None of it is realism, of course. Jack Coq is the heightened language of Elizabethan theatre – no one actually spoke as Shakespeare’s characters speak (and much of it is verse) but the audience fully understood the allusions, the metaphors and got the point. It is also the absurdity of Ionesco, Beckett and Buster Keaton. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead and Marat/Sade are Theatre of the Absurd. The Spectacle is a novel of the absurd, perceived as a play presented as a novel, a story which might actually occur in a reality outside Jack’s head. Theatre of the Absurd focuses on people being caught in illogical worlds populated by those who behave as though their worlds are logical in which religion and sense and purpose are absent. And there are no neat beginnings, middles and ends, but open-ended uncertainties that examine human behaviour and existence. In The Spectacle, God does not exist, only Almighty Jenkins, an evocation of a remote Higher Power (the Devil is Mister Jefferies or Old Jeff). Jack is swept along by ridiculous events out of his control and which he does not question, although he does question who he is and why he is. ‘All the world’s a stage’ according to Jacques in As You Like It ‘And one man in his time plays many parts’. Think on that. Think on sole. O for a muse of fish.
My love of theatre, and absurdist theatre in particular, started when I was sixteen. I joined a youth theatre group, one of the older members of which was keen on absurdist theatre. Through him, I discovered Ionesco, Stoppard, Beckett. And as it happens, the unrequited love of my life, Susan, but that’s another story. Around that time (the early 1970s), Peter Brook at the RSC produced a circus-like A Midsummer Night’s Dream (he had actors spinning plates on poles and actors on trapeze) and the absurdist enthusiast was inspired to attempt his own different approach to the play although not quite as ambitious in concept as that presented by Brook. I played Puck, my first big role. Least said about that the better (although it might have been my second, come to think of it, as I had been in Tom Thumb by Henry Fielding. I played King Arthur). The Dream features in Jack Coq (although Tom Thumb doesn’t) Also at that time, I went to the Young Vic in London to see a wide variety of plays from Rosencrantz and Guildenstern (which I have seen several times over the years, including a version produced by a company that also did Hamlet with the same cast), to Oedipus Rex (Sophocles), The Cheats of Scapin (Molière) and The Taming of the Shrew (Shakespeare). The Young Vic is an intimate theatre and you are very close to the action. The actors ran across the tops of the seating in Shrew. They were happy to mingle with the audience in the bar afterwards. I remember having a drink with Nicky Henson and Jim Dale after the Shrew.
In the mid 1970s, I had the chance to attend an acting summer school run by professionals for amateurs. Between 1976 and 1997, I became a regular. I went to most of them. I learned about plays, text, acting and performance. I learned dancing and singing, historical and musical. They were hard when I was neither a singer nor a dancer. But I was better at stage combat than anyone else because I was a fencer (an épéeist) and knew about swords. I later did some fight choreography for a semi-pro production of Verdi’s Otello. As a writer, I learned about the subtext, the subtleties of language, and the unreliability of characters (take Iago in Othello, the archetypal subtle liar and manipulator of truth). The theatre courses played to my senses of unreality and the absurd. They challenged and expanded my imagination, made me do things I would never have done otherwise. After all, a play performance is an artifice which takes place in a pretend environment. And the audience is complicit in the deceit. In this respect, theatre is quite unlike film and television which often pretend to present reality, especially in dramas and soaps. But they are remote in comparison to theatre. They don’t engage and draw you in as co-conspirators, nor present reality. It’s all lies (to be spoken with a raised eyebrow and a wry smile).
It is not surprising, then, that my written interpretations of some acting techniques also feature in The Spectacle, as perceived by Jack. And so you have to ask of Jack: was he soldier, actor or thief before he ended up in the madhouse? He has the attributes of all. In some respects, he owes these skills to two real but unrelated people, neither of whom ended up in a madhouse, one from the early eighteenth century, the other from the second half of the century. The first was a Scots soldier and fencing master called Donald McBane, the other a footman in the service of the Duchess of Queensbury, herself an eccentric. McBane featured in my previous blogs about swordsmanship: everything I write is connected.
And you have to ask of the novel: how much of what happens is real and how much of it is performance? It is all a conceit, of course, much like life itself. The novel has a subtext. Its plot is circular in that Jack appears to face imminent death at the end, which is how we first meet him – although that circumstance is not where the novel begins (if that is not itself a contradiction) – and fatalistic because his death seems inevitable and quite beyond his prevention. Yet he defies fate and the story ends on a note of uncertainty, in a quantum mechanics fashion. What happens to Jack?
When I started posting the chapters of The Spectacle here on Booktrap, I knew I had the answer to that question. But it is an answer I have to conceal because is goes to the heart of what will form a sequel. Of a sort. Told from someone else’s perspective. It’s not the same story retold; it goes beyond where The Spectacle ends. For the moment, it’s my secret. And Jack’s.
I write what I am moved to write. It comes from my heart. It is rooted in my skirmishes with life, from theatre and from those in the world of theatre whom I have met through my desire to learn its arcane practices. As the late Rudi Shelly might have said (he was a tutor at the Bristol Old Vic Theatre School, a European émigré with a German accent accentuated by years of chain-smoking unfiltered Gauloises): ‘Darling, don’t act. Just play the fucking text.’