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Authors: Margaret Frazer

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BOOK: A Play of Isaac
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Joliffe couldn’t quarrel with that. All too often the best they could hope for was not to have too much trouble put in their way.
“All she asked was that Wednesday’s play be somewhat to the point of Corpus Christi, it being the feast’s eve,” Basset went on. “I told her what we had in mind—I didn’t tell her I had idiots as bad as her own in my company who have to learn their lines all over . . .”
“‘For no doubt death has mastery, to make to weep and sorrow. From holy writ and prophecy this knowledge I do borrow,’” Joliffe declared, raising a dramatic hand.
Basset clapped him happily on the back again. “There! I knew the part was still in your addled head somewhere. It was just a matter of grubbing around till you found it. Anyway, she said it would do well.”
“There’s the part where the Devil makes somewhat rude sport with the Bishop,” Joliffe warned.
“I told her of that and said we could cut it out, but she said laughter could be as much to God’s glory as prayer and she’d trust we keep all within bounds. There’s a woman I’d marry if I could.”
“Pity she’s wed and can’t accept the honor,” Joliffe said, with cheek enough he knew to duck as Basset made to cuff his head.
“You keep a courteous tongue in your head, boy. And don’t think I didn’t notice you noticing the daughter either. Just mind that noticing her is all you do.”
“Tell it to Ellis. He’s the one has an eye for the women.”
Basset snorted. “And you don’t? Heed me. There’s to be no loosening of the loins while we’re here. You hear?”
They had reached the barn, were just outside its door. Joliffe paused to sweep Basset a deep and flourishing bow, declaiming as from his very soul, “Your command is ever the wish of my heart.”
“Oh, lord. What’s he thinking of getting up to now?” Ellis called from inside.
“Nothing, if he knows what’s good for him,” Basset growled, and then, on the instant all brighter humoured, added, “Ah, here come our fine young devils,” as Piers and Lewis came out of a narrow gap between two of the buildings ranged between the barn and the house, Lewis’s Matthew following behind them.
“We’ve seen Mistress Penteney! Piers called.“She told us!”
“But does Master Fairfield want to do it?” Basset called back, as if he did not know the answer.
“Of course he does,” Piers said, scornful that his grandfather had to ask.
“Of course I do!” Lewis echoed.
Basset looked skyward for the divine help that never seemed to come when called for, sighed with mock despair, “What have I done?”, clapped his hands and declared, “To work then!”
Chapter 5
But Basset did not intend to shape all their work to Lewis. Instead, he said they would begin with a run-through of the
Abraham and Isaac
to see how much (with a glare at Joliffe and Ellis) they’d all forgotten.
“That can wait,” Piers protested. “We know the thing backwards!”
“I want to see if we know it forward, too,” Basset said quellingly. “Besides, Rose needs to measure Lewis for his devil-wear. Go on.”
He pointed them aside to where Rose was laying out a length of somewhat battered red cloth, bought last autumn cheap off a stall in Warwick marketplace from a batch spoiled in the dyeing. At the time Basset had said, “At that price, we’ll sooner or later find it fit for something or other,” and today he was proved—as usual—right: some of it could easily be made into a devil’s tabard for Lewis. Diverted, Piers and Lewis went to Rose, leaving Basset, Ellis, and Joliffe to outline a square-cornered shape the size of their scaffold in the barn’s dirt floor and set out the two stools that would serve, for now, as God’s throne and the sacrificial altar.
Joliffe, with his fair, smooth face, was inevitably the Angel but on their way to Oxford there had been, yet again, debate between Basset and Ellis over which of them should be Abraham and which should be God this time. Both parts were better suited to Basset, with Abraham supposedly being somewhat over one hundred years old and God being . . . well, God. Either way they played it, they were both going to be bearded heavily enough to obscure their actual years and Ellis had tried, “If I’m God, all I have to do is sit. I won’t have to remember to move old.”
“Meaning I don’t have to remember because I
am
old, you young whelp?” Basset had growled in mock anger.
“Meaning Abraham is the better part and you should have it,” Ellis had growled back.
“What you mean,” Joliffe had put in, “is that you want the fewest lines and the chance to sit watching us do all the work. Let me play God. Then I can do the sitting.”
They had both snapped at him for that and he had gone off laughing to help Piers fetch water from a stream to the camp and come back to find that, as usual, Basset would play God, with Ellis to be—as usual—the patriarch Abraham.
