Bibliographic Information

The Plough Boy Journals

The Journals and Associated Documents

The Plough Boy Anthology

19th Century American Whaling

Bonin Islands

Pitcairn's Island

Dictionaries & Glossaries

Ashley's Glossary of
Whaling Terms

Dana's Dictionary of
Sea Terms


W. H. Macy

Ballou's Monthly Magazine.
Vol. XXXII, No. 6 (Dec 1870)
pp. 564-570.

564 Ballou's Monthly Magazine.

. . . .



      "What say ye, boys, let's get up a theatre! That will be the very thing to interest all hands."

      The speaker had been stretched on the barrel of the windlass, his head braced up against the pawls, in an attitude which seemed well adapted to produce permanent distortion of the spine. Under the inspiration of this luminous idea, his naked feet flew upward with a vigorous kick at empty air, and were brought down to the deck with a force that threw him up into a sitting posture with the elasticity of a Jack-in-the-box.

      "A good ship" was the Concordia, in the most extended sense of the phrase, as seamen employ it; and a happy set of lads we were, accordingly. On this particular evening we had been racking our brains for a new species of amusement to beguile the idle hours. We had tripped it on the 'light fantastic' and the heavy unelastic toe, to the screeching of the cook's fiddle (I beg the sable artist's pardon, violin), alternating the orthodox "maindecker" of "two sets and a haze" with the more elaborate quadrille. We had shouldered scrub-brooms and handspikes to march and countermarch round the tryworks in Indian file, and to drill in the manual upon original systems not to be found in Hardee or Upton. We had crossed single-sticks, parodied Sullivan and Deaf Burke, and grappled each other in wrestling matches. We had interchanged autobiographies from the cradle upwards, sung every song, sacred or profane, that had ever haunted our memories, and devoured every word of letter-press on board, even to the advertisements and law-notices in an eighteen-months'-old newspaper. A new sensation was demanded by the vox populi; and Jem Stark, public-spirited youth that

Thespis before the Mast. 565

he was, had struck a lead, which, if vigorously worked, promised to yield golden returns.

      "Can't we have a circus, too?" suggested Joe Downer.

      "A circus?" No! Who ever heard of a circus without horses?"

      "But there's the mincing-horse, for one," retorted the joker, "and there's Warner, the backwoodsman, who tells us he is half-horse and half-snapping-turtle, so we can muster a horse and a half."

      "To say nothing of the Flemish-horses," said Charley Burrows, from the windlass-end. "Then here's the finest chance in the world for ground and lofty tumbling – tight and slack ropes always ready, horizontal bars at any undesirable height, and – "

      "We get enough of those performances while on duty," said Stark, impatiently. "For recreation we must keep to the legitimate drama. Here, Ryan," he continued, to the young man who had come forward after being relieved from the wheel. "We are going to start a theatre. Are you ready to take a part?"

      "O yes! Count me in, by all means," answered Ryan, who was always ready for a lark. "You'll find me a very Nick Bottom. 'I could play 'Ercles rarely, or a part to tear a cat in, to make all split.' But what are we to do for scenery?"

      "I'm afraid," said I, " that some of our contrivances will be as ridiculous as Bottom's Moonshine and Wall."

      "Now, don't begin to raise stumbling-blocks or throw cold water on the matter at the outset," said the enthusiastic Stark. "There's no knowing how much may be done with limited materials until we set ourselves to work with a will."

      Stark, as the originator of so glorious a project, was made manager-in-chief by acclamation, while Ryan, Downer, Charley Burrows and I resolved ourselves into an executive committee on the spot. Many difficulties, which, at first sight, appeared insurmountable, were overcome by dint of ingenuity and patience. A few days afterwards a poster on the mainmast announced to such of our shipmates as had not been "in the cabinet" that "Concordia Saloon would open that evening (Wind, weather and whales permitting), with the prison-scene in Pizarro, followed by an original song, and to conclude with an afterpiece entitled, 'The Deputy Shepherd,' now represented for the first time on any stage!"

