The Woman in the Third Row
I’d always been afraid of heights. The first time I was confronted with the set of The Seafarer and the narrow gallery by which I was going to make my entrance, more than ten feet above the stage, I repressed a shudder of horror and thought that I’d never manage to surmount my dizziness. I had the impression that the whole structure was on the verge of collapse every time I took a step, and when I reached the foot of the stairs that returned me to terra firma, I looked quite like a drowned cat.
After a few days, I got used to it, especially since I had other worries with the stagehands’ strike, which, if it went on, risked putting us all out of work. I was far from my family as I would be for months, and believe me, being accustomed to it doesn’t make it any more pleasant even after so many years, in spite of the telephone, the SMSs and all the communication media that progress gives to wandering people like me (except email: I’m completely illiterate with computers). The coming of fall, with its winds and ice-cold rains, did not settle my moods; my right knee bothered me occasionally but I didn’t know exactly what caused it. Old age probably… Fortunately, the good companionship that reigned among the team allowed us to hold out. We met every day to rehearse, unofficially of course, and discreetly, like the early Christians in the catacombs. We spoke to the members of the labour union, we spent hours on the phone with our loved ones, and sometimes we got drunk like true Irishmen in a pub on 8th Avenue.
When the strike ended, we were as ready as ever, we couldn’t wait to get back on stage and perform, nervous as cats. We hadn’t become discouraged, I had prevailed over my vertigo, and I remember that first evening, we were as overexcited as the audience. During the next few days, my mood improved considerably; the show went well, even though the audience was sometimes not as responsive as we wished. It was especially so on Saturday evenings. It was as if all the local pensioners met in Broadway theatres, more to exchange gossip, to see and be seen, and to spend the evening in a warm place than to attend a good spectacle. They were affable, applauded at suitable moments, and sometimes let a polite chuckle escape, but for an actor this type of audience is… awful! Other times, the interaction developed spontaneously, a spectator exclaimed in a loud voice, we picked up on his words, and the retorts mingled with bursts of laughter. During these evenings, we had the feeling that everything was new, we entered untested waters, we relied on the response of the public and I almost felt up to it.
When I’m asked, I usually depict myself more as a craftsman than an artist, an honourable and unpretentious man who does his job as honestly as possible. I’ve never claimed to be a genius. I never will. I lead my life as it comes, I try to stay as busy as I can, without special ambitions or grandiose dreams, simply trying not to screw everything up when I’m lucky enough to be involved in a big project. Sometimes I know that something is happening, when I’m overwhelmed by a strong feeling of completion, but it is rather infrequent and I don’t believe that I could live for a long time at such a level of intensity. Most of the time, I settle for regular, if not brilliant performances, reasonably happy when I don’t get into a mess, vaguely flattered when a bunch of lusting women waits for me at the stage door to ask me for an autograph or a photo. They’re charming but none of them changed my life … I didn’t expect that it would be different with The Seafarer until this very evening, a few days after a screening of Persuasion at Brooklyn College… It was my birthday, I remember it because a fan had wished it to me some hours in advance. “The jet lag,” she had explained with a discreet laugh. Amused, I had kissed her and we had exchanged some pleasant words before parting with the promise to meet again the next day for a drink after the Saturday matinée.
I’m not a romantic, even if I’m seen as one since Persuasion. I’ve worked with the sexiest women without being particularly moved and I’ve fallen for none of them, even though I’ve found it very enjoyable… I’m not made of stone! I don’t believe in love at first sight. When it comes to strong feelings, I’m rather cynical-doubtless a protection against heartache. Maybe it is this reserve that prevents me from reaching the pinnacle of my art, a need to keep intact a part of normality in this hectic life of mine.
So there I was, about to go on stage in this chilly beginning of February, absently thinking of the short-lived friend who had impressed me with her computer skills and her scholarship. I’d felt vaguely embarrassed with her obvious admiration and amused a lot by her admitting that she had gotten lost while looking for the Empire State Building. As if one could get lost in New York! A face among others, a pleasant moment that would be quickly forgotten…
It was almost dark now. I heard Jim’s muffled voice singing more out of tune than ever, “Oh the weather outside is frightening, it’s dark and there’s thunder and lightning” and followed Sean who went down before me, my stomach tied up by a familiar apprehension. I knew that it would disappear with the first few lines of dialogue and hardly paid it any attention. Stage fright is a normal part of any public performance, a good reminder to those who think they know everything. Yet this time, something sorta strange happened: not only did the tight knot in my belly not pass, but I had the unpleasant sensation of being spied upon.
Usually actors don’t see the audience, they barely perceive a tide of anonymous faces bathed in shadow, and even though I happened to gaze at one of those faces while I recited my great monologue of the second act, all I could see was a blurred pale orb. Never had I tried to recognize familiar features, not even when I was very young and my girlfriends came to see me on stage, but that evening, feeling a little bit worried, I kept trying to find the origin of the glance that stabbed me like a sharp edge between my shoulder blades.
