Saturday, May 11, 2019

Great Men’s Sons

Booth Tarkington (1869–1946)
From Booth Tarkington: Novels & Stories

Sarah Bernhardt in L'Aiglon. Hand-colored photographic postcard printed in France. Image courtesy of the Flickr account of European Film Star Postcards.
Sometime during the early years of the twentieth century, Booth Tarkington was walking down a street when he ran into an acquaintance of his youth who had since become a professor at an eastern university. “Let me see, what is it you are doing now?” he asked his old friend. “Oh, yes, I remember. You are doing the serious.”

In March 1901 Tarkington and his fellow Indianapolis residents submitted themselves to an evening of “doing the serious” when English’s Opera House hosted an appearance by the theater company led by the renowned French actors Sarah Bernhardt and Constant-Benoît Coquelin, then on one of their many tours across America. The productions staged by the extraordinarily popular Bernhardt were always performed in French—whether she stepped into the role of Jeanne d'Arc or of Cleopatra or even of Hamlet. For this performance, she played the lead role in L’Aiglon, the latest historical drama by the French playwright Edmond Rostand, remembered today as the author of Cyrano de Bergerac.

Local newspapers across the country had been drumming up excitement for the show since the French production of L’Aiglon made its U.S. premiere in New York in November of the previous year. An English-language performance of the play, starring the American actress Maude Adams, had debuted in New York only a month earlier, in October, and it would arrive for a three-night engagement in Indianapolis two weeks after the Bernhardt-Coquelin version. Comparing the two productions, the New York critic whose review was reprinted prominently in the Indianapolis Journal pronounced the French version as the one to see and said that comparing Bernhardt to Adams was like comparing a leopard to a kitten. “In a word,” he proclaimed, “[Bernhardt’s] production was a grand and masterly success.”

Bernhardt starred as the title character (“the Eaglet”), Napoléon François Joseph Charles Bonaparte, the son of Napoléon. Living in Austria for most of his life, François Bonaparte (Napoléon II) was known as Franz and by his title the duke of Reichstadt. The play’s hero, encouraged by significant Bonapartist support, must decide whether to return to France to install himself as emperor in continuation of his father’s line. In the sixth and last act, François Napoléon dies in Vienna while a description of his christening in Paris during his father’s reign is read aloud.

Tarkington’s next short story, “The Old Gray Eagle,” appeared a few months later, and it was inspired by the performance at English’s Opera House—or, more precisely, by the reactions of fellow theatergoers sitting through a six-act play composed entirely in rhymed alexandrines (twelve-syllable couplets) in a language most of the audience didn’t understand. The story pits the young Fiderson, who sees the production as an opportunity for Hoosiers to “get in touch” with Art (with that crucial capital A), against shopkeeper Tom Martin, who struggles doggedly with the plot and characters and finds similarities between the “Dook of Reishtod” and the son of a famous state politician. Tarkington treats Fiderson’s urban snobbery with the same gentle mockery he directed at the professor-friend he encountered on the street.

Tarkington himself came from a family of politicians. His father had served as the governor’s private secretary before becoming a state legislator and, later, a circuit court judge. Booth’s uncle (Newton Booth, for whom he was named) was first the governor of California and then a U.S. Senator. “A Hoosier will talk politics after he is dead,” Tarkington wrote in his first novel, A Gentleman from Indiana, but he apparently decided not to wait that long. The year after he published “The Old Gray Eagle,” he followed in his father’s footsteps and ran as a Republican for the Indiana House of Representatives, handily winning the election in November 1902. Midway through his first year in office, however, he suffered from a protracted case of typhoid fever (during which he lost eighty pounds) and gave up his political career.

Just before he fell sick, while he was still active as a legislator, Tarkington wrote two short stories inspired by his political experiences. He would end up writing three more over the next eighteen months, and in 1905 he collected them as In the Arena: Stories of Political Life. Tarkington rounded out the volume by adding as the concluding story “The Old Gray Eagle,” with its tangential political setting, under a new title, “Great Men’s Sons”; we present it here as our Story of the Week selection. In the Arena has been reprinted in full in the latest addition to the Library of America series, along with Tarkington’s two Pulitzer Prize–winning novels, The Magnificent Ambersons and Alice Adams.

Notes: The anecdote that opens this introduction is recounted in Robert Cortes Holliday’s study Booth Tarkington (1918).

Tom Martin makes a few passing allusions to scenes of Rostand’s play that might need explanation. Wagram was the site the site in Austria of a battle Napoleon won in 1809 and is the setting for the fifth act. In act 4 the play’s hero asks the young woman Thérèse to meet him for a tryst (which never takes place) at his hunting lodge. The diplomat Klemens Wenzel von Metternich, chancellor and foreign minister of Austria for much of first half of the nineteenth century, is a prominent character in the play. The christening mentioned at the end of the story is a reference to the concluding scene noted above, in which François Napoléon dies while a description of his christening in Paris is read aloud.

The last words of the German writer Johann Wolfgang von Goethe are said to have been “More light! More light!” William Marcy Tweed (Boss Tweed) was a New York City Democratic politician and leader of the party’s Tammany Hall political machine. With others, Boss Tweed swindled millions of dollars from the city treasury and was convicted on charges related to his corrupt activities in 1873. On his deathbed, Melville Bickner makes a joking reference to Millard Fillmore, who became president as a Whig on the death of Zachary Taylor in 1850, lost his party’s nomination in 1852, and then lost in 1856 as a Know Nothing candidate in his only presidential campaign.

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Mme. Bernhardt and M. Coquelin were playing “L’Aiglon.” Toward the end of the second act people began to slide down in their seats, shift their elbows, or casually rub their eyes. . . . If you don't see the full selection below, click here (PDF) or click here (Google Docs) to read it—free!

This selection may be photocopied and distributed for classroom or educational use.