Bridge 5

September 11th, 2010

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Bridge 5–THE BALD SOPRANO



We talk to one another constantly,

Are under the illusion we’ve been heard,

Until a friend does things that make us see

That all the time he’s hardly heard a word.

And what a strange coincidence it is,

Bizarre, absurd, yes, even wonderful,

When your remembrance is the same as his–

So seldom that it’s  . . . unbelievable . . .

Like dreams remembered in analysis–

“How curious!  We must have met before.”

The tragedy of language lies in this:

He can’t remember what you told him, or,

“I’m sorry, Mr. Fire Chief, but I

Misunderstood your story–don’t know why.”

[Fall, 1956]

“Nebraska is north from Kansas, isn’t it?” Shoko asked.  “I’ve never been there.  I’ve gone by airplane . . . California to New York, New York to California.  Some day I want to go by automobile, like Jordan and Christine did.  But it’s Oklahoma, Kansas, Nebraska, South Dakota, North Dakota, right?”

“Right!” Henry replied.  “Stacked there in the middle, one on top of the other.  Now, can you name the capitals?”

“I learned them in school . . . the names of all the United States, and their capitals.  Those five were easy.  I saw them as a Japanese jubako, yes, stacked that way,  one on top of the other . . . on the bicycle rack of Texas . . . going west.”  She smiled as she illustrated what she was saying with hand gestures.  “The capital of Nebraska is Lincoln.”

“Right again,” I answered.  Betty and I drove up through Lincoln on our way from Lawrence to Wellington, Nebraska, perhaps fifty miles north, and mostly west, of Omaha.  And

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that’s where we met Henry, at Wellington College.  A long time ago.  I should let him tell you about it.”

“Back in the good old days,” Henry said, “when we were young and innocent.  And, old as it was, Wellington College seemed innocent, too . . . an unspoiled little campus.”

“Yes,” I agreed, “still naively affirming the liberal arts tradition in the middle of Nebraska farm country.  It’s probably still a pretty little school, though I’ve never been back  . . . not since we all left . . . in the spring of . . . 1957.  And almost all those little schools have had serious financial problems.”

“Even worse,” Henry added, “most of them have lost their morale, and their mission–that faculty commitment to the uncomplicated pursuit of knowledge for its own sake.”

“Many no longer exist,” I said, “but I know Wellington does, because Betty told me that Christine got a Wellington catalog in the mail last fall.  She laughed about it, saying, ‘She knows she was born there,  and is becoming very sentimental about such things.’  But how did they get her address?  From  Marge?  From Betty herself . . . as a joke?  Or maybe Laura sent for it, with Christine going into her senior year.”

Henry thought about it.  “Most likely Laura. She got a good education there, didn’t she?  And should be proud of it.”

“And Laura was already talking about Christine going to college,”  Shoko added.

“Or maybe Marge,” Henry said.  “Christine and Jordan did stop there coming across country, you know.  Christine wanted to see where she was born . . . and the school.”

“No . . . I didn’t know that,” I said.  “That’s interesting.”

“Christine said they stopped at the ’boutique,’ surprising Marge, so they had to have her name, at least.  Marge gave them a tour of the town and the campus, and took them to the country club for lunch.  It made me realize how I’ve lost contact.  I kept in touch with Marge for a while.  She handled

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the sale of my property, and sent my mail.  Then Christmas cards.  But we haven’t written for years now.”  He turned to Shoko.  “Remind me to.  She must have seen things in the newspaper, and would wonder about Betty.  They were once good friends.  And now Christine . . . the baby . . . grown up.  And I’d like to know how Marge is doing.  I could call . . . but we’ll write.”  Then back to me.  “I don’t think Betty ever wrote to Marge.  And they were pretty close . . . for a few months.”

“They had lunch together almost every day, and spent a lot of time together at Marge’s apartment while you were doing The Bald Soprano.  But after Christine was born Betty saw less and less of Marge.  Of course, Betty never wrote much to me, either–but did telephone occasionally, in these last years.  She liked to try out ideas on me . . . like the countess did.”

“Betty gets accused of leaving people,” Shoko objected. “Of using them, then leaving them.  But that’s not fair.  When she began to work on a new play, yes, she left the old play behind . . . not the people.  With anything she worked on, she gave the others as much as she got from them.”

