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Thereby Hangs a Tale

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Prologue: Merely Players

“Go seek him; tell him I would speak with him.”

Geoffrey entered down and left, found his light, and stood there for a moment, indulging himself in a bit of pure terror. There they all were, in the dark, staring at him. It was, by a large margin, the largest crowd he had seen in front of him since his final night as Oliver’s Hamlet. There they were, an unheard-of sold-out crowd at Théâtre Sans Argent, waiting for him to begin. And he couldn’t act. He was no good. Geoffrey Tennant? Who had ever heard of him? Who would pay to watch this clown? And then his mind, out of sheer desperation, worked a small miracle: he remembered the fool he had seen in the forest. And he turned to Jerry, flared his nostrils, and opened his mouth to speak.

1. The Infant, Mewling

It was, of course, Darren Nichols’s fault that Geoffrey was up there scaring himself to death. Darren always knew what to say to make Geoffrey do the stupid, necessary thing. Perhaps that was the reason for their twice-monthly phone calls: after an aggravating hour of complaining about their respective jobs and bickering about theater (Darren’s destruction thereof and Geoffrey’s fusty clinging to outmoded mores), they returned to work angry, refreshed, and newly inspired in their respective work. The vital call had begun normally.

“Geoffrey, it’s Darren Nichols.”

“Ah, Darren. Have you burned down New Burbage with your pyrotechnics yet?”

“Sadly, no. Have you been locked out of your broken-down theater again?”

“Not just yet. I’m only one month behind on the rent this time.”

“A pity. Sometimes I wish you’d come back so I could focus on my true art again. This fucking bureaucracy is no venue for artistic expression.”

“First, I’d never try to come back again; second, Richard would never allow it; third, your ‘true art’? What, like that experimental ‘blank’ version of Othello?

“That would have worked with a stronger cast.”

“Darren, you made all of your actors stand facing straight upstage through the entire play. You’ll have to forgive your audience for wanting to be able to see and hear their actors.”

Darren sighed heavily. “There you go again. And what about you? Aren’t you wasting your career away?”

“What? Of course not.”

“No? So it’s not true that you spend half your waking hours trying to raise money for your theater without money?”

“I... who told you that?”

“You did. Last month. And you spend the rest of your time directing.”

“Yes, of course. That’s what I do.”

“It’s not enough, though. It doesn’t fulfill you.”

“What the fuck are you talking about? I just finished doing Antony and Cleopatra with Ellen and Jerry. It was brilliant.”

“I’m not saying you’re not good. I’m saying it’s not enough. Geoffrey, as much as we hate each other, we can agree that we also know each other well, yes? I know you, and I know that you are a born actor.”

“Oh, fuck, not you too.”

“What is that supposed to mean?”

“Ellen’s been encouraging me to get back into acting too. She says it would help me get out of this ‘funk’ I’m in, whatever that means.”

“Well, if your wife and your nemesis are telling you the same thing, shouldn’t you be listening?”

“Darren—”

“It’s your calling, Geoffrey. I haven’t seen you act in years, but I know that much. It’s your calling and you can’t escape it forever.”

“That’s just such bullshit. You sound like—” Like Oliver, he thought, but he stopped himself on the point of saying it.

“Like what? Like a sensible fucking man? Like a perceptive observer of your true vocation?”

“Like an idiot. As usual. Let’s talk about something else.”

2. The Whining Schoolboy

That conversation was enough to make Geoffrey feel doubtful and out of sorts for a few days, but he didn’t remotely consider changing his mind. His acting career was done; most of his long and fruitful directing career was hopefully still ahead, and he should get on with it. Besides, he had an apprentice director to train. Most of his friends at New Burbage had gradually migrated to Montreal to join Theater Sans Argent: Sophie, Jerry, Maria, and even, eventually, Frank and Cyril, the latter of whom had not yet stopped claiming that he had retired and was far too old for all this nonsense. Sophie had quickly shown a great interest in—and flair for—directing, which Geoffrey had helped her cultivate through several plays until, for the upcoming season, he had offered her the job of directing As You Like It. Some major roles remained unfilled, but Kate McNab—missing the theater badly after so many years in Hollywood with Jack Crew—had been persuaded, after several phone calls, to come up and play Rosalind, and had promised to persuade Jack to take the role of Orlando. Jerry was just right for Duke Senior, and Sophie was almost finished with auditions for most of the other major roles. Just one troublesome piece of casting remained to be done, and it was the only thing that made Geoffrey unsure about Sophie starting her directing career with this particular play.

