There are no secrets in science, but history is a somewhat different field of knowledge: facts are continually lost in the deepening slit of time. Trust R. A. Lafferty to dig them out, however, for he approaches reality without preconceptions. (One of his characters in the novel Past Master escaped from prison by walking through walls. “It isn’t difficult,” he said. “I believe that it has been insufficiently tried.”)
Consider this history of the first great series of television dramas, produced in 1873 by Aurelian Bentley and starring the remarkably resourceful actress Clarinda Calliope. Till recently these dramas have been lost, but Lafferty has gone to great expense (one hundred and thirty-five dollars) to resurrect them. Due to the peculiar nature of their recording, he may also have discovered some darker secrets behind the making of those dramas…
Selenium Ghosts of the Eighteen Seventies
R. A. Lafferty
Even today, the “invention” of television is usually ascribed to Paul Nipkow of Germany, and the year is given as 1884. Nipkow used the principle of the variation in the electrical conductivity of selenium when exposed to light, and he used scanning discs as mechanical effectors.
What else was there for him to use before the development of the phototube and the current-amplifying electron tube? The resolution of Nipkow’s television was very poor due to the “slow light” characteristics of selenium response and the lack of amplification. There were, however, several men in the United States who transmitted a sort of television before Nipkow did so in Germany.
Resolution of the images of these even earlier experimenters in the field (Aurelian Bentley, Jessy Polk, Samuel J. Perry, Gifford Hudgeons) was even poorer than was the case with Nipkow. Indeed, none of these pre-Nipkow inventors in the television field is worthy of much attention, except Bentley. And the interest in Bentley is in the content of his transmissions and not in his technical ineptitude.
It is not our object to enter into the argument of who really did first “invent” television (it was not Paul Nipkow, and it probably was not Aurelian Bentley or Jessy Polk either); our object is to examine some of the earliest true television dramas in their own queer “slow light” context. And the first of those “slow light” or selenium (“moonshine”) dramas were put together by Aurelian Bentley in the year 1873.
The earliest art in a new field is always the freshest and is often the best. Homer composed the first and freshest, and probably the best, epic poetry. Whatever cave man did the first painting, it remains among the freshest as well as the best paintings ever done. Aeschylus composed the first and best tragic dramas, Euclid invented the first and best of the artful mathematics (we speak here of mathematics as an art without being concerned with its accuracy or practicality). And it may be that Aurelian Bentley produced the best of all television dramas in spite of their primitive aspect.
Bentley’s television enterprise was not very successful despite his fee of one thousand dollars per day for each subscriber. In his heyday (or his hey-month, November of 1873), Bentley had fifty-nine subscribers in New York City, seventeen in Boston, fourteen in Philadelphia, and one in Hoboken. This gave him an income of ninety-one thousand dollars a day (which would be the equivalent of about a million dollars a day in today’s terms), but Bentley was extravagant and prodigal, and he always insisted that he had expenses that the world wotted not of. In any case, Bentley was broke and out of business by the beginning of the year 1874. He was also dead by that time.
The only things surviving from The Wonderful World of Aurelian Bentley are thirteen of the “slow light” dramas, the master projector, and nineteen of the old television receivers. There are probably others of the receivers around somewhere, and persons coming onto them might not know what they are for. They do not look much like the television sets of later years.
The one we use for playing the old dramas is a good kerosene-powered model which we found and bought for eighteen dollars two years ago. If the old sets are ever properly identified and become collectors’ items, the price on them may double or even triple. We told the owner of the antique that it was a chestnut roaster, and with a proper rack installed it could likely be made to serve as that.
We bought the master projector for twenty-six dollars. We told the owner of that monster that it was a chicken incubator. The thirteen dramas in their canisters we had for thirty-nine dollars total. We had to add formaldehyde to activate the dramas, however, and we had to add it to both the projector and the receiver; the formaldehyde itself came to fifty-two dollars. I discovered soon that the canisters with their dramas were not really needed, nor was the master projector. The receiver itself would repeat everything that it had ever received. Still and all, it was money well spent.
The kerosene burner activated a small dynamo that imposed an electrical grid on the selenium matrix and awakened the memories of the dramas.
There was, however, an oddity in all the playbacks. The film-fix of the receiver continued to receive impressions so that every time a “slow light” drama is presented it is different, because of the feedback. The resolution of the pictures improves with use and is now much clearer and more enjoyable than originally.
The librettos of the first twelve of the thirteen Bentley dramas are not good, not nearly as good as the librettos of the Jessy Polk and the Samuel J. Perry dramas later in the decade. Aurelian Bentley was not a literary man; he was not even a completely literate man. His genius had many gaping holes in it. But he was a passionately dramatic man, and these dramas which he himself devised and directed have a great sweep and action to them. And even the librettos from which he worked are valuable for one reason. They tell us, though sometimes rather ineptly and vaguely, what the dramas themselves are all about. Without these outlines, we would have no idea in the world of the meaning of the powerful dramas.
There was an unreality, a “ghostliness,” about all the dramas, as though they were made by sewer light underground: or as if they were made by poor quality moonlight. Remember that the element selenium (the metal that is not a metal), the chemical basis of the dramas, is named from Selene, the moon.
Bentley did not use “moving pictures” of quickly succeeding frames to capture and transmit his live presentation dramas. Although Muybridge was in fact working on the zoopraxiscope (the first “moving picture” device) at that very time, his still incomplete work was not known to Aurelian Bentley. Samuel J. Perry and Gilford Hudgeons did use “moving picture” techniques for their primitive television dramas later in the decade; but Bentley, fortunately perhaps, did not. Each of Bentley’s thirty-minute live dramas, however it appeared for the first time in the first television receiver, was recorded in one single matrix or frame: and, thereafter, that picture took on a life and growth of its own. It was to some extent independent of sequence (an effect that has been attempted and failed of in several of the other arts); and it had a free way with time and space generally. This is part of the “ghostliness” of the dramas, and it is a large part of their power and charm. Each drama was one evolving moment outside of time and space (though mostly the scenes were in New York City and in the Barrens of New Jersey).
Of course there was no sound in these early Bentley dramas, but let us not go too far astray with that particular “of course.” “Slow sound” as well as “slow light” is a characteristic of selenium response, and we will soon see that sound did in fact creep into some of the dramas after much replaying. Whether their total effects were accidental or by design, these early television dramas were absolutely unique.
The thirteen “slow light” dramas produced by Aurelian Bentley in the year 1873 (the thirteenth of them, the mysterious Pettifogers of Philadelphia, lacks Bentley’s “Seal of Production,” and indeed it was done after his death: and yet he appears as a major character in it) the thirteen were these:
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1. The Perils of Patience, a Damnable Chase. In this, Clarinda Calliope, who was possibly one of the greatest actresses of American or world drama, played the part of Patience Palmer in the title role. Leslie Whitemansion played the role of Simon Legree. Kirbac Fouet played the part of “the Whip,” a sinister character. X. Paul McCoffin played the role of “the Embalmer.” Jaime del Diablo played “the Jesuit,” one of the most menacing roles in all drama. Torres Malgre played “the Slaver,” who carried the forged certificate showing that Patience had a shadow of black blood and so might be returned to slavery on San Croix. Inspiro Spectralski played “the Panther” (Is he a Man? Is he a Ghost?), who is the embodiment of an evil that is perhaps from beyond the world. Hubert Saint Nicholas played the part of “the Guardian,” who is really a false guardian.
