The Bones of a Plot

Paris, 1716.

Sitting cross-legged in his patched costume on bare boards, Harlequino played a few notes on his lute, cueing Rosa into her song. The auditorium in front of them was in blackness. A single candle flickered on the dusty stage; Vincenzo was too stingy to buy more for rehearsals.

The Theatre de Bourgogne had been closed for twenty years, with the Comédie Italienne banned, until Louis XIV died, and the Duc D’Orleans became Regent of France. The silence of two decades filled the dark, stifling atmosphere. Sheets of cobwebs still hung from the ceiling, and a spider ran over Harlequino’s hand.

Rosa inhaled the musty air and sang her first few words, her voice fading amongst the mouldering drapes of the theatre. Harlequino sighed as Vincenzo started shouting again, started gesturing with his arms.

‘Too quiet! Too tame! Too dull! You must sing from your heart, and from whatever remnants of your soul you still possess. Beauty without equal, grace, and an enchanting smile, are not enough. You have a performance to give!’ Vincenzo folded his arms, frowning.

Rosa was to sing a love song to Orazio, the shepherd, who struck a posture at the edge of the stage, squaring his shoulders and puffing out his chest. His blond good looks and declamatory style made him popular with audiences, but Harlequino thought him dull. Wondering if Vincenzo was going to threaten Rosa with dismissal again, Harlequino resumed his lute, and Rosa continued her love song. She sings with genuine emotion, thought Harlequino, with regret. Orazio continued to stare at an imaginary audience, and Rosa stumbled a little in the third verse, drawing another tirade from Vincenzo. At her glance, Harlequino continued playing, and she raised her voice, running exquisitely up a voletta of semitone octaves.

‘Better!’ Vincenzo grunted. He was costumed as Pantalone, the old miser, in red and black. He had adopted the old man’s mannerisms, the bent back, the sneering face with its protruding chin. Commediawas a world of improvisation, where the players became their characters.

Suddenly, Rosa’s song was interrupted, as a troupe of white clowns cartwheeled and somersaulted across the stage, the music drowned out by handfalls and footfalls, and their calls and whistles as they performed their crazy acrobatics. Harlequino’s grin was partly hidden by his snubnosed mask, but Rosa had lost her temper.

‘Get off the stage!’ she yelled at them. ‘The Zanni aren’t on until after my aria!’

What passion, thought Harlequino, as the colour mounted in her pretty face.

‘Aria! A-ri-a!’ the Zanni chanted in mockery, some squatting, some prancing with their noses and feet thrust out, others standing on their hands, others continuing to turn cartwheels. ‘Aria!’

She turned to Vincenzo but he shrugged, grinning.

‘The business has to be kept moving,’ he said. ‘Sing!’

But after a few more lines, Rosa froze. She was staring, astonished, at the second tier of boxes, barely visible in the shadows. Her mouth opened wide, but quivered noiselessly, her eyes widened, her trembling hands slowly moving up to her face, and then she pointed a shaking finger out into the darkness. Then she half swooned, sagging to her knees. Harlequino rushed forward to support her. He screwed his eyes up and peered up at the boxes. There was nothing to be seen there, but a shower of wreathing dust spiralling in the dim light of the candle.

At once, Vincenzo gripped the roots of his hair. He started to scold her again. She was stupid, helpless, he bellowed, and he marvelled at whatever had induced him to employ her.  The Zanni capered and whooped with laughter. Looking pale and drained, Rosa allowed Harlequino to help her up. She looked imploringly at Orazio, still remaining at the front of the stage, who gave her a scornful glance.

‘If we were not so close to the opening night you would be dismissed from the Commedia,’ Vincenzo growled. ‘Now, get on with it and sing!’

When Rosa tried to explain what she had seen, he waved a contemptuous hand.

After the rehearsal was over, the players ate. Most of the company were lodging at La Couronne, and they gathered in the tavern.

‘So, Rosa, what vision presented itself to cause you such great distress?’ demanded Colombina. The pierette considered herself Rosa’s rival. Sharp and satirical, she asked her question to embarrass Rosa, and not from interest or concern.