“That’s a good way to look at it,” I said.  “But I can’t see her sending for a catalog from a place she had definitely left behind–considered a hick college.  It was small . . . about a thousand students.  Probably not many more now.”

“But now they’ll be taking courses in social work,” Henry said, “and accounting, and criminal justice–not French, or biology, or the kind of psychology I taught.  They probably take public opinion polls, about buying soap or paying taxes, in their psychology classes today, instead of reading Freud and Jung and James . . . or even about Pavlov and Skinner.”

“You should have stayed there, Henry, to save that school from itself . . . instead of trying to save Betty from both Wellington and me.  But who can save anything . . . or anyone . . . including himself . . . from anything?”

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“I can see that you’re becoming a philosopher, Jack.  Yes, better just to relax and enjoy what you can . . . while you can.”  He took Shoko’s hand again, and smiled benignly.

“Well, I did enjoy Wellington.  It was an intense year for me.  We didn’t plan to stay, anyway.  It was to be an interval–part of my training in theatre–but Wellington had entrance requirements, and a sound reputation, so it got a lot of good students.  By then, many wealthy professional people were sending their kids there, up from Omaha or Kansas City, over from Des Moines–even as far away as Denver or Chicago.”

I spoke to Shoko’s sense of US geography.  “We were  half-way between those two cities, about 500 miles from either.  The big state schools were suffering growing pains, and already showing those liberal revolutionary tendencies that gave those well-to-do, establishment parents fits in the ’60s.”

“And alumni were carefully cultivated for endowments and recruiting,” Henry added.  “So I think they must’ve known where Laura was last year–you couldn’t hide from them.”

“Well, it was a good place to send your kids,” I said.  Almost nobody on the faculty had a national reputation–but they were good teachers, concerned about their students, while the big universities were turning them into numbers.  I’d encourage Christine to go to the Wellington I remember.  But, you’re right, that school is no doubt gone–and, in any case, she could hardly recapture our fond memories, could she?”

“No, Jack, she couldn’t.  You should go back there with her . . . tell her how it was . . . like Prospero explaining the past to Miranda.  But I think she may have other plans.”

Henry seemed lost in his own memories for a minute.  “Remember how the campus was situated on that open rise?  Not exactly a hill, but overlooking town . . . with a carpet of green grass and large, beautiful oak trees.  The buildings were a mixture of old and new.  Darvey Hall, where I taught all of

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my classes, and which dominated the center of the campus, dated from about 1890, I think, while the gymnasium, and the married student and faculty housing–where you and Betty lived for a while–had been built after World War II.”

“And the Fine Arts Center, that housed my theatre, had just been finished.  That was my first full-time job.  All I’d done before I went into the Air Force had been part-time work, and afterwards I’d just gone back to school.  So there I was, with a brand-new M.A., director of the Wellington College Theatre, in the brand-new Nelson Fine Arts Center.  I worked under the Chairman of Humanities, Dr. Gorman, a Phi Beta Kappa from Brown who taught philosophy.  But he gave me total freedom with the theatre program, which was being given its own identity.  Before that it had been a part-time job for an English professor who’d retired that spring.”

“Marvin Jones.”  Henry was musing again.  I could see he enjoyed the memories.  “I always liked him.  He did a Shakespeare play each spring, Romeo and Juliet and A Midsummer Night’s Dream while I was there.  But he and his wife, Janice, moved out here to California before you got there, I believe.”

“I’d met them when I was there to interview for the job, though.  I always wondered why, after he’d planned the theatre, and fussed through all the construction problems, he’d retired before he’d directed a single play in it.  I guess he knew he had heart trouble–he died before we could bring him back to honor him as ‘father of the new theatre’ at the opening of The Glass Menagerie, as we’d planned to do.

“And I don’t think he got along with the administration.  At the time I was hired, the president . . . John Wharton . . . I remember you saying you couldn’t conceive of him spending a whole evening reading a book . . .”  Henry nodded, then shook his head.  “. . . told me they wanted some ‘new and imaginative’ things done in theatre, ‘something besides Shake-

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speare, and other run-of-the-mill college plays,’ though he had no clear ideas of just what–which suited me fine.  By the time we got there I had a briefcase full of plans, and a dozen letters from that old girl friend of yours that you and Shoko are going to be corresponding with–the inimitable Marge French.”

