Naturally I have nothing to say to you; the wound is literally still much too fresh. Occasionally, in bad weather, it oozes.
I write only to direct your attention to the myriad glowing reviews of my latest production of Tito!: das Musical. (That’s Tito!: The Musical for the merely bilingual among us.) Presumably those of you still mired in the cultural sludge of New Burbage don’t often peruse the theater reviews in Berlin News or Exberliner. You may find them online.
Following my enormous success with Tito!, the Deutsches Theater has given me six weeks’ stipend to travel about Eastern Europe, before I return for what will inevitably be a triumphant production of Mother Courage. When was the last time you had paid leave to do as you wished in Eastern Europe, Geoffrey? Or even in the wilds of eastern Canada?
Ah, the rest is silence. That’s what I thought.
Now I am in Lodz, at Publiczne Gimnazjum nr 10, directing their Cats. Not my usual thing—after all, what relevance do animals have to heteronormativity? to poststructuralism? to anything interesting?—but the principal is a great friend of my artistic director at the Deutsches, and he begged for a loan of a director of some celebrity. I imagine he asked for me by name. Who can blame him?
There’s a great deal of work to be done. The drama teacher had already cast the show when I came in, and he has forbidden any meddling. I met with the children for the first time today, and Grizabella is a nightmare; apparently no one ever told her she should not literally sound like a dying feline. Deuteronomy actually believes he is to quote Scripture onstage. Mr. Mistoffelees looks like the tritest bourgeois stereotype of a baritone musical-theater hero possible. &tc., &tc.
I have decided the only thing for it is to immerse them in theater before they try to do it. And so we started today with a social history, in which I explained to them Theatre of the Oppressed and the ghettoization of the musical genre. It was a brilliant lecture, but my assistant/translator Lucja—some woman who spent her graduate years in the US, which doubtlessly only made her more humorless—pulled me aside afterward and said she thought it hadn’t gone over well. Something about how talking about ghettos on your first day in Lodz when you’ve just come from Berlin (sporting a very good German accent, I might add) is in bad taste.
The Polish have no sense of the absurd. It’s no wonder no one’s ever staged a really successful Beckett here. But still, for these six weeks I will slog on, head bent against the hurricane of political correctness, teaching these children about their theatrical heritage. You have to get them while they’re young, Geoffrey. Even Hitler knew that, and he was a terrible artist.
If Lucja were reading this, she would probably inform me that the above reference was also in bad taste. Fortunately, no one reads my letters. I defy audience.
First day of proper rehearsals, and I’ve had to scrap the original educational plan. My students simply don’t know how to talk the talk. It’s pitiable, really. These people used to be Communists! They should be able to do theory in their sleep.
I’ve decided to return to basics: the high-water marks of the modern theater. So of course today we spoke of my vision of our university Romeo and Juliet, where you kissed me and I killed you. Beautiful. I know I said you would’ve made a better Mercutio—the apolitical windbag martyr—but in that moment in the tomb, I took it back. In that moment I thought you understood me and my play: theater is a living orgasm, loving is une petite mort. You of all people (apolitical, windbag, martyr) should know your “Ballad of Reading Gaol.”
I think next time we’ll talk about my youthful Tempest. I’m sure you recall it. That was the one where you savaged my scenery. You were more believable than my Caliban, really. Primal theater—we should have done more of that together.
Meanwhile, the show itself progresses. Mr. Mistoffelees really isn’t so bad, if you don’t look at him full in the face too much. Grizabella is still horrific, but I suppose we can fashion some kind of commentary out of that. Jenny Anydots tells me that Griz got the part because she’s the drama teacher’s daughter, but I’m sure she’s simply sleeping with him. Or perhaps it’s both.
Sex, Geoffrey. The Polish understand this, if nothing else: the theater is all about sex.
Today’s rehearsal was the epitome of unprofessionalism. I could find neither hide nor hair of Grizabella. Skimbleshanks claims she wasn’t in history class, and so we must assume she’s ill, though no one knows with what. I root for scurvy; when she returns, we could play up her manginess to great effect.
We worked on Act II up through Mistoffelees, who approached me after I released the cast for the night and asked if I would give him individual help. I appreciate initiative, even in such well-groomed specimens of the Old World aristocracy as this one. And he does have a voice on him. A kind of purr.
We went to the nearest brewery and had Porter Łódki (a local brand; you wouldn’t know it). I asked for kielbasa, to add to the authenticity, but Mistoffelees said Polish sausage isn’t quite so easy to come by. And leered. I like him better this way: grotesque.
And so we talked. He wanted to talk about Peter Brook, of all people, and I had to break it to him that Peter Brook is British, not Canadian. And also a moron. Instead, I said, let me continue your lessons in theatrical history. Let me tell you about Godspell.
Do you remember Godspell, Geoffrey? 1980, that Godforsaken outdoor festival the summer after university? No one else in the company liked you because the critics loved you too much, remember, and we roomed together and you never wore very many clothes and we got drunk that one night and you started talking about playing Hamlet.
Of course you remember, you bastard, you were Jesus. You thought it was a terribly funny show, didn’t you? Everyone thought you were the next Victor Garber, but you wanted no part of it. You wanted to be nothing less than the next Richard Burton—Hamlet being the next step up from Jesus, of course. Well, for those of us who played the hell-bound goats in “We Beseech Thee,” it was an entirely different story. We beseech thee, fucking hear us.