This Damnable Chase is really a galloping allegory. It is the allegory of good against evil, of light against darkness, of inventiveness against crude obtuseness, of life against death, of openness against intrigue, of love against hatred, of courage against hellish fear. For excitement and intensity, this drama has hardly an equal. Time and again, it seemed that the Embalmer, striking out of the dark, would stab Patience with his needle full of the dread embalming fluid and so trap her in the rigidity of living death. Time and again, it seemed that the Whip would cut the flesh of Patience Palmer with his long lash with viper poison on its iron tip that would bring instant death. At every eventuality, it seemed as though Simon Legree or the Slaver would enslave her body, or the Jesuit or the Panther would enslave her soul. And her mysterious Guardian seems always about to save her, but his every attempt to save her has such reverse and disastrous effects as to cast doubt on the honesty and sincerity of the Guardian.
A high point of the drama is the duel of the locomotives that takes place during a tempestuous night in the West Orange Switching Yards. Again and again, Patience Palmer is all but trapped on railroad trestles by thundering locomotives driven by her adversaries (the West Orange Switching Yards seem to consist almost entirely of very high railroad trestles). Patience finally gets control of a locomotive of her own on which to escape, but the locomotives of her enemies thunder at her from every direction so that she is able to switch out of their way only at the last brink of every moment.
The Embalmer attempts to stab her with his needleful of embalming fluid every time their locomotives pass each other with double thunder and only inches to spare. The Whip tries to lash her with his cruel lash with its poisoned tip; and the Slaver threatens her with the outreached forged certificate of color, and only by fantastic cringing can she cringe back far enough to keep from being touched by it as their locomotives roar past each other in opposite directions.
It seems impossible that the racing locomotives can come so close and not hit each other, with their dazzling switching from track to track. And then (Oh, God save us all!) the Panther (Is he a Man? Is he a Devil?) has leapt from his own locomotive to that of Patience Palmer: he is behind her on her own locomotive, and she does not see him. He comes closer—
But the climax of The Perils of Patience is not there in the West Orange Switching Yards. It is at a secret town and castle in the Barrens of New Jersey, a castle of evil repute. In this place the enemies of Patience were assembling a gang of beaters (slack-faced fellows with their tongues cut out), and they were readying bloodhounds to hunt Patience down to her death. She somehow obtains a large wagon piled high with hay and pulled by six large and high-spirited horses. With this, she boldly drives, on a stormy night, into the secret town of her enemies and down that jagged road (there was a lightning storm going on that made everything seem jagged) at the end of which was the castle itself. The bloodhounds leap high at her as she passes, but they cannot pull her from the wagon.
But the Panther (Is he a Man? Is he a Beast?) has leapt onto her hay wagon behind her, and she does not see him. He comes closer behind her—
But Patience Palmer is already making her move. Driving unswervingly, carrying out her own intrepid plan, at that very moment she raises a key in her hand very high into the air. This draws the lightning down with a stunning flash, and the hay wagon is set ablaze. Patience leaps clear of the flaming hay wagon at the last possible moment, and the blazing, hurtling inferno crashes into the tall and evil castle to set it and its outbuildings and its whole town ablaze.
This is the flaming climax to one of the greatest chase dramas ever.
This final scene of The Perils will be met with often later. Due to the character of the “slow light” or selenium scenes, this vivid scene leaks out of its own framework and is superimposed, sometimes faintly, sometimes powerfully, as a ghost scene on all twelve of the subsequent dramas.
* * * *
2. Thirsty Daggers, a Murder Mystery. This is the second of the Aurelian Bentley television dramas of 1873. Clarinda Calliope, one of the most talented actresses of her time, played the part of Maud Trenchant, the Girl Detective. The actors Leslie Whitemansion, Kirbac Fouet, X. Paul McCoffin, Jaime del Diablo, Torres Malgre, Inspire Spectralski, and Hubert Saint Nicholas played powerful and menacing roles, but their identities and purposes cannot be set exactly. One must enter into the bloody and thrilling spirit of the drama without knowing the details.
More even than The Perils of Patience does Thirsty Daggers seem to be freed from the bonds of time and sequence. It is all one unfolding moment, growing always in intensity and intricacy, but not following a straight line of action. And this, accompanied by a deficiency of the libretto, leads to confusion.
The libretto cannot be read. It is darkened and stained. Chemical analysis has revealed that it is stained with human blood. It is our belief that Bentley sent the librettos to his clients decorated with fresh human blood to set a mood. But time has spread the stains, and almost nothing can be read. This is, however, a highly interesting drama, the earliest murder ever done for television.
It is nearly certain that Maud Trenchant, the Girl Detective, overcomes all the menaces and solves all the crimes, but the finer details of this are forever lost.
* * * *
3. The Great Bicycle Race, the third of the Bentley television dramas, has that versatile actress Clarinda Calliope playing the lead role of July Meadowbloom in this joyful and allegorical “journey into summertime.” It is in The Great Bicycle Race that sound makes its first appearance in the Bentley dramas. It is the sounds of all outdoors that are heard in this drama, faintly at first, and more and more as time goes on. These are country and village sounds; they are county-fair sounds. Though the sounds seem to be an accidental intrusion (another ghostly side-play of the selenium response magic), yet their quality lends belief to the evidence that the full and original title of this drama was The Great Bicycle Race, a Pastoral.
But there are other sounds, sometimes angry, sometimes imploring, sometimes arrogant and menacing—more about them in a bit.
Sheep and cattle sounds are all through the play; goat and horse and swine sounds; the rattle of ducks and geese; all the wonderful noises of the countryside. There are birds and grasshoppers, windmills and wagons, people calling and singing. There are the sounds of carnival barkers and the chants of gamblers and shills. There are the shrieks and giggles of young people.
And then there are those intrusive sounds of another sort, the separate overlay. These seem to be mostly indoor sounds, but sometimes they are outdoor grandstand sounds also, bristling talk in the reserved shadows of crowd noise and roaring.
“No, no, no. I’ll not be had. What sort of a girl do you think I am?”
“All these things I will give you, Clarie. No one else would give you so much. No one else would ever care so much. But now is the time for it. Now is the summer of our lives. Now we cut hay.”
“Let’s just see the price of a good hay barn first, Aurie. Let’s just get some things down on paper right now. We are talking about a summertime check that is as big as all summer. And we are talking about a much larger settlement to back up the other seasons and years.”
“Don’t you trust me, Clarie?”
“Of course I trust you, Bentie babe. I trust that you will get that trust fund that we are talking about down on paper today. I am a very trusting woman. I believe that we should have a trust fund to cover every condition and circumstance.”
Odd talk that, to be mixed in with the sounds of The Great Bicycle Race.
