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The Revived Art of the Toy Theatre

by Debra Spark


What We Know

London, 1862. Sometime during the night of December 2, an intruder entered the Theatrical Print Warehouse at George Sherson’s Circulating Library on Fairfield Street. The vagrant declined to take any money, so on waking, Mr. Sherson was, at first, unaware of the damage to his property. Later in the day, some boyish tittering drew his attention to the corner of his shop. There, on a sheet of drawings of Annette in The Maid and the Magpie was . . .

We cannot say that we didn’t know that in the very shop where George Sherson entertained boys of all ages with his prints for the toy theatre—his character drawings for Bluebeard,Timour the Tatour, and The Maid of Genoa, his scenes of isolated hilltops, harridans’ cottages, and multi-turreted palaces—that there was another business going on. We never partook ourselves. But we felt—we were led to feel—that the pornography trade should in no way diminish our respect for the very real talents of this great producer of prints for the toy theatre. We were, at any rate, unable to keep our children out of the shop. Unable to keep the boys away. It was always a boy’s game. The girls might be placated by the promise of a doll. The boys, though, would save the coins we fished from our pockets, then go to the shop for their one-pence plain and two-pence coloured, the drawings of stage characters which they would take home, cut up, colour (if they’d bought the plain sheets), then mount to use in the theatres that we had bought for them the previous Christmas.

They were always in dramatic poses—the characters of the miniature theatre, one hand outstretched—up or down—to indicate grief or woe or surprise. And thus, in The Maid and the Magpie, one saw “Annette with handkerchief,” a hand raised to someone in farewell, “Annette with letter,” a hand poised in shock, and “Annette fainted,” no hand raised save that of the man who bore her away. One knew— if one went to the theatre, and who didn’t go to the theatre?—what that letter said, why Annette’s cross bobbed from her body as she waved a farewell, why Annette fainted. Even the boys knew, if they bothered to skim the playbook that came with the full set of characters for a given production. But why ruin a story by reading it?

Certainly the tittering boys, on the morning after the intrusion, weren’t looking at the playbook. They weren’t manipulating wires through slits in the stage floor so they could slide characters on and off stage. They were engrossed in Annette’s un-handkerchiefed hand, stroking a male member, at Annette fainting at the sight of a naked man drawing a woman onto his lap. Someone had crudely inked the images onto the blank parts of a sheet of drawings that Sherson had pinned to the wall.

Sabotage, Sherson thought. Someone trying to expose his secret business to the law. He could be jailed for his trade. He knew that, even if the jailers were some of his best customers. He was lucky the children and not their mothers had found the prank. But who? Who would do this to him?


A Likely Suspect

Smugglers carousing. That was what Harper Donovan was engraving onto a plate when Sherson called. A long wooden table, steins of beer with foamy heads like so many lambs drunkenly collapsed atop their glasses. One smuggler tipping back in his chair. Another tipped so far back he’d fallen on the floor, his legs stuck up in the air—an unfortunate beetle, unable to right himself. Still another face down in a puddle of liquid. Beer? Saliva? Blood?

“Sir,” Harper said curtly to his former employer.

“Yes,well,” Sherson allowed. It had been some time. Walking over to Harper’s place, Sherson had been irate. But now that he was here, he couldn’t quite summon up the nerve to accuse Harper, though the sight of the man—a skeleton garbed for the poorhouse—enraged him. Was he trying to reproach Sherson by starving himself? Well, that wouldn’t work. Sherson didn’t hire men because they were skinny. Or cold. And Harper, who’d bent back over his work as soon as he’d acknowledged his former employer,was shivering. Cold ashes from the hearth skittered about the floor like ethereal mice; even the vermin at Harper’s seemed bound for the next world. Rather than bend for the labour of a fire, Harper was warming himself by wearing two coats and a pilling winter scarf around the neck that (in warmer weather) was always full of razor nicks. Sherson took the sweaty sheen of Harper’s face as more ostentation. Only he, only Harper, a virtual knight of trouble, could suffer from both hot and cold at once.

“So who is this for?” Sherson asked, looking at the engraving.

“I don’t have a buyer yet,” Harper allowed, not raising his eyes from his handiwork. Sherson wasn’t surprised. Hadn’t he himself parted company from the artist? Though Harper was talented—perhaps the best in Sherson’s stable—he’d ceased to be reliable. At first, like the other artists, he’d visit the theatre regularly, go to dress rehearsals, finagle an opening-night ticket. Then he’d draw the characters in their signature poses. He’d sketch out the stage sets, draw a whole theatre, if necessary. He’d always taken a bit longer than the other artists, most of whom drew figures ahead of time, using the play merely to suggest how to clothe actors, what props to put in hands. Otherwise, Harper was good. A good and fine artist, and he didn’t complain, as the others did, when Sherson signed his own name to their work. He understood— or must have understood—that boys bought a name they recognized, that Sherson was such a name.

Sherson bent over a small dagger that one of the smugglers was pickpocketing from his neighbour’s jacket. A wench carrying a tray of mugs scowled at a smuggler with his hand to her backside.

Something occurred to Sherson. “What play is this from, anyway?”

Harper shrugged.

“What’s that supposed to mean? You don’t know?”

Harper said,“Did you come here for a reason?”

“Where were you last night?”

Harper looked up. “Ah me,” he said, as if he’d just remembered he’d been born a gentleman (which he hadn’t). “Was it dinner at the Shersons? I completely forgot.”

“Answer the question.”

Harper placed his tool on the table and said, “There’s a potato in your beard.”

Sherson reached up to the gray frazzle at his chin but dropped his hand quickly before he discovered whether part of his breakfast had caught in his whiskers. “I know,” he said testily of the potato. “I put it there. In case I get hungry later.”

Harper nodded, as if at the reasonableness of the claim.

“Potato. No potato. Answer the question.”

“What’s the question?”

“Where were you last night?”

“I was here. Where else would I be?”

“Can you prove you were here?”

Harper pointed to the ashes stirring at his feet. “Ask my landlady.”