“Do you have your Jaques yet?” he asked her in his office one day when the start of rehearsals was getting dangerously close. It was a question he had asked her at every meeting between them for the past month.

Sophie smiled uncertainly and bit her lip. “Possibly, but... It’s tricky, you know? I mean, it’s Jaques. Even people who don’t know the character know his soliloquy.”

Geoffrey nodded. “It will take a brave actor to get up there and say ‘All the world is a stage’ in a distinctive way every night. In a way, it’s almost as hard as ‘To be or not to be.’ Still, it’s one of the juiciest roles in Shakespeare. Only the luckiest actors ever get a chance to play it. And your eye for the right actor has become at least as good as mine. So tell me, who do you have in mind?”

Sophie looked down for a long moment and then looked Geoffrey right in the eye. “I think my Jaques is Geoffrey Tennant.”

There was a long pause.

“No.”

“Yes.”

“No. Hell no. I don’t act anymore, and I was never that good with the comedies even when I did. Besides, I have baggage. You don’t want me breaking down in tears in front of a packed house.”

“You won’t. You’ll be fantastic.”

“I will not be fantastic because I will not be playing this or any other role.”

“Geoffrey, you just said only the luckiest actors get a chance to play Jaques.”

“I didn’t mean me, obviously. I... What even possessed you to envision me in this role?”

She took a deep breath. “Well, since you finally ask, here it is. Geoffrey, I’m sure your Hamlet was great. I know you can play Kent beautifully, too. But you were born to play Jaques.”

“How the fuck so?”

“You really don’t see it? Fine. He represents everything that’s beautiful and ridiculous about theater. He’s a pompous, judgemental, brilliant idealist. And—” She gestured vaguely but emphatically at Geoffrey.

And Geoffrey laughed. He laughed at how perfect it all was, and at the stupid thing he was about to do. “Yes, he is all of those things, and so am I. You’re absolutely right. OK, Sophie, I’m your Jaques. Let’s hope I don’t leap off the stage and go out beating up swans again. When do rehearsals start?”

3. The Lover

So Geoffrey handed most of the theater’s administrative duties to trusted associates and dedicated himself to the task of playing a famous and difficult role without losing his mind again. Rehearsals were generally fairly smooth at the start, but early word somehow got out that Geoffrey Tennant was returning to acting in a public setting for the first time in more than a decade, which resulted in Theater Sans Argent’s first-ever sold-out opening. The specter of a full house was so horrifying that he began to drop lines during rehearsal and have to review his script every night.

One night he came home to find Ellen already there, reclining on the couch with an ice pack on her forehead. “Shouldn’t you still be rehearsing that Roman bloodbath play?” he asked.

“Brian released us early so he could have a private meeting with Henry. I have a headache from clenching my teeth all day.”

Brian was on the opposite career track from Geoffrey, having essentially retired from acting to direct. His current production, Titus Andronicus, was being hindered by his Titus, Henry Breedlove. Ellen had been cast as Tamora, the villainess of the play, and had joked that now Henry would get a chance to stab her, which he must have wanted to do ever since their difficulties in playing Geoffrey’s version of Macbeth together. But it was now Ellen, as well as most of the cast and crew, who frequently wanted to stab Henry.

Geoffrey leaned down and kissed her lightly. “He’s still got the old Breedlove touch, eh? Has he punched Brian in the face yet?”

“Actually, no. Brian is just about the only person he doesn’t fuck with. It’s open season on all the rest of us. I mean, shit, Charles Kingman at his worst was never this bad. He interrupts every scene, even ones he’s not in, to critique line readings that he says sound wrong. I asked Brian today if he or Henry was the director, hence this private meeting. We’ll see if it takes.”

“That sounds shitty. I wish I could do something.” As a condition of playing the role, Henry had specified that Geoffrey could not be allowed to sit in on rehearsals. If Geoffrey tried to intervene as the artistic director, Henry would quit. Only as a favor to Brian would Geoffrey ever have agreed to such a thing, but there it was.

“Well, you can do something. Run lines with me.”