The race was in conjunction with the Tri-county Fair, which counties were Camden, Gloucester, and Atlantic. The bicycle racers rode their twenty-mile course every afternoon for five afternoons, and careful time was kept. There was betting on each day’s race, but there was bigger betting on the final winner with the lowest total time for the five days, and the kitty grew and grew. From the great fairground grandstand, one could see almost all of the twenty-mile course that the riders rode, or could follow it by the plumes of dust. The grandstand was on high ground and the whole countryside was spread out before it. Cattle and mules were paraded and judged in front of that grandstand, before and during and after that daily race; then the race (for the approximate hour that it took to run it) was the big thing. There were seven drivers in the race, and all of them were world famous:
1. Leslie Whitemansion drive on a Von Sauerbronn “Special” of fine German craftsmanship. This machine, popularly known as the “whizzer,” would get you there and it would bring you back. It was very road-worthy and surprisingly fast.
2. Kirbac Fouet was on an Ernest Michaux Magicien, a splendid machine. It had a socket into which a small sail might be fitted to give greater speed in a favorable wind.
3. X. Paul McCoffin was on a British Royal Velocipede. There are two things that may be remarked about the British Royal: it had solid rubber tires (the first rubber-tired bicycle ever), and it had class. It had that cluttered austerity of line that only the best of British products have.
4. Jaime del Diablo was on a Pierre Lallement “Boneshaker” with its iron-tired wooden wheels, the front one much larger than the rear.
5. Torres Malgre was on an American-built Richard Warren Sears Roadrunner, the first all-iron machine. “The only wood is in the heads of its detractors” was an advertising slogan used for the Roadrunner.
6. Inspiro Spectralski (Is he a Man? Is he a Cannon Ball?) was riding a McCracken’s Comet. This comet had won races at several other county fairs around the state.
7. Hubert Saint Nicholas had a machine such as no one in the state had ever seen before. It was a French bicyclette named the Supreme. The bicyclette had the pedals fixed to drive the back wheel by the ingenious use of a chain and sprocket wheel, and so was not, strictly speaking, a bicycle at all. The true bicycles of the other six racers had the pedals attached directly to the front wheels. There was one syndicate of bettors who said the bicyclette had a mechanical advantage, and that Hubert would win on it. But other persons made jokes about this rig whose back wheel would arrive before its front wheel and whose driver would not arrive before the next day.
It was on these great riders that all the six-shot gamblers around were wagering breath-taking sums. It was for them that sports came from as far away as New York City.
Clarinda Calliope played the role of Gloria Goldenfield, the beauty queen of the Tri-county Fair in this drama. But she also played the role of the “Masked Alternate Rider of Number Seven.” (All the racing riders had their alternates to ride in their places in case of emergency.) And Clarinda also played a third role, that of Rakesly Rivertown, the splurging gambler. Who would ever guess that the raffish Rakesly was being played by a woman? The author and director of The Great Bicycle Race did not know anything about Clarinda playing these latter two roles.
The grandstand, the bandstand, the pleasures of a country carnival in the summertime! And the “slow smells” of the selenium-directed matrix just becoming ripe and evocative now! Smell of sweet clover and timothy hay, or hot horses pulling buggies or working in the fields, smells of candy and sausage and summer squash at the eating places at the fair, smells of dusty roads and of green money being counted out and thumped down on betting tables for the bicycle race!
And then again there was the override of intrusive voices breaking in on the real summer drama by accident.
“Clarie, I will do handsomely by you in just a day or so. I have placed very, very heavy bets on the bicycle race, and I will win. I am betting against the wildest gambler in this part of the country, Rakesly Rivertown, and we will have the bet up to a cool million with one more raise. He is betting the field against number seven. And number seven will win.”
“I have heard that this Rakesly Rivertown is about the sharpest gambler anywhere, and that he has a fine figure and makes an extraordinary appearance.”
“A fine figure! Why, the fraud is shaped like a girl! Yes, he is a sharp gambler, but he doesn’t understand mechanics. Number seven, the Supreme, has a rear-wheel drive with a gear-ratio advantage. Hubert Saint Nicholas, who is riding number seven, is just toying with the other riders so far to get the bets higher, and he can win whenever he wants to. I will win a million dollars on the race, my love. And I will give it to you, if you act a little bit more like my love.”
“Surely your love for me should transcend any results of a bicycle race, Aurie. If you really loved me, and if you contemplated making such a gift to me, you would make it today. That would show that your appreciation and affection are above mere fortune. And, if you can’t lose, as you say that you cannot, you will have your money in the same amount won back in two days’ time, and you will have made me happy two days longer.”
“All right, I guess so then, Clarie. Yes, I’ll give it to you today. Right now. I’ll write you a check right now.”
“Oh, you are a treasure, Aurie. You are a double treasure. You can’t guess how double a treasure you are!”
The wonderful Tri-county Fair was near its end, and its Great Bicycle Race with it. It was the last day of the race. Hubert Saint Nicholas on number seven, the Supreme, the French bicyclette with the mechanical advantage, was leading the field by only one minute in total elapsed time going into that last day’s racing. There were those who said that Hubert could win any time he wanted to, and that he stayed so close only to keep the bets a-growing.
And the bets did grow. The mysterious gambler with the fine figure and the extraordinary appearance, Rakesly Rivertown, was still betting the field to win against number seven. And a still more mysterious gambler, working through agents, was betting on number seven to place, but not to win. These latter bets were quickly covered. Number seven would win, unless some terrible calamity overtook that entry; and, in the case of such terrible calamity, number seven would not finish second, would not finish at all most likely.
The seven intrepid racers were off on their final, mad, twenty-mile circuit. Interest was high, especially with the moneyed gamblers who followed the riders from the grandstand with their binoculars. At no place was the winding, circuit course more than four miles from the grandstand; and there were only three or four places, not more than three hundred yards in all, where the racers were out of sight of the higher tiers of the grandstand. One of those places was where Little Egg Creek went through Little Egg Meadow. Something mysterious happened near Little Egg Creek Crossing that neither the libretto nor the enacted drama itself makes clear.
Hubert Saint Nicholas, riding the French bicyclette, number seven, the Supreme, with the rear-wheel drive and the mechanical advantage, was unsaddled from his mount and knocked unconscious. The race master later and officially entered this incident as “A careless rider knocked off his bicycle by a tree branch,” though Hubert swore that there wasn’t a tree branch within a hundred yards of that place.
“I was slugged by a lurker in the weeds,” Hubert said. “It was a criminal and fraudulent assault and I know who did it.” Then he cried, “Oh, the perfidy of women!” This latter seemed to be an unconnected outcry; perhaps Hubert had suffered a concussion.
Fortunately (for whom?) the alternate rider for number seven, the Mysterious (though duly certified) Masked Rider, was in the vicinity of the accident and took control of the bicyclette, the Supreme, and continued the race. But number seven, though having a one-minute lead when the race began, did not win. Number seven did come in second though in total elapsed time.
The Great Bicycle Race is a quaint little drama, with not much plot, but with a pleasant and bucolic atmosphere that grows more pleasant every time the drama is played back. It is a thoroughly enjoyable “Journey into Summertime.”
