THE RED RUGS OF TARSUS
HAMLET AND THE GATHERING OF THE STORM CLOUDS
Written by Helen Davenport Gibbons and originally published in 1917
April seventh, Nineteen-Nine
There’s an awful lot of knowledge,
That you never get at college.
But I tell you, my dear, I am glad that Anna Bess put me on the scenery committee the first time 1906 had a play. Ever since I left Bryn Mawr I have been looking for the things I learned that were “going to prove useful in after years.” For the first time I’ve hit something. When the boys wanted to get up a play I showed them how to put squares of canvas together, tacked on poles at the platform end of the big schoolroom. I marked out a court scene with charcoal, and painted it in. One advantage of making scenery here is that paint dries quicker than it did in the cellar of our dormitory.
I economized time by sewing costumes while the boys rehearsed. It was the most unimaginable sort of rehearsing. For the play was to be given in Turkish, of which Jeanne and I understood not a word. All the same with my little red leather-bound English Shakespeare stuck in the corner of the divan near my lapful of sewing, I was supposed to criticize the acting. I kept looking from needle to book to actor. Jeanne, on the other side of the divan, was following in a French translation. Hamlet and Ophelia dashed around while I put ermine on the king’s coat. The boys would not listen to cutting. They were game for the whole play—not quailing before scenes that Irving and Terry could not swing. They have prodigious memories. We found that out when one of them memorized Herbert’s entire lecture on the Rise of the Papacy, and gave it afterwards as answer to a question in term examination. Their patience and endurance are limitless. They never get bored.
Jeanne and I were back of the scenes on the great night to start the play with everybody dressed and bewigged, painted and securely hitched together. Clothes had to be sewed on the ladies. The boys entered so fully into the spirit of the thing that when the show was actually on, they hadn’t time to think about their clothes. My red Cretan rug, firmly strapped to the shoulders of Hamlet’s mother, made a real court train. (The actors had practised not to walk on it. Luckily they learned this early in the rehearsals, when Ophelia, passing his future mother-in-law, stepped on the Cretan rug and “sat down too much” on the hard schoolroom floor.) Crowns and wigs had to be anchored with adhesive tape. Ophelia, young and rather slender for his age, was capable of the martyrdom of forcing his feet into my satin dancing slippers. It was possible only when I made him wear my silk stockings. His own knitted socks were much too thick for stage purposes as well as for slippers. A schoolroom bench, assisted by the boxes of two croquet games and covered by rugs, made a passable throne. The stage manager was dismayed when he realized that Doctor Christie’s pulpit was screwed fast to the platform. I discovered that the top of the pulpit could be removed, and comforted the boys by pointing out to them that those in the audience who had ever seen a real theater would certainly think the pulpit was a prompter’s box.
The audience of students and teachers was increased by the parents of boys living in Tarsus and local Moslem dignitaries, the Kaïmakam, the Feriq and the Mufti1. They were delighted to come, and praised our school and its hospitality. At the end of each scene they applauded conspicuously. The Mufti’s parchment-like cheeks wrinkled to expose his yellow gumless teeth in an appreciative grin, while the Kaïmakam shook hands with the asthmatic Feriq Pasha until his Hamidian decorations jingled on his breast.
Our efforts to persuade the boys to cut out a part here and there were in vain. They insisted on giving the whole blessed thing. Candied almonds and glasses of water passed around in the audience helped to keep them awake. The atmosphere was hot and close, and the petroleum was getting low in the lamps. Between the first and second acts the school band—all individualists—did their favorite piece, the very march that the old German orchestra leader in Philadelphia used to play at the Country Club dances just after the last waltz before supper. The boys put the vigor of their youth and the enthusiasm of the occasion into their playing. I was glad the venerable Mufti had cotton in his ears. The place was already so full of people and talk and lamp-baked air that I thought the floor of the dormitory above would spill down on us when the band thundered a climax of horns, trombones, drums and cymbals.
As the play went on, the audience did not need candied almonds or music to keep them awake. Things began to go badly for Hamlet’s mother’s husband. People stopped fanning. The dignitaries moved uneasily in their places. With heads hunched down in their shoulders, they kept their eyes glued on the stage. They are not familiar with our great William, and believe, no doubt, that we invented the play as well as the actors’ costumes. Horror of horrors! We had forgotten what they might read into the most realistic scene. An Armenian warning for Abdul Hamid? The assassins mastered the struggling king. He lay there with his red hair sticking out from his crown, and the muscles of his neck stiffened as he gasped for breath while his throat was cut with a shiny white letter-opener.