“Oh, is that what they’re calling it these days?” He kissed her.

“Ne’er let my heart know merry cheer indeed/Till all the Andronici be made away.” She put the ice pack aside and began to unbutton his shirt.

Geoffrey grinned. “I have neither the scholar’s melancholy, which is emulation...” He kissed her neck. “... nor the musician’s, which is fantastical...” He wrapped his arms around her and lightly nibbled her collarbone. Ellen gasped and barely managed to get out, “We may, each wreathed in the other’s arms,/Our pastimes done, possess a golden slumber...”

And so they kept quoting lines from their respective plays at each other, answering grisly tragedy with comic pomposity as each new article of clothing came off. By the end of the night, they had rehearsed with each other quite thoroughly.

4. A Soldier, Full of Strange Oaths

The next night, Ellen was home early again, but there was no ice pack this time. Instead, she was cheerfully making them both an omelet. She was actually whistling as she cracked the eggs. Geoffrey was a little suspicious. “All right, so... you’ve never looked this happy after a rehearsal in your life, even when the play is going well.”

“No. But you see, this is the first time I’ve ever punched the leading man during rehearsal. Henry started screaming terrible things at me, including some words I’m pretty sure he made up, and I just nailed him.” She resumed whistling.

“Wow. And you’re here, so you weren’t arrested.”

“Oh, no. After the initial shock, he just started laughing. Rehearsal was canceled because he needed to go off and get some ice for the swelling, but I think we understand each other now. Brian actually congratulated me.”

“Huh. Well, I’m glad you punched him instead of me this time.” Geoffrey looked slyly at her. “So, you want to run lines again tonight?”

The Justice

“Stop. Geoffrey, from the top again.”

Geoffrey groaned. He’d just spent most of the day rehearsing his major soliloquies, and Sophie was still not letting up.

“All the world’s a stage,/And all the men and women—”

“No, stop. You still sound like you’re reciting it, not acting it. It has to be fresh. It has to sound like you just thought of it.”

Which was, of course, something that Geoffrey had said himself innumerable times to innumerable actors, including Sophie herself. It was intensely irritating to hear Sophie repeat it back to him.

“Sophie, I can theoretically understand what you’re saying, but what you’re asking for is kind of abstract. Is there a more specific way you want to play it?”

Sophie just sat there and frowned thoughtfully for a moment. “Actually, yes. I want more urgency. You’ve just been arguing with the Duke about whether you’re a hypocrite or an honest critic of human nature. Now you want to try to convince him that you really have something useful to say. But the Duke doesn’t necessarily want to listen. So Jerry, I want you to undercut him by looking offstage, shuffling your feet, and generally acting bored and skeptical. Geoffrey, you have to hold his attention. And ours. Go. From ‘Thou seest.’”

Jerry said his cue, and Geoffrey sighed and started again.

6. The Lean and Slippered Pantaloon

“Shit. Shit shit shit. They’re all out there now, aren’t they? I’m entirely too old for this.”

“Oh, shut up, you daft youngster,” Cyril told him, flicking dust off the shoulder of his costume. “You’re barely past forty. I’ll tell you when you’re too told for this, ducky. You just go out there and tell them what all the world is. They’ll believe you.”

“No they won’t. Fuck.” Playing Kent in front of a crowd of several dozen was one thing; acting like a fool in front of more than a hundred was quite something else. He could feel the same old panic coming on. Tears sprang into his eyes.

“Geoffrey Fucking Tennant.” Sophie was there in front of him, her hands clasping his shoulders as delicately as possible to avoid crushing his shoulder pads. “You are my Jaques. You are every bit as stubborn, frustrating, hilarious, and wise as this character, and you can and will show that tonight.”

“That’s fifteen,” Maria hollered from behind them. “Places, everyone.”

Sophie gave his arm a last timid squeeze. “Go. Do it.”

7. Second Childishness

And when the moment came, his voice did, in fact, ring out as clearly as it ever had.

“A fool, a fool! I met a fool i’th’forest,” he said, and he knew he had them. The audience laughed with him and at him, and when he got to “All the world’s a stage,” there was a sudden hush as they hung on every word, every one of the seven stages of man. And he felt as though he could stay up there forever. Next year, maybe I’ll be Benedick, he thought.