Thursday, 21 December 2017

The Edinburgh Masks (2017)

[Note: Christmas and the New Year are about to overtake this blog. I'll be back in 2018, but for now I leave you with a short story in the Wellsian manner. I wrote it earlier this year, prompted by Wells's ‘The Temptation of Harringay’ (St. James’s Gazette, 9 February 1895), which was collected in The Stolen Bacillus and Other Incidents. Harringay is a mediocre artist who paints a devil that magically comes alive, offering him the usual Faustian deal; but, panicked, Harringay paints over his canvas with a thick layer of green. It seemed to me that Wells hadn't followed-through the implications of his premise, so I rewrote the story with an actor rather than a painter, and carried the story on a little way beyond the actual diabolical offer. The result was published in the Edinburgh Festival special-edition of Shoreline of Infinity (an excellent magazine that deserves your support). And now, since it's the time of year for ghost-stories and Gothic-y neo-Victoriana, I thought I'd post it here. Merry Christmas everyone!]

His Iago was no good. Not that the audience seemed to have noticed. Or they noticed but didn’t care. Harringay cared, of course, and now Harringay was sitting beside him in the Theatre Royal’s dressing room extirpating his negro face with cold cream and a rag. ‘Did you eat, old boy?’ Foresman tried. ‘We could pick up a crumb in the King’s Charger.’

‘I ate before the performance,’ said Harringay, coldly. ‘And of course Mrs Harringay is expecting me.’

‘Of course.’

As Harringay rose, Foresman blurted: ‘I’ll perk up the evil, tomorrow, old chap, you know.’ Harringay, walking out, did not reply.

‘And a good evening to you, sir,’ Foresman said, mournfully, to his reflection in the dressing-room mirror. ‘And to you sir a very good evening.’

At the stage door the porter clasped Foresman’s elbow, and then disappeared into his nook. Foresman waited as patiently as he was able, patience not really being his forte. The whole of Edinburgh was hissing him softly, just on the far side of the exit door. The whole city. He called through to the little back room: ‘Macbrie, did Mr Hellespont leave a note concerning the casting of A Way To Pay Old Debts?’

‘Not at all, sir,’ came Macbrie’s voice.

The Ragpicker of Paris? He assuredly mentioned a role in The Ragpicker of Paris last week.’

‘Not that sir.’

‘He may have left a note.’

Macbrie re-emerged, holding a wrapped object the size of a small guitar. ‘No note, sir, though Mr Hellespont did call, left flowers for Miss Gertie.’

‘And that?’

‘This, sir.’

‘And that’s for me?’

‘Yes sir,’ said Macbrie, holding the thing out. ‘I’ve wrapped it in oilcloth against the rain, but will be obliged when you return the cloth, coming in for tomorrow’s performance.’

Foresman almost groaned at the thought of going through the whole sorry charade again tomorrow. For when my outward action doth demonstrate The native act and figure of my heart—oh, he could weep. Veritably weep! ‘What is it?’

‘Masks,’ said Macbrie.


‘Such of smiling, and also of the frowning, masks,’ said Macbrie, ‘as signify the theatrical arts, sir.’

‘I don’t understand,’ said Foresman. ‘Are you sure they’re for me?’

‘Individual most particular, directed them to you.’

‘Mr Hellespont?’

‘Not at all, quite different individual,’ said Macbrie.


‘Didn't leave a name,’ said Macbrie.

‘I don’t understand,’ said Foreman, rubbing his tired eyes. ‘Are they a gift?’

‘Will be appreciative,’ muttered Macbrie, ‘upon the return of the oilcloth on the occasion of you coming in tomorrow, sir.’

Foresman took the parcel, and turned up his collar, and stepped through the stage door into the rain outside. The night sky all geese, the universe mocking his Iago, as he picked his way up the murk of Leith Way to his digs. It took three separate bouts of knocking before Mrs McHoakham opened her door, and he was thoroughly wet by the time he got to his room. He lit a candle. There was but half a shovelful of coal left. He had no desire to haggle with Mrs McHoakham about obtaining more, not so late in the night. Still: he could hardly sit there, shivering wet in the cold. He made what small fire he could in the grate, and scraped off his wet clothes and wrapped a blanket about his shoulders. There was a kneecap sized bit of bread left, and some cheese, hard, and he ate these, and washed it all down with whisky—to warm himself, he said, rather than because he felt maudlin.

He took a look at the masks.

They were, as the porter had said, the masks of comedy and tragedy, carved in dark wood—ebony, perhaps—and linked together with a bar at the back. For display, presumably. There was a curious aspect to their design, for they were carved in such a way as they retained their expressions when inverted. This tromp l’oeil design intrigued Foresman. The creased brow on Tragedy became its woestruck mouth when the pair were turned about, and the laughing raised brows of Comedy performed the same function for that face’s smiling lips. It was a gimmick of course, but quite a cunning one. But who had gifted it to him? He ought to have pressed McBrie on the provenance of the thing. They might be valuable. They were certainly curious. Perhaps he could pawn them?

His Iago had been bad tonight.

