The Actor

Baltimore Evening Sun/July 27, 1910

It is always dangerous, of course, to lay down general rules regarding classes of men, for the conspicuous fact about men in general is the fact that no two of them are exactly alike. The statement that burglars are bad fellows, for example, is open to the objection that one occasionally encounters a burglar who is a decidedly good fellow. All that one may safely say of all burglars, in truth, is that when not otherwise engaged, they all burgle. And it is the same with actors, a race inferior to burglars All that one may safely say of actors, as a clan, is that they all make more or less honest (but usually futile) efforts to act But any very extensive acquaintance with the fraternity, on the stage, is pretty sure to engender the further notion that all of them, or nearly all of them, are blatant and insufferable pests, whose vanity is so gigantic and yet so hollow that it is often difficult, if not downright impossible, to regard them as entirely human.

This peculiarity of actors is noted at once by everyone so unfortunate as to encounter them in force. An actor knows but two subjects of conversation. The first is his superiority to all other actors, and the second is the inferiority of all other actors to him. He discourses incessantly and abominably of his triumphs, his merits, his victories over ignorant stage managers, his enormous successes with the populace. All persons who presume to point out flaws in his art, however obvious those flaws may be, are ranged, by his system of zoology, with the anthropopagi. Having little, if any, intelligence himself, it enrages him to encounter it in others. His ideal of human perspicacity and acumen is represented by the matinee girl who sends him lithographed postcards bearing pictures of hearts and canary birds, and waits in the alley, her heart going pitter-pat, to see him emerge from the arena of his labors.

The Vanity of Man

Is all this unjust to the actor? I think not. As a witness to its solemn truth I summon into court any non-actor who has ever had to do with actors. All of us, of course, have some measure of the actor’s weakness deep down in our souls. We all think that we are fine fellows, that we are good at our trades, that the world would be the loser if we were hanged tomorrow. Those of us who are Socialists even hold that we should be paid princely salaries for the mere act of remaining alive. But we do not spend our whole leisure in imparting these opinions to others. We do not, in a word, confine our conversation to self-praise.

What would be thought of a physician who went about telling people that he was better than Dr. Osler? What would be thought of a lawyer who discoursed, day in and day out, of his successful chicaneries, his melting eloquence, the extent of his learning? What would be thought of a grocer who maintained, in all companies and at all times, that his ginger snaps were better than any other grocer’s ginger snaps—of an author who insisted upon reading his compositions aloud, with a running commentary of praise—of a politician who had his majorities stenciled upon his forehead. The world, it is plain, would set these persons down as bombastic bores, and turn its back upon them. And yet that is the sort of coin it must take from actors, whenever it encounters them off the stage.

Why Actors Are Clannish

Why, then, are actors permitted to live? How does it happen that so many of them escape the lynchers’ pyre? The answer is twofold. In the first place, they practice a necessary art (though usually incompetently) and so it wouldn’t do to kill them—or, at least, to kill all of them. In the second place, the public seldom comes into contact with them, save with the kindly footlights between. Actors, in brief, are a clannish lot, and for the very good reason that persons who are not actors can never stand their society for long. No more hideous punishment could be devised than that of locking up an intelligent man, in some airtight barroom, with a dozen actors fresh from the road. Their conversation would sicken him in half an hour; in 10 hours they would bore him to death. The scheme deserves the attention of penologists. It offers an ideal punishment for the more disgusting crimes

But let us not blame the actors too much. The conditions of their life are responsible for their boasting, rather than any inherent and peculiar defect of reason. The actor is the only man among us, saving the bearded lady, and the aeronaut, who is paid hard cash merely for letting the public look at him. His work is done in the full glare of the footlights, and the audience’s opinion of it is expressed instanter and on the spot. Every step in the process of acting is public and obvious. The actor cannot work in silence and seclusion; he cannot separate himself from his work; he and his work, in fact, are identical.

The Cause of Their Vanity

The result of all this, of course, is that the hard thought which the average man gives to his work is transferred, in the case of the actor, to himself. The more serious his intentions as an actor, the more sedulous and engrossing his thoughts of himself, There follows an inevitable self-magnification, a foreordained megalomania The actor keeps on growing bulkier and bulkier, in his own sight, until presently he fills the entire universe. What else is he to talk about? There is nothing else under heaven! Incessant introspection has done the business for him He is an intolerably egotistical donkey, a winy and tedious self-magnifier, a wholesale dealer in self-praise—and yet, at bottom, he is entirely unconscious of it, and grows properly indignant, as a self-respecting man, when accursed.

I have been speaking, it is needless to say, of the actorial norm, the typical actor. It must be plain, of course, that there are actors who are not noticeably actorial, just as there are burglars who are not noticeably immoral and politicians who are more than half honest. In the course of a pointless and misspent life I have met probably 200 actors, and have known 50 or so fairly intimately, and among them I have found exactly three who did not boast incessantly in the manner I have described. These exceptions are my good friends today. They happen to e very capable actors, but it is seldom that they mention the fact. They are well educated, shrewd observers, men of many interests in life. Praise to the face embarrasses them, as it must embarrass every man of decent instincts. They are glad to hear intelligent criticism of their work. They are entirely abnormal, supernormal, supernatural—as is proved by the fact that they agree to the letter with all that has been said here about the actorial norm.

(Source: University of North Texas Microfilm Collection)

The works of H.L. Mencken and other American journalists are now freely available at The Archive of American Journalism.