Onstage tragedy, backstage comedy

Tennesse Williams's 1938 play, "Not About Nightingales," isn't exactly a barrel of laughs. It is a play of dark intensity. It rages against mindless cruelty, against victimization. It stirs and troubles the audience. It is grim.

Yet in all four of our performances so far (two still to go), the audiences have applauded with a thumping enthusiasm. And individuals have afterward protested thorough enjoyment. Is the experience, perhaps, cathartic?

Williams didn't believe in a gray world. To him, it was either black or white. So there is a kind of clarity in extremis about sheer downright evil. (The warden, Whalen, is a tyrant equated with Mussolini.) In turn, this suggests that good must also have a shining lucidity.

An awful lot of people die. Yet you feel that there is a kind of hope that justice may arise from the ashes.

All this happens onstage.

What happens offstage, unseen by our paying guests, might astonish them. For instance, last night:

As a bunch of prisoners are being rounded up and marched off for a week in "the hole" to strike terror into the hearts of all other inmates, I (who had yet to appear as the good chaplain courageously confronting Whalen with a fierce sense of Christian protest and getting the sack for my trouble) am roused from my book by Carolyn. She plays, with touching sadness, the mother of Sailor Jack, a young convict driven insane by vicious treatment.

"Christopher!" she whispers, laughing.

I look up. She has a matchbox cover on her nose. She had received it from one of the other actors currently not needed on stage. He had it from another. And so on. The matchbox is to be fitted to my nose (no hands allowed), and I must convey it similarly to the young lady in charge of costumes.

We are finding it extremely hard to suppress a wave of giggles, and the harder we try, the worse it gets. And then it gets even worse, because the wardrobe mistress's nose proves absolutely incapable of supporting matchboxes. (In the end, I have to transfer it to a member of the stage staff with a thinner nose.)

Meanwhile, in the lights only a few feet away, actors and audience are deep in a world of threat and horror. But we offstage idiots are oblivious to their anguish, to the desperations of prison life. We are unmoved, more than used to it. We know only too well that soon Ollie, the unjustly incarcerated black convict - a man of simple faith and goodness - will be reduced to such despair that he will commit suicide. We also know that just after he has done this, he will prance around backstage, doing a daft dance, probably wearing Sailor Jack's mother's hat.

I once read that Gielgud might be doing a crossword puzzle backstage, or chatting away with characteristically urbane wit, but the moment his cue came he could sweep onto the stage inconsolable with streaming grief, weighed down by the tragedy of the cosmos. It took a split second to switch it on.

Some of the play's young professionals are not far from displaying a similar skill.

Myself, I have to prepare a bit. The chaplain is profoundly, utterly sincere and serious. Yet he says some things that teeter on the edge of the comic. And the man playing the part knows only too well how close to laughter he can -but must not - be. He has to prepare.

So far he has managed the illusion of passionate solemnity without a hitch. And, I am relieved to report, he has not yet gone onstage with a matchbox between his eyes.

We'll see how things go tonight....

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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