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In which I attempt to be serious and am funny instead; seize the opportunity to get a raise in pay; and again consider coming to America.
MR. DAILEY would not let me go, but, still wiping tears of laughter from his eyes, began shilling by shilling to raise his offer. My entirely unintentional comedy entrance had pleased him mightily, and indeed, as soon as I saw he took it as a deliberate effort on my part, I began to be not a little proud of it myself. It was not every one, I said to myself, who could fall over a chair so comically as that!
Cheered and emboldened by this reflection, I drove a shrewd bargain, and at last, persuaded by the offer of a pound a week and a long engagement if I could keep on being funny, I consented to become a member of Casey's Circus, and returned whistling to our lodgings, able to face Sidney with some degree of pride because I had an engagement at last.
We began rehearsals next day in a very dirty dark room over a public house — fifteen ragged, hungry-looking, sallow-faced boys desperately being funny under the direction of a fat greasy-looking manager who smelled strongly of ale. it was difficult work for me at first. Being funny is at best a hard job, and being funny in those conditions, which I heartily detested, seemed at first almost impossible. More than once, when the manager swore at me more than usual, I felt like throwing the whole thing up and would have done so but for the dread of going back to the endless tramping up and down the Strand and being a burden on Sidney.
Casey's Circus was putting on that season a burlesque of persons in the public eye, and I was cast for the part of Doctor Body, a patent-medicine faker, who was drawing big crowds on the London street corners and selling a specific for all the ills of man and beast at a shilling the bottle. Watching him one afternoon, I was seized with a great idea. I would let the manager rehearse me all he jolly well liked, but when the opening night came I would play Doctor Body as he really was — I would put on such a marvelous character delineation that even the lowest music-hall audience would recognize it as great acting and I would be rescued by some good manager and brought back to a West End theater.
The idea grew upon me. Despising with all my heart the cheap, clap-trap burlesque which the manager tried to drill into me, I paid only enough attention to it to get through rehearsals somehow, hurrying out afterward to watch Doctor Body and to practise before the mirror in our lodgings my own idea of the part. I felt that I did it well and thrilled with pride at the thought of playing it soon with the eye of a great manager upon me.
The night of the opening came and I hurried to the dirty makeshift dressing-room in a cheap East End music-hall with all the sensations of a boy committing his first burglary. I must manage to make up as the real Doctor Body and to get on the stage before I was caught. Once on the stage, without the burlesque make-up which I was supposed to wear, I knew I could make the part go. I painted my face stealthily among the uproar and quarrels of the other fourteen boys, who were all in the same dressing-room fighting over the mirrors and hurling epithets and make-up boxes at one another.
The air tingled with excitement. The distracted manager, thrusting his head in at the door, cried with oaths that Casey himself was in front and he'd stand for no nonsense. We could hear him rushing away, swearing at the scene shifters, who had made some error in placing the set. The audience was in bad humor; we could faintly hear it hooting and whistling. It had thrown rotten fruit at the act preceding ours. In the confusion I managed to make up and to get into my clothes, troubled by the size of the high hat I was to wear, which came down over my ears. I stuffed it with paper to keep it at the proper angle on my head, and trembling with nervousness, but sure of myself when I should get on the stage, I stole out of the dressing-room and stationed myself in the darkest part of the wings.
The boy who appeared first was having a bad time of it, missing his cues and being hissed and hooted by the audience. The manager rushed up to me, caught sight of my make-up and stopped aghast.
"'Ere, you can't go on like that!" he said in a furious whisper, catching my arm.
"Let me alone; I know what I'm doing!" I cried angrily, wrenching myself from him. My great plan was not to be spoiled now at the last minute. The manager reached for me again, purple with wrath, but, quick as an eel, I ducked under his arm, seized the cane I was to carry and rushed on to the stage half a minute too soon.
Once in the glare of the footlights I dropped into the part, determined to play it, play it well, and hold the audience. The other boy, whose part I had spoiled, confused by my unexpected appearance, stammered in his lines and fell back. I advanced slowly, impressively, feeling the gaze of the crowd, and, with a carefully studied gesture, hung my cane — I held it by the wrong end! Instead of hanging on my arm, as I expected, it clattered on the stage. Startled, I stooped to pick it up, and my high silk hat fell from my head. I grasped it, put it on quickly, and, paper wadding falling out, I found my whole head buried in its black depths.
A great burst of laughter came from the audience. When, pushing the hat back, I went desperately on with my serious lines, the crowd roared, held its sides, shrieked with mirth till it gasped. The more serious I was, the funnier it struck the audience. I came off at last, pursued by howls of laughter and wild applause, which called me back again. I had made the hit of the evening.
"That was a good bit of business, my lad," Mr. Casey himself said, coming behind the scenes and meeting me in the wings when finally the audience let me leave the stage the second time. "Your idea?"
"Oh, certainly," I replied airily. "Not bad, I flatter myself — er — but of course not what I might do at that." And, seizing the auspicious moment, I demanded a raise to two pounds a week and got it.
The next week I was headlined as "Charles Chaplin, the funniest actor in London," and Casey's Circus packed the house wherever it was played.. I had stumbled on the secret of being funny — unexpectedly. An idea, going in one direction, meets an opposite idea suddenly. "Ha! Ha!" you shriek. It works every time.
I walk on to the stage, serious, dignified, solemn, pause before an easy chair, spread my coat-tails with an elegant gesture — and sit on the cat. Nothing funny about it, really, especially if you consider the feelings of the cat. But you laugh. You laugh because it is unexpected. Those little nervous shocks make you laugh; you can't help it. Peeling onions makes you weep, and seeing a fat man carrying a custard pie slip and sit down on it makes you laugh.
In the two years I was with Casey's Circus I gradually gave up my idea of playing great parts on the dramatic stage. I grew to like the comedy work, to enjoy hearing the bursts of laughter from the audience, and getting the crowd in good humor and keeping it so was a nightly frolic for me. Then, too, by degrees all my old self-confidence and pride came back, with the difference, indeed, that I did not take them too seriously, as before, but merely felt them like a pleasant inner warmth as I walked on the Strand and saw the envious looks of other actors not so fortunate.
One day, walking there in this glow of success, swinging my cane with a nonchalant air and humming to myself, I met the old comedian who had been with the Rags to Riches company.
"I say, old top," he said eagerly, falling into step with me, "do a chap a favor, won't you now? There's a big chance with Carno — I have it on the quiet he's planning to take a company to America, and half a dozen parts not cast — good pickings, what? I can't get a word with the beggar, but he'd listen to you. See what you can do for yourself and then say a good word for me, won't you, what?"
“Can you beat it?”