Paul was fascinated with the theater. It influenced his thinking and personality more than anything else in his dreary world. He was not a good student because he lived in a fantasy world. Therefore school could not have much influence on his mind. Willa Cather specifies that he was not a reader, and therefore he was not influenced by books either. It is highly significant that he worked as an usher at a theater. According to the narrator:
It was at the theater and at Carnegie Hall that Paul really lived; the rest was but a sleep and a forgetting.
At the time the story was written, 1906, there were no moving pictures, only live drama, or the so-called legitimate theatre. Since Paul's time many millions of young men and women have been captivated by the movies, for better or for worse. Paul is an early example of a young person who is inspired by the dream world of the theater to want to escape from the dreary reality of the world he has to live in. Paul is so impressed by the romanticism of the contemporary theater that he actually becomes an actor in his own world.
...there was something of the dandy about him...
He is always acting. As actors says, he is always "on," meaning that he is always, so to speak, on stage. We have all known young men and young women like that.
In Theodore Dreiser's novel Sister Carrie, published in 1900, John Hurstwood, a much older man than Paul, embezzles money from his employer and flees to Canada and then to New York City with beautiful, young Caroline Meeber. Hurstwood's money runs out, and he eventually ends up committing suicide. It seems likely that Willa Cather was influenced by Dreiser's novel. She knew Dreiser personally.
Cather's tragic story of Paul could be interpreted as a criticism of art in general. She is continually contrasting Paul's dream world with the ugliness of his life in Pittsburgh. Towards the end of the story, when he feels reality closing in on him, he feels sickened.
The gray monotony stretched before him in hopeless, unrelieved years; Sabbath school, Young People's Meeting, the yellow-papered room, the damp dishtowels; it all rush back upon him with a sickening vividness. He had the old feeling that the orchestra had suddenly stopped, the sinking sensation that the play was over.