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Authors: Thomas Keneally

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BOOK: The Playmaker
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“Forget the lashes you took,” Ralph advised Will. “They are behind you.”

“That they are,” Will agreed with the intentness of a man who might make a mob, or take an oath as a radical, a United Englishman, and happily bring down monarchies.


By the Spikes

The greatest enthusiast for the play among the women was Mary Brenham, the young thief with the small son. She copied away all day in Ralph's tent, sometimes smiling to herself as she worked through the more comedic passages.

The greatest enthusiast for the play among the male convicts was not Henry Kable, the convict overseer who would play lively Captain Plume, not Ketch the hangman, who needed a role so he could restate his humanity to the convict population—not Plume or Justice Balance, therefore—but Robert Sideway, a dark-haired and reflective actor who had seen Barry and Palmer and Smith, the acclaimed Mr. Garrick, Miss Litton, Mrs. Sterling, and Mrs. Peg Woffington. Sideway was to play Mr. Worthy—he told Ralph he had seen Mr. Munden play it at Covent Garden in the autumn of 1782. Later in the morning, he would confess that this was the autumn in which he had been found guilty of sundry acts of theft. “Anything,” he confided solemnly to Ralph, “which could give me genteel access to the best theatres. And those coffee houses where by spending threepence a day you can meet fine minds, Mr. Clark, fine minds. And when it came to the theatre, Mr. Clark, if I could not have a box, I was in a fever to sit by the spikes.”

“By the spikes?”

“The bars they put across the orchestra, to protect the actors from either hate or—and this was ever the case with me—adoration.”

“We didn't have spikes in Cheshire when I was a child, or at the theatres in Plymouth,” said Ralph. But then, you didn't get the same theatrical passion out in the counties that you did in London.

“I know,” said Robert Sideway. “I have been to the Royal in Plymouth also.”

Ralph had not known Sideway as an enthusiast of the theatre when he had met him during an inspection of the hold of the
. He'd not thought of him
sub specie
an adorer of Peg Woffington the day Sideway insulted drunken Lieutenant Faddy while the
had been hurtling east before a bitter westerly on a cold sea. Sideway's insult of Faddy then had been so wild that Ralph, who sometimes would have loved to have put Faddy himself in chains, was moved to put Sideway in them. And even when chained—the ankles alone carried twenty-eight pounds of fetters—Sideway had gone on offering both Faddy and Ralph such London criminal insults, such cant-talk abuse, that the two of them were united in temporary friendship. He'd called them cooler-kissers (sodomites), and catchfarts (sycophants), sirreverences (turds wrapped in paper) and scabbados (syphilitics), satchel-arsed sons of whores (unfashionable dressers), nonesuches (female pudends) and horse-leeches (satyrs), hap-harlot snufflers (fanciers of women's underwear) and fencing culls (receivers of stolen goods). They could go and live at the Cock's Tooth and Head Ache (a mythical hotel) before he would cry
(beg their pardon).

But now, in this penal world ashore, he was a different man, urbane, unlikely to descend to low insult for fear that might cast doubt on his capacity to act Mr. Worthy the way Mr. Munden would do it at Covent Garden.

“You say you have been to the Royal in Plymouth?” Ralph asked him. The Royal had been an occasional delight for himself and Betsey Alicia.

“After Torbay,” said Sideway, smiling wanly. In Torbay, away to the east of Plymouth, convicts due to be transported to North America had some years ago rebelled and overrun their ship. It had been a renowned incident and had filled the region for a time with terror, though all of the escaped lags had been in the end fairly peaceably retaken. Sideway hoisted the sleeve of his convict jacket and showed Ralph a scar on his right arm. It was of the kind Ralph had only seen on the bodies of old soldiers.

“A bullet wound?”

“The ship
. It was to take us to Nova Scotia, a cold country.”

In the case of the mutiny on the
, what Sideway was offering as a pretext was the ice of Nova Scotia. He could have more credibly said that he had mutinied on the
out of a desire to see a performance of George Farquhar's
The Beaux' Stratagem
in Exeter. “The surgeon shot me when we overran the ship. They found me again on the road from Plymouth to Taunton. Of course, I was making my way to London.”