Henry put up a hand to stop me while he explained to Shoko. “You hear us talking about Marge, but she really was important, the guiding spirit of the Wellington Community Players–who were also going to use that new theatre.  They’d raised part of the money for the building, and she definitely wanted to do some of those ‘experimental things’–probably gave President Wharton that idea–since I don’t think he ever went to a play himself.  She might have been one reason Marvin Jones retired.  He’d had her as a student, and directed her in Shakespeare plays, and wasn’t sure he could handle all that enthusiasm in what she now thought of as her theatre.”

“But she was eagerly awaiting the new director,” I said.  “To see that after my name, ‘Director of the Wellington College Theatre,’ on a letter from a substantial citizen in the community, provoked me to take myself much more seriously.  And she certainly turned out to be a substantial citizen.”

“Well, she was born and raised in Wellington,” Henry said.  “Her father had inherited the family farm, about two miles south, but moved into town, and into the feed business, when she and her two brothers were still kids.  Marge had been everything in high school–cheerleader, homecoming queen, president of the literary club, and lead in the spring play each year . . . you name it.  She was used to running things.”

“I always wondered why she’d stayed in Wellington.”

“She hadn’t.  She’d gone off to the state university to major in nursing, but got married and dropped out to help put her husband through law school.  Then she got pregnant and he spun out–part finances, part grades . . . and part Marge, no

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doubt.  They moved to Chicago and he got a job as an insurance investigator, then began to drink and run around with other women.  There was some kind of knock-down quarrel, with Marge losing the baby.  So she came home, filed for divorce–and stayed.  Her father set her up in the ’boutique,’ and before long she was back to running things in Wellington.

“The store never made money, I’m sure, but didn’t have to.  It served as her base in town, for doing whatever she wanted to.  With her father’s death, she became a wealthy woman–mostly in farm property, sub-dividable into building lots already climbing in value, and an interest in the feed store, which her brothers ran.  She also spent time at the college, with friends in the alumni office . . . and at the country club.”

“Well, I soon found out that everyone in town knew Marge–and knew she was the one to talk to–about anything.  Because she had access to the money.  They probably thought that’s what Henry was interested in . . . her money.”  I was talking to Shoko, but watching for Henry’s reaction.

He just laughed.  “I probably could have been president of the bank in Wellington right now, if I’d played my cards right.  A good job for a blind man.  But Marge was just a friend.  A good friend, though.  I always liked her.”  He said that last to Shoko, and gave her hand a squeeze.

“And she did have that triangular orbit,” I added, “the town, the college, and the little country club on the hill, across town from the college–the only ‘country club’ I’ve ever belonged to myself, or ever felt comfortable being around.  A number of other Wellington faculty members would gather there, and Marge was definitely considered one of their set.  I think Betty and I first met you there, having lunch with Marge, which you did often enough to fuel the gossip.”

“I’d met you before, at one of the faculty meetings, but not Betty . . . that was the first time I met Betty, I know . . .”

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He was lost in the memory, so I prompted him, “Having lunch with Marge . . .”

“Well, yes, as I often did.  She was interesting to talk to,  and relished her status as the local girl these immigrant intellectuals took seriously.  She was both ‘one of them’ and ‘one of us’ to the townspeople, who still thought of her as their high-school queen, who’d been abused by the big world–but had learned its ways.  That mystique, and her perpetual energy, made her the most frequent mediator when something had to be negotiated between the town and the college, which President Wharton, and Marge herself, understood very well.

“She had finally finished her B.A. at Wellington, in fact, in English–‘in spite of’ Marvin Jones,’ as she told the story.  So she was a bona fide ‘alumna,’ very active in the alumni association–organizing volunteers, working on fund drives–and so was taken quite seriously by the college administration.  But she organized everything in that town, and The Wellington Community Players was her special project–‘where my heart is,’ as she liked to put it.  She was involved in almost every play they did as actor or director, frequently as both.”