‘It was so dark in front of me I could barely see anything,’ Rosa muttered. Harlequino watched as she pushed a dark strand of hair aside from her forehead, so that it curled down over the white skin of her neck. As she continued, her eyes widened, her face grew pale, and she seemed possessed by an inner horror.

‘As I grew used to the darkness I could see the deserted boxes lining the three walls of the auditorium, adorned with grotesque, gilded devices. Then I saw a movement. A skeleton’s elbow protruded over the edge of the royal box, and a bony hand was waving. The bones seemed held together with no more than cobwebs, as if they would at any moment collapse into a dreadful heap. The apparition lifted a red plumed hat and I saw the long-nosed mask of El Capitano. Then, as I opened my mouth to scream, the spectre crumbled to dust, streaming down the front of the box and vanishing to nought.’

‘So, how can you be sure you weren’t imagining it?’ asked Colombina.

Rosa, lost in the contemplation of that haunted moment, looked down, and did not reply.

‘I did see the dust,’ said Harlequino. ‘I saw a column of falling dust. It may be that the spectre had vanished by then.’

‘El Capitano, eh?’ mused the Doctor. ‘We haven’t had him in the show since Roccabruni died. No-one could play El Capitano like Roccabruni. The swagger, the bombast, the terrible blows to his pride with each piece of action…’

‘Hey,’ said Orazio, ‘Roccabruni has come back to haunt us! Now that we’re back, he wants to be in the show!’ He let out a gust of laughter and drained his wine glass.

‘Shut up, Orazio,’ cut in Vincenzo. ‘Can’t you see she’s scared?’ Rosa had stilled, and turned pale.

‘I don’t want any more talk of Roccabruni, and I don’t want the show interrupted by any foolish fancies or attacks of the vapours,’ insisted Vincenzo. ‘I don’t care if Satan himself and all the demons of the Inferno turn up in the boxes, as long as they pay for their tickets. I want you all to be professional and concentrate on your performance.’

‘Roccabruni, though,’ said Harlequino, as though he had not heard Vincenzo. ‘Roccabruni, he was buried in unhallowed ground, was he not?’

‘Yes’ said Pulcinella, ‘The city authorities wouldn’t allow an actor to be buried in consecrated ground. They ordered his corpse to be thrown in the sewers. The crazy thing was that he was so devout. I knew he wouldn’t rest quietly.’

‘Enough!’ cut in Vincenzo, but Harlequino was already saying that they should dig Roccabruni up and rebury him. He subsided under Vincenzo’s glare.

Over the next few days, rehearsals proceeded with difficulty. Things seemed to constantly go wrong. Props left on one part of the stage would turn up in another. The ladder act could not be got to work, as the ladder was forever falling over. Rosa seemed to struggle through the rehearsals, repelled and oppressed by the dark interior of the theatre. Cleaners came and swept and dusted but the theatre remained cobwebbed and dirty. If anything it seemed to worsen from one day to the next.

Then, on the night of the final rehearsal, there was a brittle rattling noise in the theatre as they finished their last bow. The candles flickered and there he was, for all to see, leaning forward from the royal box and applauding, El Capitano. Then, all the candles went out, and they were plunged into darkness. Even Colombina screamed.

In the early hours of the next morning, a handcart might have been noticed, as it was pushed along a cobbled street by Harlequino, in his mask and cloaked in black, surrounded by a capering troupe of Zanni carrying shovels and flaming torches. But, a high wall ran along one side of the street, and the houses opposite had their shutters closed.

‘How can you possibly remember where he is?’ the Zanni grumbled.

‘I know the exact spot in the Luxembourg Gardens,’ muttered Harlequino. ‘Through the gate, second flowerbed on the left.’

The iron gate towered above them. Harlequino slowly turned the handle.

‘Locked!’ He looked round at the Zanni clustered behind him.

‘The gates have been locked since May, by order of the Duchesse de Berri,’ said a Zanni.

