Short Fiction by Stuart Snelson
He had been invited to sit in on rehearsals, had gone along to the theatre with no great expectations. By the time of his arrival, the dramatisation of his memoir was well into production. Any comments of his would fail to shape its path, the key decisions already made. On the director’s part, this had not been accidental. The play’s subject was invited to sit in mute observation.
Following the exchange of rudimentary handshakes, the feigning of familiarity with the work of strangers, he settled himself in the front row and became anxious about their interpretation of his life. If he hated what they had done with his words there was really nothing he could do about it. He was unaccustomed to such feelings of powerlessness. As a columnist and a theatre critic, he was used to corralling words on the page, and, once they were fixed, they would remain that way. Over the years, he had acquired a reputation for preciousness: minor edits lead to meltdowns. People thought he was unaware of this, but on the contrary, it had been carefully cultivated, to a point where colleagues rarely tampered with his thoughts. Commissioned pieces, reviews would all remain unedited.
As he sat, he realised that he had ceded all control, that such was his desire to see his words afforded the validation of a theatrical run, no matter how small, that he had allowed others to interfere with his fiercely wrought sentences, his words wrestled from him and placed in the mouths of outsiders. What had he been thinking? He was pleased, honoured even, that someone saw dramatic potential in his life story. Not everyone could say that. Perhaps, getting carried away, he thought, the next step might be a film adaptation, his life given credence on the big screen. His ego’s masseurs were accustomed to long hours.
Having met one or two of the actors, he imagined them to be woefully miscast. That young slip of a girl was to be his mother? That oafish prig his father? The starlet enlisted to bring life to his first love, were her looks befitting his slavish devotions? The stage set bore no resemblance to any of the locations in which the action took place. These plywood reconstructions offered little sense of the originals. His bedroom’s replica, the scene of angst-ridden teenage years, would hardly serve its purpose. But these were peripheral details. This absence of verisimilitude would be noticed by him alone. The truth was in the words, and he became eager to see what remained of them.
The rehearsal began in earnest. Having made himself comfortable, and, ever the professional, he prepared to find fault. In this, he wasn’t disappointed. The young actress had his mother all wrong, was not nearly domineering enough. His father’s figure, suddenly possessed of a rotundity he had fought all his life to stave off, didn’t align with his memories of the time. That their interpretations may be flawed due to his own failure to capture them in his memoir was a thought he didn’t counter. After five minutes he realised that if this was any other production he would be considering walking out.
And then he saw himself.
He had never realised that he was capable of making such an entrance. Seeing his substitute, he knew that his life was in safe hands. His own arrival marked instantly dismissed misgivings. Naturally, he had seen photographs of the actor who would be playing him, but nothing had prepared him for his presence. To him it felt like gazing at a time-delayed reflection, his mirror image of forty years previous looking back at him. Duly mesmerised for the duration of the show, he stared, astonished, at his counterpart.
By the play’s conclusion, he was awestruck, struggled, uncharacteristically, to find the words to convey his appreciation. Somehow they had crafted a masterpiece from his life, his words. Would he find immortality in the theatre, a role reversal as the critic took centre stage?
Returning for opening night, he felt oddly apprehensive. Whilst eager to see the curtains open on his life, he was uncertain what sort of reception the ensuing drama would receive. For once, he had a vested interest in success. Taking his seat, as a reverential hush descended, he breathed deeply and prepared for what was to come. On tenterhooks, he watched, nervous, lest his proxy stumble upon his words.
Spellbound, he watched the action. Everything about his duplicate – his delivery, elocution, body language, presence – he found entrancing. Over the years magnetic had become a much-abused term, one he himself had helped render redundant through overuse. It was now routinely used synonymously with competent, to ordain those with even a scintilla of stage presence. With this actor he felt its use was perfectly justified, was throughout magnetised by his performance. He wondered if others were similarly smitten. For the entire time his namesake stalked the stage he was utterly captivated. His eyes went nowhere else. He became lost in his own illusion.
