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Playing Hedda


ISSUE:  Winter 2001

“Listen, Mack, I’d love to do the part, it could make my career. But I’m very very wary. For a number of reasons. One, she’s a bully, and I fear bullying women. Two, the ending. . . .” Claire’s throat gets stuck and she spreads her arms in a helpless way.

Then Mack does something that only women are supposed to do. He puts his head in his hands and cries. “You had a terrible childhood. I’m so sorry,” he sobs. Embarrassed and a bit chagrined, Claire walks out the door of his production office and into the hall. But she can’t leave him like that. So she goes back and he offers to buy her supper at Maretti’s across the street, and she accepts. Mack is nothing if not shrewd. Theater-shrewd. The kind of shrewd that made the Schubert Brothers a fortune. He continues sniffling . . .at the bar where they have a glass of wine, and later, at the red-checkered tablecloth stained with marinara sauce. While she’s stuffing her face, Mack goes on and on about Hedda Gabler. She can feel her resistance breaking down, though not enough to be diverted from the baked manicotti. Afterward, she orders a zabaglione. Only then does Mack stop looking sorrowful and start simply looking. “How can you eat so much?” he asks. “Why aren’t you fat?”

“Take after my dad.” She swipes at the custard running down her chin.

“Christ,” Mack says, turning away in disgust. “You’re not an actress, you’re a human garbage compactor.”

“Didn’t you know,” she says, now deliberately taunting him, “that the only reason I’m in the theater is to support my eating habits? And I presume you’re picking up the tab.”

He makes a face. But at least he has enough sense not to start in again. Only when they’re out on the sidewalk and ready to part does he thrust a thick manuscript under her arm, look deep into her eyes, and say, “Claire. Promise me you’ll read this. Come by next Friday and we’ll talk.” He walks away. Dramatic exit. She could hardly do better herself. But then she religiously practices the First Law for Theatrical Survival: save your drama for the stage.

On the way home, she tries not to think about Hedda. At the Korean market, she buys a few avocados and kibitzes with Gu, who was actually born in Shanghai, grew up in Seoul, moved to Vietnam with his professor parents, and now lives in the Bronx near Gun Hill Road where he was recently mugged by a street gang. They pulled a knife on him, and put a deep gash in his forehead. He has a bandage across the top of his head. “Me loser,” he repeats for the 12th time. It’s hard to cheer up someone who speaks a different language. Smiling a lot doesn’t seem to help, so she imitates his pigeon-English. “You no loser,” she says carefully, “just dumb. Dumb to walk in the Bronx at night. Bronx bad place.” He’s a head taller than her and has the glossiest black hair she’s ever seen. Sometimes he quotes a Chinese poem and translates it for her on the spot.

“Not bad place,” he says. “Just bad people.” He should know the difference. Saw his mother and father killed in an American raid on the Song Hong delta. When she told him that the only thing worse was a parent taking her own life, he’d given her a blank look. Then she pointed a finger at her temple and whispered “Pow!” He immediately pulled her into a hug.

It’s a warm humid night for the end of September and barely dark.

On the way home, Claire sees the old woman from the next block flinging crumbs to pigeons. She once used this woman as a character study in an acting class she was taking. The teacher found her impression “extremely moving.” She didn’t tell him how mean that old woman was, how she’d seen her throw seeds into a child’s face for calling the pigeons “flying rats.”

Inside her apartment are things that need doing: dishes in the sink, stacks of newspapers to be bundled-up and thrown out, but she’s tired and there’s no need to be obsessive. According to her father (whom she rarely sees), her mother was obsessive. Her goal: perfection. The thing she remembers most is how clean her mother kept her. Chocolate was forbidden and all ice cream. Braids were pulled tight until her temples ached. She used this once or twice for a sense of memory. If tears were needed, it always worked. “No, no, no,” her mother would say, like that line from Wallace Stevens, her favorite poet. “I have said no/ To everything, in order to get at myself,” Isn’t this what Hedda did, too?

