She sings and speaks in lewd riddles, mourning her father’s untimely death and her abandonment by Hamlet, her lover.
The Two Orphans
Though responses to loss are varied, Ophelia’s grief reminded me of my friend who, years before, had lost a parent. There were stories of her half-clothed and screaming on the front lawn. When these incidents were relayed to me, they were through a whisper and came with the understanding that she ought to be contained, have some dignity. When I remembered my friend in this way, offering long and painful cries from the dirt, I knew her to be correct about the nature of sorrow. I was afraid of that realization. This sort of grief required a surrender I felt incapable of. And so I approached Ophelia from a distance. I continued reading about theater fires, though I did this clandestinely and with some shame, fearing my interest could be mistaken for voyeurism. These catastrophes erupted in the middle of a story, interrupting carefully dressed performers always attempting to hang onto fantasy.
I awoke before dawn on the morning of our first technical rehearsal. I was eager for tech, a process I loved, in which technical aspects of the play are woven into the performance. Finally, we were to have our neon lights, our thumping accompaniment, our ache, and joy aided and underscored. Finally, our swords and beer cans, our wedding detritus. Opening night was a week away. I waited, my ear to the door, my hand on the knob, to enter, to begin. I listened for my cue: Heaven and earth, must I remember? I placed my hand on my not-yet-rounded belly, the baby growing there.
Pregnancy, like the rehearsal process, left me feeling perfectly capable and deeply exposed, both endless and totally bereft of time. I had blazing and brief images of my daughter, dark and serene, a touchstone. Tech was like this too—flashes of the thing to come, with only a bare sense of how we would get there, dark and slow movements just before what we’ve made is ushered into its brief existence.
We began the play, pausing for long stretches to adjust lighting and sound, dropping out of our characters and their bodies when the words hold, please floated from the stage manager’s microphone. We stood in the space, whispering to each other, and dropping back into character at the direction to resume again.
My first entrance in the show followed Tyler, our Hamlet, as he entered the sanctuary, strains of an imaginary wedding reception coming in from the Fellowship Hall. I touched his hair. We held for lighting and sound. Tyler was quiet, conserving his energy, nearly 1,500 lines left for him to speak before the play concluded. We leaned against each other, and I was comforted by the warmth of his back, the steadiness of his breath. So comforted that I whispered no and meant it, thought it might mean something, when my body braced with what felt like a contraction. I felt things begin to go wrong—pain in the trunk of my body where my daughter was growing—but they asked us to resume the play and so I did. As Ophelia, I might not have to confront what I suspected to be happening. My back was aching, aching, but the play went on. I danced awkwardly with the actor playing my father, punched my stage-brother a little too hard on his arm as he packed his things to return to school. Ophelia was still fine. I was not.
My abdomen began to pull and cramp. My entire body tensed. And still, I took my place in the wings for my entrance in Act III to watch Tyler deliver the soliloquy.
To be, or not to be, that is the question:
I wrung my hands. I closed my eyes. I held my breath.
Whether ’tis nobler in the mind to suffer
The slings and arrows of outrageous fortune,
Or to take arms against a sea of troubles,
And by opposing end them: to die, to sleep
No more; and by a sleep, to say we end
The heartache, and the thousand natural shocks
That flesh is heir to?
Natural shocks. To be, to be, to be. I felt trapped in the words. I must have known what was happening. I must have known. But I could not yet articulate it to myself. I entered the scene. Tyler held my face in his hands. Hamlet placed a palm on my belly.
Why wouldst thou be a breeder of sinners?
I shook. My hands hung limp at my sides. I delivered my lines without life, so badly, I thought, that I felt embarrassed, wanted to apologize. Tyler raged,
I am myself indifferent honest;
but yet I could accuse me of such things that it
were better my mother had not borne me
I fell to the ground. Tyler tore the love letters Hamlet had written to Ophelia and threw them in my face. I was on my knees and shivering, attempting to gather the pieces in my hands, to reconstruct each pretty vow, to go back, to go back. Tyler stormed out of the scene, up the central aisle of the church. I let out a small cry and struggled to my feet to deliver my only soliloquy in the play.
O, what a noble mind is here o’erthrown—
“Hold, please,” our stage manager called out. We were due for a break. I stared at the still-swinging door where Hamlet had exited, walked out on any hope that things might have gone differently for him and Ophelia.