The Landlord’s Wife

She had a soft spot in her heart for him. A soft spot, even though she imagined he made fun of people like her—doddery (to his mind) women with soft spots in their hearts. She brought him little things to eat. A portion of the nightly stew, fruit (if they had some), the end of a loaf of bread. But she didn’t think he ate her gifts. In the old days, he’d hired her, once every two months, to clean his room, and she’d found a bowl of stew under his bed, some bread crusts surrounded by droppings. They looked like so many flaxseeds, but they were clearly from mice. If she’d given him something lavish—a lemon cream tart— she knew he’d be dyspeptic for days, but she guessed that this is what he had a taste for: lemon tarts, almond-paste cookies with a dollop of cream, anything from the Viennese bakery. Still, his idea of himself didn’t allow for his tastes. Which was why he got sick, she supposed, just to prove he didn’t really want what he wanted. He used to be gone from his rooms all the time, but as of late he was always there,working. He’d never been on time with the rent. And the last two months, he’d forgotten to pay altogether. Which she would have forgiven, only she had her own bills due. And a husband, not as charmed as she by Harper’s manner. Harper used to come down, now and then, to their table. Her two sons loved him. They couldn’t believe he was an adult, though he looked like one. “I don’t know why you let me rent your place. Such a worthless tenant,” he’d say. “I barely make my keep,” he’d confess, if another guest were at the table. “I go watch the stories,” he’d gesture out the window, in the direction of the theatre,“and then make my little drawings. You wouldn’t want someone like me,working at the bank.” He would point at his face, as if the flaws there were apparent. “It would frighten depositors away.”

“He made Three-Fingered Jack,” one of her sons might interrupt at this point. They had just been looking through the Poury Walk shop window the other day and seen Harper’s latest creation. It didn’t matter what Harper said about himself. They thought he was a hero.

And the landlord’s wife’s guests, either they’d join in with Harper’s self-disregard or try to argue him out of it. Which was why, in her heart, the landlord’s wife thought she was special to Harper. She didn’t do either. She paid no attention to his words. She asked him about what he’d drawn that day.


The Ersthauser Dozen

Twelve bell towers with twelve clocks with twenty-four spindly hands telling the time. Twelve churches. Twelve parks. From outside town, from across the river where cacophonous cowbells filled the Swiss countryside, twelve spires—a mountainous line graph—carving up the Solisturn skyline. And twelve brothers, of course. The Ersthauser dozen with their twelve toy theatres. When the brothers were children, the theatres sat on drawing tables and in the corners of bedroom floors. As adults, they had other, more public-minded ideas about their playthings, a general (though not quite universal) sense that their theatres should be shared with others. For half of the brothers, the default location was their place of employ, so now one theatre was in the town hall, another was at the apothecary, and still another was in the guesthouse lounge. There was one in the toy store window, one at the university library, and one at the funeral parlor, its figures assembled for grief. Two others found homes in the town’s public parks: one in a little knoll in the woods, logs split to form benches before the tiny stage and even children’s backs aching at the prospect of a performance; another in the hollow of a statue pedestal—right near the park’s water fountain, which was a virtue for plays that required strong weather or a sudden, population-decimating flood. The rest were privately housed. There was one in the attic of the reclusive Ersthauser’s home, and one in the living room of his gregarious brother, and another hidden, no one—save for its owner—knows where, and one in the youngest Ersthauser’s youngest son’s bedroom. They came from England, the toy theatres, purchased by a thespian uncle, who’d played the part of King Lear for so long on the stage that it took some convincing for the boys to believe their uncle wasn’t mad, that he could see quite well when they were getting set to lob walnuts at his head.


Appearances

It was far too late for him to be anything but an artist of theatrical portraits, but this was not a good life, not for him. He didn’t have the strength of character for his own profession. For awhile Harper had worked for everyone: Sherson and Greene and simply everyone, but one by one, they’d fired him. The same complaint:They didn’t like his little extra flourishes; why couldn’t he just stick to the story line? They hadn’t remembered that Juliet, in Romeo and Juliet, had a flute. Why would Juliet have a flute? And then the arguments: Well, why wouldn’t she? The girl might have had a talent, no? Even at that young age, something other than the boy to occupy her, night and day? Music might have been a consolation to her. Hadn’t music, throughout the ages, been a consolation to men and women, young and old? “I don’t need this,” Sherson had said, when they’d discussed the flute. “I really don’t.”

Work had dried up before, and Harper had despaired—this was the one and only thing he knew how to do, the one and only world that interested him. Then something would happen, and Harper would have a new assignment. And that was the good part, the new assignment. There was always the excitement of a fresh project and the pleasure of going to the play. It was, everyone said, a world of appearances, and they didn’t just mean the show. That had always been a source of pain for Harper, for even back in the days when he had all the work he could want, when Sherson called him before all the other artists to sketch out a play, there had been the problem of dressing for opening nights. Since early adulthood, Harper had cringed at the sight of his reflection: the cauliflower knob of his nose, the constant pussy eruptions of his skin. He’d asked the landlady to take the mirror out of his flat, so when it came time to go to the theatre, his tie was often askew, his collar half-anchored under his suit jacket, half rising in salute to his chin.

Once at the theatre, Harper indulged in his own form of vanity. He gave a chummy hello to the ticket taker, an acknowledging nod to the usher. He didn’t want people to think he was a member of the audience, though he entered through the lobby like everyone else. And then he’d chide himself for his behavior. Hubris. Why did he care so much what others thought? Once a play began, what did it matter? The lights would go down, the curtain would open, and he’d feel . . . well, what he always felt, which is that he’d arrived, that this was where he should be.


Other Possibilities

If not Harper, Sherson thought, then maybe Glenna. She’d been so offended by Sherson’s portrait of her in The Ship She Sails that she’d come into the shop to complain. “My head,” she said, and she’d gestured to her neck—the engraved version of it—“it’s all . . .” And she flopped her head over in imitation of the imitation. It was true, of course, but she’d played a sickly orphan in The Ship, unsuited to even calm days at sea. Her head was always lolling back on her chair. “I don’t look very pretty,” Glenna said.

