That Summer's Trance

That Summer's Trance

by J.R. Salamanca


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In That Summer's Trance his subject is betrayal, both of oneself and of others, in a culture of material rewards. It is an unforgettable story of one actor outdone by another, and it tells us more about role-playing, and the theater of everyday life, than I would have thought possible.—Charles Baxter

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781566492201
Publisher: Welcome Rain Publishers
Publication date: 07/28/2001
Pages: 432
Product dimensions: 5.96(w) x 8.90(h) x 1.09(d)

Read an Excerpt

Chapter One

Benedict and Priscilla Oakshaw spent at least one evening a week at the Kennedy Center. Since the late seventies, when things had started going really well for them, they had bought yearly subscriptions to the Washington Opera season, the National Symphony, the Washington Ballet, and a series of twelve theatrical productions at the Eisenhower. These evenings were the zenith of their social and cultural lives, and, in Ben's case at least, of some other life which he liked to consider metaphysical and which gave the appearance of being so, since it included elements of the transcendental and the ideal as well as the worldly and the frankly festive. In his nature these elements were combined in a nameless passion for celebration, one that no New Year's party, or homecoming game, or Mardi Gras, or mass could satisfy. It was certainly not religious—it involved vanity and display too conspicuously to be mistaken for piety—but it was almost ecclesiastical in its gravity and like religion expressed itself in the periodic observance of a rite in a temple of some kind, in this case one furnished with gigantic crystal chandeliers, acres of pile carpeting, haute cuisine, fine wines, and an atmosphere of exhilaration, gallantry, and grace. Like most men who have been poor in their youth, he liked elegance, and for him an evening at the Kennedy Center was an occasion of unrivalled elegance, one justified by a concern for culture and solemnized by ritual, its handmaiden. He did not admit this passion, even to himself—his urbanity was too hard-won to admit anything that might resemble bathos—but he felt it andrejoiced in it, mindlessly, like a man steeping himself in the vapors of a steam bath. Nothing gave him such a secret exaltation as to stroll, and be seen strolling, through the vast, high-ceilinged, deeply carpeted Grand Foyer under the glittering chandeliers, past the enormous, oddly leprous looking bust of John F. Kennedy, the champagne booths, the wonderfully civil program vendors whose decorum was almost that of acolytes, feeling himself one of the chosen, one of this fraternity of animated, softly laughing, expensively dressed men and women who, gathered in this convention of light and luxury, gave confirmation of his own and of America's success. In them and in the occasion, not only was this exquisitely confirmed, but all things took on for him a glowing, quietly ecstatic conformation. This was where it all came together, Ben thought. This was the meaning, almost certainly, of life, and certainly of civilization—this hour of tranquil, titillating anticipation, of recognition and reward, this sweet, sacramental thrall of The Performance.

    He and Priscilla always reserved a table for dinner at six thirty at the Grande Scene on the third floor, and when they had been escorted to it with priestly gravity, and were seated, and he glanced discreetly about the murmurous, magnificent room, twinkling with crystal, silver, and galaxies of diamonds sprinkled through the dusk, tinkling with sounds of decanted wine and of equally delicious and effervescent gayety, he felt his heart swell with a sense of the divine congruity of things. All this was ordained. It was inherent in the first appearance of shaggy man on the smouldering earth. It was the coming to fruition of years—of centuries, millennial!—of industry, sacrifice, and faith, of unyielding adherence to the creed of aspiration that bound them all together in their hour of consummation and communion. And not only his private life was thus beatified, nor those of his fellow communicants in the Grande Scene, now devoutly dispatching their Tournedos Rossini, but those of the performers, somewhere beneath them in the vast honeycomb of dressing rooms and rehearsal halls, tuning their violins or applying grease paint to their faces. For them, too, this was the apotheosis of their lives. Their years of anonymity, indigence and struggle, of the harrowed preparation of audition scenes or the endless rehearsal of arpeggios in cold water flats in the Village or the Left Bank or Notting Hill Gate, had been brought, like that of Ben and his fellow diners, to epiphany. There were ushers and programs to certify their talent, their perseverance, their right to renown. People would read the chronicles of their adversities and achievements in the program notes, nod gravely, and whisper to their consorts bits of testimony to the reality and verity of this experience, as if from The Lives of The Apostles. The house lights would go down, there would be a moment of silence like that heralding the Transubstantiation in the mass, the great velvet curtain would sweep up, the performers would step forward bathed in an unearthly radiance, there would be a burst of applause from the vast dark auditorium, and All would be Redeemed. All would be redefined and justified and pronounced good: the world, humanity, virtue, capitalism, Christianity. God would be reborn. There was nothing to fear, nothing to regret; grief, uncertainty, dissent were swept away by the tide of beauty and ceremony that swept over them, as obscenities scrawled in the sand are swept away by the sea. Certainly there was no reason to feel shame.