And there were a few more seconds of those intrusive “ghost” voices breaking into the closing moments of the pastoral drama.
“Clarie, I have been took bad, for a big wad, and I don’t know how it happened. There is something funny about it all. There was something funny and familiar about that Masked Alternate Rider for number seven. (I swear that I know him from somewhere!) And there has always been something double funny and familiar about that gambler Rakesly Rivertown. [I swear and be damned if I don’t know him from somewhere!]”
“Don’t worry about it, Aurie. You are so smart that you will have all that money made back in no time at all.”
“Yes, that’s true, I will. But how can I write and produce and direct a drama and then get taken in it and not know what happened?”
“Don’t worry about it, Aurie.”
I myself doubt very much whether Aurelian Bentley knew about the “slow sounds” from nowhere-town that sometimes broke into the playing of his dramas, much less the “slow smells” which now began to give the dramas a character all their own.
* * * *
4. The Voyages of Captain Cook was the fourth of the Bentley-produced television dramas of the year 1873. In this, Clarinda Calliope played the role of Maria Masina, the Queen of Polynesia. If The Great Bicycle Race was a journey into summertime, The Voyages of Captain Cook was a journey into tropical paradise.
Hubert Saint Nicholas played Captain Cook. Inspiro Spectralski (Is he a Man? Is he a Fish?) played the Shark God. Leslie Whitemansion played the Missionary. X. Paul McCoffin played the Volcano God. Torres Malgre played the God of the Walking Dead. Jaime del Diablo played Kokomoko, the bronzed surf boy and lover boy who was always holding a huge red hibiscus bloom between his white teeth.
The people of the South Sea Islands of the Captain Cook drama were always eating possum and sweet potatoes and fried chicken (a misconception) and twanging on little banjoes (another misconception) and talking southern U. S. Darky Dialect (but these ghost voices were not intended to be heard on the television presentation).
The complete libretto for The Voyages of Captain Cook has survived, which makes us grateful for those that have not survived for several of the dramas. The story is replete. It is better to disregard the libretto with its simultaneous curses invoked by the Shark God, the Volcano God, and the God of the Walking Dead, and to give oneself over to the charm of the scenery, which is remarkable, considering that it was all “filmed,” or “selenium-matrixed,” in the salt swamps of New Jersey.
The anomalous intrusive voices are in this drama again, as they will be in all the subsequent dramas.
“A ‘South Sea bubble,’ yes, that’s what I want, Aurie, one that can’t burst. Use your imagination [you have so much of it] and your finances [you have so very much of those] and come up with something that will delight me.”
“I swear to you, Claire, as soon as my finances are in a little better order, I will buy any island or group of islands in the Pacific Ocean for you. Do you hear me, Clarie? I will give you any island or group you wish, Hawaii, Samoa, Fiji. Name it and it is yours.”
“So many things you promise! But you don’t promise them on paper, only on air. Maybe I will find a way to make the air retain the promises you make.”
“Not on paper, not on air, Clarie, but in real life. I will make you the real and living Queen of Polynesia.”
The essence of the South Sea appeal is just plain charm. It may be that this Bentley drama, The Voyages of Captain Cook, was the original charm bush whence so many things bloomed. No, in things of this sort, it is not necessary that a scion ever be in contact with its source or even know its source. Without the Voyages would there ever have been a Sadie Thompson, would there have been a Nellie Forbush? Would there have been a Nina, daughter of Almayer? Well, they wouldn’t have been as they were if Clarinda Calliope hadn’t, in a way, played them first. Would there have been a White Shadows of the South Seas if there hadn’t first been The Voyages of Captain Cook? No, of course there wouldn’t have been.
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5. Crimean Days was the fifth of the Aurelian Bentley television dramas. In this, the multitalented Clarinda Calliope played the role of Florence Nightingale, of Ekmek Kaya, a Turkish lady of doubtful virtue who was the number-four wife and current favorite of the Turkish admiral, of Chiara Maldonado, a young lady camp follower with the army of Savoy, of Katya Petrova, who was a Russian princess as well as a triple spy, and of Claudette Boudin, a French lady journalist. Clarinda also masqueraded as Claudette’s twin brother Claude, a colonel with the French forces, and as such she led the French to a surprising victory over the Russians at Eupatoria. The unmasqueraded Claude himself was played by Apollo Mont-de-Marsan, a young actor making his first appearance in the Bentley dramas.
The Crimean War was the last war in which the field officers of all sides (Leslie Whitemansion was a British field officer, Kirbac Fouet was a French, Jaime del Diablo was an officer of the forces of Savoy, Torres Malgre was the Turkish admiral, Inspiro Spectralski was a general of the Czar, X. Paul McCoffin was a special observer of the Pope), after their days of tactical maneuver and sometimes bloody conflict, would dress for dinner and have formal dinner together. And it was at these dinners that Clarinda Calliope, in her various guises, shone.
There was a wonderful and many-leveled table intrigue, and I believe that more and more of it will come through every time the drama is replayed. And it was here in this drama that one of the most strange of the Bentley-effect phenomena first appeared. There is unmistakable evidence that some of the subvocalizations (thoughts) of the people were now to be heard as “slow sound,” which was really selenium-triggered “slow thought.” Some of these manifestations were the role thoughts of the actors so strangely vocalized (Clarinda Calliope, for instance, could not speak or think in any tongues except English and her own Pennsylvania Dutch in normal circumstances: but in her triple spy roles we find her thinking out loud in Turkish and Greek and Russian); and other of the vocalizations are the real thoughts of the actors (the amazingly frank intentions of Leslie Whitemansion and of the new Apollo Mont-de-Marsan as to their lady loves of the evening after they should have received their two-dollar actors’ fee for the day).
It was a wonderful play and too intricate to be described. This one, above all, has to be seen. But again there was the anomalous intrusion of voices that were not a part of the scenes of the play:
“Get rid of that Greek Wop kid, Clarie. I told him he was fired, and he said that he would stick around and work for nothing. He said he loved the fringe benefits. What are fringe benefits? I told him I’d run him off, and he said that this was the free state of New Jersey and that no one would run him off. I won’t have him around.”
“Oh, Aurie, there isn’t any Greek Wop kid. That was me playing that role too. Am I not talented to play so many roles? And you will not fire me from this role. I will continue to play it, and I will be paid for it. It isn’t the principle of the thing either: it’s the two dollars.”
“Yes, I understand that much about you. But you say that was you playing the part of that smart-mouth Apollo Dago Greek? That couldn’t be. I’ve seen you both at the same time. I’ve seen you two together too many times. I’ve seen you smooching each other.”
“Ah, Aurie, that was quite an advanced technique and illusion, not to mention double exposure, that I used there. What other actress could play both roles at once and get away with it?”
“Your techniques and illusions are becoming a little bit too advanced, Clarie. And do not be so sure that you are getting away with it.”