Foresman leaned the double mask against the wainscot beside the fireplace and looked down upon the thing. He sipped a little more whisky. From time to time he reached down and turned the connected faces turvy-topsy, and then he looked at them some more. The fire cracked one of its coals with a gunshot sound, and it was as if the mask coughed. When it began to speak he was almost not surprised.

‘Frederick Albert Foresman,’ said the left hand mask—Tragedy. Its voice was bright, for so mournful a face.

‘Moses and Mary!’ exclaimed the actor.

‘Sitting in your chair,’ said the mask, ‘squinting and scowling.’

‘I am drunk,’ said Foresman in a loud voice, as if trying to persuade himself. ‘Or you are possessed by a devil.’

‘A,’ agreed the mask, ‘or the, and you’re not so very drunk.’ Its mouth opened and closed with no splintering of the liquorish-coloured wood. It flowed and folded exactly like skin. The hollowed-out eyes narrowed, and widened. There was something indescribably unnerving about it.

‘No, no,’ said Foresman. ‘I’ve no desire to talk to the devil.’ A twist of the old, old fear, the oldest in fact, of human anxiety in the face of the rivalry of brute nature against human hope, swelled in his abdomen. On a whim he reached down and turned the double-mask about, as if that would silence it. It still spoke, but now it was the right-hand mask, grinning at the cosmic hilarity of it all, out of which the words came.

‘Your whole life has been dedicated to Thespis,’ said the mask, smilingly. ‘You have only ever wanted to be a great actor. And yet your acting is mediocre!’

Foresman reached down and picked up the linked masks, with a half-formed idea of tossing them on the fire. It was burning low now, the meagre supply of coals consuming themselves to nothing.

‘Stay your hand,’ said the mask. ‘I want to make you an offer—a genuine offer. You lack inspirations for your craft, and I can supply those.’ Foresman peered closely at the artefact. Under his fingers it was unimpeachably wood, carved and solid. And yet the mouth moved, and the wood, hard to the touch, had the fluidity of flesh. ‘At the cost of my soul, I suppose?’

‘A bargain must be reciprocal to be a bargain, of course.’

‘Oh I am drunk,’ said Foresman. ‘Drunk on Scottish whisky! Drunk on despair!’

‘And what good is your soul to you,’ the mask asked, ‘in such a predicament?’

‘Do you think I want to go to perdition simply for the acting of a tolerable Iago before a crowd of Scotsmen munching oranges and cracking nuts?’

‘One performance, only?’ the mask said. ‘No. That would be a cheap of me, insulting cheap. I am more generous than that. I offer you seven.’

‘Seven performances?’

‘Complete runs, naturally. If you contract for a twelvemonth as Volpone, then that whole twelvemonth shall be one seventh of my bargain. Seven! The greatest performances in the history of theatre, to be the talk of ages to come wherever the drama is discussed. Seven indubitable masterpiece performances, all for a Chelsea actor’s soul. It's a bargain?’

Perhaps Foresman was not so assiduous about attending church as he ought to be, but that did not mean he had forgotten all his Sunday School teaching. The thought came to him, then, of his long-suffering mother, and her cough like a shovel of gravel being tuned over in her chest, the cough that had increased in frequency from a few times an hour to a few times a minute, and which had gained resonance and penetration as it began spotting her white handkerchiefs red. Some of her devotion to God and goodness had rubbed off even on father, even though it mostly manifested in him as superstition. How could a son resist it? Throw the demonic toy in the flames, before the flames died away entirely—for if the fire died out, he’d be stuck with its yammering all through the night.

Foresman drew it back to toss the thing in. ‘Seven,’ said the mask, again.

And he hesitated.

He put the mask back in his lap, and picked up his whisky tumbler. And this was the thought going through his mind: if I am contracted, on pain of losing my eternal soul, to seven performances, and I only give six, then I cheat the devil of his bargain, and make a mighty reputation for myself at the same time. This thought woke something like childish delight inside him, at his own cunning. Why, he told himself, I could do five great performances, and retire, with two in hand, to be on the safe side! Or I could even—for who is to say I won’t?—I could even agree to this bargain, return to the Royal tomorrow and triumph as Iago and then walk away! Wouldn’t it be worth it, to see the expression on Harringay’s black-painted face? To make Hellespont come crawling back to me with offers of Hamlet and Oedipus and Richard III?

‘How would I accede to this bargain you are offering?’ he asked.

‘Say the word,’ said the mask, turned about now to tragedy. ‘Say yes and it will be sealed.’

‘And you will hold to your part of it?’

‘Such things are governed by a power beyond mine to suborn,’ said the mask. ‘You can trust that I will hold to it, however much I might wish to break it.’

‘Yes,’ said Foresman, and threw the mask in the fire.

The wood took a while to catch, and for several minutes it only smoked an oily-looking black smoke that went straight up the flue. Foresman wondered if the thing was going to scream in pain, or in betrayal, but the faces were fixed now, and silent, and soon enough the flames caught at the wood and the little room became, for a short while at any rate, quite cosy and warm. Foresman finished his whisky, and then betook himself to bed, and he slept a deep sleep, and woke in the morning feeling unsure whether the whole thing had been a waking dream, or even, conceivably, a dreaming dream.

