By Hans Christian Andersen (1872)
You should have known Auntie ! She was charming ! that is to say, she was not at all charming in the usual sense of the word, but she was sweet and nice, and funny in her own way, just the thing to talk about, when some one is to be talked about and made merry over. She was fit to be put in a play, and that simply and solely because she lived for the play-house and all that goes on in it. She was so very respectable, but Agent Fab, whom Auntie called Flab, called her theatre-mad.
‘The theatre is my schoolroom,’ said she, ‘ my fountain of knowledge ; from it I have freshened up my Bible history ; ” Moses,” ” Joseph and his brethren,” these are operas ! From the theatre I have my general history, geography and knowledge of mankind ! From the French plays I know the life of Paris naughty, but highly interesting ! How I have wept over ” The Riquebourg Family ” ; to think that the husband should drink himself to death, so that his wife should get her young sweetheart ! Yes, how many tears I have shed in the fifty years I have been a ” regular ticket holder “.’
Auntie knew every piece, every bit of scenery, every person who came on, or had ever come on. She really lived only in the nine theatrical months. The summer-time, without a play, was a time which made her old, whilst a play-night which lasted till past midnight was a lengthening of life. She did not say like other people, ‘ Now spring is coming, the stork has arrived ! ‘ or ‘ There is mention in the papers of the first strawberry ‘. On the contrary, she announced the coming of autumn : ‘ Have you seen that the theatre seats are being taken ; now the performances will begin ! ‘
She reckoned the worth of a house and its situation by how near it lay to the theatre. It was a grief to her to leave the little lane behind the theatre and remove to the bigger street a little farther off, and there live in a house where she had no opposite neighbours.
‘ At home my window has to be my theatre -box ! one can’t sit and think only of oneself ; one must see people. But now I live as if I had removed right out into the country. If I wish to see people, I must go out into my kitchen and climb on to the sink ; only there have I opposite neighbours. Now, when I lived in my lane, I could see right into the flax -dealer’s, and then I had only three steps to the theatre ; now I have three thousand lifeguard’s steps.’
Auntie might be ill, but however bad she was, she never neglected the theatre. One evening her doctor ordered her to have poultices on her feet ; she did as he directed, but drove to the theatre, and sat there with her feet in poultices. If she had died there, it would have delighted her. Thorwaldsen died in the theatre, and she called that ‘ a happy death ‘.
She certainly could not imagine a heavenly kingdom without a theatre. It certainly had not been promised to us, but it was to be supposed that the many celebrated actors and actresses, who had gone before, must have a continued sphere of activity.
Auntie had her electric wire from the theatre to her room ; the telegram came every Sunday to coffee. Her electric wire was Mr. Sivertson of the stage-machinery department, the man who gave the signals for the scenery and curtains to go up and down, in and out.
From him she got in advance a short and pithy review of the pieces. Shakespeare’s ‘Tempest , he called ‘ wretched stuff ! there is so much to set up, and then it begins with water up to the first side-scene ! ‘ that is to say, the rolling waves went so far forward. On the other hand, if one and the same room-decoration remained through all five acts, he said that it was a sensible and well-written, restful piece, which played itself without setting up.
In earlier times, as Auntie called the times some thirty and odd years ago, she and the above-named Mr. Sivertson were younger ; he was already in the ‘ machinery ‘, and, as she called him, her ‘ benefactor ‘. At that time, it was the custom at the evening performance, in the great and only theatre of the town, to admit spectators to the flies ; every stage-carpenter had one or two places to dispose of. It was often chock-full, and that with very select company ; it was said that the wives both of generals and aldermen had been there ; it was so interesting to look down behind the scenes, and know how the performers stood and moved when the curtain was down. Auntie had been there many times, both at tragedies and ballets, for the pieces with the greatest number of performers were the most interesting from the flies.
One sat pretty much in the dark up there, and most of the people brought supper with them. Once three apples and a slice of bread and butter, with sausage on it, fell right down into Ugolino’s prison, where he was just about to die of hunger. At that there was a general laugh.
The sausage was one of the important reasons why the directors ordered the public to be excluded from the flies.
‘ But I was there thirty -seven times,’ said Auntie, ‘ and I shall never forget it, Mr. Sivertson.’ .
It was just the very last night that the flies were open to the public that they played ‘The Judgement of Solomon ‘. Auntie remembered it so well. She had, through her benefactor, Mr. Sivertson, procured a ticket for Agent Fab, although he did not deserve it, as he was always making fun of the theatre, and teasing her about it ; but still she had got him a place up there. He wanted to see the theatrethings upside-down ; these were his own words and just like him, said Auntie.