And that, I said to Mistoffelees, that is the theater. Is that what you want for yourself? In five years do you want to play a nameless disciple to some rising Jesus, six days a week under a mouldy tarp? Better to be no one’s disciple, I said.
I would like to be yours, he said. He does have a voice on him.
That, I said, is a different story.
Mistoffelees sees the story of Godspell the way you never did. The Polish are a Catholic nation. They understand plays about passion.
TRIUMPH! You thought your Hamlet won the world over? (It didn’t win anyone over, by the way, in Germany. The Germans hate you.) No: Cats at Publiczne Gimnazjum nr 10 is the greatest triumph of modern theater since I put a live yak onstage in Switzerland in ’93.
Our dress rehearsal was tonight, attended by a smattering of parents and—no great shock—not our drama teacher, the father-cum-lover of Grizabella.Dlaczego? Because Grizabella, it seems, is in hospital for pneumonia. Nothing so utilitarian as scurvy or even so picturesque as consumption. Pneumonia: a dramatically useless disease.
Recall, if you will, my new disciple, Mistoffelees. The only one in this motley adolescent cast with any real talent. Tonight, thinking quickly, I threw him onstage for Griz’s big moment, and I hoped. It seemed the thing to do. After all, no sentient being on Earth doesn’t know that song, and my stroke of casting genius also had the benefit of gender subversion. Gender subversion another species. That alone would have reserved me my place in eternity.
Mistoffelees sang the shit out of that song. It was like no one had ever heard it before. It was like T.S. Eliot himself singing up there on that stage. In a cat suit.
We got a standing ovation. We went out and got drunk, the star and I. We went back to my flat, and there, my bipolar friend, yes, I did: I bagged Mr. Mistoffelees.
Tomorrow night we open, to what I have no doubt will be raves from all corners. Tonight there’s an eighteen-year-old boy in a cat suit in my bed, and I still have a quarter of a bottle of la Fée Verte to finish. Click, click, click, turning the hot light off.
Do you remember that play? Do you know that I saw it? Directed by that American that Oliver Welles brought in for a season—what was his name? Whoever he was, he was terrible, so provincial and piggish and drawly. I suppose that’s why Oliver wanted him directing Cat on a Hot Tin Roof. I saw it on the second night, and I hated it, of course. I hated everyone involved—you, the director, Tennessee Williams, Oliver... Oliver, who loved you so unironically that it was embarrassing. Of course everyone knew he chose that play just so that you could be his Brick.
After Berlin and Mother Courage, perhaps I’ll come back to you peons on the frontier. I’ll do Cat on a Hot Tin Roof somewhere. I’ll cast you as Brick and we’ll do something much, much better. Pyrotechnics and Oedipal undertones and a hearty helping of Barthes. You’ll actually get drunk onstage and slur all those ridiculous speeches—“Lishen, I'm all alone, I'm talkin' to no one where there'sh absholute quiet”—and we’ll have a dream-ballet flashback where you break your leg jumping the hurdles.
I’ll write more later. Mistoffelees is awake, and I think he’s singing it again. The Polish are beautiful, Geoff. They remind me of you.
Very, very hungover.
Tonight was opening night. Macavity, who was too fat to play the Mystery Cat anyway, took over as Mr. Mistoffelees, and did a dreadful job. But no one noticed, because (a) no one can tell those fucking cats apart anyway, and (b) Mistoffelees did another near-perfect “Memory.” We changed up the design a bit to highlight that moment; added a few projectors and showed slides of genocide and inferno, just for flavour.
Cue another standing ovation, sobbing children, beauty and terror. A university scout approached Mistoffelees after the curtain call and offered him a scholarship. And then I made my way into the crush, shouldered my way past his adoring fans, and offered to buy him a drink. (I offered to buy him a drink! Can he possibly understand the honor of my making this common-man gesture?)
He smiled his szlachta (Polish gentry, Geoffrey, honestly) smile and said, I would like to introduce you to my parents. Mother, Father, this is my director, Mr. Nichols.
I refused to smile—most primates smile only in fear, you know—and said into his ear, That’s not what you called me last night.
Mistoffelees is a consummate actor. Like you, he doesn’t know how not to act. His face betrayed nothing.
He said, Better to be no one’s disciple, yes?
Whose idea was it, I ask you, to recast the bastard in the first place? (Whose idea, Geoffrey, to stab Romeo in the tomb?) Now in a year he'll go off to university, graduate with honors, soar to the top, make love to beautiful actresses, play the definitive Hamlet, splash his personal life all over the tabloids, stab people with no regard for Freudian symbolism, never answer the phone, get an unlisted address. Very well, then, PREPARE YE THE WAY OF THE LORD. Go fuck yourselves. All of you.
I’ve already packed to go back to Berlin on Friday. In Berlin they always appreciate me.
I hate the Polish. They’re too much like everyone else.
Deutsches Theater Berlin
2 July 2005
Mr. Geoffrey Tennant, Artistic Director
New Burbage Theater Festival
P.O. Box 886
New Burbage ON K2K 2G0
Your receptionist has already called me to grovel, but I want this official. Everything is always aboveboard with us, isn’t it? Even when you stab me, there’s never any attempt to cover your tracks.
Please offer my condolences to Nadine for her accident. (That vapid hag. I saw her in Berlin and gagged.) I will be quite happy to take on your Romeo and Juliet this season. We’ll work out the details with my agent; I expect my contract to have a clause prohibiting more bodily harm.
I look forward to working with you again. I have some very interesting ideas about this play, about love and betrayal. I’m sure you remember some of them.