Been a spell peeps, but I was on vacation, and then returned from vacation to the usual pile of day-job hell, and so have had precious little time to post. I haven’t forgotten my flash fiction challenge, and will be announcing the winner and the fabulous prize I chose for him or her whilst in Maine.
In the meantime, however, having finally finished the revision of THE GRAVITY OF MAMMON, I have moved on to the next novel and am recommencing the on-line novel experiment because it was so much fun last time, and because it holds me out for public scorn when I don’t write on a daily basis.
Elizabethan Noir, this time folks, with our old pal Bill Shakespeare in the unlikely role of protaganist. Here’s Chapter 1. Your response are always welcome.
The theater, this is my only solace, the warm, unclean bosom of the stage. To write, there is a sort of joy in that, but it is in spirit a kind of possession, a transient madness and always pursued alone, leaving me spent as if used by those muses others imagine to be their servants. Me thinks it must be how a woman feels when a man hath fulfilled himself, hath emptied his seed into her, and then rolled away, leaving his stink on her sheets, his sweat to dry on her skin, his spunk to curdle in her womb, but still that sense that even so, some miracle hath transpired and she will from her own belly issue forth into the world something new and complete that no other could author, but whose authorship comes only at the cost of long labor and pain.
But at the theater, in rehearsal, I feel one with my fellows, and find in those drawn to the stage a kinship of spirit that alone doth thin that fog of thought and imagining in which I am too oft enveloped, a fog that doth blind me to those others with whom my fellows find such easy commerce and common standing and leaves me quarantined apart and unwelcome to their society. And so it was, these few weeks past, I was leaning on the wall at the edge of the stage in the warm summer sun, I felt for a moment light and careless, even with James Burbage, the Company’s leading player in both his cups and his temper, and I hold now that memory most dear from this side of those events that hath transpired since, as if from across some chasm that doth now separate the man I have become from the man I was, knowing, too, that those chasms we ourselves trench into time can never be bridged, that we can only trudge forward, even if all we love lay behind.
That July day, Dick Jenkins took stage to rehearse with Burbage, being the new boy player the Company had hired to replace Henderson for the woman’s parts, as Henderson’s voice had finally dropped in timbre, even if in face and form he was still the best woman on the London stage. Henderson had been a favorite of Burbage’s, and the actor all that day had carried on as if Henderson’s inevitable adolescence were somehow the product of Jenkins’ nefarious agency. Finally, Jenkins misspoke a line.
“Am I to feign affection to this?” shouted Burbage, waving at Jenkins. “He opens a mouth that I, in but a few lines, am expected to kiss and vomits out gibberish. At least Henderson’s ass was hairless. Look at this wooly carbuncle. Even a Sodomite would balk at saddling this mare.”
Burbage stomped to the side of the stage and another cup of port. Jenkins stood center stage, his face quivering.
“Mind not Burbage, Dick,” I called from the wing. “Rehearsals offend his vanity. His pride is swollen even larger than his talent and he believes his every utterance deserves an audience. It is ever so with actors.”
“It’s the hairless ass he misses, Will,” said Henry Condell from across stage. “With Burbage in his drink and Henderson in his dress and paint, methinks they oft confused the bounds of life and art.”
Burbage drained his cup and hurled it at Condell.
“Perhaps we should take a razor to Jenkin’s haunches and put our esteemed player in a better spirit,” I answered.
Burbage guffawed a laugh, his original distemper largely pretended anyway. “You may shave what you like, Will, but you’ll still lack the steel to do it harm. You name may say Shakespeare, but at the brothels they call your shaft more akin to the quill you so readily wield than to any spear.“ Burbage grabbed his own codpiece. “The ladies do, however, desire my Lancealot.”
The Company, those amused and those not, broke into general laughter, knowing it the only way to tease Burbage back to work. For Burbage, the adulation of a crowd was like the sun unto a flower.
Burbage strode to center stage as if truly for an audience, grasped Jenkins by the shoulders and kissed him firmly on the lips. “I shall learn to love thee, boy, even if my lance shall not.”
The rehearsal concluded, I sat alone at the small desk in the theater’s stores amongst its costumery considering the accounts. The Lord Chamberlin’s Men were the leading company in London, but leading that pack of late meant only that we would be the last to ruin. Only a few years hence, we, along with the other companies of players, the bear baiters, the brothels and all other entertainments had been forced from the city proper, the growing clamor amongst the Puritans calling us all and equally a festering infection making unclean the spirits of men, and the city in concern of the recurring bouts of Plague that still sprung to flame from the smoldering of pestilence that underlay its burgeoning population hoped that our relocation to Shoreditch would be less a threat.
The Company owed the lease, the shares to the owners, of which, thankfully, I at least was one, the wages to the other players, and, given three new plays to be opened in the coming weeks, we would again require such costume and the other accoutrement attendant to a successful staging. But I had at least correspondence from Henry Carey, both the Baron Hundson and the Queen’s Lord Chamberlin, our troupe’s namesake and benefactor. He had requested a series of performances at court, our investment in which was minimal and the returns from which were much higher than the public performances that were our daily bread. With these, we might steal a march on the forces of penury, whose armies of late seemed always at the gates.