And he saw ‘ The Judgement of Solomon ‘, from above, and fell asleep ; one would really have thought that he had just come from a big dinner with many toasts. He slept and was locked in, sat and slept through the dark night in the theatre, and when he awoke he told a story ; but Auntie did not believe him. The play was finished, all the lamps and candles were out, all the people were out, upstairs and downstairs ; but then began the real play, the after-piece the best of all, the agent said. Life came into the properties ! it was not ‘ The Judgement of Solomon’ that was played ; no, it was ‘ The Judgement Day at the Theatre ‘. And all this Agent Fab had the impudence to try to make Auntie believe ; that was her thanks for getting him admission to the flies.
What the agent told was, no doubt, comical enough to hear but malice and mockery lay at the bottom of it.
‘ It was dark up there,’ said the agent, ‘ but then the demon-show began, the great spectacle, ‘ The Judgement Day at the Theatre.’ Check-takers stood at the doors, and every spectator had to show a certificate as to his character, to settle whether he was to enter with hands free or fettered, with muzzle or without. Gentlefolks who came too late, when the performance had already begun, as well as young men who were given to wasting their time, were tethered outside, and got felt-soles under their feet, to go in with at the beginning of the next act, besides being muzzled ; and then began ‘ The Judgement Bay at the Theatre ‘.
‘ Mere spite, which Our Lord knows nothing of,’ said Auntie.
The scene-painter, if he wished to get into Heaven, had to go up a stair which he had painted himself, but which no man could walk up. That was only a sin against perspective, however. All the plants and buildings, which the stage-carpenter had with great trouble placed in countries to which they did not belong, the poor man had to move to their right places, and that before cock-crow, if he wished to get into Heaven. Mr. Fab had better see that he himself got in there ; and what he now told about the actors, both in comedy and tragedy, in song and in dance, was the worst of all. He did not deserve to get into the flies ; Auntie would not repeat his words. He had said that the whole account was written down, and would be printed after he was dead and gone not before ; he did not want to be skinned alive.
Auntie had only once been in anguish and terror in her temple of happiness, the theatre. It was one winter’s day, one of the days when we have two hours’ daylight and that only grey. It was cold and snowy, but Auntie must go to the theatre. They were playing ‘ Herman von Unna,’ besides a little opera and a great ballet, a prologue and an epilogue ; it would last right into the night. Auntie must go there ; her lodger had lent her a pair of sledgingboots with fur both outside and inside ; they came high up on the legs.
She came into the theatre, and into her box ; the boots were warm, so she kept them on. All at once a cry of Tire’ was raised. Smoke came from one of the wings, smoke came from the flies ; there was a frightful commotion ; people rushed out ; Auntie was the last in the box ‘ the second tier to the left the decorations look best from there,’ she said, -‘ they are placed always to look most beautiful from the royal side ‘ Auntie wished to get out, but those in front of her, had thoughtlessly slammed the door in their terror. There sat Auntie ; she could not get out, nor in either, that is to say into the next box, the partition was too high. She shouted, no one heard ; she looked down into the tier underneath, it was empty, it was low, and it was near. Auntie, in her fear, felt herself so young and active ; she would jump down ; she got one leg over the balustrade and the other off the bench. There she sat astride, beautifully draped with her flowered skirt, with one long leg dangling out, a leg with a monster sledging- boot. That was a sight to see ! and when it was seen, Auntie was also heard, and saved from burning, for the theatre was not burnt after all.
That was the most memorable evening of her life, she said, and she was glad that she had not been able to see herself ; for then she would have died of shame.
Her benefactor, Mr. Sivertson, came constantly to her every Sunday, but it was a long time from Sunday to Sunday. Latterly, therefore, in the middle of the week she had a little child for ‘ the leavings ‘, that is to say, to enjoy what had been left over from dinner-time. This was a little child from the ballet, who was in need of food. The little one appeared on the stage both as a page and a fairy ; her hardest part was that of hind-legs for the lion in ‘ The Enchanted Whistle ‘, but she grew to be fore -legs in the lion. She only got a shilling for this, whereas for the backlegs she got two ; but there she had to go about stooping, and missed the fresh air. It was very interesting to know all this, Auntie thought.
She had deserved to live as long as the theatre lasted, but she was not able to do that ; she did not die there either, but respectably and quietly in her own bed. Her last words were full of meaning ; she asked, ‘ What are they playing to-morrow ? ‘
She left behind her about five hundred rix-dollars : we infer that from the interest, which is twenty rix-dollars. Auntie had assigned these as a legacy for a worthy old maid without relatives ; they should be applied yearly to pay for a seat in the second tier, left side, and on Saturdays, for then they gave the best pieces. There was only one condition for the person who profited by the legacy ; every Saturday in the theatre, she must think of Auntie, who lay in her grave.
That was Auntie’s religion.