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The politics of the Greek cities of the 4th century B.C. told by an actor who travels with a golden mask.
Not many people remember Lamprias now in Athens. But his company is still talked about in the Peloponnese. Ask in Corinth or Epidauros, no one will have heard of him; but down in the Argolid they will go on about his Mad Herakles, or his Agamemnon, as if it were yesterday. I don't know who is working his circuit now.
At all events, he was in Athens when my father died, and owed him more money than anyone else did; but as usual he was nearly broke, and trying to fit a tour out on a handful of beans. So he offered to take me on as an extra; it was the best he could do.
As I suppose everyone knows, my father Artemidoros was an actor before me; the service of Dionysos runs in our blood. Indeed, you could call him a sacrifice to the god. He died of a chill he caught here in Athens, playing second roles in the Bacchae of Euripides, which was that year's classical revival. It was one of those bright spring days you get at the Dionysia, warm in the sun but with a cutting wind. He came on first as King Pentheus, wearing a heavy sleeved costume, red cloth with thick embroidery, also some padding in the chest and shoulders, since like me he was a slender man. I don't know what possessed him to put on under all this his maenad dress for Queen Agave. There is plenty of time after Pentheus' exit; but he was always proud of changing quickly. Of course he sweated; when he changed masks and came on again in this damp thin robe, the sun went in and he got chilled to the bone. One would never have known it. I was on as a Maenad, and thought he was at his best. He was famous for his women's roles, especially the crazy ones, like Agave and Cassandra, or tear-wringers like Niobe.
He had no luck that day, for the leading man, who had played the god, got the actors' prize and gave a party. My father did not like to leave early, in case it was misunderstood, so he stayed drinking till past midnight. The cold went to his chest with a high fever, and on the third night he died.
Though I was nineteen at the time, it was the first death in our own house since I was born. I felt half-dazed, and confused with the noise of the rites, the house all upside down, my father on his bier, feet to the door, my mother and grandmother and sister flinging their arms across him wailing, the small room full of neighbors and actors edging and shouldering in and out to pay respects and hang on the door their black-ribboned locks of hair. I can still feel the pull on my scalp as I stood in a dark corner, hacking at mine with my mother's scissors. It was short already, like every actor's; being fair and fine it seemed to go to nothing, however close I cut. I tugged and hurt myself, my eyes running with the pain, and with grief, and from fear I should not have enough to show up in the grave-wreath.
From time to time the wailing broke off as some new caller spoke his lines. The neighbors left soon—outsiders don't know what to say about an actor—but his fellow artists hung about, for he was always a well-liked man. So indeed they kept saying—how good he was to work with, and always ready to help a friend. (My mother, I thought, would sooner have had the news that he had saved a little.) He never dried, they said, he could keep going through anything; and they told some tales that made me stare, not having learned yet that anything can happen on tour. What talent he had, they said, poor Artemidoros! A disgrace he was passed over at the Lenaia; no one remembers seeing Polyxena done with more feeling; but the lot fell on some poor judges this year.
I put down my scissors and ran inside, my hair half-shorn like a felon's, leaving my clippings on the towel. As though everyone would not have approved my weeping, I hid like a dog, gulping and choking on my bed. It was not the mourners I was hiding from, but my father on his bier, as silent as an extra, masked in his dead face, waiting for his exit.
I'm not sure how long I had known I had more talent than he had. Two years—no, three; I was sixteen when I saw him as the young Achilles in The Sacrifice at Aulis, and I doubt if it came new to me even then. He always moved well, and his hands could say anything. I never heard his voice more charming. He made Achilles a delightful youth, spirited, sincere, with an arrogance too boyish to offend. They could have eaten him up; they hardly noticed his Agamemnon, waiting for him to come back as Achilles. Yes; but the shadow of all that darkness, of that black grief beside the shore, the dreadful war yell whose rage and pain scared all the horses, it is close ahead, his goddess mother knows already. One ought to feel it breathe. It crept in my hair, where he speaks of his slighted honor; I shivered down my backbone. And I heard another player, hardly yet knowing whom.
If he had been self-satisfied, jealous or hard to work with, I should have learned to justify myself. But he had all an artist needs, except the spark from the god. No one knew better than I did what he was like backstage. I had been on with him almost since I could stand alone.
At three, I was Medea's younger son, though I can't remember it; I don't suppose I knew I was on a stage. My father told me later how he had brought home his Medea mask beforehand, in case it frightened me; but I only stuck my fingers through its mouth. It is hard to make actors' children take masks seriously, even the most dreadful; they see them too soon, too near. My mother used to say that at two weeks old, to keep me from the draft, she tucked me inside an old Gorgon, and found me sucking the snakes.