All though Crimean Days, there was some tampering with history going on for dramatic effect. The Light Brigade, for instance, was successful in its famous charge and it won a great victory. But the final outcome of the war was left in doubt. Aurelian Bentley had somehow become a strong partisan of the Russians and he refused to show them being finally defeated by the allies.
* * * *
6. Ruddy Limbs and Flaming Hair is the sixth of the Bentley television dramas. In this piece, the dramatic Clarinda Calliope plays the part of Muothu, the Maid of Mars, for the Ruddy Limbs and Flaming Hair are on the planet Mars itself. There are some fantastic elements in this piece, as well as amazing scientific accuracy. There is, in fact, a technical precocity that is really stunning. Aurelian Bentley has foreseen circumstances that even the scientific community did not then see, and he has dealt with those circumstances.
He posits, for instance, an atmosphere composed mostly of an eno-magnetized, digammated, attenuated form of oxygen. Being eno-magnetized, that atmosphere would naturally cling to its planet even though the gravity would not be strong enough to retain it otherwise. Being digammated, it would produce no line in the Martian spectrum, would have no corona or optical distortion effect, and could in no way be detected from Earth. And yet a human Earthling would be able to breathe it freely.
This was a good-natured Utopian drama of total realization and happiness. The Ruddy Limbs and Flaming Hair apply both allegorically to the planet Mars and literally to the highly dramatic Clarinda Calliope as Muothu. Muothu displayed rather more of the ruddy limbs than were ordinarily shown on Earth, but it was explained that customs on Mars were different.
Ruddy Limbs and Flaming Hair was the last of the dramas in which the apparently tormented and disturbed Aurelian Bentley still showed the strong hand of the master as scenarist, dramaturgist, director, and producer generally. After this we come to the four “Trough of the Wave” dramas, and then the three bewildering and hectic displays on the end of the series.
* * * *
7. The Trenton Train Robbery is the seventh of the Bentley television dramas, and the first of the four “Trough” plays where Aurelian Bentley and his effects are sunken in the slough of despond and have lost their brightness and liveliness and hope. We will pass through them quickly.
In the Train Robbery, the peerless Clarinda Calliope plays Roxana Roundhouse, the daughter of the slain locomotive engineer Timothy (Trainman) Roundhouse. Armed with a repeating rifle, a repeating shotgun, a repeating pistol, and a few pocket-sized bombs, Roxana rides the rods of the crack Trenton Express in the effort to catch or kill the murderers of her father. These murderers have sworn that they will rob that very Trenton Express again.
And Roxana Roundhouse does catch or kill all the murderers of her father. In spite of some good shots of landscapes rushing by, this is not one of Aurelian Bentley’s best efforts.
And again the voices of unknown persons creep into the drama:
“You’ve already flayed me, Clarie, and scraped both sides of my pelt for whatever might cling to it. What more do you want from me? Go away with your lover and leave me alone.” And then in a fuzzier voice (apparently the “thought voice” made vocal) the same person said or thought: “Oh, if only she would go away from me, then I might have a chance! For I will never be able to go away from her.”
“Grow more skin, Aurie,” the other voice said. “I’m not nearly finished fleecing you and flaying you. Oh, don’t look so torn up, Aurie. You know I could never love anyone except you. But a little token of our love is required now and then, and especially now, today. Yes, I know you are going to use your old line, ‘I gave you a million dollars last week,’ but, Aurie, that was last week. Yes, I know that you have expenses that the world wots not of. So do I. Believe me, Aurie, I wouldn’t ask for these tokens of affection if I didn’t want them.” And then in a fuzzier voice, a “thought voice,” the same person said or thought: “I’ll never get another fish like this one and I sure can’t afford to lose him. But gentle handling doesn’t get it all the time. When the hook in him shows signs of working loose a bit, it has to be set in again with a very hard jerk on the line.”
* * * *
8. Six Guns on the Border is the eighth of the Bentley television dramas. In this drama, Clarinda Calliope (is there no end to her versatility?) plays the part of Conchita Allegre, the half-breed Apache and Mexican girl, on the Arizona border during the Mexican War. Conchita hates the American soldiers who are invading that area. She has them come to her secretly, with promises of love, and then she has them ambushed and killed. She kills many of them herself with her own six gun, and she makes antimacassars out of their skins. The sort of gentlemen that Conchita really likes use a lot of oil on their hair so Conchita needs a lot of antimacassars at her house.
But there are a few of the American officers so awkward and oafish that Conchita simply can’t stand to have much to do with them, not even long enough to seduce them and have them killed. These horrible specimens are:
Captain James Polk (played by Leslie Whitemansion).
General Zachary Taylor (played by Kirbac Fouet).
Captain Millard Filimore (played by X. Paul McCoffin).
Captain Franklin Pierce (played by Jaime del Diablo).
Captain James Buchanan (played by Torres Malgre).
Captain Abraham Lincoln (played by Inspiro Spectral-ski).
Captain Andrew Johnson (played by Apollo Mont-de-Marsan).
Captain Sam Grant (played by Hubert Saint Nicholas).
There was a lot of historical irony in this play, but maybe it belonged somewhere else.
There was a lot of “Comedy of Manners” stuff in it but it falls a little flat, mostly because the eight oafish officers spared by Conchita were too unmannerly to be in a comedy of manners.
Aurelian Bentley came near the bottom of his form in this piece. But for the energy of Clarinda Calliope (she played five other parts besides that of Conchita) there would have been hardly any drama at all.
And, as always, there were those intrusive voices hovering over the playbacks.
“Clarie, believe me! Believe me! Believe me! I will do all these things for you. I promise it.”
“Yes, you promise it to the earless walls and to the earless me. Promise it to the pen and ink and paper here.”
“Get rid of that Apollo kid first, Clarie.”
“You get rid of him. You have a lot of rough-looking men around.”
* * * *
9. Clarence Greenback, Confidence Man was the ninth of the Aurelian Bentley television dramas. Hubert Saint Nicholas played the role of Clarence Greenback, the casino owner. It was the first time that Clarinda Calliope had not played the lead role in a drama. Is it possible that Clarinda had somehow slipped? Or was this another instance of the left lobe of Aurelian Bentley having lost its cunning, and casting badly. The talented prestidigitator of drama did not have his sure touch nowadays. Oh sure, Clarinda played many other roles in the drama, but she did not have the lead role.
Clarinda played the role of Gretchen, the sweep-out girl at the casino. She played the role of Maria, the mounting-block girl in the street outside the casino. She played the role of Elsie, the chimney-sweep girl. She played the part of Hennchen, the scullery maid in the third and vilest kitchen of the casino. She played the part of Josephine, the retriever who had to gather up the shattered bodies of the suicides below Suicide Leap Window of the casino and take them to East Potters’ Field and dig their graves and bury them. Elsie made a good thing out of her job, from the gold teeth of the late patrons of the casino, but the dramatist and producer did not know about the good thing she had here.
There were hazards in all these different roles.
“No, of course we can’t put out the fires for you to clean the chimneys,” said Leslie Whitemansion, who was in charge of fireplaces and chimneys at the casino. “Clean them hot.” And it was very hot working inside those tall chimneys with the fires roaring below, and Elsie the chimney-sweep girl suffered.