Alone in the bathroom, I knew she was leaving me. I sat beneath the fluorescent bulb staring at an ancient marriage certificate framed and hung on the wall. I cleaned myself, could hear the actors assembling again. I looked into the mirror, touched my face. I did not finish the play that afternoon. Ophelia didn’t have to die. I packed my things and stepped outside into the city, into October, and called my husband who was both calm and terribly sad.
Alone in the bathroom, I knew she was leaving me.
On the Brooklyn-bound F train, I lifted my phone and, without conscious thought, found myself reading about the Garrick Theatre in Hereford, England. In 1916, the young men were fighting in Gallipoli. A performance of whimsy and patriotism was put on by the community, meant to cheer the families of the boys off at war. There was a beautiful winter scene, the stage replete with paper snow, and thirteen young girls dancing, dressed as snow maidens. I could feel their racing hearts as they moved balletically to Tchaikovsky. I could feel the weight of the costumes against their skin. The newspaper reported that, as the curtain went down, the cotton-wool costumes went up like pillars of fire, thirteen girls like candles. A mother backstage costumed as Britannia tried to put out the flames, wearing an armored breastplate and feathered Corinthian helmet.
Eight of the girls died: Peggy Baird, Connie Bragg, Linda Illman, Nellie Rutherford, Cissie Beavan, Violet Corey, Winnie Mailes, Phyllis White. I read the names, imagining my own daughter that never was materializing among them, and my anguish split open, violent sobs coming from the back of my throat. These stories, the glistening abomination of them—I thought they were nothing more than a grotesque window into my Ophelia. They poked at the wounds of the play, the enigmatic nature of loss. I couldn’t have known that in reading them, I was also preparing myself for my own great heartbreak, how in each fraught story, there are the ones that remain. I would have to surrender to grief. And I would have to carry on.
I felt like a storm on the train. I must have appeared crazed—mad. I was filled then with a rage for Ophelia. Her life has exploded. She is pained, wild in her devastation, and we call her mad, as if a more measured response would be ideal. We are not supposed to rage and sing and weep. We are supposed to take a few days off for the funeral. We’re supposed to cover our mouths at the horrors of the nightly news, briefly, fleetingly, before we set the table. We lose our babies and are not supposed to speak of it. We are supposed to accept it bravely as a common fact of biology.
I asked my husband to take me to Green-Wood, a large cemetery in South Brooklyn. I sat at the foot of the monument where the 103 unidentified bodies from the Brooklyn Theater fire are buried, laid in a circle around a tall obelisk, a shared grave on the hill overlooking the harbor. And I visited the grave of Kate Claxton, who had been onstage on the night of that fire. She survived and lived another 48 years.
The theater is a delicate thing. We sit in the dark and engage in fantasy—Stay, illusion!—never mind the threat of pandemonium. We are seduced by her greatest myth, the idea that always, always the show goes on. Her stewards outrun calamity. We go on and we go on and we go on until we do not.
I returned to tech rehearsal the next day still bleeding, and to dress rehearsal the day after that. I would bleed for seven days, right up until the opening of the show. I awoke in pain in the mornings and spent afternoons with Ophelia. Ophelia, who, at the start of each show, still had a chance of making it. I hurried into the dressing room, eager to bear the costume of a woman for whom an ending had not yet come. It was a strange and pulsing symbiosis—her hope filled me as places were called and my great yawning pain was offered unapologetically to her come Act IV. As the end neared each night, I made my entrance with my trembling hands in front of me.
Where is the beauteous majesty of Denmark?
In the line, in my arms outstretched, I looked not for the queen but asked, “Where is my baby? Where is my baby?”
I was filled with Hamlet, with my daughter, with the girls in white, with theatergoers buried on the hill. I held each of these in my Ophelia’s wild, righteous madness. I was right to fear it, the kaleidoscopic longing for a thing lost for good, the thousand natural shocks that come for us no matter the ways we try to keep them at arm’s-length. It was my work as an actor to acknowledge that pain would inevitably arrive, but refuse to anticipate it, arming myself instead with hope. Waiting in the wings each night I felt my heart pounding in my chest, the booming overture letting me know that it would soon be time to begin again.