. The play-reading committee were in a huff because Eric had vetoed their suggestion of a mystery play and insisted on doing “Dominica,” a difficult psychological drama. The casting committee were upset because Eric had objected to their casting Carol Denver in the leading part. Carol had long ash-blond hair which she did up to look like Ann Harding, and she always played the leads in psychological dramas at the Derryton Little Theatre.

Eric had wanted Libbie Rodgers for the part. Libbie was brunette, and had a face with cheekbones, and a husky, exciting voice. But the casting committee were unanimous and stuffy, so Carol Denver was given the leading role of Dominica, and Libbie was sidetracked into the supporting role of Roma.

June wondered why anyone should prefer the lead to that lovely, lovely part of Roma. Roma, the very young and embittered actress . June wished she were down at the theatre right now, rehearsing in that part. She wondered if Libbie were at the theatre working with Eric. Then she thought, Eric doesn’t like me to phone him at the theatre, and she thought, I'm being an idiot, and the next thing she knew she was dialling the theatre. It still gave

her an excited feeling to wait for Eric’s voice to say hello . . .

“Hello?”

It wasn’t Eric’s voice. It was Libbie Rodgers’. When Eric did finally come to the phone, June had forgotten what she planned to say. She heard her own voice saying, “I thought you were coming home to lunch.”

“Oh, lord!” Eric said, and then contritely, “Honey, I’m sorry. We got so involved with the lighting. I just can’t quite get the effect I want.”

June thought. Oh, here I’m being nasty, and he hasn’t had anything to eat and has been struggling with the old lights all morning. I won’t even mention the soufflé. She said, “Poor darling, you must be starved. I'll bring you down some lunch.”

“Oh, no,” he said. “Don’t bother.”

“I’d be glad to.”

“No,” he said. “Don’t come down. Listen, June, I hear there’s been some talk lately about your hanging around here so much.”

“Hanging around !”

“Yes. People seem to feel that the director’s wife should sort of stay in the background.”

JUNE just managed to murmur, “Well, pardon me while I retire into a dim haze,” and hung up. “Hanging around !” She loved the theatre. She just wanted to be a part of it— the excitement of rehearsals, the crescendo to dress rehearsal, then the veneered tensity of opening night. She hadn’t even asked to be in any of the plays, although each play had a part she yearned for. All she had asked was to be able to sit there, quiet, somewhere in the auditorium, watching Eric direct. And to be there, somewhere, backstage during the play. She'd sew up costumes. She’d run out for cold cream and tissues. She'd put grease paint on the maids and false whiskers on the butlers. She’d sweep the floor. She'd do anything, just to be a part of it.

Hadn’t she been on the stage when she met Eric? Just very small roles in a summer theatre. But she had been serious about them. Eric was serious about the theatre, too. Not tiresomely serious, but just loving it a lot, and always learning even more about it.

One night in August they had sat on a bench near the sea, and after he’d kissed her three times, she’d whispered, “Perdition catch my soul, but I do love thee.” which is from “Othello.”

And he'd said. “Of course, honey-, everybody knows you’re crazy about me.” which was approximately one of his lines from “Stage Door.”

And she'd said. “I don’t suppose by any chance you love me back?” which is from “Hotel Universe.”

And he’d kissed her again and said, “I do,” which is a line from the wedding ceremony, and so they were married.

Ever since she had come here to Derryton as the Little Theatre director’s wife, she had tried to do just what was expected of her. She had drunk cups and cups of tea, made party calls, and paid off dinner obligations. And now she must stay away from the theatre, stay home and cook salmon soufflé. Because five hundred people paid for the soufflé, and she must please all five hundred. There had been some talk, and there must be no more if Eric was to get his reappointment. Well, she wouldn’t do anything to hurt his chances, because he loved this theatre, and she loved him, even if he hadn't come home for lunch.

A large beige roadster slid past the window and stopped outside the house. A car door banged. The front screen door banged. And, “June!” shouted Eric’s voice. She ran to give him a kiss.

“Where’s the shovel? We’re going out after some little cedar trees for the terrace scene.”

“Do you want something to eat before you go?”

His face was smeared with dust, he had on his blue work shirt, and his taffy-colored hair was ruffled. His grey eyes were blurred and shadowed—that look that meant absorption, excitement. He said, “Oh, we picked up a hamburger and a glass of milk at noon.” He was out burrowing around the back entry. “Where’s the shovel?” “Right there,” said June, feeling desolate. “May I go with you?”

“Why, I suppose so. I’m with Libbie Rodgers.” He came back with the shovel. “Lord, you look terrible. Haven’t you any decent clothes?”

