The Cinema in the Arena

Source: Extract from Joseph Roth (trans. Michael Hofmann), ‘The Cinema in the Arena’, in Report from a Parisian Paradise: Essays from France 1925-1939 (New York: W.W. Norton, 2004), pp. 38-40. Originally published in German in Frankfurter Zeitung, 12 September 1925

Text: The arena of Nîmes holds celebrated bullfights some afternoons, but in the evenings it houses a cinema, which is a rather more cultured thing than a bullfight. Currently. it is playing The Ten Commandments, that great American film that has already been shown in Germany. In the evening I take myself to the arena.

You have to hope it will stay dry, and in Nîmes the chances of that are good. It rains very rarely here, and never for long. The stones cool off in the evening. A couple of arc lamps light up half the arena. The other half is left in shade. The ghostly white forms of the huge crumbling blocks of stone loom up out of it. They have already been through so much, these stones. In the Middle Ages, two hundred families lived in the walls of the arena and built a church (in one of the spacious arches). In wartime the arena became a fortress. It survived the changing epochs, and time and again was emblematic of its era. Now, in 1925, it is no longer a church but a cinema, admittedly a cinema showing The Ten Commandments. At a time when these commandments are not much obeyed, that’s already saying something.

In the middle of the arena there’s the screen, like a white board in a classroom. In the archway opposite, the projector is purring away. The orchestra sits in front of the screen. The members of the audience (for fifty centimes) are free to wander about on the upper and lower stone seats. Some, who prefer to be cool and lofty, stand on the top edge of the wall, black against the blue sky. It’s a most marvelous cinema, cool, clean, without any danger of fire, and much more magnificent than a cinema has any need to be. If any Americans happen by, then surely by next year they’ll have put up a big concrete bowl, the largest in the world, with velvet trim, water closets, and glass roof.

Before the show the children play catch behind the screen, and hide-and-seek, and grandmother’s footsteps. All the children of Nîmes – and the people here have many children – go to the cinema. The mothers don’t forget to bring their infants. The youngest visitors are admitted free, though admittedly they don’t see anything but lie on their backs under the night sky, with open mouths as though to swallow the stars.

It seems almost feasible. Hereabouts the night sky is very open-handed with shooting stars. They fall not in an are, as they do in the North, but sideways, as if the heavens were rotating. There are several kinds of shooting stars. While the sentimental, ocean-diluted Bible is being shown on screen, the best thing to do is watch the shooting stars. Some are large, red, and lumpy. They slowly wipe across the sky, as though they were strolling, and leave a thin, bloody trail. Others again are small, swift, and silver. They fly like bullets. Others glow like little running suns and brighten the horizon considerably for quite some time.

Sometimes it’s as though the heavens opened and showed us a glimpse of red-gold lining. Then the split quickly closes, and the majesty is once more hidden for good.

From time to time a large, shooting star falls quite close. Then it’s like a silver rain. Each one vanishes in the same direction. Then the apparent quiet is restored to the deep blue, that everlasting fixity of the stars, of which we still manage to feel that they move, even if we didn’t know it.

There they are again, the old familiar constellations that remind everyone of childhood, because it was only as a child that one gazed at them so raptly. They are everywhere. There you are, so remote from your childhood, and yet you meet it again. That’s how small the world is.

And if you think some of it is foreign, you’re mistaken. Everywhere is home. The Great Bear is a little nearer, that’s all.

It was a good idea to put on a film in the old Roman arena. In such a cinema you come to comforting conclusions, as long as you look at the sky, rather than the screen.

Comments: Joseph Roth (1894-1939) was an Austrian journalist and novelist, best known for his novel Radetzky March. The Arena of Nîmes is a Roman amphitheatre built around AD 70 and is used today for public events, including concerts. The film mentioned is The Ten Commandments (USA 1923), directed by Cecil B. DeMille.

Yesterday’s Sunshine

Source: Verne Morgan, Yesterday’s Sunshine: Reminiscences of an Edwardian Childhood (Folkestone: Bailey Brothers and Swinfen, 1974), pp. 122-126

Text: The Moving Pictures, as we called them, first came to Bromley when I was about seven. They made their début at the Central Hall, and the performances took place on Friday nights. There were two houses, one at five o’clock for the children and one at seven for the grown-ups. The programmes lasted approximately one hour, and consisted of a succession of short films. Indeed some of them would last no longer than three or four minutes and there would be an appreciable wait in between while the man in the box got busy threading the next reel.

The Central Hall was a vast place with a huge gallery encircling it. It was used mostly for political meetings and the like, and quite often a band concert would be held there too. But it also had a pronounced ecclesiastical leaning and the man who owned it belonged in some way to the church and was avidly religious. He was an elderly man and wore pince-nez spectacles to which were attached a long black cord. He was a man of extremely good intentions and loved to stand upon the platform making long speeches spouting about them. Unfortunately, he had the most dreadful impediment and it was quite impossible to understand a word he said. But I well remember the enthusiastic claps he got when he eventually sat down, not because we had appreciated what he said so much as the fact that he had at last finished. The film programme could then begin.

The operating box was a temporary affair, and was perched up at the rear of the gallery. I used to get a seat as close to it as possible so that I could see how it was all done. The lighting was effected by a stick of black carbon, about the size of a piece of chalk, which lit up the small box with a brilliant blueish-white light and had a blinding effect if you looked right at it. Occasionally it would burn low and the operator would push it up a bit; this would be reflected by the density of light on the screen. The screen itself was also of a temporary nature, it was in fact little more than a large white sheet weighted at the bottom to keep it taut. Any movement close to it would cause it to wobble, and the picture would go a little peculiar. We were not critical of such minor details. The very fact that the picture moved was enough to satisfy us.

As each small reel was finished the operator would place it outside for re-winding, his box being of limited dimensions. On account of this I was able to study the technique as to how the pictures appeared to move. It was so simple I could hardly believe it. I told my Brother about it; I told my Mother about it; I told lots of people about it. But no one believed me. So, to prove myself right, I set about editing a film on my own account. I drew a succession of pictures in pencil on the bottom of a hymn book in church. Each one was just that little bit different, so that when the pages were flicked over the overall picture appeared to move. This technique, in ‘flicker’ form, has, of course, been used in many ways since then, but at the time it was entirely my own idea, and I was middling proud of it. I can’t say that anybody was particularly impressed, but at the time it thrilled me beyond description. In due course I pictorialised all the hymn books I could lay my hands on, during the sermon and other breaks in the church service. They consisted mostly of football matches with someone scoring a goal. Or it might be a boxing match with someone getting knocked out. Or an exciting race with a hectically close finish. Anything that inspired my sporting instincts was in course of time recorded in the hymn books of St. Luke’s Church, Bromley. I have often wondered since what the effect must have been on the boy who eventually took my seat in the choir pew when he found what he had inherited. I can only hope that he had as much enjoyment out of watching animated pictures as I had got out of drawing them.