‘Not an obstacle,’ smiled Harlequino. ‘In fact, it will protect us from discovery.’ Under his direction the Zanni formed a human pyramid, and vaulted with great agility over the wall, torches and shovels aloft, leaving a few behind to guard the cart and maintain a watch. In perhaps an hour, a coffin appeared, balanced precariously on top of the wall as a stream of acrobats descended in front of it and lowered it carefully to the ground, like ants carrying a leaf.

‘Hush!’ whispered Harlequino, and the coffin was hoisted with a muffled bump onto the cart. A few hessian sacks were draped over it, and the shovels added to the load.

‘What now?’ asked the Zanni.

‘I bribed a priest to perform a burial in the cemetery of the Convent of the Blessed Providence. The gates will be left open and he will meet us there.’

The cart trundled through the empty streets, a few hessian sacks concealing its grotesque burden.

‘Halt!’ a voice rang out. They turned to find a group of the soldiers of the watch glaring at them. ‘What are you doing with that cart?’

The soldiers pulled off the hessian coverings and stared at the coffin, at the Zanni with their costumes covered in dirt, and the shovels which still bore traces of fresh earth.

‘Stage props for our show,’ said Harlequino hastily. ‘The Comédie Italienne. We’re opening tomorrow night at the Theatre de Bourgogne. Come and see us, free of charge.’ He rummaged with muddy fingers amongst his patches and gave them some tickets, hoping that Vincenzo would not find out.

But when they reached the Convent of the Blessed Providence, the massive wooden gates were locked. Harlequino rattled at the handle in vain.

‘We’ve been tricked,’ he said. ‘That priest has let us down.’

‘Knock on the gate! Ring the bell!’ said the Zanni.

‘No, you fools! The nuns will hear us. They are at prayer even now.’ Through the stone walls, the nocturnal orisons of the holy sisters were faintly audible, like the humming inside a beehive.

‘They hate actors,’ sighed Harlequino. ‘We are the devil’s agents to them, yet all we wish to do is to restore a lost soul to the bosom of the Church.’

They argued for a while about what to do with the coffin.

‘I’ll find that priest in the morning,’ said Harlequino. ‘If I can’t bribe him to perform the rites, I’ll find another.’

‘How will that help us now? We can’t bury him until tomorrow night, at the earliest.’

‘Back to the theatre,’ said Harlequino. ‘We’ll hide him in the theatre.’

‘It’s too public’, they complained. ‘How can we conceal a big thing like this?’

‘Oh, there are lots of dark nooks and crannies, we’ll find a place.’

‘Not in our dressing room,’ said the Zanni.

On the opening night the company of actors arrived at the theatre earlier than usual. Rosa was looking pale and nervous, but ravishingly pretty, in her shepherdess costume. Harlequino told her so, and a little colour came into her cheeks.

‘You look tired, Harlequino,’ she said. ‘And there’s mud on your patches. What have you been doing?’

‘Oh, nothing too grave.’ He gave her a smile.

‘But you look sad, Harlequino,’ she said, ‘are you unwell?’

‘I suffer with no affliction, mademoiselle,’ said Harlequino, fanning his hands over his heart, ‘of which you could not be the cure.’

‘They say that abstinence heals most disorders,’ she replied, with a raised eyebrow. He bowed with a flourish, resumed his mask, and capered away.

‘What’s that doing there?’ demanded Vincenzo, pointing at the hessian-covered object in the centre of the stage. ‘That wasn’t there yesterday.’

‘That bench,’ said Harlequino, ‘is merely for me to rest upon to play the lute. I suffer cramps sitting on the floor.’

‘And why has it appeared here overnight?’

‘Oh, the Zanni helped me with it early this morning,’ replied Harlequino, as though it was of no consequence, and moved away. The Zanni were all suddenly very busy practising their acrobatics and Vincenzo could not get any sense out of them. He gave the object a kick, and the candles flickered.

As the performance got underway, the actors clustered in the wings.

‘I hope your voice is going to be strong enough,’ said Orazio, with a sideways glance at Colombina. He turned his cold blue eyes back to Rosa, half-lidded and stern. ‘Otherwise we shall all be ruined.’

‘Try to be calm, Rosa,’ hissed Colombina. ‘If you have one of your foolish vapours it will embarrass the whole company.’

