Brandon Cesmat (MFA, San Diego State U) teaches literature and film studies at California State University, San Marcos. His publications include Nightsinging, a chapbook of poems, and a poem anthologized in Belonging to California. Read other work by Brandon Cesmat published in Weber: Vol. 20.3 and Vol. 24.3.
As soon as Cowley stepped offstage and out of the audience's gaze, he tore the bloodied bandage from his eyes and said to me, "I'll not take the stage with Ostler again!"
We were in the midst of a two-week run of King Lear at The Hope. Scuttling a performance in the fourth act would bring us financial ruin. It was afternoons such as these that made me wish I'd become a coachman. Horses, after all, are much more reasonable than men.
Just as I was about to inquire to Cowley as to the particular trouble, Ostler staggered through the tiring house doorway, bumped against Cowley, bounced off the right doorjamb and at last steadied himself on the left.
Cowley brought his face close to Ostler's and whispered, "You are a swillbottle."
Ostler squinted to look upon Cowley. "Father, you have no lines until I bring you to Dover," Ostler said. No matter that he had drunk himself into blindness, Ostler could always speak.
Cowley turned to me. "Heminge," he huffed. "I'll not play with him again. Let him act with Toby." Then he turned and stalked off.
As I stepped forward to pull Ostler out of the audience's gaze, the sweet and sickly scent of sack souring in his gullet filled my nostrils.
I'd seen Ostler drunk on stage once before. While portraying the First Citizen in Julius Caesar, Ostler stepped forward to say, "Bring him with triumph home unto his house," and fell amongst the groundlings. Some of them caught him and stood him up between them, with much laughter at his condition.
The rest of us on stage proceeded with our lines, as did Ostler in the pit. Never had I heard such laughter during Caesar as when Ostler—either arm around a groundling—shouted "We'll bring him to his house with shouts and clamors!" I would have quickly forgiven him if he had climbed back on stage, but he instead finished the scene from the pit. I observed him slapping fellows on the back and bidding them to cry out on cue "Revenge!…Bum!…Slay!"
Playing the role of the Third Citizen, I tried to direct him back onto the stage, but he swayed between his newfound friends so I could not catch his eye. When they passed him a tankard, he did not refuse.
I doubted we'd ever get him back until he stumbled forward, grabbed the hem of poor Cowley's costume and ranted "We'll bum the house of Brutus!"
Cowley, although not portraying Brutus, looked to me and Lowin for rescue. I delivered my line as I crossed to Cowley and with Lowin's help lifted Ostler onto the stage, but he only let go of the costume when it was over Cowley's head.
After the performance, Cowley railed against Ostler's excursion from the stage. He demanded Shakespeare and I send the young man from the company. Will listened. Cowley paced back and forth, flapping his arms. Ostler sat on a stool with his back against the wall, clucking his tongue against the roof of his mouth. As manager of the company, I faced the dilemma of frustrating Cowley, who could play Polonius as well as any man, or losing a young man who, although drunk that afternoon, was at all other times a fine actor.
"Ostler," I said, "your great fault was not so much in stumbling nor drinking but in staying off the stage."
He tried to direct his sight upon me, moved his head from side to side, then gave up, closed one eye and without slurring a word said, "Totus mundus agit histrionem."
Shakespeare laughed aloud. "Take up sixteen shillings from his wage," he told me and then left the room, leaving me to hear Cowley prophesy an encore of Ostler's drunkenness.
I upheld my partner's decision after Caesar. At the pub later, Shakespeare said that Cowley saw the wall between tragedy and comedy but not the hole in it. L however, came to agree during Lear that Cowley had reason. Understand that at the time of Caesar, I was in my last summer of acting; the company required younger men such as Ostler and Lowin who were quick with rapiers. Moreover, the fine of sixteen shillings kept Ostler sober for two seasons until the catastrophe during Lear, for which I must bear some of the blame. By then I was poised to retire, and the receipts of future seasons were of marginal interest to me.
With Ostler's walking staff propping him safely against the backstage wall, I entreated Cowley to play out the person of Gloucester in Lear, but it came to no effect.
"He abused me with his staff," Cowley charged, "crushing my toes and bruising my shins with his clumsy steps. Did you not hear how the audience laughed?"
"We shall take the property from him," I suggested.
Cowley held up the bloodied bandage from his eyes and shook it. "Then I shall need to lead him about the stage!" He threw the cloth on the floor.
"No! I'll not be further abused!" And he strode away.
Cowley had reason: Ostler could barely walk with the staff. The blind stumbling of the two characters would ruin the tragedy. Still, I needed to follow through with the performance. Since the Globe burned and we had moved to the Hope, the players had not been happy sharing the theater with the bear-baitings. Cages crowded the areas behind the stage and baitings reduced our number of performances. Whatever wages the actors lost, I had lost several times over. On that day I could not afford to stop Lear. Our morale and reputation—and our finances—could withstand the stumbling of Ostler better than the halting of the play so near its conclusion.
