Last night, after a particularly adventurous night in the labyrinth, I was reading while waiting for my stomach to calm down. After someone on Facebook quoted the last two lines of Romeo and Juliet a couple of weeks ago, I had dug out my copy of the script of The Life and Adventures of Nicholas Nickleby, the gargantuan theatre project staged by the Royal Shakespeare Company back in the 80s. My purpose was to snag the last two lines of the Vincent Crummles’ Acting Troupe edition of R&J, since they so notably and hilariously allow the main characters to live.
But then I kept the book out as bathroom reading material. Fun to read, fun to remember the PBS broadcast of the event, and familiar. Last night I finished up the last of the book, and of course burst into tears. That didn’t do my stomach or nasal passages any favors, but let that pass.
What’s the deal? Why does this script (and the memory of its performance) affect me so? Because it does affect me, every time I read it, see it, or think about it. Well, first of all, of course, there’s Smike. David Threlfall’s performance is one of the triumphs of theatre art, and no one can be unaffected by the pathos of the character. (Yes, I know Wilde’s assessment of Dickens’ pathos: “One must have a heart of stone to read the death of Little Nell without laughing.”)
But then I got to the very end of the show, and burst out crying again. Yes, there is the emotion of the ending (everyone happy, singing “God Rest Ye Merry, Gentlemen,” tableau, shivering outcast down center, Nicholas breaks out of his comfortable warmth to pick up the waif), but for me there is something bigger going on, and that is the show itself. It’s an enormous artifact: seven and a half hours of performance, some thirty actors playing more than a hundred characters, a complete rendition of a Dickens novel, a metatheatrical work of dazzling energy, developed from scratch by the RSC.
That’s the lure for me: this was a group project from the very first. The RSC needed something to keep the company going at the time, something that would keep everyone employed but not cost too much to stage. Nicholas Nickleby was their decision. I was there, actually. Christmas of 1979, Ginny and I went to London with our inestimable costume professor Dr. Jackson Kesler. Part of the obligatory trip to Stratford included (besides yet another autumnal rendition of Twelfth Night) a tour of the facility. When we got to the rehearsal rooms, I was struck by the enormous amount of material about Victorian London taped to the walls. Odd, I thought, I wonder what they’re up to? They were up to Nicholas Nickleby.
I want that. Perhaps this is one of my regrets before dying, that I would have loved to have been a part of something that huge, that dedicated, that crazy. I’m under no illusions about the perils of such ventures; in fact, there’s an entire book on how the RSC did it, and it wasn’t pretty or comfortable. But it was exhilarating, and I want that.
Peter Jackson’s The Lord of the Rings affects me the same way. Heaven knows I despise the act of movie-making as one of the most boring of livelihoods (www.flyboyfilms.tv notwithstanding). But LoTR overwhelmed me with its quiddity, its reity. The whole earth-moving, earth-creating (literally) aspect of the movie made me want to be a part of that. I will be the first to say that the movies are fundamentally flawed in their execution, but that does not obviate the amazing fact that they exist. They were created, and on a scale that mocks me.
I had hopes a couple of years ago that William Blake’s Inn was going to be that kind of venture for us, because certainly the “cardboard and hot glue” workshops we did for the preview were like peepholes into that vast darkness, and I was excited by that. But WBI went nowhere.
Practicality. I don’t have time. The forty other people I want to drag into the abyss with me don’t have time.
Something to ponder.