The show must go on

Issue 2/2007 | Archives online, Fiction, Prose

Extracts from the novel Piru, kreivi, noita ja näyttelijä (‘The devil, the count, the witch and the actor’, Gummerus, 2007). Introduction by Anna-Leena Ekroos

I hereby humbly introduce the maiden Valpuri, who has graciously consented to join our troupe,’ Henrik said.

A slight girl thrust herself among us and smiled.

‘What can we do with a somebody like her in the group? A slovenly wench, as you see. She can hardly know what acting is,’ Anna-Margareta snapped angrily.

‘What is acting?’ Valpuri asked.

Henrik explained that acting was every kind of amusing trick done to make people enjoy themselves. I added that the purpose of theatre was to show how the world worked, to allow the audience to examine human lives as if in a mirror. Moreover, it taught the audience about civilised behavior, emotional life, and elegant speech. Ericus thought that the deepest essence of theatre was to give visible incarnation to thoughts and feelings. None of us understood what he meant by this, but we nodded enthusiastically. Anna-Margareta insisted that, say what you will, in the end acting was a childish game. Actors were being something they were not, just like children pretending to be little pigs or baby goats.

The girl stopped smiling, looked at us doubtfully, and started to carefully remove herself from our circle, but Henrik hurriedly said that he had an idea. We didn’t have any money, though we were beset with hunger. Even at the fair there didn’t seem to be any money moving about or multiplying, but salvation was at hand, because now we had the Baron Ericus Gyllenstjerna and Valpuri.

‘Merchants always have money. We’ll perform for the merchants at their lodgings and not let the paupers watch,’ Henrik said. ‘Leonardo and Baron Gyllenstjerna will go and announce to the merchants that a vile, horrifying spectacle called The Passion of Elisa and Abel will be performed this evening. The story is so daring that it will be performed only once, and no one but the merchants can be trusted to be admitted to see it. Tell them that only about a dozen spectators can be admitted, and that the password is “bloody garment”.’

‘What password? What bloody garment? Why not let as many people in as possible?’ I inquired wonderingly, but Henrik said that I didn’t understand much about how theatre works.

‘Anna-Margareta and Valpuri, you walk around amongst the sellers’ tables and talk loudly between yourselves about how there is going to be a performance tonight at the inn that will be so terrifying that it’s not appropriate for womenfolk, and that you would by no means wish your suitors or your brothers to see it, because it would have a corrupting influence on them.’

Anna-Margareta and Valpuri looked baffled, but Henrik continued.

‘Malign the production as indecent, bloody, and vulgar. The more you berate it, the better.’

We didn’t really understand what Henrik was aiming at, but since he had more experience with touring theatre and we were all hungry, we couldn’t bring ourselves to contradict him, and consented to talk to the fair-goers as he instructed.

Then we went to the forest glade, but before we could even begin to rehearse, Valpuri put up resistance. In truth, she did not want to dishonour her Christian name or bring shame on herself by performing for every sort of drunken peasant at the fair. She particularly didn’t want to be the passionate Elisa without a stage name, while the other actors had one. Moreover, Valpuri didn’t sound to her like the name of a trooper who knew something about acting. Salome was a possibility, or perhaps Lilith or Genoveva. An actor with such a name could surely teach people civilised amusements, visibly incarnated elegant speech, and amusing tricks of thought and emotional life.

I thought Valpuri was quite obviously Valpuri and didn’t need another name. Anna-Margareta, for her part, announced that the name Booboo or Augusta would suit Valpuri splendidly. But she didn’t want to be Booboo, and she thought Augusta was the name of a stout old hag with a hairy mole growing from her upper lip.

‘The maiden Valpuri’s beauty is of a rare quality. She looks just the type of the Eastern princess. I think her name should be Princess Theodora,’ Ericus suggested.

Valpuri blushed with delight, raised her chin, lowered her eyelids, and shot him a meaningful look, but I was pondering the probability that an Eastern princess would be short, with blonde braids, a round face, sky-blue eyes, and a pig’s nose.

We started our rehearsal of The Passion of Elisa and Abel, taken from true events. Henrik assured us that the piece would be thrilling and horrifying, but it also had love in it, so it would please both men and women. Abel was Elisa’s tutor, but the two young people fell in love and couldn’t control their burning lust, gratifying it anywhere at any time, whether in a carriage house or behind an armchair.

‘Ah! So it’s The Legend of Elly and Abby, from France,’ Ericus exclaimed.

‘No, this happened in Skåne in Sweden, as I live. In fact, I knew the cook from Elisa’s house, and heard the story from her,’ Henrik assured us.

‘It’s an old papist legend that anyone with even the slightest education should know,’ Ericus insisted.

Ericus and Henrik argued about the character’s names and the setting, and about the question of what any educated person should know, until Henrik, in his capacity as director, took the lead role away from Baron Gyllenstjerna and gave it to me, which pleased me.

