The director sits in the quiet chamber backstage, shielding himself from the raucous crowd. It takes so much discipline, he thought to himself, so much discipline over the years.
A small room, nested between two enormous crowds, a door on either wall, one to his left and one to his right. The door on his left led outside to the dressing room, the barracks of his army. In the old theater house, before it had been destroyed by two successive wars, the dressing room lay to the side of the stage, curling around and into the audience, so that during shows, unoccupied cast and crew could observe the peaceful onlookers, seated politely in their seats. After reconstruction, the dressing room cut its furthermost wing, setting it entirely backstage.
To the right of the dressing room lay the director’s box, a small room with four doors, one on either wall. To his right, the director can walk through the actor’s corridor, a hall of rooms designed especially for the production of every play, whose walls can be easily moved, transformed, merged, to suit the needs of every production. Some actors like to spend an hour before a show, especially a premiere, meditating in as large a room as possible. Others prefer to sit in a tiny box with four dark walls and a pitch black ceiling, to give them the impression of a cage, undisturbed, to harness the energy required for their labor. Many actors deny such rituals and actually prefer to have a beer outside the theater grounds with some of the crew. It all depends. In the director’s time he’s seen it all. Actors who induce a great big shit before a show, in order to feel light and weightless. Actors who recite their favorite Shakespearean monologue. Actors who get high, actors who have sex, actors who eat their favorite meals. Everyone has their own style, their own needs, to prepare. The director himself, before and after a show, takes his seat, as he is now, chewing a firm nugget of chewing tobacco, curling it into a ball where it rests under his gums, a habit he hides form his colleagues, from his friends, and mostly from his third wife. He finishes his chew over two single shot glasses of malt whiskey. He sketches a little figure on a piece of paper, a tiny figure he has drawn in just such purpose for over three decades.
Three decades in the business and he’s risen to the top. In the beginning, he worked on anything he could, just to gain a foothold in the industry. He learned the lights, the design and management of the props, the building of the infrastructure. He assisted a producer behind the scenes, in the days where city legislation wasn’t so generous to subsidize theater to such an extraordinary extent. In many ways, working on the budget for those early productions, planning devious ways to deceive the financial inspectors, choosing between a veteran actress or an extravagant set design, choosing to build a stage or to suggest it, something he became good at, where he developed his vitality, his relentless militancy to succeed, to put o the plays he wanted, the plays he felt were most needed.
He stares ahead from his still position, to the two other doors in the director’s box, viewing one of them through its reflection in the mirror, and the other, the door he never takes, sitting directly in front of him, to the side of his desk only a few feet, beside the mirror he looks into from time to time, like an actor, he tells himself, or a writer, he visits the characters in his play, visiting them in unfamiliar places, like they are both guests, or sometimes they even play host, and he watches them in their daily lives, in their lives outside the stage, the lives not documented, never seen. On these occasions, staring into the reflecting void, he wonders about his own life, about his own comparison between the public’s witnessing and his hidden rooms. Take your secrets to the grave, he remembers his second wife telling him a few weeks before she finally died. She was, remains, his only real love, like those pathetic love stories of older men harkening back on a time where they felt, for a few brief moments in spring, or under the fragile cloth of a winter, the miracle of true love. What would she be doing now, he thinks to himself, if she were alive today. Focusing on the sketching of his hands, he concludes she would have left him before his rise. She would not have watched him fulfill his dreams. Dreams he stole from her.
He met her the night he divorced his first wife, formally, though they had been separated for over a year. A woman he has chosen to forget. A woman who, when he thinks of her, gives him the impression he has been living another life since their fateful rupture. His second wife was the one to introduce herself. She had been reading quietly beside him at a late night café bookstore that intended to serve literature and drinks to the insomniac artistic class. Since most writers prefer the late night or the early mornings, the café was quite popular at the time. That evening, they had both attended a reading for Austrian writers who work in tandem, whose fiction was written specifically as an homage to the Alps, their cause militarized they say by the offensive character of Thomas Bernhard to their cultural heritage, whose revulsion of the Alpian people in his novel Gargoyles has inflamed and informed much of their work. The novel they were presenting, not the first collaboration by the two writers, tells the story of a little girl whose mother dies during labor, and whose father takes her from war torn Berlin to the Austrian Alps to be saved from the family curse, namely, never to know her parents. The father dumps the little girl in a farmhouse. The story is meant, so they allowed the presenter to claim, as a metaphor for the rebirth of the German speaking people, whose history is so tainted in guilt and violence that through a journey of independence the future generation is saved. The novel is no longer than one hundred sixty two pages, in manageable font and written with enough speed to carry the reader through in one sitting, and she finished the novel in those few hours after the reading, where he, sitting beside her, managed to finish a bottle of wine. He was drunk and content while she was upset at the ending in the book, where the girl, once grown, decides to relinquish her Alpian identity and returns to Berlin to live in poverty and despair. An immigrant, in many ways the novel seemed to suggest to her the writers’ apology, or subscription, to resurgent fascism. The heroine, as an order of survival, returns to the quagmire of the past to reclaim the fatherland she had lost, even in exchange for the relatively stable life she had been given as a result. She bought a bottle of wine, which she invited him to enjoy with her, and afterwards, she cried on his shoulder for several more hours, after which they were asked to leave for the morning ritual of cleaning that occurs between eleven in the morning and noon. That evening, they boarded a night train destined for the Alps, where they were going to confront the fascist writers.