“No-o-o,” Sherson agreed. “But then it isn’t you. It’s . . .” He flipped through the playbook, trying to find the name of the character.

“Oh, very amusing,” Glenna said. “That’s very clever.” She pulled her threadbare coat tightly around her body. Outside Sherson’s shop, the cold rain had deposited a thin layer of ice on everything.

She pulled at her coat again. Sherson could imagine her tugging so tightly that she’d disappear entirely. Like a toy which folded in on itself, then in on itself, then in on itself, until it was—as the magician who performed out by Braxton’s sometimes liked to say, before he displayed his palm, empty of coins—all gone.

But it couldn’t have been Glenna. Glenna’s way wouldn’t be to deface Sherson’s shop. Glenna’s way would be to vanish.


Childhood

When he was a boy, Harper had smacked his head in a fall from a horse. Now he could barely recall the years before the injury, remembered only tests with baffling instructions, rooms full of chiding nurses and disappointed schoolmasters. He told people that he’d never been young, that he’d arrived on earth as a forty-year-old man, although, in fact, he’d not yet reached that age. His parents were dead. His father, a shopkeeper, faded out when Harper was thirteen. A long illness, though Harper never knew the exact nature of the disease. Now, at any rate, there was no one to contradict Harper’s version of the past.

Of course, his mother, before her death, had told him stories. About this, about that, about the time she’d first taken him to the theatre, and how he’d insisted on traversing the stage after the show. She had thought he’d turn and perform, make up a soliloquy on the spot—he’d been a lively child—but he’d wanted to see what was behind the set. It had been some landscape, a forest, maybe, with trees extending into the distance. There was a diaphanous cloth draped over tree limbs to suggest moss or a swampy fungus. Harper’s desire to peek behind the trees reminded his mother of how he’d once tried to scratch a museum painting, how he seemed to think a flap there might open onto something else. Also of how he believed there was another page in between each page of his books, another toy cabinet behind his toy cabinet. Harper sensed that his mother couldn’t decide if this was childish or heartbreaking, but he supposed she thought it portended no good for a boy whose financial circumstances would require him to settle and settle. As an adult, he’d have asked her what she thought. But she’d died. Died young, Harper realized once he was almost past the age she was at her death. His mother: a flap that would no longer open to reveal anything more.


Rumours

“W.B.,” carved right under the sole of the Harlequin’s foot. The Harlequin balancing on the letters, as if he might skate away on them. And the rumour? William Blake. William Blake was an artist of the Juvenile Drama. Yes, thatWilliam Blake. “Tyger, tyger, burning bright.” He’d died decades ago, but perhaps a relative held a grudge, perhaps thought that it was Sherson who’d forced Blake to sign his engravings with the cryptic “W.B.,” a way to deny Blake’s handiwork, to pretend that someone else—Worley Berdman, Warren Butts, Wesley Blackman—had done the engraving. There was no telling what people might do when they weren’t allowed to sign their own work.


A Kiss

Once, while tending her garden, the landlord’s wife looked up and saw Harper behind the house, kissing a woman good-bye. The landlord’s wife turned quickly away. It had startled her—his face, the utter absorption in it. She had never thought him a handsome man, but she could see how a different woman might feel otherwise. She glanced back. His cheeks were slack with pleasure, his lips startlingly sensuous. Nothing avid in the kiss—which was what she had so liked about her husband’s caresses, back when they first started courting—but love, there was a complete sense of love in that kiss, the way his lips slid off the woman’s and nuzzled in her neck. Perhaps this was what it would be like when her boys found wives. The landlord’s wife would feel pleasure at their pleasure, but a vague nervousness at seeing them in an adult mode, and so far from her. She felt despair and happiness in equal parts as she pulled up the weeds around her tomatoes. He had found someone;wasn’t that lovely? Now she was truly alone. In some essential way, she was always going to be alone.

But then, the landlord’s wife never saw the woman again. She’d wondered and even tried to ask Harper about her. He only said,“I’m through with all that. That part of my life is over.”

“Surely not,” the landlord’s wife said,“you’re young yet,” though it was a thought she’d had about her own life.


Competition

The business was difficult. People didn’t believe that—children’s toys, after all, but it was a constant competition. First, to sell the theatres, then to sell the characters and scenes for a given show. Some boys already had all the plays, so when a new play was produced, Sherson hurried his artists to the theatre, then back to their engraving plates. And Sherson moved swiftly himself, going place to place, checking all the plates before he allowed them to be printed. There were props, too, special effects. One was fighting all the time in this business—no one understood that, but it was true, fighting even against the boys themselves, their terrible habit of growing older.

Which was why Sherson had gotten into his sideline business. Pornography. A new word. It still sounded strange to him. Pórne and graphos. Meaning: the writing about harlots. Something to keep the money coming in.

Old Smith sometimes stopped by Sherson’s to pick up supplies for his stationer’s shop. Boys could buy straight from Sherson or Greene or one of the other manufacturers of toy theatres, or they could get the sheets at the stationer’s.

Children were scared of Old Smith. Often left Sherson’s shop when he came in. Sherson would have left, too, if he could. He didn’t like Smith, especially disliked his willingness to carry sheets from Sherson’s competitors. But business was business. “Boys,” Smith complained of his own establishment. “They come in, but they have no intention of buying. Pry open those fingers, and you’ll never find a coin. They think my shop is a museum. That’s what they think.”

“We’re all theatre here,” Sherson said. He meant it as an insult, because his shop didn’t deal in pens, ink, and cards. Sherson sold the theatres, the scenes, and the coloza oil for the footlamps. He sold fire pans for volcanic eruptions and exploding ovens, for blowing up the mill in The Miller and His Men. Sherson didn’t care how long a boy wanted to rifle through a playbook or examine characters before he bought. Sometimes it was a hard decision for a boy: did he want red, green, or blue fire? And if a boy didn’t buy, he’d surely tell some other child about the prints and that child would have a parent ready to make a purchase. You had to be clever in this line of work.

