Hamlet by Alexander Kuprin

Russian LiteratureChildren BooksRussian PoetryAlexander Kuprin -Hamlet – Contents

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“HAMLET” was being played.

All tickets had been sold out before the morning of the performance. The play was more than usually attractive to the public because the principal part was to be taken by the famous Kostromsky, who, ten years before, had begun his artistic career with a simple walking-on part in this very theatre, and since then had played in all parts of Russia, and gained a resounding fame such as no other actor visiting the provinces had ever obtained. It was true that, during the last year, people had gossiped about him, and there had even appeared in the Press certain vague and only half-believed rumours about him. It was said that continual drunkenness and debauch had unsettled and ruined Kostromsky’s gigantic talent, that only by being “on tour” had he continued to enjoy the fruit of his past successes, that impresarios of the great metropolitan theatres had begun to show less of their former slavish eagerness to agree to his terms. Who knows, there may have been a certain amount of truth in these rumours? But the name of Kostromsky was still great enough to draw the public. For three days in succession, in spite of the increased prices of seats, there had been a long line of people waiting at the box office. Speculative buyers had resold tickets at three, four, and even five times their original value.

The first scene was omitted, and the stage was being prepared for the second. The footlights had not yet been turned up. The scenery of the queen’s palace was hanging in strange, rough, variegated cardboard. The stage carpenters were hastily driving in the last nails.

The theatre had gradually filled with people. From behind the curtain could be heard a dull and monotonous murmur.

Kostromsky was seated in front of the mirror in his dressing-room. He had only just arrived, but was already dressed in the traditional costume of the Danish prince; black-cloth buckled shoes, short black velvet jacket with wide lace collar. The theatrical barber stood beside him in a servile attitude, holding a wig of long fair hair.

“He is fat and pants for breath,” declaimed Kostromsky, rubbing some cold cream on his palm and beginning to smear his face with it.

The barber suddenly began to laugh.

“What’s the matter with you, fool?” asked the actor, not taking his eyes from the mirror.

“Oh, I … er … nothing … er….”

“Well, it’s evident you’re a fool. They say that I’m too fat and flabby. And Shakspeare himself said that Hamlet was fat and panted for breath. They’re all good-for-nothings, these newspaper fellows. They just bark at the wind.”

Having finished with the cold cream, Kostromsky put the flesh tints on to his face in the same manner, but looking more attentively into the mirror.

“Yes, make-up is a great thing; but all the same, my face is not what it used to be. Look at the bags under my eyes, and the deep folds round my mouth … cheeks all puffed out … nose lost its fine shape. Ah, well, we’ll struggle on a bit longer…. Kean drank, Mochalof drank … hang it all. Let them talk about Kostromsky and say that he’s a bloated drunkard. Kostromsky will show them in a moment … these youngsters … these water-people … he’ll show them what real talent can do.”

“You, Ethiop, have you ever seen me act?” he asked, turning suddenly on the barber.

The man trembled all over with pleasure.

“Mercy on us, Alexander Yevgrafitch…. Yes, I … O Lord!… is it possible for me not to have seen the greatest, one may say, of Russian artists? Why, in Kazan I made a wig for you with my own hands.”

“The devil may know you. I don’t remember,” said Kostromsky, continuing to make long and narrow lines of white down the length of his nose, “there are so many of you…. Pour out something to drink!”

The barber poured out half a tumblerful of vodka from the decanter on the marble dressing-table, and handed it to Kostromsky.

The actor drank it off, screwed up his face, and spat on the floor.

“You’d better have a little something to eat, Alexander Yevgrafitch,” urged the barber persuasively. “If you take it neat … it goes to your head….”

Kostromsky had almost finished his make-up; he had only to put on a few streaks of brown colouring, and the “clouds of grief” overshadowed his changed and ennobled countenance.

“Give me my cloak!” said he imperiously to the barber, getting up from his chair.

From the theatre there could already be heard, in the dressing-room, the sounds of the tuning of the instruments in the orchestra.

The crowds of people had all arrived. The living stream could be heard pouring into the theatre and flowing into the boxes stalls and galleries with the noise and the same kind of peculiar rumble as of a far-off sea.

“It’s a long time since the place has been so full,” remarked the barber in servile ecstasy; “there’s n-not an empty seat!”

Kostromsky sighed.

He was still confident in his great talent, still full of a frank self-adoration and the illimitable pride of an artist, but, although he hardly dared to allow himself to be conscious of it, he had an uneasy feeling that his laurels had begun to fade. Formerly he had never consented to come to the theatre until the director had brought to his hotel the stipulated five hundred roubles, his night’s pay, and he had sometimes taken offence in the middle of a play and gone home, swearing with all his might at the director, the manager, and the whole company.

The barber’s remark was a vivid and painful reminder of these years of his extraordinary and colossal successes. Nowadays no director would bring him payment in advance, and he could not bring himself to contrive to demand it.

“Pour out some more vodka,” said he to the barber.

There was no more vodka left in the decanter. But the actor had received sufficient stimulus. His eyes, encircled by fine sharp lines of black drawn along both eyelids, were larger and more full of life, his bent body straightened itself, his swollen legs, in their tight-fitting black, looked lithe and strong.

He finished his toilet by dusting powder over his face, with an accustomed hand, then slightly screwing up his eyes he regarded himself in the mirror for the last time, and went out of the dressing-room.

When he descended the staircase, with his slow self-reliant step, his head held high, every movement of his was marked by that easy gracious simplicity which had so impressed the actors of the French company, who had seen him when he, a former draper’s assistant, had first appeared in Moscow.

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Russian LiteratureChildren BooksRussian PoetryAlexander Kuprin – Hamlet – Contents

Copyright holders –  Public Domain Book

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