Dramatic Moments – where theatre and literature collide #3

Finding the stage in the novel or other work of literature:

excerpt from Opening Night by Ngaio Marsh

At ten-to-eight Martyn stood by the entrance.

She was dressed in Gay’s clothes and Jacko had made her up very lightly. They had all wished her luck: J.G., Parry Percival, Helena Hamilton, Adam Poole, Clem Smith and even the dressers and stage-hands.

There had been something real and touching in their way of doing this so that, even in her terror, she had felt they were good and very kind. Bennington alone had not wished her well but he had kept right away and this abstention, she thought, showed a certain generosity.

She no longer felt sick but the lining of her mouth and throat was harsh as if, in fact, she had actually vomited. She thought her sense of hearing must have become distorted. The actors’ voices on the other side of the canvas wall had the remote quality of voices in a nightmare whereas the hammer-blows of her heart and the rustle of her dress that accompanied them sounded extremely loud.

She saw the frames of the set, their lashings and painted legends, “Act 1, P. 2” and the door which she was to open. She could look into the prompt corner where the A.S.M. followed the lighted script with his finger and where, high above him, the electrician leaned over his perch, watching the play. The stage-lights were reflected into his face. Everything was monstrous in its preoccupation. Martyn was alone.

She tried to control the upsurge of panic in her heart, to practice an approach to her ordeal, to create, in place of these implacable realities, the reality of the house in the play and that part of it in which now, out of sight of the audience, she must already have her being. This attempt went down before the clamour of her nerves. “I’m going to fail,” she thought.

“I must listen,” she thought. “I’m not listening. I don’t know where they’ve got to. I’ve forgotten which way the door opens. I’ve missed my cue.” Her inside deflated and despair gripped it like a colic.

She turned and found Poole beside her.

“You’re alright,” he said. “The door opens on. You can do it. Now, my girl. On you go.”

Martyn didn’t hear the round of applause with which a London audience greets a player who appears at short notice. She was on. She had made her entry and was engulfed in the play.

(Excerpt from Opening Night by Ngaio Marsh.)

November 10, 2023