Except that there were fragments of charred wood in the grate. And here, on the windowsill, was Mcbrie’s oilcloth, folded and ready to be returned.

He felt just the same in the daylight as he had done the previous day, and in all the days that before that one, so he decided that the previous night had been nothing more than hallucination. The first intimation he had that things were different was when he stepped onto the stage for the matinee, striding alongside Barnaby’s foppish Roderigo. His first word, a sblood, got lost somewhere in a strange little hiccough of the diaphragm, but then
If ever I did dream of such a matter, Abhor me
came out with a strange force. And all through the first act he could feel something new in his performance, a magnetic quality that held the audience still and rapt. By the time of the thus do I ever make my fool my purse monologue, it was manifest that something special was occurring in the stage. Foresman could see the whole company who were not on stage gathered in both wings to watch the performance, which was unprecedented. At the play’s end the auditorium was filled with a thunderstorm of applause, with hootings and bravos, and when the cast took their bows he—Freddie Foresman, of Oakley Street London—received a greater volume of accolade even than Harringay. That didn’t make the old boy happy, of course. You could see that because he put on a smiling face, and congratulated Foresman a little too heartily, and shook his hand with a touch too much vigour. But the rest of the cast, and all the stage hands, crowded round him, and they took him off to a local tavern and treated him to beer. ‘Did you see Harry’s hangdog face?’ laughed Barnaby. ‘How he hates to be upstaged!’ ‘He’s waiting to see if you can replicate that marvel in the first evening show,’ was Slattery’s opinion. ‘If you do, old boy, oh he’ll be furious.’

And so it proved. Foresman was even more electric in the evening show. Afterwards he literally hear Harringay grinding his teeth as he shook his hand goodnight.

The following day the rumour was that Harringay and Hellespont had had a falling out. The old Greek had heard something was up and taken the rare step of attending the evening performance, said Slattery. Harringay wanted Foresman dismissed from the company, and Hellespont wasn’t having any of that, so they two had had Words. It did nothing to improve Harringay’s Moor, which only made Foresman’s Iago shine the brighter. By the end of the week there were notices in the paper, and tickets for the remainder of the run were sold out. Unprecedented! And everybody knew it had nothing to do with Harringay’s creaky old Let me not name it to you you chaste stars. You could hear the collective indrawn breath of the audience as Foresman delivered I hate the Moor. It was like a steam whistle.

Hellespont was, suddenly, all over him; treating him to food, arranging for superior digs closer to the theatre, and—mirabile!—offering him leads. Leads! ‘Don’t eh-want to eh-waste you, my boy,’ he said, confidentially, ‘in Ragpicker. Trash, that play. Trash. Eh-we need a classic to eh-show you off, like fine jewel in eh-gold. Hamlet! It is too common a mistake,’ he pronounced, slapping his meaty palm on the table, ‘that eh-Hamlet is cast too old. Eh-fifty, sixty, seventy, eh-absurd! Hamlet is eh-young man’s role.’

It was the first Foresman had heard of any Hamlet run. ‘Here, in Edinburgh?’

‘London!’ howled Hellespont, positively howled, and clapped for more wine to be brought over.

It was all a whirl, and Foresman was carried along with it. It was not until the Saturday of the penultimate week that any thought as to consequences rose up in his brain. It was a chance comment, after yet another storming performance, and Harringay had petulantly left the stage whilst the rest were still taking their bows, and all but he had repaired to the King’s Charger for post-play drinks. It was here that Miss Gertie—very attentive to him, now, when before she hadn’t so much as deigned to notice him in the hallway—made a passing comment about how Freddie must have struck a deal with an old Highland witch to transform his acting so. That was too close to the bone to be comfortable. Slattery mocked her for not being able to distinguish her Highlands and her Lowlands and she retorted that the whole Land of Scots should split their differences and settle upon a Middle-Height-lands. Foresman laughed and quaffed and staggered back to his spacious hotel room, where, without him having to ask, a boy was sent up by Management to light the fire for him. Still the thought chewed at the edges of his mind. Had he struck a deal?

He didn’t have to consider the question. He knew he had.

He consoled himself with the thought that he had contracted for seven famous performances, and had performed but the one. Six in hand! He could Hamlet himself to fame in London, and take a free choice of a follow up role, and then retire—retiring at twenty-six would only cement his reputation as the greatest of the great, surely. And no longer-term harm would be done. He resolved this with himself, and went so far as foolishly to shake his own hand on it, before a mirror, grinning like an idiot, before filling the chamber pot and going to bed. But his night was not peaceful, and dark dreams kept trembling him to the lip of wakefulness before sinking him back down again. In the morning, to the sound of church bells, he washed quickly and dressed perfunctorily and scurried along to a granite church on Lothian road that had a spire like a poignard—chosen only because it was the closest. Here he took a seat at the back, and endured an interminable sermon, and sang hymns where he wasn’t sure of the Scots melody, and prayed when everybody prayed. Afterwards, strolling in the Sunday sunlight, he felt better. He had not, he decided, cut himself off irrevocably from the mercy and the love of God. The church doors were always open to him.

