‘Lie There, My Art’

My first story for the Liars’ League, Hallowe’en 2010. It was read by Greg Page at the Dark & Stormy event on October 12, 2010, and was included on the League’s ‘Best Of’ audio CD that year. Greg later reprised his awesome reading at the opening of the Clapham Library in 2012. You can listen to a recording here. The title – for reasons that will soon become clear – is from The Tempest.  

A stormy relationship? Well, yes, I suppose it might have been.

But then a relationship has to be stormy, nowadays, to get a mention in the newspapers. I’m old enough to remember a time when a more tender sentiment prevailed in the public press, and every marriage made in theatre-land was ‘a grand romance’ or ‘a sparkling match’ or ‘a union of twin artistic spirits’, as long as the gentleman held the door open and the lady didn’t run off with a carpet-fitter…

So ‘stormy’, if you wish, yes.

Acting, though, has always stirred my blood – and, indeed, roused my loins – more than has any love for a woman. I was a theatre actor at first, of course. I toured, did rep, did the things actors did. Toured with a bloody good company, actually. Mostly Shakespeare. I was known for my diction. I was the youngest Prospero ever seen at the Bolton Octagon. I played every Henry, every one of them. I was known for my Henries.

And then – Hollywood. It was the diction, you see.

Other things, too, of course. There was my height, for instance (I am six feet five, which even today is singularly tall, and back then, in the fifties, with everyone else stunted and hunchbacked by rationing, well, they wouldn’t believe it, the audiences, they’d insist that I must be on stilts).

And then there was my hair, my long and silvered locks. My career benefited from the fact that I silvered early in life. And then there was my combed white mustaches.

I insist on the plural, by the way – ‘mustaches’, I insist on it, though it seems to have fallen out of fashion.

But mostly it was my diction.

The Hollywood casting people saw great promise in my bilabial plosives and my alveoloar trill. Well, without any false modesty – a term I can’t, in truth, pretend ever to have understood – they had good reason.

It all began when Hiram Schuster heard me say ‘crepuscular’ in a matinee production of Antony and Cleopatra. The word – ‘crepuscular’, I mean – doesn’t appear in the original play, as you’ll know, but I had heard that Schuster was likely to be in the audience that night, and I knew that my ‘crepuscular’ was particularly strong, so I ad libbed it into Ahenobarbus’s death speech.

Hiram saw, of course, that a man who could do what I did with ‘crepuscular’ that day could weave the same magic with other words.

‘Crepitations’, for one.

Or ‘crypt’.

Listen: they crept into the sepulchral crypt… the crepitations… were… crepuscular…

You’ll pretend that you aren’t frightened, of course, because that’s how audiences are these days, but we all of us know that I’ve conjured a debilitating dread in all of your hearts.

As it turned out, it was ‘crypt’ that I became known for. Remember? ‘Welcome, friends – welcome to Baron Mortblack’s crypt… it is a pleasant night for story-telling….’

Well, of course you remember, it ran for seven series. Eight in the States. Me with my mustaches, my leather wing-chair, my vellum-bound book of terrible tales.

She refused to watch it. Trash, she said it was. She said that I ought to have stuck with Shakespeare. Well,  I could see her point, of course, television work doesn’t suit everybody, and I have the profoundest, the profoundest regard for the Swan of Avon – I was, after all, the youngest Prospero they’d ever seen at the Bolton Octagon – 

But did the immortal Bard bring out the best in me? Ay! There’s the rub (that’s Shakespeare).

In series four, Johnnie Corrigan, dear old Johnnie, wrote me the line ‘the spectrous creature stroked its cryptic primstaff’.

Well. I mean to say. You could spend a dozen seasons touting bloody Shakespeare round the provinces and never land a line like that. I didn’t even know what a primstaff was! I had to look it up! That’s writing. That’s what I told her – and I recited it, the spectrous creature stroked its cryptic primstaff, and she still preferred her Shakespeare, her precious bloody bard, and I said, well, did Shakespeare ever get eight series in the US, because Baron Mortblack’s Crypt did, and she said she didn’t care about Baron Mortblack’s Crypt, she didn’t want to be married to Baron Mortblack, she wanted to be married to Hamlet, to Romeo, to Mark Antony, she wanted to be married to an actor

I said: it is acting, what I do. After all, I explained, I’m not really Baron Mortblack, for God’s sake.

And she said it wasn’t acting.

She said it was – crap.

So a stormy relationship, I’ll concede, it may at times have been.

Stormy. Always difficult. Always bothered me. And I had to say it over and over, ‘it was a stormy night’, ‘the night was stormy’, ‘the night was stormy and dark’, ‘it was a dark and stormy night’ – all the time dying inside. There’s so little one can do with it, you see. One can draw out the vowel, of course, sto-o-ormy,  but then I feel that what one ends up with has a certain lowing quality, a distinctly bovine resonance – and this isn’t what one wants.

And it’s so maddening when one can do so much more with tempestuous. I am a man, after all, who knows tempests, thick weather, dark currents – and who knows The Tempest, of course, “these our actors, as I foretold you, were all spirits, and have melted into air, into thin air”,God that takes me back, because of course, did I say, back when we were touring, years ago, when I was merely a boy, I was the youngest, the youngest Prosp…

Ah. I did say, didn’t I. But I don’t suppose it matters now. Not here. I don’t suppose that dear Prospero is much good to me here, now.

Nor Baron bloody Mortblack.    

In any event: it wasn’t a stormy night. That night, no, it was neither stormy nor tempestuous. When I crept into her room – when I unwound the cravat of Khorat silk from around my own neck, and wound it carefully around hers, and when I drew it tight, until her poor, pretty eyes popped –

And then when, in slippers and gown, I scraped a shallow grave in the midnight garden, and laid her within, and then, with a spade, buried her unprotesting body beneath the wet dead leaves of the crab-apple, and laid down the spade, and smoothed my mustaches – and considered the crepuscular constellations –

The night was calm.

I was calm.

And she was calm. Calm, and still, and quite, quite quiet.              





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