In bed, she reads a few pages of a Tony Hillerman mystery and goes right to sleep. No brooding, “Brooding breeds malaise,” was her father’s favorite line. Especially when she grew excessively quiet. What malaise meant, she never exactly knew. Still doesn’t.

Next day’s a sunny Saturday, which is uplifting after all the rain. She considers a museum, but the manuscript catches her eye. In spite of self-warnings, she scans the first few pages. Translations interest her, and even after two or three pages, she knows that this one is promising. Surprising word choices and a certain rhythmic colloquialism that sounds authentic.

When the phone rings, she answers distractedly. She’s sure it’s Mack asking if she’s read the play yet. She’s about to say “yes, yes, I’d love to do the part,” when the silence on the other end becomes more pronounced. “Who’s this?” she demands, in her bossiest, no-nonsense voice (Mack might say, her Hedda voice).

There’s a long pause, as if the person’s trying to decide whether or not to hang up. “Cal. It’s Cal,” he says faintly.

“Call” She hasn’t heard from him in weeks, not since their big blow-up. Her next words are toned down a few decibels. “How are you?”

As always, he ignores her attempts at schmoozing. (“All actors must be able to schmooze,” she used to tell him. “It’s more important than talent.”) “I may be moving.” He lets this announcement hang in the air without elaboration. Typical.

“Where?”

“Portland.”

“Maine?”

“Oregon.”

“That’s a long way.”

“I know. I’d like to talk to you about it.”

She has a premonition about this talk. He’ll bring up marriage again, which is what their fight was about. She’d like to beg off, but he’s a caring man and she owes him something.

“Alright. When?”

“Thursday okay with you?”

The night before she’s supposed to give Mack her final decision. Well, why not? Her mind’s made up anyway. “Where’ll I meet you?”

“The Harvard Club?”

She groans aloud. All those earnest WASPs.

“Okay, okay, we can go on from there.”

“Six-thirty. I’d like to get home early.”

“Why do you always put a provisional clause on everything?”

“It’s not provisional, it’s just a fact. I have an appointment next day.”

Now it’s his turn to groan. “That means something’s in the fire.”

“Maybe, maybe not. See you then.” She hangs up. One way to avoid an argument. The other is never to say “no” outright. She writes the words NO NOS in large letters on a notebook pad that she carries around, but, in truth, rarely looks at.

Aside from several broken conversations with Gu about getting together during the week, she spends the next two days in almost complete solitude, re-reading the translation, making notes on each page. She always stops before the final scene, the one where Hedda goes into the next room and shoots herself. Her mother was more thoughtful. She went out to the pagoda at the far end of their lawn in Pasadena. At least that’s what Claire overheard as part of some adult conversation or other. When she begged Julia, her babysitter, to take her there a few days later, it looked the same as always. “They did a good job cleaning it up,” Julia murmured, then put a hand to her mouth. Julia was a senior in high school, naturally matter-of-fact, never mincing words. They walked back to the house in silence, their footsteps making imprints in the dewy grass. Not long after, her father had the idea of sending her away to summer camp (she was 10). The camp coincidentally had a pagoda, too, where groups of girls gathered after supper to laugh and gossip. At first they invited her along and looked at her funny when she refused. Then somebody— maybe Julia’s younger sister who was also a camper—told what had happened. It soon spread like a whispered ripple from one girl to the next. They never asked her again. Mostly she was left alone, except by the counselors, who were prodigious in trying to jolly her up. One evening she went by herself to the lake and stood for a long time, gazing down at the dark water. Suddenly she heard yelling and three of the counselors quickly surrounded her and dragged her away. The only thing she looked forward to that whole awful summer was lights out when she could let the tears come, the ones she’d held in check all day. Next morning no one accused her of being red-eyed, or of picking at her food. When she got back home, she found that her father had settled into a routine—not necessarily one that included her.