June looked down at her favorite blue blouse, her same old skirt, her comfortable flat-heeled shoes. She looked up at Eric and let the laughter come into her voice. “Well,” she said, “this is my best tree-digging outfit. But if Libbie’s going formal, I’ll put on a hat.”

Answering laughter cleared his grey eyes. “I forgot about the digging,” he said. “Give me a kiss, quick, and come on.”

LIBBIE RODGERS was wearing a slick black dress with * a great big white piqué flower. Even outdoors, little wafts of gardenia perfume clung around Libbie. I’d hate, thought June, to be stuck in a closed room with her. And she must have to have that coat cleaned once a week . . . The coat was beige and matched the roadster, and Libbie looked beautiful.

She said, a little too enthusiastically, “Hello, June! I’m so glad you’re coming with us!”

June said politely, “It’s such a nice day for a ride.” Libbie had on shiny black pumps with three-inch heels. When they got to the pasture where the trees were, it was so rough that she had to cling to Eric’s arm as they walked across to the wall.

While Eric dug up little trees, June and Libbie sat on a large grey rock. June watched her husband, idly, feeling satisfied and sleepy in the sunlight. His shoulders were beautiful under the blue shirt, and the rolled-up sleeves showed his nice tanned forearms. She glanced at Libbie, and Libbie was watching Eric too.

June felt as if she were interrupting when she asked, “How are you enjoying being in the play?”

“Oh, it’s wonderful!” Libbie’s lipstick glistened in the sunlight. “I adore my part. The disillusioned young actress, you know.”

“Yes,” said June, “I know. Brilliant and bitter, with very red lipstick superimposed on a cynical sneer.”

“You have a nice sense of characterization,” said Libbie, kindly. “It’s a real pleasure,” she went on, “to work with Eric. He’s so—sympathetic.”

“Isn’t he,” said June.

Libbie looked at her with intense brown eyes that were fringed by impossible lashes. Ouite impossible. “Yes,” she said, “you certainly are lucky to be his wife. Not only because he’s so unusual, but because it’s a wonder he married at all. A wife is such a handicap to a Little Theatre director.”

“A—”

“Oh, yes, indeed,” Libbie said firmly. “You know how it is, in a small town like this. Small town in spirit, of course, I mean. Why, to so many women the theatre is— well, romance. A chance to get away from the drabness of humdrum life. And somehow the director epitomizes that romance. And—well, it’s like M.-G.-M. doesn’t want Robert Taylor to get married. It ruins the glamour.”

“Oh,” said June weakly. “I see.”

“Take, for example, the director who was here before Eric. Vincent Dunham. He was here for five years and even-body adored him. He'd still be here if he hadn’t got that part on Broadway. And would you believe it. they say that after the first year the board had practically decided to let him go. Fortunately, he and his wife separated just then. After that, they reappointed him.”

“I don’t suppose,” said June, “that it had anything to do with his being such a perfectly splendid director.”

“Well, of course that entered in,” said Libbie.

After they had left the trees at the theatre, Libbie drove them home. Sunlight shone on their little white house, and there were shadows of leaves on the grass. Sunlight poured into the red and yellow cups of the tulips. June was glad they were home, and she felt peaceful and happy. “I loved going for a ride,” she said to Libbie.

Eric said to Libbie, “Well—I’ll see you tonight.”

Peace was shattered and the sunlight glared on red and yellow tulips. June stood very still, feeling all tight inside, while the beige roadster leaped away. There was a squeal of tires as Libbie drove off too fast, her black gloved hand raised in nonchalant salute.

June hated the stiffness in her voice as she said to Eric, “Tonight’s Saturday. You don’t have a rehearsal.”

“I’m giving Libbie some special help. She can’t seem to get into the character of Roma. She’s just missing it somehow, and the play’s next week. She thinks if I explain the psychological background to her she’ll be able to feel it better.”

June muttered, “I don’t doubt it.” Then she said. “The Bartons asked us over for bridge tonight, and I said 1 thought we could come.”

“Well, I’m sorry. My job comes first.”

“Yes,” she said, “I know.”

AS SOON as they were in the house, she hurried into the kitchen, and was careful not to blink so that the tears wouldn’t roll down her cheeks. She waited until they melted back into her eyes, and then she counted to a hundred till her voice felt as if it would work right, and she went and phoned the Bartons.

When she got back into the living room, Eric was draped gracefully on the studio couch, with his shoes off. “Hand me an apple,” he said. “You know, this play has got to be a success.”

“Oh, Eric, it will be.”

