The Drama Major
by William G. Schweizer
What, drawn, and talk of peace? I hate the word|
As I hate hell, all Montagues, and thee.
Have at thee, coward!
— William Shakespeare
There was an empty chair in the first row, which made his customary dramatic processional to the rear of the room unnecessary. He was dressed, as always, like the Lautrec poster of Aristide Bruant, with an improbably long crimson scarf wrapped around his neck like a bandaged mummy, the two ends reaching almost to the floor and undoubtedly causing as much discomfort to wear as to behold considering it was only the third week in September. He removed his jacket and then, still standing, commenced to slowly unwind the scarf, mesmerizing the professor and students by this activity. He worked deliberately, and the effect he created was surreal such that it created the expectation that when he reached the end, instead of neck there would be only transparency like the invisible man. But, thankfully, there was neck and the momentary enchantment was broken.
The drama major sat down in his chair, and the Professor returned to his display, an easel bearing a postered genealogy of the French dynasties from the Merovingian and Carolingian to Napoleon III.
The drama major cleared his throat. He raised his arm slightly, but when he made eye contact with the professor he began to speak, even before he was acknowledged. As he spoke, his resonant voice shimmered with echoes of childhood in the Midlands, a flirtation with public school, possibly Harrow, vacations in Mallorca, and four, possibly five, years of high school in New Jersey.
“Professor, I can’t help noticing that name on your list there. He pointed to the genealogy. “Hugh Capet (pronouncing the name in deep baritone and possibly incorrectly so that it sounded like Yucca Boot). So evocative. It reminds me so much of an incident that happened about two years ago. I was doing summer stock. I know, summer stock is so clichéd, but I’m traditional. What can I say? My mother says I was born with a straw hat.” A troubling image of an infant wearing a Van Gogh hat and smoking a pipe occurred to several of the students at once.
“I was doing the lead in The Rainmaker at the Hampton Barn Playhouse. Well second lead. You know the Barn. I’d rather have done Summer and Smoke, more seasonal, but those Hampton people are so non-Freudian. But anyway, The Rainmaker, greatest piece for an actor’s actor ever penned. Chiquita called me and said just six words and then hung up. Those six simple words were ‘The Rainmaker’, ‘second lead’, and ‘guess who’. A week later I was on the train to the Hamptons.”
“Sounds glamorous but you know how it can be. Cast hastily assembled with no auditions. But did anyone hear me complain? I never audition myself since I made José’s no aud’ list, and Heaven and Chiquita only know how I got there. But then, this wasn’t Broadway after all.”
“But all was not to be strawberries and cream. The director was a troglodyte, a philistine, a sloth.”
The drama major paused for an instant, and all in the classroom sensed the advent of an unhappy turn of events.
“Herr Doktor Professor Director, he was Viennese, announced that since we were all familiar with the dialogue we should concentrate on the physicality and start with the fencing scene. Funny, I didn’t remember a fencing scene in The Rainmaker, but I’m as progressive as the next guy. He wants me to fence, I’ll fence and so I fenced. Quite well, actually, with only one very trivial mishap. I impaled the script guy in his groin fold, but the less said about that the better. They guaranteed he would walk without a limp.”
“The director was very insensitive, and he most certainly did not know the play. He kept calling my character Tibbeled or something like that. Then the costumes. Tights for the men and not only tights but tights in ghastly colors, canary and melon. And it dawned on me that we were doing the play as a period piece, very avant, and everyone was doing these very Elizabethan accents and mangling the dialogue.”
“Anton, my voice coach, I found Anton after Susan dropped me, always says the secret to doing dialect is not to reproduce the accent exactly because if you do you then sound merely like a foreigner and foreigners tend to be distrusted and occasionally disliked. So rather than strive for straight Elizabethan I went for something more like an English expatriate living in nineteenth century Japan with a touch of cockney. It struck just the right chord, as I knew it would. And despite that clod of a director I thought, “I can make this happen,” but I always think that way.”
“So we rehearsed and I can tell you I got a real education in how not to block a scene. I’ll grant that our director had the right feel for the love story, but the script changes were so numerous and so absurd that it made my head spin. I was quite frustrated, you can imagine, almost ready to catch the train back to Jackson Heights, but “the show must go on,” and there was a consolation. The ingénue. Everyone called her Juliet. She very much resembled a young Katherine Hepburn but with different hair and a different face. I imagined her to be Hungarian, and, considering the four most beautiful women in theater history, Magda, Eva, Jolie, and Zsa Zsa were all Hungarian, one of the world’s most inexplicable coincidences, I fell in love on the spot.”
“When I fall in love I get hungry, and, gazing at Juliet, I began to hanker after a double fried egg on a hard roll, a temptation I repented instantly. I thought, my God, Sir Larry would have had a fit. Larry always ate the same before a performance or even a rehearsal, a green apple peeled and cored, a single glass of chilled Chablis and 75 grams of Camembert. It elevated the soul, coated the gut and preserved the voice, just like his Scotch, Bell’s twelve years old. Larry always said if you were going to drink Scotch fresher than 12 years old you might as well save the money and swallow lye. Someday I may drink lye but it will not be to save money.”
A frisson of hope rippled through the classroom, dissipating immediately.
“Where was I? Oh yes, hungry. Juliet had a sky blue Le Mans convertible that was just made for summer at the shore, and, during the rehearsal week, we took to lunching together on Blue Point oysters at the Oyster Crib in Blue Point. Our summer flirtation proceeded apace, but Juliet started gaining weight so rapidly that I had to put the kibosh on the oyster fest and get her on Sir Larry’s diet except I cut the three ounces of cheese to two. I never knew until then that Hungarians couldn’t metabolize shellfish so I wasn’t about to take a chance with her lactose tolerance.”
