80 post 5 – props
In the beginning of Around The World in 80 Days, I spend some time staring at the document above. I play the “British Consul” in Suez for about five minutes, and I have some props which create the suggestion on an office or a desk. Someone working on the production – it might have been the director, stage manager, or the set designer – no doubt told the properties master to have some “official looking documents” for me to play with. She found this document somewhere, in some theatre storeroom I imagine, photocopied it a few times onto parchment paper, and there they are. My “documents”. There is an extended scene in which I fade in to half-light while Dan and James play the scene on the main part of the stage, and I am left to stare at . . . my documents.
This document records the marriage of Vera Duffy to Edward Sullivan in 1943 in Manhattan. He was a ship rigger, she a housekeeper. Both were marrying late and neither had been married before. Both were early immigrants: she more recent than he. He was born in Belleville New Jersey; her place of birth is simply stated as “Ireland”. In the institutional racism of the time, they are both recorded as “White”. Both lived on the upper west side, when that part of the island was an Irish ghetto, not yet a Black and Latino one. And as the silliness builds around me on stage, I linger on this document: the evidence of a momentous choice in two people’s lives eighty years ago, two people crawling out of poverty, who probably met each other in their late thirties and saw the possibility of their remaining twenty or so years being spent in the company of a friend.
This is one of the secret mysteries of the theatre: props. They are strange documents and objects which once had authentic lives of their own, but which have arrived in a fiction, handled by an actor in a contrivance. They bring a strange energy with them, a vestige of their own history, like the smoke that curls off a log in a smoldering fireplace. They have a scent and glow.
While acting for the first time in Philadelphia, in Travesties at The Wilma (which is now The Adrienne), I was Vladimir Lenin reading a book on stage. I opened it and a prayer card of the Virgin Mary fluttered out of the book and on to my lap. I kept that card with me for a long time until it finally found the obscurity it sought. In Up last year, I read and re-read old articles on post-war food clubs. In Have It Your Way at People’s Light, I wore the toupee of recently dead man.
Somehow, there is import in this to me. Import beyond the document or prop itself, but something larger, as if to say, behold the enormous web of life we live in. Sense the passage of time since Eddie and Vera were married on a hot July day in ’43. Imagine the journey this marriage license has taken. Wonder of Eddie and Vera’s relatives as you stand on this stage in this play.
Imagine the person who lost that prayer card.
In The Deception of Surfaces, my new novel to be published next year, there is a section in which Henry finds himself in a room called the “Shrine” in the Retreat. It is filled with props like these, and masks and set dressing: all the magical objects living in a kind of purgatory in between the real lives they have left and the garbage heap which is their destiny. They have arrived in the theatre, the land of in-between. Henry discovers a Tarot card in an old book about anthracite mining techniques, exactly the kind of thing an actor playing some old Russian might find on stage, for example, as he tries to read through his misery and loneliness.
By the way – one more week to see 80 Days. It’s going well. I’m sure the excellent props have something to do with it. Oh, there’s another document up there with me besides the marriage license. It’s a British subpoena for Serbian war criminals. Go figure.