“If I can ever get Carol to speak up. You can’t hear her beyond the first row. She doesn’t talk from the diaphragm. When I tried to show her how, she giggled. It was unbearable.” Eric ran his hand through his hair, and Junethought absently, he needs a haircut. “And you know,” he went on, “even if the play is a complete success, they may not reappoint me. I’m not glamorous enough. I never really thought about that side of it until recently.”

“It’s a coincidence,” said June. “I never thought of it until recently, either. I supinóse you could let your hair grow even longer, and use a jade cigarette holder. Or you might be more dramatic at rehearsals. You might scream, ‘Oh, it’s impossible,’ and then slump down in the middle of the theatre with your head sunk on your chest.”

“No,” said Eric. “People don’t like to be yelled at. Not when they’re acting for fun. You have to be clever about being glamorous. I hear my predecessor. Vincent Dunham, was clever about it. For example, he played the lead in ‘Beyond the Far Hills,’ and produced such a hollow cough that everybody marvelled. Then he went right on coughing all winter and kept everybody concerned about his health.” “Fascinating,” said June.

“When they gave ‘The Royal Cavendish,’ one of the actresses got laryngitis and he played the part of the old lady himself. He fell madly in love with one of his leading

ladies, went to a costume ball in purple tights, and was arrested twice for speeding.”

“What charm,” said June.

“Well, you know,” said Eric. “It kept people interested in the theatre.”

“I can see where it might,” said June. “I really think his stroke of genius was in picking a fight with his wife just before the annual lx tard meeting. That must have roused considerable interest in the theatre. Perhaps the tactful thing for me to do would be to pack a suitcase and steal away in the dead of night. Then you could fall in love with Libbie Rodgers.” (Oh, why had she said that?)

Eric sat up and hurled his apple core into the fireplace so hard it splashed. “You’re jealous,” he said. “Why do you have to take everything personally? Isn’t that just like a woman !”

“Isn’t it just like a man,” she said angrily, “to believe all the tripe some woman strings him about feeling the character if you’ll just explain the psychological background. You know that’s nothing but an excuse to get you over there tonight. Any fool could tell that. You must want to be with her instead of me.”

Eric drew himself up, and said in his best drawing-room comedy English accent, “You’re making an utter fool of yourself. If there’s anything more devastating to the career of a director than a jealous wife, I don’t know what it is. I think I'll go back to the theatre. There’s something fascinating about the place. I think,” he said, flicking off an ash, “that it’s the peace and quiet. Don’t wait up for me. 1 may be late.”

IT WAS late when he came in. June pretended to be asleep when she heard him, and she had a terrible time trying not to snuffle because she’d cried for so long that her nose was all stuffy. She sneaked a look at her wrist watch. It was three a.m.

Morning is a peaceful time. Yesterday’s emotional hurly-burly seems to have disappeared. And Sunday morning is not only peaceful but pleasant, particularly when May sunlight is shining on fresh maple leaves and there are waffles for breakfast. June had arisen early and contritely, and had the waffle batter all ready when Eric got up. She had both their orange juice squeezed, and the coffee was just coming down in the dripper. No quarrel could endure in such an atmosphere.

But Monday night was another matter. Entirely. Eric had Ixilted down his supjx'r, and then rushed around the house shouting things. Where was his fiat? Where was that eighteenth-century door latch? Where was the screw driver? Had Mrs. Cartwell phoned? Who did they think he was, the director or the projx-rty man? Or the chauffeur, perhaps? Well, good-by. Bang! went the door.

June sat down, feeling limp. Presently she got up and drank the rest of the coffee left from dinner, and then she felt lonely, and she was sick of it. Tonight, she decided, she would go to the rehearsal.

When she got to the theatre, there were lights on all over the building, and people were rushing around. Someone was clamped on the phone in the ticket booth, and two other people were trying to get to use it. Eric's hair was a sight. He was so upset he even said “Hello, darling,” to June

June buttonholed the assistant property woman and asked, "What’s the trouble?”

“Well,” said Mrs. Baker, “Carol Denver has the

measles.”

“The measles!”

“Yes, and those old duffers on the Board of Health won’t let her appear in the play. Although most of us have had the measles. I'm sure.”

“But the measles,” said June.

Three people were all in the ticket booth together now, shouting into the phone and making vague, futile gestures. Mrs. Baker said, “It’s no use.” Men kept lighting cigarettes, and the air was thick and harried. Suddenly the front door of the theatre banged ojxm, and Libbie Rodgers came in. She stcxxl there for a moment, taking in the scene -her head slightly thrown back, her skin pale against scarlet lipstick and the brilliant green of her dress. Then she said, right from the diaphragm, “Eric! Tell me what is the matter!”

