From The Wit and Humor of America, edited by Marshall P. Wilder, Volume III, New York and London: Funk and Wagnalls and Company, 1911; pp. 569-571.
THE DYING GAG
BY JAMES L. FORD
There was an affecting scene on the stage of a New York theater the other night — a scene invisible to the audience and not down on the bills, but one far more touching and pathetic than anything enacted before the footlights that night, although it was a minstrel company that gave the entertainment.
It was a wild, blustering night, and the wind howled mournfully around the street corners, blinding the pedestrians with the clouds of dust that it caught up from the gutters and hurled into their faces.
Old man Sweeny, the stage doorkeeper, dozing in his little glazed box, was awakened by a sudden gust that banged the stage door and then went howling along the corridor, almost extinguishing the gas-jets and making the minstrels shiver in their dressing-rooms.
“What! You here to-night!” exclaimed old man Sweeny, as a frail figure, muffled up in a huge ulster, staggered through the doorway and stood leaning against the wall, trying to catch his breath.
“Yes; I felt that I couldn’t stay away from the footlights to-night. They tell me I’m old and worn out and had better take a rest, but I’ll go on till I drop,” and with a hollow cough the Old Gag plodded slowly down the dim and drafty corridor and sank wearily on a sofa in the big dressing-room, where the other Gags and Conundrums were awaiting their cues.570
“Poor old fellow!” said one of them, sadly, “He can’t hold out much longer.”
“He ought not to go on except at matinees,” replied another veteran, who was standing in front of the mirror trimming his long, silvery beard, and just then an attendant came in with several basins of gruel, and the old Jests tucked napkins under their chins and sat down to partake of a little nourishment before going on.
The bell tinkled and the entertainment began. One after another the Jokes and Conundrums heard their cues, went on, and returned to the dressing-room, for they all had to go on again in the after-piece. The house was crowded to the dome, and there was scarcely a dry eye in the vast audience as one after another of the old Quips and Jests that had been treasured household words in many a family came on and then disappeared to make room for others of their kind.
As the evening wore on the whisper ran through the theater that the Old Gag was going on that night — perhaps for the last time; and many an eye grew dim, many a pulse beat quicker at the thought of listening once more to that hoary Jest, about whose head were clustered so many sacred memories.
Meanwhile the Old Gag was sitting in his corner of the dressing-room, his head bowed on his breast, his gruel untasted on the tray before him. The other Gags came and went, but he heeded them not. His thoughts were far away. He was dreaming of old days, of his early struggles for fame, and of his friends and companions of years ago. “Where are they now?” he asked himself, sadly. “Some are wanderers on the face of the earth, in comic operas. Two of them found ignoble graves in the ‘Tourists’ ’ company. Others are sleeping beneath the daisies in Harper’s ‘Editor’s Drawer.’ ”571
“You’re called, sir!”
The Old Gag awoke from his reverie, started to his feet, and, throwing aside his heavy ulster, staggered to the entrance and stood there patiently waiting for his cue.
“You’re hardly strong enough to go on to-night,” said a Merry Jest, touching him kindly on the arm; but the gray-bearded one shook him off, saying hoarsely:
“Let be! Let be! I must read those old lines once more — it may be for the last time.”
And now a solemn hush fell upon the vast audience as a sad-faced minstrel uttered in tear-compelling accents the most pathetic words in all the literature of minstrelsy:
“And so you say, Mr. Johnson, that all the people on the ship were perishing of hunger, and yet you were eating fried eggs. How do you account for that?”
For one moment a deathlike silence prevailed. Then the Old Gag stepped forward and in clear, ringing tones replied:
“The ship lay to, and I got one.”
A wild, heartrending sob came from the audience and relieved the tension as the Old Gag staggered back into the entrance and fell into the friendly arms that were waiting to received him.
Sobbing Conundrums bore him to a couch in the dressing-room. Weeping Jokes strove in vain to bring back the spark of life to his inanimate form. But all to no avail.
The Old Gag was dead.