‘Now lust for Valpuri,’ Henrik directed.

Valpuri looked at me and batted her eyes. I tried to think of her lustfully.

‘Lust, lust! Try to desire a woman’s flesh, you deuced codfish!’ Henrik roared, leaping between me and Valpuri.

‘Like this. You probe her physique, stroke her behind, her sides. Pant. Speak breathily. Let your eyes roll to the back of your head. I can’t bear another moment if I don’t have you for my own, and so on.’

Henrik pressed his mouth between Valpuri’s breasts, panted, rotated his pelvis and pressed his fists against her buttocks, until Anna-Margareta yelled that he shouldn’t enter too much into the spirit of the role.

I tried to lust for Valpuri according to Henrik’s example. I wrapped my arms around her and rolled my eyes upward so that I wouldn’t see her turned-up nose. Valpuri pressed herself close to me, felt me with her hands, and exuded an intense odour of sweat and greasy hair.

‘Ah! I burn with the fires of pleasure,’ I said. I tried not to breathe, turned my head to the side on account of the smell, and took a couple of steps backward.

Valpuri giggled. Henrik made cries as if in pain and berated me soundly, waving his arms and cursing the day he had accepted me into the troupe.

‘Think of something you want desperately. Think of crisp-fried bacon or a pint of ale,’ he suggested.

I imagined Valpuri dressed in Ericus’ fluffy wolf-skin coat as I stroked her, but it wasn’t much of an improvement. Henrik swore and scolded and gave the role back to Ericus. I was to be the father and the angel.

I was amazed at how Ericus did it. He just looked at Valpuri for a long time, motionless. Valpuri blushed to her ears. Then he walked slowly towards her, and I don’t know what it was, but there was something terribly lewd about his walk. He was still looking fixedly into her eyes, and with a very slow movement, he took her hand and kissed the ends of her fingers. Valpuri’s breathing became laboured.

‘Well, I can certainly do that,’ I affirmed.

‘Yes, we’ve already seen. Just be a holy angel and flap your wings,’ Henrik commanded.

Elisa and Abel wallowed in the sin of lust in such numerous ways that one hardly dared watch, but then they got religion and repented of their sins and went to a monastery, where they went right on lusting after each other, until Abel cut off his ticklish third leg.

The play ended with a wave of Abel’s knife, so it was left open whether or not the lust ended there or whether things took a real turn for the worse, with the lust remaining but the tool of sinful pleasure gone. The story didn’t say what Elisa thought of this. It didn’t ask her opinion, though her dreams had been wasted.

There were different opinions in our troupe about The Legend of Elisa and Abel. Valpuri was of the opinion that they should have practised their debauchery for a year or two, after which they would have tired of each other in any case. Then they could have gone with happy hearts to the monastery, if they were determined to do so. Anna-Margareta thought that they should have married and had children and lived like decent people. Henrik supported this opinion because he generally thought highly of all of Anna-Margareta’s suggestions these days. Ericus, in Abel’s shoes, would have taken Elisa and escaped with her to foreign parts.

I felt very sorry for Elisa, whose only sin was to love too much. I thought Abel did an outrageous thing when he arbitrarily maimed that part of his body which God in his wisdom had placed between his legs.

We rehearsed the story three times in turn, and I wrote down the main scenes so that Anna-Margareta could whisper them if Valpuri or Ericus forgot the plot. Ericus acted splendidly, and even Valpuri wasn’t bad. She pronounced her lines with energy, in a loud voice. But she had an unfortunate tendency to break into laughter in the middle of a scene, for which Henrik berated and threatened her.

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That evening, we waited at the inn to see if we would garner an audience. An odour of roasted meat and turnips flooded from the cookhouse, and we observed how ponderous were the pints of ale and brimming the dishes that were hurried to the tables before us. We hadn’t eaten in three days and our heads were swimming.

A certain tar merchant from Oulu sat down near us, fixed his gaze in another direction, and plucked at Henrik.

‘Bloody garment,’ he whispered out of one side of his mouth, pretending to scratch his nose. ‘There are four of us. Is the piece as vulgar as they say?’

‘Follow me when I give the sign. Take care that no one sees you,’ Henrik hissed.

The first password-giver was soon followed by another, and then a third came whispering, and before long I perceived that the whole crowd at the inn had come to see our performance, including Russian merchants who didn’t even understand our language. I pointed out to Henrik that the spectators were to be admitted only a dozen at a time, and that any more wouldn’t even fit, because we had were planning to perform in the stable. Henrik just laughed and shook his head and said that I honestly didn’t understand anything about the life of the theatre or the concept of an audience.

