Thursday, January 10, 2013

Book Note: Cymbeline in The Boggart

Cooper, Susan. The Boggart. Logan: Perfection Learning, 2004.

When I was quite young, I fell in love with Susan Cooper's books. I read Over Sea, Under Stone and the rest of the books in The Dark is Rising Series with wonder and awe. And I still can't get enough of her Shakespeare-related young adult novel King of Shadows (for which, q.v.).

I was much older when The Boggart came out, but one passage in particular has stuck with me for over twenty years.

The plot of the young adult novel involves (this may be self-evident) a boggart—a mischievous sprite—facing the death of the last direct descendant of the Scottish clan he has haunted for centuries upon centuries and the subsequent grief that overwhelms him. The only other time he felt such grief was a thousand years ago when another chieftain of the clan died.

The only relatives of the MacDevon family are both quite distant and Canadian. The Boggart is locked in a desk that is then transported to Canada, and he must face this brave new world that has such technology in it.

I'm providing you with a long segment of the novel. In it, the Boggart has travelled with the children of the family to the theatre in which their father works. The company is rehearsing a production of Cymbeline, and the Boggart simultaneously explores the theatre's lighting panel and feels, through the words of the play, the grief of his double loss of MacDevon chieftains—one ancient and one modern. The scene never fails to move me deeply.

Here, then, are pages 111 to 119 of Susan Cooper's The Boggart.

The Boggart watched all this in speechless delight. From the moment he entered the auditorium, he had been enchanted. This building held a small world in which he felt instantly totally at home; a world of magic, where the rules of ordinary human life seemed not to apply. A wooden floor could become a living forest; an actor with pins stuck all around his tunic could become a wild young man threatening murder; night could become day. The Boggart was particularly entranced by the lighting changes. That was more than he could manage in his world. How did they do it? He flittered down over the seats to Robert’s table, inquisitive.

Robert was studying the stage. “Too warm, don’t you think?” he said to one of the men with earphones.

“Let’s pull down the amber on the cyc,” said the man into his microphone. “Give me twenty percent, okay?”

The Boggart did not find this helpful. He flittered on around the theater, up onto the stage, where he looked up and saw the battery of light instruments hanging from the roof grid, blazing at him; out again into the darkness of the auditorium. At the back of the house he saw a square of light and flittered over to investigate that. Behind the window he saw the stage manager sitting at the light board, wearing earphones, her fingers playing with a keyboard as the Boggart had seen Jessup play with his computer. The computer had never seemed of much interest to the Boggart, but this keyboard, it appeared, was the source of every change in that magical array of lights over the stage. Fascinated, the Boggart began looking for a way into the little room.

Under the light board, docile old Fred the theater dog lifted his head from the stage manager’s feet, his ears suddenly erect. He jumped to his feet, nearly knocking the stage manager out of her chair, and began barking hysterically.

“Shut up, Fred!” said the stage manager irritably.

Fred barked louder. He bared his teeth, snarling between barks, straining to see out of the window into the theater. The stage manager whacked at him ineffectually, trying to hear the instructions squawking into her headset. Fred swung around and began barking at the door, leaping up at it, whining, frantic.

“Get out, then, you idiot!” yelled the stage manager, and she pulled the door open. Fred tumbled out in a clamor of barks and yelps—and just before the door closed, the Boggart flittered calmly in.

Fred sniffed the air, snarled and reversed himself, attacking the door again in a noisy frenzy. A passing stagehand seized him by the collar and dragged him away.

The play went on. Onstage, out of the entrance to the cave came Willie, booming away in his leathery costume, with Meg dressed as a young man, and two real young men dressed in the same curious fashion as Willie. Emily and Jessup sat watching in the back row. The two young men seemed to be brothers, and to think that Meg was also their brother. They were going hunting, but when they weren’t looking Meg secretly and mysteriously swallowed some kind of drug, and retreated into the cave to sleep. Then Cloten came on with his sword, and was left alone with one of the young men, Polydore, whom he rudely called a “villain mountaineer.” They began to fight.

Jessup loved the fight, and tried nor to bounce in his seat. Cloten had a sword and Polydore had only a dagger, but was clearly going to win. It was at the end of the fight, as they clashed their way off the stage, that the lights in the theater began to go mad.

The changes were gradual, but extraordinary. At first, the brightness of the lighting remained the same, but it took on a faint reddish tinge, growing stronger in color until it was a deep scarlet. From the cries of consternation in Robert’s group, Emily realized this was not a light cue planned by the director or his designer. She crept out of her seat and down the aisle until she was in earshot, and heard her father uttering a number of four-letter words he did not normally use in her presence. In the darkness, she grinned to herself.

The lighting began to change color again, and she realized that it was going very slowly through the spectrum: red, orange, yellow. . . . Jessup slipped into a seat beside her. On the stage, the actors, occasionally looking nervously up at the light grid, went on speaking their lines, probably because Robert was too busy cursing to tell them to stop. As the lights began to turn from yellow to green, Polydore came back onstage proudly holding Cloten’s chopped-off head aloft. Emily heard Jessup cheer.

The lights began to darken to blue. The lighting designer was shouting into his microphone. Up in the light booth the stage manager was waving her arms about. Onstage, just as the lights changed from blue to indigo and began to merge into purple, Willie came deliberately down to the front of the stage and recited his next lines straight at Robert.

He boomed:
O thou goddess,
Thou divine nature, thou thyself thou blazon’st
In these two princely boys! They are as gentle
As zephyrs blowing below the violet—
Willie paused. “Vi-o-let!” he said pointedly. “Who’s running the light board—Shakespeare?”

