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Authors: Thomas Keneally

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BOOK: The Playmaker
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Beside him lolled Johnny Hunter, the impassive Scot, captain of the
Sirius
, the officer who had at the age of eight years nearly died in the Norwegian shipwreck of his father's vessel and had been revived in a fishing village between the radiant breasts of two Norwegian sisters. Johnny seemed to be taking a light nap at H.E.'s right side. Ralph felt confident the first word of the play would rouse him.

Over H.E.'s left shoulder shone the brown scholarly face and pale tunic of the astronomer Dawes. The surgeons Johnny White and Considen sat by him on his left, priests of surgery and dosage, autopsy and dentistry. The young Scot Surgeon Balmain had been rowed all the way down from the outstation at Rosehill to watch tonight's celebration. He looked too red-faced and heavy-eyed with liquor to appreciate Sideway and Brenham, Kable and Turner. If he got rowdy, Considen would try to hush him, and Balmain would challenge the little Irishman to a duel, and the play might be interrupted.

On H.E.'s left sat those robust enquirers, Davy Collins the Judge Advocate, and Tench Watkin, his brown eyes, which stood out from his head not unpleasantly, alive for amusement. Robbie Ross and Jemmy Campbell sat at the end of the line and had separated themselves from what they saw as His pernicious Excellency with the entire officers' mess—Lieutenant Creswell and George Johnston, Poulden and Lieutenant Long, elderly Lieutenant Alt, Lieutenants Furzer, Shairp, Davey, and Faddy, an old enemy of Ralph's in hardly a better condition to watch a play than Surgeon Balmain. Ralph knew that, if he himself had not been manager, he would have been employed in the same manner by Jemmy and Robbie—to help give flesh to the rampart of younger officers they had raised between themselves and Harry Brewer's Captain.

Missing were Harry Brewer himself, who had sent apologies but was out with the Quarter Guard waiting for a visit from the fugitive Madagascan, John Caesar, and of course Dick Johnson, whose Eclectic Society principles dictated he could not attend the theatre, even if Ralph had never pursued the white-suited Mary Brenham and brought her into his household.

Behind the line of officials, behind the two commissaries Miller and Clark, sat the married Marines and their wives and children, and then less regular, less discernible groupings of Marines and
Sirius
sailors and lags male and female. Ralph had time for one look at them. Meg Long, having seen the play at its rude beginning, was agog now to see its consummation. Goose sat by the brazier in the middle of the hall, her elbow room guarded and guaranteed by a cordon of young convicts. One held a bottle of brandy on one knee, and a goblet on the other—the bitch had a cup-boy!

In another segment of the barracks Will Bryant's lean, sad, knowing face was raised with touching and childlike attention toward the stage where his wife, Dabby, would be Rose. His daughter was probably asleep on blankets on the floor. Kable's Susannah sat nursing one child and heavy with a second. All this complicated audience, then, Ralph took in at one glance through the window of Justice Balance's country house, during the flux of time between Mary Brenham's consoling touch and Farquhar's first words.

In the constricted space by the back door of the barracks, all his players had gathered and were waiting for him. He could not prevent a frank conjugal smile from passing between himself and Brenham. As he faced the people of his play, he was aware of the smell of powder and fabric and excited sweat. “The audience is ready for you,” he said, his voice quaking. “Please do them and yourselves the honours you have done me as your manager and playmaster.” Dabby Bryant stared fixedly, with that gaze which had seen the Emu-Mother, into the centre of the small flame on the taper she carried.

“Rose and Bullock,” he murmured. “Light the torches on stage.”

Ralph heard a delightful gasp from one of the women players, but did not know whether it was Mary or Duckling.

As Rose in her robust country costume and Curtis Brand as a hobbling oaf appeared on stage with the tapers in their hands, a miraculous cheer rose from the crowd's desperate voices and became one voice, raising in Ralph for the final time the mad hope that his play would unify this remote planet of lags.

The play was begun by Wisehammer, speaking Farquhar's prologue, saving his own verse for the end of the event. Dressed as a captain of Marines, he intoned the lines with what Ralph thought, looking from the flats, to be a sublime mixture of grand eloquence and gesture.

