CHAPTER XXVII.MATINÉES AND SOIRÉES.
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A matinée in America means an afternoon performance at the theatre of a play or opera. In Europe it has a wider significance, any social gathering before dinner in France being called a matinée, as any party after dinner is called a soirée.
The improper application of another foreign word was strikingly manifested in the old fashion of calling the President’s évening receptions levees. The term “levee,” as originally used, meant literally a king’s getting up. When he arose, and while he was dressing, such of his courtiers as were privileged to approach him at this hour gathered in an anteroom-waiting to assist at his toilet, to wish him goodmorning, or perhaps prefer a request. In time this morning gathering grew to be an important court ceremonial, and some one ignorant of the meaning of the word named President Jackson’s evening receptions “the President’s levees.” So with the word matinée. First used to indicate a day reception at court, it has now grown to mean a day performance at a theatre. Sometimes a lady, bolder than her neighbors, issues an invitation for “a matinée dansante,” or “a matinée musicale,” but this descriptive style is not common.
There are many advantages in a morning party. It affords to ladies who do not go to evening receptions the pleasure of meeting informally, and is also a well-chosen occasion for introducing a new pianist or singer.
For a busy woman of fashion nothing can be more conveniently timed than a matinée, which begins at two and ends at four or half past. It does not interfere with a five-o’clock tea or a drive in the park, nor unfit her for a dinner or an evening entertainment. Two o’clock is also a very good hour for a large and informal general lunch, if a lady wishes to avoid the expense, formality, and trouble of a “sit-down” lunch.
While the busy ladies can go to a matinée, the busy gentleman cannot; and as men of leisure in America are few, a morning entertainment at a theatre or in society is almost always an assemblage of women. To avoid this inequality of sex, many ladies have their matinées on some one of the national holidays–Washington’s Birthday, Thanksgiving, or Decoration-day. On these occasions a matinée, even in busy New York, is well attended by gentlemen.
When, as sometimes happens, a prince, a duke, an archbishop, an author of celebrity, a Tom Hughes, a Lord Houghton, a Dean Stanley, or some descendant of our French allies at Yorktown, comes on a visit to our country, one of the most satisfactory forms of entertainment that we can offer to him is a morning reception. At an informal matinée we may bring to meet him such authors, artists, clergymen, lawyers, editors, statesmen, rich and public-spirited citizens,
and beautiful and cultivated women of society, as we may be fortunate enough to know.
The primary business of society is to bring together the various elements of which it is made up–its strongest motive should be to lighten up the momentous business of life by an easy and friendly intercourse and interchange of ideas.
But if we hope to bring about us men of mind and distinction, our object must be not only to be amused but to amuse.
To persuade those elderly men who are maintaining the great American name at its present high place in the Pantheon of nations to spend a couple of hours at a matinée, we must offer some tempting bait as an equivalent. A lady who entertained Dean Stanley said that she particularly enjoyed her own matinée given for him, because through his name she for the first time induced the distinguished clergy of New York to come to her house.
Such men are not tempted by the frivolities of a fashionable social life that lives by its vanity, its excitement, its rivalry and flirtation. Not that all fashionable society is open to such reproach, but its tendency is to lightness and emptiness; and we rarely find really valuable men who seek it. Therefore a lady who would make her house attractive to the best society must offer it something higher than that to which we may give the generic title fashion. Dress, music, dancing, supper, are delightful accessaries-they are ornaments and stimulants, not requisites. For a good society we need men and women who are “good company,” as they say in England
–men and women who can talk. Nor is the advantage all on one side. The free play of brain, taste, and feeling is a most important refreshment to a man who works hard, whether in the pulpit or in Wall Street, in the editorial chair or at the dull grind of authorship. The painter should wash his brushes and strive for some intercourse of abiding value with those whose lives differ from his own. The woman who works should also look upon the divertissements of society as needed recreation, fruitful, may be, of the best culture.
On the other hand, no society is perfect without the elements of beauty, grace, taste, refinement, and luxury. We must bring all these varied potentialities together if we would have a real and living social life. For that brilliant thing that we call society is a finely-woven fabric of threads of different sizes and colors of contrasting shades. It is not intrigue, or the display of wealth, or morbid excitement that must bind together this social fabric, but sympathy, that pleasant thing which refines and refreshes, and “knits up the ravelled sleeve of care,” and leaves us strong for the battle of life.
And in no modern form of entertainment can we better produce this finer atmosphere, this desirable sympathy between the world of fashion and that of thought, than by matinées, when given under favorable circumstances. To be sure, if we gave one every day it would be necessary, as we have said, to dispense with a large number of gentlemen; but the occasional matinée is apt to catch some very good specimens of the genus homo, and sometimes the best
specimens. It is proper to offer a very substantial buffet, as people rarely lunch before two o’clock, and will be glad of a bit of bird, a cup of bouillon, or a leaf of salad. It is much better to offer such an entertainment earlier than the five-o’clock tea; at which hour people are saving their appetites for dinner.