He’s an astronomer, now partially retired, which means he’s more of a consultant. Though Claire was always proud of what he did, she never really understood it. He took her once to the observatory, where she observed him peering into a telescope, then filling paper after paper with intricate columns of numbers. When she asked him what these meant, he glanced up briefly as if she were some phantom star standing in the doorway. “It’s like a foreign language,” he said. “Maybe someday I’ll teach you.” But a few years later, she found her own niche, which she liked to think had little to do with space and the heavens, except that somehow it did. By sheer fluke, she was cast in a college production of Aristophanes’ The Clouds. From then on, acting became her way of saying “yes” to life—though, lately, she’s been wondering if there might also be another way.

Mack doesn’t call, which both irks and intrigues her.

She reads over her notes.

Make Hedda as charming as possible, especially in the beginning. Give her impatience with Tesman a touch of affection. As if she’s willed a surface personality that’s sometimes at odds with the sociopath underneath. The key to her character lies in her relationship to her father, the general. His coldness. The disappointment that she was not a boy. He may even be an emotional bully, a man certainly used to getting his own waywhich accounts in part for her own willfulness.

And her mother? There is no mention of her. Why not? Maybe she died in childbirth. Maybe she committed suicide.(Be careful. Isn’t this TOO close to home?)

1. Likes her own way, is willing to go to any lengths to get it

2. A perfectionist. Ugliness oppresses her,

3. Does she love Lovborg (significance of name?) Maybe she’s incapable of love.(Do we share this?) She is more interested in power. In being able to control other human beings. Adult human beings. Not children. Children would be too demanding. Lovborg is attractive . . . . Maybe she’s afraid of the attraction. Is this what Lovborg means when he accuses her of being “a coward at heart”?

Reasons for suicide—disappointment in Lovborg, in her life, anticipation of judge Brack’s dominance, of Thea gaining the upper hand with Tesman, Are there more secrets beyond these? Chinese boxes, one inside the other?

What are my own Chinese boxes? How are they different from Hedda’s?

On Tuesday Claire looks forward to a conversation and advice-giving session with Gu. She’s been urging him to continue his university studies—which were interrupted when he came to America—and has promised to help him apply for a grant. These are things Hedda wouldn’t do, which secretly pleases her.

But when she reaches the market, Gu’s not there. A moon-faced girl with short, choppy hair and unfriendly eyes has taken his place. She speaks even worse English than Gu. It takes three tries for her to understand Claire’s question.

“He get . . .” the girl’s hands twirl around helplessly . . . “more sick from cut. Go to doctor.”

“Oh.” Claire pauses, suddenly realizing that she and Gu have only ever talked face-to-face. “Do you have his phone number? I’d like to see if he needs anything.”

“No phone,” the girl shakes her head.

“Do you mean that he doesn’t have a phone, or that you don’t want anyone to bother him?”

“No phone,” she says again. “No phone.”

Claire leaves without buying anything.

When she gets home, she tries to find Gu’s number from information, but no luck. She also considers calling Mack, but doesn’t want to appear too eager. He mentioned something about Diane Sicourt, but she wouldn’t be right for Hedda. Still, she does have a bigger name.

She thinks about Cal moving. He’s been around so long that she takes him for granted. One might even say that Cal is her Tesman . . .only he’s better looking.

In spite of herself, she also keeps pondering the question of suicide. “People don’t do such things!” Brack says. Similar words were said about her mother. But they were talking about her shooting herself through the head. “Why did she have to do it in such a brutal way?” she remembers her father remarking to no one in particular. At the time she didn’t see what difference it made, but the image of her mother holding the gun to her temple still haunts her. She hopes that Gu is okay.