The actor had specifically requested that they not meet. He apparently had no inclination for mimicry, wished to develop the character fully as a persona based on his reading of the text, had absorbed his words and emerged as this figure. As he watched this young actor submerged in the role, he regretted having not been more like him at the time. Why couldn’t he have fashioned this life for himself? The actor had filled the role with a swagger he had never possessed. ? He yearned to have had a fraction of the cocksureness now being paraded, to have flounced with such bravura. He felt as though he had let his younger self down. This was his life as it should have been lived.
His first love did little to attract his attention. Whilst she presented the perfect vehicle for his lovesick reminisce, she provoked no interest whatsoever, not so much as a wistful twinge. This was due in part to the actress looking little like the original. Whilst his own youth had been meticulously captured, she struggled not just with physical dissimilarity but also an absence of gestural echoes. His first love’s tiny sensibilities were lost, became grotesquely enlarged on the stage. This was not to the play’s detriment, but served simply to sully his personal recollection. No one else present had seen the delicate ministrations of her fingers, the emotions conveyed with the turn of her eye.
Floodlit, his past glowed with new conviction, At points when his attention wandered, as his own character made his way to the wings, he would imagine what his life would have been like if it had been lived in this incarnation. He drifted into a parallel universe, pictured a world where this representation, rather than its inspiration, had lived his life. A myriad possibilities opened up. He thought of the manifold accomplishments, the rewards this confident braggart would demand from the world. It struck him as unlikely that his stage manifestation would have settled for the life he had carved for himself.
On occasion, he had been known to suffer, be engulfed by, extreme empathy in the theatre. This could be both a positive and negative state. Through truly remarkable performances, he had experienced various roles as though he were the lead. At other times, concerned not by the performance but its lack, it could be a hellish affliction. Wincing as an actor fumbled lines, or simply failed to make the role their own, he became mortified for them. Such tendencies were, of professional necessity, short-lived, never surviving to soften his blows. In reviewing car-crash performances, he didn’t spare their feelings. Initially it troubled him that he had become emotionally immune to this extent, that in his typed assassinations sympathies could disintegrate. Punishment would be duly meted out for his uncomfortable evening’s viewing. The empathy he experienced now was of a different order. This was no idle projection, that was him up on stage. More or less. How many people saw their lives re-imagined in this way? He accepted that this was a position of no small privilege.
Reading reviews of the lead’s performance, critics seemed less captivated, proved immune to his magnetism. But he knew all too well that they weren’t always to be trusted. His colleagues, or rather professional acquaintances, were a vituperative crew. In this instance, he knew they would arrive with their own agendas. Envy heavy, their reviews reflected petty jealousies rather than level-headed appraisal, found faults that were not there, hinted maliciously that it was a vanity project. Knowing this circle of vultures as well as he did, he knew that their mean-spirited reviews simply signposted their annoyance that he of all their number had found his story writ large upon the stage. He would ignore their sour notices, their queasy sneers.
He would of course not be reviewing the play, there being no real doubt that there was a conflict of interest. If he had been reviewing it, abandoning subjectivity, he would have had no hesitation in awarding it five stars. Was he guilty of overlooking the play’s shortcomings? His newspaper still allowed him an article on the production, indulged the professional navel-gazing to which his readership had become accustomed. His puff piece he disguised as insight, though it was very much an advertorial.
Drawing on the toxic reminisce of his own adolescence, he had set down the tale of his early years, an exercise in exorcising demons. His memoir had tested the elasticity of truth. How far could it bend before dipping into falsehood? On stage these minor embellishments had been fleshed out. In this, his adaptor, a competent playwright with whom he had thankfully had no professional contretemps, had excelled. As a result, his life emerged as wish fulfilment, contrived scenes that failed to relay events unequivocally. His own distortions were reconfigured by the playwright and subsequently reinterpreted by the actors and director. He witnessed countless revisions of his past. Each level stripped something further from the truth. Staged, it unfolded like a fever dream, a false memory, a sense of familiarity rather than actuality, rumour incarnate. If it did end up on the big screen, and he was doing all he could to encourage negotiations, how diluted would it become, how far removed from actual events?