So began a journey of carefree enthusiasm for the two, who would spend their first year together in over fifty cities. She wrote emasculating poetry, the kind that sinks a tyrant in his chair, and while she toured the cultured world with her eyes open, he read nimbly at her side, a time he considers his literary education. What will we do for food, he would ask, for money, still suffering the results of a divorce. Tranquillo, she would say, we’ll get married in the spring and live a beautiful life, somewhere warm with fresh vegetables to pick, and when I’m bored of writing I’ll tend a garden, and you’ll dust the shelves and read to us at night.
They did get married, in a barn in the Scottish Isles, where she chose the setting for her final piece of work. When she pressed him as to why he never wrote, having such an observant and sensitive mind, a trait she understood from his spending afternoons alone rescuing porcupines from crossing the road unattended, forcing them to spend a few weeks by the beach where they would lead freshly hatched turtles back into the water, he told her about his fears, his fears of commitment. He told her stories he heard as a child, about writers who disappear into the jungle of their soul, confronting the infernal mysteries. He told her he didn’t think he had the stamina, or the patience, or the intent.
He never met her remaining family, she never met his. They spent the years they had together each on a converging mission to destroy and rebuild the infrastructure of their lives. Maybe the destruction had occurred before they met. His failed marriage, which came to symbolize all that he did wrong in life, spurred him on to devise a new self. He forgot that he had been a financial advisor to several patriarchal monarchies in the emerging Arab world. That he was gifted a two bedroom flat in South Kensington and a studio apartment, with a chauffeur on call, in Saint Germain. He had forgotten that he married the valedictorian of his graduating class, the daughter of an oil tycoon in the Gulf, who doubled as a pioneer of introducing the latest firearms to his beloved country. A woman who walked barefoot the streets of New York but always traveled first class. Who donated her graduation gift of a million dollars in cash to a charity trending at the time, one of the more recent solutions to domestic abuse in the region. He had forgotten his wardrobe and his house of cards, his silverware and his impressive cellar of whiskies and wines. He had forgotten the boat they parked in a marina he would never see again, a stretch of land he could never again afford, or so he thought at the time. He never learned anything about her past, and he forgot his own.
A few weeks into the third year of their union, she was diagnosed with breast cancer. She wasn’t afraid, but the debate on chemotherapy changed her life. She resented him for giving her something to look forward to. Had they not been married, she would say, she would have accepted her fate gracefully, giving in to the disorder raging in her body, without destroying the temple of her soul. She resented him, because she wanted now to live, to age together in their new form.
Without realizing it, he began his first performance piece as a director. She had always been an avid photographer, and she had two 35mm cameras in her possession, a Soviet made Zenit and a refurbished Minolta, with 25mm, 35mm and 50mm lenses. She always carried with her a Rolleiflex, as well. He never played with the cameras. He never knew why. but upon her diagnoses something suddenly took hold of the stagnant man. From the first day before treatment until the last day of her life, he photographed the evolution of his wife’s body and soul, capturing what he believed to be the evolving and developing victory of a body being eaten from within, mutating beyond its own capacity to survive. He photographed her naked, in bed, in the shower. Running, when she still was able to. Painting, when she still had something to paint. He photographed her waiting in line at the market. He photographed her walking down the tenement aisles of a refugee camp. e photographed her peeking through little dollhouses at a flea market. He photographed her reading on a bench.
When she died, he had amassed a collection, a series. It was his first creative pursuit and his first piece of art. He had seen his first character transform before his eyes, seen first hand the unbelievable trajectory of a lifeform in evolution. At first, he couldn’t handle the subject. He spent nearly a year wallowing in pity and violent hurt. When he looked at himself in the mirror, he saw the face of a rodent, and when he spoke, he heard the shrill voice of a rat. He no longer wanted to live, to experience, to watch anything unfold, worried he might forget the miracle of those documents. The documents became an obsession, and they took hold of his every thought, his every mood. He guarded them day and night, worried that they would dissolve with every set of eyes that set on them.