“To the theatres?”

“To the theatres, and the friends. But my life would have been different, I swear, Mr. Clark. For I was not one of the instigators of mutiny on the
. I availed myself of it. That was all.”

“And did the surgeon shoot you for mere availing, Robert?”

Sideway laughed, gentleman to gentleman. “The surgeon was in terror. He shot wildly, and I was on deck …”

Sideway would be a polished Mr. Worthy and a guide to some of the coarser actors. Ralph was pleased though that handsome and practical Henry Kable, the overseer and the new world's Captain Plume, would keep Sideway's wilder theatrical affectations in check.

April 9th, 1789

Your Excellency,

I am happy to report that a number of the better convicts are approaching the task of supplying the entertainment for the celebrations in connection with the coming King's birthday with great zeal. Among the parts hitherto not decided, I have now settled upon Robert Sideway to play Mr. Worthy, a Gentleman of Shropshire. John Wisehammer, the Hereford Jew, will take the role of Captain Brazen, an over-florid recruiting officer in competition with Captain Plume, and a role which suits exactly John Wisehammer's engaging but excessive temperament. For the role of Sergeant Kite I have selected John Arscott, the carpenter, who will also be of great service to me in the construction of scenery, etc., as frugal as our arrangements for scenery and decoration must be. Arscott's demeanour seems to have amended itself since his quarrel with the
sailors a year ago.

Since many of these people are engaged on labours of construction and farming, I would be grateful if you instructed the Provost Marshal, the Superintendent of All Works, and the convict overseers that they should, within reason, be given free time away from their places of labour to polish their skills and enhance their chance of delighting the entire civilised population of Sydney Cove.

I would be pleased also if I could be temporarily granted the services of Susannah Trippett, the artificial flower-maker and—as the time for the performance draws near—those of John Nicholls, who before his sentencing was a hairdresser and perfumier.

I will conclude this report by telling you that I have recruited—if H.E. will excuse the pun—Mrs. Bryant, popularly called Dabby for her sharpness and cleverness, to perform the part of Rose, a Country Girl. In this regard, I hope Your Excellency will forgive me if I raise a plea for the situation of Bryant's husband, the government fisherman. I witnessed an instance of the invective and insult to which these two are treated by former fellow prisoners aboard the
and other ships. Bryant's eminence as the only adept fisherman in this distant region, and the privileges you so generously extended him, which have now had to be cancelled because of his misdemeanour, have attracted the envy of the sort of convicted felon who could never—in anyone's wildest expectation—hope to enjoy similar kindnesses. Bryant is aware of the shame of his demotion and is palpably embarrassed also by his flogging three months past. Since there is no one else as able as Bryant in the matter of the government fishing boat, I recommend him to H.E.'s clemency for possible return to his old hut on the east side of the cove and to command of the boat.

I hope these theatrical arrangements meet with Your Excellency's assent.

Your obedient servant,

Ralph Clark,

Lieutenant, Marines.


A Full Company

Shitty Meg Long, the one who had first come to his tent to be admitted to the play, sat in the shade of a native fig and watched the rehearsal go ahead in the shade of another.

“A drummer,” Ralph read, “—and we shall arrange for one … a convict drummer, I think, rather than a Marine—enters the market place in Shrewsbury beating ‘The Grenadier's March' or any other suitable tune. Sergeant Kite also enters.”

Ralph, in the fear and exaltation of this first massed reading of the play, felt willing to make his players any promise. His instincts told him that for their own reasons of corps pride they wanted the play all lag, all convict. Not even the Marine trumpeters or drummers were to be invited in. Now that he had made that skittish pledge he felt a tremor of exclusiveness pass through his actors.

“Kite enters,” Ralph went on. “That is you, Arscott, and you are followed by Curtis Brand in the part of Costar Pearmain and young John Hudson in the role of Thomas Appletree.” Curtis was Harry Brewer's gardener, and John Hudson, a Cockney fourteen years of age and much favoured by motherly convict women. He had been used by older housebreakers to wriggle through broken fanlights and had been sentenced at the age of nine. Brand, a little sullen but an adequate worker, a man in his twenties, had given Ralph a passable reading.