“I know which ones to keep my eye on,” Smith said. “That Robert Stevenson. Robert Louis Stevenson. Seen him?” Smith held up his hand to indicate the boy’s height—which was about Smith’s waist, also about Smith’s shoulders since the man was rather stooped. “Up to no good. I know which ones.”


Work

Sometimes, while Harper worked in his rooms—the chilly night air leaking in around his windows, his toes numb though his face felt florid, a loose shutter banging in the alleyway, its tat tat rat-ta-ta-tat a nervous second heartbeat, louder and more insistent than the reliable drum of his own bloody instrument—he’d find himself trying to calm himself by reciting, “Gamboge, Prussian blue, carmine, black.” These were the four colours artists used on engraved plates. He thought of the boys who bought the already-coloured pictures as lesser creatures than the ones who bought the plain. Boys should colour them themselves. Show some imagination. But then Harper liked working with colors. Not so much laying the blue over the carmine for a king’s robe or for the jewels of some pirates’ treasure, but using the gamboge and black for the scenery—all those caves’ mouths to darken, those mysterious forests to green so as to suggest inns or cottages, or castles with pillowed, airy maiden bedrooms, behind and beyond.

To comfort himself, he made up lists. First, of all the plays he’d already engraved. The Old Oak Chest, My Poll and My Partner Joe, and so on. Then, of all the plays he’d done this year. There weren’t many. And then of women. All the ones who’d ever made a gesture that suggested, yes, they would have him. And then . . . then he’d go to sleep. Since Sherson had fired him, it had been harder and harder to get out of bed in the morning. He hadn’t had the money for rent in two whole months. Now he might have to take a job as a dresser, down at the theatre, and then that would be that. When would he have time for his engravings?

When he told his troubles to the landlord’s wife, she’d said, as if in sympathy, “Well, people have to have a job, don’t they? Everyone works.”

He hated her. That’s what he said, later that night, when one of his friends asked him if he’d ever had any feelings for her. “That woman? I hate her.” Then, he shook his head and laughed,“No, no. It’s just I can’t see her that way. I’ve always thought of her as my little sister.”

“I didn’t know you had a little sister,” the friend said.

Harper looked at him, puzzled. “I don’t.”


Competition

A group of villagers started meeting each morning outside of the apothecary to make the rounds of the Ersthauser toy theatres. Not all of them. There was the hidden theatre, so that couldn’t be visited, and there was the funeral parlor theatre, which seemed too grisly in its appointments—all done up with collapsed cardboard figures and even a flap under the stage which you could lift to see the dead rotting in their boxes. The reclusive Ersthauser wouldn’t let anyone up to his attic. But the other nine. They became part of a route—a morning constitutional—that villagers traversed, before they headed off for their own days. It was just as well there were only nine theatres to visit, since people spoke of the nine stops—always approached in the same order—as stations. It wouldn’t do to have twelve stations.

The villagers’ purpose, initially,was gossip as much as anything else. Or perhaps that’s not fair. Perhaps they welcomed the chance to admire their town, its early morning freshness, the twelve compact plazas, each of which led (if one ascended an alleyway staircase or darted between two residences) to another plaza, as if the whole town were a giant house and its plazas the house’s rooms and its buildings merely the rooms’ walls.

At first, the townsfolk walked by each of the theatres as they might pass the illuminated window of a house: with only a vague awareness of what went on in the interior. But one day, the town hall toy theatre looked different. One of the Ersthauser brothers had bought a new scene for his theatre. Overnight, The Terror of Jamaica had become Robin Hood, and the brother, in a playful mood, had added a few extra Merry Men, plump archers of his own devising. That day, the townspeople spent so long admiring the Merry Men’s hats (so many thimbles and fabric bits) that they never finished their rounds. And the gregarious Ersthauser brother—who always looked forward to the villagers’ arrival—decided to improve his own theatre, trick up Three-Fingered Jack with something new to ensure his neighbors’ curiosity and thus their continued presence at his door.

Which is how the contest started. Not for the best toy theatre, but for the best set and characters, and not for something purchased from some stationer’s in London—no more Jack Sheppard or The Smuggler. A set for a story of their own devising.


Whom They Hired

Harper Donovan. He’d once been an artist for the Juvenile Drama, so he knew the theatre, though not quite from this angle. Still, the stage manager thought he’d be a good dresser. Better than the boy who they’d just fired, the one who’d torn two jackets as he tried to work an actor’s arm into a sleeve. The actor said that it wasn’t the jacket he was concerned about, but his arm, which had been practically twisted out of its socket. There might be a lawsuit against the theatre in the works. That’s what the actor said.

Harper Donovan . . . at least he didn’t look like a man who had the strength to wrench a man’s arm out of its socket.


The Landlord’s Wife

They argued, of course, about the rent, but her husband gave in. Years ago, when she had fallen on the ice, Harper had been the one to find her in the alley with her broken leg, and her husband always appreciated Harper’s kindness from that time. They both loved him, in their way. She didn’t know why she’d never—not once—had a romantic thought about Harper. They were about the same age, and her husband went for long periods when he seemed to have no interest in her. During that time (and, in truth, for months after), her thoughts often alighted on this one and that. But not Harper.

Still, she wondered about his desires.

They were out for a walk at Harper’s insistence. He said she looked like she needed an airing.

“Oh, sure, like an old feather bed,” she said. “Well, you’re right. Get me out in the sun.”

It was an ash-metal gray day. They walked down to the park, where she had strolled when her youngest one was little. Her oldest hadn’t liked prams. They were off on their own now, most of the day. At school and then they’d taken shop jobs.

“How’s Beulah?” The woman with whom he’d been spending time. Not the woman of the kiss, but someone else. She was very pretty—blond, cheerful, but with a dark sense of humor. She had some aspirations for the theatre. In the meantime, she worked for a producer for one of the stage companies. She wanted to act, but she had— this is what everyone said—more of a sense for things behind the scenes, which meant she was good with money.

“She’s good. She has a chorus role in a new operetta, so I don’t see as much of her.”

“Well, that’s nice for her.”