      Inquisitive glances from the quarter-deck were directed at us, in the vain hope of getting a peep behind the scenes before the curtain should rise. But neither scenery nor curtain was visible. The ship was put under short sail in the dog-watch, as usual; and as soon as darkness settled down upon the sea, we began to prepare the stage on the starboard bow, as the most eligible place. There was no room for both actors and audience under deck, to say nothing of the heat, which, in that latitude, would have been intolerable.

      A couple of tail-blocks were lashed aloft, and an immense drop, ingeniously contrived by attaching to a studdingsail-yard a vast extent of palm-leaf matting, manufactured by the savages at the Gilbert Islands, was hoisted into its place abreast the foremast, side and back, screens of the same material separated stage from green-room and effectually hid the preparatory mysteries from curious eyes. The only way to anticipate, was by ascending the fore-rigging high enough to look over the drop.

      All hands, including of course captain and officers, rallied to a focus and began clamoring for music with all the enthusiasm and impatience of a Bowery audience. Whereupon the orchestra, represented by the cook with violin, and an Irish boy with triangle, from some mysterious place of concealment, started off in a barbarous piece, full of knots, gnarls and spasmodic starts, which the talented leader called "de Railroad Overturn, juss as dey plays it to Christy's."

      But Joe Downer, who had been cast for the part of the incorruptible sentinel, was also the next helmsman, in right of succession. The two parts were certainly incompatible in the same individual. But Captain Bradley, who had entered into the spirit of the thing, was not to be balked of his sport, and disposed of this difficulty in a summary manner.

      "Haul the mainyard in aback!" said he. "Put the wheel down and lock it!"

      This arrangement was, of course, satisfactory to all parties.

"No duty called the jovial tars,
      The helm was lashed a-lee,"

      "Hoist away the rag!" was the cry, and up went the curtain upon a scene at once historic and histrionic.

      Downer, solus, harnessed up in a labyrinth of crossbelts, shedding a halo round him from an immense crescent of bright sheathing copper which surmounted his forehead, and

566 Thespis before the Mast.

bearing stiffly at "support" a ponderous king's arm which proclaimed him a soldier, despite the anachronism of two centuries, paced back and forth before a wall of dingy deal boards, over which floated the gorgeous flag of old Spain. A single lantern hanging from the battlements illumined his lonely beat; but the moon, most auspiciously rising at the moment off the starboard bow, added materially to the scenic effect.

      "Moonshine and Wall!" said Charley Burrows, in a burst of enthusiasm.

      Enter Rolla (Tom Ryan), from behind the fore-scuttle, enveloped in twenty yards of blue "dungaree," with a Russia cap pulled over his face, a pair of real Japanese sandals on his feet and four fathoms of ratline-stuff, such as monks have worn from time immemorial, wound round his body. Downer, at this sight, makes the sign of the cross, and, in so doing, forgets to "support" his musket. It drops heavily upon his toes, drawing from his lips an expletive which is not to be found in the authorized text of this popular drama, but which was greeted with rapturous applause from pit and gallery.

      Rolla (in a sepulchral voice, quivering with suppressed laughter), "Inform me, friend, is Alonzo the Peruvian confined within this dungeon?"

      Sentinel (with tears in his eyes, and spasmodic movements of the left foot), "Of course he is!"

      This was too much for the holy father's risibles. He vanished down the forecastle-ladder, roaring with laughter, and the old Castilian limped after him, as the curtain came down by the run, amid the grand explosion that followed from all hands.

      Pizarro was postponed to another occasion, and the indignant remonstrances of Manager Stark were drowned in uproarious peals of mirth. He alone had no conception of the ludicrous character of the opening scene, as he had remained in the background, dressed and booked up for the part of Alonzo, and waiting for his cue. The audience, however, were all in good humor and hailed with applause the advent of Burrows. He was rewarded with nine cheers at the conclusion of his original song, which was given with full orchestral accompaniment of steel and catgut.

