A Quiet American Turns Out Not to Be

He was, I guessed, what author Graham Greene called a "quiet American." Certainly he sported an extremely pressed and clean striped shirt with a button-down collar. His green- beige socks did not slouch. His hair was organized. There was nothing scuffed about him.

He had probably showered recently in one of Edinburgh's less-inexpensive hotels.

By his evidently fastidious standards, however, I suspect that this young man was casually dressed - as befits attendance at an arts festival.

To get a seat near the platform, I had arrived as early as possible. He - sitting on the left-most seat in the front row - had taken up residence sooner still. We sat at right angles to one another. I was in the front row of the side seats, to the right-most.

If he had shown any signs of conversation, I was not opposed. But he showed no signs. In fact, his eyes looked away. But then he seemed to be looking at me - almost staring inquiringly - only to turn away the moment I looked at him. This happened more than once, and I tried not to show any puzzlement. There seemed to be something not quite at ease about him.

The audience filled up the rows behind him.

In 25 minutes, the German theatrical director Peter Stein was to be interviewed on the platform by one of Britain's leading drama critics. Fifteen minutes went by, and now the seats were packed and more people started to sit on the stairs at the back and even on the balcony above.

Mr. Stein's reputation at the Edinburgh Festival had already been built by productions in two earlier years, and this year his slow, sultry, and atmospheric "Uncle Vanya" had opened the night before.

Now there were only five minutes to go. Stein had still not appeared.

When he stood up, this quiet American, I was a little surprised. When he proceeded to turn around and face the chattering audience, my surprise grew suddenly.

When he lifted up a placard in both hands, faced it toward the audience, and slowly moved it in an arc so that it would be clearly seen by every single person therein, surprise became downright astonishment.

The passage of his placard, like the moon across the night sky, had a wondrous effect on those who could see it from the front. Their expressions changed. A flickering of smiles spread like a patch of light as the placard came into view. They mouthed the word written in large capitals on it. I could also read it.

The word was "MIMI."

The young man was now moving his message slowly back, and now holding it higher so it would not be unseen by the people at the back. And finally, just in case someone in the place had failed to notice it, he displayed it once more to everybody and sat down again.

Now I looked at him straight, questioningly.

"It took me 20 minutes to get up enough courage to do that," he said with a grin.

"Who's Mimi?"

"She is this girl who lives in London, who is a friend of a friend of mine, and I have never met her - and I have no idea what she looks like. I do know she is planning to be at several festival events and productions I am going to, and I am absolutely determined to meet her." He paused.

"I have been phoning her from New York" - ah, I thought silently, you're a New Yorker; that explains a lot - "for the past week, but her line is always busy, and I never reached her."

"Well, I wonder if she is here," I said, "but doesn't want to admit it."

"Yeah, maybe she's too shy to stand up," he added. "Well there are two or three other events when I can try again.... Do you think there'll be time for questions?" he changed the subject suddenly. "I have some I really want to ask."

"There has been time at other similar sessions."

PETER STEIN is a talker. His interviewer hardly contributed a thing. It was fascinating, and the hour was soon nearly up. Michael Billington (the critic/interviewer) at last managed to intercept the flow and suggest questions from the floor.

"Why do you concentrate so much on the established classics - Greek tragedies and Chekhov?" a young woman at the back asked. "Aren't there any contemporary playwrights that you want to direct?"

"Well, most of them aren't as good as Aeschylus," Stein replied. "And at my age, how many more productions can I still expect to do? There are so many great plays I would still like to direct...."

The questioner was insistent. "Are there no living writers you admire - surely?"

"Well, yes: Botho Strauss."

Apparently his fellow countryman was the only one.

There were other urgent questions, one after another, but the quiet American - eagerly waving his hand to catch Mr. Billington's peripheral vision, starting even to call out excitedly - was still waving when the interview was brought to an end 10 minutes later than scheduled.

Stein and Billington got up and walked through the applauding audience, heading for the elevator.

"I have to get his autograph before he reaches the elevator. Excuse me," said the quiet American with desperate urgency.

He leaped up, tripped over his seat, barged into several backs, and launched himself Steinward while trying to regain his balance. I sensed that this was one ambition-of-the-moment that he was definitely not going to forego.

"Sir! Please, sir! Would you...?" I heard him cry loudly through the rising babble of the departing audience.

And then I heard Stein's German accent, affable and delighted: "Of course! It would be a very great privilege...."

Thank goodness, I thought.

I watched for the slowly circling "MIMI" placard at other festival events, but never saw it again. Nor did I see the perhaps-not-quite-so-quiet American, accompanied or unaccompanied.

I hope they did meet.

And I hope that Mimi - well, I hope that she has a good sense of humor.

You've read  of  free articles. Subscribe to continue.
QR Code to A Quiet American Turns Out Not to Be
Read this article in
QR Code to Subscription page
Start your subscription today