On Wednesday, the day before she’s to meet Cal at the Harvard Club, she goes on a shopping spree. Not a spree, exactly, but she looks for an outfit that Hedda might wear, given the difference in time and place. She began doing this—what she calls “physical research”—when she read for the New York Shakespeare Festival production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream. She went to Bergdorf ‘s and although she couldn’t afford it, bought a melon-colored silk dress which made her movements seem more graceful and slightly stylized. She continues to believe that it was the reason she got the part of Cobweb, her first big break.

But Hedda’s different. For Hedda she wants something severe, masculine, something that gives her a sense of authority. In a small, exclusive sports store in the East 70’s, she finally finds what she’s searching for: a pair of jodhpurs and some handsome leather boots (that she has to dip into her savings to pay for). In another shop she buys a soft creamy blouse, symbolizing the contradictions in Hedda’s nature.

For Cal, she chooses an off-the-shoulder Mexican “peasant” blouse, and a skirt that’s short enough to show off her legs without being a total come-on. She feels ambivalent about making love with him because when they do, he either turns defensive or starts begging her to marry him.

“You’re going to end up alone,” he’s said more than once. Does he know how much this frightens her?

She returns to the fruit stand to see if Gu’s back. The girl’s eyes are still as blank as old coins. She looks through Claire, rather than at her. Claire’s reminded of the phrase “inscrutable Oriental,” then chastises herself for stereotyping someone. The girl probably thinks she’s a smart-assed American bitch. She is becoming more bitchy. Maybe it’s Hedda’s influence.

One good thing about her, though: she’s fairly punctual. When she arrives at the Harvard Club, Cal barely has had time to settle into an armchair with the Wall Street Journal when he sees her and stands up again. Such nice manners. They decide to go across the street to the Royalton. Cal asks for a table with a bit of privacy, and since it’s not crowded, the waiter obliges. She orders her usual: a daiquiri, which she will nurse through the entire dinner. Cal has one neat Scotch, then another. For a moment he sits, silently making rings with the bottom of his glass on the table.

“Tell me about Portland,” she says, digging in her icy drink with a straw.

“I have the chance to manage a securities office. Portland’s wide open.” He stares down at his hands linked on the table.

“But tell me about it.”

He looks at her blankly.

“What’s it like?”

“Nice, very nice. Similar to Seattle, but dryer.” He turns his glass round and round, glances at her out of the corner of his eye. “They have a good repertory company.”

“I’ve heard of it. Did you see a play?”

He shakes his head, takes several more sips. “Too busy sailing— one of the guys in the firm has a boat.”

“Sounds wonderful,” she says, trying not to sound wistful.

“It is.” He smiles, sure that he’s winning her over.

Unlike Mack, Cal loves to see Claire eat. The mention of sailing has made her hungry for fish, and she orders red snapper in Creole sauce. Cal has lamb chops with a half-carafe of white wine. When it comes, he tries to fill her glass, but she puts her hand over it.

“You’re a coward, Claire,” he says, and she looks at him sharply. Has he been peeking into her notebook? When she’s thinking about a character, it’s uncanny, and sometimes scary, how much grist flies into her mill. She’s seen it happen before. While she was rehearsing Ophelia, her father had a heart attack, wasn’t expected to live. Her personal grief became Ophelia’s. As soon as he was able to be up and about, he married Mrs. Layton, a widow who lived down the street. “I’ve been loyal to your mother too long, Claire,” he said. Actually, it was the first time he’d mentioned her mother in years. “Now I need a companion, someone to take care of me.” Which she understood, but it didn’t bring them closer. Any warmth he had left, he gave to Mrs. Layton. Even taught her to play chess, although he confessed to Claire that she wasn’t very good at it.

After Cal’s accusation, she grows silent. He keeps glancing over as if wondering whether or not he’s hurt her feelings. She starts to tell him about Mack and the play, then changes her mind. During the rest of the meal, he describes Portland. “It has a . . .vibrancy,” he says, pleased with himself for coming up with the right word. For the moment he’s rented a four-room apartment, although he may end up, he says, buying a house.

“Does the apartment have a terrace?”

“Yes. And the living room has big French windows.”

