CLAY MCLEOD CHAPMAN
volume of smoke
The frequenter of the theater obeys the dictates of a common depravity. Morals on the stage are always distorted. Vice is allied with virtue, as to appear like a younger sister—never permitting suspicion that the monster is actually seated within the heart.
Richmond, afflicted Richmond.
You have resolved that all your theatres shall go
dark, their stages bare of any action for the following four months—like
the bones of a carcass pecked
clean of its meat. Performance of no shape shall be permitted to approach
Thirty five scenes. Purple sunsets. Skies painted with the whitest clouds. Nightscapes, the canvas scattered with stars. Snow capped mountains. Rolling oceans.
On and on and on. There was a tapestry for every time of day, every season. Every corner of the world.
Thirty five scenes, all of them suspended over the actors' heads. Hanging by hemp and not much else.
After an evening's performance, when the house is finally empty—walking backstage, I'd catch myself listening to the fibers flexing themselves under the backdrop's weight. The hemp stretches itself, each rope making this twisting sound. All high-pitched and leathery. Sounds like sails billowing in the wind. All those backdrops, just catching a stray draft. Shifting with the current.
This theatre's nothing but a schooner, built in with thirty five different sails—each one an expanse of canvas set with a different piece of scenery.
It was my job to hoist up the sails, manning the masts backstage. Holding the ropes until the order was called to raise the sky. Raise the sunset. Raise the mountains.
My hands have the scars to prove it. Palms have nearly been burned through. Takes me an hour after every show to pick the splinters out from each wrist—wrapping the ends of these ropes around my arms, just to keep my grip.
The curtains open and the command goes out. The actors step on stage, looking out into that audience. Nothing but an ocean of rolling heads.
We set sail every evening.
There are parts men are destined to play. Hamlet, for one. I remember my first encounter with the role, portraying the Prince of Denmark for over seventy consecutive performances. Our production toured throughout the southeastern region of the United States. I inhabited the role within a completely different theatre every evening. Knoxville, Tennessee. Atlanta, Georgia. Night after night, I took to the stage—only for the very spirit of Shakespeare to enter my body, possessing this vessel for the duration of the performance. I channeled his immortal words as if I were speaking them for the very first time.
Critics agreed. The reviews said just as much, expressing their admiration at my ability to make the lines crackle. If there had been a pail of water at my side, one columnist reported. I would have tossed it upon Mr. Robinson, hoping to extinguish his infernal interpretation of the Bard.
It's the legacy of the line that I most admire. What's written will be read. What's published will be performed for an eternity. These lines will be repeated by hundreds upon hundreds of actors. But how that one performer chooses to speak them will be his mark on the role. The next ends up adding something completely different. And so on and so forth.
But I'll admit this much: Never in my life had I ever spoke such words on stage with such conviction, such sincerity, as—The house is on fire.
And the curtain that closed on me that evening was in flames.
STAGEHAND: It was from the first act. There's a chandelier hanging from the ceiling. Illuminates the whole stage. Looks intimate enough. It's the last scene before the intermission, so when the curtain falls—I'm supposed to wait for the order to hoist the chandelier up, lifting the lamp back with the rest of the tapestries.
Raise up the chandelier. Who said it, I can't say. My back was turned, but I heard his voice clear enough. As clear as I can hear my own, talking to you right now. Raise up the chandelier. Raise up the chandelier.
I'm not deaf. Certainly not dumb. Orders are orders and I do as I'm told.
If I were one to point fingers, I'd aim mine at the property man. Right between the eyes.
PROPERTY MAN: It was during the intermission when I noticed the glow. This stray flicker of light that I couldn't account for. Looking up, I immediately saw it amongst all the other backdrops—that flush of orange and yellow, casting a shadow over the ropes.
The stage hand had raised the scene before extinguishing the candle.
Lower that lamp and blow it out.
Three times, I said it. Repeatedly.
Lower that lamp and blow it out.
Lower that lamp and blow it out.
STAGEHAND: There were about three minutes before the second act was to start, so I told the carpenter to extinguish it.
CARPENTER: That lamp was up high. Made it difficult for me to see which rope it was tied to. Had to unfasten a few before finding the right one. The candle had cast these shadows across the cables. Looked like one big knot up there. All the cords moving, tangling up into each other.
So I gave a good yank on the pulley.
STAGEHAND: Two cords worked over two pulleys. The roof had a collar-beam attached to the ceiling, the lamp hanging down from above by about fourteen feet.
CARPENTER: The rope got all twisted into itself, so I gave a good yank on the pulley.
STAGEHAND: Whoever handled the chandelier had done a poor job. I found myself backstage, attempting to move it. Only for the rope to catch on a separate set-piece, spinning a bit before settling back down again.
CARPENTER: I gave a good yank on the pulley. Only the lamp shook. Started rocking a bit. Just a few inches. Back and forth, like that. Had to raise it up again, just to bring it down. Only it jerked this time. It jostled. The lamp swerved from its upright position, dragging the candle clear across the lower corner of the neighboring backdrop.