“And it was through the Community Players rather than the college that we got to know you so quickly,” I said.  “I was surprised by Marge telling me that the one who had suggested the Wellington Players do Ionesco’s The Bald Soprano as the first production in the new theatre was Henry Gordon, a psychology professor at the college.  He’d told her it was a simple play, with a small cast (but a good role for her), and definitely experimental–what was ‘happening now’ in Paris.  I guess it still is, isn’t it?  So, when she motioned to us to join you for lunch, she said, ‘This is the Professor Gordon I was telling you about . . . you know, The Bald Soprano.'”

“Betty laughed and, while she was shaking my hand and looking me straight in the eyes, said, ‘I would have guessed

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you a baritone,’ which made Marge laugh, too.  So that’s how I met Betty . . . and her eyes.  That was my indelible moment.”

“Well, your hair was a little thin, even then, Henry.  But Marge explained it to her, and then invited us to meet with the cast, at your house, for the preliminary read-through.”   I fell into a mock confidential tone to Shoko.  “If I’d met Henry at school, I didn’t remember it, for he hadn’t made that much of an impression.  But his house certainly did, and, after that evening, Henry became my first real friend at Wellington.  I hope I don’t embarrass you in saying that, Henry.”

“That you liked my house better than you did me?  I always suspected that, Jack.”

“Yes, my first real friend . . . but it wasn’t easy.  Almost everyone was pleasant, the way people at a small college are likely to be to a newcomer.  But there wasn’t any of that with Henry.  Even in his own house he seemed to be the quiet guest in the corner.  I had to discover him for myself, experiencing the tempered excitement of meeting a kindred spirit out there in the middle of those corn fields.  At first I wondered what he was doing there, but, by the time I’d been arguing with him for a month, I couldn’t have thought of a better place for him.”

Henry couldn’t resist a word in his own defense.  “I did like it there.  I had a rare freedom, both in the classroom and in my private life.  I volunteered to do the technical work on The Bald Soprano, if they’d do the play, just to get a chance to work with the electronic toys in that new theatre.”

“And, since, like Marge, I was coming to think of it as my theatre, I was concerned about that.  But I soon saw that you knew more about lighting than I did.  I heard you’d even been a consultant when they installed the system.  By the time I was into the technical work on The Glass Menagerie, with all its scrims, I knew I wanted you for my tech man.  You knew more about film techniques, too–so I learned a lot from you.”

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“That’s where I was putting all of my spare money then, into photography of one kind or another . . . and experimenting with motion pictures.  I wanted to make a movie.”

“He even had his own darkroom in the basement of that strange little house he’d built.”

“Well, I’d worked my way through graduate school at Cornell as a ‘professional’ portrait photographer . . . and still did a little free-lance portrait work there at Wellington.”

“And you knew about Ionesco, too, Henry.  I’d hardly heard of any of the Absurdists, before that–so have to thank you for introducing me–and Wellington, Nebraska–to what was going on in French theatre.  You can certainly count that as a genuine contribution–to my liberal education at least.”

“I’d spent that summer in Paris, and seen La Canatrice chauve three times, so–though it had moved to the Huchette, in the Latin Quarter–I could still remember my earlier enthusiasm very well when we first took Betty and Christine to see the play the summer before last,” he said to Shoko.

“And now I have high regard for Ionesco, too.”

“You can do that crazy play anywhere, Jack,” Henry said.

“But I like The Lesson better than The Bald Soprano.  I saw it in Japan again about a month ago, in a little theatre in Shibuya.  The absurdity in that play makes more sense to me.”

“In a way.  Perhaps because it has more story line.  But The Bald Soprano was the one that made the big splash, that ushered in Absurdist theatre, even before Waiting for Godot, which was making a name for itself by the time we did The Bald Soprano–but had no part for Marge.”   Henry laughed.

“I knew a couple of Sartre’s plays,” I said.  “I’d taken part in a reading of The Flies.  But Ionesco was completely new to me.  Now, he’s my favorite absurdist . . . if one needs a favorite absurdist.  He has a healthier sense of humor than Sartre, or Beckett . . . or a sense of humor closer to my own,

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perhaps.”  I turned to Shoko.  “Do you know the work of  Betsuyaku Minoru?  I think he’s a lot like Ionesco.”