    In addition to this bath of beatitude which he enjoyed every Friday evening in the Patron's box, Ben learned things at the Kennedy Center that were useful to him socially and in his business, which was advertising. He had become growingly familiar with the scores of the major classical and romantic symphonies, had learned to identify half a dozen piano and violin concertos, was no longer startled by the advent of the specter in Le Spectre de la Rose, and regularly sang in the shower, in an exuberant, errant tenor, arias from Puccini, Verdi, and Rossini. He took pride in the fact that he was able, at parties, to speak of these composers with some confidence and even, on occasion, to offer opinions on Purcell along with a few bars of Dido and Aeneas. In the field of drama, his judgments were far less adventurous, effusive, or gratuitous than those he offered on symphony, the ballet, or the opera, and this was because it was an art he understood. He understood it better, in fact, than most of the people in the theatre, including any critics who might have been present and many of the performers themselves. He knew more about the stage than most men living, and the feelings that moved in his breast when he watched a performance of Shaw, or Ibsen, or Shakespeare were complex, too complex for Priscilla to make out in the shadows of their private box when he murmured—as he often did—lines that he knew by heart, or closed his eyes and lowered his head in dismay, or smiled and breathed deeply. He understood the stage with a profound intuitive insight, and had once performed on it with brilliance; some had said with genius.

    As a young man, three years before he had abandoned it to found his enormously successful agency, Razullo, Inc., he had attended the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art in London, where he had been a student of great promise. His three years at that institution had been the consummation of a passion that was born in him at the age of eighteen when Miss Florence Replogle, his English teacher in Groveland, Florida, high school, had asked him to read the part of Romeo in a classroom recitation of Shakespeare. Until that moment he had done nothing well in his life, nor had the opportunity ever arisen for him to discover that he could. His entire life, except for the hours he spent in school, had been spent digging sweet potatoes, cleaning chicken coops, and weeding strawberry beds on the ten sun-blasted acres of his father's truck farm in the pine barrens of central Florida. He performed these tasks with a dumb resignation and chronic weariness, since he was physically small and frail. At school, he was no happier or more successful. He had a mysterious inability to organize facts, apply basic principles of physics, or understand numerical relationships that made his attempts to acquire an education a prolonged, desperate farce. He could not hit a curve ball, watch a quadratic equation being written on the board without the nauseating certainty that he would be called upon to solve it, and with the exceptions of Independence Day and the discovery of America he could not remember the date of anything of significance that had ever happened on the earth. His lack of stature and evidently of normal intelligence produced a sense of shame and shyness in him that reduced him to paralysis before his fellow classmates—especially the girls—and persons of any authority whatever, from policemen and teachers to the bus drivers and janitors. A wan, spectral sense of unreality possessed him in the presence of adults of almost any kind with the exception of Miss Replogle and of his pale, sad, careworn mother, whose faint, distracted fondness was all he knew of love. As he grew into adolescence, he sank into his own ignominy; he became shy to the point of invisibility; he might, indeed, have disbelieved in his own existence if it had not been so scathingly certified by his shame and loneliness, by the impatience or dismay of most of his teachers, by the cruel, ironic grins of his classmates, and the tyranny of his dark, despotic father, an illiterate tenant farmer whose relationship to Ben was much like that of a ploughman to a mule.