      "The Deputy Shepherd," though it might have been new to the stage, could lay no claim to originality, being simply an adaptation of a chapter from "Pickwick." The scene was illustrative of "an affecting interview" in the snuggery of the Fleet Prison. The part of Sam was assigned to me; and Burrows, in virtue of his beardless face, filled the role of mother-in-law, Manager Stark was Stiggins the "Shepherd," while Ryan found ample scope for his humor in the part of the Senior Weller. This last is one of the most unctuous of Dickens's creations, and not the less so, from his seeming unconsciousness of his own absurdities. Sam's wit, in many cases, smells of the oil, seeming elaborated for the occasion. But the old gentleman, a strange compound of shrewdness and verdancy, is never more ludicrous than in his serious moments, and in fact, is most irresistibly funny when he has the least intention of being so.

      Ryan, made up to Falstaffian proportions, and perspiring furiously under his load of slop-chest monkey-jackets, stuffed out with oakum, sits alone on the stage, hat and whip in hand, roaring the family name "Weller!" at measured intervals. This is my cue to rush from the green-room, and the well-known dialogue begins. Everybody's feelings are elevated at the appearance of "the red-nosed man," buttoned up in a clerical garment manufactured for the occasion, with his hole-y gloves on and bearing the inevitable cotton umbrella. We happened to have on board a veritable specimen of this truly nautical instrument, brought from home by a youth from the rural districts. He had been assured by a shrewd dealer that it was indispensable for a night-watch on shipboard.

      But the climax of merriment was reached when Burrows entered in female habiliments, looking of course the very counterpart of the late "Susan Clarke, Markis o' Granby Dorking." The bonnet especially claimed attention as a masterpiece of art; having been improvised from a palmleaf hat of the first magnitude, and decorated with streamers of rainbow hues. In style it may have been a Navarino, a Solferino, or a Sebastopol – I pretend to little knowledge of historical or geographical millinery.

      The "performance" of hysterics, though evincing a want of feminine tact, was, on the whole, highly creditable to Burrows; but tears were difficult to manage without the aid of onions, a luxury to which we had been strangers for at least a twelvemonth.

      The "wanity" imbibed by the Shepherd and his flock, so far from being "warm, my dear young friend, with three lumps of sugar

Thespis before the Mast. 567

to the tumbler," was simply a molasses-and water cocktail, dashed with limejuice, the compound being known to the initiated as "Lyman Johnson." A strictly temperance beverage, and a wholesome one withal; presuming that the limejuice, as in our case, is the real article, and not based upon sulphuric acid. The reverend gentleman's discourse upon the vice of intoxication was not, therefore, so ironical as it might have been under other circumstances.

      But the alliterative saving clause before mentioned, "wind, weather and whales permitting," had not without good reason been inserted in the bills of the evening. A tropical squall was gathering; such a one as is manufactured from a clear sky at ten minutes' notice, and spends its whole fury in ten more. It was found expedient to hurry up matters, and to clip the programme a little. But the elements were too quick for us. Just as Mr. Stiggins was in the midst of one of his most brilliant, because most incoherent, passages, while old Weller divided the applause by his masterly counterfeit of apoplectic sleep, the squall met us, butt-end foremost.

      "Throw down the topsail halyards clear!" roared Captain Bradley; but there was hardly time to obey the order, ere the stage suddenly inclined to an angle of forty-five. The signal lantern suspended over our heads was extinguished, the side-screen of matting was blown in upon as, enveloping the whole corps dramatique in its folds, and the rain followed, a perfect deluge while it lasted. Burrows, encumbered by his ample skirts, "fetched away" in his chair, and laying hold of his obese partner, Ryan, with a desperate clutch, they both rolled together into the lee scuppers. The shepherd, still unsteady on his legs, was thrown heavily against the galley-door, and sobered by a drenching from the bucket of Lyman Johnson, which still more than half full, had obeyed the law of gravitation in company with various other little matters. I, alone, as became the ready and active Sam, maintained a position to windward of the foremost, but narrowly escaped a fractured skull from the spar attached to the drop-curtain. One end of this had been let run in the confusion by some one who was trying to clear the buntlines belayed to the same pin.