Eric turned. “Carol,” he said. “She has the measles.” How there happened to lx a pause just then, June couldn’t figure, but there was, and in it Libbie said, “I will play her part.”

Eric dashed up and wrung her hand. “Libbie,” he said, “you’re a real trouper. We'll have to work like the devil. Are you game?”

She whispered, “Yes.”

He said, “You’re wonderful.”

June started out loudly twice. “Well, then, who’s going ...” But nobody was listening. She pulled at Eric’s coat sleeve. “Eric,” she said, over and over. Finally he looked around and said, “What is it?”

“If Libbie plays Carol’s part, who’s going to play Roma?”

Eric looked annoyed. “I don’t know. It’s not such a long part. We’ll get somebody.”

“I can do it,” she said.

“Fine,” he said. “Fine.”

“Eric!” Libbie cried. “I’m going to go off by myself for ten minutes, and just concentrate myself into Dominica.”

“That’s the idea,” he said. “You’re a grand sport, Lib. All right, even-body, let’s get going. Act One!”

FOR TWO days and two nights, June worked at her part. There weren’t so very many lines. During her waits, she read them over and over until they fell into place. The hard part was learning where to stand, when to cross. Eric didn’t bother with her much. He was too busy directing Libbie.

Libbie learned her lines in a phenomenal hurry, and everybody said how wonderful she was. She would stand there, in the centre of the stage, her eyes closed. She was very pale, and her hair was tousled, but her lipstick never faded. She would stand there, and then say, “All right, Eric,” and the scene would begin. Periodically she would say, “Oh, I’m doing so miserably!” and everybody would chorus, “Libbie, you’re wonderful !”

June’s hair got stringy and her nose shone, and she kept forgetting to put on make-up. She got purple circles under her eyes. But she was happy, happy, happy. She loved it.

The play was to open Thursday night, and at or.c a.m. Thursday morning they were still rehearsing. At one-five June suddenly got the character of Roma. June’s voice was tired, and she couldn’t quite get the usual cynical sneer into the line, “. . . must have known 1 was just using you to my own ends. That’s what I’ve been doing with men ever since I was thirteen.” The last part of the line wavered out huskily, wearily. June stopped speaking, and just kept thinking, that’s it. That’s it. Roma was tired. Tired of herself. She wanted to change, but she knew it was too late . . . too late . . .

Eric’s voice shouted out of the blackness

beyond the footlights, “Line! Line!” And, “This is a performance, you know!” June listened frantically for the prompter, caught the words, “And so now—” and went on.

At one-ten, Libbie slithered quietly to the floor. Eric leaped over the footlights onto the stage, and revived her with a good deal of hand-chafing and admiration.

Libbie murmured, “I’m sorry, everybody. Email right. Let’sgoon.”

Eric said, “You’ll kill yourself, darling.” and, “That’s all tonight. Seven o’clock, everybody.” And then he said to June, “You’d better see if Mrs. Baker can give you a ride home. Em going to drive Libbie’s car home for her.”

After Mrs. Baker had left her at home, June went into the house and determinedly didn’t look at a clock to estimate how long it was taking Eric. She picked up around the kitchen, and fixed a hot drink for him. He came in presently. He gulped down the drink wearily. “That girl is marvellous,” he said. “I never saw anybody tear into a part like that. But even so . . . The play is going to be lousy. And I am going to be fired.”

“Perhaps,” June said mildly, “it would have been more sensational if you’d played the lead yourself. Your hair’s almost long enough.”

“Haven’t I got enough troubles without your telling me I need a haircut? Good lord, why did I ever get married? Fix me a sleeping powder, will you?” And then when he was in bed, he muttered, “I feel so tense. I wish you’d rub the back of my neck till I go to sleep.”

After he had gone to sleep, June tiptoed out of the room, and got her book of the play. She read over again every line of her part. Of course! The new interpretation was right. It fitted. It smoothed out every line that hadn’t seemed quite right. She read over the part, aloud, with the new inflections.

Thursday at two-thirty p.m., June woke up and thought, Tonight! Tonight at eight-thirty . . . Plric half woke up and closed his eyes again and groaned. “Oh. June,” he said, “what’ll we do after I’m fired? We’ll starve. Will your mother take you back? Or will you sleep on a strawpallet with me in a garret? Do you love me, darling?”

She put her arms around him and whispered, “On a strawpallet, or a camp cot, or the floor, or under a haystack .

Then Eric woke all the way up, and sat up in bed and said, “I wonder how Libbie is. Poor little kid. Imagine my making her w-ork till she fainted.”

