Almost silhouetted against a pale blue horizon the London skyline’s inner lights, iridescent lights in the black angular and occasionally jagged shapes, came from windows in which people went about their lives: preparing dinners, cleaning flats, watching televisions, drinking with friends, typing on computers, talking on the phone to loved ones far away, etc. People walked the streets to local pubs to watch the evening’s football match and the traffic on A404 resulted largely from the rush to Wembly Stadium for the FA Cup Finals: Chelsea/Manchester. Downtown was a different scene from the smaller neighborhoods surrounding it. They, the neighborhoods, had their own attractions and evening draws: dance clubs, music shows, movies, theatres. A small crowd turned down an alleyway off of Harrow Road.
The marquee read Progressions—Fiona Dempsey’s Debut Play—3 April Thru 9 April. Teeming with collegiate intellectuals, art students, and the kind of people who’d’ve wanted to move to Paris eighty years prior, the queue stretched around the side of the building and moved at a moderate pace through the front door where only eighty-five seats, divided into two sections, awaited. Nineteens had the youngest person in the room, seventy-one the eldest. Less thirty-two from the latter number and that’s the age of the second oldest. The curtain, still draped to the floor, billowed and pulsed between two oscillating fans. Several parties moved steadily toward their seats.
The show began at nine, but Dr Nils Ek had arrived promptly at half-past eight. He sat upright and placed the theatre’s schedule on his lap. Nothing in the room held his gaze for less than a minute, though he hadn’t developed any real thought whilst staring at certain people, things, spaces. Instead, he’d watch one person until another unwittingly came into his view at which point he’d follow them for a moment or so and then find himself staring a piece of the curtain above the stage and after a short while someone would pass in front and carry his sight to another place. Nearly no one in the room noticed him and he did not have to move for any one entering his row as everyone walked down the sides of the two sections, not the centre aisle. And though he was so much older than everyone else he did not feel out of place or even uncomfortable; he oft-found himself the eldest present.
When the curtain rose at precisely nine pm he removed a pencil and pad from his breast pocket. Recording his reactions to the play wasn’t something required by his friend who’d given him the ticket, however Ek knew it would mean a lot to him. Him being Dr Hamm LeRuse, who seemed particularly interested in his former colleague’s reactions to this play, as Ms Dempsey was a student of LeRuse’s only two years before.
Ek noted the incomplete look of the state and was careful not to neglect any of the minute details. The backdrop a large, unfinished painting of a cityscape contained areas of canvas white untouched by the artist. Only a few of the buildings were fully painted, the rest simply drawn with charcoal. Lund Cathedral, he noted. Two arches with sinuous lines between them implied the Brooklyn Bridge, which connected an amalgam of various cities to London, stretched over the Thames. He hadn’t recognized all of the buildings, but assumed they were not fictitious. Ivan the Great’s Bell Tower, the Fernsehturm, and the Rijks Museum stood around the Cathedral, but remained unnamed in his notes.
A six-by-six square of myriad greens from brushes of all sizes in the upper left corner supported a ladder with paint cans hanging on each side. Two lights hung in staggering positions and only one stood on the stage. The two light bulbs, about nine feet from the stage, had a noticeable difference in wattage: the brighter being on the right side. And a wrought iron structure stood about four feet tall and marked the centre of the stage, peaked with a sphere of dim light, a level of dimness sightly lesser than the light above it to the left.
Ek’s study of the stage lasted exactly ten minutes before a man entered stage-right and walked toward the ladder and paint cans. Dressed in crew attire, paint covered and holey blue jeans, a tool belt, and a grey shirt with the theatre’s name printed on the back, the man never turned once to acknowledge the audience while he moved slowly to his destination. Silence remained throughout the room, unbroken even as he removed the cans of paint and placed them on the stage and carried the ladder off. The man carried two more cans of paint and a few brushes, returning after he disappeared stage-right for a minute or two. Standing before one of the unpainted buildings on the left side, the London side, he made long and quick and confident brush strokes, dotting the windows with blocks of white after he finished painting the black structure. His work finished, he looked around the stage, still with his back to the audience, though just before he walked off stage-left he glanced at them, the audience, over his shoulder, removing a fag box from his breast pocket. The curtain fell. Before getting up to leave for a smoke, Ek made some notes:
Sir, I’m sure you’ve a love of theatre composed of great taste, artistic integrity and theoretical understanding… At the end of Act I I feel there isn’t much to this play; not much for me to think about or understand or.