      The force of the wind was all spent in the first blast. The ship righted again, and tho danger was all over; but the rain poured in torrents for a few minutes, while high above its rushing, rattling sound rose shrieks of laughter from all quarters at our ludicrous plight. Everybody lent a hand to clear the wreck and secure the "properties," while we actors made an ignominious kind of exit from the stage. But Ryan, sustaining his part to the last, bawled, "A-do Samivel!" while Mrs. Weller wept bitterly because "her best bonnet was ruined."

      "Of course something would happen to spoil our first appearance," growled Stark, who, though a good shipmate in the main, had that infirmity of temper which conceals from its possessor all the humor of a joke whereof he himself is one of the victims.

      But the irascible manager was laughed into good humor again, and the dramatic essay was pronounced, both forward and aft, a grand success, as far as it went. We were given to understand that the quarter-deck, which offered many advantages as a Thespian temple, would be at our service for the next performance. Our shipmates were inoculated with the stage fever, and several recruits joined our ranks. We were enabled to extend our operations, and Concordia Saloon became a fixed fact. Even an army of "supers" could be raised, equipped and drilled at short notice. Truly a motley army! with hardly two soldiers who were compatriots – but what of that?

      "It's the Cosmopolitan Theatre," said the manager, triumphantly.

      "'No pent-up forecastle contracts our powers. But the whole main and quarterdeck are ours,'" added Tom Ryan,striking an attitude.

      "'All the ship's a stage,'" continued Joe Downer. "'The officers and sailors merely players.' But don't ask me to shoulder a musket again. My toes are black and blue yet; and, furthermore, I'm opposed to sogering, on principle."

      In due time we essayed Macbeth in full force and played it successfully. True, Burrows was not exactly Mrs. Siddons, and Stark played the part of a double assassin in murdering King Duncan and the immortal bard at one and the same time. The scenery, too, required the aid of a lively imagination to render it satisfactory. But the ghosts and apparitions shot up through the skylight with startling effect. The stout Thane of Fife and the usurper made the fire fly in the death-scene, as they "laid on" with weapons of sixpenny hoop-iron, clumsy enough to have served the muscular patriot Wallace and the

568 Thespis before the Mast.

redoubtable Guy of Warwick. Altogether, our rendering of the great tragedy was all that could have been expected of amateurs, under the disadvantages of place and materials.

      But the theatrical season was to close with the cruise on the equator; for the next was to be made in a higher latitude. As we had in rehearsal at the time we anchored in the coral-girt haven of Koosaya, an original drama written by Stark and Ryan expressly for us, it was determined to bring it out under royal patronage, and finish up the campaign by a grand performance on shore.

      The use of the great council-house was obtained, an application to King Rooa-tari, and the resources of the ship were freely drawn upon in preparing for the occasion. The theatre was handsomely decorated with bunting and pieces of gay-colored cloth, and brilliantly illuminated by fragments of candle stuck up in every available spot.

      Nothing could have been better adapted for a stage than the raised platform which extended across one end of the spacious building. Indeed Stark averred that the savage architect who had superintended its erection must have had this very matter in view.

      "Boys, we must all do our very best tonight," he said, "for this is an era, both in our own history and in that of our patrons. It is not only the first night of our literary bantling, but it may be called the inauguration of the Micronesian drama!"

      "And the drama may do as great a work," said Tom Ryan, "in the cause of civilization as the church, the newspaper or the gallows. These are not available for us, as they require more time and labor to introduce them. We'll leave them for our successors, but

            "'The play's the thing,
Wherein we'll catch the conscience of the king.'"

      But, as we soon had occasion to learn, a less susceptible subject than the usurper Rooa-tari it would have been difficult to find.

      This man was no King Dei gratia, but a sort of savage Bonaparte, who had gone into the business with no capital but his own brute courage and audacity. He was even now at war with a tribe from the other side of the mountain who espoused the claims of a powerful rival chieftain. The precarious tenant of a tottering throne, upheld only by spear and war-club. A king, in short, with no "divinity to hedge him in." His "conscience," if he could be said to have any, moved in an orbit too eccentric to be "caught" by a party of sailor-actors.