At first, I didn’t see anything. During the brief moments when I could watch the public without being noticed, I methodically went through the first few rows, embarrassed by the steady attention of which I was the object since the beginning of the show. My uneasiness subsided slowly: the woman who gazed at me-for I didn’t doubt it was a woman-was not hostile or even critical. On the contrary, she supported me, accompanied me, drew me out of my shell. At first I wanted to show off, then to be myself eventually, myself entirely, caught in a knot of conflicting feelings, shaken by a kind of internal turmoil that I wasn’t used to. Every time I tried to escape, to take refuge behind my know-how, the merciless gaze scourged me, tore me up, obliged me to expose myself heart and soul. And suddenly, I saw her …
It was a woman as I had expected, a short, dark woman seated in the third row, she was neither young nor pretty, but the keen black eyes she kept fixed on me were as bright as stars. When I managed to establish eye contact, she tilted slightly her head, as if she acknowledged it. I had enough time to perceive high cheekbones like mine, ruffled short brown hair, a straight nose and a slightly sulky mouth. Nothing remarkable except those dark, melancholic eyes riveted to mine. And unexpectedly, I felt overrun by all the pain of the world, engulfed in such a sensation of loneliness that tears welled up in my eyes, to my greatest shame.
“Who are you?”
David’s voice aroused in me a wave of uncontrollable anger; I didn’t play any more, I was becoming this locked-heart foreigner, possessed of rage and shame and contempt, burning to bring one of those obnoxious yet enviable human beings, through “the hole in the wall,” in a hell of despair and bitterness.
“I want your soul, Sharky!”
The words sprang with an unexpected strength, my breath caught slightly in my throat and David looked at me briefly, surprised by the intensity of my reply.
“What?” His astonishment was not feigned.
“I want your soul!”
I was not myself anymore, but the vibrating instrument through which the most primitive feelings expressed themselves: anger, envy, fear. I didn’t know if the words I spat with an unknown spite came from a dark and repressed part of my own unconscious, or if they were dictated by this strange woman whose stare wrapped me, drove me, propelled me, inspired me …
“I’m the son of the morning, Sharky. I’m the snake in the garden…”
David followed suit with a slight hesitation; maybe I had really frightened him as my whole body shivered with a kind of sacred fury as I described all the agonies that waited for his misled and miserable self, in the Hell I promised him. And suddenly I lived it fully, I was this wandering soul, bewildered by his loneliness, contemplating the happiness of others through the floodlit windows, this too human devil, who still knew how to cry but could not do it anymore, enswathed in his crust of ice. And turning toward the public who had become abruptly silent, I understood that I’d reached the state of grace every actor dreamed of, thanks to this woman who had opened her soul to me and taken me “right through the old hole in the wall.”
That evening, I did not go out to smoke as I usually did before the end of the show, but I locked myself into my dressing room, knocked out by the revelation. As I stepped back onto the stage, the audience stood up, clapping and cheering, and I knew it was for me. Somebody shouted my name, Jim pushed me forward and the cheers doubled. I looked for the stranger in the third row, but she had disappeared. I had seen so little of her that I wouldn’t have been able to recognize her had I met her accidentally in the street, and it saddened me. I would have liked to thank her.
The miracle recurred for the next three days. I felt bewitched, taken to a world where rationality had no place and I saw her again, without ever distinguishing her clearly enough to engrave her features in my mind, nor identify her with one of the few fans who defied the cold to speak to me and thrust out their Playbills for an autograph. She didn’t try to approach me, or, if she did, I never knew…
On Sunday, when I felt more than ever carried along by my character, both devilish and torn by an ageless pain, I decided to take the initiative and, at the end of the show, I sent somebody to the auditorium with a message scrawled on a calling card. In vain…the woman of the third row was already gone. Vaguely annoyed, frozen by the sharp wind which swept the city, I found that a couple of friends had come quite specially to see me and I tried to forget my disappointment. My French “friend” was there too, a small lonely silhouette on the corner of the alley, and I stopped to greet her. I knew that she had to leave New York the next day and, moved by a sudden impulse, I squeezed her briefly against me. I went away immediately, but as she disappeared around the corner of 45th Street, I was still feeling the heat of her hand lingering on my arm like a soft and melancholic farewell, a warning too…
I spent my day off in a state of complete euphoria and, the next day, I came onto the stage with a renewed heat, aware that I’d exceeded, for the first time, the limits that I’d set for myself since my first steps as an actor. I was eager to feel again the mysterious power that I was invested with and find the audience in a trance, swept away by emotions I did not suppress any more. But when I looked for her, ready to surrender to her will, the woman of the third row had disappeared.
Time flies fast and the sun of California has replaced the blizzards of New York, but I’m still wondering if I’d not dreamed. Anyway, I never knew who was the one who, on a bitter winter evening, showed me the road to the stars…