The Central Hall was situated close to the top of Bromley Hill, nearly three miles from where we lived. It was a long walk for small legs, and there was no public transport at that time. Yet, whatever the weather, we never missed. Every Friday, shortly after school hours, a swarm of happy-faced youngsters were to be seen all heading in the same direction. The Central Hall had become the centre of a new culture. But, as yet, only the school kids had caught on to it.

Then quite suddenly, the Grand Theatre in Bromley High Street, which up till then had housed nothing more spectacular than stage dramas of the “Maria Marten” and “Sweeney Todd” kind, put up the shutters and announced that in future Moving Pictures would take over. They would be put on once nightly with a full programme of films. A new firm moved in calling itself Jury’s. The old Grand was given a face-lift and transformed into a picture house.

This was revolutionary indeed.

The grown-ups were sceptical. But the programmes were of a higher standard than those at the Central Hall, and would sometimes have a two-reeler as the star attraction. The films began to take on a more realistic angle, with interesting stories, love scenes, cowboys and Indians, exciting battles and lots of gooey pathos.

People began to go.

When they announced a showing of the famous story “Quo Vadis” in seven reels, all Bromley turned out to see it. Even my father condescended, and grumbled volubly because he had to “line up” to get it (the word “queue” had not yet come into circulation).

It was the beginning of a new era. Very soon a place was built in the High Street, calling itself a cinema. Moving pictures were firmly on the map, and shortly to be called films. We watched with astonishment as the new building reached completion and gave itself the high-flown title of “The Palaise [sic] de luxe”.

Most of us pronounced it as it was spelt, “The Palace de lux”, but my cousin Daisy, who was seventeen and having French lessons twice a week, pronounced it the “Palyay dee Loo”. And she twisted her mouth into all sorts of shapes when she said it.

That being as it may, the Palaise de Luxe put on programmes that pulled in the crowds from far and near, and it wasn’t long before they engaged a pianist to play the piano while the films were in progress. I remember him well. A portly gentleman who hitherto had earned a precarious living playing in local pubs. He soon got into his stride and began to adapt his choice of music to the particular film that was being shown. If it was a comedy he would play something like “The Irish Washerwoman”; if it was something sad, he would rattle off a popular number of the day like, “If your heart should ache awhile never mind”, and if it was a military scene, he would strike up a well-known march. The classic example came when a religious film was presented and we saw Christ walking on the water. He immediately struck up a few bards of “A life on the ocean wave”.

Later on, all cinemas worthy of the name included a small orchestra to accompany the films, and in due course, a complete score of suitable music would be sent with the main feature film so as to give the right effect at the right moment.

The Palaise de Luxe was indeed a palace as far as we were concerned. We sat in plush tip-up seats and there were two programmes a night. Further, you could walk in any old time and leave when you felt like it. Which meant, of course, that you could, if you so desired, be in at the start and watch the programme twice through (which many of us did and suffered a tanning for getting home late). It was warm and cosy, and there was a small upper circle for those who didn’t wish to mix!

The projector was discreetly hidden away behind the back wall up in the circle, and no longer could you see the man turning the handle. We became conscious for the first time of the strong beam of light that extended from the operating box to the screen. It was all so fascinating and mysterious. The screen, too, was no longer a piece of white material hanging from the ceiling, it was built into the wall, or so it appeared, and it was solid, so that no amount of movement could make it wobble.

It quickly became the custom to visit the cinema once a week. It was the “in” thing, or as we said in those days, it was “all the rage”.

We learnt to discriminate. My Brother and I became infatuated with a funny little man who was just that bit different from the others. His tomfoolery had a “soul” we decided, and whereas we smiled and tittered at the others comics, we roared our heads off with laughter whenever this one came on the screen. We went to a great deal of trouble to find out who he was, for names were not very often given in the early days.

“He’s called Charlie Chaplin”, the manager of the cinema told us, a little surprised no doubt that one so young could be all that interested.

Comment: Verne Morgan lived in Kent, and became a writer of pantomimes and theatre sketches. Palais de Luxe cinemas were a chain, run by Electric Theatres (1908) Ltd. Jury’s Imperial Pictures was a producer and distributor, must did not manage cinemas. The period described is the early to mid-1910s: the Italian film Quo Vadis was made in 1913 and Chaplin’s first films were released in 1914. The mention of a piano player being introduced suggests that the earlier screenings had been watched without musical accompaniment.

The Nickelodeons: The Poor Man’s Elementary Course in the Drama

Source: Joseph Medill Patterson, ‘The Nickelodeons: The Poor Man’s Elementary Course in the Drama’ The Saturday Evening Post, 23 November 1907, pp. 10-11, 38.

Text: Three years ago there was not a nickelodeon, or, five-cent theatre devoted to moving-picture shows, in America. To-day there are between four and five thousand running and solvent, and the number is still increasing rapidly. This is the boom time in the moving-picture business. Everybody is making money- manufacturers, renters, jobbers, exhibitors. Overproduction looms up as a certainty of the near future; but now, as one press-agent said enthusiastically, “this line is a Klondike.”

The nickelodeon in tapping an entirely new stratum of people, is developing into theatregoers a section of population that formerly knew and cared little about the drama as a fact in life. That is why “this line is a Klondike” just at present.

Incredible as it may seem, over two million people on the average attend the nickelodeons every day of the year, and a third of these are children.

Let us prove up this estimate. The agent for the biggest firm of film renters in the country told me that the average expense of running a nickelodeon was from $175 to $200 a week, divided as follows:

Wage of manager $25
Wage of Operator 20
Wage of doorman 15
Wage of porter or musician 12
Rent of film (two reels changed twice a week) 50
Rent of projecting machine 10
Rent of building 40
Music, printing, “campaign contributions,” etc. 18
Total $190

Merely to meet expenses then, the average nickelodeon must have a weekly attendance of 4000. This gives all the nickelodeons 16,000,000 a week, or over 2,000,000 a day. Two million people a day are needed before profits can begin, and the two million are forthcoming. It is a big thing, this new enterprise.

The nickelodeon is usually a tiny theatre, containing 199 seats, giving from twelve to eighteen performances a day, seven days a week. Its walls are painted red. The seats are ordinary kitchen chairs, not fastened. The only break in the red color scheme is made by half a dozen signs, in black and white, NO SMOKING, HATS OFF and sometimes, but not always, STAY AS LONG AS YOU LIKE.