Now Basset took his place upstage on the stool that was presently God’s throne and Ellis knelt as if in prayer down-stage, nearer the audience, while Joliffe as the Angel stood at God’s right hand. They had begun running their lines with each other last week on their way to Oxford, and despite Basset’s jibing at them, all of them had their words firmly in their heads. It was the business that went with the words they needed to make smooth again, not having done the play since sometime in Lent, and Basset was set on making this as perfect a performance as lay in human power. “We’re few enough,” he said, “but, by God, we’re better than most and as good as the best.” And if they weren’t, he plainly meant they would be before he was through with them.
He set right off to it with, “Now, Joliffe, face me more than Ellis, remember, as if you’ve been listening to me, until he starts his prayer. When he starts to pray, turn your head over your shoulder to look at him so it seems we’re both pausing to hear him. Ellis, raise your head more. Remember the damn beard is going to be over most of your face. Talk to heaven but be sure they can see your eyes. Now, when I start to speak, Ellis, you go on mouthing silently as if still praying and, Joliffe, you look back at me, and if you can put less grin and more adoration into it, it will help. Ellis, begin.”
Ellis obeyed, his voice rich on the words, giving them weight and worth. “Father of Heaven, omnipotent, who neither beginning nor ending has, with all my heart to you I pray . . .”
He prayed at length, giving thanks in particular for his dear and long-desired son Isaac. Then God spoke to his Angel, and the Angel spoke to Abraham, and only then was Piers needed as Isaac. With the time Basset took over every bit of business among them, Rose was long since done with measuring Lewis, but she knew as well as anyone what trouble idle boys might make—or, more accurately, what idle Piers might lead Lewis into—and Joliffe, waiting while Basset showed Abraham exactly how he was to rise and pretend to be dusting off his knees and turn with great surprise when the Angel spoke to him, watched her setting Lewis and Piers down together with a few handfuls of hay between them, telling Piers, “You show him how to braid this to make his tail so it will be ready when I need it.”
“Devils don’t have hay tails,” Lewis protested.
“You’ll see,” Rose said with a smile and made to ruffle his hair as she would have done Piers’s but remembered in time he wasn’t a child. For all that he was childish, he was man-grown and properly to be called “Master Fairfield” and was certainly no one whose hair she had any business ruffling. Joliffe saw her look a little uneasily toward the door where the man Matthew was leaning comfortably against a post, keeping out of the way while he watched. To her look he merely smiled and nodded to let her know all was well. Then Joliffe needed to pay heed to his own business with Ellis until Basset said, “Right. Now, Piers, you’re on. You have your hoop?”
Piers, already on his feet and coming, no hoop in hand, as his grandfather could well see, froze, one foot in the air and a rather frantic look on his face. “I thought. . . .” He stopped, straightened, put his foot down, and glared at Basset. “You said no properties today. I don’t need the hoop.”
“Good. You do remember what you’re told sometimes. Get over here.”
Some days it was a close-run thing whether Basset would keep the upper hand with his grandson but more times than not he did. Thus far.
Lewis made to follow Piers, saying, “And me,” but Rose said, “Not for this play, Master Fairfield. This one has no devils. He has to be a boy and all alone in this one.” Lewis’s round face began to draw toward a pout at that but Rose added, deliberately cheerful, “Besides, you’re not ready to be a devil yet. We still have your tail to finish. Bring me what you’ve made and we’ll do that, please.”
She held out her hand and Lewis went to her, taking the two feet or so of braided hay he and Piers had done, while Basset said, “Come on from over there, Piers, the way you’ve done before, if you remember it,” pointing, and they went on from where they were, sorrowful Abraham taking Isaac away to the mountain to sacrifice him at God’s command. Joliffe, withdrawn to the side of the throne of God, had only to watch while Abraham told Isaac his fate and Isaac made his plea for life and then submitted to God’s will, at which point Joliffe’s Angel stepped forward to save the boy and praise Abraham for his faith in God, bringing the play to a glad end.