They were quiet. Below them, the path was slushy from a recent snow. The Office of Parks had sprinkled sand on the roads and walks, and the dirt had mixed with the snow, so the ground seemed like a large bowl of pie dough, over-mixed with cinnamon. The thought made the landlord’s wife gag, as if someone had just instructed her to eat the whole park.

“Do you ever think to marry her? She’s such a nice girl. And funny.” But sad, the landlord’s wife thought. She had the edge that comes from not marrying in time.

“Oh, no, you know me. I can’t marry. I’m just . . .” Harper shook his head. Before Beulah had come along, he’d been alone for a long stretch and had played the part of the lonely bachelor. Actually, if he’d been in the theatre—not as an artist but as an actor—you might have said he overdid his role. Too much grief at being alone, too much emphasis on the pain of the unwanted.

And what did he know of it? For loneliness, the landlord’s wife thought, marriage really couldn’t be surpassed. So why did she want to push it on Harper?


The Club

Of course,we never partook of Sherson’s secret trade ourselves, but sometimes—say, down at the men’s club, when the fellows were handing around samples of these things—we might see something. A pop- up book once, with . . . well, it’s easy enough to imagine. Clever, we supposed, but why not put these talents—those little tabs that could make things go and come—to better use? We might have chuckled, to be good sports, and because when you hadn’t paid your club dues in a few months, you didn’t want to draw attention to yourself. The club was nice, with its leather chairs and sandwiches, but, in the end, the people there . . . the people there were despicable.


The Apothecary

Years ago, the Ersthauser brother who became a druggist went on holiday to Italy. One afternoon, while his wife was napping, he’d gone down to the café by the train station. He couldn’t make out the menu, so he’d asked the waitress if she spoke Swiss German. She didn’t. French? “No,” she’d snapped, and she seemed to think he was some sort of fool for thinking she’d be amicable about the whole matter. He asked for a wine, then pointed to the menu. He didn’t know what he was asking for; he just wanted the waitress to get away from him. If he had more courage, he’d have left the place. She bought a pitcher of watery white wine and a raw mushroom on a plate. “So there,” she seemed to want to bark when she set the absurd-looking vegetable by his glass. What exactly had he done to anger her? He noticed a run in the back of her stocking as she walked away. A man at a neighboring table blew his nose into his coat sleeve. There was something seedy about the café; he didn’t know why he hadn’t realized this before. Some time earlier, he’d noticed a sign indicating that two of the café’s upstairs rooms were for rent, but it occurred to him now that this would be an odd place to take a room, given that trains came and went all night. Suddenly he had an idea about what must be going on in this café. He never returned, though when he passed the station, he always glanced in the café’s direction, took in the cut of the women’s dresses, and the nature of the men, smoking their cigarettes at the tables. And he never quite forgot the strange feeling he’d had that day in the café, as if he were living in two worlds at once, two worlds which were normally laid one atop the other, so he couldn’t see the one world for the other. Only on this one day, the day at the café, the worlds had misaligned, the slip of one peeking out from under the hem of the other, and he’d seen how things truly were.

When it was time for the druggist to design a stage set for the Solisturn contest, he made a café. In it, there were several tables with men scattered about. Behind, stage right, he placed a building with two upstairs rooms, balconies off both. Shabby curtains were visible through the windows. Behind the building and trailing off stage left was a train station with a small newspaper shop. A man and his young wife step off the train with their luggage. Above, a woman at one of the balconies observes the young couple. The husband looks up, catches the woman’s eyes, and starts. She has plans for him. There is no reason for him to think this, but he does. This woman has plans to ruin him.


Suspicion

Harper’s eyes were weak. In the distance, he could make out a gray smudge floating over a body, a disembodied spirit that eventually resolved itself into Sherson’s head with its unruly beard, twitching eyes, and ashy complexion. A blue-purple bruise that never seemed to heal, a thumbprint-sized wound, stained Sherson’s forehead. Once Harper dreamed his landlady was testing produce at the market, her thumb and forefinger gently dimpling the fruit, when she pulled out Sherson’s head, pressed the flesh, and said, “I don’t think this one is quite right.”

Harper fought an impulse to cross the street to avoid Sherson. When their paths finally met, Harper managed a hello.

“You!” Sherson flinched, like a man abruptly woken.

“Me,” Harper said. “What of it?”

“Did you come into my shop one night?”

“One night? Why would I come at night?”

“Because . . . because . . .”

Harper hovered on the edge of curiosity. He had never known Sherson to have trouble bringing words to his lips. “Often in error, but never in doubt,” Sherson had once laughingly said of himself,when the two men were on better terms.

“Oh, never mind,” Sherson huffed. “I’ll find the truth out soon enough,” and he continued his purposeful lope down the road.


The Lounge at the Guest House

A scrim hangs in front of the stage. When light hits the scrim from the front, it is opaque. On the fabric someone has painted an elaborate scene: a cozy library with handsome wood paneling, dark green upholstered chairs, and lamp-lit students concentrating on books. When light hits the scrim from behind, the drop becomes transparent, and the audience sees through the library windows to a forest covered in deep snow. Two paths cut neatly through the woods: one goes off stage right. The other blends into a path painted on the stage’s backdrop. At the end of that painted path, there is a small, painted cottage lit against the darkness of the wood. Towards the front of the stage, a boy, rucksack slung over his back, heads away from the audience. Something heavy is in his sack, and the boy bends under its weight, in an attitude that suggests he is in a hurry to get to the house in the distance.


Repeat Performance

He could be repetitive. At any one time, Harper had a handful of stories he told about himself—usually stories in which he played the part of the fool. The landlord’s wife heard him repeat stories, word for word, first to her husband, then her boys, and finally her friends. Once, it was about how he’d been out by Drury Lane and had passed a man he knew because he’d engraved his likeness for the toy theatre. “Hello, Pancake!” Harper had said cheerfully, because he was in a good mood. He’d just gotten some plum assignment from Sherson.

Pancake didn’t respond. He was a bald man with a thin, carefully tended beard.