The spectatorium is one story high, twenty-five feet wide and about seventy feet deep. Last year or the year before it was probably a second-hand clothiers, a pawnshop or cigar store. Now, the counter has been ripped out, there is a ticket-seller’s booth where the show-window was, an automatic musical barker somewhere up in the air thunders its noise down on the passersby, and the little store has been converted into a theatrelet. Not a theatre, mind you, for theatres must take out theatrical licenses at $500 a year. Theatres seat two hundred or more people. Nickelodeons seat 199, and take out amusement licenses. This is the general rule.

But sometimes nickelodeon proprietors in favorable locations take out theatrical licenses and put in 800 or 1000 seats. In Philadelphia, there is, perhaps, the largest nickelodeon in America. It is said to pay not only the theatrical license, but also $30,000 a year ground rent and a handsome profit.

To-day there is cutthroat competition between the little nickelodeon owners, and they are beginning to compete each other out of existence. Already consolidation has set in. Film-renting firms are quietly beginning to pick up, here and there, a few nickelodeons of their own; presumably they will make better rates and give prompter service to their own theatrelets than to those belonging to outsiders. The tendency is early toward fewer, bigger, cleaner five-cent theatres and more expensive shows. Hard as this may be on the little showman who is forced out, it is good for the public, who will, in consequence, get more for their money.

Who the Patrons Are

The character of the attendance varies with the locality, but, whatever the locality, children make up about thirty-three per cent. of the crowds. For some reason, young women from sixteen to thirty years old are rarely in evidence, but many middle-aged and old women are steady patrons, who never, when a new film is to be shown, miss the opening.

In cosmopolitan city districts the foreigners attend in larger proportion than the English speakers. This is doubtless because the foreigners, shut out as they are by their alien tongues from much of the life about them can yet perfectly understand the pantomime of the moving pictures.

As might be expected, the Latin races patronize the shows more consistently than Jews, Irish or Americans. Sailors of all races are devotees.

Most of the shows have musical accompaniments. The enterprising manager usually engages a human pianist with instructions to play Eliza-crossing-the-ice when the scene is shuddery, and fast ragtime in a comic kid chase. Where there is little competition, however, the manager merely presses the button and starts the automatic going, which is as apt as not to bellow out, I’d Rather Two-Step Than Waltz, Bill, just as the angel rises from the brave little hero-cripple’s corpse.

The moving pictures were used as chasers in vaudeville houses for several years before the advent of the nickelodeon. The cinemetograph or vitagraph or biograph or kinetoscope (there are seventy-odd names for the same machine) was invented in 1888-1889. Mr. Edison is said to have contributed most toward it, though several other inventors claim part of the credit.

The first very successful pictures were those of the Corbett-Fitzsimmons fight at Carson City, Nevada, in 1897. These films were shown all over the country to immense crowds and an enormous sum of money was made by the exhibitors.

The Jeffries-Sharkey fight of twenty-five rounds at Coney Island, in November, 1899, was another popular success. The contest being at night, artificial light was necessary, and 500 arc lamps were placed above the ring. Four cameras were used. While one was snapping the fighters, a second was being focused at them, a third was being reloaded, and a fourth was held in reserve in case of breakdown. Over seven miles of film were exposed, and 198,000 pictures, each 2 by 3 inches, were taken. This fight was taken at the rate of thirty pictures to the second.

The 500 arc lamps above the ring generated a temperature of about 115 degrees for the gladiators to fight in. When the event was concluded, Mr. Jeffries was overheard to remark that for no amount of money would he ever again in his life fight in such heat, pictures or no pictures. And he never has.

Since that mighty fight, manufacturers have learned a good deal about cheapening their process. Pictures instead of being 2 by 3 inches are now 5/8 by 1 1/8 inches, and are taken sixteen instead of thirty to the second, for the illusion to the eye of continuous motion is as perfect at one rate as the other.

By means of a ratchet each separate picture is made to pause a twentieth of a second before the magic-lantern lens, throwing an enlargement to life size upon the screen. Then, while the revolving shutter obscures the lens, one picture is dropped and another substituted, to make in turn its twentieth of a second display.

The films are, as a rule, exhibited at the rate at which they are taken, though chase scenes are usually thrown faster, and horse races, fire-engines and hot-moving automobiles slower, than the life-speed.

How the Drama Is Made

Within the past year an automatic process to color films has been discovered by a French firm. The pigments are applied by means of a four-color machine stencil. Beyond this bare fact the process remains a secret of the inventors. The stencil must do its work with extraordinary accuracy, for any minute error in the application of color to outline made upon the 5/8 by 1 1/8 inches print is magnified 200 times when thrown upon the screen by the magnifying lens. The remarkable thing about this automatic colorer is that it applies the pigment in slightly different outline to each successive print of a film 700 feet long. Colored films sell for about fifty per cent. more than black and whites. Tinted films – browns, blues, oranges, violets, greens and so forth – are made by washing, and sell at but one per cent. over the straight price.

The films are obtained in various ways. “Straight” shows, where the interest depends on the dramatist’s imagination and the setting, are merely playlets acted out before the rapid-fire camera. Each manufacturing firm owns a studio with property-room, dressing rooms and a completely-equipped stage. The actors are experienced professionals of just below the first rank, who are content to make from $18 to $25 a week. In France a class of moving-picture specialists has grown up who work only for the cameras, but in this country most of the artists who play in the film studios in the daytime play also behind the footlights at night.

The studio manager orders rehearsals continued until his people have their parts “face-perfect,” then he gives the word, the lens is focused, the cast works rapidly for twenty minutes while the long strip of celluloid whirs through the camera, and the performance is preserved in living, dynamic embalmment (if the phrase may be permitted) for decades to come.

Eccentric scenes, such as a chalk marking the outlines of a coat upon a piece of cloth, the scissors cutting to the lines, the needle sewing, all automatically without human help, often require a week to take. The process is ingenious. First the scissors and chalk are laid upon the edge of the cloth. The picture is taken. The camera is stopped, the scissors are moved a quarter of an inch into the cloth, the chalk is drawn a quarter of an inch over the cloth. The camera is opened again and another picture is taken showing the quarter-inch cut and quarter-inch mark. The camera is closed, another quarter inch is cut and chalked; another exposure is made. When these pictures so slowly obtained we run off rapidly, the illusion of fast self-action on the part of the scissors, chalk and needle is produced.

Sometimes in a nickelodeon you can see on the screen a building completely wrecked in five minutes. Such a film was obtained by focusing a camera at the building, and taking every salient move of the wreckers for the space, perhaps, of a fortnight. When these separate prints, obtained at varying intervals, some of them perhaps a whole day apart, are run together continuously, the appearance is of a mighty stone building being pulled to pieces like a house of blocks.

