They don’t hang people like me. They don’t want the embarrassment of a trial, and besides, Pappa is who he is. Like it or not, I’m a Larkin. They don’t want the headline “Peer’s Daughter Hanged.” So much easier to shut me away and promise that if I keep very quiet they’ll release me as cured into my family’s custody in a year or two. Well, I may have been an awful fool, but I’ve never been saner, and besides, I can’t stand most of my family. I’ve never had the slightest intention of keeping quiet. That’s why I’m writing this. I hope someone someday might get the chance to read it. Pay attention. I’m going to tell you the important things, in order.
It started in the most innocuous way, with a job offer.
“You are the only woman I can truly imagine as Hamlet, Viola.” Antony gazed into my eyes across the table in a way which someone must have told him was soulful and irresistible, but which actually makes him look like a spaniel that needs worming. He was one of London’s best-known actor managers, very distinguished, quite fifty years old, and running a little to fat. It was an honor to be given one of Antony’s famous lunches, always tête-à-tête, always at the Venezia in Bedford Street, and always culminating, after the mouthwatering dessert, in the offer of a leading role.
That was the year that everyone was doing theater cross-cast. It was 1949, eight years after the end of the war. London’s theaters were brightly lit, and full of the joys and struggles of life. Palmer did it first, the year before, putting on The Duke of Malfi at the Aldwych. Everyone said it would be a fizzle at best, but we all went to see how they did it, out of curiosity. Then, with Charlie Brandin getting raves as the Duke, Sir Marmaduke jumped on the bandwagon and did Barrie’s old Quality Street, with all the men as women and all the women men. It was the success of the winter, so when plays were being picked for the summer season, of course there was hardly a house playing things straight.
I’d scoffed as much as anyone, or more, so much in fact that I’d turned down a couple of parts and thought of leaving town and lying low for a little. But if I left, where could I go? London theater was putting up a brave struggle against the cinema, a struggle already lost elsewhere. Theater in the provinces was at its last death rattle. When I was starting out, a London play would be toured all over the country, not by the London cast but by a second-string company. There might be two or three tours of the same play, the second company doing Brighton and Birmingham and Manchester, and the third doing a circuit of Cardiff and Lancaster and Blackpool. The deadliest tours played at every tiny place, crossing the country by train on a Sunday, staying in the most appalling digs. It was the way you started out, and if you were better known and wanted a rest from London, the second companies were panting to snap you up. But since the war tours were rare, and there was fierce competition for them. There was only London, and the occasional tryout elsewhere. People in the provinces could just whistle for theater. They were starved of it entirely. I can’t think how they managed. Amateur productions and coming up to London when they could afford it, I suppose. Either that or they really were quite happy with the cinema instead.
In any case, there was no hope of a tour for me. If I didn’t work, I could afford to lie quiet for a season, if I lived carefully. The problem was that I couldn’t count on it being only one season. The theater lives from moment to moment, and once your name isn’t seen it can easily be forgotten. I didn’t want to leave acting, and besides, what was I supposed to do, starve? Well, the choice would be to starve or go back to my family, which would, I felt sure, be much worse than starving. My family are like cannibals, except that they wear pearls and diamonds instead of necklaces of skulls.
I gave Antony one of my best indecisive glances. Indecisive glances would be helpful if I took the part. Hamlet is famously indecisive. Besides, even if my friends did laugh at me for a few days, how often is anyone given the chance to play Hamlet? I’d gone along for lunch with Antony knowing it meant a good meal, almost sure I’d turn down whatever he offered me. Antony was never stingy, and the wine at the Venezia was always good. Hamlet, though. There are so few truly good women’s parts in the world, and Hamlet was a dream of a role, as long as the cross-casting didn’t make the whole play absurd. I could picture the lights already: viola lark as hamlet.
“Will you reverse everyone?” I asked, moving a little away from Antony and signaling to the waiter that my plate was utterly empty of tiramisu and could be taken away.
Antony took up his wineglass and sipped. “No,” he said. “Consider Hamlet, daughter and heir to Denmark. How much more likely that her uncle would usurp? How much more difficult that she assert herself? Hesitation would be much much more natural than for a man. Her relationship with Gertrude, with Claudius, works perfectly. Horatio wishes to be more than a friend. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern can be seen in the light of Penelope’s lovers. Laertes, too, Laertes is Hamlet’s true love, which makes the end sing. In fact, the whole play makes much more sense this way.”
He almost convinced me. “But Ophelia?” I asked, as the waiter glided over and poured more wine. “Surely you’re not thinking of making that a sapphic relationship?” It’s funny, there are enough women in the theater who wouldn’t look at a man, and men who wouldn’t look at a woman for that matter, but everyone would have forty fits if you tried to put a storyline explicitly mentioning them into a play.