“Nor can we start just at this moment,” said Ralph, “since, Sergeant Kite, I believe it would be clever of us perhaps to flatter the gentlemen of the officers' mess by changing all reference to Grenadiers to references to Marines. Therefore, you say, ‘Besides, I don't beat up for common soldiers; no, I list only Marines—Marines, gentlemen.' Likewise it might amuse the gentlemen who saw service against the American traitors if you changed all French references to American ones. Thus, ‘If any gentlemen soldiers, or others, have a mind to serve Her Majesty'—which of course must now become ‘His Majesty'—‘and pull down the French King'—the ‘French King' now becomes the ‘American traitors.'”

After these gestures in the direction of recent history had been completed, John Arscott the carpenter began, reading one of the two printed copies of the play and having already been privately tutored by the theatrical Robert Sideway.

“If any gentleman soldiers, or others, have a mind to serve His Majesty and pull down the American traitors … if any apprentices have severe masters, any children have undutiful parents … if any servants have too little wages, or any husband too much wife: let them repair to the noble Sergeant Kite at the Sign of the Raven in this good town of Shrewsbury, and they shall receive pleasant relief—”

relief,” said Ralph Clark, delighting in his first exercise of theatrical management and in this first sight of Kite incarnated in the carpenter.

“—present relief and entertainment. Gentlemen, I don't beat my drums here to ensnare or inveigle any man, for you must know, gentlemen, that I am a man of honour. Besides, I don't beat up for common soldiers—no, I enlist only Grenadiers—”

“Remember, John Arscott, that I have altered that.”

“I list only
, gentlemen. Pray, gentlemen, observe this cap. This is the cap of honour, it dubs a man a gentleman in the drawing of a trigger.”

Arscott even offered a cap of air in the direction of Curtis Brand. The tribal magic of the play had begun to circulate among the actors.

Curtis Brand was slower in his response, a more halting reader.

“Is there no harm in it?” he ground out. “Won't the cap enlist me?”

“No, no more than I can.”

And clever Arscott went to set the unseen military cap on Curtis Brand's head, a gesture so quick that Curtis reacted despite himself, and flinched as he would have to flinch when it was done on stage.

In the shadow of the native fig, Meg Long was farting with amusement. Curtis Brand read gamely on now, solemn as the rustic he was playing. Industrious, though. By the night of the performance, he would be close enough to Arscott in performance to delight the crowd, especially since there would be wine and spirit rations that day.

“My mind misgives me plaguily,” read Curtis. “Let me see it.” And as if by the miraculous contagion of talent, he reached out and took the quantity of air from Arscott's hands and held it—even with the right tentativeness—in front of him.

“It smells woundily of sweat and brimstone. Pray, Sergeant, what writing is this upon the face of it?”

“The Crown or the Bed of Honour.”

And Arscott wore a divine smirk.

“Pray now, what may be that same Bed of Honour?”

“Oh! a mighty large bed! Bigger by half than the great bed of Ware—ten thousand people may lie in it together, and never feel one another.”

“My wife and I would do well to lie in it,” read Curtis Brand/Pearmain, “for we don't care for feeling one another.”

Meg Long screamed with laughter and beat the earth. So doing, Ralph surmised, she became the first theatregoer of this earth so new they called it by such a name—New South Wales.

Brand and Arscott were aware now, from Meg's snorting, that even this tentative performance could delight. There seemed to be an expansion of their presences before Ralph's eyes—they
leaned into
their parts.

“Look'ee, Sergeant,” groaned Brand, “no coaxing, no wheedling, d'ye see. If I have a mind to enlist, why so. If not, why 'tis not so. Therefore take your cap and your brothership back again.”

Kable and Sideway, watching, were both engrossed, with smiles on their faces, and as the noon bell rang Mary Brenham emerged from the marquee, holding her son. From the direction of the dividing stream appeared the other women of the play—Nancy Turner the Perjurer, Duckling, who must not have risqué lines, and Dabby Bryant, the benign witch of dreams. They sought shade apart from Meg Long and sat and watched the men. For Arscott was shouting compellingly.

BOOK: The Playmaker
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