For a moment, she imagines living there. She pictures Cal going off to work in the morning while she stays home arranging vases of nasturtiums on a terrace overlooking a bay where fishing boats go in and out at all hours of the day and night.(“Greece,” Cal says. “It reminds me of a Greek island.”) Later, she shops in the open-air market, spends hours picking out the freshest vegetables—this reminds her of Gu. They (Cal or Gu?) have an early dinner—again on the terrace—and attend a concert, or simply stroll along the waterfront. On weekends, they go sailing with friends, or on their own boat, which he’s just bought. For their first long excursion, they plan to sail up to Vancouver Island and back.

Only when Cal asks what she’s thinking—which he does frequently when they’re together—does she come out of this reverie. “Nothing,” she says.

For once she turns down dessert, and settles for an espresso laced (Cal insists on this) with sambuca. The liqueur, together with the daiquiri, makes her sleepy. While he totals up the check, he takes her right hand and massages it which is meant to be a kind of foreplay. “Ready?” he asks huskily.

She nods, dreading the next few minutes. She still hasn’t made up her mind about bed. The air outside feels fresher than it did earlier, and her head clears a little. He starts to hail a cab, but when she suggests that they walk awhile, he agrees. Automatically, he steers her uptown in the direction of his apartment, and for a few blocks she follows his lead. But when they reach the corner of Central Park South, the Hedda part of herself draws to a halt. “Cal, I think I should get home. I told you I have an early appointment.”

He looks at her disbelieving. Then, jaw set, he moves to the curb and throws up an arm. A few streets back, a whole fleet of empty cabs passed by. Now they’re all filled. Cal gets more and more impatient. She suspects that he considers walking off and leaving her there, but he’s too much of a gentleman. After 15 minutes of pacing back and forth, he spots one on the other side of the avenue and it rattles over. When they reach her apartment building, he tells the driver to wait.

“You’re welcome to come up,” she murmurs, as he walks her up the steps.

“I don’t think so.” When he’s mad, his words sound staccato.

“Will you call me before you go?”

“If I have time.” Pecking her on the cheek, he leaves her at her door. She waves goodbye, but he doesn’t look back. I’ve lost him forever, she thinks, feeling a tiny pang of regret. Was this what Hedda experienced when she refused Lovborg? She goes inside, nursing her mood, trying to keep it alive until her reading tomorrow morning—she assumes that Mack will ask her to go over a few scenes. She gets into bed with the tinny taste in her mouth that always anticipates excitement.

She wakes up next morning at five and lies there in the dark thinking about Hedda. She still hasn’t resolved the suicide. She’s read somewhere—when she was in college, maybe—that people generally commit suicide in a fit of deep depression or anger. After this, she spent weeks, months, trying to figure out who her mother might have been angry at. Her father? But he doted on her. Herself, then? It must have been. She made a list of all the naughty things she might have done, but none of these added up to much. Maybe it was just the disappointment of life. The boredom of small, unconnected details. Yet is anything truly unconnected?

When it’s light outside, she makes herself a cup of coffee, and crawls through the open window onto the fire escape, from where she can glimpse the Hudson River, a view now linked with Portland, which she dreamed about last night. She sits here a long time, watching a few tankers go up and down. When she comes back inside, she draws a bath and lies with her eyes closed, trying to shut everything else out except Hedda. She spends an hour on her hair, pulling it back off her face to suggest, without being too obvious, a style from another period. After putting on the blouse, the jodhpurs, and the boots, she takes a look at herself in the full-length mirror. Her reflection—softened only by a few stray blonde tendrils—curls its lip. All she needs is a whip in her hand.

Sticking the manuscript into her shoulder bag, she sets out toward Eighth Avenue, taking long steps the way a man might.