“Just like a movie,” said June, "w-ith you in Adolphe Menjou’s part.”

“I told her to take it easy today. Go out for a ride. Get the play out of her mind.”

“My lines walked through my head all night.”

"Libbie’s got the stuff,” he said. “She’ll be there and give it everything she’s got.”

1IBBIE did get there—a half hour late.

* Somebody had just asked Mrs. Baker to phone and see if Libbie was all right, when she walked in—wearing a simple black tailored suit, with tw-o silver fox furs and three orchids.

“Sorry to be late,” she said to Eric, “but I thought it w-ould be better for me to get the rest.”

“I’m glad you did,” he said. “Both the make-up people are busy. I’ll put on your make-up myself.”

June tried not to watch Eric's skilful fingers sliding deftly over the planes of Libbie’s face. She angrily knotted a towel around her hair, and dabbed on three streaks of greasepaint. She rubtod it bri-kly in. Brilliant lipstick, for Roma. Three tiny dots of rouge, rubtod in lowon her cheek to make hollows. High arched brows, and white eyelids, and sure lines drawn along the lower and upper lids and out at the corners. Powder over the whole face, and then brush it off, and then the mascara . . June looked at her painted face in the glare of the white hard lights. She was happy.

It was like a voice from another world when Eric said dolefully in her ear, “Libbie says Mrs. Cartwell’s out front with the director from Big Town. They must be considering him for next year.” June looked at him vaguely and said, “Nonsense.” She went out of the dressing room, down the stairs, to the stage. She sat on a property table in the wings, and looked past ropes and curtains to the lighted set, and was careful not to think of her lines. In half an hour she would be on. In tw-enty minutes . . . ten minutes . . . five . . . “There’s your cue,” someone whispered, and gave her a shove. She walked onto the stage.

NOBODY in the cast realized what was happening at first. When June got a loud round of applause after her first exit, they said, “There’s a responsive audience tonight.” It wasn’t until she got applause after her third exit that people began to w-hisper, “You’re doing swell!” and pat her shoulder as she came off the stage.

When it was all over, she felt terribly tired. Her head ached and her hands trembled as she dipped them into the cold cream and slapped it onto her face. She smiled hazily through cleansing tissues at the people who congratulated her. She heard Eric’s voice just saying, “June !” and Libbie, still a little too enthusiastic, saying, “You were marvellous.” And then Mrs. Cartwell was saying, “June, dear, this is Mr. Balfe, formerly the director in . .

Morning is a peaceful time—particularly when you wake up and find your headache gone. June sat up, and looked at the sunlight, and then she said happily, “Oh!” because she had just remembered about the play and how good she had been in it. Eric came in and handed her a glass of orange juice. He was looking a little pale. He had the morning paper with him, and he spread it out on her knees.

“You got good reviews, madam,” he said. “And a headline, too.”

The Derryton Neus headline read “Little Theatre Director’s Wife Offered Screen Contract.”

June giggled.

Eric said, “I didn’t realize that Balfe was with Superior Pictures now.”

“Neither did I,” said June. She put her arms around him, but he drew up stiffly.

“Mrs. Cartwell phoned this morning,” he said.

“What did she want?”

“She says she feels she should be the first to know if you decide to go to Hollywood or to stay here with us next year.” “She said ‘stay here with us’?”

“Yes.”

“Oh, Eric! That must mean they’re going to reappoint you !”

“I suppose so.”

“Aren’t you glad?”

“Oh, sure. I guess you supplied the necessary glamour.”

“Good,” said June. “If I can supply the glamour, then you can settle down and direct. And get your hair cut.” She put her arms firmly around him. “I’ll call up Mrs. Cartwell and tell her we’re both going to stay.”

Eric sort of swelled out, and she guessed he must have been holding his breath. He said feebly, “You’re passing up a lot of money.”

“Oh, nonsense,” she said. “It wasn’t a contract they offered me. It was a screen test. They said if the test was successful they’d give me some kind of stuffy old contract with options for them and not for me, and the whole thing going on and on for seven years. I don’t think I’d be any good in the movies, anyhow. I guess I’d get to do more acting if I just stay here and be in your plays once in a while.” She squashed her nose up against his neck. “Besides,” she mumbled, “where would I be without you to direct me? I can’t get along without you.”

“Sweet,” he said.

June took a deep breath and said, “Libbie was awfully good, wasn’t she?” “Oh, she was all right. But she made too much fuss about the whole business.” “Darling,” said June in her most wifely voice, “you know, I believe you’re right.”