“The Actress Mildred”
[1957: My first teacher in the theatre was the leading lady of an impoverished company playing north of Philadelphia. I worked there as a janitor, then made my way up to stage assistant and make-up artist. Mildred, the leading lady, was the first real alcoholic I had ever really known; her drinking led her to add lines, improvise, even change entire plots of plays as the evening wore on. At length, I got small roles onstage, and then came my big break: I played her son in a wretched play where my wealthy mother had resisted my engagement to a girl from “the wrong side of the tracks.” However, in the next to last scene, in a monologue, the mother would inform the audience that she had changed her mind, realizing that love should be beyond social class. When I came to see her, in the final scene, she would at first pretend to resist the marriage and then, as a surprise to me and my fiancé, tell us of her change of heart, the play ending happily. We had brought down a young actress from Smith College to play the fiancé, and she and I during rehearsals had fallen in love. Mildred resented the fact; in her view, all men in the company, young and old, should worship only her. This was the surprise she had for us and the audience opening night.]
In that penultimate scene Mildred surprisingly gave a marvelous performance. Glassy from drink, her eyes shed generous tears as she remembered her own youth, that time when she, like Sarah, first fell in love. A collective, “Ah, ha! I knew it!” swept over the audience as Lady Brett revealed that her own dead millionaire husband had come from a lace-curtain Irish home in south Boston. And if Mildred sloshed her words on the melodramatic line “Parents . . . parents . . . must learn when to leave go, to love the child who can no longer be their own,” her very inarticulateness heightened the impact of the occasion. Like Shakespeare’s Cleopatra, she made “defect itself perfection.”
As Sandy and I stood just offstage, about to make our entrance for the final scene, I glanced at Mildred, sitting in a plush chair stage right. In the final throes of her drunkenness, she looked positively wild, her nose red from the booze, a vacant stare in her eyes, one leg draped indecorously over a chair arm.
“Careful, Sandy, I think she’s going to try something. She has that look.”
Sandy squeezed my hand. She knew. I looked down at her.
“Afterwards,” I reminded her lovingly. After the show we had planned a big evening just by ourselves.
We crossed to Mildred.
“Mother, I’ve come one last time to ask your blessing for our marriage.”
Right on cue, Mildred went into a carefully rehearsed complaint about my not loving her, berating an ungrateful son for choosing Sarah “over the woman who brought you into this world, the woman who nursed you through illness after illness.” She displayed that fake anger just as the audience had anticipated from her monologue the scene before.
“Mother, you’ve got to understand. I love Sarah. I love you too.”
Again, a complaint from Mildred, almost verbatim from the script.
“But I’ve got to make my own decisions. I’ve got to strike out on my own. Loving Sarah doesn’t mean I love you less.”
As planned, Mildred took a beat, then, much to the relief of the young couple in the world onstage and with knowing smiles from the audience in the house, segued into her change of heart. “Oh, children, I understand. I was young once, like you. Can you find it in your heart to forgive a foolish old woman? I . . . I fought your marriage, Arthur, because I was afraid of losing you forever.”
Arthur reassured her, “You’ll never lose me, Mother, never. In fact, Sarah and I, both of us, we want you to come live with us.”
Tears on cue flooded Lady Brett’s eyes, tears that were to be the bridge for her throwing open her arms as she delivered the play’s final line, “Come here, children. Let a mother embrace you . . . both of you.”
But that final line never came, at least not on cue. Instead, Mildred offered what was perhaps the finest improvisation of her career.
“Arthur . . . Sarah, I wish you every happiness in the world, every happiness.” A beat, and then, “But Arthur, I wouldn’t be a good mother if I didn’t tell you that there is something that is going to mar all the happiness you both so rightly deserve. One thing, one little thing that my mother’s heart screams to me, ‘Keep it from your son!’ But my mother’s love knows that I must tell you, that it is my duty to tell you.”
I managed to get out a rather uninspired, “What is it, Mother? For God’s sake, what is it?”