      Our audience, in point of numbers, was all that could be desired, the gentler sex being largely represented. But it was soon apparent that the decorations had more attraction for them than all our histrionic efforts. The gay bunting of the drop-curtain, in a double sense, obscured all that was behind it; and tappa was more potent than Terpsichore; for not even a grand dance, introducing the whole company in the opening scene, could fix their attention.

      The new piece had been written specialty for a nautical audience. The principal character was, as all gallant tars are known to be, an Admirable Crichton in all branches of knowledge and the embodiment of every moral virtue. Of his sweetheart, it is sufficient praise to say that she was worthy of his devotion. All the other characters were so unfortunate as to have business on terra firma, and were necessarily incarnations of evil, under the comprehensive name of "land-sharks."

      But the beauties of so truthful a picture of civilized life were lost upon Rooa-tari and his unappreciative subjects. In vain we played at the king. In vain we lavished our best efforts, watching for an indication of the dawning of anything like dramatic taste in his benighted mind. He might have been a tobacco-sign sculptured in black walnut, save that his eyes rolled covetously now and then towards the draperies of red and yellow cotton. His subjects, male and female, took their cue from royalty and followed his example.

      The warriors had come, armed to the teeth, like Puritans of old to the house of prayer. For scouts were out on the mountain, and the rebellous tribe of Areo-nooa valley were just then more than usually turbulent. A night attack was not improbable at any moment and the warlike Rooa-tari was not the man to neglect any precautions. The body of the house presented, therefore, a scene more unique and imposing than anything we could display on the stage.

      Our officers and shipmates were all present except a small guard or anchor watch. The ship lay very near the shore and all hands had been furloughed for this occasion. Our boats lay in readiness at the water side to receive us, actors, scenery, properties and all as soon as the evening's entertainment should be over.

Thespis before the Mast. 569

      "Stark, what do you think of the prospects of the English drama among the Koosayans?" asked the waggish Downer, while we were preparing for the second act.

      "Think!" returned the disappointed manager, "why, it's only casting pearls before swine. I was in hopes the royal presence might be worth something to us; but this wooden-headed barbarian has about as much appreciation of our work as old Doctor Johnson had of music when he said it was not so disagreeable a noise as some others."

      "He hasn't moved a muscle since the curtain rose," said I, "except such as were required to roll his ugly eyeballs about. But I'll wake him up in the next act, see 'f I don't."

      "How in the world are you going to manage it?" he inquired, in surprise. For I was cast for an unimportant part, as one of the misguided landsmen.

      "Never mind," I answered, ominously; "you'll see."

      "If you can galvanize him into life," said Stark, "do so; and I'll acknowledge you to be a worker of miracles."

      The curtain rose upon a melting interview between Jack and his sweetheart. (The hero was called Jack, of course; as it is well known every seaman ought to be; such being the generic name of the whole fraternity in song and story, if we except Tom Bowline and Black-eyed Susan's William.)

      Pending this parting scene between the lovers, Jack's ship, the Thunderbolt, is supposed to be lying at "short-stay-peak," with the foretopsail loosed and flaunting the blue Peter. A gun fired from her is to notify them that she is ready to break ground, and to be the signal for them to break a ring, and exchange their final vows, according to established precedent in such cases. It fell to my duty to give this cruel signal by a rap upon a small but sonorous native tom-tom which stood in a corner of the council-house. But while preparing our stage during the previous day, I had peered into the mysteries of a smaller building adjoining the theatre. I resolved now that the Thunderbolt's parting salute should be such as became a firstrate man-of-war. It should be no popgun, but one of her maindeck battery.

      This little temple I had found to be devoted solely to the keeping and storage of the pahu or great drum. This was a gigantic instrument, hideously decorated, and the heads of which are supposed to be made of the skins of hostile warriors slain in battle. There was only one instrument of the kind in the tribe, and it was never sounded except upon occasions of great solemnity. Indeed no hand was permitted to touch it save that of the king himself, or the high priest Orotoo, who at that moment sat in the theatre at his majesty's elbow. The only exception was in case of invasion by an enemy, when, like a fire-alarm, it might be sounded by the first person who chanced to be near the temple at the moment; and its first stroke was a summons for every able-bodied man to be under arms. Knowing my cue, I waited quietly near the tom-tom in the corner till the moment drew nigh when I was to thump on it. Then, without saying a word to any of my shipmates, I glided swiftly out of the door and into the small temple. The pahu stood on an elevated stand, and was reached by ascending several steps built for the purpose.