For the time being, at any rate, his inner voice whispered.

For the time being.

Othello came to the end of its run, and Harringay became uncharacteristically drunken at the after-gathering, and made a scene (appropriate for an actor, that, when you came to think of it) publicly accusing Foresman of spying on him in order to steal his (Harringay’s) acting tricks and shifts and so pass himself off as a new Edmund Kean in side-whiskers. He, Harringay, he had performed at a private show for Princess Alexandra! Prince Christian of Denmark himself had commended him, after he (Harringay) had performed Alceste the Misanthrope in the original French, mark you! Then Harringay sat down, and doubled over, and was sick onto his own shins and shoes, and Hellespont had to take him home. Foresman had never felt so elated. If ever his spirits sagged, even for a moment, he reminded himself inwardly that he had six performances in hand—even if he only used a couple of them, he had ample opportunity to establish his reputation as the greatest actor of his epoch. Of all time!

And so he came down to London and began rehearsals for Hamlet, and even in the poky Chancery Lane rooms Hellespont had hired for the read-throughs the magic was palpable. The other players noted it. People treated him with a new respect. The show opened at the Aquarium in Wesminster, recently renamed the Imperial Theatre. Never have reviews so universally dithyrambic appeared in the national press! Never has word-of-mouth spread so quickly! The Times called Foresman’s the definitive Hamlet of the age. Audiences gasped and sighed at his monologues, and wept at his death. He received letters by the satchelful, praising, exhorting, begging for personal meetings. Grown men wrote to say that watching him play had convinced them to reform their lives. Women offered themselves in marriage.

The run made Foresman relatively little money, since wily Hellespont kept him on a flat fee rather than cutting him a percentage. Beforehand the fee had seemed to the young actor princely, but by the end of the run he understood that he had been swindled. Still he had four more charmed performances in hand, retaining the buffer-zone of the seventh unutilised, so there was no need to scrape by. He was firm with Hellespont: no more sharp practice, or he would take himself off to another manager who would treat him better. The Greek made convincing atonement, and together they drew up plans for a lavish production of Taylor’s Ticket-of-Leave Man, with Foresman as Brierly, and Henry Gartside Neville, no less, as Hawksmoor. The deal was a fifty-fifty split of all profits, with Neville paid out of Hellespont’s share. The play opened at the Gaiety, on the Strand, and ran for two years.

It made Foresman rich, which had been the idea. It added to his glory, too. Reviewers declared that his performance translated a creaky old melodrama into high art—never before, said Sir Taylor Brindsley in the London Gazette, had the pathos, humanity and dignity of Brierly’s situation come home to him with such force. Though the groundlings might still applaud and weep as the plot turned its surprises round and about, the more discerning audience member would see, for the first time, that this was a play capable of interrogating the randomness of chance in human affairs, the power of human endurance and the redemptive power of love.

Swept up by his own powers, Foresman proposed marriage to his new sweetheart, beautiful young Marie Delaroche. The ceremony was covered in all the society papers. He bought a Mayfair townhouse, retained three servants and a cook, and settled into a comfortable life.

Long before the run came to an end, Foresman was besieged by theatrical agents propositioning him. His morning mail was equal parts letter from adoring members of the public, and proposals of new productions. Hellespont begged him to continue, but Foresman was wealthy enough now, and shook his head. At this Hellespont begged to be taken on as Foresman’s agent, and to this, to save himself the pettifogging bother of managing himself, or finding another agent for the position, Foresman agreed.

He had three charmed performances in hand, and decided to use only one more of them: for he did not want future histories of the Victorian stage to record that his last rôle on stage had been in a crowd-pleaser like Ticket-of-Leave Man. So he contracted to perform as Pentheus, in a new translation of Euripides Bacchae by a young Irishman called Wilde. Fanny Kemble was persuaded to play Agave, and the play was an immediate critical hit. Foresman had insisted upon an open-ended run, for he had had resolved with himself that this would be his swan song, and there was no urgency about such a thing. Critics loved it, of course. He himself could feel the power he exuded upon the stage—audiences gasped and clutched their hands to their chest. Yet the play was not so successful, financially, as had been the Ticket of Leave Man. It was a bald truth: no matter how good he was in the part, Greek Tragedy was too refined and high a taste for the average London theatre-goer, and the lavishness of the production made it harder than it would otherwise have been to turn a profit. Foresman blamed himself: it had been pride, and the thought that this would be his last show, that had prompted him to spare no expense, and when he called an end to the run, the house two thirds empty for most performances, it was to discover that the entire exercise, so far from being financially advantageous, had cost him somewhere near £1000.

That was provoking, of course. He had his clippings book, and the reviews were as adoring as ever; although perhaps even there a sense was creeping into the critics’ prose that wonders and splendour were routine for an actor such as he. That was the very least that might be expected. They were, he complained to Marie, taking him granted. Him! Marie bowed her head and murmured agreement.