For keeping a copper coin that she found while sweeping out the casino, the sadist Baron von Steichen (played by X. Paul McCoffin) had Gretchen hung up by her thumbs and flogged.
And Maria, the mounting-block girl, who had to stand in the muddy street outside the casino and bend her back for the gentlemen to step on her when they mounted or dismounted their horses, she had it worse on the muddy days. Oh, the great muddy boots of those men!
“Maybe they’re trying to tell me something,” Clarinda Calliope spoke or thought (by slow talk-thought). “I do like subtle people.” But a good actress can play any role, and Clarinda has her revenge today. Hardly anyone remembers the plot for Clarence Greenback, Confidence Man, but everybody remembers the tribulations of those pretty little servant girls.
And then there were those other intrusive voices of the overlay. It was almost as if they belonged in another sort of drama.
“Clarie, this has to stop. Not counting the special gifts, and they’re fantastic, I’m giving you ten times as much as the President of the United States is making.”
“I’m ten times as good at acting as he is. And how about my special gifts?—and they’re fantastic. Why do you have all the private detectives running around the last couple of days? To spy on me?”
“To spy on everything and everyone. To save my life. Frankly, Clarie, I am afraid of being murdered. I have premonitions of being killed, with a knife, always with a knife.”
“Like in Thirsty Daggers, a Murder Mystery? That one wasn’t really very well worked out, and I believe it’s one of the things bothering you. Your undermind is looking for a better solution, I believe, for a neater murder. It is seeking to enact a more artistic murder. I believe it will do it. I believe you will come up with quite an artistic murder for yourself. There are good murders and bad murders, you see.”
“Clarie, I don’t intend to let myself be killed at all, not by either a good or a bad murder.”
“Not even for art’s sake? It seems it would be worth it, for the perfect murder, Aurie.”
“Not when I’m the murdered one, Clarie.”
Then, a moment later, the female person said or thought something further, in a “slow thought-voice.”
“Sometimes persons have perfection thrust upon them in spite of themselves. An artful murder for Aurie would make up for a lot of the bad art that he’s been guilty of lately.”
* * * *
10. The Vampires of Varuma was the tenth of the Aurelian Bentley television dramas. This is the fourth and last of the “Trough of the Wave” dramas, which show Bentley’s dramatic powers in almost complete decline and himself mightily disoriented. Yet, in this bottoming-out, there is a curious resurrection of his powers in a slightly different form. His sense of plotting and story movement did not return yet, but his sense of dramatic horror as motive force was resurrected to its highest pitch.
Clarinda Calliope played Magda the peasant maid, Miss Cheryl Somerset, the governess from England, and the Princess Irene of Transylvania. All three of these had been traveling to Castle Khubav on rational errands by the regular coach of the road; and each of the three had seen all the other passengers dismount hastily, and had then experienced the coach horses being whipped ahead frantically by an invisible coachman, or by no coachman at all. And each of these ladies had arrived, on successive days, in the apparently driverless coach, not at Castle Khubav, but at the dread Castle Beden. And inside the Castle Beden were the seven (“no, not seven, eight” was written into the libretto in a weirdly different hand) insane counts in their castle of evil. These were:
Count Vladmel, played by Leslie Whitemansion.
Count Igork, played by Kirbac Fouet.
Count Lascar, played by X. Paul McCoffin.
Count Chort, played by Jaime del Diablo.
Count Sangressuga, played by Torres Malgre.
Count Letuchaya, played by Inspiro Spectralski (Is he a Man? Is he a Bat?)
Count Ulv, played by Hubert Saint Nicholas.
And then there is another one added in the libretto in that weirdly different hand:
Count Prividenne, played by Apollo Mont-de-Marsan. There is a slip-up here somewhere. Apollo is supposed to have been “gotten rid of,” to have shuffled off the mortal coil, and the sheriffs report said that he died of indigestion. But if Apollo has not been “gotten rid of” then certain money was paid in vain.
The seven (or eight) evil counts are sometimes conventional counts in evening clothes and monocles. And sometimes they are huge bat-winged creatures flitting ponderously down the lightning-lit corridors of Castle Beden. The castle, in fact, is the main character in the drama. It does not have formal lighting, as it is lit by lightning all twenty-four hours of every night (there is no daylight at Castle Beden). The floors and walls howl and chains rattle constantly. The counts have sometimes conventional six-inch-long eyeteeth, and then suddenly they will have hollow fangs eighteen inches long and deadly. And there is a constant lot of howling and screaming for what is supposed to be a silent television drama.
A flying count will suddenly fold his bat wings and land on the broad bosom of one of the three maidens and have into her throat with his terrible blood-sucking fangs. And every time it happens, there is a horrible flopping and screeching.
The voice of Clarinda Calliope is heard loud and clear and real in a slow angry sound.
“Dammit, Aurelian, that’s real blood they’re taking out of my throat.”
And came the suave voice of the master dramatist Aurelian Bentley (but the voices shouldn’t be breaking in like this):
“Right, Clarie. It is on such verisimilitude that I have built my reputation as a master.”
Clarinda, in her three roles, seemed to lose quite a bit of blood as the drama went on, and she fell down more and more often. And the drama was a howling and bloody success, no matter that the story line was shattered in a thousand pieces—for each piece of it was like a writhing blood snake that gluts and gloats.
And then, after the drama itself was ended in a spate of final blood, there came those intrusive voices that seemed to be out of some private drama.
“Aurie, if you are worrying about being killed, how about providing for me before it happens?”
“I leave you half of my kingdom, ah, estate, Clarie, right off the top of it. My word is good for this. And stop falling down.”
“I’m weak. It took a lot out of me. Yes, your written word is good on this, Aurie, if it is written and attested to in all the right places. Let’s take care of that little detail right now.”
“Clarie, my spoken promise is enough, and it is all that I will give. I hereby attest that half of my estate, off the top, belongs to you. Let the eared walls of this room be witnesses to what I say, Clarie. If the walls of this room will swear to it, then surely they will be believed. Now don’t bother me for a few days. I will be busy with something else. And stop falling down. It’s annoying.”
The female person then said or thought something in a fuzzy thought-voice:
“Yes, I believe I can make the walls of this room attest for me when the time comes. (I might have to put in another amplifying circuit to be sure.) And I believe that the attesting walls will be believed.”
The male person then said or thought something in a fuzzy thought-voice:
“I have Miss Adeline Addams now. Why should I care about this Calliope clown? It’s irritating the way she keeps turning chalk-white and falling down. I never saw anyone make such a fuss over nine quarts of blood. But now I am on a new and more glorious dawn road. Is it not peculiar how a man will fall in love with one woman and out of love with another one at the same time?”
* * * *
11. The Ghost at the Opera is the eleventh of the Aurelian Bentley television dramas in the year 1873. The Ghost is based on Verdi’s Il Trovatore, but Bentley’s production is quite original for all that. The role of Leonora is played by Miss Adeline Addams. But the same role is also played by Clarinda Calliope, who was originally selected to play the role by herself. This business of having two different persons playing the same role creates a certain duality, one might almost say a certain duplicity, in the drama.
