Tableau Vivant

By Lars Landgren


I am the light and darkness. I am all imaginable sound, and any weather. Nothing here begins without me, nothings ends, you see? No storm, no ship for Prospero, no Agincourt for Henry. This one here, this lever. Light through yonder window! This determines night or day, six nights a week. Most venues now, it’s all computerized. But I could never do pre-programmed. No, I need productive space to wave my arms. The ropes, knobs, valves and lamps – they’re limbs, my body by extension, parts of me. You wouldn’t know how that feels, I suppose.

There. Look at you! A proper general. 

I always had a gift for decoration. Lots of practise, too. My parents ran a travelling theatre – historical tableaux vivantes – and father was the agitated heart of the whole enterprise. The mad director type, he thought of death, and death, and death! And why not death? It gets you audiences, makes great posters, fills the critics’ columns. And all the neighbouring towns fall on their knees, and beg: “Come show us death!”

I did décor at first, and then some acting. In Citoyen Capet à la Guillotine I was a sneering revolutionary. Then, Cato at Utica, a weeping slave. In Franklin at Ford’s Theatre I hid backstage and lit a firecracker rendering the fatal shot. I’d found my place at last.

Hear that? The door. They’ve gone. We can begin. I’ll need to hoist you on the mechane. 

The theatre disbanded over some dispute, so father moved to staging scenes at home. He painted and arranged, he made, unmade and rearranged. Dressed me and mother up. He sewed and sewed until one day his jugular vein burst. It was a splendid final scene – though one he never saw – slumped over his machine, foot on the buzzing pedal. He’d sewn a blouse into his skin from wrist to armpit, like a wing. In action how like an angel.

I took the dollhouse from his studio. I must have told you, yes? And I cut miniatures from his Uffizi catalogue and pinned them to the walls. I’ve brought one. Ever seen so small a painting? This is the one we do tonight. It’s Gentileschi. I’ll be Judith.

Where was I? Oh, this dollhouse sat on bleached white linen spread over a pedestal, as if on ice. And then one winter’s day in swirling snow, when coming back from school, I saw our house from far away as on a great white sheet. And there it was: a dollhouse in a dollhouse in a snow globe. The world one artifice inside the other up and up through sheathes of empty space to the last recorded decimal of Pi, or God, or some control booth at the end. 

Are you uncomfortable? Uneasy lies the head that wears a crown. I’ll turn you just a bit, if you don’t mind. I’m not some god, of course, except to you perhaps. No, I was premature in the extreme. I’ve told you, haven’t I? That’s where the allergies are from. Before she died, my mother called me a resuscitated miscarriage that never should’ve – never mind, I’ll harp not on that string.

But yesterday, I thought – remember how I dozed off after dress rehearsal? Oh, I sleep anchored in seaweed, wake right up if nightmares tug too hard. Well, when I woke there was – let’s call it daydream residue. It slushed through me, broke up in bubbles which I popped, and inside each a thought swam. Are you listening? And I had this remarkable sensation that I hadn’t yet been born. That this, right here, these drapes, the stage, is my gestation, like a second womb. Does that make sense? It’s like I’m in that cave, not with the prisoners but behind. I’m casting shadows that I know are only fluttering impressions. Oh, I know. But don’t you think that at the end, there comes a moment of delivery, deliverance, and all appears unveiled at last?

Remember, you can’t move! Well, no, of course you can’t. Now, where’s my sword?

That dollhouse had authentic wallpaper, great carpentry, and electricity. A tiny automatic grand piano. Only one doll. Imported, from Venezuela. Oh, a vain man, tanned, athletic, built like you. I mean, frustratingly proportional. I always seated him in front of this to witness Holofernes die, and die, and die again. Please say if I already told you this. I wouldn’t want to bore you.

There. That’s it. We’re set to go. 

How do I look?