    All that redeemed this melancholy evidence of his presence on the earth was his mother's occasional wracked smile or faltering caress, and some unaccountable but inextinguishable auspice he was able to perceive in the quality of light. Nothing could explain or repress the elation he felt in the blithe play of morning sunbeams on the water of the swamp, in the blaze and pomp of noon, however cruelly it failed him at his chores, or in the grave and tender eulogies of sunset, which seemed to promise and to celebrate something far more profound and enduring than his own misery. He would raise his head sometimes above the dusty vines where he knelt digging and, quite inexplicably, smile into the sky. "All will be well," he read in the concatenations of light among the great white clouds and in the shimmer of moonlight on the water of the lake. "It will come true," he saw inscribed in starlight across the dark vault of the autumn skies, and when he gazed into the woodstove on a winter night, he saw this promise written like a rune in lambent letters, or billowing in the firelight like a volatile, rose-colored painting of some fabulous scene that he would one day behold: he saw ardent lovers holding out their unborn arms to him, or the boiling, molten bullion of a yet unminted treasure that would one day spill between his fingers.

    Later, when he entered his senior year of high school, a small part of the promise was redeemed in the joy of sitting every day in room 115 in the presence of Miss Florence Replogle. Miss Replogle had eyes of the palest lavender, like Confederate violets, a color suited perfectly to her ambrosial Tidewater accent, her diaphanous dove-gray gowns, and the soft elegiac quality of her smile which seemed to commemorate some distant, doomed and valorous event in which her role had been to fold bandages and read the Psalms to dying men. Everything about her suggested mercy, for which Ben thirsted, and room 115, over which she presided, became for him a shrine and sanctuary, a haven from the suffering he was subjected to on the football field, in the gymnasium, in Mr. Steinberg's algebra class, and in the sun-baked sweet potato fields. On the wall above her desk she had had inscribed in gold-leaf Gothic letters a quotation from "Tintern Abbey," abridged to fit the size of the space and her own modest discontents:

The Mind that is Within Us, so Impress with Quietness and Beauty and so Feed with Lofty Thoughts, that neither Evil Tongues nor all the Dreary Intercourse of Life can e'er Prevail against Us.

    Miss Replogle's own thoughts often seemed on the point of bearing her aloft with them, like a rare and volatile gas. Listening to one of her students recite Mrs. Browning's "How do I Love Thee, Let Me Count the Ways," she would become dangerously unstable, listing ethereally from side to side while she gazed out at the live oak trees that lined the playground, her head rising and falling with the meter like a bright yellow balloon filled with helium and tugging at her earthbound body in a gale of similes. Ben loved everything about her, especially her instability. His own attachment to the earth was so precarious that he could appreciate the feelings of anyone who showed a disposition to depart from it. Every week she assigned a pair of recitation exercises, one for girls and one for boys. These were delivered from a little dais she had had installed at the front of the room, while she stood beside the window, her elbow supported by the palm of one hand, the fingers of the other laid delicately against her cheek, on the very verge of levitation. For girls, her assignments ran to Ella Wheeler Wilcox, Sarah Teasdale, or the love poems of Mrs. Browning for boys, the theme generally combined the martial and the sacrificial: "The Charge of the Light Brigade," "Gunga Din," or "To Lucasta, On Going to the Wars." Ben's first assignment in her class was a narrative poem of Browning's entitled "An Incident of the French Camp," about a messenger boy who heroically completes his mission of bringing Napoléon the news of the taking of Ratisbon before falling dead at his beloved commander's feet. It concluded with these verses:

Then off there flung in smiling joy, And held himself erect By just his horse's mane, a boy: You hardly could suspect—(So tight he kept his lips compressed, Scarce any blood came through), You looked twice ere you saw his breast Was all but shot in two.

The chief's eye flashed; but presently Softened itself, as sheathes A film the mother-eagle's eye When her braised eaglet breathes; "You're wounded!" "Nay," the soldier's pride Touched to the quick, he said: "I'm killed, sire!" And his chief beside, Smiling the boy fell dead.