“It’s me, Harper,” Harper said, as if expecting to be recognized.

“I don’t know what’s the matter with you,” Pancake said in a hushed whisper. “My name is J. M. Nolan. It has always been J. M. Nolan.” And then he’d hurried away.

Harper flushed. Too late, he realized, he’d called the man by his character’s, not his given, name. What was the matter with him? Harper actually remembered asking J. M. Nolan to ink his name onto a piece of paper, so he could engrave it on a plate. “Pancake as played by” (and then in Nolan’s own hand) “J. M. Nolan.” It was how all the character sheets for the toy theatre were done. With autographs. In deference to the toy theatres’ antecedents, since the character sheets had started out as theatre souvenirs.

The Pancake story. The landlord’s wife had heard it six times. So like an old married couple, she and Harper made an agreement. In her presence, he couldn’t tell a story more than five times. Now, when he started on an oft-repeated tale, she held her hand up, fingers extended. To indicate the number of times she’d heard the story. How many more performances he had left.

Only now that Harper had stopped telling his stories altogether, the landlord’s wife felt bad about her impatience, for there was nothing she could do to get him to come down and talk with her. He was always up in his room, engraving, though everyone said he’d lost all his commissions, every single one, even from Sherson, and once you lost Sherson, Harper had once told her, you were done for. No one else would hire you. The man had that kind of power.

“That man?” the landlord’s wife had said at the time, not quite believing Harper. “The one who goes about in a bedcap?”

Harper nodded. Sometimes Sherson did wear a bedcap during the day. But it didn’t matter what the man looked like. His commissions meant everything.


The University Library

Smugglers carousing. That’s what the Ersthauser brother who was a librarian came up with. A long wooden table, steins of beer with foamy heads like so many lambs, drunkenly collapsed atop their glasses. One smuggler tipping back on his chair. Another tipped so far back he’d fallen on the floor, his legs stuck up in the air—an unfortunate beetle, unable to right himself. Still another face down in a puddle of liquid.


Boys

It was Robert’s birthday. His uncle said he’d get him a play for his theatre. He’d get him Hamlet. But Robert didn’t want Hamlet. He wanted Aladdin. If his uncle got him Hamlet, Robert would show him. He’d color all the characters, cut them out, paste them to cardboard, then tear that Ophelia’s head off. He wanted nothing to do with any Hamlet.

His uncle said he’d like to help him put on the play. His uncle started in with his old “To be or not to be.” Which shows how much he knew. No one ever performed with the miniature theatres. No one he knew. That wasn’t the point.

It was raining—it had been raining all week—so Maxwell came over with his new sheets for Twenty Thieves and Twenty Knights. When they had the characters ready, they put them into Robert’s theatre— even though his theatre still had the set for The Old Oak Chest in it. Robert slid a thief over to Maxwell’s knight. “I’ve got the jewels and the girl, and I’m not giving them back.”

“Yes, you will,” said Maxwell’s knight, his sword already extended for an easy victory,“you will.”

They played on, Robert growing increasingly irritable. Sanctimonious knight. Robert knew the girl actually liked him—liked the thief—better. The thief had a mustache and a smart hat.

“I won’t,” Robert said, and when he thrust his thief forward on one of the slides in the base of the miniature theatre’s floor, he must have pushed Maxwell, for all of a sudden the boys were tussling.

“Rascals,” his mother said, when she came in to see what the commotion was all about. Robert was still angry when Maxwell was sent home for tea.

“No more playing with the theatre,” his mother said. “You and Maxwell always end up with these terrible scenes.”


Mornings

That kiss—the one she’d seen so long ago, between Harper and the woman, whoever she was—came back to her in the mornings, in the hour after her husband had left for the bank, and before she rose for her own day. Her thoughts circled back to a specific moment of the kiss, the moment when Harper’s lips slid off the woman’s lips. The fullness of his lips in that moment, their romantic sag, before they edged back to the woman’s skin.

And then her thoughts stopped. She didn’t want to think of Harper that way, though she did want to think of that moment, that kiss, and what it would be like to have that kiss for herself. Her love life, she was coming to understand, was all in her head. It had nothing to do with her body. There were lots of things she was going to think and never do. That was what it meant to be grown up, to not suppose thoughts were possibilities.


The Knoll in the Woods

A simple set. A fallen log out in the middle of a clearing where two lovers meet. The Ersthauser brother who owned this particular theatre was married, and he’d never strayed from his wife. He didn’t want to, and yet he was aware that all the stories that interested him were of clandestine romance. What story was there to tell, in the end, except the story of forbidden love? And where did that leave him, with his own relative pleasure in his entirely sanctioned marriage?


A Print a Day

For the past two years, Sherson had been so busy, he put out a print a day. And he didn’t see any sign of business slowing. A few days after the break-in, one of the artists in his stable, a John Braham, had come in with drawings for The Pirate King. But they were no good. First, the “virtuous heroine” didn’t look like Mrs. Cooke, the actress who portrayed her on stage. She looked more like a certain woman, popular at one of the men’s clubs, until she died of syphilis. Sherson said as much to Braham.

“What do you mean?” Braham said tightly.

“She looks like a whore.”

“I got that,” said Braham. “Why do you say that? There’s nothing here,” he gestured to the engraved plate,“to give you that impression.”

“Well, it’s the impression I have. So . . . do again.”

A man who was going about town, interviewing toy-makers for a little history he was putting together, came in later that day to talk to Sherson.

“It’s not a business to make friends in,” Sherson admitted. “I’ve learnt that. You have to be tough. I have to be tough. Tough as old meat.” New artists would sometimes appeal to him for work, and he’d take their portfolios and never look at them. He didn’t mean to be hard-hearted, he said, but there were only so many hours in a day. “I’m doing a print a day now, and you know,” he said, “I’m one of the very first to make the prints for the miniature theatre. Before me, it was the lottery cards. No artistic value in that at all. Yes, I’m one of the very first ones.”

“He was one of the first producers of theatrical prints. He seemed,” the interviewer wrote in his history, “very proud of the fact, for he repeated it, a number of times.”