Such eccentric pictures were in high demand a couple of years ago, but now the straight-story show is running them out. The plots are improving every year in dramatic technique. Manufacturing firms pay from $5 to $25 for good stories suitable for film presentation, and it is astonishes how many sound dramatic ideas are submitted by people of insufficient education to render their thoughts into English suitable for the legitimate stage.

The moving-picture actors are becoming excellent pantomimists, which is natural, for they cannot rely on the playwright’s lines to make their meanings. I remember particularly a performance I saw near Spring Street on the Bowery, where the pantomime seemed to me in nowise inferior to that of Mademoiselle Pilar-Morin, the French pantomimist.

The nickelodeon spectators readily distinguish between good and bad acting, though they do not mark their pleasure or displeasure audibly, except very rarely, in a comedy scenes by a suppressed giggle. During the excellent show of which I have spoken, the men, woman and children maintained steady stare of fascination at the changing figures on the scene, and toward the climax, when forgiveness was cruelly denied, lips were parted and eyes filled with tears. It was as much a tribute to the actors as the loudest bravos ever shouted in the Metropolitan Opera House.

To-day a consistent plot is demanded. There must be, as in the drama, exposition, development, climax and denouement. The most popular films run from fifteen to twenty minutes and are from five hundred to eight hundred feet long. One studio manager said: “The people want a story. We run to comics generally; they seem to take best. So-and-so, however, lean more to melodrama. When we started we used to give just flashes- an engine chasing to a fire, a base-runner sliding home, a charge of cavalry. Now, for instance, if we want to work in a horse race it has to be as a scene in the life of the jockey, who is the hero of the piece – we’ve got to give them a story; they won’t take anything else – a story with plenty of action. You can’t show large conversation, you know, on the screen. More story, larger story, better story with plenty of action- that is our tendency.”

………

Civilization, all through the history of mankind, has been chiefly the property of the upper classes, but during the past century civilization has been permeating steadily downward. The leaders of this democratic movement have been general education, universal suffrage, cheap periodicals and cheap travel. To-day the moving-picture machine cannot be overlooked as an effective protagonist of democracy. For through it the drama, always a big fact in the lives of the people at the top, is now becoming a big fact in the lives of the people at the bottom. Two million of them a day have so found a new interest in life.

The prosperous Westerners, who take their week or fortnight, fall and spring, in New York, pay two dollars and a half for a seat at a problem play, a melodrama, a comedy or a show-girl show in a Broadway theatre. The stokers who have driven the Deutschland or the Lusitania from Europe pay five cents for a seat at a problem play, a melodrama, a comedy or a show-girl show in a Bowery nickelodeon. What in the difference?

The stokers, sitting on the hard, wooden chairs of the nickelodeon, experience the same emotional flux and counter-flux (more intense is their experience, for they are not as blase) as the prosperous Westerners in their red plush orchestra chairs, uptown.

The sentient life of the half-civilized beings at the bottom has been enlarged and altered, by the introduction of the dramatic motif, to resemble more closely the sentient life of the civilized beings at the top.

Take an analogous case. Is aimless travel “beneficial” or not? It is amusing, certainly; and, therefore, the aristocrats who could afford it have always traveled aimlessly. But now, says the Democratic Movement, the grand tour shall no longer be restricted to the aristocracy. Jump on the rural trolley-car, Mr. Workingman, and make a grand tour yourself. Don’t care, Mr. Workingman, whether it is “beneficial” or not. Do it because it is amusing; just as the aristocrats do.

The film makers cover the whole gamut of dramatic attractions. The extremes in the film world are as far apart as the extremes in the theatrical world- as far apart, let us say, as The Master Builder and The Gay White Way.

If you look up the moving-picture advertisements in any vaudeville trade paper you cannot help being struck with this fact. For instance, in a current number, one firm offers the following variety of attractions:

Romany’s Revenge (very dramatic) 300 feet
Johnny’s Run (comic kid chase) 300 ”
Roof to Cellar (absorbing comedy) 782 ”
Wizard’s World (fantastic comedy) 350 ”
Sailor’s Return (highly dramatic) 535 ”
A Mother’s Sin (beautiful, dramatic and moral) 392 ”
Knight Errant (old historical drama) 421 ”
Village Fire Brigade (big laugh) 325 ”
Catch the Kid (a scream) 270 ”
The Coroner’s Mistake (comic ghost story) 430 ”
Fatal Hand (dramatic) 432 “

Another firm advertises in huge type, in the trade papers:

LIFE AND PASSION OF CHRIST
Five Parts, Thirty-nine Pictures, 3114 feet Price, $373.78
Extra for coloring $125.10

The presentation by the picture machine of the Passion Play in this country was undertaken with considerable hesitation. The films had been shown in France to huge crowds, but here, so little were even professional students of American lower-class taste able to gauge it in advance, that the presenters feared the Passion Play might be boycotted, if not, indeed, indeed, in some places, mobbed. On the contrary, it has been the biggest success ever known to the business.

Last year incidents leading up to the murder of Stanford White were shown, succeeded enormously for a very few weeks, then flattened out completely and were withdrawn. Film people are as much at sea about what their crowds will like as the managers in the “legitimate.”

Although the gourdlike growth of the nickelodeon business as a factor in the conscious life of Americans is not yet appreciated, already a good many people are disturbed by what they do know of the thing.

Those who are “interested in the poor” are wondering whether the five-cent theatre is a good influence, and asking themselves gravely whether it should be encouraged or checked (with the help of the police).

Is the theatre a “good” or a “bad” influence? The adjectives don’t fit the case. Neither do they fit the case of the nickelodeon, which is merely the theatre demociatized.

Take the case of the Passion Play, for instance. Is it irreverent to portray the Passion, Crucifixion, Resurrection and Ascension in a vaudeville theatre over a darkened stage where half an hour before a couple of painted, short-skirted girls were doing a “sister-act”? What is the motive which draws crowds poor people to nickelodeons to see the Birth in the Manger flashed magic-lanternwise upon a white cloth? Curiosity? Mere mocking curiosity, perhaps? I cannot answer.

Neither could I say what it is that, every fifth year, draws our plutocrats to Oberammergau, where at the cost, from first to last, of thousands of dollars and days of time, they view a similar spectacle presented in a sunny Bavarian setting.

It is reasonable, however, to believe that the same feelings, whatever they are, which drew our rich to Oberammergau, draw our poor to the nickelodeons. Whether the powerful emotional reactions produced in the spectator by the Passion Play are “beneficial” or not is as far beyond decision as the question whether a man or an oyster is happier. The man is more, feels more, than the oyster. The beholder of the Passion Play is more, feels more, than the non-beholder.

