Blesok no. 39, November-December, 2004
The Supporting Actor
Because he was one of those actors who live with the misfortune throughout their careers of playing only supporting roles, he became known as The Supporting Actor. In time, this vile title, revealing the man’s failure throughout his life, became his only name. Later, after a couple of years, when he got used to it, somebody might call by his real name, and only after a long pause would he realize they were addressing him. He would be confused, and he would blush, not knowing whether they were mocking him, or if somebody remembered him, the real him, who once, many years ago, young and promising, stepped onto the stage with the internal cry known only to him. He trained his voice, took endless care of his physique, and flawlessly governed his movements, both in life and on stage. He dedicated his body and soul to the theater.
However, as usually happens with the talented, he remained unseen and misunderstood. But he did not despair. On the contrary. He tried to affirm his talent, to shine brightly in the middle of the dark stage, once and for all putting an end to the great injustice inflicted on him every day, with every role.
After ten small, negligible roles, after he became concerned about why they had not yet allowed him to demonstrate his real worth, they gave him his humiliating sobriquet.
It happened after a heated but otherwise insignificant argument in the theater café, when he tried to point out the shortcomings of a young actor and teach him the secrets of an actor’s craft. Instead of accepting this good will with gratitude, the young actor became insulted, infuriated, and among the many insults he angrily blurted out, he mentioned the term supporting actor.
The seed sprouted immediately.
Spontaneously, as if it were the most normal thing, they started calling him The Supporting Actor. Not just his friends, but both those who loved him and those who hated him. Maybe he made a mistake in not objecting immediately, in not saying right away that he would not accept such unjust, humiliating attitudes. But he thought it would quickly forgotten, especially since he expected his first big role at any time. He imagined the sudden turn things would take after the fall of the curtains and that long applause, dedicated to him alone. Then everybody from the theater would repent. They would congratulate him and then come up with a name more worthy of his greatness.
But that role would not come.
Instead of disappointment, enthusiasm and trust grew in him. The stage, that infinite space of his future, promised him more and more success and joy, awards and glory. Deep inside, he heard the applause of the audience floating up to him from the orchestra onto the open stage, and he sensed the envious glances of the other actors, while his long-rehearsed reverence, his bow, would mean a dignified repayment that a great actor expresses to his faithful audience.
These dreams, which sent tingles down his spine, slowly started dispersing from one play to the next, like wisps of cloud in the summer sky. Not accepting his destiny of remaining only a successful supporting actor, he started creating another illusion. Every time roles were parceled out, and he scraped up the “leftovers,” a character almost too insignificant for the performance, he vowed to himself, to somebody unknown, maybe to the whole world, that he would create a brilliant role out of that nothingness. So, he would read the text ten times over, then start studying the character. He approached it from all angles. That one rejoinder, perhaps just a couple of words, or two or three sentences, he uttered endlessly in his soft baritone, and he thoroughly rehearsed all possible movements and gestures. Even to the most insignificant role he dedicated extraordinary attention, for instance when he was supposed to enter stage left carrying a tray in his hands, then walk to the center and place it on a table, saying, “Here you are, sir. Your tea,” then exiting stage right.
He remained long after rehearsals. While the other actors drank at the theater café, and some had been drunk for a long time, he rehearsed those ten steps on the stage long into the night, repeating hundreds of times, “Here you are, sir. Your tea.” Around midnight, when the night watchman made his rounds and turned off the lights, he stopped working. However, he would first make the watchman sit in the orchestra and he'd play the role in front of him several times.
“That’s enough,” the watchman would say dryly, yawning all the while. “It's time to lock up the theater.”