The Park

A naval scene. Rigged up so that at just the right moment, the park’s water fountain could be directed through a series of hoses to produce a tremendous storm and wash the ship right off the stage.


The Theatrical Warehouse

A tall man with the thin, awkward movements of an albino flamingo came into the shop. “What can I do for you?” Sherson asked.

“Just looking,” the man said, and his eyes flitted over the theatres quickly, then glanced up to the shelves with the playbooks.

“Something for your little boy?” Sherson suggested.

“Yes, no, no, I don’t have a son,” the man said.

“A daughter, then?”

“Well, no . . . Do you just sell the theatres here, then?”

Sherson hesitated. Since the break-in, he didn’t know whom he could trust. But then this man seemed so nervous. “Someone from the club sent you?”

The man waggled his head. “I think I know what you want.” And he reached under his front counter for a small pack of cards that had, as of late, been particularly popular.


The Landlord’s Wife

Her husband was more irritating when Harper didn’t come to visit. His lacks all the more painful. If she said, “Oh, I’m so tired,” he’d say, “I know, honey. I know” in the very same absent-minded manner he might have told a secretary at the bank to go away, he was busy just now. “I know, honey. I know.” And she’d want to hit him. Conversation was like this with her husband. She’d say something, and he’d say something back, and then there’d be nothing to say. He had a way of stopping all conversation and inquiry cold.

But he was a good man. Moral. Handsome. Well liked for his amicable manner at the bank and the club. He’d been kind and playful with their boys, when they were little. They both had liked to chase him around the couch. Back then, the oldest had a way of putting his hand up in the air, almost as if he were a pirate saying,“Oh ho,” and this was the signal for the landlord to drop to his knees and crawl around the couch. Cooking dinner, the landlord’s wife would hear her boys laughing and laughing on the far side of the room, and even though she knew about life, had grown to adulthood herself, she wondered what it was exactly that would steal this pleasure from her boys in the years to come.


The Youngest Ersthauser’s Youngest Son

The youngest Ersthauser commandeered his youngest son’s theatre for the contest. But they worked together on the set. For a long time, they were stuck for an idea. Pere Ersthauser thought of times when he’d gone to the theatre, and the curtain rose, and he’d been instantly disappointed by the set, the suggestion about the story to follow. A military camp on the outskirts of Bohemia. He didn’t want to see a story set there. A cramped household interior, poorly furnished. Ditto on that tale. Finally, his son decided what the set should be. A whale’s belly. He’d just read Jonah. “Maybe,” the father suggested,“we could do the ship, the one that Jonah’s thrown off of?” But his son wouldn’t hear of it. He wanted a belly—a floor full of half-digested octopi and sharks. Red walls and just beyond the walls, the constant, anxietyprovoking lub-dub, lub-dub of the whale’s heart.


Work

He had one of the landlord’s sons run over to the theatre and say he was sick, so he didn’t go in, that first day of work. He was sick, in a manner of speaking. The landlord’s wife came up with a bowl of soup. “Can I get you anything?”

He shook his head no. He knew he should be embarrassed. His room was a mess, plates piled high on the dresser and the room’s one table. He’d cut himself while doing an engraving last night, and there was a smear of blood on his sheet.

The landlord’s wife flinched when she noticed it, as if it were something dirty from a woman.

“It’s nothing,” he said. “I’ll clean it.”

She seemed on the verge of speaking, but then she didn’t say anything.

“So you’ve found work,” she finally announced cheerily.

“It’s not work. It’s not really work.”

“Well, it’ll bring in some money. That’s good, isn’t it?”

“Oh, you’ll get your rent, all right.”

She looked hurt. “I wasn’t thinking of that. I didn’t mean that.” It was his turn to look hurt. She meant well, he knew she did. But he wished she’d just leave him be.


The Sociable Brother

A large, tall hall with two stories of long windows, opening up to balconies on the second floor, private gardens on the first. Stage left, a drive leading up to the hall’s entrance, and out of the carriages, finely dressed men and women. Inside, a large ball. Dozens of people in attendance. But not “ordinary” people. They are all poets or musicians or artists. Stage actors and actresses. And when they come into the hall, they don’t come to dance or eat or drink, as much as to see what they can make with their talk. Out of their conversations come ideas for symphonies, frescos, and epic poems. One character looks a bit like Giotto, another like Homer, but these are men and women of the present day, all right. A well-known author arrives. Accompanying him: the characters of his novels, so authentic that one bleeds real blood from a tiny cut on his hand, something he got—he tells guests who ask— from an engraving tool. He and his companions seem unaware of the crowd’s surprise to see them, moving about the hall, like living people. They seem entirely insensible to the sharp divide between fact and fiction, the line between this world and that.


There was a boy, a son of one of the cousins of the Ersthauser brothers, who had been visiting Solisturn for the winter. Each morning, he’d gone with his relatives to visit the theatres. He’d seen nine in all and had heard townspeople talk about a prize for the best theatre set. As far as he could tell, the prize was going to be a blue ribbon, which didn’t seem like much of a prize. He had his own favourite. The smugglers. So now that he’d seen the theatres, he wondered, out loud, when the puppet shows were going to start. The adults laughed. Someone patted his head and reminded the others that he was from far away.

No one, it turned out, had any intention of beginning. There were no puppet shows to come; the lives the sets suggested were far richer than the stories any one of the villagers could imagine.


Dinner Conversation

It was the first time he’d spoken to her sharply. But not the last. She came up to invite him down to dinner.

“No thanks.”

“Oh, come on. It’ll do you good. And we haven’t had a chance to talk in so long.”

“All right,” he said.

She went down to finish cooking the meal. He came some fifteen minutes later, but he didn’t speak.

“You all right?” her husband said.

He nodded his head. “Just tired,” he said.

“Because you’re in the house all day. You need to get out of the house,” the landlord’s wife said. “We should all go for a walk after dinner.”

“How do you know what I need?” Harper said.

Her husband was silent, but he must have been shocked, because she felt his palm under the table, the reassuring squeeze he gave her skirt— his hand not quite pressing hard enough to reach her leg.


