And now for something completely different. In a couple of weeks, I will serialize Sword Dance, the fascinating tale of a Milton scholar whose callipygian attractions rival those of Rudolf Nureyev. But before I do that, I want to share this brief, two-part story, which I have never before published.
This one is probably as close as I’ll ever come to what John Banville calls “art.” That is to say, it is not a conventional romance. It is ambiguous and slightly disturbing. It’s also the first piece of fiction I ever wrote, unless we are going to count the story I penned in third grade about the Secret of the Russian Nesting Doll.
Reading over it now, I laugh to see that years before becoming a fan of Himself, I was already writing about an actor who is known for both leads and “small but pivotal roles,” a man with a strangely magnetic personality and voice. Sir Francis is based on a real actor. Brownie points for anyone who can guess his identity (no, it is not Errol Flynn).
Sir Francis’ Last Girl: Part One
The Fall drama class, Introduction to Acting, was taught by Sir Francis A____., who had been a famous Shakespearean and character actor in the 40s and 50s. Later in his career, he was asked to play small but pivotal roles in a few Hollywood blockbusters, to lend them some heft and respectability. Most of the girls didn’t really know who he was, nor would they have cared much had they known.
The administrators of the College were a different matter. They could not believe their good fortune in attracting “Sir Francis,” as he was always called, to a small women’s school in New England, which, it had to be faced, was decidedly second-rate. Why he had offered his services remained a mystery, but Sir Francis taught one course every semester in exchange for a full time salary, and his agreement with the College involved an understanding that he would “receive guests” four times each year. So at periodic intervals, the Provost brought wealthy alumnae and other favored visitors to meet the resident genius—no doubt in the hopes of generating large donations. Perhaps, in a few cases, the sought-after introductions were made only after a suitable sum had changed hands. A few of these worthy matrons, overexcited at the thought of meeting “Sir Francis,” embarrassed everyone by curtsying. Sometimes the drama class was canceled in order to accommodate these visits, but today it met as usual.
Sir Francis spent most of his class time having the girls read lines from Shakespeare, Ibsen or Sheridan with a “natural intonation corresponding to the sense” and trying to dissuade them from pausing robotically at the end of each line of verse. He would cast and direct little skits drawn from the plays, and these were presented in front of the rest of the class, a less than enthusiastic audience who sat filing their nails or looking out the window. Sir Francis then critiqued the performances, sometimes with a rather acerbic wit, which would have hurt the girls’ feelings had they grasped what he was saying. He had a laser-like glance, too, with which he could make even the least attentive student sit up in her seat—if he chose to use it.
As the College enrolled only women, all the parts, male and female, had to be played by the girls, although Sir Francis would sometimes bring in boys from nearby colleges or even male faculty members to play key roles. He himself would participate on occasion, changing his voice, facial expression and posture to suit the character and seeming to become a different person. He could play female roles too, and in spite of his appearance, which was that of a bespectacled, average-looking, white haired man of some eighty years, Jess always forgot for those few moments that he was not precisely who he purported to be.
Jess Little had taken the class on a whim, to fill out her schedule of Latin literature, beginning ancient Greek, and required science courses. She had hoped that the class would include some Greek tragedies, but while Sir Francis occasionally threw out references to Aeschylus or Sophocles, so far he had never suggested adding them to the syllabus. She wondered if he thought them too difficult for the students.
Unlike her classmates, Jess had seen a few of Sir Francis’ older films. As a kid she had spent many a late night and Saturday afternoon watching black and white movies on television, often in versions crudely cut to make room for the commercials. Her favorites were Errol Flynn in “Captain Blood” and “The Sea Hawk.”
Sir Francis’ films were less exciting, more cerebral exercises in which he displayed his talent as a character actor by playing more than one role, or portrayed an Everyman caught up in some abnormal, surreal situation. But always his voice had captivated her. Now, even with advanced age, the voice had changed scarcely at all. Whenever he spoke, she felt riveted, almost bound to her seat. For this reason she never missed the class, although she had no interest in acting. She felt as though she had always known this man, that somehow the distinctive voice had been present in her life for a long time.
She first came to Sir Francis’ notice one day when he was discussing the need for actors to understand the feelings they were conveying.
“You are young,” he said, “yet you know what it is to feel most of the emotions. Some of you, I daresay, have felt piercing grief and fear, perhaps if your parents have divorced, as seems so common these days, or if someone you know has died.” An uncomfortable silence greeted these words.
“But do you recognize your own emotions?” he continued. “And can you summon up those feelings and infuse them into your performance?”
If you would have me weep, you must first feel grief yourself: then, O Telephus or Peleus, will your misfortunes hurt me.
“I don’t suppose any of you knows who wrote this or why he speaks of Telephus?”
Jess raised her hand and said “It’s Horace. He’s talking about actors who overplay a role. The part of Telephus was always overacted.”
The laser eye turned toward her. “Ah, thank you, Miss Little. I see you are a Classics major.”
No more was said at the time, but as Jess was leaving the room, Sir Francis said, “My dear, I should like to speak with you. Would you be my guest at the Club?”
Although it had fallen far from its nineteenth-century peak of popularity, the College was still physically beautiful. It owned several stately homes on the margins of the campus, which were divided up into faculty apartments. Sir Francis had one of these houses all to himself, with a cook/housekeeper. Across the street stood the grandest house of all, housing the Faculty Club, where College functions were held. According to College tradition, students were not allowed into the inner sancta of the Club, but they could be served, if accompanied by a faculty member, in the outer dining room, which was sumptuously appointed and had once been a ballroom. Sir Francis led Jess to a table in this cavernous space, commenting that he much preferred the solitude and grandeur of the outer room. Their order for tea was taken by one of the pimply-faced youths who waited on tables in the Club.
“Now, my dear, tell me how you came to be so well acquainted with Telephus.”
And before she knew it, Jess had told him her story, what little there was of it. She was from a modest background, parents in the Midwest, a bookworm—she had won a full scholarship to the College and so had perforce gone there in preference to the more prestigious schools which had accepted her, but had not offered financial aid. He listened to all this without comment, except to ask more questions. Jess wanted to ask about his movies, but she was afraid it might be rude—after all, he seemed to have buried himself here for a reason. What if he didn’t want to talk about the past? Finally she did muster a question or two, but he only smiled slightly, gave a vague reply, and changed the subject back to her.
After that, they had tea at least once a week and talked about poetry, or Sir Francis interrogated her with more questions. They took walks about the campus, he usually wearing his overcoat, scarf, and —always when outdoors— a hat. He developed a need for a “research assistant” and requested that Miss Little be delegated this task, which involved fetching books from the library and delivering them to his house. When she arrived there, they would continue their conversation as though it had not been interrupted.
At the library, which included the administrative offices, she was sitting hidden in a carrel when she heard her name mentioned by one of the deans. “Jessamyn Little? Yes, I think Sir Francis has chosen his latest pet. He does this every year. Harmless of course… at his age what could happen?” The two women laughed as they walked away.
Copyright 2014 by Linnet Moss.
Next week, the conclusion.