Flipping for a Diamond

The failure of a second work is, I think, more damaging to a writer than failure ever will be again. The success of the first work—in my case, The Children’s Hour, which went into the sensational because I was young and unheard of—then seems an accident. Maybe the wrong people liked it, maybe you played good tricks, just maybe you are no good. The praise is usually out of bounds: the photographs, interviews, “appearances,” party invitations are so swift and dazzling that you go into the second work with confidence you will never have again if you have any sense. And failure in the theater is more public, more brilliant, more unreal than in any other field.

Days to Come was written in Princeton, New Jersey. Dashiell Hammett, who never wanted much to live in New York, had rented the house of a rich professor who was a Napoleon expert. Its over-formal Directoire furniture was filled each night with students who liked Hammett, but liked even better the free alcohol and the odd corners where they could sleep and bring their friends. That makes it sound like now, when students are often interesting, but it wasn’t: they were a dull generation, but Dash never much examined the people to whom he was talking if he was drunk enough to talk at all.

Even now the pains I had on the opening night of Days to Come puzzle me. Good theater jokes are almost always based on survived disasters and there were so many that night that they should, in time, have passed into comedy: the carefully rehearsed light cues worked as if they were meant for another play; the props, not too complicated, showed up where nobody had ever seen them before and broke, or didn’t break, with the malice of animate beings; good actors knew by the first twenty minutes that they had lost the audience and thus became bad actors; the audience, maybe friendly when it came in, was soon restless and uncomfortable. The air of a theater is unmistakable: things go well or they do not. They did not. Standing in the back of the side aisle, I vomited without knowing it was going to happen and went home to change my clothes. I wanted, of course, to go to bed and stay there, but I was young enough to worry about cowardice and so I got back in time to see William Randolph Hearst lead his six guests out of the theater, in the middle of the second act, talking very loudly as he came up the aisle.

It is hard for me to believe, these many years later—I read the play again last year for the first time since the production and liked most of it—in the guilt I felt for the failure of Days to Come. The threads of those threads have lasted to this day. Guilt is often an excuse for not thinking and maybe that …

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