Thomas Mann Fragments | Part One | Chapter 5
As I search my mind for further impressions of my youth, I am at once reminded of the day when I first attended the theatre, in Wiesbaden with my parents. I should mention here that in my description of my youth I am not adhering to strict chronological order, but am treating my younger days as a whole and moving freely from incident to incident. When I posed for my godfather as a Greek god I was between sixteen and eighteen years of age and thus no longer a child, though very backward at school. But my first visit to the theatre fell in my fourteenth year — though even so my physical and mental development, as will presently be seen, was well advanced and my receptivity to impressions of certain kinds much greater than ordinary. What I saw that evening made the strongest impression on me and gave me endless food for thought.
We first visited a Viennese café, where I drank a cup of punch and my father imbibed absinthe through a straw — this in itself was calculated to stir me to the depths. But how can one describe the fever that possessed me when we drove in a cab to the theatre and entered the lighted auditorium with its tiers of boxes? The women fanning their bosoms in the balconies, the men leaning over their chairs to chat; the hum and buzz of conversation in the orchestra, where we presently took our seats; the odours which streamed from hair and clothing to mingle with that of the illuminating-gas; the confusion of sounds as the orchestra tuned up; the voluptuous frescoes that depicted whole cascades of rosy, foreshortened nymphs — certainly all this could not but rouse my youthful senses and prepare my mind for all the extraordinary scenes to come. Never before except in church had I seen so many people gathered together in a large and stately auditorium; and this theatre with its impressive seating arrangements and its elevated stage where privileged personages, brilliantly costumed and accompanied by music, went through their dialogues and dances, their songs and routines — certainly all this was in my eyes a temple of pleasure, where men in need of edification gathered in darkness and gazed upward open-mouthed into a realm of brightness and perfection where they beheld their hearts' desire.
The play that was being given was unpretentious, a work of the loose-zoned muse, as people say. It was an operetta whose name I have, to my sorrow, forgotten. Its scene was Paris, which delighted my poor father's heart, and its central figure was an idle attaché, a fascinating rogue and lady-killer, played by that star of the theatre, the well-loved singer Müller-Rosé. I heard his real name from my father, who enjoyed his personal acquaintance, and the picture of this man will remain for ever in my memory. He is probably old and worn-out now, like me, but at that time his power dazzled all the world, myself included; it made so strong an impression upon me that it belongs to the decisive experiences of my life. I say dazzled, and it will be seen hereafter how much meaning I wish to convey by that word. But first I must try to set down my still vivid recollections of Müller-Rosé's effect on me.
On his first entrance he was dressed in black, and yet he radiated sheer brilliance. In the play he was supposed to be coming from some meeting-place of the gay world and to be slightly intoxicated, a state he was able to counterfeit in agreeable and sublimated fashion. He wore a black cloak with a satin lining, patent-leather shoes, evening dress, white kid gloves, and a top hat; his hair was parted all the way to the back of his head in accordance with the military fashion of the day. Every article of his attire was so well pressed, and fitted with such flawless perfection, that it could not have lasted more than a quarter-hour in real life. He seemed, indeed, not to belong to this world. In particular his top-hat, which he wore nonchalantly tipped forward over his brow, was the ideal and model of what a top-hat should be, without a particle of dust or roughness and with the most beautiful reflections, just as in a picture. And this higher being had a face to match, rosy, fine as wax, with almond-shaped, black-rimmed eyes, a small, short, straight nose, a perfectly clear-cut, coral-red mouth, and a little black moustache as even as if it had been drawn with a paintbrush, following the outline of his arched upper lip. Staggering with a fluid grace such as drunken men do not possess in everyday life, he handed his hat and stick to an attendant, slipped out of his cloak, and stood there in full evening dress, with diamond studs in his thickly pleated shirt front. As he drew off his gloves, laughing and chatting in a silvery voice, you could see that the backs of his hands were white as milk and adorned with diamond rings, but that the palms were as pink as his face. He stood before the footlights on one side of the stage and sang the first stanza of a song about what a wonderful life it was to be an attaché and a ladies' man. Then he spread out his arms, snapped his fingers, and drifted delightedly to the other side of the stage, where he sang the second stanza and made his exit, only to be recalled by loud applause. The third stanza he sang in mid-stage in front of the prompter's box. Then with careless grace he plunged into the action of the play. He was supposed to be very rich, which in itself lent his figure a magical charm. He appeared in a succession of costumes: snow-white sports clothes with a red belt; a full-dress, fancy uniform — yes, at one ticklish and sidesplitting moment in sky-blue silk drawers. The complications of the plot were audacious, adventurous, and risqué by turns. One saw him at the feet of a countess, at a champagne supper with two ambitious daughters of joy, and standing with raised pistol confronting a dull-witted rival in a duel. And not one of these elegant but strenuous exercises was able to disarrange a single fold of his shirt-front, extinguish any of the reflections in his top-hat, or overheat his rosy countenance. He moved so easily within the frame of the musical and dramatic conventions that they seemed, far from restricting him, to release him from the limitations of everyday life. His body seemed informed to the finger-tips with a magic for which we have only the vague and inadequate word 'talent', and which obviously gave him as much pleasure as it did us. To watch him take hold of the silver head of his cane or plunge both hands in his trouser pockets was a spontaneous delight; the way he rose from a chair, bowed, made his exits and entrances, possessed such delightful self-assurance that it filled one's heart with the joy of life. Yes, that was it: Müller- Rosé dispensed the joy of life — if that phrase can be used to describe the precious and painful feeling, compounded of envy, yearning, hope, and love, that the sight of beauty and lighthearted perfection kindles in the souls of men.