“There’s no real textual evidence it is a physical relationship at all,” Antony said, dreamily. “Or one could read whatever one wanted into their earlier relationship, why not, get thee to a nunnery, after all.”
“But surely Polonius sets her to entice Hamlet?” I shook my head, realizing that I’d have to look at the text again to make sure exactly what Polonius said. I’d never played Ophelia, all I had was a vague impression of the speech. “I can’t see a pompous stick like him encouraging a sapphic enticement, or if he did, I can’t see the Lord Chamberlain allowing us to show it.”
“The wonderful thing about you, Viola, is that there’s something in your head already,” Antony said. “So many young actresses have no ideas whatsoever. Hmm. We could reverse Ophelia, and make her another suitor; Hamlet beset by suitors. The two brothers, Laertes and Ophelia. That works, my dear. We’d have to cut the nunnery line. I don’t want to change lines, except for the he/she stuff, obviously, but Hamlet is always cut, judiciously, but cut. At full length, it would play almost four hours.”
I could imagine a female Hamlet beset by suitors, doubts, and ghosts. She’d be virginal, disgusted by her mother’s sexuality and unsure of her own. I was feeling my way into the part already. “I’ll take it,” I said, draining my glass.
“Very good,” Antony said, beaming. “And with your well-known family background, I don’t need to ask if you’re British born.”
“I was born in Ireland, actually,” I said, resenting the bit about well-known background. The papers had always made such a meal of my family, it had been a real handicap when I was starting off. I hated thinking people came to see me on the dancing bear principle. “Pappa was still Lord Lieutenant there at the time. But I’m a British subject.”
Antony frowned. “Do you have a new identity card?” he asked.
“Of course I do.” I fished it out of my bag and dropped it on the table, open. My rather wide-eyed snap looked up at both of us. “The Honourable Viola Anne Larkin. Date of Birth: February 4, 1917. Age: 32. Height: 5 feet and 7 inches. Hair: blonde. Eyes: blue. Religion: Church of England. Place of birth: Dublin. Nationality: British. Mother: British. Father: British.” I folded it up again. “And you could add to that grandmothers and grandfathers back to when one Lord Carnforth married a French countess in 1802, or back to the Conquest on Mother’s side.”
“That’s all right,” he said. “I’m sorry, it’s just that with the new regulations we simply can’t employ anyone who isn’t really British.”
“The new regulations are a stupid waste of time,” I said, lighting a cigarette.
“I couldn’t agree more, my dear, but I have to observe them or I’ll be in trouble.” Antony sighed. “My own mother was American, and in some eyes that makes me suspect.”
“But the Americans are our cousins across the Atlantic, sort of thing, surely?” I said, blowing out smoke.
“Surely,” Antony repeated, cynically. “But for some people they’ll always be the land of Mrs. Simpson, and President Roosevelt refusing to help us in 1940. I had a certain amount of difficulty with the registration for the new card. It was nonsense, as you say.” He drained his glass.
“You shouldn’t let it upset you,” I said. “Have you cast anyone else?”
The waiter, as smooth as a machine, and to tell the truth, as oily, brought us coffee. Antony stirred sugar into his, being a man and not caring about extra inches. He got his mind back to the play, finally.
“I thought of taking Claudius myself. I imagine Claudius as a man bad enough to commit murder, but with enough conscience to come to feel guilty. Very interesting part. Complex.”
I tried my coffee. It was excellent. Italians always know how to make good coffee. “I’m sure you’d be splendid. And how lovely it would be to work with you again.” That was only half soft-soap. He really was a very good actor, when he played the right type, and Claudius could very well be the right type for him. I could remember him smoldering embarrassingly in Byronic parts and was terribly glad he was too old for that now.
He smiled, vain like all actors. “I’ve managed to get Lauria Gilmore for Gertrude. She’ll really do justice to her.”
Lauria was a theater workhorse; she’d played Gertrude before, along with almost any part you could mention. “I played with Lauria in The Importance of Being Earnest,” I said.
“She was a glorious Lady Bracknell,” Antony said, gazing into the distance. “And you were a splendid Gwendolen too,” he said, loyally.
I’d played Cecily, but I couldn’t really expect him to remember. It had been eight years ago, the first season after the war, when everyone had been slightly frantic at the Blitz being over and Hitler stopping at the Channel. Nobody had been really sure if the Farthing Peace would hold, or if we’d all be plunged into war again at any minute. All the theaters had either run daring revues or frothy comedies striving for wit. We needed laughter as we’d come to terms with not being about to be bombed to bits. Wilde’s genuine wit had hit just the right note.
