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About Play-Acting
by [?]

‘Come to me!

Kneel; and may the power be granted me
To cool the fires of this poor tortured brain,
And bring it peace and healing.’

He kneels. From her hand, which she lays upon his head, a mysterious influence steals through him; and he sinks into a dreamy tranquility.

‘Oh, if I could but so drift
Through this soft twilight into the night of peace,
Never to wake again!

(Raising his hand, as if in benediction.)

O mother earth, farewell!
Gracious thou were to me. Farewell!
Appelles goes to rest.’

Death appears behind him and encloses the uplifted hand in his. Appelles shudders, wearily and slowly turns, and recognises his life-long adversary. He smiles and puts all his gratitude into one simple and touching sentence, ‘Ich danke dir,’ and dies.

Nothing, I think, could be more moving, more beautiful, than this close. This piece is just one long, soulful, sardonic laugh at human life. Its title might properly be ‘Is Life a Failure?’ and leave the five acts to play with the answer. I am not at all sure that the author meant to laugh at life. I only notice that he has done it. Without putting into words any ungracious or discourteous things about life, the episodes in the piece seem to be saying all the time, inarticulately: ‘Note what a silly poor thing human life is; how childish its ambitions, how ridiculous its pomps, how trivial its dignities, how cheap its heroisms, how capricious its course, how brief its flight, how stingy in happinesses, how opulent in miseries, how few its prides, how multitudinous its humiliations, how comic its tragedies, how tragic its comedies, how wearisome and monotonous its repetition of its stupid history through the ages, with never the introduction of a new detail; how hard it has tried, from the Creation down, to play itself upon its possessor as a boon and has never proved its case in a single instance!’

Take note of some of the details of the piece. Each of the five acts contains an independent tragedy of its own. In each act someone’s edifice of hope, or of ambition, or of happiness, goes down in ruins. Even Appelles’ perennial youth is only a long tragedy, and his life a failure. There are two martyrdoms in the piece; and they are curiously and sarcastically contrasted. In the first act the pagans persecute Zoe, the Christian girl, and a pagan mob slaughters her. In the fourth act those same pagans–now very old and zealous–are become Christians, and they persecute the pagans; a mob of them slaughters the pagan youth, Nymphas, who is standing up for the old gods of his fathers. No remark is made about this picturesque failure of civilisation; but there it stands, as an unworded suggestion that civilisation, even when Christianised, was not able wholly to subdue the natural man in that old day–just as in our day the spectacle of a shipwrecked French crew clubbing women and children who tried to climb into the lifeboats suggests that civilisation has not succeeded in entirely obliterating the natural man even yet. Common sailors a year ago, in Paris, at a fire, the aristocracy of the same nation clubbed girls and women out of the way to save themselves. Civilisation tested at top and bottom both, you see. And in still another panic of fright we have this same tough civilisation saving its honour by condemning an innocent man to multiform death, and hugging and whitewashing the guilty one.

In the second act a grand Roman official is not above trying to blast Appelles’ reputation by falsely charging him with misappropriating public moneys. Appelles, who is too proud to endure even the suspicion of irregularity, strips himself to naked poverty to square the unfair account, and his troubles begin: the blight which is to continue and spread strikes his life; for the frivolous, pretty creature whom he brought from Rome has no taste for poverty and agrees to elope with a more competent candidate. Her presence in the house has previously brought down the pride and broken the heart of Appelles’ poor old mother; and her life is a failure. Death comes for her, but is willing to trade her for the Roman girl; so the bargain is struck with Appelles, and the mother is spared for the present.