Is there a point?
Experimental theatre isn’t my forte, I suppose, but watching some man eke his way across a stage and walk off without acknowledging me isn’t my idea of entertainment.
Why would you recommend this to me?
He finished scribbling some notes, closed the pad, returned it to his pocket. Eight minutes before the scheduled start of Act II he walked toward the exit, filling his pipe with tobacco as he did. Standing a few feet from the door he lit his vice and heard only the wheezing of air crawling through the tobacco and into his mouth as he puffed three or four times vigorously to create a strong ember. And when he looked up from the small orange light in his right hand a woman was standing before him. She smiled and held up a smoke, asking:
—Have you got a light?
He handed her his box of matches without saying anything and thought if only for a second of telling her she ought not be smoking, but didn’t.
—You like the play?
He grunted slightly, but it sounded like he was only clearing his throat, and said nothing.
She cocked her head and asked:
—Wanna know what I think?
—Sure, he said before coughing into his sleeve.
—Ok. Well, think about what we just saw. Wasn’t it the pre-production of a play?
—It ought to have been the play itself?
—No. I mean, yes, but. What the play itself is is the pre-production of the play.
His sarcastic tone was not unnoticed, but she continued without regard for it:
—Think of this: the playwright writes a play, and then we read it. Yes? And the stage crew sets up the play and we watch it. Isn’t it brilliant?
—Isn’t what brilliant?
—It’s like we’re watching her write the play!
Ek lifted his left arm and knocked the pipe against it. As the embers fell to the ground he looked up at her and his sarcasm transferred from tone to expression:
—I’d rather watch a play.
—I’m going back inside, she said and flicked her cigarette.
When he got back to his seat and took out his pad and pencil he noticed the seat next his was vacant.
I’m not the only one who finds this play uninteresting.
The curtain rose for the second act he folded his hands in his lap and prepared himself. Two players stood on stage dressed in rags, one sitting the other standing. Statuesque, the seated man’s arms stretched in wholly unnatural ways, strings supporting them. The other, a woman, didn’t face the man; she stood about ten feet in front of him and leaned forward with her feet together and her arms behind her. A sound come from speakers in the top corners of the stage, the sound, a young voice, comprised of words completely unintelligible. A child entered stage-right and walked straight to the seated man, looking out at the audience the whole time. He stumbled once, but never lost his balance and Ek couldn’t decide if the stumble were supposed to happen or not. Moving the arms of the man into different positions and then going to the woman and moving her around into different poses, the child eventually went to the cans of paint and threw them at the backdrop. Only one of them remained unopened and big blotches of color damaged the painting: black, white, grey. The child continued to run about the stage, altering everything possibly; smashed the light at the tip of the wrought iron structure with a big paint brush, causing the audience to jump; smeared paint across the canvas with bare hands; rolled around on the floor, also causing the audience to appear concerned as the glass from the light hadn’t been cleaned. After a short while of the child destroying the stage, the crew member from the first act entered stage-left and lifted the child in stride, carrying it until he reached stage-right and exited.
If this is a prologue for art to come, then believe me, I’m glad to be an old and dying man.
Is this art?
What a stupid question.
I bet Ms Fiona wrote this play in the time it took her to fly here from Dublin.
Were it not for my friendship to Le Ruse, I would leave right now. How could I explain if I were to leave before the end? I suppose I could say I got ill, but. No.
No. I’ll stay.
This time when he went outside to enjoy his pipe, he walked down the street a ways and thought about how convenient it was that the play was punctual, that way he wouldn’t be concerned of missing any parts of it—even if he knew he’d prefer to leave. The thought of not recalling any part of the play frightened him a little, as if LeRuse would throw a temper tantrum and not ever want to speak to him again. One can not afford to lose friends so late in life, he thought as he examined the tree beside his bench. One square of the sidewalk devoted to the nourishing of a thin-branched, nearly-blooming tree of about eight feet and with small green leaves and tiny flower buds.
The woman asked as she sat down beside him. Her voice and weight on the bench gave him a start, but she didn’t notice.
—See what I was saying? There’s more—
—Sure, sure. It’s Ok, really. I just want to get through the rest of the play and go.
—Why’d you come if you knew you wouldn’t like it?
—Where is he?
Ek turned back toward the tree.
—I’m Rita, the woman extended her hand smiling.