“How about the suitors?” I asked.
“I haven’t made any approaches, but I thought perhaps Brandin for Laertes, and Douglas James for Horatio. I hadn’t thought about Ophelia at all, at least, I was thinking in terms of a woman. There won’t be many women. No—I could make the Player King and the whole troupe women, and have the play-within-the-play work something like a ballet.” He wasn’t seeing me at all.
“That would be glorious,” I said. “How about Mark Tillet for Ophelia? I played with him in Crotchets two years ago, the play was nothing and it didn’t run, but I thought he was jolly good.”
“Hmm?” Antony came back from his reverie. “Who?”
“Oh no.” Antony sighed. “Jewish, my dear, and therefore ruin at the moment. I wouldn’t even want the word Jew whispered around a play of mine this season, unless it was The Merchant of Venice.”
I finished my coffee. “Mark? Really? I had no idea. He doesn’t look Jewish.”
“You mean he doesn’t have a hooked nose and long ringlets and a copy of the Protocols of the Elders of Zion under his arm?” Antony laughed without mirth, a stage laugh. “A young lady of your background would probably be surprised how many Jews there are in the theater.”
“Leave my bloody background out of it,” I snapped. “I’ve been treading the boards since 1936. That wasn’t what I meant at all.”
“Sorry,” Antony said, insincerely. “Nobody would doubt you know your way around the theater by now.” He set down his coffee cup and signaled to the hovering waiter. “Well, since I have secured your services as a leading lady, I shall leave you, and attempt to secure the rest of my cast. Rehearsals begin on Monday, ten sharp, in the theater.”
“You haven’t told me which theater, yet,” I said, laughing.
“The Siddons,” he said. “Appropriate, isn’t it?”
“Very appropriate,” I agreed. There may have been women who had played Hamlet between me and Sarah Siddons, but I couldn’t think of any.
“Oh, and one other thing, now you’ve agreed,” he said, confidentially, leaning towards me. “I’ve told Lauria, but nobody else at all, so keep it to yourself until it’s announced officially. The first night, which will be Friday, July first, we’ll have a very distinguished audience—the Prime Minister and Herr Hitler.”
I wasn’t a snob and didn’t give two hoots, but it did mean that the play was likely to get lots of attention from the papers. “Good,” I said. “What a coup for you, Antony!”
We parted on the pavement outside the Venezia. It was a typical English June day, drizzling in a fine mist, the kind of day my Irish nanny used to describe as “soft.” I wanted to go home and read the play, though I couldn’t really start learning my lines until I had a proper acting copy with Antony’s “judicious cuts” and whatever he/she changes it needed. I started to walk briskly through Covent Garden towards the tube station. I shared a flat behind the British Museum with my dear friend Mollie Gaston and our dresser, Mrs. Tring. Mrs. Tring wasn’t really our dresser. She was a dresser, but she wasn’t picky, she’d dress anyone. She’d been my dresser back in the summer of 1941 in The Importance of Being Earnest and in the chaos that London was then, just after the Blitz, had happened to mention that she was looking for somewhere to live. She’d been making me comfortable ever since, and the flat, chosen because it was so cheap, had become like a home. Mollie and Mrs. Tring were like family, only better than my own family because less bloody poisonous.
People always think that because my father is a lord, I must live off the family wealth. This is total rot. I could, of course, or to be more precise, there was a time when it would have been possible. In 1935, when I was eighteen, my mother wanted me to be a debutante and I wanted to act. I’d done her thing for one season, incidentally learning quite a lot in the process, and thereafter I went my own way. She said she’d never speak to me again and the family would cut me off with a shilling, and I walked out. Our relations have been rocky ever since. Swearing you’ll never speak to someone again is easy, but of course very hard to keep up. But I’ve never quite forgotten it, and I never go to Carnforth. My little sister Dodo comes to see me when she’s in London, and when she brings her children up we all go to the zoo and I take them out for ices. But when Rosie unexpectedly came to see me in Crotchets and sent round flowers, which was sweet of her, I didn’t invite her backstage. The theater is a different world. I knew she wouldn’t understand.
I ran into Charlie Brandin coming out of the lift at the Underground as I was about to go in. “Viola!” he called. “Have you heard?”
“Heard what?” I asked, stopping and walking back outside with him. Actors love gossip worse than parlor maids. “I heard Antony’s going to offer you Laertes in his new Hamlet, so we’re to play lovers again, and we can languish madly at each other.”