The whole business with the ram miraculously appearing in a bush was put off for later, Basset being presently more interested in how well they had their lines and movements than any of the special business that went with them—the crowd-pleasers, as he called such business rather rudely when he was out of good humour with the world in general and audiences in particular. Besides, the ram was Rose’s business and she was presently busy sewing a long strip of the red cloth tightly around the braided hay, with a point to one end to make it into a credible devil’s tail. It would not hold up to much rough use but for the few times they would rehearse and the once Lewis would perform it would do well enough, and for now Basset settled for granting rather grudgingly that they all seemed to know their lines sufficiently well. “Better than I hoped, that’s certain.”
Low enough Basset could pretend not to hear him, Ellis muttered, “If we don’t have them now, we never will. You’ve had us saying them every other mile the last two weeks.”
“But how does it stay on me?” Lewis protested as Rose held up the finished tail.
Before Rose could answer, Piers skipped out of the stage-space to him, saying, “There’ll be a band wrapped around your waist and between your legs . . .”
Lewis giggled and made to touch his crotch but Matthew by the door made a loud clearing of his throat and Lewis’s hand moved vaguely off into space as Piers went on, “. . . and the tail is stitched to that and it sticks out from under the tabard. Here. I’ll show you mine, how it does.”
“And then,” said Basset, “we’ll run your part of
The Steward and the Devil
, if you will, Master Fairfield.”
“Yes!” Lewis said eagerly. “Yes!”
“Sit down while you can,” Basset added aside to Ellis and Joliffe who promptly did, with Ellis asking a drink of water from Rose who brought cups for him and Joliffe both, then went to explain to Lewis why he and Piers would not either of them be wearing their devil tails just now, not for a first practice. When Lewis would have protested that, Piers made it all right by saying, “I never wear mine for first practices. There’s too much else to think about.” He looked to his grandfather. “But what about the horns? Couldn’t we wear those?” Adding aside to Lewis, “They’re more trouble than the tails. The tails won’t fall off, once they’re on, but the horns do if you’re not careful.”
“A point well taken,” Basset said as if it were a great matter worth heavy consideration. “Yes. I’d say you should wear the horns.”
Being smaller and rag-stuffed, the horns were not so liable to damage as a hay-stuffed tail, and Piers, with Lewis following him, dove for the basket where the horns were kept, not only Piers’s small ones but several man-sized ones from when they had been a larger company, able to send more “devils” onto the stage. Lewis’s somewhat stubby fingers made clumsy work of tying on the black cap that held them to his head. Piers helped him, then did his own while Lewis went over to Matthew to show himself off.
Basset took the chance to say at Joliffe and Ellis, “Since we did this only yesterday, I’m going to suppose, St. Genesius reward my faith, that you remember your lines . . .”
“Rest it, Basset,” Ellis said impatiently, never good at being jested at, which was what made it such a pleasure to do.
“So we’ll do just the last few speeches before the end.” Basset held up a warning finger. “But we’ll probably do it maybe five times, to satisfy Master Fairfield and take some of the edge off him. You see?”
Joliffe and Ellis both saw. You had to care more than a little for the craft of playing to be willing to go on and on at a part, working it over and over into the best you could make it be in whatever time you had. If someone looked on it all as little more than a light game, as a chance to show himself off, the work of it soon palled, and it surely would for Lewis. The trick was going to be to rehearse him well enough that he could do his part, without quenching his interest in it along the way. Or maybe quenching his interest just enough he would be satisfied with what he was being given to do and want no more. To Joliffe’s mind—and to Basset’s as well, he suspected—that would be the very best of all.
The Steward and the Devil
was mostly taken from one of Geoffrey Chaucer’s tales, with changes made to suit their company but the story much the same. The Steward, a lord’s officer given to extorting money from hapless folk in his power, meets a friendly man who claims to be a Devil come from Hell. They make agreement to travel together a while, each taking their share from whatever people offer them. They overtake a man—Basset—carrying and damning to the devil a sack too big and heavy for him. When the Steward urges the Devil to take what he’s been offered, the Devil declines, saying the man did not truly mean it. Likewise, when they come on a drunken man (again played by Basset with a change of hat and doublet) damning himself to the devil because his wine bottle is empty, the Devil says again he doesn’t mean it, the offer doesn’t count. But when the Steward seeks to grind a false fine out of an old widow (likewise played by Basset in loose gown and wimple and veil) and
she
wishes him to the devil, the Devil cries, “Now there is a wish made from the heart and fully meant!” Revealing his horns and tail, he summons the demon Piers to help him drive the Steward off to Hell, ending the play.
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