—Nils, he told her.
—So, have you come to any conclusions about the play, Nils?
—I don’t care for it.
—It’s not very good.
—How old are you? Don’t you have friends here that you could be spending your time with?
—No, she said shaking her head. And I’m twenty-two.
—That’s nice, he nodded and started to stand. It’s about to start.
Upon finding his seat he turned to watch the entrance. He wanted to see where Rita was seated and watch how she watched the play, to see how she looked at it without her knowing he was watching. Completely turned toward the left, he felt a gentle tap on his right shoulder: Rita’d sat next to him, again. Despite how close together their seats were, she sat waving at him, smiling.
—Vacant, right? I saw you were sitting alone during the last act.
She pointed at the stage.
The curtain rose and the backdrop had become a simple London street, the kind of tableau that’s quintessentially London, and the foreground a cobblestone street. Rita gently elbowed Ek and pointed to the stage and the following events occurred within minutes of each other:
A man wearing a suit and top hat entered stage-right, while a man wearing the like entered stage-left. As they crossed each other at centre-stage, one smiled and nodded while the other gave a friendly greeting, respectively. They exited.
Two men entered from opposite sides and did not acknowledge each other as they crossed paths. They exited.
Rita turned toward Dr Ek.
Two men entered from opposite sides and bumped into each other in the middle. They exited.
The crowd took a breath.
Two men entered from opposite sides, again, and bumped into each other: snippets of verbal violence flew from each. They exited.
Rita stared at Dr Ek and he knew what she was going, but refused to satiate her with a glance.
Two men entered from opposite sides and as they passed each other they didn’t acknowledge or even look at each other, but the one walking from right to left turned and shot the other in the back. He exited.
The audience leaped to their feet, clapping and cheering. Rita was no different and Dr Ek stood without clapping. As the rising of the curtains began, a short woman walked past Dr Ek, down the center aisle, and up onto the stage. On stage, the cast watched her approach and the crew member extended his hand to her as she walked toward him. They hugged and he stood with his arm around her as everyone on stage bowed. Then the crew member whispered something in her ear and she took a few steps toward the edge of the stage and bowed alone.
How am I to be asked to take seriously this long, stiff, boring work, when the writer herself can’t even dress appropriately. This is the theatre, not a pub or a coffee shop, and tonight was the debut of her play. All she finds appropriate to wear is a pair of denim pants and a plaid shirt.
And that’s not even the worst of it: Rita.
Doing and saying the things she has and acting the way she has. I can’t even imagine carrying on like this in public.
Rita pulled Dr Ek up by his writing arm creating a line across the page he’d been writing on and raising of his eyebrows as he turned to her and demanded:
—Is there something you need from me?
—Don’t be rude, she told him and turned back toward the stage.
—Rude. Surely you jest! I’ve not been…
Interrupting himself, Dr Ek threw up his arms and turned to leave.
He hadn’t wanted to turn back, but he could hear her voice getting louder, and he didn’t want there to be any more of scene than she has already created.
—What, he mumbled as he turned.
And when he saw her standing there, he turned back and walked outside. Arriving at a busy intersection he found a vacant taxi. As Dr Ek opened the door the driver asked:
—Where to, sir?
—16 Gloucester Terrace, please.
Dr Ek slumped into his seat and leaned his head back as if after a long day of work. He watched the lights of the city through the window to his right and saw the crowds of young people standing outside bars smoking, drinking, laughing. With a short ride ahead of him, he took out the pad to finish what he’d begun during the applause.
Rita. The play was not bad enough, I needed to encounter a loon like Rita. Her simple view of things. Repeatedly subjecting me to gaucherie. How does one feel comfortable acting that way? And why ought she choose the oldest person in the room? What a simple, simple girl. She’d probably forget that umbrellas get wet.
I suppose I was rude to her during the first intermission, but the punishment weighed more than the crime in this case . . . And a punishment it was! Why else would she have called me back and clapped at me as I was leaving?
At a quarter past eleven Dr Ek sat on a modestly sized reclining chair in his living room. He opened a book of poems, drank a bit of tea, and read. He went upstairs to his bedroom and through his window he observed the waning moon on its slow descent toward the horizon, gradually falling underneath the earth. A crowd of university students stumbled drunkenly past his flat, chanting and gloating from their victory: Chelsea beat Manchester U. And all over Fulham, football fans headed home; all over, football fans triumphed.