Still—Iago, Hamlet, Briers and Pentheus, out of the seven, still left him two in hand and one to be left over. He could afford to rescue his financial situation with another leading role, and then retire—move into management, to directing other players, writing his memoirs, teaching acting at ten guineas an hour. There were many possibilities. So he played Mathias, in a revival of The Bells; and the papers agreed with impressive unanimity that he had laid the ghost even of Henry Irving’s celebrated performance. He cleared more than £4000 after two years and took Marie on a Continental tour by way of celebration.

Now was the time to call it a day. There was no question about that. Foresman invested a sum of money in a school for actors, and for a while was content. Marie suffered two miscarriages in consecutive years, the second of which put her life in danger for weeks; and afterwards he took a house in the south of France for the winter to help her convalesce. They liked it down there so much they stayed through the following year, and saw in the new century on the Continent. When Foresman returned to London it was to discover that his acting school had so far failed to prosper in his absence as to have become a dead loss. His personal tuition drew some students, but the school as a whole was failing, losing money quarter after quarter, and in 1902 there was nothing to do but close it. It was provoking, but it couldn't be helped.

A new generation of actors were being celebrated on the London stage, some of them (provokingly enough) in terms that echoed the praise Foresman had enjoyed in his day. It dawned on him slowly that he was yesterday’s man. His name was mentioned with respect, but his fame was a historical curio rather than a living fact. He tried to accept this, and, hiring an amanuensis, devoted a summer to writing his life story. He did not mention the Edinburgh masks, of course. A folk tale, and such an implausible one, could only be harmful his reputation. Quite apart from anything else, he did not want people crediting his electrifying dramatic performances to anything other than his genius as an actor. The book did moderately well. Reviews were respectful rather than enthusiastic. Sales were modest. It didn’t matter. He had never wanted to be an author. And anyway. Did he really believe that the masks were what underwrote his success? Poor, tired and a little drunk, a mere speculative vision in an Edinburgh bedsit. He didn’t even know whom had gifted him the masks—when he had asked, the porter at the theatre had not recalled.

There were whole hours—stretches of continuous time, in the brightness of daylight—when he almost convinced himself that the whole of that business was just a quirk of his youth. A mere fancy. But then twilight would soak into the world, and he gaslights would shine their light, and clouds of birds would mesh with the trees that lined the road and settle for the night, and the simple truth of his bargain reverted to his mind. He had made the deal. He had said ‘yes’.

He wished he had been more acute when it came to striking the bargain. He could, for instance, have insisted upon the right to choose when he would act magnificently, and so intersperse his grand performances with a number of mediocre ones. But that possibility was not open to him now. Marie’s health improved a little, but he himself suffered badly from gout. He took to walking with a stick.

A writer came to interview him for a book, Great Actors of the Nineteenth-Century. ‘And might I ask, sir, why you elected to retire from the stage?’

‘It was,’ Foresman lied, smoothing his moustache between finger and thumb, ‘so as to be better placed to care for my wife.’

Marie was sick again, certainly, although she required little by way of care, for she spent most of her time in bed. Her lungs got worse, and then stabilised, and then worsened again. Foresman took a house in Cannes, overlooking a sea as blue as Marie’s own eyes. Hers was a slow decline, but inexorable; and two years in France all but drained Foresman’s funds. Besides which, Marie was homesick for England. So he sold his Mayfair house and bought a small place in the countryside, near Bagshot. He became a regular communicant at All Saints Church, and prayed to God every night before going to bed, like an earnest schoolboy. He had not gone beyond the pale—he knew it, in his heart, his whole spirit told him. Seven great performances the devil had told him, and he had given the world five, five towering acting roles that transformed people’s lives. He had done it, and cheated the devil of his bargain. It was the glory of God in the end, that was what mattered.

But his life felt thin. He was content, or more-or-less content, but there was a thinness in the days. Life was less vivid nowadays. Perhaps all men felt this, as they grew older. Foresman strode up and down Berkshire lanes in the summer sun, cutting down the tall dandelions with his walking stick as if he were decapitating the enemy. Something missing, some infant voice echoing in his mind, I want, I want.

Marie grew more sick. The medical bills combined with Foresman’s habitual financial improvidence to push him into debt. It wasn’t the debt that sent him back to the stage, though. Or it wasn’t only the debt. He was finding it hard to live as a once-was, a historical footnote. He was only in his fifties! Some of the greatest actors had done their best work at his age. And he had two performances in hand before he reached the seven. He could spare one more.

Hellespont was dead, now, but there were other theatrical agents only too happy to arrange a return of the Great Foresman to the London stage. He chose Macbeth, a play, he felt sure, that would draw an audience. And it was a success, too: a year’s run booked-in, remarkable notices, audiences rapt. And it brought something back into Foresman’s life the thing that he had not been able to put a name to—it was power, the power to hold the crowd’s attention, to manipulate their emotions, to reach into their hearts and wrench the tender muscle.

His Macbeth was a triumph, no question. But the play Macbeth lived up to its malign reputation. Stuttercock, playing Banquo, broke his ankle. Duncan had a stroke. A man died of a heart attack in row seven—died in Act One, but wasn’t discovered dead until Act Four when his companion finally noticed and began shrieking and wailing. The set caught on fire, although the blaze was contained. A motor truck crashed into the foyer, causing two concussions and a shattered collar-bone amongst the exiting crowd. Rumour wandered London wearing his coat of many tongues, and people stayed away. People came to the box office to return their tickets and made a fuss when they did not receive a full refund. Foresman was in his dressing room, having delivered an electrifying performance to a quarter-full auditorium, when the news was delivered to him that Marie had died. They had known earlier, but hadn’t wanted to put him off his stride for the evening show.