The opening out of the way – a roaring success in his opinion, and his opinion was the only one he truly cared for – he had returned for the second night to make sure that it was not just a one-off. And then the third. And the fourth. After missing the first night of an acquaintance’s play, having made excuses regarding dinner dates and parties, after rescheduling a dinner with his ex-wife, he realised that nothing would stop him seeing every performance. He had not even taken it as a bad sign that he had been able to buy tickets for the entire run at such late notice. The most important consideration was simply that he obtained a seat.
As a critic, he had always lambasted, in private and in print, those sorry individuals who saw the same show hundreds of times. He felt that such monomaniacal devotion suggested something lacking in their lives. To him it seemed a deeply unsavoury enterprise, an involvement in collective euphoria that nullified the void of their dull existence. Sad sack fanatics, he had called them, addled sorts who had sat in the same seat for Cats for twenty years, or had seen Phantom so many times they saw more of the cast than their own families. He had been characteristically venomous, poured scorn with relish. He pictured the walls of their homes festooned with snapshots with the many different casts, photographs in which they aged but the consecutive casts remained the same. No photographs of family or friends, he imagined, would interrupt such theatrical montages. He suspected that through their obsessions, they would have scared away potential partners, forsaking love to sit alone in crowded theatres.
In his dismissals, he was unrepentant. Experiencing a similar predicament brought about no solidarity. His loyalty, apparently, worked on a very different level. He after all had a vested interest. To have one’s past reconstructed nightly it seemed rude not to be in attendance. Making no attempt to secure the same seat, he revelled in the multiplicity of views afforded him, each night confronting his past from a different perspective.
It would pass, he imagined, as simple self-interest, a manifestation of the egotism for which, in certain circles, he was renowned. To his editor, the notion that he would take a three-week sabbatical to watch his own life story seemed perfectly natural.
That he was so enamoured with himself that he should spend each evening watching a man masquerade as him came as no shock to his peers. In rivals’ columns bitchy hints of his new obsession, languorous evenings spent gazing into his own eyes. Rarely had he seen their jealousy laid out so readily.
He nervously awaited recrimination, a flood of doubters, of people highlighting inconsistencies and half-truths, for those who had known those depicted to come bustling from the woodwork with their own interpretation of events. All that became apparent, however, was the fact that he was the only person interested in redressing his past. He had offered the world his rejigged history and they had no reason to disbelieve it. His version became gospel.
What did the truth matter in the face of repetition? With each re-enactment, this was becoming his past. Whilst the play lasted he could entrench himself in the notion that this was his adolescence.
He sat rapt as on stage the cast re-enacted key scenes of emotional turmoil from his life. As a spectator, distanced, he watched his relationship with his parents unravel. Long dead, they at least would not sue.
Each night in attendance, he could not take his eyes off himself. Though astounded by the physical similarity between the actor and his younger self, in truth there wasn’t one. The casting had been flattering. For the benefit of those around him, a photograph from the time would highlight this disparity. He persevered with the notion that it was an uncanny likeness. Despite the barbs of fellow critics, intimations that the lead had been unfeasibly miscast, he refused to concede that he bore no resemblance to himself.
Watching this man reinterpret his life, he fell under his spell. Through fixation, he absorbed the traits and tics of his counterpart. Outside of the theatre, unwittingly, he adapted new ways of holding himself, altered slightly his delivery, exhibited mirrored mannerisms, took the lead from his reflection, his character shaped through his alter ego. He became more like his imagined self, his idealised self, than his actual self. Bathing in his namesake’s charisma, he absorbed what he could.
Liberties taken with the truth were solidified through repetition. This was his past now, each performance committing to memory events as he wished they had occurred rather than their actual unfolding. Incrementally his past was replaced by its superficial reconstruction.
Arriving one night to an announcement in the foyer that the evening’s performance would feature the understudy in the lead role left him oddly deflated. Taking his seat, his eleventh thus far, he found he was fussily concerned for him. The fact that there was someone waiting in the wings to take his role, although standard practice, had caught him short. Having been cast so perfectly, how could his replacement possibly hope to compete? He prepared to consider his erstwhile replacement with an open mind, a manner that vanished immediately upon his appearance.