As the actors drew close to their exeunt, I looked for Cowley to threaten him with a fine if he abandoned the role but instead spied Ostler taking a drink from a bottle in the comer of the tiring house. In my rage I rushed at him, grabbed the bottle and threw it down.
"I'll have you finish this play," 1 shouted, my voice becoming, perhaps, too loud backstage, "if you have to play it with Toby!" I pulled Ostler by the arm toward the stage door. "Thirty-two shillings you'll pay for this!" I hissed in Ostler's ear. Then I went back to the cages to fetch the bear.
Unlike the other bears, Toby had stage experience. When he first came to London, we used him in a masque before King James. Upon the entrance of the cub, the king stood. "Bring the bear to me," he commanded. Alleyn, who handled the bears, led Toby to the throne where his majesty stroked the cub's fur and delighted in the nasal yawning sounds the cub made. After feeding Toby a chocolate and an apple, he called for the masque to continue.
Since then, I always tried to include live creatures—such as birds—in the masques. They help business.
I should have sought Shakespeare's advice before sending Ostler on with Toby. A year ago Alleyn had put out Toby's eyes for the baitings. I must confess that when Cowley said, "Let him act with Toby. That will sober him," I agreed too quickly because it seemed true to the role of blind Gloucester. So I put the chain in Ostler's hand and the man and beast walked on stage without even looking at one another.
As Ostler led Toby on, Shakespeare came and stood beside me in the doorway. I looked over at him expecting some reproof for my rage but his brow remained untroubled. He only said, "I fear that King Lear shall recover his wits before Edgar recaptures his earldom."
And so it went. The prompter in the cellerage below the stage delivered Gloucester's lines. He had good inflection but a rather high and reedy voice. Between the laughter from the audience and the voice coming from below, Ostler became more confused and staggered back and forth over the boards. The thumping of his walking staff on the stage had a strange effect on Toby. The bear began to dance, a'trick he had been taught for the masques.
The audience seemed to prefer the diversion to the play. They applauded and called out for other tricks. Ostler, however, continued to say his lines.
"You are now within a foot of the extreme verge," he said. "For all beneath the moon I would not leap upright."
Toby continued to dance, although confused by the inconsistent blows from Ostler's staff. The audience roared so loudly at the blind drunk and his dancing bear, that I could not hear the prompter speaking Gloucester's lines from below, which suited me for he sounded somewhat like a duck. The spectacle overtook the play, but I doubted anyone would demand their admission returned. Then Toby, apparently grown tired of trying to appease his drunken partner, leaned over and took Ostler's head between his jaws.
The theater went quiet except for the popping of Ostler's bones and the giving way of his sinews as Toby shook him. When the body separated, Toby dropped the head which rolled off the stage and into the yard. I then factored Ostler's thirty-two-shilling fine out of the day's receipts.
Toby then settled down at the front of the stage with the rest of Ostler's body where he began to feast on the shoulders. The audience cheered the kill although no one had been given a chance to wager. Certainly they had never seen anything like it at the baitings. Usually the bear fought the hounds in the yard, and after killing a hound, a bear never had time to feast for fending off other hounds. A few lords and gallants dashed from their stools at the edge of the stage to safer ground, but the groundlings remained entranced with Toby dining on Ostler. During the last week to whet Toby towards the hounds, the bear warden had probably fed him little more than the grubs from the marshy ground beside the river. His tongue licking off the blood smeared around his mouth, Toby sounded as if he rather enjoyed Ostler. But the audience, their interest in the play waning, turned their attention to buying more ale and hazelnuts, as during an interlude between baitings.
I ventured to look at Shakespeare. "What shall we do, Will?" I asked.
"Let Oswald enter," he said, "then Lear."
I can't blame Underwood—who portrayed Oswald—for not entering sooner; Toby never gave him his cue. Will directed Underwood to dispatch Gloucester with his rapier. I doubted that the play would work, but as Underwood approached, the lines brought the audience's gaze back to the actors and the action cleared the stage.
Underwood entered. "A proclaimed prize!"
Toby continued to eat.
"Most happy that eyeless head of thine was first fram'd flesh to raise my fortunes." Underwood stepped farther downstage.
Toby lifted his head up from Ostler's body, licked his mouth and sniffed the air.
"Briefly thyself remember."
Either the approaching steps vibrating through the stage floor or the voice of the actor apprised Toby of the assault because he turned upstage to face Underwood.
"The sword is out that must destroy thee."
As Toby stood on his hind legs, the prompter read, "Now let thy friendly hand put strength enough to it."
Toby swung his left paw, but Underwood chose his mark well and drove the point through the bear's left, empty eye-socket and into his brain. The point failed to exit the back of the bear's skull, but that did not matter. Toby froze in the middle of his strike and fell forward. Underwood stepped easily to the side. The audience cheered so that they must have made themselves heard in town across the river, and, for the moment, I thought that we might yet save the afternoon. Of course I would have to pay Alleyn for Toby, but the money I'd save by finishing the performance and from not having to pay Ostler would offset any added cost.