He nodded. Of course.

He turned down the offer of a cab and walked his way back to his hotel through the narrow canyons of London’s highways. Down to the Thames to rest his eyes and cool his head, watching the variegated lights upon the river. Through the arches of Waterloo Bridge a hundred points of light, white, and orange, and red, marked the sweep of the Embankment, and above its parapet rose the towers of Westminster, a dead grey block against the starlight. The black river went by with only a rare ripple breaking its silence, passing over its oiled surface like a snake to disturb the reflections of the lights.

He’d been a fool, he saw. It came to him with shattering certainty. His pride had brought him to the very brink—six performances of the seven the Devil had promised him, and though they were great, they mattered no more than and flotsam sweeping down the river in the nighttime. In two decades he would be dead, and in fifty years he would be a footnote in a dusty academic history of the theatre that nobody read, and in a thousand years London itself would be mere ruins. If H G Wells was to be believed, in a hundred thousand years there would not be such creatures as homo sapiens anywhere upon the face of the globe—and yet all that time would pass like an eyeblink for God in his citadel of eternity.

Why had he taken such an absurd risk? Pride, only pride. Had he truly believed that his prancing about on stage in any way magnified the glory of God? Attempting a cheat the Prince of Darkness of his bargain, all the while accruing worldly glory and fame and money for himself? His folly was laid bare to him. It was all pride, absurd pride, dangerous and sinful pride.

There, in the open air beside the great river, Foresman went onto his knees and prayed to God.

The next day he arranged for the cancellation of the run. His manager put up some small objection, but Foresman could see he was secretly relieved. The end was reported on page 3 of Variety, and adverts were taken out at the back of the respectable dailies offering refunds to advance ticket holders. Foresman returned to his Bagshot house, hollow and echoing without Marie. He ought to have been with her when she passed. That fact brought tears to his eyes.

He went into mourning, and was more assiduous in his church attendance, and prayed ever more lengthily each night. But he could at least take comfort from one thought: that though he had come to the brink, he had not stepped over the lip. He had a vision of his own future—brooding over the one great performance that still left in him, but which could only be purchased at the cost of his soul. He saw himself waiting through all the long years of the rest of his life, eating up his own heart in bitterness, obsessing over it, until finally he could take it no longer. Finally he would crack. But of course he would crack, his mind worrying away at the thought of it like a tongue probing a raging tooth—he would fall, and walk the boards again as Agamemnon or Sir Peter Teazle or Tartuffe, to applause and admiration and his own eternal damnation. Like a man addicted to some terrible opium, he would be unable to resist.

How close it had been!

But though the Devil was strong, God was stronger. Foresman turned his back on the theatrical world, repudiated it utterly. The nation was on the brink of war with Germany, and though too old to serve himself, he helped where he could to raise volunteers from the Sunningdale and Ascot parishes. He sold his house and bought a smaller one in the village of Bracknell, resolved to live much more modestly.

He thought about it more and more, and the conclusion was inevitable. It could not be shirked. It was theatre itself that was the problem. The Puritans had been right to ban it! How could it be anything other than a snare of pride, parading yourself before your fellow sinners puffed up in your vanity? Pretending to be someone other than who you were—that is, lying. For what else is acting, in plain language, but the performance of a lie? Foresman had spent decades in that world, and had experienced it at every level, and he knew. Not for nothing was actress practically a synonym for prostitute. Theatre was a gutter art for a gutter age.

He saw then, with a clarity that felt like visionary revelation, what the whole business with the masks had been about. The ways of God are sometimes winding, but they bring the true soul eventually about to redemption—for the Devil had tempted him, and he had dallied with the Devil, thinking to fool him, but had only sunk himself deeper and deeper into pride and misery and spiritual danger. And at the last minute, with only one performance standing between himself and the hot pit of hell, divine grace had touched him.

He arranged to speak with the vicar at All Saints in Ascot—a worthy man called Oldfield, honestly bald of head and bristly of chin, with a courteous manner. ‘Reverend,’ Foresman told him, ‘I have been reflecting on my days as an actor.’

‘As,’ Oldfield said, ingratiatingly, ‘one of the greatest of actors.’

‘That’s it exactly,’ said Foresman. ‘That's exactly it. I have thought about this a good deal, and prayed, and it is clear to me now that all that,’ he gestured behind him with his hand, ‘was—sin.’

‘Come now, my dear Foresman,’ said the vicar. ‘This is no Catholic chapel. Are you really coming to me for confession?’