A soirée is a far more difficult affair, and calls for more subtle treatment. It should be, not a ball, but what was formerly called an “evening party.” It need not exclude dancing, but dancing is not its excuse for being. It means a very bright conversazione, or a reading, or a musicale, with pretty evening dress (not necessarily ball dress), a supper, and early hours. Such, at least, was its early significance abroad.
It has this advantage in New York, that it does attract gentlemen. They like very much the easy-going, early-houred soirée. We mean, of course, those gentlemen who no longer care for balls, and if aristocracy is to be desired, “the rule of the best,” at American entertainments, all aspirants for social distinction should try to propitiate those men who are being driven from the ballroom by the insolence and pretension of the lower elements of fashionable society. In Europe, the very qualities which make a man great in the senate, the field, or the chamber of commerce, give him a corresponding eminence in the social world. Many a gray-mustached veteran in Paris leads the german. A senator of France aspires to appear well in the boudoir. With these men social dexterity is a requisite to success, and is cultivated as a duty. It is not so here, for the two great factors of success in America, wealth and learning, do not
always fit a man for society, and still less does society adapt itself to them.
The soirée, if properly conducted, is an entertainment to which can be brought the best elements of our society elderly, thoughtful, and educated men. A lady should not, however, in the matter of dress, confound a soirée with a concert or reception. It is the height of impropriety to wear a bonnet to the former, as has been done in New York, to the everlasting disgust of the hostess.
When a hostess takes the pains to issue an invitation to a soirpée a week or a fortnight before it is to occur, she should be repaid by the careful dressing and early arrival of her guests. It may be proper to go to an evening reception in a bonnet, but never to a soirée or an evening party.
There is no doubt that wealth has become a power in American society, and that we are in danger of feeling that, if we have not wealth, we can give neither matinées nor soirées; but this is a mistake. Of course the possession of wealth is most desirable. Money is power, and when it is well earned it is a noble power; but it does not command all those advantages which are the very essence of social intercourse. It may pamper the appetite, but it does not always feed the mind. There is still a corner left for those that have but little money. A lady can give a matinée or a soirée in a small house with very little expenditure of money; and if she has the inspiration of the model entertainer, every one whom she honors with an invitation will flock to her small and unpretending ménage. There are numbers of people in our large
cities who can give great balls, dazzle the eye, confuse and delight the senses, drown us in a sensuous luxury; but how few there are who, in a back street and in a humble house, light that lamp by which the Misses Berry summoned to their little parlor the cleverest and best people!
The elegant, the unpretentious, the quiet soirée to which the woman of fashion shall welcome the littérateur and the artist, the aristocrat who is at the top of the social tree and the millionaire who reached his culmination yesterday, would seem to be that Ultima Thule for which all people have been sighing ever since society was first thought of. There are some Americans who are so foolish as to affect the pride of the hereditary aristocracies, and who have some fancied traditional standard by which they think to keep their blue blood pure. A good old grandfather who had talent, or patriotism, or broad views of statesmanship, “who did the state some service,” is a relation to be proud of, but his descendants should take care to show, by some more personal excellence than that of a social exclusiveness, their appreciation of his honesty and ability. What our grandfathers were, a thousand new-comers now are. They made their way — the early American men– untrammelled by class restraints; they arrived at wealth and distinction and social eminence by their own merits; they toiled for the money which buys for their grandsons purple and fine linen. And could they see the pure and perfect snob who now sometimes bears the name which they left so unsullied, they would be exasperated and ashamed, Of course, a certain exclusiveness must
mark all our matinées and soirées; they would fail of the chief element of diversion if we invited everybody. Let us, therefore, make sure of the aesthetic and intellectual, the sympathetic and the genial, and sift out the pretentious and the impure. The rogues, the pretenders, the adventurers who push into the penetralia of our social circles are many, and it is to the exclusion of such that a hostess should devote herself.
It is said that all women are born aristocrats, and it is sometimes said in the same tone with which the speaker afterwards adds that all women are born fools. A woman, from her finer sense, enjoys luxury, fine clothing, gorgeous houses, and all the refinements that money can buy; but even the most idle and luxurious and foolish woman desires that higher luxury which art and intelligence and delicate appreciation can alone bring; the two are necessary to each ether. To a hostess the difficulty of entertaining in such a manner as to unite in a perfect whole the financiers, the philosophers, the cultivated foreigners, the people of fashion, the sympathetic and the artistic is very great; but a hostess may bring about the most genial democracy at the modern matinée or soirée if she manages properly.