Portrait of an Old Actor

9:33 AM

It’s probably for the best that I don’t teach theater classes, because I might end up being discouraging. I am old enough now, and versed enough in the history of theater, to know that it can be an awful profession, especially as one ages. To illustrate this, when I was in Los Angeles, I took a year-long series of classes through the Actor’s Fund of America. This organization started in 1882 because of overwhelming problems suffered by actors – a large part of what the organization originally did was locate funds to buy burial plots for actors, who otherwise risked simply being dropped into a pauper’s grave in potter’s field. The Fund still offers free shoes to actors. Free shoes! What other profession needs that?

The classes I took stressed the need for performing arts professionals to have what was politely referred to as a “parallel career,” but what they were talking about was having a real job. The profession is simply too mercurial to be reliable. Playwright Robert Anderson famously said “You can make a killing in the theater, but not a living,” but now it’s increasingly unlikely to ever make a killing. When Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright David Lindsay-Abaire was in Omaha, he was explicit that he did not make enough money from his plays to pay his bills. Pulitzer finalist Lee Blessing, when he was here, said that he makes enough from his plays to purchase a home in New York, if he didn’t mind living under a log in Central Park.

And so my theater classes would begin with the students reading aloud the dying pantomime actor sequence from Charles Dickens’ “The Pickwick Papers” (“Everybody who is at all acquainted with theatrical matters knows what a host of shabby, poverty-stricken men hang about the stage of a large establishment”). Then I would march the entire class down to the Joslyn to look at one particular painting.

The painting in question is called “Portrait of an Old Actor,” and is by the American painter Frank Duveneck. The Joslyn acquitted it in 1938 as part of their American Collection, but it was probably painted much earlier – the museum estimates it dates back to the 1880s or 1890s. Duveneck was a Kentucky-born, Munich-trained painter who was especially admired by the likes of Henry James (who called him “the unsuspected genius.”) Duveneck’s painting were at once rigorous and stylistically bold, often involving dark colors, deep shadows, and striking facial expressions.

All of this is on display in “Portrait of an Older Actor,” which could be an image of Dickens’ dying pantomimist. It is an portrait of a once-handsome face, now turned haunted and hollow, cheeks sunken, perhaps from missing teeth. The actors looks askance, as though startled by something. His hair is a mop of gray; when younger, his look might have been carefree and tousled, but now looks unkempt. His clothes are elegant but battered, with a dandylike cravat of muted red wrapped around his throat. It’s a portrait of a man struggling to maintain a certain dignity and fashionableness, but the results are simply that he looks even more broken.

It’s easy to imagine him at the end of his days, which seem not too far ahead, shouting out the sounds of Dickens’ dying actor: the clown’s shrill laugh, blending with the low murmurings of the dying man.

So this is how my class would be. I would put Duveneck’s portrait at the front of the classroom and each day would have us start with some terrible reading from the miserable life of one who lived and died in the acting profession. I would repeat what was endlessly repeatedly to me by the Actor’s Fund – that one must have a parallel profession if one is to make a go of the world of theater.

I mean, even Dickens knew that. “The Pickwick Papers” contains a character named Alfred Jingle, a strolling actor with a tendency to mangle the English syntax. But Jingle has a second job, and one that is likely to be a better career for him than acting would. It is the second profession that seems to delight Dickens and eventually causes him to indulge in an act of authorial charity by sending Jingle to pursue his fortune in the West Indies.

Were Jingle just an actor, in Dickens world, as in the real world, he would risk alcoholism and a pauper's death. But with his second profession, he can make something more of himself, and we would all do to remember that.

You see, Alfred Jingle was also a con artist.

About the author

Max Sparber is a playwright and historian who lives in Omaha, Nebraska.