The “Ghost” is the doubling: it is the inept and stumbling Clarinda trying again and again to sing parts of the Leonora role and failing in it totally and being jerked off stage by the stage manager’s crook; and it is the beautiful and brimming genius Adeline Addams coming on and performing the same role brilliantly. This provides the “cruel comedy” that is usually lacking in Verdi; for, without cruelty, only a limited success is ever possible in opera. But Clarinda took some very bad falls from the stageman’s crook jerking her off her feet, and besides she was still weak and falling down from all the blood she had lost in her roles in The Vampires of Varuma. She was suffering.
“Why do you go through with it, Clarinda?” Hubert Saint Nicholas asked her once in an outside-of-the-play-itself voice. “Why do you allow yourself to be tortured and humiliated like that?”
“Only for the money,” Clarinda was heard to say. “Only for the actor’s fee of four dollars a day. I am clear broke and I am hungry. But if I can stick it out to the end of the opera, I will have four dollars tonight for my wages.”
“Four dollars, Clarinda? The rest of us get only two dollars a day. Are you playing another role that I don’t know about?”
“Yes, I am also playing the role of Wilhelmia, the outhouse cleaner.”
“But I thought that you had millions from that old tyrant, Clarinda.”
“It’s gone, Hubie, all gone. I had expenses that the world wotted not of. I gave Apollo most of the money when I was in love with him. And I gave the rest of it to him today to do a special favor for me.”
“You gave the money to him today? But he was buried yesterday.”
“Time seems to go faster as we get older, doesn’t it?”
Meanwhile, back on the opera stage, a new Verdi was being hammered out. Leslie Whitemansion was playing Manrico. X. Paul McCoffin was playing Ferrando. Hubert Saint Nicholas was playing Count di Luni. Apollo Mont-de-Marsan was playing the ghost. But was there a ghost in the libretto besides the double ghost of the two females playing the same role? Yes there was; there was a real ghost in the libretto. It was written in there in a queer “other” hand, really a “ghostly” hand, and it wrote that Apollo was playing the role of the ghost.
So the merry comic opera went along almost to its end. It was just when Manrico was being led to the executioner’s block and the evil Count di Luni was gloating in triumph, when everything was finally being shaped up in that drama that had some pleasure for everybody, that a horrible thing happened in one of the loges or boxes that overhung the stage.
Aurelian Bentley was knifed there in his box at the opera. Oh God, this was murder! “Your mind is looking for a better solution, I believe, for a neater murder.” Oh, that had been the voice of another sort of ghost. But now, to be slain by the ghost of a man dead only a day or two, and in the presence of several thousands of persons here! (For it was, possibly, none other than Apollo Mont-de-Marsan, who had been “gotten rid of,” who was getting rid of Aurelian Bentley.) And again: “There are good murders and bad murders, you see … It seems it would be worth it, for art’s sake, for the perfect murder.” Aurelian Bentley was stabbed to death in his box at the opera there, but even he had to admit, with some appreciation, as he went, that it was done with art.
And immediately, as the opera on stage came to its great conclusion, there welled up cries of “Author, Author, Bentley, Bentley!”
Then the dying (or more likely dead) man rose for the last time, bowed formally, and tumbled out of his box and onto his face on the stage, stark dead, and with the thirsty (now slaked) dagger twinkling between the blades of his shoulders.
What other man had ever made such an exit from or on life’s stage! That was Theater! That was Drama!
* * * *
12. An Evening in Newport was intended to be the twelfth of the Bentley television dramas. But it was never produced; possibly because of the death of its producer. It exists only as libretto.
This was a high society “drama of manners,” as Miss Adeline Addams knew it, as Aurelian Bentley with his quick mind and quick mimicry knew it from his brief brushes with it. But does not a drama or comedy of manners depend largely on the quip and the arch aphorism? How could it be done in silent presentation?
By art, that’s how it might be done: by the perfect art of the silent mimes, and Aurelian Bentley was master of that art. By the gestures, by the facial implications, by great silent acting this might be done. Was there any witticism that Adeline Addams could not express with her talented, high society face? Was there any devastating riposte that she could not give with her autocratic hands? It was never tested, but Aurelian believed that she was pretty good.
On the lower level, An Evening in Newport was a one-sided duel between Mistress Adeline Addams of Newport, playing the role of Mistress Adela Adams of Newport, and Clarinda Calliope, playing the role of Rosaleen O’Keene, a low, vicious, ignorant, filthy, bad-mannered, fifth parlor maid newly arrived from Ireland. It was a stacked set in favor of Adeline-Adela.
On the higher level, the drama was the passionate portrayal of the total love of a beautiful and wealthy and intelligent and charming and aristocratic young lady (Adeline-Adela) for a man of surpassing genius and ineffable charm, a man of poise and power and heroic gifts, a man the like of whom will hardly appear once in a century. The drama was supposed to take on a note of hushed wonder whenever this man was mentioned, or so the libretto said. The libretto does not identify this exceptional man, but our own opinion is that the librettist, Aurelian Bentley, intended this hardly-once-in-a-century man, the object of the torrid and devoted love of Miss Adeline Addams, to be himself, Aurelian Bentley.
But An Evening in Newport, intended to be the surpassing climax of that first and still unsurpassed television series, was never produced.
* * * *
13. Pettifoggers of Philadelphia is the noncanonical, apocryphal, thirteenth apocalypse of The Wonderful World of Aurelian Bentley, that first and greatest television series. There is no libretto to it. There is no formal production, and it does not carry the Bentley “Seal of Production.” But it does repose in one of the old television receivers, the one that was Aurelian’s own control receiver, the one that was in Aurelian’s own luxurious den where he spent so many hectic hours with Clarinda Calliope and later with Adeline Addams. It reposes there, and it may be seen and heard there.
Though Bentley was already dead when these scenes were ordered and live-presented, yet he walks in them and talks in them. The experience of hearing the thoughts and words of a hovering dead man spoken out loud and of seeing him as if in the flesh is a shattering but dramatic one.
The setting and sole scene of Pettifoggers of Philadelphia is that same luxurious den of Aurelian Bentley’s, first placed under court seal, but then opened for a meeting which, as one of the parties to it stated, could not validly be held anywhere else. A probate judge was present, and pettifoggers representing several of the parties, and two of the parties themselves. It was a hearing on the disposition of the estate of Aurelian Bentley, or what might be left of that estate, he having died without having made a will. But one of the parties, Clarinda Calliope, insisted that Bentley had made a will, that the will was in this particular room and no other, that the will in fact was this room and the eared and tongued walls of it.
There seemed to be several meetings in this room superimposed on one another, and they cannot be sorted out. To sort them out would have been to destroy their effect, however, for they achieved syntheses of their several aspects and became the true meeting that never really took place but which contained all the other meetings in one theatrical unity.
The pettifogger of a second cousin once removed was there to present the claim of that distant person, as next in kin, to the estate of Aurelian Bentley.