Expecting a word or two of praise or encouragement, he would be startled, sighing several times, wondering how the watchman, whom he didn't see as a watchman then but as an audience, or at least a part of it, wasn't able to perceive the greatness of his effort. He couldn't understand that people had such stiff hearts that nothing, not even this work of art brought to perfection, could touch them. Then he was convinced that the role should be played once again, as many times as necessary for the watchman’s latent sense of beauty to be awakened. So he would continue to rehearse in front of him, and the man would eventually be forced onto the stage, meeting him in the center, after the tray was left behind and the line uttered, and he would tap him on the shoulder and say, “Come on. That’s enough. Tomorrow’s another day. You really do exaggerate with this nonsense.”
As if startled from a beautiful dream that a person wants to continue after waking up, he once stopped and looked at the watchman for a long time with a plea in his eyes. “You should wait for the opening night,” he thought, walking slowly along the dark halls of the building cluttered with stage props, as he didn't want to leave the theater, while he repeated the words to himself in regular intervals, “Here you are, sir. Your tea.”
So, slowly, undiscernibly, through the long years of hope, the day of his last performance arrived. The old and weary actor was supposed to retire.
It happened that the theater staged “Hamlet.” With his heart clenched, he anticipated his last role, believing that now, at the end, his dream would be realized and he'd get a role that would redeem the years of endless patience and long-suffering.
“Hamlet, the love of every actor,” he thought. “But I'm too old for the prince. Polonius? I'd make a good Polonius. If not Polonius, then Claudius, the King of Denmark…”
The roles were distributed one after another, being torn from him as though they were his limbs, especially after all the years spent in theater. The lump in his heart rose toward his throat, and it was just a matter of moments before it would turn into a pang, a real cry, weeping.
Finally, the director looked at him.
“And for our Supporting Actor,” he said. “The role to best confirm his genius once again. The role that should provide special flavor to the play according to my plan, a role that should raise the audience to its feet. It is the ghost of Hamlet's father. Congratulations.”
All went dark before the eyes of The Supporting Actor. He expected much more. It was supposed to be his last play. He was entitled to a real role, the fulfillment of his dream to create something he'd be remembered by. The ghost? A supporting role again. A pale character-non-character, the ghost at the bottom of the stage, covered in misty darkness, a shadow that appears in the first act and then disappears, falling into oblivion. So will he. He wanted, at the last, to be an actor on the stage, and, at least once, if not completely, have part of the applause directed at him.
He glanced at those around him, his eyes pleading for mercy. He searched among those faces. His eyes stopped on the satisfied and bloated face of the actor who had just graduated from the Academy, someone lucky enough to play Hamlet immediately. His eyes and his extended lips mocked him, the old, deserving artist. “If I had your luck, boy,” he told himself, “if what has happened to you had happened to me thirty years ago, now you'd look at me differently, and not with that arrogant villainous expression.”
“Do you accept the role?” the director asked.
Something stung him. It startled him and pierced him. He rose, waited for everyone to look at him, for the noise to stop, and he started reciting:
My hour is almost come
When I to sulph’rous and tormenting flames
Must render up myself.”
He spoke the words of Hamlet's father ghost, and he left, followed by the glances of the actors, confused because nobody had ever before witnessed such a reaction from The Supporting Actor. He was always reticent, always accepting the roles offered him with a sad smile.
He stopped at the door and continued:
“You'll have the character as he has never been played anywhere, as he will never be played again. Because … So art thou to revenge when thou shalt hear.” In the dark halls of the old theater building there was a faint smell of dust and age, and The Supporting Actor moved slowly, lightly, as if not touching the ground, and the verses flew from inside him:
Doom’d for a certain term to walk the night,
And for the day confin’d to fast in fires,
Till the foul crimes done in my days of nature…”
As usual, The Supporting Actor started living with his new role. He rehearsed for hours, working day and night, and the watchman relented, leaving him alone for nights on end on the dark stage. “The last role,” thought The Supporting Actor, “and I have to play it perfectly.”
He listened to the echo of his words, his own voice in the empty hall, and everything contributed to the creation of the Ghost, just as the old actor had created that image in his head. As the premiere approached, he rehearsed more and more. He lost weight, he became thin, but he was overjoyed, because sometimes he discovered and mastered a new detail, something that built upon the character and moved him closer to the ideal.