The Reclusive Ersthauser

The reclusive Ersthauser made his own set, for he had heard about the competition, though he didn’t invite anyone to see his creation. He was reclusive for a reason. He had dark, untenable desires, and his set was of a London men’s club, a place that seemed respectable with its well-appointed leather chairs and formal waiters distributing sandwiches on silver platters. But there were back rooms at this club, where bad business went on. There were women for sale by the hour, and once in a while, there would be pictures of men with men. The reclusive Ersthauser’s set was strange, as if seen not from the audience’s point of view, but from the side of the stage, as if a stage manager or dresser was viewing everything. Looking into the theatre, one saw the sides of chairs and tables. One saw the backdrops which were so richly painted on one side, and so completely blank on the other.


The Landlord’s Wife

She had dark desires of her own. She was only coming to realize it. Sometimes she thought she’d do something dramatic: walk into the woods and lay down and go to sleep and never get up. She didn’t go to the theatre often, but when she did, the romances angered her, making her aspire, as they did, to things it were best not to aspire to. Not because these things were unattainable, but ridiculous. It was lowly to believe in melodramas, yet she did, even while she didn’t.

And, of course, she had a real sense that the theatre had stolen Harper from her, finally stolen him away, her good friend Harper, now so lost to his own disappointment, the landlord’s wife didn’t think he’d ever come back. But it wasn’t the theatre, of course. You couldn’t be ruined by what you loved, only by what kept you from what you loved. It was Sherson. When she really thought about it, it was Sherson who had ruined her friend.


New York

The hidden theatre, with its futuristic set of New York City in the twenty-first century, is in America. Its curtain depicts the façade of an art gallery. Three stone slabs lead up to the gallery’s door. When the curtain is raised, one sees a brightly lit interior space. On tables and walls throughout the gallery, there are toy theatres. In one, the stage’s floor tilts toward the audience, so that were the set’s furniture not glued to the floor, it would surely slide into the orchestra pit. In another,multiple flights of stairs lead to walls without doors. On each flight of stairs, a single running woman, her long hair a stiff flag beside her head, stares at something terrifying from which she flees. Only there is never anything behind these women. In other theatres in the gallery, there are jungle scenes or beautiful summer gardens or crowded restaurants. And many theatres show interior scenes of people sitting at desks in front of glowing boxes that contain pictures. Cords join these boxes to the walls, and there are numbers everywhere.

High on the gallery wall is a frieze of quotes, a single line of words that rings the room. The characters in the hidden theatre tire of holding their heads bent back at such a ferocious angle to read what’s above them:

These childish toys are more to us than they can ever be to children. We never know how much of our imaginations began with such a peep show into paradise. —G. K. Chesterton

I know of nothing to compare with it save now and then in dreams, when I am privileged to read in certain unwrit stories of adventure, from which I awake to find the world all vanity. —Robert Louis Stevenson

It is not for the theatre—not even the toy theatre-to curl the lip at rogues, for has it not always bred them, and perhaps necessarily so? —www.pollocks.cwc.net/musstory.htm

There is a largely incomplete playbook that comes with this particular theatre. The opening page of the playbook features a short bit of dialogue. A child says his favorite thing about the gallery is the cheese. The artists in the gallery talk excitedly about the revived art of the toy theatre. But what happens next, when everyone (or at least all the artists’ friends) has come to see the toy theatres, the playbook doesn’t say.


The Landlord’s Wife

Each month, the landlord’s family had to do without the money from Harper’s rent, so finally the landlord’s wife took a job at a nearby guesthouse, helping with the meals and making up rooms. The guesthouse sheets were well starched and ironed, and it gave the landlord’s wife a real pleasure to smooth such nice linens over mattresses. One morning, while she was pulling up a quilt, one of the girls gave her a nasty piece of news about the club, about the goings-on there.

“Is it true?” she asked her husband that night, and he said he had heard it was, though he never partook himself.

“In one of the back rooms, that’s what I hear,” he said.

She frowned. “So why do you go there?”

“I know,” he nodded. “It’s a despicable place, but I’m supposed to go. For the bank. Put on a good show and all.”

He was well liked at the bank, but it was a middling sort of position he held, without any real power. It didn’t pay enough, which was why they’d always needed the rent from the upstairs room.

“I’ll tell you something else about that place,” her husband said. “Sherson—you know, the one Harper used to work for—he sends around some things for the men to look at. Dirty things. He does a whole secret trade in that, out of that same store where he sells the theatres. That’s why I never wanted our boys to go into his shop. Must be a filthy old fellow, to sell that stuff out of a shop for children.”

Unlike her husband, the landlord’s wife didn’t have a head for numbers or dates. She never remembered birthdays, and she needed to look at her wedding invitation to recall exactly how many years she’d been married. She had even, on occasion, forgotten how old she was, but, for some reason, she remembered the date of this conversation with her husband. It was December 1st, 1862, and she was thinking, as they talked, that this year, her sons would finally be altogether too old to be given toys on Christmas. And yet, much later that night, having pried open a window at Sherson’s shop and hoisted herself up through a window and into the Theatrical Print Warehouse, she had stopped, candle (now lit) in hand. In the corner, there was a strange theatre—not really a theatre at all, but a stage set complete with dolls and dollhouse furniture. A section of the stage floor had been cut away to reveal a basement scene with dark figures. She brought the candle closer to make out the scene, then jumped. Something was in the theatre. She looked again. But it was only her eyelid, blinking closed. There was a mirror on the floor of the basement scene. All the dolls down there, under the stage floor, had been painted red. So it was hell. The mirror a joke, she supposed. She took note of the implied reprimand, then thought of Harper and of how Sherson had hurt him and of her own poor boys who really were men now. She placed the candle by the theatre and did what she’d come to do.

 

Debra Spark is the author of the novels Coconuts for the Saint (Faber & Faber, Avon, 1996) and The Ghost of Bridgetown (Graywolf Press, 2001). She teaches at Colby College in Maine. (10/2003)


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