The pettifogger of Adeline Addams of Newport was there to present the claim of Adeline to the estate, claims based on an irrefutable promise. This irrefutable promise was the marriage license for Aurelian Bentley and Adeline Addams. It was not signed or witnessed, of course. The marriage, the pettifogger said, had been scheduled to take place on a certain night after the presentation of an opera, that was contained in a television drama, that was contained in a riddle. But Aurelian Bentley had been killed during that opera, which voided the prospect of marriage, but did not void the promise.
There were pettifoggers there for the different creditors. And all the pettifoggers were from Philadelphia.
And there was Clarinda Calliope representing herself (as Portia, she insisted, and not as pettifogger), and she claimed rights by a promise too big and too intricate to be put on paper.
There was the probate judge of the private hearing who ambled around the luxurious den flipping a silver dollar in the air and humming the McGinty’s Saloon Waltz.
“Oh, stop flipping that silly silver dollar and get on with the matter of the probate,” Miss Adeline Addams complained to that nitwit judge.
“The silver dollar is the matter of the probate,” the judge said. “The dollar is important. It is the soul and body of what this is all about.”
The piles of paper began to accumulate on the tables there. There were the documents and attestations of the distant next of kin, of Adeline Addams, and of the creditors in their severalty. And not one scrap of paper did Clarinda Calliope put forward.
“Enough, enough,” said the judge after the flood of paper had narrowed down to a trickle. “Stop the paper,” but he didn’t stop flipping that silver dollar or humming the McGinty’s Saloon Waltz. “All a-sea that’s going a-sea. Miss Calliope, it is time you laid a little evidence on the table if you are to be a party of these hearings.”
“My evidence is too large and too living to lay on the table,” Clarinda said. “But listen, and perhaps look! Due to the magic of the selenium ‘slow response’ principle, and to the walls of this very room being wired parallel to the receiver in this room, we may be able to bring to you a veritable reconstruction of past words and avowals and persons.”
And pretty soon the voice of the once-in-a-century man began, ghostly at first, and then gradually taking on flesh.
“Oh, Aurelian!” Adeline Addams squealed. “Where are you?”
“He is here present, in this room where he spent so many wonderful hours with me,” Clarinda said. “All right, Aurie baby, talk a little bit clearer and start materializing.”
“All these things I will give you, Clarie,” came the voice of Aurelian Bentley, and Bentley was there in shadow form himself. “No one else would give you so much. No one else would ever care so much . . . trust me, Clarie.”
Aurelian Bentley was standing there solidly now. It was a three-dimensional projection or re-creation of him, coming into focus from all the eared and eyed and remembering walls of the room that was wired in parallel to the television receiver. Aurelian stood in the midst of them there in his own luxurious den.
“Clarie, I will do handsomely by you … a million dollars, my love, and I will give it to you.” Oh, these were startling and convincing words coming from the living ghost there!
“I swear to you, Clarie … I will buy any island or group of islands in the Pacific Ocean for you . . . Hawaii, Samoa, Fiji. Name it and it’s yours.”
What man ever made such tall promises and with such obvious sincerity?
“Not on paper, not on air, Clarie, but in real life. I will make you the real and living queen.”
If they will not listen to one risen from the dead, whom will they listen to?
“Clarie, believe me, believe me, believe me! I will do all things for you. I promise it.” How are you going to top something like that?
“I leave you … my kingdom, ah, estate, Clarie. My word is good for that.”
It was all in the bag, and the drawstring was being tightened on the bag.
“I hereby attest that … my estate . . . belongs to you. Let the eared walls of this room be witnesses to what I say, Clarie. If the walls of this room will swear to it, then surely they will be believed.”
The image of Aurelian Bentley disappeared, and his sound was extinguished with a sharp snipping sound. Adeline Addams was putting a scissors back into her handbag.
“I’ve meant to find out what that wire there was for several times,” she said. “That sort of shuts it all off when the wire is cut, doesn’t it?”
“Here, here, you are guilty of destroying my evidence,” Clarinda Calliope said. “You can go to prison for that! You-can burn in fire for that!”
A sudden flaming hay wagon with a wild woman driving it rushed into the room and seemed about to destroy everyone in the room. Everyone cringed from it except Clarinda and the probate judge. The flaming hay wagon did crash into all the people of the room, but it did them no damage. It was only a scene from one of the earlier plays. You didn’t think that Clarinda had only one circuit in that room, did you? But several of the persons were shaken by the threat.
“Good show,” said the probate judge. “I guess it wins, what there is left to win.”
“No, no,” Adeline cried. “You can’t give her the estate?”
“What’s left of it, sure,” said the judge, still flipping the silver dollar.
“It isn’t, the principle either,” said Clarinda, “it’s the dollar.” She plucked the silver dollar out of the air as the probate judge was still flipping it.
“This is the entire residue of the estate, isn’t it?” she asked to be sure.
“Right, Calliope, right,” the judge said. “That’s all that was left of it.”
He continued to flip an invisible coin into the air, and he whistled the last, sad bars of the McGinty’s Saloon Waltz.
“Anybody know where a good actress can get a job?” Clarinda asked. “Going rates, two dollars a day per role.” She swept out of the room with head and spirits high. She was a consummate actress.
The other persons fade out into indistinct sounds and indistinct shadows in the old kerosene-powered television receiver.
* * * *
The prospects of retrieval and revival of the first and greatest of all television series, The Wonderful World of Aurelian Bentley, recorded and produced in the year 1873, is in grave danger.
The only true and complete version of the series reposes in one single television receiver, Aurelian Bentley’s own control receiver, the one that he kept in his own luxurious den where he spent so many happy hours with his ladies. The original librettos are stored in this set: they are, in fact, a part of this set and they may not, for inexplicable reasons, be removed to any great distance from it.
All the deep and ever-growing side talk, “slow talk,” is in this set. (All the other sets are mute.) All the final drama Pettifoggers of Philadelphia is recorded in this set and is in none of the others. There is a whole golden era of television recorded in this set.
I bought this old kerosene-burning treasure from its last owner (he did not know what it was: I told him that it was a chestnut roaster) for eighteen dollars. Now, by a vexing coincidence, this last owner has inherited forty acres of land with a fine stand of chestnut trees, and he wants the chestnut roaster back. And he has the law on his side.
I bought it from him, and I paid him for it, of course. But the check I gave him for it was hotter than a selenium rectifier on a shorted circuit. I have to make up the eighteen dollars or lose the receiver and its stored wealth.
I have raised thirteen dollars and fifty cents from three friends and one enemy. I still need four dollars and a half. Oh wait, wait, here is ninety-eight cents in pennies brought in by the “Children for the Wonderful World of Aurelian Bentley Preservation Fund.” I still need three dollars and fifty-two cents. Anyone wishing to contribute to this fund had best do so quickly before this golden era of television is forever lost. Due to the fussiness of the government, contributions are not tax-deductible.
It is worth preserving as a remnant of that early era when there were giants on the earth. And, if it is preserved, someday someone will gaze into the old kerosene-powered receiver and cry out in astonishment in the words of the Greatest Bard:
Shot such Cyclopean arches at the stars?”