Emily said softly, “No—the Boggart.”

“Oh my gosh!” said Jessup in horror.

Ahead of them Robert called back grimly, “Just keep going, Willie.”

“Never trust a computer,” said Willie. He went back to his Shakespeare voice. “They are as gentle . . .

Jessup craned his head to look back at the window behind which the stage manager and an electrician were both now flapping their arms. He hissed at Emily, “You really think he’s in there operating the board, invisible?”

Emily said, “Don’t you?”

But then the lights made a different kind of change. The purple glow which dominated the stage faded swiftly away into a clear light like early morning, fresh and cool. It seemed to ripple gently, as if wisps of cloud were floating over an unseen sun.

“Now that’s more like it!” said Robert in relief. “What gobo is that, Phil?”

“I’m not sure,” said the designer. He peered at the stage nervously.

“It’s beautiful!” Robert said. He settled back happily into his seat, and on the stage the actors’ voices began to lose the tension that had made them all, even Willie, sound much higher-pitched than normal. Polydore came back onstage and announced that he had sent Cloten’s chopped-off head floating down the stream, and as Willie laughed the light seemed to laugh with him, taking on a wonderful brilliant gaiety. Then unexpectedly the theater filled with deep, slow, solemn music, and the actors expressed surprise and the light seemed to glimmer with it too.

“Lovely!” said Robert, enchanted. “I don’t know what you’re doing, but it’s perfect!”

The lighting designer made a small strangled noise of baffled gratitude, and whispered frantically into his microphone.

On the stage, Polydore’s brother entered, carrying Meg in his arms. He didn’t know she was only asleep after taking the mysterious drug—he thought she was dead, and so did Polydore and Willie. Watching the way Meg let her body droop into emptiness, so did Emily. “O melancholy!” cried Willie, and the light filling the stage became muted and strange, like an embodiment of grief.

“Oh yes!” cried Robert in delight. He clapped Phil the lighting designer on the back.

“What is that?” hissed Phil into his microphone to the stage manager at the light board.

But the stage manager didn’t know. Watching, admiring but desperare, she knew she would never be able to reproduce the wonderful effects the computer was instructing the lights to shine at the stage—because she was not controlling the computer. It was taking no notice of any instructions she punched into its keyboard. It was designing the lighting pattern itself.

And inside the computer, the Boggart was beside himself with delight. He had taken the lights through the spectrum of all the colors as an exercise, a way of teaching himself how to use them. Now he knew the language of light and he was speaking it. By his own magic, he was using the magic of this new technological world in which he found himself—and the mixing of the two magics was a wonder. In the theater, Emily and Jessup and all the company members watched it without daring to breathe, knowing they had never seen anything like this on a stage before. Lyrical and mysterious, the lights shifted and flickered and glowed, like echoes of the words the bemused actors were saying on the stage.

They lasted until the song. It was a song of mourning over the supposed dead body of Meg / Imogen, and its words were not actually sung, but spoken, because the character Polydore in the play claimed that he would weep if he tried to sing. (“Shakespeare wrote it that way because he had an actor with a lousy singing voice,” Robert told them pithily, much later.) But the words themselves, having been written by the man who was the greatest master of the English language who will ever live, held an enchantment that cut right through the Boggart’s magic to the Boggart himself. They reached his heart, and found in it the old deep sorrow of his double loss: the deaths of the only two human beings he had loved, Duncan and Devon MacDevon.
Fear no more the heat o’ the sun,
Nor the furious winter’s rages;
Thou thy worldly task hast done,
Home art gone, and ta’en thy wages:
Golden lads and girls all must,
As chimney-sweepers, come to dust.
The words overwhelmed the Boggart, filling him with a terrible grief at the loss not only of Duncan and the MacDevon, but of his own home. He came blundering out of the computer that governed the theater lights, and flittered back unthinking into the auditorium. He was filled with love and grief and longing, and the force of his feeling took hold of everyone inside the theater, on the stage or behind it or in front of it.

The whole place was possessed by his sorrowing. Like a dark cloud it swallowed the consciousness of everyone listening. Emily felt a misery blacker than anything she had ever felt before; Jessup felt himself a desolate deserted baby, wanting to howl for his mother; Robert was back in the bleakest moment of his own much longer life, the moment he tried always unsuccessfully to forget, and so was every grown man or woman there.

The voices of the two actors went on, clear, intertwining.
No exorciser harm thee!
Nor no witchcraft charm thee!
Ghost unlaid forbear thee!
Nothing ill come near thee!
Quiet consummation have;
And renowned be thy grave!
The voices fell silent. And in the dim light that was left, gradually the theater began to fill with an eerie sound which belonged not to the play but to the Boggart, to the pain of life and loss that he was feeling. Soft, faraway, coming closer, there was the throb of a muffled drumbeat, ta-rum . . . ta-rum . . . ta-rum . . . and over it the plaintive music of a lament played on a single bagpipe; and over that too, like an echo, the curious husky sound of the shuffling of many feet.

The sound grew and grew, louder and louder, closer and closer, intolerably close and loud, filling the theater so that all the listeners inside it longed to flatten their hands against their ears to shut out the terrible wave of grief.

Then at the peak of the noise it was gone, vanished, and the light died with it, leaving the theater silent and dark.

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Unless otherwise indicated, quotations from Shakespeare's works are from the following edition:
Shakespeare, William. The Riverside Shakespeare. 2nd ed. Gen. ed. G. Blakemore Evans. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1997.
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