Whether for weal or woe, humanity has ceaselessly striven to complicate life, to diversify and make subtle the emotions, to create and gratify the new and artificial spiritual wants, to know more and feel more both of good and evil, to attain a greater degree of self-consciousness; just as the one fundamental instinct of the youth, which most systems of education have been vainly organized to eradicate, is to find out what the man knows.

In this eternal struggle for more self-consciousness, the moving-picture machine, uncouth instrument though it be, has enlisted itself on especial behalf of the least enlightened, those who are below the reach even of the yellow journals. For although in the prosperous vaudeville houses the machine is but a toy, a “chaser,” in the nickelodeons it is the central, absorbing fact, which strengthens, widens, vivifies subjective life; which teaches living other than living through the senses alone. Already, perhaps, touching him at the psychological moment, it has awakened to his first, groping, necessary discontent the spirit of an artist of the future, who otherwise would have remained mute and motionless.

The nickelodeons are merely an extension course in civilization, teaching both its “badness” and its “goodness.” They have come in obedience to the law of supply and demand; and they will stay as long as the slums stay, for in the slums they are the fittest and must survive.

Comments: Joseph Medill Patterson (1879-1946) was an American journalist and newspaper publisher, founder of the New York Daily News. Nickelodeons (a nickname given in America to the shop-conversions that preceded purpose-built cinemas) came to the interest on general newspapers and magazines in 1907. The illustrations come from the original publication.

Links:
Copy at Hathi Trust
Transcribed copy at The Silent Bookshelf (archived site)

The Other Americans

Source: Arthur Ruhl, The Other Americans; the cities, the countries, and especially the people of South America (New York, C. Scribner’s Sons, 1912), pp. 110-112 [orig. pub. 1908 as series of articles in Collier’s magazine]

Text: On Arequipa, too, broods the spell of the ancient Church. By the time I had dined the evening I arrived and started forth to look at the town, it lay dead and silent under its cold stars, the only sound the rush of mountain water in the open drains. But there was light in the cathedral, and within on the floor — for there were no pews — knelt, it seemed, all the women in the town, like so many black-birds in their sable mantos, whispering and crossing themselves. Here were the lights and the ambitious glitter and the antiphonal choruses echoing through the arches, yet outside no background of noise and busy worldliness to put it in its place. It was as though all the town were turned into a cloister; as though, having no opportunity to sin, it were determined to carry out the other end of the bargain at any rate, and fancy itself condemned.

The flesh was not altogether neglected, however, that night, and toward nine o’clock, a few squares away, a lonely little band, muffled in ponchos and neck-scarfs, tooted in the frosty air, calling the men-folks and the irreligious to an exhibition of the American biograph.

The latter has become almost an institution in parts of South America. Where no other theatrical entertainment is to be had, one will generally find a biograph show. “All the world ought to have one,” an advertisement in the paper read that night — “I. Families: For its modern repertoire of operas, zarzuelas, etc., to pass happy and diverting moments without going out of the house in the evening. II. Merchants: To attract the attention of the public to their establishments. III. Proprietors of haciendas: To amuse their workmen on Sundays.”

There was so much Indian blood in the audience that night, as is always the case in the interior, that it suggested a crowd of Japanese soldiers. Broad- cheeked and stolid they sat while the great world flickered before them. From Norway to Damascus we jumped, from Jerusalem to Paris and Madrid — the fountains playing at Versailles, Hebrews kissing the Wall of Lamentations, a “pony” ballet in a musical comedy, skeeing in Norway, with fresh-cheeked girls sweeping almost out of the picture and into the auditorium, the snow spraying from the skees, the wind blowing their hair across their faces, laughing as they came. There was a royal bull-fight at Madrid — even the sweating flanks of the bull panting up and down, the pretty bonnet of some tourist which, in the excitement, had insisted in bobbing in front of the camera.
I am not an agent for any picture-machine, but I must confess that it seemed rather wonderful to me, this very glitter and pulse-beat of Europe up here in a stoveless theatre among a lot of Indians. And I regret that the audience showed much more enthusiasm over a Byronic young man who gave an imitation of the battle of the Yalu on a guitar, and stood in the cobbled court outside wrapped in a velveteen cloak and gazed at us superciliously as we started home.

Comments: Arthur Brown Ruhl (1876-1935) was an American sports journalist and travel writer. Arequipa is in Peru.

Links: Copy at Hathi Trust

An Englishwoman in the Philippines

Source: Mrs Campbell Dauncey [Enid Campbell Dauncey], An Englishwoman in the Philippines (New York, E.P. Dutton, 1906), pp. 96-99

Text: Well, we went last night to a cinematograph show, which has established itself in a big empty basement in the Calle Real, with a large sign outside, made of glass letters lighted behind with electricity, all in the most approved European style. The “show” lasts for half an hour, going on from six in the evening to about ten o’clock at night, and the proprietor makes about 300 pesos a week out of it, for he has very few expenses, and it is the sort of thing these people love. They come out when the show is over, stand about and expectorate for a few minutes, and then pay their cents and go in again and enjoy the same thing about five times running, probably without the faintest idea what it is all about from start to finish. You remember the dreadful extent of the habit of expectoration in Spain? You have heard about this failing in America? The Filipino is the epitome and concentration of the two.

Everything in the hall was boarded up to prevent any stray, non-paying enthusiast from getting a free peep; but all the same I saw several little brown forms in fluttering muslin shirts, outside, where the wall formed a side street, with eyes glued to the chinks of a door in rapt attention; though I don’t suppose the little chaps could really see anything but the extreme edge of the back row of benches.

In the hall we were saved from suffocation by two electric fans, and kept awake by a Filipino playing a cracked old piano with astonishing dexterity, rattling out the sort of tunes you hear in a circus and nowhere else on earth. I could not help wondering where he had picked them up, till it suddenly dawned on me that one, at least, gave me a faint hint that perhaps the performer might once have heard “Hiawatha” on a penny flute; so I concluded that he was playing “variations.” Pianos never sound very well out here, and I am told it is difficult to keep them bearable at all, for the chords have an unmusical way of going rusty in the damp season, or else snapping with a loud ping.

The moving pictures were not at all bad, rather jumpy at times, but the subjects really quite entertaining, and all the slides, from the appearance of the figures on them, made in Germany, I imagine. The series wound up with an interminable fairy tale in coloured pictures, really a sort of short play, and in this one could see the German element still more apparent, in the castles, the ancient costumes, and the whole composition of the thing. I don’t suppose the natives in the audience had the wildest idea what it was all about, or what the king and queen, the good fairy, and the wicked godmother, were meant to be, probably taking the whole story for some episode in the life of a Saint.