    Ben didn't like the poem. Even in his barely literate state, he was embarrassed by its vulgarity and dishonesty, but he saw in it an opportunity to express his own depthless adoration for Miss Replogle, and so he read it as a love poem addressed to her. He pretended that she was his commander and he the unfortunate messenger, and the boy's four final words he made an impassioned avowal of his willingness to serve her, suffer mortal wounds, and die for her sake. He never knew what instinct guided him in the performance, but the delight and power he felt in the secret wisdom that governed his voice and set his body at perfect ease before his twenty grinning classmates was that of an epiphany. He knew without hesitation, beyond any doubt or fear of failure, exactly how to speak the words to make them peal with devotion and a desire for self-sacrifice that, he rejoiced to see, reduced Miss Replogle to a state of unprecedented rigidity. The most mysterious and delightful thing about it was that it was so easy; it was, he thought, like that uncanny intelligence that set Travis McCullough's feet flying at the crack of the bat to the exact point in the left center field where the fly ball would end its long high arc in his carelessly uplifted glove. This was what it was like to do something well. He felt a joy that warmed him like a sunrise.

    When he had finished, Miss Replogle, clinging to the windowsill, pressed her lips between her teeth and said in a constricted voice, "Thank you, Benedict. Thank you very much, my dear."

    The next week she altered her curriculum to include the reading of Romeo and Juliet, which Ben was happy to discover was poetry of a very different kind. She asked Ben to take the title role, and Peggy Kaufmann, a dark and winsome girl, the prettiest in the class, to read the part of Juliet. Peggy was a girl whom Ben had long and furtively adored and whom he would not otherwise, in twenty years, have dared to ask the time of day. Yet, kneeling in front of the little platform on which she stood at the front of the room, the textbook trembling in his hand, he gazed up at her lustrous olive eyes and murmured with an ardor that poured from his parched soul as miraculously as the waters of Rehoboth from the desert sands:

I am no pilot, yet wert thou as far As that vast shore wash'd with the furthest sea, I would adventure for such merchandise.

    After a moment of startled silence Peggy replied to this in a hushed tremolo so perfectly suited to the lines that many an experienced actress would have envied it:

Thou knowest the mask of night is on my face,
Else would a maiden blush bepaint my cheek ...

    No one laughed, or stirred, or tittered; and when the scene was finished a strange disconcerted silence possessed the room, in which Peggy gazed steadfastly at the floor and Miss Replogle's eyebrows twisted in a stricken look that might have been mistaken for anguish. When the bell rang, she asked Ben to stay for a moment. He stood beside her desk, scratching the edge of it with his thumbnail.

    "You read that scene very beautifully, Benedict," she said. "Very beautifully indeed. I haven't been so moved in this classroom in years. I want to thank you for it."

    "Thank you, ma'am."

    "You know, we do an annual stage production, every spring. I'm thinking about doing Romeo and Juliet this year."

    "That would be real nice," Ben said.

    "I wonder if you'd like to play Romeo?"

    "I couldn't ma'am. I have to work after school. I wouldn't be able to rehearse."

    "You have to work?"

    "Yes, ma'am. I help my daddy on the farm. He couldn't get along without me."

    "Not even for a couple of afternoons a week?"

    "No, ma'am. It's a lot of work, and they's not but two of us to do it."

    She laced her fingers together, laid her hands in her lap and gazed at them for a moment. "How old are you, Benedict? Eighteen?"

    "Yes, ma'am."

    "You'll be graduating in the spring, won't you?"

    "Yes, ma'am."

    "What do you intend to do then? After you graduate? Will you go to college?"

    "No, ma'am. I'm not smart enough." He looked up at her and smiled. "Or rich enough."

    "You'll go on working on the farm?"

    "Yes, ma'am. I reckon so. Until I get called up."

    She turned her head and looked out of the window. After a moment she said, "I wish I'd known." Ben shifted his feet and stood waiting. She turned back to him and said, "I wish I'd known about you, Ben."

    "Known what, ma'am?"

    "That you had a gift of this kind. I feel that I've failed you."

    "No, ma'am, you've been real nice to me. I appreciate it." He resumed scratching the edge of her desk with his thumbnail.

    "Do you have to go?" she asked.

    "Well, right soon, ma'am. I got to catch the school bus."

