Today, April 23, 2016, marks the four hundredth anniversary of Shakespeare’s death, and celebrations of the great writer’s life and work are planned all over the world, including of course in his home town of Stratford Upon Avon.
As is the case for so many other writers, Shakespeare has been a big influence and inspiration for me, from the time I first encountered his work as a child–something I wrote about in an essay called Puck’s Gift, published in Reimagining Shakespeare for Children and Young Adults, edited by Naomi J.Miller. But instead of telling you about how Shakespeare had influenced me, I thought I’d show it; and celebrate the wonderful Will in my own way, by posting the first chapter from Malvolio’s Revenge (2005), one of the six of my novels which have been directly inspired by his work. Malvolio’s Revenge, set amongst a troupe of travelling players in Louisiana in 1910, is based, of course, on Twelfth Night, which is possibly my favourite of all Shakespeare’s plays. The other novels are Cold Iron(1998, inspired by A Midsummer Night’s Dream), The Tempestuous Voyage of Hopewell Shakespeare (2003, inspired by The Tempest and Twelfth Night); The Madman of Venice(2009, based on The Merchant of Venice and Romeo and Juliet); The Understudy’s Revenge (2011, based on Hamlet) and My Brother Will (2013, an evocation of a year in Shakespeare’s adolescence, as recounted by his brother Gilbert).
As well, for those interested, there’s Shakespeare’s Last Play, a rather strange little cross between novella and play that I wrote some years ago and published as a free ebook you can read online.
And now, without further ado, let me take you travelling back in time to 1910 in the Louisiana countryside, and a very rainy night..
by Sophie Masson
Toby had never seen so much rain. No soft veil of mizzle, no needles of drizzle, not even stormbucket rain, but great relentless waterfalls, drowning everything: road, wagon, horses, Toby himself. At least it was not cold, he told himself, despite it being Christmas Eve(and some Christmas Eve this was turning out to be!) But no-one could stay warm for long out in this deluge, and Toby was soaked, not to the skin, not to the bone, but to the very marrow of the very bone. His feet sank deep into the mud at every step, the mire sucking at his boots with increasing vigour, as he tried to encourage poor Slender and Shallow to keep struggling on.
The rain had come on with such suddeness, half a mile or so back, that there had been no way they could find shelter quickly, but must keep going as best they could. There should be houses and even a little settlement not too far away–or so it said on the map–and so Toby had been detailed to guide the anxious draughthorses in the right direction. But even by the light of the lantern he held in his hand, he could barely see more than a few inches in front of his nose. Occasionally, a tree would loom at him out of the gloom: the strange live oaks one saw everywhere in this place, still green in winter, but ghostly in the pale light of the lantern, with the moss hanging from their drenched black branches like the tattered rags of criminals hanging on the gallows. Far above the sunken road was the levee which held back the huge swollen river, whose muffled but still menacing roar could be heard even through the din of the rain.
Water, water everywhere, thought Toby, sneezing violently and tugging at Slender’s rein to stop him from stumbling. Water–this damned country is only an excuse for land, it’s just a floating bit of driftwood on a huge black current. Our wagon’s a frail little ship, and soon enough we’ll be wrecked, swept away like so much flotsam, drowned by water above and below!
To keep fear away, he cursed quietly to himself; cursed the weather, the benighted place in which he found himself; cursed his uncle’s folly in bringing them out here into this sodden countryside. But most especially, he cursed the memory of self-appointed New Orleans festivities planner Roland Bourgeois Batiste, apparently a ‘good friend’ of Toby’s uncle Theo, who–for a goodly sum of money–was supposed to have organised for them a perfect venue in the city. When they had arrived, however, the flamboyant Monsieur Batiste had advised them that after all there were no theatres that could accomodate the company in the city. After all, he said with many gestures designed to prove his good will and his helplessness–after all, it was coming up to Carnival time, everything was packed full–but out in the country, people hungered after culture. He had taken the liberty of setting up a few places for them, out there. And if their country tour went well, why, it went without saying that it would be a lot easier to prise open New Orleans doors. In fact, the rich planters out in the country would be only too delighted to help open those doors for them, once they’d seen the quality of the show.
