IN 1944Category: Theatre
That was how the days passed in London, in the winter of 19».
“О, my offence is rank” the King said, when Polonius had gone, “it smells to heaven
It hath the primal eldest curse upon ’t,
A brother’s murder/”
In the little shadow boxes on each side of the stage, put there for that purpose, the sign “Air Raid Alert” was flashed, and a moment later came the sound of.sirens, and immediately after, in the distance, towards the coast, the rumble of gunfire.
“Pray can I not” the King went опл
Though inclination be as sharp as will:
My strongest guilt defeats my strong intent…”
The sound of gunfire came rapidly nearer as the planes swept across the suburs. Michael looked around him. It wTas an opening night, and a fashionable one, with a new Hamlet, and the audience was decked out in its wartime best. There were many elderly ladies who looked as though they had seen every opening of Hamlet since Sir Henry Irving. In the rich glow from the stage there was an answering glow from the audience of piled white hair and black net. The old ladies, and everyone else, sat quiet and motionless as the ; King strode, torn and troubled, back and forth across the dark room at Elsinore.
“Forgive me my foul murder?” the King was saying loudly.
“That cannot be since I am still possess’d Of those effects for which I did the murder,
My crown, mine own ambition, and my queen.”
It was the King’s big scene and he obviously had worked very hard on it. He had the stage all to himself and a long, eloquent soliloquy to get his teeth into. He was doing very well, too, dis- 3 turbed, intelligent, cursed, with Hamlet in the wings making up I his mind whether to stab him or not. I
The sound of guns marhed across London towards the theatre, and there was the uneven roar of the German engines approaching over the gilt dome. Louder and louder spoke the King, speaking across j the three hundred years of English rhetoric, challenging the bombs, < the engines, the guns. No one in the audience moved. They listened, as intent and curious as though they had been sitting at the Globe f on the afternoon of the first performance of Mr Shakespeare’s new f tragedy.
“In the corrupted currents of this world” the King shouted,
“Offence’s gilded hand may shove by justice,
And oft His the wicked pi’ize itself Buys out the law: but ’tis not so above;
There is no shuffling…”
A battery of guns opened up just behind the back wall of the theatre, and there was a double explosion of bombs not far off.
The theatre shivered gently. “… there the action lies in his true nature” said the King loudly, not forgetting any of his business, moving his hands with tragic grace, speaking slowly, trying to space his words between the staccato explosions of the guns.
„ “…and we ourselves compelVd” the King said in a momentary lull while the men outside were reloading, “Even to the teeth and forehead…1’ Then rocket guns opened up outside in their horrible, whistling speech that always sounded like approaching bombs, and the King paced silently back and forth, waiting till the next lull. The howling and thunder diminished for a moment to a savage grumbling “What then!” the King said hastily, “what rests?
Try what repentance can: what can it not?”
Then he was overwhelmed once more and the theatre shook and trembled in the whirling chorus of the guns.
Poor man, Michael thought, poor man, his big moment, after all these years. How he must hate the Germans!
“…О wretched state/” swam dimly out of the trembling and crashing “0 bosom black as deathГ
The planes stuttered on overhead. The battery behind the theatre sent a last revengeful salvo curling into the noisy sky. The rumble of guns was taken up, further away, by the batteries in north London. Against their diminishing background, like military drums being played at a general’s funeral in another street, the King went on, slow, composed, royal as an actor can be royal,
“0 limed soul, that struggling to be free
Art more engagedI Help, angelsf1 he said in the blessed quiet, “make assay,
Bow, stubborn knees’, and heart with strings of steel,
Be soft as sinews of the new-born babe.
All may be well.”
He knelt at the altar and Hamlet appeared, graceful and dark in his long black tights. Michael looked .around him. Every face was calmly and interestedly watching the stage; the old ladies and the uniforms did not stir.
I love you, Michael wanted to say, I love you all. You are the best and strongest and most foolish people on earth and I will gladly lay down my life for you.
He felt the tears, complex and dubious, sliding down his cheeks as he turned to watch Hamlet, torn by doubt, put up his sword rather than take his uncle at his prayers.
Far off a single gun spoke into the subsiding sky. Probably, thought Michael, it is one of the women’s batteries, coming, like women, a little late for the raid, but showing their intentions are of the best,
(From The Young Lions by I. Shaw)