The Abbey Theater is alive. It is the season of ‘deeper thoughts and emotions’, the season of Yeats and Lady Gregory, the season of plays. And there on stage, with deeper thoughts and emotions, in welcomed applause, stands Sir Edward Forester, the playwright, the director, and the reason for the full house.
The stage is set as a gentleman’s study, a library, a table, a grand fireplace, two souls. The one, old Sir Edward is a man aged in a most beneficial way, gray bearded, distinguished. He’s joined by his nephew, blood of the same flag on ruddy face.
The fireplace stage right, quite lit, holds both men near a small table. Sir Edward, now seated, is statured royal, hearth’s heat on his backside, sniftered cognac close at hand. He pours a generous measure for himself, then says to the other, his kind nephew Jamey. “I offer words from my long gone youthful past. Join me lad in my tear soaked heart worn tale.”
And with that, the young nephew takes a low chair.
Sir Edward fills his snifter, makes a snort, and takes us to New York where his story lies.
“Go back with me Jamey in time’s imagination, the early cacophony of my life's clock, my memories on forty-second street. In those years Mary and I had an apartment three stories above the toiling masses. We were the pride of Broadway, wrote words in kin kept blood, and our plays reaped a life’s crop.”
Sir Edward downs his glass. “I have you now young Jamey, so stretch a limb and I will provide all that’s vital for this storied yarn." Sir Edward lifts a second glass, fills it, and passes it to his nephew. “There. Down she goes. Drink up lad. To Gaul’s grave.”
The nephew Jamey puts it back and Sir Edward continues his soliloquy. “This is not our story in this time when hoards with stained shorts and shirts in tees prance Times Square, a fended dreg to the tailored age of my days. No. With consideration, affection, and hearty hail wells, I take you back to a time when plays were plays, a time when Olivier was Sir Lawrence and reigned supreme, a time just past the dying embers of war, nineteen forty-eight, the year of our Lord.”
Sir Edward fills his nephews glass, takes a breath, sighs, and goes on.
”This was the seasoned year my fabled companion, lover of life and myself, my dear Mary, produced, nay birthed as better said, the play Hamlet. Yes, young to the world we were. And more, love hung on us like Persephone’s flower; florid, rose plumed, and forever. The story goes, and I was there at the Brill to witness, we dined at Dempsey’s and hashed it out. We two loves brought the play to the times and staged the thing in such a way to bring the life of it to present day, that is to say the present day when we look back at those exhausted, frightful, and hopeful promised post war years.”
Sir Edward gazes off. But back he is and winks his glass at Jamey. “I say you know Hamlet is visited upon by father’s ghost and with the play comes apparition?” Sir Edward then flicks an eye, the bottled cognac looms. “Here’s a splash my Jamey. Down she goes. Aye.”
The nephew Jamey throws back his glass in toast. They both salute.
“Everyone died?” the nephew asks.
Sir Edward takes all seriousness. “No child’s imagination could ever conceive. It was quite a story at the time. Our Hamlet, Mary and mine, was staged off Broadway in New York. I’m sure you know the Hamlet plot. In the play, Jamey, Hamlet decides to have a play to see if he can rattle his uncle, give up the crime.”
“Of course Sir Edward.” The nephew fingers for more cognac.
“In the rendered patch of me and my Mary, the players perform a play in a play as Hamlet dithers, patience undue and long lasting to a fault. But in the play within the play the poison is poured down the throated ear of the player much appeared like the uncle in temper and spirit. Hamlet’s uncle, his Claudius, racked with guilted sway, sits the play, panics in the similitude, flees off, clothed with guilt."
“Sadly. Two deaths be known, and makes our memory singularly worrisome. A tale in a tale. Two young players who performed their part in the play, passed, unconsecrated. As these things go there was scandal amongst the troupe in forty-eight. This Ann Avery, the actor, loved this William Phillips lad, her stage mate. She hears him killed, an awful crime arisen from some ego'd dispute. Not wanting life’s favor without her William, she falls on her sword, cuts her wrist, ends her flowered life with her own death’s blade. Young William, ever the loyal lover, finds her, ends his life by same, and follows to where she’s gone. Ann and William stay, the story goes, in heaven’s brace. At least we hope.”
Sir Edward strikes a sad aspect; his voice goes low. "My poor Mary, in disgrace by the scandal and her part in it, soon thereafter gives up the ghost herself, and how do I say it I loved her so, by the same brutal method. A deeper tale indeed."
“I'm sorry sir. I didn't know. And Hamlet the play?”
Sir Edward shakes off the memory, gains new stride. "Lord, every scholar and Shakespear'd man here knows about the prince! That's a whole other story. The Hamlet we love kills in a spree, his uncle Claudius just one of the stable. It’s a tragedy my boy. Hamlet himself is taken by dear Laertes, but not before old mum Gertrude leaves the lair herself. But enough! Let the play begin! Sit back there lad and fix your eye on Hamlet, the versioned play my Mary staged, produced, and carved, bless her sad soul."