    "I see." She breathed deeply and frowned. "I suppose you'd better go along, then, I want to thank you again for reading so beautifully for us."

    "Yes, ma'am. I enjoyed it."

    She did not speak to him again about auditioning for the school play, for which, on further thought, she chose Charley's Aunt rather than Romeo and Juliet. It may have been that, in her mercy, she did not want to instill false hopes in him of a theatrical career. She knew the facts he had laconically imparted to her were true and inexorable: he would work on his father's farm until he was drafted into the army and sent to Vietnam; it was the destiny of most of his male classmates in the graduating class of 1966. She may have been led to reflect on those destinies in a personal and poignant way that had not occurred to her before; or perhaps her thoughts were not sufficiently lofty to render her immune to The Dreary Intercourse of Life that was taking place in Southeast Asia at the time; and perhaps those events had tarnished for her the rhetorical splendors of "An Incident of the French Camp." At any rate, she did not assign any more dramatic recitations for her class, and for the remaining six weeks of the semester was unusually pensive and grave. She gave Ben the only A of his academic career for a final grade. When he brought her a quart basket of strawberries as a parting gift, she pressed her lips together, closed her eyes, and after a moment of tremulous silence, gave him her blessing, introduced with the question, "Benedict, do you know what a prodigy is?"

    "No ma'am, I'm not sure," Ben said.

    "A prodigy is a person who has the ability to perform in an artistic field in a way that cannot be explained. He has been given a gift from God. The kind of gift that made it possible for Mozart to play the piano when he was three, and to compose symphonies when he was twelve. This kind of gift cannot be understood, and it is not only a great privilege but a great responsibility. Whoever has been given it has the duty to cherish and develop it, and to serve mankind with it. It belongs to the world as well as to him. He has been chosen by God as a vessel through which to spread the message of goodness and truth and beauty. That is his mission on the earth. I believe you have such a gift. You have in my opinion a prodigious talent for acting. I have seen a good deal of acting in my life—I have seen Maurice Evans and Katherine Cornell—and I say this advisedly. Unfortunately, Mr. Evans, at the time I saw him, had a speech defect which was the result of orthodontal work; but even with this handicap he gave a performance of MacBeth that I shall never forget." She paused for a moment as if gathering her thoughts, which seemed to be straying slightly.

    "Yes, ma'am," Ben murmured.

    "I believe very much in destiny," Miss Replogle went on. "I believe that God has ordained a course of life for each of us that is inexorable." She frowned. "That is not the proper word. Immutable, that is the word I was searching for. Immutable. It cannot be altered or avoided. It is the coming to fruition of the spirit, the soul's inheritance." She lowered her voice and tilted her head at him, looking with a pained intensity into his eyes. "And I believe that somewhere, in one of the great theatres of this world, on some appointed day, you will come into your spiritual inheritance. You will find your destiny. I want you to believe that, Benedict. Can you believe that?"

    "Yes, ma'am," Ben said with an assurance that she breathed like nard.

    "Oh, I'm so glad to hear you say that." She reached out her hand and laid it on his shoulder. "I don't know what will befall you until that day, but you must promise me to take very good care of yourself."

    "Yes, ma'am, I will," he said. No one had ever expressed such concern or regard for him before; he seethed with the innocent desire to reward it.

    "And if ever there is anything that I can do to assist you as you journey toward that hour of your destiny, you must not hesitate to let me know. I will consider it a privilege to do so." He nodded speechlessly. She raised her hand from his shoulder and laid it on his hair. "Bless you, dear young companion of my spirit," she said.