Rosa was shaking with fear. She looked out from the wings at a packed audience. The stalls were full of young gallants, the soldiers of the Watch amongst them, betrayed by a gleam of metal, and the boxes were thronged with the most eminent ladies and gentlemen of the Court. The Duc d’Orleans had wandered in, drunk as usual, with a party of his ‘roués and harlots’, to occupy the royal box.

The noise in the theatre was immense, as the audience merely continued their conversations during the performance.  Nevertheless, they applauded, as the traditional routines of the Commedia were played out. Harlequino performed the lazzo of the ladder faultlessly, everyone in the audience gasping as the ladder nearly toppled, his limbs flailing chaotically against gravity, and then, impossibly, righted itself again. With a few elegant bounds he left the ladder and exited the stage to cheers, pausing in the wings to encourage Rosa.

‘Strange and unforeseen things may happen in Commedia,’ he said. ‘We improvise as we think best, and we help each other. Whatever may surprise us, we have confidence, and we keep playing.’

‘I’ll remember your words when I hear your lute,’ replied Rosa.

‘You have the voice of an angel from Heaven, only remember that, and do not be afraid.’

Rosa thanked him with a smile.

‘As long as you manage to use it,’ said Colombina in a nasty tone.

Harlequino lifted Rosa’s fingers reverently to his lips, then stuck his tongue out at Colombina and minced away in an exaggeration of her sashaying walk. Rosa’s song was cued and she and Orazio took the stage, Harlequino coming on with his lute and sitting on the hessian-covered bench.

Rosa started her song, but could barely make herself heard above the noise in the theatre. Panic gripped her, and her voice died away. The audience started to catcall, and someone threw a piece of bread, which struck Orazio on his puffed up chest. The Zanni gathered in the wings ready to invade the stage. Harlequino continued to strum his lute, wondering whether to improvise a routine to save the act, or whether to play a few more bars, and hope Rosa found her voice. Then, he sensed something moving beneath the hessian, and wriggled his hips aside.

Rising up through the coffin lid was a red plumed hat. Beneath it, il Capitano’s mask was balanced above curling mustachios and a grinning, skeletal jaw. With a flourish and a swirl of his long red cloak, the spectre of Roccabruni rose above the stage. There was a sudden hush.

Now, thought Harlequino, and cued Rosa in with a few chords of his lute, praying that she would not look round. Her voice rose, sweet, pure and fluting, filling the theatre with its sweetness, with the emotions of lost love, and the maiden deserted. She had captivated the audience, and skilfully sang her cavatina as behind her, Roccabruni mimed the lover separated by death from the beloved.

Then Harlequino’s heart sank, as Roccabruni advanced on Rosa and, with a bow and a flourish, offered her a skeletal hand. Harlequino played on, desperately. Rosa’s eyes widened, and then she took a deeper breath, and smiled, and continued to sing, as Roccabruni led her in a sweeping, graceful minuetto. She finished her piece to riotous applause and calls of ‘Encore!’, but at that point Roccabruni bowed low to the audience, brushed Rosa’s hand with his moustache, and crumbled into dust.

At last, at midnight, it was time to take Roccabruni to his grave. A torchlit procession left the deserted street in front of the Theatre de Bourgogne. A cart draped in black fringed damask like a moving catafalque, was drawn by a pair of black plumed horses, with hooves muffled, and followed by the entire company, Vincenzo at their head. This time, oiled by a generous donation of alms, the convent gates opened for them, and the procession passed quietly inside, the white limbs of the dancing Zanni jerking like puppets around it.

As they lowered Roccabruni’s casket into the holy soil and the priest intoned his prayers, Harlequino laid his long lean fingers upon Rosa’s shoulder. He drew her away from the ritual, and then, concealed away from the mourners by alabaster angels and onyx urns, he put aside his mask.

‘There is an emotion,’ he said, ‘which is stronger than the admiration of beauty, the homage owed to grandeur, the desire for amusement, or the fear of the dead. An emotion which is born of a sympathy of the spirit, and of a tenderness that seeks to comfort and to cherish. This love I hold for you.’

In the cool of the night her lips were like flame.

© M Wallis 2020

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