The audience were really more amusing to me than the pictures, and I was quite pleased each time the light went up so that I could have a good look at them. In the front rows, which were cheap, as they were so close to the screen, sat the poorer people in little family groups, with clean camisas and large cigars, the women’s hair looking like black spun glass. Our places were raised a little above them, and were patronised by the swells who had paid 40 cents — a shilling. Amongst the elect were one or two English and other foreigners; some fat Chinamen, with their pigtails done up in chignons, and wearing open-work German straw hats, accompanied by their native wives and little slant-eyed children; a few missionaries and schoolma’ams in coloured blouses and untidy coiffures à la Gibson Girl; and one or two U.S.A. soldiers, with thick hair parted in the middle, standing treat to their Filipina girls – these last in pretty camisas, and very shy and happy. A funny little Filipino boy near us, rigged up in a knickerbocker suit and an immense yellow oil-skin motor-cap, was rather frightened at old Tuyay, who had insisted on coming to the show and sitting at our feet. When she sniffed the bare legs of this very small brown brother, he lost all his dignity and importance, and clung blubbing to his little flat-faced mother. Poor old Tuyay was dreadfully offended; she came and crawled right under C—-‘s chair, where she lay immovable till the performance was over.

Comments: Mrs Campbell Dauncey (born Enid Rolanda Gambier) (1875-1939) was an English travel writer and magazine contributor. She visited the Philippines over 1904-05, at the time of the American occupation following the Philippine–American War of 1899-1902. Her book is written as a series of letters; the above extract comes from a letter dated 4 February 1905, written from Iloilo. ‘Hiawatha’ refers to the The Song of Hiawatha cantatas written by Samuel Coleridge-Taylor.

Links: Copy at Internet Archive

An Evening at the Cinema

Source: Miss Johnson, ‘An Evening at the Cinema’, St Helena Diocesan Magazine, Vol. XXVIII, no. 350, May 1929, p. 61 (originally published in South African journal The Outspan)

Text: We arrived back at the hotel about 4-30 pm feeling really tired, but as we had reserved seats at the cinema for that evening we simply had to go. We sat upstairs on armchairs with cushions, on one side of the gallery, while the Governor with his party sat on the other. They were all in evening dress! The cinema did not start until the Governor had arrived, which was about 8-30 pm. In the meantime we just looked on at those St. Helena people and wondered if the six little girls who had hovered round since our arrival selling beads were there. They had said they were too poor even to go to the cinema – they had never been to the cinema. So we gave them each six pence for the express purpose of celebrating. Then the St Helena band started, a string band consisting of three players. They had no sooner started to play than the whole audience took up the tune and sung lustily. We’ll never forget, ‘I’m Sitting on Top of the World,’ or ‘I’ll be Loving You Always,’ or ‘Show Me The Way to Go Home.’

Comments: The first film shows on the South Atlantic island of St Helena began in January 1921. This account from a South African tourist could be describing either the Theatre Royal Bioscope or the New Store Theatre, which were adjacent to one other in the Grand Parade area of Jamestown, the island’s capital. Sound films did not come to St Helena until 1940.

Links:
St Helena Island Info – a history of cinema in St Helena

In Darkest London

Source: Mrs Cecil Chesterton, In Darkest London (New York: The Macmillan company, 1926), pp. 186-187

Text: We did some business together. I made a shilling or two, and then my friend suggested we should go to a cinema, she standing treat. Now I have never been keen on films, except when Charlie Chaplin is on the screen, and I felt quite indifferent at the prospect of such enjoyment. She took two of the cheaper seats in a house near Shaftesbury Avenue, and I waited for the show to begin, quite incurious and even depressed. It was a story of the conventional type, in which a poor girl becomes a leader of society, following a round of luxurious enjoyment, but I found myself suddenly watching the pictures with eagerness, positive pleasure! I dwelt with rapture on her dinner with the hero in an expensive restaurant. I noted with extraordinary precision everything she ate. I enjoyed with her the roses he bought, and thrilled to the music the orchestra was playing. I would not have missed an inch of film. I would not have forfeited any one of the thousand mechanical sensations she enjoyed. It was not until it was all over that I asked myself why this change had come about, why it was that I, and the people in the cheap seats around me, had been wrought up to such excitement, almost ecstasy.

And then the solution came. When you are hungry and cold, without a home and without hope, the “Pictures” warm your imagination, heat your blood and somehow vitalise your body. The blank shutters that hem you in from enjoyment are suddenly down, and you look into a world of light and colour, expectancy and romance — that eternal longing for romance which dies so hardly. This is one of the things that I discovered in my experience. For the same reason this is, I think, why the inhabitants of drab homes in mean streets flock to the cinema. I do not think it has any educational value, nor does it generally stimulate the imagination. But it supplies a lack, and to those whose horizon is bounded by the four walls of a room, badly distempered, or hideously papered, the contemplation of the garish hotel, the spacious restaurant, or impossible heroines of the screen is compensation. This also accounts, I suppose, for the unending supply of this kind of picture. Commerce always caters for a steady public, and while the taste of the artistic is soon surfeited, the intelligence of the thinking easily annoyed, the vast residuum of the patient poor, who unendingly bear the burden of monotony, is a sure and certain market in a world of shifting values.

Comments: Ada Chesterton (1869-1962), who wrote as Mrs Cecil Chesterton, was a British journalist and philanthropist. She was married to the brother of the author G.K. Chesterton. Her book of social investigation, In Darkest London, was based on a series of newspaper articles on the life of London’s poor.

Links: Copy at Hathi Trust

Youth at the Gate

Illustration from Youth at the Gate

Source: Ursula Bloom, Youth at the Gate (London: Hutchinson, 1959)

Text: On Tuesday, August the fourth, when we were already halfway through the evening programme at the White Palace, Mr. Clements returned and started to talk again. He said that he wanted the national anthems of all countries who would be our allies to be played in a kind of pot-pourri at the end of the evening, ours as the final one.

I did not think it was a good idea. Already innumerable countries were involved, some with very long national anthems, and it would take a time to compose and to play, when all the audience asked was to be allowed to go home.

He looked at me with gaunt dark eyes on either side of a big nose which was like an eagle’s beak He was horribly worried, we knew that because his finger-nails were bitten to the quick (one of his nastier habits) and last week one of the girls had noticed that they were actually bleeding.

Mr. Clements was on the Stock Exchange (the cinema being merely a hobby), and with war coming he saw disaster ahead It is pathetic that at the time I did not realize that his wife had a daughter by a previous marriage to a German, a girl born deaf and dumb, and both of them were in agony lest Olga would be taken from them and put into a detention camp. I had never heard of such a place.

Earlier this evening Brooker the commissionaire had gone. A policeman had come for him, which alone caused some perturbation, but he was an old soldier on the Reserve. We wished him well, and those who could gave him something ‘for luck’, there seemed little time for goodbyes. This had brought the war considerably closer. Brooker, a very ordinary little man, who had never even been particularly brave with the drunks, suddenly glittered into something of a hero.