* * *

    If Miss Replogle had apprehensions about his career in Vietnam, Ben did not share them. He didn't really know very much about Vietnam. His family did not subscribe to a newspaper or own a radio. Their interest in world affairs did not extend beyond the fences of their farm, and the only discussion he ever heard at the dinner table was brief, churlish, and infrequent, and concerned rat damage, the price of chicken feed, or the necessity of digging a new privy. His only knowledge of the war came from the occasional impassioned declamations of his teachers and the conversation of his classmates. One of these, a girl named Juanita Splaine, had a brother named Justin who had quit school the year before, joined the Marines, and landed with the Third Division at Da Nang. He had subsequently been wounded, hospitalized, discharged, and sent home with most of his left foot missing. As the war was very new and public sentiment had not yet turned against it, he was regarded as the first war hero from Groveland. A picnic had been given in his honor at Flagler Park, and Ben had seen him leaning on a cane under the live oaks chatting with the mayor, Mr. Grayson, the high school principal, and other dignitaries, his chest covered with medals and campaign ribbons and a somewhat stealthy smile playing about his lips. Ben, who was adept at the interpretation of human facial expression, was a little disconcerted by the smile but he liked the blue and scarlet dress uniform, the medals, the public acclaim, and the fact that two weeks after Justin's return, Baker Bros. Oldsmobile, on Osceola Street, hoisted a plastic banner above their used car lot that read: THANK A WAR HERO— BUY YOUR USED OLDS FROM JUSTIN SPLAINE. He did not consider the Marine Corps as a permanent career, but it was a step toward one. It gave one respectability, employment, the gratitude of one's countrymen, a handsome uniform, food, shelter, money enough to buy beer and cigarettes, and a measure of hero worship on the part of pretty girls that would probably enable him to take a certain number of them to bed. Above all, it offered escape from his father's farm. Life held no other comparable prospects, and it seemed to him like a golden opportunity. It did not occur to him that he might be accepting these amenities in exchange for the realization of his destiny, the joy of fulfilled talent, the hope of ideal love, the fellowship of peers, and the possibility of immortality. He did not for a moment believe that he would suffer the fate of Justin Splaine, that he would be maimed, deranged, demoralized, or that his benefits might include a pious epitaph. "Take the money and run," is the way he would have put it, in the vernacular of his time, and the sentiment would have been understood by the millions of young men before him who, in exchange for their birthright, had taken the king's shilling and a day at Ludlow Fair.

    He didn't wait to be drafted. Two weeks after he graduated from high school he got up in the middle of the night, took a burlap sack from under his cot in which the night before he had put his birth certificate, a slice of cornbread, a tangerine, a toothbrush, and his copy of Romeo and Juliet, stolen from the school library. He hitchhiked to Orlando, sought out the Marine Corps recruiting office and enlisted for a four-year hitch of duty, smiling, as he signed the register, the last smile of his innocence. After his basic training at Parris Island and two months in the Ea Drang valley, his smile had changed somewhat. It had grown to resemble that of Justin Splaine, a wary, ragged grin that matched the stealthy panic in his eyes. Sent to a Rest and Rehabilitation Center on Cam Ranh Bay after his company had been decimated at Chu Prong, he sat down and wrote a letter to Miss Replogle. He had done a good bit of combat duty, he explained to her, and felt that he was qualified to apply to the elite Marine Guard School in Quantico, Virginia. With the training he would receive there, he would be better able to serve his country and its inspired leaders, which—like that of the boy in "An Incident of the French Camp"—was his deepest wish. Did she think there was any way she could help him secure such an appointment? Without embarrassment or inconvenience to herself, of course. He remembered that she had told him not to hesitate to ask, if there was anything she could do to assist him; otherwise, he would not be troubling her.

    The only thing that might have troubled her in his appeal was its unfamiliar tone of pragmatism and its compelling ingenuity, which her devotion to him did not permit her to recognize. Neither did it permit her to follow his injunction not to do anything that might embarrass or inconvenience her. She did so, wholeheartedly. Miss Replogle had attended Florida State University where she'd met the partner of the single indiscretion of her life—an undergraduate escapade at Homecoming week—who had since become the representative from her Congressional district. Nothing could have persuaded her to seek favors of the man for herself, but she did not hesitate to do so in Ben's behalf. The congressman, with a zeal that expressed the depths of his indebtedness to her, wrote to the Corps Commander, endorsing Ben's application to the Marine Guard School. The Corps Commander was impressed, and shortly after, Ben was assigned to Quantico where, sustained by a wholly novel power of motivation, he did famously. On his graduation, he was sent to London where he spent the next two years guarding the American Embassy in Grosvenor Square. He took with him the last relic of his youth, the link that bound him indesseverably to his past and to the golden vision of his future that had kept him from despair in the sweet potato fields, the barracks at Parris Island, and the mud and blood of Vietnam: his now-tattered copy of Romeo and Juliet.