“I saw Machi Uri no Shojo in Tokyo the last time I was there.  But have his plays been translated?” Shoko asked.

“Zo has, as The Elephant.  And I’ve got rough translations of both The Little Match Girl, that you saw . . . and Kangaroo . . . a very confusing play.  I’m trying to figure out if it owes anything to Ionesco’s Rhinoceros.  I’d like to talk to both of you about that . . . will bring the books next time.”

“Nothing I’d like better, Jack,” Henry said, as Shoko smiled and nodded.

“But I wasn’t worried about any of that when I arrived in Nebraska.  I had my own first play to consider, scheduled for about a month after you were to do The Bald Soprano, and classes to teach for the first time–which, as a new experience, I took very seriously.  So I couldn’t afford to get too involved in the Ionesco.  For me, that came later.”

“Still, I remember both of you as enthusiastic,” Henry said.  I watched Betty following the script and revising the way people were reading their lines, under her breath.  Most of them had no idea what Ionesco was doing, but she was meeting him for the first time, too, and tuning to his wave length as if it were her own–even laughing in the right places.”

“She was always a kind of literary chameleon,” I said, picking up the vibes from the author . . . feeling the play.  Whether it was Shakespeare or Shaw . . . or Edward Albee!”

“Yes . . . as an actress.  But it was more than that in this case.  She had found a kindred spirit in Ionesco.  She did The Lesson with Jordan as an after-piece in New York a number of times . . . and I would have liked to have done it with her.”


I looked at Henry, sitting there holding Shoko’s hand, but thinking about doing an Ionesco play with Betty.  She still had the magic.  Did it bother Shoko?  It didn’t seem to.

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“Well,” I said, “Betty didn’t have the distractions I did.  As I became busier and busier, she began to have more time on her hands, became restless.  She needed something to do–but what . . . in her condition?  I saw her interest perk up at that read-through, too, and knew how much she wanted to be on stage.  I hoped she’d get a chance before the year was out, but didn’t think I’d be able to cast her at school, in fairness to the students.  So I was happy to see an active community theatre group, thinking that, by spring, we’d make some  occasion–maybe a one-woman show of Shakespeare scenes, the female equivalent of what Jordan had been working on for anticipated future auditions.  We had even talked about that.

“But I was surprised to learn, a day or two later, that Betty had volunteered to work on props and costumes for your play, had called Marge and then gone to lunch with her again.  They were hitting it off very well.  She could ride with me when I had things to do at school, she said, but could still drive when necessary, to get to ‘be around theatre a little.’

“I wondered about Betty as ‘prop girl,’ but was less surprised when, two weeks later, there she was, over seven months pregnant, right in the middle of your play, challenging Marge for center stage.  And both of them enjoying it!  I came back even on evenings I didn’t have to, just to watch.  I learned more sitting in the back of the theatre, reading my assignments, or grading papers, waiting to take Betty home, and watching you work with Marge–and Betty work with both of you–than I would have if I’d been in the play myself.  I had heard the gossip that you and Marge had something going from the previous year . . . so I watched for that, too.”

“Me . . . with Marge?  I was careful never to touch her.  That was too much voltage for me.”

I turned to Shoko.  “I decided that Marge probably didn’t have free access to Henry’s ‘tower,’ that any passion there’d

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been had mellowed into a ‘working’ relationship.  During the early rehearsals, Henry would say something like, ‘It’ll be hard to get the right light on that,’ or, ‘you’ll need room to move that flat,’ when he just didn’t agree with the way Marge was blocking her actors.  I’d had enough directing experience by then to recognize that his judgment was almost always sounder than hers, but the way he sustained the appearance that she was making all of the decisions was masterful.  He also knew how to get the most out of that theatre’s resources, so I was already seeking his advice on technical problems on my own show–but was careful not even to talk to him about anything else, for fear of falling under his insidious influence.”

“Now, Jack, Shoko knows better than that.”

“No, I’ve seen him manipulate people,” she said.  “He can use a strong person’s aggressiveness against him–or her–so the person doesn’t even know what’s happening.  He did with Betty many times.  He may not even care what they’re disputing about.  He just enjoys getting them to do it his way.”

“Yes, he’s the psychologist.”