However, when the director arranged the stage, he hit upon an idea that stunned The Supporting Actor. He imagined that the upper part of the stage should include a mechanism to which the Ghost would be tied with a rope. So, floating above the stage, he would be more believable. At the end of the scene in which the Ghost recites the lines demanding that Hamlet swear to take revenge, the middle part of the stage would open up. The ghost would drop down, and his last words would be spoken from underground.
The Supporting Actor was now greatly tormented.
It was no longer possible for him to rehearse his role alone, because the stage worker who operated the mechanism left at the end of rehearsals. He asked him to stay after these rehearsals, but he did that only once. He started to despair. He stood on the stage, gazing upward, from where he was supposed to recite his lines while tied with the rope, swinging as if flying. His despair grew as the premiere approached. He was constantly tormented by the notion that he must find a way to fly, that being the only way to fulfil what he had so long yearned for, to create a never-before-seen role. Once the watchman found him high up on the set, on the terrace of the fortress, trying to fly. He flapped through the air, started his lines, but his voice disappeared in the crash that echoed in the empty room when he fell.
“What have you done?” the watchman yelled, running to help him. The Supporting Actor clenched his teeth, and, instead of moaning in pain because of his injured leg, uttered these words:
“I am thy father’s spirit,
Doom’d for a certain term to walk the night… ,”
”Listen, you fool,” the watchman now screamed, “you'll kill yourself and get me in trouble!”
He kept yelling and pushing him toward the exit, while The Supporting Actor resisted. He must not leave the stage. No. He should try once again, a thousand more times, especially now that he had almost flown and perfected his role. True, he had fallen. Yet for a moment, a significant moment, a fraction of a second, he managed to stay in the air and resist the fall.
When the theater door closed behind him and he heard he merciless turning of the key in the lock, a sound that unmistakably separated him from the stage, he leaned against the wall and slowly slid outside until he was sitting down. The freshness of the night air shook his body, but it was as if it wasn't his body. He recited:
“Unhousel’d, disappointed, unanel’d,
No reckoning made, but sent to my account
With all my imperfections on my head.”
The opening night came.
Visibly excited, The Supporting Actor put on his costume before anyone else. It was a white cape covered with phosphorescent material, which, when lit by the spotlight that followed him in his flight through the air, reflected magically. He gazed at himself in the mirror for a long time. His face was pale. When he applied his makeup it assumed a ghostly appearance. He sat in front of the mirror and patiently waited for his cue. He kept rehearsing his lines.
The ghost of Hamlet’s father stepped onto the stage.
The appearance of the ghost astounded the audience. He paused on the platform of the fortress and. slowly, in surreal flight, glided to the floor.
“Whither wilt thou lead me? Speak, I’ll go no further,” Hamlet said.
“Mark me,” the Ghost said in a miraculously surreal voice, and he rose up. He circled Hamlet, disappeared behind the curtain for a moment, returned, and continued floating, lightly quivering.
“… My hour is almost come
When I to sulph’rous and tormenting flames
Must render up myself.”
No one in the audience could breathe. No one in the theater had seen such an illusion before. They assumed it was technical artifice, but the Ghost looked so real that those watching opened their mouths in awe. The director was also perplexed. They had achieved no such effect during rehearsals. Really. The Supporting Actor had then floated above the stage hanging on a rope, but the best they could do was swing him up and down, lifting him and lowering him. Now this. This was a miracle, perfection…
If anyone had looked above the stage and seen the face of the stagehand that operated the mechanism and the rope on which The Supporting Actor was supposed to be dangling, they would realize there was something strange occurring.