The audience in the orchestra was made up of middle-class citizens and their wives, clerks, one- year servicemen, and girls in blouses; and despite the rapture of my own sensations I had presence of mind and curiosity enough to look about me and interpret their feelings. The expression on their faces was both silly and blissful. They were wrapped in self-forgetful absorption, a smile played about their lips, sweeter and more lively in the little shop-girls, more brooding and thoughtful in the grown- up women, while the faces of the men expressed that benevolent admiration which plain fathers feel in the presence of sons who have exceeded them and realized the dreams of their youth. As for the clerks and the young soldiers, everything stood wide open in their upturned faces — eyes, mouths, nostrils, everything. And at the same time they were smiling. Suppose we were up there in our underdrawers, how should we be making out? And look how boldly he behaves with those ambitious tarts, as though he had been dealing with them all his life! When Mûller-Rosé left the stage, shoulders slumped and virtue seemed to go out of the audience. When he strode triumphantly from backstage to footlights, on a sustained note, his arms outspread, bosoms rose as though to meet him, and satin bodices strained at the seams. Yes, this whole shadowy assembly was like an enormous swarm of nocturnal insects, silently, blindly, and blissfully rushing into a blazing fire.
My father enjoyed himself royally. He had followed the French custom and brought his hat and stick into the theatre with him. When the curtain fell he put on the one and with the other pounded long and loud on the floor. 'C'est épatant,' he repeated several times, quite weak from enthusiasm. But when it was all over and we were outside in the lobby among a crowd of exulting clerks, who were quite obviously trying to imitate their hero in the way they walked, talked, held their canes, and regarded their reddened hands, my father said to me: 'Come along, let's shake hands with him. By God, weren't we on intimate terms, Müller and I! He will be enchanté to see me again.' And after instructing the ladies to wait for us in the vestibule, we actually went off to hunt up Müller-Rosé.
Our way lay through the darkened director's box beside the stage and then through a narrow iron door into the wings. The half-darkened stage was animated by the eerie activity of scene-shifting. A girl in red livery, who had played the role of a lift-boy, was leaning against the wall sunk in thought. My poor father pinched her playfully where her figure was at its broadest and asked her the way to the dressing-rooms, which she irritably pointed out. We went through a whitewashed corridor, where naked gas-jets flared in the confined air. From behind several doors came loud laughter and angry voices, and my father gestured with his thumb to call my attention to these manifestations. At the end of the narrow passage he knocked on the last door, pressing his ear to it as he did so. From within came a gruff shout: 'Who's there?' or 'What the devil?' I no longer remember the words spoken in that clear, rude voice. 'May I come in?' asked my father, whereupon he was instructed to do something quite different, which I must not mention in these pages. My father smiled his deprecatory smile and called through the door: 'Müller, it's Krull, Engelbert Krull. I suppose I may shake your hand after all these years?' There was a laugh from inside and the voice said: 'Oh, so it's you, you old rooster! Always out for a good time, eh?' And as he opened the door he went on: 'I don't imagine my nakedness will do you any harm!' We went in. I shall never forget the disgusting sight that met my boyish eyes.