Ha! That had been just the way to handle the principal of the Tridlingham Troupe, Toby’s own uncle Theo, thought Toby bitterly. Theo Tridlingham had been a little crestfallen at first, after Batiste’s revelation; but his irrepressibly optimistic nature had taken over, then, and he had actually thanked the swindling son-of-a-seacook! Armed with Batiste’s ‘booking-sheet’, Theo’s optimism, and the rest of the company’s profound resignation, the Troupe had ventured out.
But alas! The Louisiana countryside, if it held people who hungered after culture, sure hid them well, maybe drowned in the swamps or the marshes or the blessed little bayous that covered so much of the place. More than once, the ‘venue’ Batiste had ‘booked’ for them had turned out to be either a figment of the swindler’s imagination, or else the victim of flood or sudden earthquake–for it had sure vanished off the face of the earth. Oh, it was true that once or twice, on an obscure plantation or two, they’d been able to stage Uncle Theo’s pride and joy, his once-modestly-famous play, Malvolio’s Revenge; but what Batiste had carefully failed to tell them was that a good few of the planters hereabouts were still primarily French-speakers and as such supremely uninterested in a once-famous English play that had, almost a lifetime ago, been presented in the London’s West End. And of the rest, most of the richer plantations would not even receive them; and those that did wanted to pay them only by board and lodging–which was uniformly poor. In the little villages and towns in between, they had fared just a little better, which was no great achievement. In the last week or so, in any case, even those little audiences had dwindled to invisibility, as everyone who was anyone at all(and even those who weren’t!) left the dank countryside in readiness to spend Christmas and then the Carnival period in lively, sociable New Orleans, whose doors, of course, had resolutely remained shut…
Unfortunately, these melancholy thoughts led inevitably to images of other things in Toby’s mind, things calculated to arouse not melancholy but fierce longing: namely, memories of the large and comfortable houses around the main square of the city, the fires that must be burning warmly in all those fireplaces, the cosy, noisy taverns, the brightly-lit, never-sleeping streets that at this season would be filling already with Carnival revellers: for Carnival lasted from Twelfth Night to Mardi Gras, and the Christmas period, too, was filled with merrymaking. That had been the idea, originally, in coming here: Uncle Theo was sure his play would go down perfectly in such a buzzing, pleasure-loving city. ‘You’ll see,’ he’d told the company enthusiastically–‘you’ll see, we’ll be box-office magic, in New Orleans! We’ll be eating and living high, my lords and ladies! You just wait and see!’
Living and eating high–ah! How Toby could just see the food laid out on tables–smoking hot pies, fried chicken, fragrant, spicy stews and soups, towering iced and sugared cake confections! Hell! He could more than see–he could actually smell them! The delicious smell filled his nostrils; his eyes closed in ecstasy; he lost his grip on the reins, and fell over in the mud, perilously close to the great wheels of the wagon, the lantern flying from his hand. He had the presence of mind to fling himself sideways, only to come into painful contact with something cold, solid and very hard indeed.
He swore loudly and got groggily to his feet, only to be nearly deafened by a stentorian voice in his ear. ‘You idiot boy! What do you think you are doing? Do you want to kill us all?’
His uncle was looming over him, his face twisted with fright and anger, the rescued lantern in one hand, the other calming the draughthorses. Toby lost his own temper then. ‘We can’t go any further! We have to stop!’
‘Stop, is it?’ said his uncle, with a sarcastic lilt to his voice. He was drenched, now, too, the water running in great rivulets down his craggy, ruined face. ‘Stop where, may I ask, Toby? Have you found us a nice little tavern, or perchance a warm dry hotel?’
Toby was just about to answer back, hotly, when he saw something that made him forget his anger. ‘Look! Uncle Theo! Over there!’
The dim light of the lantern swinging in his uncle’s hand had fallen on the thing he had nearly knocked himself out on. It was a gatepost. Unmistakeably. A tall, solid gatepost, with something written on it. His uncle realised what it was immediately, too.
‘Hold Slender and Shallow, boy, ‘ he ordered. ‘I want to see properly.’