At first he became angry when The Supporting Actor stepped onto the stage, because he did not hook himself onto the rope. Swinging it left and right, he tried to warn him, but The Supporting Actor paid no heed to this signal. “What is the old fool doing?” he thought. “He'll ruin the show.” But he was flabbergasted when The Supporting Actor flew without the aid of the rope. Against all the laws of physics, he flew. And not only that. He soared up among the hooks, approached him, and, while floating, stuck out his tongue. The worker would surely have crashed onto the stage if he had not been firmly buckled into his seat.
The young actor playing Hamlet was also obviously baffled. He continued speaking, but it was more of an unclear, frightened stammer. The ghost continued:
“But that I am forbid
To tell the secrets of my prison-house,
I could a tale unfold whose lightest word
Would harrow up thy soul, freeze thy young blood,
Make thy two eyes like stars start from their spheres.”
“God!” Hamlet screamed. But he was not responding with his lines but with a shriek of fear, after which the young actor fell onto the stage.
However, no one was watching him any more.
The ghost of Hamlet’s father floated or flew above the stage until he appeared directly over the orchestra seats. The operator of the lights followed him with the spotlight, but he lost him now. However, the costume of The Supporting Actor emitted its own light. He flew low above the heads of the audience, and a faint breeze tousled the hairs of the stunned viewers.
“But virtue, as it never will be mov’d,
Though lewdness court it in a shape of heaven,
So lust, though to a radiant angel link’d,
Will sate itself in a celestial bed
And prey on garbage.”
He flew to the gallery, then to the ceiling, and from there his crystal voice echoed even clearer. The people turned their heads as if bewitched by the sight. It was amazement mixed with vague fear, a supernatural feeling.
“Even though somebody has made a fool of me,” the director thought, “he should be congratulated.” He thought that somebody from the technical crew had prepared this surprise without his knowledge or control, in cahoots with The Supporting Actor, whom he had always considered a bit crazy.
Finally, The Supporting Actor landed on the stage. Hamlet, who had come to his senses, continued the dialogue. The moment was approaching when the Ghost was to be swallowed underground, and the stage was already opening. The Supporting Actor floated above that spot and spoke the last lines of his role.
“The glow-worm shows the matin to be near
And gins to pale his uneffectual fire.
Adieu, adieu, adieu. Remember me.”
Instead of dropping below the boards, The Supporting Actor seemed to change his mind, and he flew up again. He soared over the orchestra and spiraled higher and higher toward the ceiling of the theater. Finally he stopped, bowed several times in midair, showing deep respect, and he disappeared through the ceiling.
First there was silence, then cries of wonder spread through the hall when the Ghost of Hamlet's father, the ordinary Supporting Actor, slowly, as if immaterial, went through the ceiling. Slowly, miraculously, and without a sound. First his head, then his shoulders, his body, and his bare feet.
Somebody clapped. Then everybody in the audience took up the applause, which into a long wave. Five minutes, ten minutes, maybe longer. The clapping wouldn't stop.
The director could barely move through the astonished audience in the crowded lobby. The people were confused. They wanted an explanation, an interpretation of the event. He rushed toward the dressing rooms. The actors and all the other theater workers behind the stage were puzzled. With their eyes and mouths wide open, they shook their heads when he asked them about The Supporting Actor. Nobody had seen him. They were astonished and frightened, having been witnesses to a supernatural sight. In the hall, a cleaning lady told him that The Supporting Actor was in his dressing room.
“He's there,” the cleaning lady said. “I wanted to enter several times, to clean, but he has been sitting in front of his mirror for an hour and won’t move.”
The director ran to the dressing room. Indeed, The Supporting Actor, still in the costume of Hamlet father's ghost, was sitting in front of his mirror. His face, reflected in the mirror, was composed. The director approached him and called to him. He didn’t move.
“You've performed a miracle,” the director said. “Such a thing has never happened in any theater in the world. Nobody can repeat it either.”
The Supporting Actor looked into the smoothness of the glass surface calmly, without blinking. His face, not like a dead man's, gleamed radiantly, like a man wreathed in final glory.
Translated by: Elizabeta Bakovska