    On the eve of his first twenty-four-hour pass in London, he bought a copy of the Telegraph and read the entertainment section in search of suitable amusement on his first free evening in the great city. Many such diversions he knew were unadvertised: the delights of Soho, Bayswater Road, and The Windmill were celebrated among his fellow marines, but Ben had loftier diversions in mind. He read the theatre section with awe, astonished at the number of legitimate theatres offering stage productions: more than he had known existed. Among them he recognized the name of the most legendary, The Old Vic, and the fact that on that very evening it was presenting a production of Romeo and Juliet seemed augury, a link in a mystical concatenation of events that was leading inexorably—immutably was the better word—to his destiny.

    It was the first professional stage production Ben had ever seen, and one such as neither he nor Miss Replogle had ever dreamed of. He sat transported in a six-shilling seat in the first tier while young gallants swaggered and dueled and jested in the stone streets and palaces of Verona, their sword hilts and medallions and the brocade of their doublets twinkling in the sunlight of the plazas and in moon-drenched fatal gardens where they poured out their pride and passion and infatuation with life in a tide of eloquence and ardor that made Ben clench the arms of his chair and tremble with delight. Here was magic, beauty, grace, gayety, renown, such as he had never known existed. Here was a world of illustrious companions, splendid artifice, and the magnificent transformation of reality. The warm and nebulous radiance that had called to him and comforted him throughout his boyhood was suddenly condensed into substance and swept into a stately architecture, like stardust being swept into a constellation in the void. He felt that he was witnessing the birth of the cosmos. It took shape all about him in this vaulted, glittering playhouse, this stately temple that framed the human tragedy before him like arches of the firmament, this stage illuminated with the light of galaxies, jeweled with tears and blood and ringing with laughter and rapier blades and the vows of lovers, this rapt, transfigured audience of angels, this home of revelations.

    Why in the name of God, he wondered, riding back to his barracks in the tube train, would a man want to become a computer programmer, an accountant, an insurance salesman? Here was a life of eternal magic and romance and, for anyone sufficiently gifted and resolute, fame and fortune. Miss Replogle had told him he had the first of those qualities, Vietnam had taught him that he had the other. He sat rocking in the plunging car, simmering in the flames of consecration, and before he arrived at his station he was sworn to his profession.

    Every weekend for the two years of his tour of duty in London, he went to the theatre, and on his summer furloughs he went to Stratford and Edinburgh. He saw Shakespeare, Marlowe, Jonson, Congreve, Chekhov, Coward, Pinter, Osborne, Schaffer performed by the finest actors in the world, produced with unmatched excellence and splendor in a theatrical tradition that went back four hundred years to the Globe. At night in his barracks he read tattered Penguin paperbacks of plays that he bought for sixpence on the sidewalk stalls of Tottenham Court Road and Church Street, and spent his evenings and Sunday afternoons browsing through the print shops and bookstores of Charing Cross Road where, with agonizingly counted-out shillings, he bought eighteenth-century prints of Covent Garden, the Haymarket, Drury Lane, Sadler's Wells, and Tuppence-Colored drawings of Garrick, Forbes-Robertson, Mrs. Siddons, Henry Irving, Mrs. Woffington. Every other penny of his pay he saved, and when he was sent back to the States to be discharged in the summer of 1973, this, together with his severance pay, totaled twenty-five hundred dollars. He bought an airplane ticket and within a week was back in London, ensconced in a bed-sitter in Notting Hill Gate.

    It was August, within a week of the yearly auditions for the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art. Ben had three years of entitlement to study on the GI Bill of Rights. His chances for admission, he knew, were very limited; there was a yearly quota of only ten non-British applicants accepted. The knowledge only increased his determination. He applied, memorized the required speech of Hotspur's from Henry V and, for his Optional, the lines that he had spoken to Peggy Kaufmann in Miss Replogle's class and murmured to the moon through the tattered fronds of palm trees in the Asian jungles: "It is my lady. Oh, it is my love ..."

