Monday, February 4, 2008


    The third performance of the first reprise of Dvořák's The Devil and Kate was about to begin. The theater lights had been dimmed and the murmurs of the audience quieted, as though they had been switched off. The conductor knocked and raised his baton. Mrs. Malá closed her bag of bonbons in the first row of chairs, and Mrs. Grossmanová sighed: "I do so love this prelude." Mr. Kolman shut his eyes in the seventh row, ready to fully enjoy "his Dvořák," as he was wont to say. And the lissom overture began to course through the orchestra.
    The curtain shimmered on the right side and a little creature slipped onto the stage; it startled to see the dark abyss of the auditorium before it, and looked about in alarm to see where it could hide. But then it caught hold of the lively polka rhythm of the prelude, and the little creature began to tap its feet to the beat.
 It could not have been larger than an eight year-old child, but it had a hairy chest and was overgrown from the waist down with thick, lustrous black fur, and little horns poking through its curly hair; it had a little goatish face, pointed; and it tapped with firm, cloves hooves on little goats' legs. The audience stirred with a quiet laughter. The creature on the stage startled and hesitated a bit; it clearly wanted to retreat but was blocked by the curtain; it looked about itself, distressed, but suddenly its hoof began to tap of its own accord and move to the beat. It seemed as though the little creature overcome its stage fright; it opened its mouth joyfully, extending a long red tongue, and gave itself completely to its dance; it jumped about, squatted low to the ground and drummed its hooves with a clear delight. Even its hands added to the dance, flying overhead, fingers wiggling happily; a short, fat tail raised up behind it, swinging to the beat like a metronome. It was no great feat of dancing; in truth, it was only hops, skips and steps, but it displayed excruciating joy from life and movement; it was so natural and charming, like a young goat bounding or a puppy chasing its tail.
    The audience laughed cheerfully and murmured their joy. The conductor was disquieted, sensing the wave of excitement behind him, and waved his baton even more energetically than before; he stared fixedly at the instruments, wondering what sort of strange drumming and tapping was going on, but his eyes met those of the drummer, faithful and attentive, who was still awaiting his moment to begin. The orchestra played strongly, conscientiously; no ones took their eyes from their parts and no one looked at the stage. Tum-ta da ta-ta-tum. "Herr Gott, something isn't right today, thought the conductor, and led the orchestra into forte with sweeping gestures. Why are those people at the back laughing? And to distract attention, the conductor led the orchestra through the prelude, more vehemently, more quickly--
    The little creature on the stage was having a whale of a time; it stamped, swung its feet, shook, jumped about, tossed its head and raised its tail ever qfaster. Tum-ta-da tum-tum ta-ta. Mrs. Malá beamed, cheerfully grinning, hands clasped over her stomach. She had already seen The Devil and Kate once before, but that was fourteen years before. I don't like modern direction, she thought, but this I like. She wanted to share this thought with Mrs. Grossmanová, but she was staring enrapt at the ramp and nodding her head. Mrs. Grossmanová too had a sense of rhythm.
    Mr. Kolman scowled in the seventh row. This was not done, this did not go here. What are these directors fussing about with Dvořák, it's all been done already, he protested. And the prelude had never been played so quickly. This is a dishonor to Dvořák, Mr. Kolman thought angrily. I shall write to the newspapers about it, he decided. I shall call it "Hands off our Dvořák!" or something similar.
    And suddenly the last beats of the prelude. The conductor sighed and wiped his dripping forehead with a handkerchief. (What is it with the audience today?) The curtain twitches and began to rise. The lively figure on the platform took fright, looked about and disappeared under the stage in a frightening jerk just before the curtain lifted. Mrs. Malá started to clap in the first row, but Mr. Kolman hissed sharply from the seventh; as a result of which the attendees gave a start, and scattered and embarrassed applause drifted in. The conductor's back displayed some sort of nervous twitch and a clear dissatisfaction in the shoulders. Maybe I shouldn't have applauded when they were raising the curtain, thought Mrs. Malá, and whispered to Mrs. Grossmanová, "That was nice, wasn't it?"
    "Delightful," sighed Mrs. Grossmanová, and Mrs. Malá opened her sack of bonbons in relief. Maybe no one even noticed I applauded.
    Even Mr. Kolman calmed down. Nothing else interrupted a worthy performance of the opera. I shall write to the newspapers posthaste about this nuisance, he told himself, but then he forgot all about it.
    "Strange audience today," grumbled the conductor, when it was all over. "I'd like to know what they were laughing at."
    "You know, it's Sunday," quoth the first violin. "Sunday audiences are always the worst."
    And that was that.

LN, 26 April 1936

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