To Stratford I needed still to convey the expenses attendant to running my household, and had received word of a new suit targeting my father, who’s barely disguised recusancy had steadily eroded his station and left him prey to any who might press a claim, forcing him to balance the benefit of a vigorous defense against the attention his opponents would surely bring to his religion, his closet Catholicism at least better tolerated in the hinterlands than it would be in London where, for me, any stench of Papistry could mean ruin or even, given the increasingly rabid tenor of the Puritans, and her Majesty’s need to toss these dogs the occasional bone to chew so as to distract their attentions from her enjoyment of those same entertainments that they despise, and so might end with me on a scaffold, half choked from an aborted hanging, and then supine whilst the Queen’s good ministers tear out my bowels from my still living body.
On matters of religion, I am convinced that any attempt to reduce to human custom and practice the will of a God infinitely exceeding the capacity of our understanding is folly. At best an innocent folly which at least encourages some charity and blunts the less holy impulses of our animal hearts. In common practice a banal folly buoying the hearts of men with promised graces stemming from invented rituals, which hearts hear in the pause between each beat the echo of their own mortality, so that through all history they have hewn gods of every nature from dead stones and then prayed to their own creations imagining a deity of their own concoction can somehow bridge that abyss that doth us all await. In its worst practice, religion is an invented madness purposely infected into peoples to drive them to hate, to mold them to the ambitions of charlatans, to make the world into a model of the hell they pray against in service of the trivial and transitory desires of the princes of the earth, whether those princes are adorned with crown or miter.
And yet also on the desk I have the response from the College of Heralds. My father, years ago and at the time still the bailiff of Stratford had sought the armorial bearings and coat of arms that would make him, officially, a gentleman, and me, therefore, a gentleman born, but the application had languished as my father’s fortunes reversed, until I, some months prior, had renewed that claim and now had word that with only payment of the final license, the arms would be granted. When teased by my fellows about my pretendings to stature, I would swear my aim only to be to secure for my father that standing that I did feel to be his by right – and, as should be with any good fiction, that lie was true, for to be finally named a gentleman would comfort my father greatly and provide some bulwark against the stream of claimants who now found him an easy meal. I did even sometimes admit when pressed to desire those practical advantages as such status would convey – to stand on even ground with the landlords and merchants with whom I had daily truck, to be able to adorn myself in honest in such finer clothes as oft I wore only on stage without breaching any statutory custom and risking the attention and fines of Her Majesty’s agents as they do from time to time enforce, finding in the minutia of their Sumptory Laws a convenient means by which to vex those they cannot by other means harass, and, this lie being also true, did deflect any further inquiry into the seeming hypocrisy of my task. But I cannot from myself conceal the venal ambitions of my own heart; cannot forget that I, as a boy, sometimes did hate my own father for falling from his station at just such time as I might first tastes its benefits, knowing full well I had done nothing to earn such merit; did hate my mother and the name Arden, which was the well-spring of the faith to which they did so stubbornly cling, to their ill and to mine and to no benefit that I could discern and with no blessing of philosophy that even now I can lend credence; do still remember the brickbats from the university playwrights, their amusement at my poorer Latin, at my occasional lapses in manners, and at my constant attention to matters of business, for I have not their wealth to pursue theater as a diversion or a passion alone, but instead must make of it a livelihood; and so in those moments when I have it in conscience to confront the truth of myself, I must confess that the coat of arms was not for my father, and not even for the mercantile advantages to be gained as a gentleman, but was instead a reflection my own naked lust for standing, a lust I have so oft lampooned in the characters I write. But I had been a more optimistic man in those days when I did take up the cause of such status anew and am now afeared that cost of the license may be beyond my ability forever, that I pretend to a status I have not earned, and will never afford.
We can know our own ills, but that does not mean that we can cure them. And if my own golden calf is a simple scroll adorned with a shield and a scribbling of Latin, then it is hubris at the least to imagine myself the better of those who cling instead to a cross or a crucifex. We are each adrift on our own boundless ocean and must cling to any flotsam on which we can gain purpose, for despair yawns in the deeps and would have our meat in its fearsome jaws should e’re we let go.
What light of day could reach my desk was failing. A month past, I would have bolted to the borrowed rooms where I had found a kind of Eden in the arms of a young mistress, but of late what I had done to earn the fruit of that now despoiled apple, and the cost to us both of its conniving acquisition, had become too plain and the pleasure I gained from her favors was so stained with shame that I could scarce my own company keep having first kept hers. And so, despite the girl’s entreaties, I had these past days foresworn her bed.
Too dark now to read the ledger. I could start a candle, but candles are expensive. I resolved to retire to my quarters and would burn a candle there in service to my true art, and as that service was in the end also the product of the Company, the candle would earn its wage. The play was the thing. An idea had been swelling – a father murdered, his son seeking to avenge him against a deceitful and avaricious world.
As I closed the ledger and returned the papers to their drawers, Burbage burst in, staggered with drink, his face pale, his mouth gaped and he choked for a moment as he tried to speak.
“Calm yourself, Jim,” I said. “What news would have thee so?’
“It’s Carey,” Burbage said. “The Lord Chamberlain is dead.”