Mildred was now divinely inspired. “Just one thing, but it will ruin the happiness, all the joy I so warmly wish you, all the joy you so richly deserve.”
Again, I improvised a “For God’s sake, Mother, tell me what it is.”
But Mildred milked the moment. “Lovely as she is, Arthur, young and lovely as she is, you must know that there is one little . . . what shall I call it? . . . one little defect in her, one hideous defect in that bride-to-be that will rob you, grossly and cruelly rob you of all the happiness that you deserve.”
I could feel Sandy’s hand grow cold in mine–not a promising sign.
“Tell me, Mother, tell me! I beg you!” I clutched my hands to my head, half an actor’s gesture, half a sign of genuine anguish, wondering what would come next.
Then it came, bearing a sub-text, surely, of all the longing for her faded youth, the jealously of an older woman for this girl who, in her eyes, had nothing to recommend her but that youth which Mildred, in the depths of her heart, knew was everything in the world.
“Your little bride-to-be, my dear Arthur, has . . . has . . . oh, Arthur, I can’t tell you and yet I must . . . your precious Sarah has . . . CANCER OF THE VAGINA!”
I let out a pained, “No! No! No!” and buried my head into my hands, a desperate improvisation, a “fine actor’s choice,” according to my fellow actor Duff, that “had much to recommend it.” Poor Sandy fainted dead onstage, a real faint out of shock that anything like this could happen in professional theatre, but a faint the audience, as I learned later, thought was in character, indeed, a stellar moment of the performance.
Then, and only then, did Mildred return to the script. “Now, come here, my children, and let your mother embrace you.” I revived Sandy as best I could, dragging her toward Mildred. I longed for the curtain. As Mildred pulled us close to her and the lights started to dim, we heard a dry laugh from inside her throat, mocking us, reminding Sandy and me that she was the star, a laugh not heard by the audience, who were busy thumbing through their playbills, wondering how the advertised comedy could have taken such an unexpectedly tragic turn.
Right after the curtain call Mildred, as usual, returned to her dressing room for that was also where she lived. As the youngest member of the company, my final job each evening was to sit up with her while she downed her fourth and final bottle of wine, then help her prepare for bed. The manager’s instructions were that once she was in bed, I was to remain with her while she smoked a cigarette. Mildred had the bad habit of falling asleep with it still lit, and on two occasions had set fire to the dressing room. Once I was sure she was out for the night, after taking the cigarette from her mouth and hiding the lighter in the refrigerator, I was to sit by her bed for five minutes to make doubly sure she stayed asleep.
This night I was especially eager to complete the routine, for I wanted to know how Sandy was feeling. Her fainting onstage did not auger well for our big date.
Halfway through her bottle, Mildred started to lose her balance. I helped her into the bed, pulled the covers up, and waited for her usual, “Light me a cigarette, Sidney.” This night, however, she seemed dead to the world. I sat by her bed, one eye on the sleeper, the other on my watch.
After what seemed hours, the five minutes were up. Slowly, carefully, I began to rise from the chair. Then, just as I was about to turn for the door, her hand shot out from under the covers, grabbing me by the shirt and pulling my face next to hers.
In the room’s dim light, she looked old and tired. Offstage, without make-up, she seemed a very ordinary woman. Her expression was an insane mixture of victory and defeat, exhilaration and the deep weariness of someone who had been here too long
“Yes, Miss Duncan.”
“I really got you tonight, didn’t I, boy?”
Mildred did not wait for a reply. Instead, the question asked, she pushed me away, as if to say, “Now, go enjoy yourself with that little Smithie.” Her eyes closed and soon she was breathing heavily and fitfully in that dubious sleep the alcoholic knows. I backed out of the room like a student chastised by his teacher.
And these days, whenever I perform with my improv company, “Yes . . . But!” or have my students do improvisations as a way of getting into character, I think of Mildred, of those wonderful moments when my teacher threw away the script and made the play her very own.