‘God only knows what’ll happen,’ said Mr. Clements in anxiety. ‘It’ll be the end of the world as we know it. One thing is certain, England’ll never be quite the same again.’

I was contemptuous. I thought he was cowardly, something to be despised in this moment of thrill. If we went to war (and oh, how I hoped we should!), England would rise with a glory never before achieved.

‘Maybe it’ll be nicer than you think?’ I suggested as I wrestled with ‘Poet and Peasant’ on the cottage piano.

‘You’re just a silly little girl! You don’t know a thing about it, and you’d better hold your tongue,’ he snapped, then swept out through the curtains, which at the start had been second-hand, leaving me with a haze of their dust and facing the nastier bits of ‘Poet and Peasant’.

The ‘Pathé Gazette’ flickered across the screen with pictures of the Reserves being called up, to be greeted with violent applause from the twopennies. A destroyer put out from Harwich harbour. A slide told the audience that so far – my tin clock told me it was nine o’clock, just before the ‘big picture’ – Germany had not replied to our ultimatum, and the twopennies booed.

The cinema darkened again, just above me lights played on to the screen, and the tin clock (one-and-sixpence) on the piano top began to tick away the last vital minutes of the old regime. At the dramatic moments of one’s life one does not recognize the tensity of emotional crisis. Sitting there playing for Mary Pickford was just another night in my life. No more.

When the end came I played the national anthems, but the audience did not stay, for they were eager to rush out and hear if we were really at war or not. Not yet. I closed the piano lid, and pushed the borrowed music into a box, for at all costs we had to keep that clean or the shop on Hollywell Hill wouldn’t take it back next Monday. I went through the deserted foyer, up shoddy stairs to where Teddy was waiting with his chocolate tray to get it checked. As nobody else came to do it, he and I achieved this together.

The two girl attendants pulled on coats which hung on a wall hook, the only attempt at a ladies’ room that we had. There was no lavatory of any kind and in emergencies one had to go up to the station which was a considerable way off. Any natural need of this kind was vulgar and could not be mentioned. Mother always said it was better than in the eighties when one was prepared to die rather than admit that nature could no longer contain itself, and some people had died, she vowed.

I went downstairs again into the foyer which advertised next week’s programme in big colourful posters to catch the eye. We should be running Les Miserables, a picture I had selected. Montie was waiting, in the green suit of the era, and with a stick.

‘Have we gone to war?’ I asked.

He didn’t know.

Comments: Ursula Bloom (1892-1984) was a highly-prolific British novelist. In her various memoirs, of which Youth at the Gate is only one, she provides detailed accounts of the time she spent as a pianist at the White Palace cinema in Harpenden, just before the First World War.

The Crippled Tree

Source: Han Suyin, The Crippled Tree (London: Jonathan Cape, 1965), pp. 377-379

Text: The cinema was called in Chinese the True Light Cinema. It had a brown gooey façade, and at that time it looked enormous; it had suffered, forty years later when Rosalie returned to stare at it (renamed the People’s Theatre, and with a grey sticky façade), the shrink that all revisited childhood monuments suffer. The True Light Cinema showed chiefly American pictures in the 1920s, because there were no Chinese film companies. The films were all galloping horses, villains, and usually a buxom girl, with long fair hair, who was constantly getting herself tied to railtracks and rescued in the nick of time from a rapidly enlarging locomotive belching smoke that blackened the screen and dimmed the cinema too. An orchestra of White Russians in the pit made appropriate music with drum beats for revolver shots. The King of Kings, and City Lights with Charlie Chaplin (which Mama did not think funny), Rosalie would remember for many years; also a film, The Birth of a Nation, which showed hooded horsemen clad in white sheets riding down ugly black men, and the same fair-haired, buxom girl, throwing herself down some rocks because a black man was running after her and smiling. It was at this film that the incident occurred.

Someone in the audience (while it was dark and musically solemn because house was heing burnt with the white-clad horsemen ranged round watching) got up and started to shout. There was immediately a commotion, lights were switched on, policemen appeared from the four corners of the hall where they were always posted, and the young man who had shouted was dragged away, the usual sticks plying upon him quick and fast while he strove to cover his bleeding face with his hands. And it reminded Rosalie of Charlie Chaplin, though this young man was Chinese and had the scarf round his neck which indicated he was a university student.

While the young man was being dragged out, Mama turned to Rosalie. who was not sitting in the same row as Mama and Tiza and Papa, but alone behind, because there had been only three seats in the row. The young boy who occupied the seat next to Tiza had left it to run to the aisle, as many others did, to get closer to the young student, whom the policemen were dragging away. ‘Quick, now,’ said Mama, ‘sit here with us.’

Rosalie obeyed. She sat next to Tiza, in the seat left vacant by the boy.

But the boy now returned, and said: ‘This is my seat.’

Mama indicated the seat in the row behind, which Rosalie had left. ‘You can sit there.’

The young boy began to shout: ‘This is my seat, my seat.’

And all the people in the cinema now crowded round them, round Mama, Papa, Rosalie and Tiza.

Then another young man with a scarf began to shout, and the young boy suddenly raised his fist and screamed: ‘Down with all white devils from over the sea,’ and there was noise like a train approaching quickly, and it was the whole cinema, together making this noise. They stamped, clapped, whistled, and suddenly they were all shouting, in time: ‘Down with the colonialists, down with the imperialists,’ and singing.

The policemen reappeared, and again they began to use their sticks, but they were too few, and they crowded round Mama and the girls and got them out of the cinema, and Papa stayed behind. Then he too came out, and he was so pale, Rosalie had never seen him that colour before.

Comments: Han Suyin (1917-2012) was a Chinese Eurasian physician, novelist, memoirist and historian, best-known for her novel A Many-Splendoured Thing. She was born Rosalie Matilda Kuanghu Chou to a Chinese father and Belgian mother. Her book The Crippled Tree, a combination of history and memoir covering 1885-1928, documents the great challenges their family faced during a period of political turmoil in China. In this passage, recording an incident in a Peking cinema, she refers to herself in the third person (Rosalie). The anecdote continues with a bitter row over race between the two parents. There was a small amount of Chinese film production in the 1920s, particularly towards the latter end of the decade, but it is not clear when the incident described took place. A screening of The Birth of a Nation (1915) in China in the 1920s feels unlikely, but the scenes she recalls are part of the film.

