Characters with theatrical jobs

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As you know I tend not to do weekly or other regular bookish memes, but here’s a spin on one I couldn’t resist, especially as it related to Lory’s prompt Reading the Theatre. It’s posed by Helen of She Reads Novels and this is how she introduced her recent post:

“This week’s topic for Top Ten Tuesday (hosted by Jana at That Artsy Reader Girl) is “Characters Whose Job I Wish I Had”. As Jana says we can put our own unique spin on each topic and as I wanted to join in with Lory’s Reading the Theatre month, I have chosen ten characters who have jobs connected with acting and the theatre. These are not all jobs I would like to have myself, but some of them sound fun!”

So, without much further ado here’s my take on Helen’s take; quotes (with links) are from my reviews.

1. Participating member of the audience

In Herman Hesse’s Steppenwolf the outsider Harry Haller comes across a sign saying MAGIC THEATRE: ENTRANCE NOT FOR EVERYBODY. Though he doesn’t yet know it he will eventually participate in a unique theatre performance; for now, though,

“the Steppenwolf sees reflected on the road surface the words FOR MADMEN ONLY! Is he mad enough to be admitted? Apparently not just yet, for he has to make a further journey through ‘the labyrinth of Chaos’ before he can partake in the Anarchist Evening Entertainment later promised him.”

2. Puppeteer

I’d dearly like to cite two children’s books here, beginning with Joan Aiken’s The Cuckoo Tree in which the climax involves the mannikin puppets of a villain coming alive during a coronation in St Paul’s Cathedral while dastardly plans proceed to roll the building down the hill into the Thames. But instead I’ll limit myself to just Diana Wynne Jones’s The Magicians of Caprona which similarly involves puppets, this time belonging to the Duke of Caprona. One of the threads in the novel

“concerns the Punch and Judy puppet theatre. Originally the show was based on Italian Commedia dell’Arte marionettes, but in England evolved into the glove puppet version; in Jones’ alternate world fiction the glove puppets have become familiar in Italy, and the Duke of Caprona’s childish obsession with this miniature world is employed to great effect, both in the plot and in its metaphorical guises.”

3. Actor

Dodie Smith’s novel It Ends with Revelations concerns the mystery of an individual’s sexuality, all set against the changing attitudes in 1960s Britain. Jill is married to Miles Quentin who is starring in a provincial play; we also meet a bitchy director and a two-faced agent, a young playwright and a local MP, along with the latter’s daughters.

“Like a stage play It Ends with Revelations is essentially in two acts with several scenes: Act I is largely set in a Regency spa town where a theatre adaptation of a TV play is being given a provincial run before a hoped-for transfer to the West End; Act II takes place mostly in London with a brief excursion to darkest Essex, and features those anticipated revelations.”

4. Actress

The Case of the Gilded Fly by Edmund Crispin is the first of his Gervase Fen crime mysteries and features a disparate cast of actors, a police inspector and an idiosyncratic academic.

“It is October 1940 and a number of individuals are travelling from London to Oxford (“the City of Screaming Choirs”) to rehearse and then perform a play called Metromania at an Oxford theatre. However, during the week of rehearsals a particularly obnoxious actor, Yseut Haskell, is shot and killed in an undergraduate’s rooms in St Christopher’s College.”

(Helen, incidentally, chose a 6th-century actress called Theodora who rose to become a Byzantine Empress and the wife of Justinian the Great. She had trained as an actress, dancer and acrobat but, as their contemporary Procopius wrote in his The Secret History, they were a singularly unpleasant pair.)

5. An inadvertent luminary

E Nesbit’s The Phoenix and the Carpet features as a climax a 1902 theatrical performance of Charles Kingsley’s The Water-Babies in which the accident-prone Phoenix causes mayhem when he gets overexcited, setting fire to the theatre: it’s not the first time he causes mishap:

“From that first Guy Fawkes Night through the rebirth of the Phoenix from the flames, the setting alight of an increasingly frayed carpet and a visit to the Phoenix Fire Office in Lombard Street we arrive at the potentially catastrophic conflagration at the Garrick Theatre.”

6. The ‘resting’ actor

‘Till September Petronella’ is an autobiografictional short story by Jean Rhys about an out-of-work actress who is

“a thinly disguised version of the writer, confirmed by the fact that Ella was one of Rhys’s forenames. She is a model and former actress, living in digs in Bloomsbury, invited for the summer to join three others in a rented cottage in the Gloucestershire countryside. But it turns out to be a poisonous ménage, a hotbed of jealousy and misogyny.”

7. A child actor

Eva Ibbotson’s Journey to the River Sea takes us from Europe to South America where, in the famous Teatro Amazonas in Manaus, Brazil, young put-upon Maia meets a child actor who will have a significant influence on her life: he is

“Clovis King, a stage name, borrowed from the first monarch who united Gaul after the fall of the Western Roman Empire; he comes to the Teatro Amazonas in Manaus to play Little Lord Fauntleroy, a significant role and a significant name too: Clovis is called on to play the part of a missing young milord, while ‘Fauntleroy’ suggests the derivation enfant le roi, ‘the child king’.”