In the end we performed in the main room of the inn. It was more comfortable for both audience and performers, and the workers at the inn were able to see our artistry, too. Henrik put off the beginning of the performance until he thought that the crowd had drunk sufficiently. He began by making them swear to keep their mouths shut about what they were about to see, lest evil befall both audience and actors. He put his head out of the door to peek into the courtyard, closed it carefully, put his finger to his lips to quiet the audience, and then we began. Anna-Margareta struck the side of a kettle three times.

At first the audience chatted and drank their ale, and I suspected that Henrik had miscalculated the depth of their drunkenness. But when Ericus walked lewdly toward Valpuri and kissed her fingertips, they grew quiet, and their eyes began to follow the drama closely. I feared that they would laugh at me again when I appeared before the lovers as an angel, but that didn’t happen. They held their breath and leaned forward on their benches. I could see their eyes glistening. Some of the serving girls twisted the hems of their aprons.

Ericus and Valpuri performed better than they ever had done in rehearsal. Passion trembled in the air between them. The Russian merchants jostled each other and pointed at the actors but managed to keep quiet.

At the end Abel’s knife whistled, Ericus roared in agony, and a bloody, sliced-off organ fell onto the stage with a slap. The audience screamed and jumped up to stand on their benches, ale pints clattered to the floor, the serving girls covered their eyes, the Russians bellowed curses in their own language, and even I cried out loud with horror, not knowing that Henrik and Valpuri had secretly prepared a roll of leather and stuffed it with fresh clay mixed with blood.

It was a splendid performance. The audience burst out laughing with relief when Henrik demonstrated to them that Ericus still had all of his parts intact and the whole horrifying mutilation had been nothing but a theatrical trick. The merchants generously doled out pennies, dried fish, and woollen yarn. We even got a jug of tar, and a certain black-eyed Russian presented Valpuri with a woollen cap. The innkeeper invited us to eat and even offered us some ale if we would promise to perform Elisa and Abel the following evening. Henrik resisted, but I shouted our consent before the innkeeper had a chance to change his mind. Afterwards Henrik reproved me and claimed that he would have got more food and drink as well as several pennies, if not coppers, out of him if I hadn’t spoiled the negotiations with my customary idiocy.

We ate meat and turnips until our bellies were stretched tight and the free ale hummed in our heads. First we congratulated ourselves and each other on being such great actors and noble human beings, but then we started to argue over how to divide the money. As the director, Henrik felt he should take care of the cash. Ericus disagreed, as did Valpuri. They wanted the largest share of the money because they had performed the lead roles, had they not. Anna-Margareta reminded us that we still had to eat tomorrow and the day after that, and it would be wise to save the money. I wanted my share of the money so that I could buy a pretty silk kerchief from the Russian merchants at the fair. Finally the innkeeper suggested that we put half of our earnings in savings and share the rest equally among the five of us. We did so, but my share wasn’t enough for a kerchief.

Within several days, I would have had enough to buy two kerchiefs, if there had still been any for sale, because Elisa and Abel was a great success. After Kalajoki, we performed it in towns and fairs to ever larger audiences. The audience screamed in horror every time Abel’s knife flashed and the roll of clay fell. We got a real bull’s member from the market meat vendors once, but it hit the stage with a feeble, muffled thud. Illusion is always more powerful than reality, Henrik said, and made the thing into a horsewhip.

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It was Henrik’s opinion that Valpuri was a lucky charm who brought us money and success. The girl was monotone, vain, a glutton for praise, and prone to laugh and cry easily. Just the kind of person who made a good actor, he thought. She also prayed diligently, but not terribly piously, since she sent God detailed catalogues of everything that the Comet theatre troupe, and particularly she personally, needed: dry weather tomorrow, wool stockings and a large, flowered shawl, preferably variegated red on a black background, a good audience, and sufficient memory that she wouldn’t forget her lines.

Valpuri was a potter. She had received her training illegally from a miserly master. The master’s boy apprentice had been clumsy with his hands, so he had taught her his craft in secret and put her to work slip-casting, although it was strictly forbidden and a crime to teach such skills to women. She had sold clay bowls and cups at the fairs as well, but the only thing she missed from her previous life was the rotating apparatus on which she used to raise a cup or bowl from a lump of clay. She had been happy to escape the potter in the middle of her term of service to join our tour, and laughed that he wouldn’t dare to report her to the authorities because he had committed plenty of sins and offences himself.

As we were leaving the wet Kalajoki fair, Valpuri dug up a firkin of blue clay which she insisted on bringing with us, though it was heavy. She made cups in her spare time and fired them red in the coals of our evening campfires. She would roll the clay into coils and wind the coils into drinking vessels, which she decorated by poking the clay with a stick, and on the edge of the cups she would place a little bird, and sometimes also a pig’s head. She also moulded cows, pigs, and people’s faces from the clay for amusement, and regretted that the coals weren’t sufficient to glaze the vessels so that the water wouldn’t seep through them.