I do remember, though, quite clearly, playing Astyanax to his Andromache. I was turned six by then, for Astyanax has to work. The play was Euripides' The Women of Troy. My father told me the plot, and promised I should not really be thrown off the walls, in spite of all the talk about it. We were always acting out such tales as a bedtime game, with mime, or our own words. I loved him dearly. I fought for years to go on thinking him great.
"Don't look at the Herald," he said to me at rehearsal. "You're not supposed to know what he means, though any child would that was right in the head. Take all your cues from me."
He sent me out in front, to see the masks as the audience saw them. Climbing up high, above the seats of honor, I was surprised to find how human they looked, and sad. While I was there he did his part as Cassandra, god-mad with two torches. I knew it by heart, from hearing him practice. It was his best role, everyone agrees. After that he changed masks, ready for Andromache. This is the play where they bring her in from the sacked city on a cart piled up with loot, her child in her arms, just two more pieces of plunder. A wonderful bit of theater. It never fails.
I was still small enough to be used to women's arms; it was odd to feel, under the pleated dress I grasped at, the hard chest of a man, holding each breath and playing it out with the phrases, the rib cage vibrant like the box of a lyre. If one thinks, I suppose most men's sons would die of shame to hear their fathers weep and lament in the voice of a woman. But as he never missed his exercises, I must have heard them from the first day I drew breath: old men, young men, queens and booming tyrants, heroes, maidens and kings. To me it was the right of a man to have seven voices; only women made do with one.
When the day came, I was still aggrieved there was no mask for me, though I had been told again and again children did not use them. "Never mind," said my father, "the time will come." Then he pulled his own mask down, the smiling face going into the solemn one. He was in the prologue as Athene.
Outside the parodos the cart was waiting, drawn by four oxen, with the gilded spoils of Troy. At last came the call boy, and my father in the pale mask of the shorn-haired widow. He clambered up, someone hoisted me after, he settled me on his knee, and the oxen started.
Out beyond the tall gateway was the great curve of the theater. I was used to the empty tiers. Now, filled with faces, it seemed vast and unknown, murmuring and dangerous as the sea. My father's voice whispered, "Don't look at the audience. You're scared of strangers. Think how they chopped up your poor old granddad. Lean on me."
This is not how I myself would direct Astyanax. He is Hector's son; I like him alert and bold, thinking no evil till the time. But my father knew his business too. Even the men were sighing as we came slowly on into the orchestra; I could hear the little coos and cries of the women, floating on this deep bass. Suddenly it took hold of me. My father and I, by ourselves, were doing this with fifteen thousand people. We could carry them all to Troy with us, make them see us just as we chose to be. I can taste it still, that first sip of power.
Then I felt their will reach out to me. It was like the lover's touch, which says, Be what I desire. All power has its price. I clung to Andromache my mother and leaned upon her breast; but the hands I answered to were Artemidoros the actor's. As they molded me like wax and sculptured us into one, I knew the many-headed lover had caught him too; I felt it through both our skins. Yet I felt him innocent. He did not sell, but gave freely, love for love.
The Herald came, with the news that I must die. I remembered I was not supposed to heed him; but I thought I should look sorry for my mother's grief, so I reached up and touched the mask's dead hair. At this I heard sighing and sobbing rise like a wave. It was coming from the block where the hetairas sit; they love a good cry more than figs. But it was a few years yet before I knew enough to look for them.
When the Herald bore me off to die, I thought everyone backstage would be there to pay me compliments; but only the wardrobe master's assistant came in a hurry, to strip me naked and paint on my bloody wounds. My father, who had exited soon after me, ran over to pat my bare belly as I lay, and say, "Good boy!" Then he was off; it's a quick change from Andromache to Helen, what with the jewels and so on. It is always a splendid costume, meant to show up against the other captives'. The mask was most delicately painted, and had gold-wreathed hair. He went on, and I heard his new voice, bland and beguiling, answering angry Menelaos.
Soon after came my cue to be brought on, dead. They stretched me out on the shield, and a couple of extras lifted it. The day was warm, but the breeze tickled my skin, and I gave my mind to lying limp as I had been told. The chorus called out the dreadful news to my grannie Hecuba; lying, eyes shut, while the Herald made a long speech about my death, I prayed Dionysos not to let me sneeze. There was a pause which, because I could not see, seemed to last forever. The whole theater had become dead silent, holding its breath. Then a terrible low voice said just beside me:
"Lay down the circled shield of Hector on the ground."