In ancient times, when Helen's fatal charms

Roused the contending universe to arms,

The Grecian council happily deputes

The sly Ulysses forth—to raise recruits.

The artful captain found, without delay

Where great Achilles, a deserter, lay.

Ulysses caught the young aspiring boy,

And listed him who wrought the fate of Troy.

Thus by recruiting was bold Hector slain:

Recruiting thus fair Helen did regain.

If for one Helen such prodigious things

Were acted, that they even enlisted kings;

If for one Helen's artful, vicious charms,

Half the transported world was found in arms …

(Of course, Wisehammer put great emphasis on the word transported, and even the lags seemed to understand that this was a joke not intended by Farquhar. Wisehammer was therefore rewarded with the night's first thunderous laugh.)

… Half the transported world was found in arms …

What for so many Helens may we dare,

(He rolled his eyes and gestured over the heads of the dignitaries toward the wedges of she-lags scatttered about the barracks.)

Whose minds, as well as faces, are so fair?

If by one Helen's eyes, old Greece could find

Its Homer fired to write, even Homer blind;

The Britons sure beyond compare may write,

That view so many Helens every night.

And so with grotesque Brazen-like gestures, which promised that when he returned later in the play they would be given better laughs still, Ralph's recent rival for the love of Mary Brenham backed from the stage. The action proper commenced with a drummer rat-a-tatting Sergeant Kite and the minor players onto the stage.

The next time Ralph was able to return to his hide behind the window of Justice Balance's country house it was close to the end of the long Scene One, where Plume is pensive for once in declaring to Mr. Worthy his admiration for Silvia.

“I hate country towns. If your town has a dishonourable thought of Silvia it deserves to be burned to the ground. I love Silvia, I admire her frank, generous disposition. There's something in that girl more than woman. Her sex is but a foil to her—the ingratitude, dissimulation, envy, pride, avarice and vanity of her sister females do but set off their contraries in her. In short, were I once a general, I would marry her.”

He could see Plume's ruddy, well-made features, powdered up to resemble those of an officer, and beyond them in the dimmer body of the barracks the pale features of H. E. apparently engrossed in this extolling of the heroine.

The scene ended. There was a miraculous throaty burr of anticipation. Ralph noticed, among the furniture-movers dressing Melinda's apartment for Scene Two, Joe Hunt carrying on chairs and walking straight. His back had been so patterned and assaulted by the authority of the monarch whose birthday was being celebrated that a branch of a tree wielded by Ralph must have seemed a minor business.

In a stillness which grew to howls and cheers and whistles from the lags in the dim reaches of the barracks, Silvia and Melinda entered. It was Nancy Turner's snowy beauty-marked breasts which evoked the enthusiasm—Priapus was in that roar, just as he had had a part in Joe Hunt's earlier encounter with those powder-white mounds.

But to Ralph's admiration, Nancy did not cease to be Melinda, she did not turn frontally to the crowd or bob her knee to them or wave or smile. She remained icy and poker-hot Melinda, as Mary Brenham remained honest Silvia. And of course, that is why she is so perfect, this Turner, Ralph saw now. That was why her act in court excited me as a prospective playmaker. I thought she was a perjurer playing the part of truth-teller, but her ploy was deeper than that—she was a truth-teller playing a perjurer and never breaking from that character no matter how much Jemmy Campbell might scream for her neck.

Ralph, seeing all this from the flats of the stage and then going to his hiding space behind Justice Balance's country house, found the perfection of the scene almost beyond bearing.

Melinda speaks: “Our education, cousin, was the same, but our temperaments had nothing alike; you have the constitution of a horse.”

Silvia speaks: “So far as to be troubled with neither spleen, colic, nor vapours. I need no salts for my stomach, no hartshorn for my head nor wash for my complexion; I can gallop all the morning upon the hunting horn and all the evening after a fiddle. In short I can do everything with my father, but drink and shoot flying; and I am sure I can do everything my mother could were I put to the trial.”

How they paused for all the laughter yet played ignorant of it!