Underwood took bows before the applauding audience. L however, worried about how Burbage would finish the scene as Lear. He entered barefoot, wearing a crown of flowers. A pool of blood had formed on the stage so that Lear stepped in it when he inclined himself over the bodies. In his madness the lines still seemed appropriate although spoken to the dead. "I know thee well enough"—Burbage brought his face near Toby's—"Thy name is Gloucester."
When the soldiers entered, Burbage exited, leaving a trail of bloody footprints where he ran across the stage. The soldiers followed, dragging Ostler and Toby with them. Two bodies so early in the play would call for an extraordinary finish. I didn't know what we would do but directed the musicians to play.
Shakespeare played Kent. At the tiring-house door, I asked him how we might finish the play without Edgar and Gloucester.
"Oswald must give Edmund the letters," he said.
I gasped. Surely, I should have had more faith in Will's grasp of the plot. After all, he did write it. However, at the time I thought the revision more monstrous than Toby's performance. Without hindrance, Goneril's sentence of death upon her husband Albany would fall, making Edmund the hero.
"Such a change will doom Albany," I said.
"Any man wed to Goneril is already doomed," he replied and then entered the stage.
And so we played it. Following the battle, Regan, Albany, Edmund and Goneril drank from goblets; when Albany as well as Regan fell, the play was nearly concluded. Nevertheless, the transition of power proved full of tumult.
"Gilded serpent"—Edmund turned to Goneril—"Thou worse than any name." He held up the letter given to him by Oswald. "Read thine own evil."
Goneril stepped back, surprised as were we all, less so that Lowin knew so many of Albany's lines, but by the fashion in which the play recaptured the crowd. That Edmund once again by way of a letter twisted his way toward the throne, that he should break himself from the bonds of custom and prosper, that nature took his part—Goneril killed herself for this as much as she did for any reason—brought cheers from the audience, especially in the lower gallery and the yard. Through the tiring house doorway I saw one face, a maiYs, swaying near the stage, flushed from ale or toil in the sun. He stood in the yard cheering Edmund, king of the bastards.
And Lowin played the role of Edmund to the finish. An officer entered to announce Goneril's death. Edmund, standing over Lear and Cordelia, never looked away from the passing king. "That's but a trifle here."
For the first time in years I felt myself drawn into a play. That Edmund should prosper without ever suffering and the wheel should never come full circle seemed cruel but not strange. With evil so pervasive, when two villains duel, why should we not call the victor "hero"?
And as Edmund with all duplicity brought the play to a close, calling for all to obey the "weight of this sad time," I looked back to the ruddy face of the man standing tall in the yard. His smile betrayed no sense of tragedy.
After the play, Shakespeare, I, Lowin, Underwood and the others retired to a pub. They managed to smile at the afternoon's, folly although no one mentioned Ostler because Cowley and Alleyn the bear warden had also accompanied us; the two sat together at the opposite end of the table from Shakespeare and me. The Alleyn, who had earlier admonished us for killing Toby in such a disrespectful manner, now affected a more pleasant humor as he listened to Cowley and drank a cup of sack. I paid him one pound sterling for the old bear and secretly thanked fate that the lords who Red their seats on the stage did not require compensation for their temporary loss of position. However, my mood kept me from joining with the others in their good humor. Perhaps the one pound silver vexed me, or that after the performance Underwood and I passed an hour in the yard without discovering Ostler's head. Whatever the matter, I felt disengaged from the company. I did, however, feel pressed to apologize to Shakespeare for the treatment of the play, even though it belonged to the company and not to him.
"No apology, I pray you," he said. "We discharged the play notably."
I asked him if he had noted the expressions of the base in the yard. I then described for him the swaying groundling's ruddy face swollen in puffy folds. Aye, he said he had seen such a face before and that in the face he saw the beauty of the crowd to find concord in a dozen notes as jangled as our afternoon performance.
"Did not his cries for King Edmund unsettle you?" I wanted to know. "Did they not change the play and ruin it completely?"
He looked over at Lowin, Cowley and the rest roistering along the table.
"Lowin was always the better swordsman," Shakespeare said.
I looked upon Lowin, but his skill had nothing to do with the anger felt at the story. I could only think of Edgar and the usurpation of order and the people's call for it. There was no chaos in the world, only one mans order over another's. Something treasonous hissed at my mind.
"Come, Heminge," Will whispered to me as he lifted his tankard an inch from the table, "let's drink to William Ostler."
He drank and L too, out of tradition.
Shakespeare continued, "Never did Mark Anthony face so palpable a riot nor Edgar's privilege come into such question as when Ostler played the part." His eyes shone bright and wet like sea stones. "The play seemed ripe," Shakespeare said. "We must endure it." He drank again, this time alone.