With the end of the play, the house lights rise, and the audience gathers to exit the theater. Skylar and Preston, a middle aged handsome couple, begin shuffling down the aisle; Skylar in her fox fur coat, Preston in his beige knit cardigan. No one knows they are any more than a middle-aged Irish couple. And yet Preston is forever tied to the nineteen forty-eight version of Hamlet performed off Broadway in New York; the version Sir Edward and his wife Mary produced and directed.
As Preston and Skylar move down the theater aisle Preston knows it was his grandmother, Ann, who was the young woman described by Sir Edward who killed herself so tragically in nineteen forty-eight, the night of the opening of Hamlet off Broadway. It was Preston’s grandmother who cut her wrists, distressed by the news of her lover being killed in a petty feud that very night. And just as Sir Edward said, this was a tragic miscommunication to Ann, as William was not dead. He returned and found his lover lying cold by her own self-mutilation. Not able to imagine living without her, he ends his own life, using the same knife. A tragic story.
Preston learned of his grandmother's suicide from his mother, who was the left-behind child. His mother, never understanding how her own mother could abandon her, never understanding how her own mother could choose suicide over caring for her, was then raised by her grandparents, Floyd and Martha Avery.
Preston thinks to himself of all the stories told that evening: the love of Sir Edward and his wife Mary, they’re life in New York writing the nineteen forty-eight version of Hamlet, the tragic circumstances of the death of his grandmother Ann Avery and William Phillips, Mary’s tragic death following, and even the tragedy of Hamlet itself, his story is the most tragic. He grew up with a mother who never resolved the abandonment by her own mother. It was he who bore the years of his mother’s alcoholism and institutions. No, his story is the most tragic and wraps them all.
As Preston and Skylar leave the theater; he sees his wife upset, avoiding his eye. Renditions of Hamlet, he thinks, always bring back the past. They near the exit of the Abbey, filing out with the crowd. Maybe conversation will break the mood. “The play was really something,” says Preston as they exit the theater double doors.
Skylar’s not having it. She adjusts her fox coat to the Irish drizzle. “Who are you kidding? You’re obsessed with Hamlet because of your family, your mother, and your grandmother.”
The street is alive with lights on the buildings, people out and about, the theater goers headed for O'Connell Street and the city centre, the restaurants and pubs starting to fill up.
“Let’s beat the crowd and cross the tracks.” Preston is hungry and doesn’t want to discuss the play or his family history. “Run!” he says to his wife. He leaps ahead jumping from rail to rail.
Skylar, seeing her husband already across, makes a dash herself, but as she does her heel gets caught between the rail and tie.
“Help me Preston!” Skylar calls out and she knows Preston sees her bent over struggling. And there, Skylar thinks, is the real tragic story of their marriage. Preston going ahead and leaving her on the tracks is just one more slight, in twenty years of slights. The excuse for his own selfishness he assigns to an affliction, the growing up with his abandoned mother, but at what point does he simply need to grow up?
“Leave it!” he yells, running back, getting near the track, seeing the train approaching, a howling horn. “Grab my hand. Leave the shoe!”
They both reach down to release her leg. Too late, the train swipes them away with a death pierced whistle, followed by the screech of brakes, both dead.
“Your son’s a psychopath,” Amy says to her husband Matthew. She doesn't really mean it. The three of them, herself, Matthew, and eight year old Thomas are enjoying the evening in their London flat.
“I think as far as psychopaths go, he gained his temperament from your side of the family,” Matthew jokes back at his wife.
Amy looks at the spread little Thomas has created. “He’s an engineer, just like his father.”
“I hope so.” Matthew is secretly proud of his son and scans the model town he’s built, the buildings all alight, the electric train. “What do you have going there son?”
“He just ran over two of his plastic people,” Amy interjects with her worried voice.
Matthew picks up on his wife’s signals and says to Thomas, “What’s with the train running people over guy? What’s that about?” All the same, Matthew can't help but admire the little model Abbey Theater, how the both of them had wired in lights to make the buildings look real, the little windows to scale.
Little Thomas says, “They shouldn’t have tried to cross the tracks.”
“They tried to make the restaurant without going the long way.”
“Why’s that son?”
“Preston was upset because the play reminded him of his mom. He was just selfish though.”
“What play son?”
“The one in the Abbey Theater. Hamlet. See the people coming out?” Thomas picks up the roof of the doll house like theater and dozens of plastic people are placed standing in aisled rows, some in the entry, others on the sidewalk, some further down on the street.
Matthew notices the stage has two plastic figures on it sitting in little chairs. “Who do you have there?” pointing to the two figures, the tiny doll house table, the toy fireplace.
“That’s Sir Edward and his nephew. They’re drinking cognac. Sir Edward drinks too much because he misses his wife."
Mathew and Amy’s eyes meet. They both know the look they are giving each other.
Little Thomas shakes the building and the figures start falling over. He starts making explosion sounds. “Busshh. Babashhh.”
“What now!” Amy says.
“It’s a tragedy. Earthquake.”