September 8th, 2011
True story: my high school had (and for all I know, still has) a tradition of having a “freshman play”: the first play of the school year, during my high school career, was put on by the whole freshman class, and only the freshman class (with some advice and assistance from the drama teacher and a handful of seniors). This was meant to be a bonding experience, which I guess it was, but it also had much potential for hilarity, since it forced people with no particular experience in/interest in/aptitude for acting onto the stage. My high school class had only twenty people in it, and the play we ended up with (chosen by the drama teacher, not us) was The Comedy of Errors, which has a pretty big cast: I think just about everyone had a part (though there was definitely one girl whose only line was “I will, my lord”). If you’re familiar with the play, you’ll remember that in Act V, just before the end, there’s a scene in which basically all the characters are onstage at once. One night in our run of the play, in that scene, someone forgot her lines. And the rest of us just stood there like the clueless ninth-graders we were, until someone finally broke the silence with, “so … how be-ith the Mets?” And somehow from that we muddled on and finished the play, because well, the show must go on. Right?
Right. Luckily, the characters in Upstaged (originally published in French in 1997 as La Scène usurpeé) respond to their own “the show must go on” moment with more poise than my high school class did. The story is this: it’s the eighth night of the run of a play, and one of the actors, Nicolas Boehlmer, is in his dressing room a bit before he’s due to make his first entrance. Someone knocks on his door, and when Boehlmer says “come in,” he gets quite the surprise: there’s a man dressed just like him, in costume for his character, complete with wig and makeup. The man (who comes to be thought of within the troupe as “the Usurper”) binds and gags Boehlmer, and then goes onstage, making the entrance Boehlmer should have made.
His timing is right, and he knows his lines and his blocking, so the other actors initially just carry on. But the Usurper doesn’t continue to stick to the script, and the other characters are forced to improvise to keep the play moving along. And when the Usurper leaves after Act II and doesn’t come back for Act III, the normal order of things is thrown around even more. (One actor is too exhausted from all the improvising to want to carry on; Boehlmer, having been found and unbound by the director and his assistant, goes on in that actor’s role; the director himself takes Boehlmer’s role.)
But the show does go on, and, miraculously, a critic in the audience loves it, even though he’s aware that the performance he’s seen has deviated quite a bit from the published text. The Usurper, meanwhile, re-appears for curtain call and then disappears for good: no one knows who he was or why he did what he did; the rest of the run of the play continues without incident, though everyone in the cast and crew keeps wondering about the identity of the man who changed that one night.
Upstaged is short and funny but not slight: in a smart and interesting afterword, Leland de la Durantaye writes about what Jouet, a member of Oulipo, might be doing. If you know anything about Oulipo, a group of writers that included Georges Perec and Raymond Queneau, among others, you probably know that one of the things central to their practice is the idea of the constraint: a rule or set of rules that give structure to a work but also make space for that work to be itself or give energy to the work’s creation. De la Durantaye points out that, given this, Upstaged can be read as an “allegory of constraint”: the Usurper, by his presence, constrains the actors (quite literally, in the case of poor Boehlmer) but also liberates them (from the text/from their usual routine of performance) (82-83). Good stuff.