Prospero's Cell

Source: Lawrence Durrell, Prospero’s Cell: A Guide to the Landscape and Manners of the Island of Corfu (London: Faber, 2000 [orig. pub. 1945). pp. 44-52

Text: It is towards the hour of seven that, mellowed by the excellent wine of “The Partridge’, we cross the little cobbled square by the Church of the Saint, and seek our way through the alleys and fents of the Venetian town (the women touching hands as they talk on the balconies over our heads) to where the shadow-play is to be shown. In a little sunken garden by the Italian school the lights and the grumble of a crowd had already marked the place. A prodigious trade in ginger-beer and sweets is being carried on with the schoolchildren and the peasants who sit crammed into the small arena before the dazzling white screen upon which our hero is to appear. Two violins and a drum keep up a squalling sort of overture, punctuated by the giggles of the children and the pop of ginger beer bottles. (Important note. Ginger beer, first pop of ginger beer bottles. (Important note. Ginger beer, first imported by the British during their occupation of the Ionian Islands, has never lost its hold over the Corcyrean public. In places such as the Canoni tavern it may even be bought in those small stone bottles which we remember from our childhood, and which are quite as aesthetically beautiful as the ancient Greek lamp-bowls with which the museum is crammed.)

Our seats are right in front, where the orchestra can scrape away under our noses, and the sales of ginger beer increase noticeably owing to Ivan Zarian who persuades his father to buy us a bottle each. N. prefers nougat while Nimiec has found a paper-bag full of pea-nuts. Thus equipped we are prepared for the spectacle of Karaghiosis, whose Greek is sure to baffle us however much his antics amuse.

Presently the acetylene lamps on the hedge are extinguished, and the rows of eager faces are lit only by the light of the brilliant screen with its scarlet dado. The actors are taking up their dispositions, for now and then a shadow crosses the light, and the little peasant children cry out excitedly, hoping that it heralds the appearance of their hero. But the orchestra is still driving on with the awkward monotony of a squeaking shoe. I catch a glimpse of Father Nicholas at the end of a row, and seeing us smiling at him he feels called noon to make some little gesture which will put him, as it were, on the same plane as ourselves. He pushes aside the ginger-beer hawker, blows his nose loudly in a red handkerchief, and bawls to the tavern-keeper across the road in superior accents: ‘Hey there, Niko – a submarine for my grandson if you please.’ ‘A submarine’ is a charming fantasy; Nicholas’ little grandson would much rather have a ginger beer but he is too experienced and tactful a child to interrupt the old boy. He sits vaguely smiling while the waiter darts across to them from the tavern with the ‘submarine’ – which consists of a spoonful of white mastic in a glass of water. Nothing more or less. The procedure is simple. You eat the mastic and drink the water to take the sweetness out of your mouth. While the child is doing this, and while Father Nicholas is looking around him, pleased at having caused a little extra trouble, and at having been original, the orchestra gives a final squeal and dies out. Now expectancy reaches its maximum intensity, for the familiar noise of sticks being rattled together sounds from behind the screen. This is a sign for the play to begin.

The crowd draws a sharp breath of familiarity and pleasure as the crapulous figure of Hadjiavatis lurches on to the screen, cocking an enormous eyebrow and muttering a few introductory remarks. ‘It is Hadjiavatis,’ cry the small children in the front row with piercing excitement, while Father Nicholas remarks audibly to the row behind him: ‘It is the rogue Hadjiavatis.’ But even his gruffness cannot disguise the affection in his tones, for Hadjiavatis is beloved for his utter imbecility. He is to Karaghiosis what Watson is to Sherlock Holmes – his butt and ‘feed’ at the same time. At the appearance of Hadjiavatis the orchestra strikes up a little jig – his signature tune – completely drowning his monologue, whereupon he gives an indignant shake of his whole body, commands it to be silent, and recommences his groans and exclamations. Apparently everything is rather gloomy. Nothing is right with him. He is poor, he thickening of his speech indicates that he is now full of a sense of warmth and well-being.

From now on the play becomes a surrealist fantasia. Their rise to fame is meteoric and is accomplished by the unblushing cunning of the hero, with Hadjiavatis suffering here and there for his errors of judgement. Almost nothing is too fantastic to present, and I can see from the glowing face of Father Nicholas that what our surrealist friends might call ‘the triumph over causality’ is considerably older than Breton – and indeed is an integral part of all peasant art. The succession of figures on the dazzling screen glow with a kind of brittle life of their own; the voices (whose volume and pitch betray their human origin) crackle and spark with a kind of suppressed hysteria. All Greece is in this scene; the market-place, the row of Turkish figures, the wonderful power and elasticity of thought and verbal felicity; the tenderness and vulgarity of Karaghiosis; and all indicated with so little of the landscape to which I had hoped to be a guide. Karaghiosis, whose humour is cast in a townsman’s mould, is still surrounded by memories of the day when he and his kind were mad, violent clansmen in the hills around Olympus: or scattered colonies across the Black Sea, still tenaciously holding to an optative mood and a pronunciation which Piraeus has forgotten or only remembers as a joke. On this little dazzling screen you have the whole laic mystery of Greece which has been so long dormant in the mountains and islands – in the groves and valleys of the archipelago. You have the spirit and the unconquerable adaptability of the Greek who has penetrated with the leaven of his mercuric irony and humour into every quarter of the globe.

By now we have met a number of characters who are to become familiar in the immortal Karaghiosis cycle of plays. There is Gnio-Gnio, a lunatic figure in a top hat and cutaway coat, whose singing Zante accent is a joy to listen to. There are the Salonika Jews, each tiny and clad in a shapeless sack-like robe, out of which they speak shrill and clever, hands firmly folded in front of them. There is even an unusual figure called ‘The Lord’ who is dressed in what Father Nicholas must imagine to be the conventional English fashion – in a tail-coat, buttonhole, spats, and a topper. There is also the appalling Stavrakas of Piraeus whose vanity and vulgarity make him justly the object of little children’s derision. There is the Grand Vizier, a most sympathetic figure, and of imposing size – not to mention the Cadi, who orders beatings with a cool impersonal air of detachment.

The drama reaches its peak with a faked election, in which Karaghiosis, in order to win, manages to resurrect all the corpses in the local cemeteries, who pass in a grisly single-file across the stage to the polling booth to vote for the hero.

And now, with abrupt suddenness Karaghiosis appears to recite a short epilogue and while the applause is still deafening us, the screen goes out and we are in darkness. The orchestra has long since packed up, and we stumble yawning from the garden in the darkness, pressed all about by the eager bodies of the children …

Comments: Lawrence Durrell (1912-1990) was a British novelist and travel writer. He lived with his family on the Greek island of Corfu between 1934 and 1941, when the island fell to Nazi Germany and he fled to Egypt. Prospero’s Cell is an artfully composed memoir of his time on Corfu. Karaghiosis, or Karagiozis, is a figure from Greek folk-lore who features in both Turkish and Greek shadow-puppet theatre. My thanks to Artemis Willis for bringing this account to my attention.