‘I am speaking less of myself, although of course I know I am a sinner. But I mean the stage itself. The theatre! The Puritans were right to ban it. It is deceit and pride—it is the very performance of deceit and pride. It is the devil’s delight. You don’t ever,’ he added, ‘read of Jesus attending a play, in the New Testament, do you? Or the apostles? They go all over Greece, and write their letters from Corinth and so on. That’s where theatre began, Pagan Greece, but the apostles will have nothing to do with any of that.’ This had seemed to him, when it had occurred to him, sitting alone in his front room, a very powerful and persuasive point, but now that he spoke it aloud to the Reverend it struck him as banal. Oldfield appeared to agree.

‘Come now,’ the vicar said, ‘That Jesus never smoked a cigar, or wore patent leather boots, doesn’t mean that boots and smokes are damned. Some theatre is low and corruptive of morals, of course. But there’s surely nothing intrinsically wicked about the theatre. Why, think of the Mysteries! Or schoolchildren performing a Nativity Play! That’s not …’ Oldfield seemed to lose his thread. ‘I mean, you wouldn’t say that was … ahem. Hem hem!’

Foresman nodded gravely. ‘I’m sure you are correct. I daresay I am—I might say, mine is an overreaction.’ He thought about telling Oldfield about the masks, but it was too foolish and gothic a story to broach now, in a church, in the daylight of a new century. So instead he said: ‘I was in a beastly theatrical dressing room when I heard my wife had passed. I should have been at her side, but I was grubbing for money and popular fame and base glories instead. I’m sure it’s that has poisoned the whole business for me.’

‘Not,’ said Oldfield, looking strangely baffled, ‘on that point, I don’t agree, but—a good deal of modern drama is very injurious to moral health. To moral and spiritual health. No question. A good deal of the Ibsen and Shaw matter is very dangerous. If I had the Lord Chamberlain’s power of veto, I would ban all such things. But Shakespeare is elevating, is he not?’

‘Of course you’re right, Reverend.’

‘Although, now that you raise the matter, Dr Bowdler had a certain insight into Shakespeare. Did he not? There’s a good deal of positive vulgarity, and some active wickedness, in the Bard. Is there not? Mr Foresman, I will confess: before I sat down with you, to talk, today, I had not really thought through this matter. But now that we do talk, I find there is more merit in your position than I had previously considered.’

‘Do you really think so?’

‘You have such a detailed knowledge of that world, sir! What do I know, by comparison? I have seen Charley’s Aunt at Windsor! And I fell asleep during the second half. Mr Foresman, would you be prepared to—you see, I convene a group, it would be too grand to call it a committee, and it is quite unofficial, you understand. But it consists of a dozen of the most eminent local citizens, and it is self-tasked with finding ways to preserve public morals. At a time of war, and such a war as our nation is now engaged in, this work is more important than ever. The soldiers at the front can hardly win if the moral fibre of the country they are defending decays!’

‘Happy to, of course,’ said Foresman, feeling a surge of pleasure. This, he thought, might be his path to full atonement. Those long years playing the devil’s game, acting the devil’s very role on the stage, bewitching those audiences—this, surely, was God giving him the chance to make amends. And perhaps it could only be this way? For who was better placed to talk of this matter than him? As the Vicar said, who had a better grounds on which to speak than he? Paul had to be Saul before he could be redeemed, after all.

Foresman spoke to the group. They were, as Oldfield had been, sceptical but the more he spoke the more he could see his point of view taking hold in them. There was something perilous in the snares of the stage, he said. Who amongst them would be happy to see their own children take up the life of strolling players? Who could countenance their daughter on the stage? What horror! ‘If you knew how close to the cliff-edge of perdition—I choose my words carefully—how very close my acting life took me to disaster. I have repudiated all that, most emphatically repudiated it all.’

He won them over. By the meeting’s end it was agreed that Foresman would write a letter, and they would all sign it, and attribute it to the Committee for the Preservation of Public Morals, All Saints Parish in Berkshire, and see it published in the local paper. And why not, the Rev. Oldfield suggested, the national papers too? Foresman felt a sweet sense of freedom as he drafted the letter—as if this were, finally, releasing him from his devil’s pact. Public testimony to his denial of all his theatrical past would be pleasing to God and would help undo some of the damage he had done. And the letter was published, and in the weeks that followed it attracted other letters, some contemptuous of this new puritanism, and rather more than Foresman expected in support of his position. He addressed a larger caucus of Committee for the Preservation of Public Morals in Old Windsor, in which representatives from parishes in Oxfordshire and Surrey attended. And, at Oldfield’s invitation, he stood up one Sunday to speak to the All Saints congregation.

He spoke briefly, to the point, stressed his experience and the insight it gave him into the theatrical world, and spoke as soberly as he could about the moral danger the stage represented. As he spoke he scanned his audience: respectable burghers and gentlemen, respectable ladies in their Sunday best, well-behaved children. Near the back were two men in military uniform, presumably on leave from the front, one handsome, the other blank-faced, odd-looking. Their presence prompted him to remind the congregation of the tremendous sacrifices being made by the warriors of Britain in the trenches of France and Belgium. Surely we have a duty to keep clean and decent the very thing for which they are fighting? He glanced at the soldiers again, and was again struck by something off about one of them. One was a wide-faced, pleasant looking man with a ginger moustache; but the other … well, it looked as though the other had a mathematical equals-sign, =, where his face should be. It must have been a trick of the light, or the result of a battlefield injury, and Foresman did not wish to stare. He drew himself to a conclusion: nobody wanted all theatres closed down! Good, morally healthy entertainment was a boon to the nation. Plays on moral and religious themes. Bowdlerised Shakespeare. But the government had a duty to intervene to clean the augean stables of contemporary drama for the common good.