“Sure, I can do it blindfolded.”  Henry shook his head.  “But with Betty?  Not often.”  Shoko smiled her disagreement.  I looked at them, so well tuned to each other now, and, trying to appraise this new union, almost lost the thread of my story.


“Well, you nearly always got your way with Marge–with Betty and the others smiling in the background.  It was a play within a play, from my point of view.  Marge was playing Mrs. Smith and directing–and she dominated everyone, especially the poor men, even ordering you around.  But you’d chosen the play, your judgment ruled in technical matters–and I’ll bet you were the one who suggested trading Betty for Norma.”

“Not at all!  They surprised me, too–had worked it out at lunch one day.  Norma was Marge’s best friend from high school, and had done a lot of melodrama with her–like the

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others in the cast–but said she’d had ‘enough of that crazy play,’ wished she’d never heard of it.  Then Betty started talking about how much she liked the play, laughing and giving examples.  It became obvious that she already had half of it by memory, just from rehearsals.  It was Marge who then asked, ‘Well, do you think you could do Norma’s part?'”

“But that was already a day or two after that bridge game,”  I said.  Then to Shoko, “Betty and I were spending a lot of time at Henry’s by then.  At first I’d drop by to ask about something and find I’d spent an hour or two talking to him–about what was happening in theatre in Europe, or Freud on women, or Shakespeare’s fools, or who knows?  We invited him to our house, too–after Betty had moved us twice–and he made himself right at home, maybe taking over the kitchen to fix one of his special salads.  But it seemed more natural for us to go to his house.  We found out that he and Marge loved to play bridge, so, like many old married folk in Wellington must have, we started playing bridge one evening a week, on Monday, to relax from theatre pressures, we said.  Again Henry was the expert–he and his partner usually won.

“One evening Henry was explaining how he’d learned more psychology playing bridge in the student union than in his psychology classes, and Betty kept responding with, ‘How bizarre, how absolutely bizarre,’ and other lines from The Bald Soprano, like ‘Groom the goose, don’t goose the groom’–which really delighted Marge.  That may have been what triggered the idea that she should replace Norma, since Norma didn’t think such lines were funny at all, said, ‘that whole play is just stupid,’ while Betty thought they were hilarious.”

“A couple of those bridge evenings might have gone on as performances of the play, in fact,” Henry said, “and Ionesco  might have approved.  Marge said that when she’d suggested Betty take the part Betty had used that phrase, ‘How bizarre!’

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and laughed, saying ‘An ostentatiously pregnant Mrs. Martin?  What would it do to the play if I had the baby right on stage?'”

“But she sure didn’t say ‘No.'”

“No, she didn’t say ‘No.’  And the play doesn’t require a lot of action, just language play.  Betty was always fascinated by that.  She had an acute sense of language, our Betty . . .”

“Yes, our Betty.”  I did not dispute possession.

“And you think she was auditioning while playing bridge.  She’d been at the rehearsals, so knew the problems Norma was having–though I’d seen Norma’s attitude as a virtue. She was delivering the lines as if there were nothing funny about them at all–which should have been a riot.  But when Marge told me about the change, with Betty looking on and smiling, all I could say was, ‘Of course.’  For Norma it was like a reprieve from an execution, and Betty was there rehearsing that same evening with a script in hand, by two or three evenings later working without the script.  And she caught the comic tone perfectly.”  It was Henry who was waxing nostalgic now.

“At first I was concerned about Betty and Marge,” I said, “for Betty could already be intimidating.  But I never saw her challenge Marge, at least not in front of the others.  She settled in as the comfortable pregnant woman, playing language tricks with those absurd speeches.  At home, too, everything became, ‘What a coincidence!  How incredibly bizarre!,’ until I wanted to strangle somebody–somebody named Bobby Watson.  But then I thought, ‘Well, she’s found the action . . . which is what she needed’.”

“Yes, she was so comfortable on stage she made everyone else comfortable,” Henry said.  “I thought of that later, when we did Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf, and when she was so different, in acting manner, and to people she was working with, in New York.  She was absolutely unpredictable.”