8. A music hall star

Paul Dempster is the focus of the third volume of Robertson Davies’ Deptford Trilogy called World of Wonders. As the illusionist Magnus Eisengrim he recounts his career from the moment Ramsay the narrator clumsily attempts to teach him card tricks to the time a BBC documentary producer plans a retrospective.

“As the theatre of the Great War made the greatest impression in Fifth Business on Ramsay’s thinking, and the theatre of the mind on Staunton in The Manticore, other theatres dominate World of Wonders. These include the desperate life of carnival people in early 20th-century sideshows and vaudeville, the more salubrious life of a theatre company in repertory and on tour, the private shows that the wealthy could create with automata, and domestic entertainments which viewers were able to enjoy through their television sets.”

9. Aspiring actors

In Robertson Davies’ Tempest-Tost, the first of his Salterton Trilogy, we have a full cast of aspiring Canadian actors being directed by a real professional in a performance of a Shakespeare play:

“In the middle of the 20th century The Little Theatre company, an amateur group, is attempting to put on an open air pastoral of The Tempest, unaware that they are as much the dramatis personae in a real-life play as the characters they are hoping to portray.”

10. Drama teacher

Helen chose Hag-Seed by Margaret Atwood for her entry under this final heading (a novel which is on my TBR pile) all about a theatre director who gets a new job “teaching drama and literacy to the prisoners at Fletcher Correctional, directing them in a production of The Tempest.” Instead of her drama teacher I’m going for a real-life academic, D G James, who lectured on this very same play with his talks published as The Dream of Prospero. In the 1960s James discussed not just the nature of illusion and magic in Shakespeare’s play but

“was able to draw on recently published academic studies to reinforce and expand on the accepted view that Shakespeare not only drew on contemporary reports of voyages to the New World but was also acquainted directly or indirectly with some of the principal participants in expeditions to colonise Virginia.”


I can’t say I’ve been as adventurous with my selections as Helen, but then I didn’t have much variety to select from — but I hope you enjoyed these nevertheless! Would I have any of these jobs? Er, probably no, but as I like pontificating perhaps Number Ten would suit me. 🙂

44 thoughts on “Characters with theatrical jobs

    1. Thank you, Alicia, I’ll bear that in mind. I get the impression that every young actor, male or female, yearns to play Hamlet, and every mature one Lear, given that age will have given them some preparation for the role, to be enriched by the prolonged immersion that you say Sher brought to it. I’d be particularly interested to see Glenda Jackson’s interpretation.

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      1. His biggest problem seemed to be the ability to portray a character with a damaged body, day in, and day out, for all the time he was on stage. As someone who has mobility problems, I found those parts fascinating. It is a difficult role to do well.

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  1. Antony Sher also published a book about his journey into the skin of Falstaff, which I read after having seen him in the role, in the RSC‘s „Henry IV“ double bill (and found that he was the first actor who made sense of it for me, chiefly because he didn‘t play it for laughs).

    Even more than that, though, I‘d recommend Sher‘s and Gregory Doran‘s „Woza Shakespeare“, which chronicles their tour de force of bringing „Titus Andronicus” (of all plays) to Apartheid-era South Africa. Don‘t get sidetracked on the near-universal „oh, I never liked that play“ sentiment — there‘s a reason why they picked it, of course — the book just brims with insight on everything from the world of the theatre, S.A. and British society (and society in general), 1980s politics, etc. I found it an absolutely riveting read.

    Inter alia, Doran and Sher also have comments on actors‘ ambitions to play particular roles (for black actors, Othello)

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    1. I’ve always thought that Falstaff was a figure of pathos rather than one to be laughed at, though admittedly I’ve only seen about three versions (one of which was a scaled-down version of Verdi’s operatic version, in which one of our daughters played double bass). And I have a vague memory of mentions of Woza Shakespeare in the day; sadly I’ve never seen Sher in a live performance. In fact, other than TV, it’s been years since I’ve seen Shakespeare professionally acted — it’s been mostly amateur productions of the usual favourites like the Dream or Two Gentlemen, or else dance versions like those by Kenneth Macmillan or Matthew Bourne of Romeo and Juliet.

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      1. Well, props to your daughter either way! 🙂

        Shakespeare in ballet is something that I, in turn, have yet to catch up with — and there, even more so than with the plays as such, I think a live performance experience is infinitely more immersive than watching them on DVD / computer screen. There is very little of that to be got where I am, so ironically, my best bets to catch anything by Shakespeare, in recent years were my visits to England, with built-in evenings at The Globe or another theatre (National, Old Vic, etc.) in London, or one of the RSC stages. Heaven knows when and under what conditions that is going to be possible again in the future.

