I was in Miletus when the ship docked with the latest news from Athens. There was no grief or terror in it, considering the great age of the philosopher. Indeed, the account I heard said that he had died in his sleep, which is a kindness from the gods to any man. I should have wished, though, to hear of Plato’s death a day later. Too many memories were brought to mind; and I had a performance—one of the old plays of Euripides, requested especially by our patron. I walked from the inn where the company was staying, with my head anywhere but on the part of Erechtheus. Indeed, I have no idea what I said as I went to my dressing room. There were certainly people around (for there always are); and I can only deduce that I must have satisfied whatever questions were put to me, for at least no one commented afterwards on my absence of mind.
As always, the old Apollo hung on the wall as I dressed in costume for the opening scene.
There was no role for him in this play—save, of course, for his patronage behind the scenes (which should never be forgotten by any actor)—for the story of Erechtheus involves Poseidon and Athena. I would double the latter role, whose great speech comes after the King’s death by Poseidon’s trident. Before then, though, comes the plot of the play: the war with Eleusis; and the prophecy that victory will come only with the sacrifice of the King’s daughter. Erechtheus resists the demands of fate and the gods, and must be persuaded that the girl’s death is no different from the sacrifice of a son in battle. He has two speeches of particular length and power; and I had chosen to give the part of the Queen to the second actor in the company, talented in dramatic female roles.
It was therefore the mask of the King that I took in my hand.
Our patron in Miletus had paid handsomely; it was new from one of the best craftsmen of the city. In the modern style, of course (unlike my old carved Apollo), its light frame supporting stiffened cloth and leather, finely painted. The features were moulded naturalistically, with just sufficient exaggeration—notably in the painting of the eyes—to be seen clearly even by those in the highest tier of seats. Glued to the chin was a long beard and moustache of real hair; the wig, which waited on its peg, was carefully matched. I smiled a little, I think, as I ran a hand down the beard. It had been carefully crimped into natural waves and combed to flow smoothly. All was of the best quality.
Yet something about the flow of the beard, the angle of the cheeks, the shape of the nose….
No! It could not be! Surely Leitus could not have modelled the mask on Plato! Why, I doubted the fellow had ever left Miletus. (Nor had I heard of the philosopher visiting Ionia.)
No, there could surely be no tribute intended to the dead: the mask had been painted long before the ship from Athens had come to harbour. It must be a trick of memory, I told myself—sparked by the news, no doubt. It had, after all, been some years since I had last seen Plato; he too was grey of beard, and moreover wore it long, as Leitus had created the King’s mask.
I reassured myself: there is such a thing as coincidence, after all.
I looked up at the still face of the old Apollo. If it were coincidence, it were divinely inspired. A king from the history of Athens; and its greatest philosopher, himself now passed into history.
The god was silent.
I raised the mask of Erechtheus before my eyes, with my usual intention of communing with it and the spirit it represented; but, though I tried to summon the King, my mind drifted to Athens and Syracuse. I tried. I swear to Apollo that I tried. But I could not focus.
The play went off well enough: I am, I trust, sufficiently the professional not to permit distraction to affect my acting to any significant degree. Still, I must admit it was not my best performance.
The god takes his price.