      Without stopping to reflect upon the consequences of my mad freak I bounded up the steps and seized, with sacrilegious hands, the mammoth drumsticks, two highly polished clubs of the toa, or iron-wood. Bringing them into position for beating the long-roll, I threw all my muscular power into the work. The effect upon my own ears was truly deafening. I can liken it to nothing that I have ever experienced, before or since. But those of my seafaring brethren who have served on board a turreted monitor, and assisted in "bombarding Sumter from a kettle," may have a correct idea of what I mean.

      I could, of course, know nothing of its effect upon others until I paused. As the reverberation partially died away a new sound took its place; a chorus of unearthly yells from many voices blended, no less startling and terrific than the infernal din of the pahu itself.

      Realizing, for the first time, the possible effect of my rashness, I cleared the flight of steps at a single bound. Rushing into the theatre I found it deserted by all the natives while the last of my shipmates were crowding through the door which led to the beach, loaded with the portable articles brought on shore during the day. Jack's voluminous white trousers flashed through the darkness down the coral slope, and Burrows had torn off his feminine skirts to join the general stampede in light marching order. The flag of our country was trailing in the dirt, having been snatched from its place and dragged through the door without rolling up.

570 Ballou's Monthly Magazine.

      The yells of the armed warriors receded inland, as they rushed in the direction of a defile by which the enemy might be expected to make an inroad. A night attack by the rebels of Areonova valley was the only solution of the alarm that had yet occurred to them. That any one of us white strangers should have dared to profane the temple, and to lay hands upon the sacred pahu, was a possibility which had not once entered the mind of Rooa-tari.

      But I had not escaped unobserved from the temple. I caught sight of a female face peering round the corner of the council-house as I rushed from one door to the other. While all the males had rallied to arms at the first sound, this daughter of Eve, impelled by curiosity, had discovered the trick.

      We had hardly hoisted our boats on board the Concordia, when the warriors were heard returning, the shouts approaching nearer and nearer, till the whole force were assembled on the beach abreast the ship, and Rooa-tari's canoe was soon paddling alongside.

      He at once sought an interview with Captain Bradley who was quite innocent of any knowledge of the author of the alarm. But the meddlesome female witness had been brought off in the canoe, and she was not long in pointing out the impious wretch. I was ordered to report at head-quarters and the captain attempted to reprimand me. But he broke down in a paroxysm of laughter, as a vivid recollection of the scene in the theatre came up afresh in his mind.

      This unaccountable conduct served only to add to the fury of the irate Rooa-tari I doubt not he would, at the moment, have destroyed the ship and every man on board, had he felt strong enough to do it; but entertaining a wholesome dread of our firearms, he found it inexpedient to make the matter a casus belli. A few pieces of the coveted cotton cloth soon changed the current of his thoughts, and be departed richer if not wiser than he came.

      I should hardly have ventured on shore again had I found the opportunity. But the ship was ready for sea; and the next morning a fresh trade wind was filling her canvas and wafting us onward towards the great Nor'west.

      "Didn't I tell you I'd wake him up, boys?" said I, as we were stowing the anchors. I'll warrant you never saw all hands called quicker than that."

      "But you spoiled our new play with your infernal war-drum," grumbled Stark, dropping the corners of his mouth.

      "I improvised a play of my own, far better adapted to move an audience than yours was. The pahu was the greatest hit of our dramatic season. It's

"'The thing     
Wherein I caught the conscience of the king.'"


Author: Macy, William Hussey
Title: Thespis before the Mast.
Publication: Ballou's Monthly Magazine.
Vol/No/Date: Vol. 32, No. 6 (Dec 1870)
Pages: 564-570