As I fell asleep last night, I saw the three dignitaries leaning forward frowning. The Mufti had clinched the sides of the bench with his thin hands. Could they be seriously disapproving of our show, because we killed a king in it? I went to sleep laughing over Doctor Christie’s story of the way the authorities would not permit him to teach physics in the early days because he was obliged to use the word “revolution.”
Last night Herbert and I drove on the Mersina road. We love this drive in the late afternoon. It leads in the direction of home—straight to the sunset. Camels came towards us. From the head the line was double. As they parted to the sides of the road, I said to Herbert, “Let’s count the beasts. You take your side and I’ll take this.” They numbered more than two hundred, all laden with petroleum tins.
We drove again this evening. Even walking is proscribed for me now. I can go out of the college grounds only in a carriage, and then not far. In a Moslem quarter, on a road between vegetable gardens, boys threw stones—the first time it has happened to us. As Charlemagne was nervous and reared from being hit several times, Herbert did not dare to get out and leave me alone. There was nothing to do but drive on, and accept the stoning. I was hit on the left shoulder—a big stone it was. The bruise is painful.
Could not finish for Thursday’s post. We have had Easter to think about—examinations, and the boys going off for their ten days.
Miss Talbot has come to stand by me. Isn’t she a dear? Imagine a soft-voiced Englishwoman of the upper class being a trained nurse, and my nurse—when there is none in the world for me to turn to. It seems as if she has been dropped from Heaven at my door. Miss Talbot is a woman of independent means, who studied nursing to equip herself for doing good. She came out here to Turkey to find work at her own expense. She is going into mission dispensary nursing, but thinks just now that I am “the duty at hand.” Lucky for me!
The annual meeting of the American Mission is being held in Adana this week. It opens to-morrow. Dr. Christie and Miner, of course, had to go, and they persuaded Herbert to go with them. It was a chance for him to meet the missionaries from the interior, and get an idea of mission problems. Herbert was very anxious to meet the missionaries of whom we have been hearing so much. They are to reach Adana overland on horse from Marash, Hadjin, Aintab and other stations. It is the jubilee year—the fiftieth annual meeting. The native Protestant pastors of this whole field are to hold a reunion at the same time. An important question is coming before the Mission—what to do with the orphanages that were established after the massacres of 1894-96. The orphans are practically all grown up now.
I urged Herbert to go. It is only forty miles, and he can return to-morrow if we have news to telegraph him. Miss Talbot thinks it is all right, and her being here reassures him. He needs only to be gone one night. At the last minute he hesitated, but I pushed him out with the others.
As we said good-by, Herbert stood below me in the school grounds, and I was on the steps a few feet above, leaning over and talking to him. Just for fun, I took his fez off—a black velvet fez. My giggle and smile died away as I idly twirled that fez around my finger. Sometimes in the sunshine one sees the shadow of Islam. After all, wouldn’t he be safer in a hat? I put this into words. Herbert scoffed at the idea, but he humored me and went to find his gray felt hat.
Must go to marking examination papers of my rhetoric class. Can you imagine me an English Reader like Miss Marsh? You were afraid three lectures a week and two rhetoric lessons would be a lot for me to manage, but Mother dear, these boys are hungry for an education. I long for a copy of one of the rhetorics we used at college. Have improvised a text book. Coaxed it out of my memory. I averaged two hours a day, typewriting the material on our Hammond. The boys drink in my stupid lectures the way the Cilician Plain drinks in the first autumn rains. I gave a stiff quiz just after the Easter vacation. I am continuing the daily themes and the critical papers. I have learned a lot from the boys about the fable in Turkish literature. Also about habits of camels, and the real Abraham Lincoln. Can’t you see me rehashing Bryn Mawr English and adapting it to the Tarsians?
- The Kaïmakam is at the head of the civil administration of the municipality, the Feriq of the military administration, and the Mufti of the religious administration. Civil and military government and religion are all closely connected—essential factors in Turkish society. Constantinople has its hold directly on every community in Turkey.