Afterwards he stood by the main door, Oldfield at his side, and shook the hands of the gentlemen, and kissed the gloved hands of the ladies, as they left. ‘Such wonderful and inspiring words,’ said one man. ‘I had not considered the matter in that light,’ said an elderly lady, ‘but you have quite persuaded me of your argument.’

‘I’m delighted to hear it, madam.’

The vicar wandered off to talk to some of his parishioners Foresman stood by the door, and squinted into the brightness. The trees seemed to be whispering the word refresh. Ravens moved fluidly overhead. There was a strong scent of jasmine. ‘Sir?’ said a voice.

Foresman turned. It was the soldiers: two young officers, in uniform. The strange face of the one was explained now: for he was wearing a medical facial prosthetic, milky-coloured and with two parallel slits, one for the eyes, another for the mouth. It was a curved plate and looked to have been set from bakelite, or some like substance. Foresman wondered why no space was left for the nose, and then checked himself: for perhaps the poor fellow had no nose left. Perhaps he had suffered terrible burns, or a shell-burst. The brave young man deserved respect, not pity. He bowed stiffly, and shook their hands, one after the other.

‘Sir,’ said the fresh-faced lieutenant, the one with the ginger-moustache, ‘I wanted to say how inspiring your address was. I am ashamed to say I have been a habituée of the theatre for many years.’

‘As have I,’ said the masked man, his voice slightly muffled.

Foresman could see the hale fellow was supporting the injured man, discretely but firmly, holding him by the elbow and with his other hand in the small of his back. ‘I have seen the light, though,’ said ginger moustache. ‘I was in the audience for your Macbeth, sir, you know, in London. Perhaps I shouldn’t say so, given what you have just declared in church—but it was magnificent.’

‘Magnificent,’ echoed the masked man.

‘Thank you,’ said Foresman. ‘I am grateful for the compliment. Although all that is behind me now.’

‘Goodbye to all that,’ said the masked man, in an odd tone.

‘I beg your pardon?’ Foresman said.

‘Excuse me for a moment,’ said ginger-moustache. ‘I must catch Mary Hetherington before she leaves. Algy, will you be …?’

‘I’ll be fine,’ said the masked man. ‘Do not disappoint your sweetheart, Walter.’

‘Nonsense, nonsense,’ Walter replied, but gaily.

He went off.

Without his friend’s support, Algy’s posture sagged a little, but he stayed upright. Foresman turned to face him fully. ‘You have come from the war, sir.’

‘I have left it behind,’ said Algy, sagging a little further. ‘Alas it has not left me.’

Foresman could see the fellow’s eyes through the upper slit, and patches of puckered, red-purple skin around each one. It was revolting, and yet compelling, as such things often are. ‘Where were you stationed, if I might ask?’

‘I have been,’ said Algy, bending a little further, ‘all over. All over the place, Mr Foresman.’ The young soldier’s torso was now bent to the side, almost forty-five degrees from his hips. Foresman wondered about offering to help, to prop him up or lift him up straight. But such an offer might be an impertinence. Then the fellow said: ‘it was a wonderful speech you made,’ and all thoughts Foresman had had about aiding the fellow vanished entirely. Flew straight up into the sky and disappeared. He felt the chill go through him. He felt his heart inside his ribs flutter and wow. ‘Thank you,’ he replied, stunned. He fought down the urge to turn and run. To turn and run. But what would be the point in that? Run—where?

There was no help for it now.

‘You have persuaded these people,’ Algy said, leaning his torso further towards the horizontal, a most precarious looking angle. It was remarkable he did not topple over.

‘No,’ said Foresman, in a low voice.

Algy leaned further down, and his torso swung a little forward. His head was now below his belt. ‘It was,’ he said again, ‘a most persuasive performance.’

‘No,’ repeated Foresman, without force. He looked around him. Everybody was looking at him. People standing single, or in groups of two and three, turned to face him; people standing on the gravel path of the church or in amongst the overgrown gravestones. All were looking at him. Nobody was speaking.

Algy twitched, twitched again, and his torso flopped lower—a contortion of which no ordinary human body could be capable. His head was now on a level with his knees.

‘No,’ said Foresman for the third time.

One final twitch and the body was freakishly bent right round, the torso upside-down parallel to the upright legs, an impossible posture, and yet, here it was. Algy lifted his arms. His head was, grotesquely, now below them. Foresman looked again and saw that his shining eyes were clearly visible, but now through the mask’s mouth-slit. ‘It was in a way,’ the mask said, ‘the best performance of all of them, Frederick Albert Foresman. The best of them all.’

1 comment:

  1. Compelling but odd - I'm a bit at a loss as to what's going on at the end, apart from the obvious.

    Happy Christmas, btw, and all the best for 2018.