Toby did as he was told; and his uncle hurried over to the gatepost, and squatted on his heels, uncaring of the mud, holding the lantern high to illuminate the writing. ‘It’s faint,’ he muttered. ‘Let me see..here’s an I..an L, no, two L’s..a Y, is it? Hmm, yes. Then an R, another I, an E..’ He got up, slowly. ‘I do declare! This is a strange thing indeed! Wait here. i’m going to go and see.’ He squelched past Toby, and was soon lost to sight, only the faint glow of the lantern showing where he was going. Toby stood holding the horses, his mind whirling. What had his uncle seen?
‘Toby! Theo!’ A plaintive voice came from behind him, from the wagon. Toby sighed. ‘Yes, Madame Metanche?’ Though he looked in her direction, he could only dimly see her anxious face, peering from the unfastened opening of the covered wagon. The rain was easing off, thank goodness. But a fog was slowly taking its place. A fog that would grow thicker by the moment..
‘Toby! What, in the name of the blessed Virgin, is happening? Why have we stopped?’
‘We are shipwrecked, Madame,’ said Toby, lightly, unable to resist. She was so easy to tease, for the Tridlingham Troupe’s leading lady did not understand metaphors, or jokes, or irony. She panicked at everything, made vast peaked mountains not merely of molehills, but of the shadow of molehills! He would not have teased her, mind you, if his uncle had been in earshot. Uncle Theo treated Mathilde Metanche like she might be a rare jewel, or perhaps an unexploded bomb.
She gave a little cry. ‘Shipwrecked? What is this you say? Is the river coming down on us? Is that why there is so much water?’
It had been her greatest fear ever since arriving in Louisiana. She did not like the look of the Mississippi, she said, it was too big and the land was too flat, and she didn’t trust the levees. She was sure one day they would burst and the big booming river would sweep everyone away. ‘It could be,’ Toby muttered gloomily, enjoying his moment of power. ‘It could be.’ And squealed in outrage in the next moment, as his ear was twisted.
‘Stop it, you rascal!’ It was the light voice of Gabriel Harvey, who played all the ‘character’ parts in the troupe–that is to say, he wasn’t handsome or stupid enough to be a leading man, and his dark, rough-cut face with its grey-green eyes was characterful enough. ‘You’re not the one has to calm Mathilde’s hysterics,’ he went on, calmly outstaring Toby’s fury. ‘So what the devil is going on? Where’s Theo?’
‘Down there,’ said Toby, crossly, rubbing at his ear.
‘Down there? In the fog? Has he lost his wits?’
‘Gatepost,’ explained Toby, sullenly. He could see the dim glow returning, the vague shape of his uncle behind it. ‘There’s a house down there somewhere.’
‘Well, thank the stars. Or whatever. ‘
‘Of course, that is, if they’ll let us in.’ A gloomy voice from the wagon. Gabriel laughed. ‘Trust you, Old Fate, to raise our spirits! I wondered why we brought you along.’
Toby couldn’t help grinning. Jean LaFete was the company’s clown–and in real life so morose and pessimistic that Gabriel had nicknamed him Old Fate, a play on the English sound of the clown’s name, which in French actually meant ‘the festival’.
‘Gentlemen!’ Theo Tridlingham squelched up to them. ‘Turn the wagon. There’s a house down there. I spoke to the housekeeper. They’ll take us in for the night, and set us on our way tomorrow. There’s soup and bread, and a warm fire for us, my children! We’ll have a good Christmas Eve, after all.’ He paused. ‘I can’t help but think it’s a lucky omen for us, given the name of this estate. Which is Illyrie! And that’s Illyria in French, my friends!’
They stared at him for an instant. Then Gabriel intoned, in sepulchral tones, ‘Illyria, is it? I would not care if it were Hell itself, opening its gates to us this evening, and the Devil himself who was to be our host! ‘
‘You are a heathen and a savage, Gabriel Harvey,’ came Jean la Fete’s voice. ‘Take care you do not bring disaster down on us with such words! This is a strange, sorcerous country–who knows what ears are listening?’
‘Who knows indeed, Old Fate?’ laughed Gabriel, not at all put out. ‘Come on, then, Theo–lead the way, to Hell or Heaven or Illyria, I care not at all, long as it’s nice and dry!’
And so say all of us, thought Toby as they slowly manoeuvred the horses around to head down the rutted, oak-lined track that led to Illyria.