I had been well rehearsed for this scene, but not with Hecuba. I had nothing to do but keep still; and this was Kroisos, the leading man. He was then at the peak of his powers, and, fairly enough, did not expect to tutor children. I had seen the mask, and that was all.
I had already heard him, of course, lamenting with Andromache; but that is her scene, and I had my own part to think of. Now, the voice seemed to go all through me, making my backbone creep with cold. I forgot it was I who was being mourned for. Indeed, it was more than I.
No sweetness here, but old pride brought naked to despair, still new to it, a wandering stranger. At the bottom of the pit a new pit opens, and still the mind can feel. Cold hands touched my head. So silent were the tiers above us, I heard clearly, from the pines outside, the murmur of a dove.
I was not seven years old. I think I remember; but no doubt I have mixed in scraps from all sorts of later renderings, by Theodores or Philemon or Thettalos; even from my own. I dreamed of it, though, for years, and it is from this I remember certain trifles—such as the embroidery on his robe, which had a border of keys and roses—glimpsed between my eyelids. When I think of these dreams it all comes back to me. Was it Troy I grieved for, or man's mortality; or for my father, in the stillness that was like a wreath of victory on Kroisos' brow? All I remember for certain is my swelling throat, and the horror that came over me when I knew I was going to cry.
My eyes were burning. Terror was added to my grief. I was going to wreck the play. The sponsor would lose the prize; Kroisos, the crown; my father would never get a part again; we would be in the streets begging our bread. And after the play, I would have to face terrible Hecuba without a mask. Tears burst from my shut eyes; my nose was running. I hoped I might die, that the earth would open or the skene catch fire before I sobbed aloud.
The hands that had traced my painted wounds lifted me gently. I was gathered into the arms of Hecuba; the wrinkled mask with its down-turned mouth bent close above. The flute, which had been moaning softly through the speech, getting a cue, wailed louder. Under its sound, Queen Hecuba whispered in my ear, "Be quiet, you little bastard. You're dead."
I felt better at once. All I had been taught came back to me. We had work to do. I slid back limp as his hands released me; neatly, while he washed and shrouded me, he wiped my nose. The scene went through to the end.
In vain we sacrificed. And yet had not the very hand of God gripped and crushed this city deep in the ground we should have disappeared in darkness, and not given a theme for music, and the songs of men to come.
As the extras carried me off in my royal grave-clothes, I thought to myself, surprised, "We are the men to come." As well as everything else, I had been responsible to Astyanax. His shade had been watching from the underworld, hoping I would not make him mean. What burdens I had borne! I felt I had aged a lifetime.
My father, who had been standing behind the prompt-side revolve and seen it all, ran up as they slid me off the shield, asking what had come over me. If it had been my mother, I daresay I should have raised a howl. But I said at once, "Father, I didn't make a noise."
Kroisos came off soon after, pushing up his mask. He was a thin man, all profile, like a god on a coin except that he was bald. When he turned our way I hid behind my father's skirts; but he came towards us, and fished me out by the hair. I came squirming, a disgusting sight, as you may suppose, all smeared with blood-paint and snot. He grinned with big yellow teeth. I saw, amazed, that he was not angry. "By the dog!" he said, "I thought we were finished then." He grimaced like a comedian's slave-mask. "Artemidoros, this boy has feeling, but he also knows what he's about. And what's your name?"
"Niko," I answered. My father said, "Nikeratos." I had seldom heard this used, and felt somehow changed by it. "A good omen," said Kroisos. "Well, who knows?"
Now, while the women wailed over the bier, a dozen such scenes from my childhood up came back to me. My father always got me in as an extra when he could.
Outside came a lull; Phantias the mask-maker had come to condole, bringing a grave-pot painted to order with two masks and Achilles mourning by a tomb. The women, who were getting tired, broke off to talk awhile. I was master of the house, I ought to go out and greet him. I could hear his voice, recalling my father as Polyxena, and turned over again, biting the pillow. I wept because the god we both served had made me choose, and my heart had forsaken him for the god. Yet I had fought the god for him. "What a house today," I would say. "They must have heard the applause at the Kerameikos. That business with the urn would have melted stone. Do you know I saw General Iphikrates crying?" There was always something one could say, and something true. But the great things every artist hopes for, the harsh god closed my mouth upon, and pushed them back down my throat. He missed them; I know he missed them; I saw it sometimes in his eyes. Why not have said them, and left the god to make the best of it? The gods have so much, and men have so little. Gods live forever, too.
Excerpted from The Mask of Apollo by Mary Renault. Copyright © 1966 Mary Renault. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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Posted April 23, 2010
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