This understudy had him all wrong. Of course the lead, in a sense, had him all wrong as well, but in a manner that was desirable, that was favourable to him. The understudy, perhaps, had him all right, but it was a reflection that unsettled him, less flattering than the lead’s version. Was he being mocked? He sought recognition in the actor’s face, tried in vain to recall having slighted him in some other performance, a withering putdown in a review long forgotten. Forgotten by him at least. His heartless digs were despatched unthinkingly, but endured a caustic half-life in the minds of delicate performers. His words were not for the thin-skinned. What had he done to deserve this twisting of his personality? He was not possessed of the warmth, the depth, the courage of the man he replaced. That these were all aspects of the actor’s interpretation rather than his actual character was a notion that he refused to entertain.
Was the understudy’s performance generated by his own response to the text, or did he serve as an echo of the main performer’s interpretation? For someone who had spent a lifetime engaged in diligent criticism of the medium he knew surprising little of its mechanisms. Though he ascribed his scant technical understanding to a desire to have no illusions shattered it was more likely born of indolence.
At the play’s conclusion, as the cast stepped back on stage to take their bows he wanted to interject. Impostor, he considered shouting, barracking the actor who had savaged his good name. Around him the ignorant deafened him with applause. He was at times still astounded by how little audiences knew, despondent at praise lavished on this hashed ham. Come back tomorrow, he would offer, see the role in all its glory. Concerned, he considered cornering the director, enquiring after the lead’s health. Would he be fit for tomorrow’s performance? Downhearted, he considered the possibility of this faker finishing the run.
What a convenience it would be to have an understudy for everyday life, he thought. Feeling moderately under the weather, disinclined to engage with the world, what a charm it would be to send in a reserve, to outsource one’s life for a few hours, a replacement able to step in at a moment’s notice. Did he really have the work though? His life consisted, largely, of going to the theatre, avoiding his peers and filing copy. It was not much of a role for a stand-in to engage with, little to occupy him, scant interaction. He would be embarrassed for his understudy to bear witness to the virtual seclusion he had created for himself. Single-handedly he would deal with what remained of his life.
The next evening his heart beat more steadily as normal service was resumed. Breathing easily as the thankfully recovered actor took to the stage, he wondered what was going on. What exactly were his feelings for the lead actor? Spending time in the same room as him was as close as he had come to a religious experience; each evening offered exquisite epiphanies. He tried to justify his experience in any way that he could. Initially he had suspected that it was simply a yearning for his lost youth, an infatuation with his own adolescence. There was undoubtedly an element of time travel to proceedings as he watched himself, adoringly, arrested in time, ever youthful. He had suspected that anyone could have played the role and extracted the same emotional response from him. The understudy disabused him of this notion. Of course, he was not as well rehearsed; the lines seemed to die in his mouth, hesitate upon his lacklustre lips.
He assessed his commitment to the play, his block-booked tickets. He had never experienced such forces in the theatre, such internal conflicts. He struggled to define what he was going through. Emotionally vulnerable as his past unfolded before him, was he becoming infatuated with another man? Was he, in the modern parlance, going gay for himself? This must be a first. It seemed a curiously singular obsession.
As the run continued he wondered what he would do afterwards, the show’s end too devastating to contemplate. A deep depression hung over him as he counted down to the final performance. He hoped for a West End transfer but knew that this was doubtful. Had anyone ever engaged in such a thoroughly narcissistic pursuit before? He had fallen, he realised, for a younger, more beautiful version of himself. Off stage the actor in question was far removed from his ideal. It had not escaped his attention, for example, that he was a man. Yet watching him on stage, speaking his words, he became besotted, a swooning groupie of his own skew image.
It was an infatuation he mentioned to no one. He was aware how self-involved such a pre-occupation could come across. Few people could genuinely empathise with his predicament, had had the opportunity to relive their past in this manner. It was a particularly virulent form of reminisce. He attributed at least a fraction of his obsession to this factor.