Something changed one Easter. He had traveled to Jordan with the intention to walk from Amman to Damascus, from where he would walk to Beirut, and finally to Jerusalem. He thought that the ancient city might heal him. He thought, that without some mystical retribution he would not survive another year, another winter in the drudgery of Europe, another winter among the guarded artifacts of their life. But when he arrived in Beirut, having spent nearly a month roaming with Bedouins in Jordan and Syria, he found himself secretly pleased. The weather was nice, nicer than it had been in the desert, landlocked as the Bedouins are. He stayed through the autumn and into winter, and as Easter arrived, he emerged slowly from the shadows of his pain, a man renewed, a man on the cusp of another life. His third life, he believed. His third life in just the one.
He never made it to Jerusalem. After arriving in Beirut and staying through the year, he never went more south. But he had found some spiritual salvation in the solitude of the people, many of whom remain close friends. He had found a thriving underground class of artists, whose work wasn’t tied so much to trends in the East or West but aligned somehow to a thread that cuts right between the two. He found a bustling city, a city that had yet to be ravaged by war.
Returning to Europe, he submitted his work with another piece of writing, a manuscript he claimed to have written himself. These two works propelled him to immediate stardom. He played a part in the resurgence of post-wall Berlin. He found himself immersed in the theater scene and sooner or later, after slaving away for the biggest names, the architects of a cultural rehabilitation, he put on his first set of shows, short one hour plays using sketches of symbolist poems fused with anthropological work of the early twentieth century among indigenous tribes of the world. Within a decade, he was opening every show at the Berliner Ensemble. Over the next few years he would rise and rise to greater fame, opening in Moscow, New York, Tokyo, curating festivals in Paris, Venice, Berlin. He took a year off and lived with a tribe in the Andes for several months, learning the mystical interpretations of their ritual dance, a pleading of the clouds not to behead them, living as they did on the highest peak inhabited by human life. He never returned to Beirut, to Lebanon, not to his beach house in the North of the country, not even to the heights of Mount Sannine, where he looked upon the world and fell silent in his mind and heart, silent for the first time since the passing of his second life, of his beautiful companion, like he had woken up from a spell, breathing in the air of revolution. And after a while, after he had built a name for himself and made a home among the very classes he dismissed not so long ago, after returning from his journey and rising to the pinnacle that few men reach in one life, he thought less and less of those days, of his repressive despair, his alienation from the world, his grave and utter loss. He forgot all about her words, Take your secrets to the grave. He had his own secret that had never been told, and he meant to forget it. He hadn’t written the manuscript.
He stares off into the door he never uses. It leads underneath the stage, under the restless feet of the audience, and out into the entrance to the theatre grounds. He looks into the mirror. A man now at the height of his game, at the peak of his powers.
He runs his hands along his face. Calloused fingers, thick with scaled fat and strength, tufts of white hair glowing under the spotlight. He never liked his hands or his feet. He felt they didn’t suit him, his mentality, his character, nor the rest of his physique. He had always felt so fragile, his long, slender body attributing to this feeling. But his hands and feet were big and bulky, bushy with hair and power veins pulling at the skin.
He ran his thick fingers across his face. Over the years, it was as if the skin had weakened, as though with age the skin loses so many of its layers and stops growing them back, the color of his body never revived. He felt like if he dug his thumb into his cheek it would slice into the skin and strike immediately at the bone. Did he still have all of his bones?
He stares at his reflection in the mirror. The reflection of a man who has claimed the golden fleece, who has deceived the underworld and returned with the keys. The reflection of a boy, he thinks, still at odds with his life.
Moments before, he had taken his final bow at the podium. Customarily the practice of the actors, the whole world knew he would be bowing out after this evening. The applause was deafening. Tributes in the morning papers would spell the career of a magician, a man who came in under a storm and made his mark. The following evening, he would walk arm in arm with his wife into the chancellor’s home, for a banquet thrown in his honor. He would retire without the lingering fear of defamation that inhabits a fraud.
But questions would one day be asked on his story. After the dust of his retirement would settle, a journalist, perhaps a biographer, maybe even a critic fond of his work, because not many were very critical at this point, would suddenly, when remembering his final piece, recognize something strange about the performance. They would think back on that night, they would realize that, of all the plays the director ever staged, this was the play they couldn’t remember. Of all the plays the director staged, this, they would think, is the performance they can’t remember to have seen. Where were all the characters? What was everyone doing? As though some mystical spell had been cursed upon the audience. It was as though, when the curtains were finally drawn and the lights came on, there was no one but the sad little man onstage, in the center of the room.