“The morning of opening night my brother Montrose called saying he needed a ride to the Hamptons, from Rego Park of all places, two and a half hours each way. I told him that’s what trains are for but he said had a surprise for me and Monty’s surprises were always primo so I conned, I mean persuaded, Juliet to let me take the Le Mans. Monty had bought ten tuxedos, for two hundred bucks, seconds, which he hoped to retail in the Hamptons as unblemished. He had the suits, the pleated shirts, patent leather shoes, ties, and imitation opal studs and cufflinks. Our cousin Augie, who was half Italian, joined us to return for the play, and Monty got the idea we should all arrive wearing a tux which would be good advertising for him and which would definitely add some class to the theatrical opening. We each found a suit that fit perfectly and the party was on.”
“In deference to the costume change we decided to assume the collective persona of the Rat Pack for the return journey to the Hamptons. Monty was Frank, Augie became Dino, of course, and I was Joey Bishop. Augie insisted on returning via Northern State which I knew in my heart was so wrong, but I gave in so as not to spoil the fun.”
“During the bridge in The Lady is a Tramp, Augie, who was driving, turned sideways to enable us all to make eye contact to finish the song properly, and we inadvertently crashed into a taxi occupied by four foxy flight attendants. But they were nice about it. They seemed to think we were headed for a wedding and even gave us some coupons for free headsets on Icelandic for the honeymooners. Even so, the results of the negligence of their taxi driver ate up valuable time, and put a hex on us. After what seemed hours on the parkway we ended up on a two lane back road and Augie refused to admit he was lost until we started seeing people at the roadside with missing teeth and that brilliant white Jean Harlow hair you only get naturally when your parents are cousins.”
A platinum blonde female student in the third row went into a coughing fit, which the drama major ignored.
“Finally we found Montauk Highway and the Playhouse Barn pretty soon after. When we pulled up it was 7:45 and, despite me being exactly on time, the script guy grabbed me in a very rude way, shouting you’re on in thirty seconds. I asked him what about my costume and he said you’re wearing it. After two left turns down corridors with someone shoving a sword in my hand I found myself onstage.”
“In the theater you can’t ever acknowledge someone else’s mistakes. Sure, you can improvise, but you always have to try to reunite with the script.”
The professor sighed. He was all in favor of the concept of reuniting with the script.
“So I was fencing. The audience was shouting “Go Zorro.” I guessed they were reacting to those tights on my opponent, which certainly seemed pretty damn silly considering I was wearing a slightly smoke distressed, but otherwise new, tuxedo. But I went with the script. For a flourish, which I thought the production desperately needed, I leapt impromptu onto one of the paper mache boulders and then turned a high parabolic flip onto the stage. I stuck the landing but those patent leathers were new and slippery, and when I hit the floor I found myself careening toward the wings like an iceboat in a typhoon. I stuck out the sword to stop my slide and who got in the way but that klutzy script guy who was carelessly sitting on a high stool. This time the sword got his starboard groin fold. The good news was that the sword point hit bone fairly quickly. I kept repeating to myself to reunite with the script, reunite with the script, so I summoned up my courage and poise, got back on stage and finished the duel. There had been some blood spatter on the shirt, which the house obviously loved since they were cheering wildly. The audience always loves blood as long as its not their own. I didn’t have to watch the rest of the play to know it was a hit.”
“The cast party was absolutely fantastic. At least I heard it was from Augie and Montrose, who somehow had hooked up with those girls from Iceland. Some idiot in the cast gave me the wrong directions, and I ended up in Yaphank, as if I hadn’t already spent enough time on the road that day.
Well that’s it. Except that Chiquita called me from the Poconos, and instead of congratulations she told me José was scratching me from the no-aud’ list for going missing from The Rainmaker and that I was permanently blackballed from all future productions at the Stroudsburg Barn. Go figure.” The Professor stood at the lectern silent for a moment breathing in deeply and slowly. His eyes twitched slightly and blinked once but did not roll.
“Thank you for that interesting and obviously very personal reminiscence. I seemed to think there would be a connection to today’s topic, but I confess I was so engrossed I may have missed it. Was there a point?”
The drama major was delighted with the invitation to continue.
“That script guy was a Jonah. A total hard luck case, and it also turns out he was actually a very disturbed young man. He had formed the insane delusion that someone was out to get him so he refused to stay at the same hotel with the other actors and insisted on sleeping in the Playhouse. He didn’t know how to operate the lights so he borrowed a kerosene lantern. That’s right. You got it. During the night one of his incisions, possibly both, opened up and he panicked thinking he was bleeding to death despite the fact that the blood was just flowing out, not spurting out. He knocked over the lantern and started a pretty grand fire and since most of the volunteer firemen were at the cast party, by morning the playhouse was Kaput. Just like the name of that first king of France.”
The professor trembled slightly and this time his eyes rolled but not intentionally.
After a dignified interval he addressed the class. “That charming detour used up most of our time. Next time we’ll cover the Bourbons. Any questions. Yes in the back.”
“Yes, Dr. Burns, speaking of the Bourbons, could you tell us again what was the name of that scotch that Larry liked so much?”
Reacting sharply to the question the professor abruptly turned his back on the class. He scribbled furiously at the margin of the genealogy and then turned to read aloud what he had written.
“Bell’s. Bell’s twelve years old. And remember, people, if you’re going to drink anything newer, you might as well swallow lye.”
Copyright © 2005 by William G. Schweizer