In such a small venue, it must have been quite apparent that he was there every night. He shuddered, picturing his namesake picking him out in the darkness. If he had been noticed – an uncouth drooling presence – there had been no acknowledgement. Had others noticed? He contemplated dramatic gossip. Come curtains, he wished to venture backstage, desired physical proximity with his double. At least he had spared him that, not through any altruistic notions, but simply because he was uncertain how he would react, coy in his presence, ablush with a childish crush. Realising at least that this was an unhealthy development, that such intrusions would lead to unholy speculation, he resorted to the next best thing. He took to taking a seat afterwards at a bar across the road from the stage door. Upstairs, unseen, he would wait his emergence like a star-struck schoolgirl, looking down as he signed autographs for a handful of patient fans. Watching him disappear into the night, he wondered how the crowds he cut through weren’t instantly bewitched, his charisma melting a path through their mundane presence.
How real was his obsession? When he found himself wondering idly if the actor was married he knew that something was slightly awry. He had reached this age, ripe enough, without feeling any tendencies in that direction. He should be buckling down to the nether end of his midlife crisis not dealing with the consequences of late onset bisexuality. Had he been in denial? He doubted it. His life had been one of resolute heterosexuality. He had slept with many women, but he would not be the first to vanquish a questioned sexuality through the reassuring power of numbers. If he had been faking then he had fooled no one more than himself. It was a peculiar way to discover he had been in the closet. If he had inclinations of this kind, the theatre world, where he had spent his life, had not lacked opportunity.
He found himself drawn to no other men. Some, and he realised the preposterousness of this thought before he completed it, of his best friends were gay. He had been to gay weddings, gay clubs and not for a second had he been enticed to switch sides, not that there had ever seemed a desperate clamour to recruit him.
Should he saunter backstage, offer a hand to his matinee idol, insist on sharing a drink with this vision of himself? He didn’t feel that he could trust himself in his company. His thoughts, his emotive response, clearly went well beyond the platonic. To all of this, the actor was blissfully oblivious; unknowingly he was engaged, offstage, in extra-curricular activities, had taken the lead in inappropriate dreams. It was one performance for which the critic need not struggle for words.
The anticipation of closing night filled every aspect of his being with dread. What would he do when the run ended? Out of desperation, he grappled with the notion of a sequel, considered pitching non-existent memoirs to the director. What would constitute a play of his later life? A man on stage, in a chair, staring at the audience? He regretted not having lived a more eventful life, though he doubted anybody’s life would stand up to such scrutiny. Besides, the lead had other commitments. He knew that devoid of his words he wouldn’t hang on his next performance, that this show had delivered a perfect storm of unattainable love.
The cinematic endpoint which he, and no doubt his accountant, dreamed of would fall short of expectation. Even if the play was reworked for the big screen, even if the actor reprised his role, it would not prove to be such an intimate encounter. He would have him captured forever, that much was true. At home he could rewatch his past repeatedly, engage in his perverse nostalgia. He considered surreptitiously filming his swan song. Was there a market in theatrical bootlegs? Shaky footage from the gods exchanged in certain circles? He had never come across such things. His air was not of a clandestine enough nature to turn to low-key piracy.
He felt as though it was the part the actor was born to play, that to stop playing it would be a great betrayal. He was desperate for continuity, for the performance to be prolonged. Briefly, he entertained abduction fantasies, of kidnapping his doppelganger and forcing him into eternal re-enactment, the actor perpetually trapped in the role. He could provide him with his diaries and have him re-enact his entire life. Was that too much to ask? He had never denied accusations of self-centredness. He wished for his lips to speak the words he felt, retrospectively, he had failed to give great enough emphasis. He could rewrite his past and have him perform it, in real time, the beauty being he would never run out of material. Thirty years down the line, he would have a protégé of his own, a life lived in perpetuity, forever handed down.
Was he experiencing a phantom paternity, dreams of being a father, of watching his child grow in his own image, his own mistakes avoided? Directing a dynasty of duplicates, his life lived twice over: the first time as failure, the second as success. He could rewrite his entire past in this manner.
Perhaps he should have just had children like everybody else.
Through tears, he watched the final performance, aware that this chapter in his life was now over, each curtain call a cruel reminder of what would soon be gone from his life. Inconsolable he wept as he witnessed his youth disappear for the last time.