The laughter took on an edge at Melinda's famous speech about that which Silvia is tired of: “… an appendix to our sex,” says Melinda, “that you can't so handsomely get rid of in petticoats as if you were in breeches.” Ralph in his niche feared for a moment that the laughter might relate to the new state of Mary Brenham and himself. Yet it soon showed itself to be universal laughter, not directed at any single being. Ralph could see Davy Collins laughing frankly, supported by more dimly discerned hilarity farther back on the barracks floor. It did not sound malicious, though it had an archness to it, he was sure, a certain welcoming leer which he found difficult to confront. So, flushing absurdly, he left his place and went to the back stairs and gently out of the door into the night. There he began to laugh delightedly, like a tittering child, as barks of laughter and delight came to him from within. He did not return to the barracks until the tempest of foot stampings and clappings signalled Silvia and Melinda had accomplished the closing of Act One.

For the greater part of Act Two, he found himself outdoors as well. While Justice Balance becomes so alarmed at Plume's intentions towards Silvia that he sends her to the country; while Robert Sideway/Mr. Worthy simpers and languishes for the termagant Melinda and Kite deceives honest country boys with lies of campaigning, Ralph paced the night. He could hear most of what the players said. When he could not, he would approach the barracks back door once more, tentatively, like a man about to receive a wound almost too pleasurable to bear. He had a sense that his players had somehow become their own actors, independent of him like grown children—that he was no longer bound to them by either pleasure or duty, that they had entered into a pact with the audience which was rightly none of his business and that only the approval of the crowd could justify them and assure the maturity of their craft.

Kite was still arguing with the bumpkins Costar Pearmain and Thomas Appletree, and Kable/Plume had only just entered with his song, altered to meet the facts of convict transportation—

Over the hills and o'er the main

To Flanders, Portugal or New South Wales,

The King commands, and we'll obey—

Over the hills and far away,

—when Ralph saw a knot of Marines and convict constables approaching the front door of the barracks, one of them carrying a torch, many of them speaking at once and willing to intrude upon the play. His sea cloak whipping behind him, Ralph ran to prevent them. They were only some twenty paces from the door, seeming already to anticipate bringing a roguish disruption to the laughter within, when Ralph reached them. Harry Brewer, Ralph now saw, was with them, hobbling crookedly and talking to the constable, Bill Parr. These were the members of the night watch and of the Marine Quarter Guard who had been deprived of the pleasure of the play by the necessity of giving the settlement some security. Now they knew they had something worth interrupting a play with, something which would direct the love and the laughter of the audience towards them. For shackled in the middle of them was the great Madagascan Black Caesar, who seemed to be full of the same theatrical excitement as Harry and the handful of Marines and constables.

“Your concept, Ralph,” called Harry, joyously, “and my execution. We
have
the great black bastard!”

“But you cannot interrupt the play,” said Ralph. He was consumed with a fury at Harry and himself and at the recaptured convict. When he had proposed the plan he had imagined a capture in the small hours, after he and Mary had been ages asleep in Thespian triumph. He had not intended that the Madagascan should supplant the play. And yet he knew he could not delay the entry of the constables and their captive through three more acts of Farquhar's—as it now seemed to him—modest magic.

“Please,” he said to Harry. “Keep the Madagascan out here until Act Two ends.”

Ralph raised his ear to find the progress his players had made. Plume was just eliciting laughs by pretending to chastise Kite for taking advantage of honest fellows like Pearmain and Appletree. Would the laughs be there, would they be so uncritically granted, once Black Caesar was introduced?

“Two minutes,” Ralph pleaded. “Could you delay your entry two minutes?”

“Of course, my dear friend,” said Harry, his words as muffled as usual yet full of comradely intent. “Two minutes, boys,” Harry called to the Quarter Guard.

“No fret,” said one of the boys benignly.

It was only now, having saved something of the integrity of his play, that he remembered the Madagascan had bruised and distressed his woman as well.

“For what you did to Mary Brenham,” he murmured, close to the Madagascan's ear, “you will be heavily punished.”

“Oh, Your Honour,” Black Caesar told him, with a torch-lit gaze of transparent innocence, “I have been an evil fellow and will sure perish unless the Fragrant One smile on me.”

BOOK: The Playmaker
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