        And I agree about Falstaff; he definitely isn’t a figure of comedy — even if Elizabeth I seems to have thought so when she ordered the play that eventually became “The Merry Wives of Windsor”. But then, she’d probably have seen Falstaff performed by Will Kempe, who almost certainly would have played him for laughs. Which in turn opens up the whole can of worms of authorial intent, “original” vs. contemporary interpretation … etc., I guess!

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        1. Where we live in Wales we have reasonable access to Cardiff’s Millennium Centre to see touring versions of professional productions, from opera and Matthew Bourne’s modern ballets to the moving Warhorse, but these are few and far between; when we lived in Bristol there were plays, operas, ballets, concerts and films in plenty that we could attend; since Covid even the local musical activities we were involved with have been in abeyance, and heaven knows if, like you, we’ll ever get to visit the Globe or other London theatres again anytime soon.

          The last Falstaff I saw was Simon Russell Beale’s on the BBC, part of a trilogy of history plays they called The Hollow Crown; our son Cameron was a grip in the camera crew for the third episode: https://m.imdb.com/name/nm2949446/filmotype/camera_department

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          1. Props to your son as well! 🙂

            I downloaded the streamed version of “The Hollow Crown”; have yet to watch it (what I’ve heard about it mostly sounds very good). I want to watch it when I really have the opportunity to give it my full attention, though.

            Simon Russell Beale’s Falstaff is one of the takes on the role that Sher discusses in the early parts of “The Year of the Fat Knight” — where he details his thinking process on whether to take on the role at all.

            My only “involvement” with the stage here at home is as a member of the audience — until the season before last my mom and I had opera season tickets, but now she unfortunately no longer feels up to that (she’ll be 83 this year), so even after COVID restrictions are lifted (when they finally are) I’ll be on my own, since unfortunately none of my close friends here shares my interest in theatre and, especially, opera! 😦

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            1. Your further details on Sher’s book intrigues even more! And what a shame there aren’t more shared interest like opera and the theatre with your close friends — thank goodness my partner and me have so many tastes in common.

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            2. Always glad to connect with another English-speaking book blogger here in continental Europe! I love your pen name too. (I assume it’s a pen name anyway.)

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  2. Oops, sorry, meant to add that Sher isn‘t one of those who‘ve always aspired to play Shakespeare‘s „pretty boy“ roles (such as Hamlet) — he says in „The Year of the Fat Knight“ that he considers that a career track entirely different from his own.

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    1. Encouraging to hear that, Jeanne! I was going to give Marina Warner’s Tempest-inspired novel Indigo priority over Atwood’s take but am now dithering! But first I have John Milton’s masque about an enchanter, Comus, to reread for #ReadingTheTheatre…

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  3. I love your choices and I certainly think some of them are just as adventurous as mine, particularly ‘Participating member of the audience’ and ‘inadvertent luminary’! I did think of Fifth Business and The Case of the Gilded Fly when I was compiling my list, but I couldn’t fit them in. I loved The Phoenix and the Carpet as a child but had forgotten about the theatrical connection!

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    1. I don’t know about you but just the phrase “audience participation” puts me in a dither! But I’m glad you liked my choices, Helen, especially as I loved your spin on the Top Ten Tuesday tag. It’s odd too how coincidences arrive: having just reviewed Peter Pan which began life as an Edwardian-era play, to be reminded in Nesbit’s novel of another popular production, The Water-Babies, from that period was singularly fortuitous. (By the way, I was chuffed with the punning “inadvertent luminary”, I think it worked!)

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        1. I have a vague memory that C S Lewis acknowledged Crispin in a novel (possibly in an intro to That Hideous Strength which I’m hoping to read this month) so clearly we’ll regarded by his Oxford colleagues!

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    1. Sadly I can’t take credit for combining the memes — that belongs to Helen — but I was pleased to come up with some different theatrical ‘characters’! 🙂

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  4. This was fun to read. As I went through the list I was asking myself whether I’d want to do any of these jobs. I’m definitely more of a backroom person – it’s my husband who is the thespian (amateur) – so I’d have to go for any character who is involved in props, stage management or front of house. But I can’t think of any books featuring those roles!

    I’ll echo the other fans of Hag Seed – somewhat preposterous when we get to the final stages but still highly enjoyable

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    1. Thanks, Karen. Like you I’m not really an up-front performer, and even when I’m playing piano in public it’s usually accompanying an instrumentalist or singer, never a soloist; ditto singing in an ensemble, and as for acting, forget it — unless I’m heavily disguised. So yes, I can’t think of theatre fiction which focuses on backstage staff either, but I’ll look out for them now!

      I hope to read Hag Seed sometime this year, my copy isn’t going out any time soon…

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    1. Oh yes, Eva Ibbotson! Must read her A Company of Swans about a ballet troupe, or one of her other novels for older readers now marketed as YA, quite a few of which are languishing on my shelves. And thanks for the shout-out along with Helen on you blog. 😊

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  5. An interesting take on It Ends with Revelations. I’ve never really thought about it that way before. Have you read The Town in Bloom? My second favourite Dodie Smith book (you can’t beat I Capture the Castle) and also very theatre-ish.

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