Charlie’s a pansy, the theater is full of them as I was saying, so it’s quite safe to tease him about this kind of thing. “But Laertes is Ophelia’s brother . . .” he said, taking a moment to get it. “No! You’re playing Hamlet?”
I grinned. “I couldn’t resist.”
“My dear, I’m so relieved I’ll be able to eat this season without showing my legs in a skirt that I shall endure the torments of being your lover with hardly a pang,” he said. Some of the theaters were casting cross-dressed as well as cross-cast. “Shall we go to Mimi’s and eat pancakes to celebrate?”
“I’ve been stuffing myself at the Venezia with Antony. I couldn’t eat a thing. But I could drink coffee and watch you eat, if you like.”
By common consent, we turned and walked back into Covent Garden. Mimi’s is a little café on two stories with rickety stairs between them, catering largely to the theater crowd.
“This cross-casting thing, it’s just a fad,” Charlie said as we walked. “It’ll die out in no time.”
“Maybe. Or maybe one day they’ll say in theatrical histories that in Elizabethan times men played all the parts, even the women, then they started to allow actresses in the Restoration, and for a while people believed everyone should stick to their own gender, then in the late forties people began to experiment and now anyone can play any part. . . .”
Charlie laughed. “By next year, everyone will be back in their right clothes again. I bet you a fiver.”
“No bet, because I think you’re right, really,” I admitted. He held open the condensation-streaked door of Mimi’s for me and I led the way inside.
Mollie was sitting in one of the coveted downstairs booths, eating a curled-edge ham sandwich. She waved at me. “Have you heard?” she asked.
“Heard what?” I asked. “Can we sit with you?”
“I was lunching with Pat, but he’s gone, as you can see, and I was just about to go, but I’ll have more coffee as you’re here.”
The waitress came over. She was not, like half the staff at Mimi’s, a would-be actress, but a local woman. “What do you want, love?” she asked.
“Three coffees, and one pancake stack,” I said. I slid onto the bench beside Mollie, and Charlie folded himself onto the bench opposite.
“Lauria Gilmore is dead. She’s got herself blown up,” Mollie said.
“I was going to tell you that, but you distracted me with your Hamlet news,” Charlie complained.
“Blown up?” I asked. The waitress brought the coffee and set it down on the table, slopping mine into the saucer. “How? Anarchists, like those people who blew up that castle in Wales?”
“Well, it might have been anarchists, but why would they want to?” Charlie asked.
“I suppose they simply go around blowing people up, just for fun,” I said.
“She might have Known Something,” Mollie said, darkly significant.
“Or she might have been In Their Way,” Charlie said in a dreadfully fake Russian accent.
“I don’t know, she was always rather left than otherwise,” Mollie said in an ordinary voice. “Frightfully keen on women’s rights and unions and voting and all that.”
“Nonsense,” I said. “She was an actress. Actors aren’t political. It seems much more likely to me that she was just in the wrong place at the wrong time. Poor Lauria. Now she’ll never play my mother.”
Charlie laughed immoderately and put his hand to his heart. “Dead, and never called me mother,” he said, in tones of deepest melodrama.
I giggled. “Never called me daughter, more like,” I said. “But we shouldn’t laugh, I mean, whatever happened, it’s awful. I liked Lauria, and she was a good solid trouper, one of the best, a real old-school actress.”
“You’ll have to go to the funeral,” Mollie said. “If she was in your play.”
“Antony said she’d agreed. But we should all go to the funeral anyway. I haven’t acted with her since Ernest but it’s showing respect.”
“I should think the whole theater will go,” Charlie said. “What could be more dramatic than being blown to pieces, after all? Nobody will be able to resist. Besides, Lauria was at the top of her career, or she would have been if she’d been a man. There aren’t all that many roles for older women, but all the ones there are she’s played magnificently. She’d have been wonderful as Gertrude. She was when she played her before.”
“Had you ever played with her?” Mollie asked.
Charlie shook his head. “It would have been the first time. And now I never will. The funeral will have to be very splendid to make up.”
Mollie laughed. “You are awful, Charlie!”
The waitress brought his pancakes, which really are practically the only edible thing on the Mimi’s menu, being made fresh when you order them.
“I can’t quite believe she really got blown up,” I said. “Who told you?”
“Bunny,” Mollie said. “You know he was always chummy with her. It’ll be in all the papers tomorrow. It might even be in the late edition of today’s Standard.”
And it was. When Charlie had finished his pancakes and we walked back to the tube station the new hoarding headline for the Evening Standard was “Actress Blown to Bits in New Terrorist Atrocity.”
Copyright © 2007 by Jo Walton. All rights reserved.