At the curb, a claque of people stand waiting for the light to change. She barges through the crowd, sideswiping another young woman, causing her to drop one of her bags. Claire murmurs an apology, but does not stop. Instead, on impulse, she strides across the avenue, daring the stream of cars to hit her. Several honk and screech to a halt. A man gives her the finger out the window. When she reaches the other side, she pauses, badly shaken. What the hell’s the matter with her? She could’ve been killed.

Fifteen minutes after Mack’s secretary announces her, he comes bounding out. “Claire! Darling!” Once he takes a good look at her, though, his face drops. She’s never noticed how much hanging flesh he has. “Going riding in Central Park?”

“No.”

He glances wildly about, as if searching for a distraction. “Tell you what. Let’s go across the street for coffee. I’ll buy you breakfast, how’s that?”

“I had breakfast already.”

“Knowing you, you can always eat another.” Taking her arm, he guides her out. For all his Ray Bolger elasticity, he can quickly become an iron rod. His fingers press hard and she nudges his hand away.

Instead of turning into Maretti’s, their usual hangout, he steers her toward Mortimer’s, a much fancier restaurant. This makes her slightly uneasy. Either something’s very good, or very bad. Soon as they settle down, he orders two “grande cremes,” a fruit cup and raspberry blini. He’s aware that blini are her favorites.

“Mack, I can’t eat all that!”

He shrugs. “Practice creative consumption. Store it up mentally. You just never know . . .”

“I brought the manuscript.” Opening her bag, she energetically plops it onto the table, which makes him wince. “It’s an incredible translation.”

For the first time, little lights appear in his eyes. “I’m glad you like it, Claire. You know how I value your opinion.”

Then he changes the subject. Describes an awful script he read the night before about Silicon Valley. He goes through it scene by scene, doing riffs on different techie types. Normally Claire would hoot with laughter, but suddenly it doesn’t seem very funny. The waiter brings the blini. She cuts a few bites and pushes them around the plate.

“How is it?” Mack asks. “Is it good? It looks delicious.”

She sets down her fork, unable to continue this charade. “Mack, what’s going on? Do you still want me to play Hedda? Because I’d like to, very much.”

The way he can’t look her in the eye speaks volumes. He picks up a grape, sticks it in his mouth. “We’ve already cast it, Claire. I offered the part to Diana Sicourt, and she said yes.” He spits a few seeds into a napkin. “If I’d dreamed that you were truly interested. . .”

“Then why did you give me the script?”

“I thought that, if you really liked it, you would have called by now.” His face has taken on a permanent frown. “I’m sorry.”

She sits there considering what to do. Smile and say, “That’s alright, Mack. I understand”? Suggest that he fire Diana and hire her? “Has she signed a contract yet?”

“No, but we have a verbal agreement. She’s very enthusiastic about the project. Even made a few casting suggestions.”

“Also she’s starred in a television series . . .”

Mack’s frown turns into indignation. “That wasn’t a consideration, but I’ll tell you one thing, it won’t hurt the box office.”

She feels her bile rising, Hedda’s bile. Mack sits there, looking ready to cry. He even takes off his glasses, and dabs at his eyes with the edge of his napkin. This display of phony emotion angers her more than anything. She stands up, and before he has time to move away, takes the edge of her plate, with all the uneaten blini and the raspberry syrup, and tips it over into his lap, leaving him dazed. The syrup drips down his pants leg. Then she walks out.

Striding toward Ninth Avenue, her wrath cools down a bit, and she feels terrible. After all, Mack is a friend. She shouldn’t have done that.

He may be a friend, a voice says, he’s also a sonavabitch.

He’ll never cast me in anything again.

Nonsense. The next time he won’t screw you around.

And I’ll never play Hedda.

Yes you will. I’ll see to that. If you don’t let anything else get in your way.

Which voice is her talking she’s no longer sure. Probably Hedda’s.

When she reaches the fruit stand, Gu is back. She glimpses him inside weighing lettuces. Picking up an orange, she flips it into the air, catches it, grabs an apple, tosses it up also, and stands there juggling the two.

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