Valpuri’s skills did have the benefit of providing us with supplies. We smashed the cups to pieces when performing scenes of rage and hatred, and she also made bird whistles, which we sold to the spectators.

She had a mouth-harp, too, which she strummed between her teeth. Its plaintive tone suited many of our pieces, and the sound tempted onlookers to approach us at the fairs.

Henrik demonstrated a strange interest in Valpuri’s skill at pottery. Often they sat huddled together while Henrik tried clumsily to fashion a human head or a candlestick between his fingers. The result was nothing in particular, but they seemed to enjoy themselves together. To crown it all, Henrik rolled the clay into heads and insisted on drying them and keeping them in his trunk. As always, he had more self-assurance and confidence in his abilities than he had creativity or a sense of beauty.

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In addition to Elisa and Abel, we performed an abundance of tableaux of pagans and Christians, as well as saints. In these, a virtuous maiden (Valpuri) would generally offer her virginity to a cruel pagan (Henrik or Ericus or both) and thus save a servant of God (me) from death, wailing vociferously and rolling her eyes as she surrendered to the pagan’s animal lust. Sometimes her sacrifice would also convert the pagan to the true Christian faith and the two of them would be consecrated in holy matrimony, after which, for some reason, they would instantly declare their renunciation of the passions of the flesh. Henrik couldn’t explain this illogical conclusion. He said that it was the custom in Christian marriages.

Occasionally, in the saints’ legends, Roman soldiers would tear the clothes off virgins who had converted to Christianity and rape and torture them with extremely varied methods and positions, but the women would endure it for the sake of the faith and be admitted to the joys of heaven. Sometimes I would arrive in the form of an angel and carry them up to paradise, or attack the soldiers with my sword.

There was an amazing new fire and excitement in our old piece about Joseph and Potiphar when Valpuri played Potiphar’s wife. She wiggled her tail, stretched out her legs and rolled her eyes, hoisted her breasts in her hands, and flicked her tongue over Joseph’s earlobe.

The audience watched these performances with great enthusiasm, but many were also horrified by them. Henrik said that there was no cause to regret this, because the bad publicity would draw spectators – both those who came to see the Roman soldiers and pagans and Elisa and Abel’s life of pleasure, as well as those who were scandalised by the performances and wanted to see with their own eyes whether they were really as depraved as was rumoured.

I sometimes suspected that Henrik had invented the saints’ legends, many of which I had never heard of. He gave clear-eyed assurances, however, that they were the same tableaux that were performed in every marketplace in Germany and France, and that it was natural that we insipid Lutherans were not properly knowledgeable about true saints’ histories, the steadfastness of faith, heroism or torture. I didn’t dispute him. It was a subject that turned my stomach and I wanted to forget about it.

There were in our tableaux a large number of battles with swords, spears, clubs, nets, gigs, and bare hands. Henrik was very ingenious with fight scenes. He made swords that retracted into their hilts when they were thrust against an opponent’s belly. He showed us how to throw an opponent in an arch onto the ground so that it looked violent but was in truth an acrobatic stunt for both of the actors. The important thing was to bellow in a terrible voice so that the audience didn’t notice the trick.

The cleverest of all was when Henrik kept a pig’s bladder filled with blood hidden in his mouth and bit it open in the tumult of battle. It made a very good death. The blood would spurt out of his mouth onto his tunic and into the eyes of the first row of spectators. The audience would scream in horror, and our next performance would draw even more spectators, all pushing to get to the front and be in the shower of blood.

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Summer turned to autumn, but it was a warm and sunny autumn. We collected a tidy sum touring the autumn fairs.

We didn’t fear the coming of winter, because we didn’t have to bargain with a stingy innkeeper’s wife. On the contrary, many inns were attempting to lure us to stay with them for the winter. We only needed to choose the best offer, and we made plans to tarry over the winter, performing in three or four inns.

The best thing of all was that I became Ericus’ friend and comrade, and experienced with him on the stage those wondrous moments, when actors gaze into each others’ eyes and know that they have the audience in the palms of their hands and are performing like gods.

We inspired each other with ever more unbridled performances. When we were in front of an audience, we would add inspired lines and unexpected actions. Every performance was different, and I never knew in advance what Ericus would think up. I simply had to keep my physical and spiritual power tensed and alert, to read his thoughts and intentions from his forget-me-not eyes and be ready to respond to his tricks with tricks of my own, and even surpass them.

In the evening after a performance we sat side by side at the table in some inn, hungry, gnawing into hard bread and gulping down a tankard of ale. The nights were happy ones, too, to be able to stretch out with one’s comrades on the wagon bed or the floor of an inn and sleep deeply, with a friend slumbering nearby.

I lacked for nothing. I had it all.

Translated by Lola Rogers

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