“Anyway,” I said to Shoko, “I soon knew Henry pretty well . . . or thought I did.  Having come with his new Ph.D. in

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Psychology from Cornell, he’d been at Wellington for, what, two years?”  Henry nodded.  “So he was a good guide for us newcomers.  A thirty-year-old bachelor, who, since his hair was already thinning, looked pretty distinguished, quite professorial, and, in spite of the retiring qualities of his nature, had managed, in those two brief years, to establish a solid reputation as a more or less harmless eccentric.”

“Wait until I do my first impressions of you, Jack.”

“No, I’m more interested in your first impressions of Betty.  But I’m not done yet.”  I addressed Shoko, as if Henry were not there.  “Henry had built this strange little house on the outskirts of town, doing most of the work the first summer–foundation, framing, roof, everything–enough to be able to move inside to work by winter.  He spent part of the second summer painting and landscaping–before and after going to France–and he had a house.  It was two stories with a walk-out basement, built into the side of a hill, and, as you approached from the downhill side, looked like an observation tower, or, in that country, a silo.  But I think it was absolutely square, with each floor ‘dichotomized,’ as Henry liked to say.”

Henry smiled.  “I didn’t see anything unusual about my house at all.  It sort of built itself that way, as I needed space.  Wait until you see what we’ve done inside your cabin, Jack.”

“I can imagine!  Well, I think of it as your cabin now.  And I liked that house at Wellington . . . designed by, and for, a bachelor.  I’d like to be living in it myself, right now–but not in Wellington.”  I went back to Shoko.  “But now, let’s see if I remember the floor plan.  The basement was for practical work, half garage, for his MG roadster, which he tuned himself, and half darkroom.  The first floor was for company, a kitchen, with an impressive array of appliances, where he concocted weird foreign dishes, and a large living room, the up-hill wall on that side all fireplace and bookcases, and the

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downhill wall, looking out over ‘the green fields of Nebraska,’ all window.  Following the example of Thomas Jefferson, he had built his own bed right in the middle of the top floor, ‘the tower,’ so he could get up on the ‘bedroom’ side, with its walk-in shower, or on the ‘study-studio’ side, designed for intellectual work.  He’d even built his own desk there, which had two levels, so that he could type either sitting or standing.”

“I was inclined to pace a lot when I was composing.”

“So he’d been busy at Wellington.  He was also quarreling in print with some of the behaviorist theories then popular in psychology.  I enjoyed talking to him about them, and found that he knew the ‘classical’ literature in his own field quite well, but was evidently too eclectic to impress his academic peers.  I remember you telling me how you hated professional meetings, Henry, because you felt like you were back among  medieval scholastics, arguing how many angels can dance on the head of a pin . . . which might have been why he was at Wellington instead of one of the state universities.  Henry was the psychologist as humanist . . . and we became friends.”

“Well, thanks for that friendly portrait, Jack.  I was interested in what you were doing, too–in the theatre and in your classes.  Marge and I had talked about you a lot before you got there, but, once you were there, Betty was the one we talked about most.  She was such a striking woman–even pregnant.  I wonder how it shaped my feelings toward her  to have first got to know her in advanced pregnancy.  Her power over me wasn’t so much sex appeal as compelling presence.

“Soon it seemed everyone in Wellington was talking about her.  Not that we’d have thought of casting her in The Bald Soprano in the first place.  If we’d been thinking about her, we probably would have been doing a different play.  But, as we met her, she was very obviously pregnant, and we hadn’t seen her in any of those plays you had done in Lawrence.

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“I remember both of you read the other Ionesco I could get you in English–one short collection–then Betty started  to read him in French.  I was surprised by how good her French was, coming out of Kansas–better than yours, as I recall.”

“I had very little,” I said, “was lucky to pass the French exam for M.A., even with Betty’s help.”

“We joked about her reading those plays–and wanting to talk about them–to help ‘understand’ The Bald Soprano.  None of the others were into that, so that’s where I came in–almost as if we were hiding it from them, as part of the joke.”

“And from me.”

“Not at all, Jack.  We always included you–when you had read what we were talking about. The Bald Soprano had come out of Ionesco’s struggling with English, turning some of the ridiculous patterns you meet in language study into a kind of game, and Betty loved it, began to play with French patterns in reverse.  The more ‘bizarre,’ the more she loved it, so she was great fun in rehearsal.  There was one evening in Marge’s apartment . . . you remember Marge’s apartment, don’t you?  If my house was memorable . . .”