    He auditioned on a morning in mid-August in a Georgian room that looked out onto fabled Gower Street, facing a rampart of oak tables at which were seated eight people of a smiling severity of countenance seen only in nightmares. For the week of agonized suspense that followed he entertained himself recklessly, saving not even enough money from his capital to buy an airplane ticket back to New York; so far as he was concerned, the only alternative was oblivion. On the seventh day a brown envelope arrived beating the Royal Crest and the news that he had been accepted and would be required to report on the fifteenth of the following month with a pair of plimsolls, a foil and fencing mask, and a copy of the Oxford edition of the plays of William Shakespeare. He did not know what plimsolls were, but the esoteric sound of them seemed to confirm the fact that he had been admitted into a mystery. It was the first step toward those distant evenings at the Kennedy Center which he had so long and so radiantly foreseen. He did not foresee that he would not be situated on the stage on those occasions, but in a patron's box; and he would not have believed, at the time, that it would not matter to him.

    In his three years at RADA he more than justified Miss Replogle's faith in him, and in the impulse that had brought him there. When he graduated, at the age of twenty-five, he had earned a Diploma with Merit, signed by Gielgud, Olivier, and Dame Sybil Thorndyke; the firm respect of his fellow students and instructors; and the promise of an illustrious career. His performances, which were never less than skilful and often quite startlingly beautiful in a way that he himself did not understand, invariably filled the Academy theatre with fellow students and their friends and families, moved to admiration and often to tears by their originality, subtlety, and vitality. This was the more unusual because he had grown only a couple of inches since his adolescence and had a sad, gnarled face and a reedy voice that was the despair of his diction masters. He had, however, that ineffable quality of intensity and dramatic wisdom that make it possible for an actor to hold an audience by his silences, his presence, his imaginative existence on a stage, far more than by imposing appearance or mere technical proficiency. He was also, for the first time in his life, popular and personable. Being engaged in the thing he was born to do, among people who respected his talent, he flowered in confidence and charm, and in a terrible determination never again to be poor, obscure, or scorned, a determination that furnished him with an inexhaustible source of energy. He became a kind of primitive hero, and in the little world of RADA enjoyed an éclat much like that of Whistler, a hundred years before, in the salons of the West End. He was regarded as a noble savage, gifted, aboriginal, passionate, and free. He discovered that while a few admire the profound, all are enchanted by the picturesque, and that by the cultivation of that quality in himself he could endear himself to friends and beguile audiences. He bought a cheap twelve-string guitar and sang Appalachian folk songs at parties in a corncrake voice whose quality of genuine lament more than compensated for the fact that it was frequently off-key. The Florida Cracker accent that he had once sought to disguise he learned was not only admired as colorfully barbaric, but was professionally profitable; it won him the lead in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, which one of his instructors produced especially as a vehicle for him. That there was a market value to the stigma of his youth was something he had not dreamed of, and there was irony in the discovery that it could be used as advertisement of the talent that enabled him to perform, on the stage of the most distinguished dramatic academy in the world, the plays of another rustic upstart whose fellow dramatists had described him scornfully as "a country crow beautified with our feathers." When he learned this, Ben took a fierce pride in the fact that was very unlike the habitual humility of his younger days. The taste of humility had grown sour on his tongue, and to subsist on consolation now seemed to him like living on scraps thrown underneath the table to a dog. He felt his powers and prospects stirring within him with a thrilling nascent tumult almost like that of puberty, and they demanded tribute. If it came in the form of infatuation with the persona of the artless rural prodigy he had artfully created, he was not troubled by the fact; he would accept it as his due, as he came to accept every prize of his virtuosity. The business of living, he began to suspect, was very like the art of the actor—a skilful impersonation, cunningly constructed and sustained, which inspired trust, admiration and belief. This principle he practiced without apology or shame, but the true and terrible privation of his youth he did not dramatize, or seek to invest with glamor, or consciously exploit, or willingly remember, or speak of, ever, to anyone but Priscilla.


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