Müller-Rosé was seated at a grubby dressing-table in front of a dusty, speckled mirror. He had nothing on but a pair of grey cotton drawers, and a man in shirt-sleeves was massaging his back, the sweat running down his own face. Meanwhile the actor was busy wiping face and neck with a towel already stiff with rouge and grease-paint. Half of his countenance still had the rosy coating that had made him radiant on the stage but now looked merely pink and silly in contrast to the cheese-like pallor of his natural complexion. He had taken off the chestnut wig and I saw that his own hair was red. One of his eyes still had deep black shadows beneath it and metallic dust clung to the lashes; the other was inflamed and watery and squinted at us impudently. All this I might have borne. But not the pustules with which Müller-Rosé's back, chest, shoulders, and upper arms were thickly covered. They were horrible pustules, red-rimmed, suppurating, some of them even bleeding; even today I cannot repress a shudder at the thought of them. Our capacity for disgust, let me observe, is in proportion to our desires; that is, in proportion to the intensity of our attachment to the things of this world. A cool indifferent nature would never have been shaken by disgust to the extent that I was then. As a final touch, the air in the room, which was overheated by an iron stove, was compounded of the smell of sweat and the exhalations from the pots and jars and sticks of grease-paint that littered the table, so that at first I thought I could not stand it for more than a minute without being sick. However, I did stand it and looked about — but I can add nothing to this description of Mûller- Rosé's dressing-room. Indeed, I should perhaps be ashamed at reporting so little and at such length about my first visit to a theatre, if I were not writing primarily for my own amusement and only secondarily for the public. It is not my intention to maintain dramatic suspense; I leave such effects to the writers of imaginative fictions, who are intent on giving their stories the beautiful and symmetrical proportions of works of art — whereas my material comes from my own experience alone and I feel I may make use of it as I think best. Thus I shall dwell on those experiences and encounters that brought me particular understanding and illumination about the world and myself, passing by more quickly what is less precious to me.
I have almost forgotten what Müller-Rose and my poor father chatted about — no doubt because I had not time to pay attention. For it is undoubtedly true that we receive stronger impressions through the senses than through words. I recall that the singer — though surely the applause that had greeted him that evening must have reassured him about his triumph — kept asking my father whether he had made a hit and how much of a hit he had made. How well I understood his uneasiness! I even have a vague memory of some rather vulgar witticisms he injected into the conversation. To some gloating comment of my father's, for example, he replied: 'Shut your trap -' adding at once: 'or you'll fall through it.' But I lent only half an ear, as I have said, to this and other examples of his mental accomplishments, being completely absorbed in my own sense impressions.
This then — such was the tenor of my thoughts — this grease-smeared and pimply individual is the charmer at whom the twilight crowd was just now gazing so soulfully! This repulsive worm is the reality of the glorious butterfly in whom those deluded spectators believed they were beholding the realization of all their own secret dreams of beauty, grace, and perfection! Is he not like one of those repellent little creatures that have the power of glowing phosphorescently at night? But the grown-up people in the audience, who on the whole must know about life, and who yet were so frightfully eager to be deceived, must they not have been aware of the deception? Or did they privately not consider it one? And that is quite possible. For when you come to think of it, which is the real shape of the glow- worm: the insignificant little creature crawling about on the palm of your hand, or the poetic spark that swims through the summer night? Who would presume to say? Rather recall the picture you saw before: the giant swarms of poor moths and gnats, rushing silently and madly into the enticing flame! What unanimity in agreeing to let oneself be deceived! Here quite clearly there is in operation a general human need, implanted by God Himself in human nature, which Müller-Rosé's abilities are created to satisfy. This beyond doubt is an indispensable device in life's economy, which this man is kept and paid to serve. What admiration he deserves for his success tonight and obviously every night! Restrain your disgust and consider that, in full knowledge and realization of his frightful pustules, he was yet able — with the help of grease-paint, lighting, music, and distance — to move before his audience with such assurance as to make them see in him their heart's ideal and thereby to enliven and edify them infinitely.
Consider further and ask yourself what it was that impelled this miserable mountebank to learn the art of transfiguring himself every night. What are the secret sources of the charm that possessed him and informed him to the fingertips? To learn the answer, you have but to recall (for you know it well! ) the ineffable power, which there are no words monstrously sweet enough to describe, that teaches the firefly to glow. Remind yourself how this man could not hear often enough or emphatically enough the assurance that he had truly given pleasure, pleasure altogether out of the ordinary. It was the devotion and drive of his heart toward that yearning crowd that made him skilful in his art; and if he bestows on them joy of life and they satiate him with their applause for doing so, is not that a mutual fulfilment, a meeting and marriage of his yearning and theirs?