“Yes, I remember Marge’s apartment, but didn’t go there often.  Not to any of your rehearsals there, which were always on nights when I had my own work in the theatre–by then even my own rehearsals.  But I knew that Betty began to spend a lot of time there with Marge, beyond rehearsal time.”

I explained to Shoko.  “Marge’s apartment was above the boutique she owned, a full floor–I guess you’d say a two-bedroom apartment–that served her needs as well as Henry’s square silo served his.  I don’t believe Henry spent much time there either.  It was usually the other way around, I think.  She entered your world much more than you entered hers.  Right?”

“Well, I went to rehearsals there.  When she was involved in a play, that was her world.”

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“Yes, Marge was always awash with local political gossip,” I said, “but she was genuinely involved in theatre–was a pretty good actress, in fact.  And she helped Betty and me tune to the ‘larger Wellington community’ in every way she could.  I was quite happy during those early months.  I had my own theatre program, to do with as I would–with the advice of these good friends–I had Betty–we were expecting the baby–and I had discovered that I really enjoyed teaching.”

“It’s a hard life to beat, Jack.  What we give up chasing the bauble reputation.”

“I know.  And the first play we were doing in our college program was The Glass Menagerie, a play chosen for the small cast required, and because, as I still believe, it’s Tennessee Williams’ best.  I was pleased by the acting strength I found in that small student body, hadn’t expected much from a random bunch of Nebraska farm kids–but, of course, that’s not who they were.   And I soon discovered that that was only one of the prejudices I had brought with me.  Those students had the energy, the enthusiasm, and the intellectual capacity for anything I was up to, in the classroom or on the stage.

“By the time rehearsals began I was feeling very good, particularly about having discovered Laura, and was already planning to do Ibsen’s A Doll’s House in the spring with her.  I’ve hardly ever gone into any project with higher expectations than I did The Glass Menagerie.”

“Now let me demonstrate my skill as practicing psychologist, Jack, and return your earlier challenge.  I’ll bet a month’s pay–now that I’m out of work–that Laura first suggested that you read The Lesson along with The Bald Soprano.”

“Yes . . . it was Laura.  She got to reading the Ionesco, too, there in the office, and pointed out that the two of us could easily do The Lesson, as a staged reading, without much rehearsal, and give the audience a little fuller evening.

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I know that you liked the idea, but that Marge, and particularly Betty, didn’t–she said it would be anticlimactic.  But it was more as if they saw us as competing with them, intruding on their party.  I explained that it would just be billed as an afterpiece, to fill out the evening for those who wanted to stay, and they finally accepted that as relatively harmless.”

“But it was at the rehearsal at Marge’s, the evening after you had proposed the idea, that I first heard Betty say anything about Laura,”  Henry said.

“What did she say?”  Shoko asked, obviously interested.

“Not exactly ‘say.’  She did a parody of the young college girl trying to impress the new young director.  And not just as an actress.  It was obviously intended as Laura, but she even used lines from The Lesson, like ‘I’ve got a toothache,’ that showed that she’d read that play, too.  Even in late pregnancy, she was a pretty good mimic.  Broke Marge up.  Me, too.”

“I never knew  that she had any concerns about Laura and me–clear back when you were doing The Bald Soprano?”

“Laura was a good-looking co-ed, Jack, and Betty was a pregnant wife.  It seemed natural enough to me.  You’re right, though . . . I’m sure it was more about sharing the stage than sharing the man.  At least that’s what had brought Laura so strongly to her attention.  Still, everyone has concerns.  We all get a little jealous . . . in spite of our best intentions.”

“Well, I had concerns, too.  Laura gave that reading much more time and energy than I had expected–so it required much more from me.  It was as if she were the director and I was the delinquent student.  A nice turn in terms of that little play.  But we worked very well together, I thought, and I looked forward to doing other things with her.”

“And you did, didn’t you, Jack.”   It was Henry’s question, but Shoko was the one who was smiling at me.

“Yes . . . didn’t I?”  I returned her smile.

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Assignment for Bridge 6:

Read Tennessee Williams’ The Glass Menagerie or see the 1987 movie version with Paul Newman and Joanne Woodward.


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