NEW YORK, DECEMBER 3, 1873
HANG out our banners on the stately tower
It dawns at last–the long-expected hour!
The steep is climbed, the star-lit summit won,
The builder’s task, the artist’s labor done;
Before the finished work the herald stands,
And asks the verdict of your lips and hands!
Shall rosy daybreak make us all forget
The golden sun that yester-evening set?
Fair was the fabric doomed to pass away
Ere the last headaches born of New Year’s Day;
With blasting breath the fierce destroyer came
And wrapped the victim in his robes of flame;
The pictured sky with redder morning blushed,
With scorching streams the naiad’s fountain gushed,
With kindling mountains glowed the funeral pyre,
Forests ablaze and rivers all on fire,–
The scenes dissolved, the shrivelling curtain fell,–
Art spread her wings and sighed a long farewell!
Mourn o’er the Player’s melancholy plight,–
Falstaff in tears, Othello deadly white,–
Poor Romeo reckoning what his doublet cost,
And Juliet whimpering for her dresses lost,–
Their wardrobes burned, their salaries all undrawn,
Their cues cut short, their occupation gone!
“Lie there in dust,” the red-winged demon cried,
“Wreck of the lordly city’s hope and pride!”
Silent they stand, and stare with vacant gaze,
While o’er the embers leaps the fitful blaze;
When, to! a hand, before the startled train,
Writes in the ashes, “It shall rise again,–
Rise and confront its elemental foes!”
The word was spoken, and the walls arose,
And ere the seasons round their brief career
The new-born temple waits the unborn year.
Ours was the toil of many a weary day
Your smiles, your plaudits, only can repay;
We are the monarchs of the painted scenes,
You, you alone the real Kings and Queens!
Lords of the little kingdom where we meet,
We lay our gilded sceptres at your feet,
Place in your grasp our portal’s silvered keys
With one brief utterance: We have tried to please.
Tell us, ye sovereigns of the new domain,
Are you content-or have we toiled in vain?
With no irreverent glances look around
The realm you rule, for this is haunted ground!
Here stalks the Sorcerer, here the Fairy trips,
Here limps the Witch with malice-working lips,
The Graces here their snowy arms entwine,
Here dwell the fairest sisters of the Nine,–
She who, with jocund voice and twinkling eye,
Laughs at the brood of follies as they fly;
She of the dagger and the deadly bowl,
Whose charming horrors thrill the trembling soul;
She who, a truant from celestial spheres,
In mortal semblance now and then appears,
Stealing the fairest earthly shape she can–
Sontag or Nilsson, Lind or Malibran;
With these the spangled houri of the dance,–
What shaft so dangerous as her melting glance,
As poised in air she spurns the earth below,
And points aloft her heavenly-minded toe!
What were our life, with all its rents and seams,
Stripped of its purple robes, our waking dreams?
The poet’s song, the bright romancer’s page,
The tinselled shows that cheat us on the stage
Lead all our fancies captive at their will;
Three years or threescore, we are children still.
The little listener on his father’s knee,
With wandering Sindbad ploughs the stormy sea,
With Gotham’s sages hears the billows roll
(Illustrious trio of the venturous bowl,
Too early shipwrecked, for they died too soon
To see their offspring launch the great balloon);
Tracks the dark brigand to his mountain lair,
Slays the grim giant, saves the lady fair,
Fights all his country’s battles o’er again
From Bunker’s blazing height to Lundy’s Lane;
Floats with the mighty captains as they sailed,
Before whose flag the flaming red-cross paled,
And claims the oft-told story of the scars
Scarce yet grown white, that saved the stripes and
Children of later growth, we love the PLAY,
We love its heroes, be they grave or gay,
From squeaking, peppery, devil-defying Punch
To roaring Richard with his camel-hunch;
Adore its heroines, those immortal dames,
Time’s only rivals, whom he never tames,
Whose youth, unchanging, lives while thrones decay
(Age spares the Pyramids-and Dejazet);
The saucy-aproned, razor-tongued soubrette,
The blond-haired beauty with the eyes of jet,
The gorgeous Beings whom the viewless wires
Lift to the skies in strontian-crimsoned fires,
And all the wealth of splendor that awaits
The throng that enters those Elysian gates.
See where the hurrying crowd impatient pours,
With noise of trampling feet and flapping doors,
Streams to the numbered seat each pasteboard fits
And smooths its caudal plumage as it sits;
Waits while the slow musicians saunter in,
Till the bald leader taps his violin;
Till the old overture we know so well,
Zampa or Magic Flute or William Tell,
Has done its worst-then hark! the tinkling bell!
The crash is o’er–the crinkling curtain furled,
And to! the glories of that brighter world!
Behold the offspring of the Thespian cart,
This full-grown temple of the magic art,
Where all the conjurers of illusion meet,
And please us all the more, the more they cheat.
These are the wizards and the witches too
Who win their honest bread by cheating you
With cheeks that drown in artificial tears
And lying skull-caps white with seventy years,
Sweet-tempered matrons changed to scolding Kates,
Maids mild as moonbeams crazed with murderous hates,
Kind, simple souls that stab and slash and slay
And stick at nothing, if it ‘s in the play!
Would all the world told half as harmless lies!
Would all its real fools were half as wise
As he who blinks through dull Dundreary’s eyes I
Would all the unhanged bandits of the age
Were like the peaceful ruffians of the stage!
Would all the cankers wasting town and state,
The mob of rascals, little thieves and great,
Dealers in watered milk and watered stocks,
Who lead us lambs to pasture on the rocks,–
Shepherds–Jack Sheppards–of their city flocks,–
The rings of rogues that rob the luckless town,
Those evil angels creeping up and down
The Jacob’s ladder of the treasury stairs,–
Not stage, but real Turpins and Macaires,–
Could doff, like us, their knavery with their clothes,
And find it easy as forgetting oaths!
Welcome, thrice welcome to our virgin dome,
The Muses’ shrine, the Drama’s new-found home
Here shall the Statesman rest his weary brain,
The worn-out Artist find his wits again;
Here Trade forget his ledger and his cares,
And sweet communion mingle Bulls and Bears;
Here shall the youthful Lover, nestling near
The shrinking maiden, her he holds most dear,
Gaze on the mimic moonlight as it falls
On painted groves, on sliding canvas walls,
And sigh, “My angel! What a life of bliss
We two could live in such a world as this!”
Here shall the timid pedants of the schools,
The gilded boors, the labor-scorning fools,
The grass-green rustic and the smoke-dried cit,
Feel each in turn the stinging lash of wit,
And as it tingles on some tender part
Each find a balsam in his neighbor’s smart;
So every folly prove a fresh delight
As in the picture of our play to-night.
Farewell! The Players wait the Prompter’s call;
Friends, lovers, listeners! Welcome one and all!
(Oliver Wendell Holmes)
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