STAGEHAND: All that varnish. All that lacquer.
PROPERTY MAN: The scene went up in a second.
CARPENTER: In a heartbeat. Whoosh . . .
STAGEHAND: Barely even a breath.
PROPERTY MAN: It was the morning sky. The tapestry that caught on fire. It was a painting of the morning sky, just at sunrise—daybreak only a moment away.
STAGEHAND: The flame rose. Grew and grew. Tapering off to a sharp point, it reached the roof.
CARPENTER: Couldn't have been more than six or seven feet.
STAGEHAND: Six feet. Maybe seven.
PROPERTY MAN: More like seven.
STAGEHAND and PROPERTY MAN: Seven.
CARPENTER: All those scenes, lacquered up in varnish. Might as well have painted them in kerosene.
PROPERTY MAN: Skies. Sunsets. Daybreaks. Rolling oceans. Street fronts. Mountains. Houses. Living rooms. Churches. Cliff tops. Roof tops. Starry skies. Clouds. Snow. Lightning bolts. Tidal wives. Temples. Bedrooms. Cityscapes.
STAGEHAND: Thirty five tapestries.
CARPENTER: All on fire now.
STAGEHAND: All hanging over the stage. Hiding behind the proscenium. The second act had started, the audience wrapped up in the show —while welling up just over their heads, the fire mounted. Grew along the roof, the flames extending their way towards the house.
CARPENTER: That actor on stage took one look up, lifting his eyes towards the ceiling—only to turn back to the audience, and say . . .
ACTOR: The house is on fire.
STAGEHAND: Only nobody in the audience believed him!
CARPENTER: Now how bad of an actor can you be that you can yell fire in a crowded theatre and still nobody believes you?
STAGEHAND: He received a standing ovation that night.
CARPENTER: That's for sure.
STAGEHAND: Everybody leapt to their feet the second they saw the fire falling from the ceiling, scattering across the stage.
CARPENTER: He brought the house down!
Damn seats. Uncomfortable as hell. After an hour of sitting in them, your back's practically bent in half. You leave the theatre feeling like a hunchback.
The armrests are wood, while the rest is cast iron. Make one move during the show, just to adjust yourself—and your seat sends out the most ear-piercing screech. Sounds like a cat on fire, caterwauling to death.
I can't even concentrate on the show. I'll spend the entire night searching for that one comfortable position, shifting back and forth. I'll slip forward for five minutes, until I've lost the feeling in my legs. I'll pull myself up until my tailbone's rubbing against the back, my rump all numb.
Lean to the left. Lean to the right.
My seat squeaking and shrieking. Everyone's heads turning towards me.
Our strength is in our numbers, people! The audience can't complain if we shuffle all at once. Not a soul can be singled out when we budge as brothers, united!
Altogether now: Shift!
On my mark: Move!
On the count of three: One, two, three!
Find that comfort wherever you can! Whatever it takes to make the play more bearable!
These were the best seats in the house. Front and center, just a few rows back from the orchestra. There was a perfect view of the entire stage. Less heads to look over. The balcony was well behind us. It was as if this show were being performed solely for my family and I. The rest of the audience may as well have melted away from my mind's eye, left with this flawless landscape of the stage.
If you could understand the amount of trouble I went to, simply to obtain these seats—you'd appreciate my patience. My wife had been begging me to take her to the theatre for months. I rarely heard the end of it. Our anniversary was well on its way—so I figured, this would be a most appropriate present to commemorate our marriage with. I kept it a secret for weeks. It was perfect. Couldn't have planned a better present.
I'd even gone to the lengths of blindfolding my wife, escorting her to her chair with the aid of my daughter's arm. The two of us sat at her side, each taking an ear—whispering hints of where we could possibly be. Every sound made her bristle with this inquisitiveness. The rustling of the playbills, the murmur of the audience. She hadn't a clue.
Is it dinner? No . . .
Is it a concert? No . . .
Where are we then? Patience, my dear. Patience . . .
Removing the blindfold was just about the most wonderful part of the evening for me. Watching her eyes come into focus, taking in the stage. And then flaring up. My God, her eyes lit like oil lamps falling to the floor, the kerosene bursting over the ground. I'd never seen anything so beautiful. She could barely contain herself. And the kiss she gave me, in front of everyone else in that audience, before the entire house, the balcony, the boxes—I tell you now, it may as well have been the both of us on that stage, performing our own play.
Everyone from the house began to cheer. Before the play had even started, we received our very own standing ovation.
When the cry was made that there was a fire —sure enough, not two breaths later, I could see the flames enveloping the proscenium, spreading along the edge of the stage. My wife reached for my arm, squeezing. But I insisted that we stay in place.
Patience, I said. It would be more prudent to sit still. To wait while the rest of the audience hurried for the exits. The couple next to us had to extend their legs over our own, scurrying for the aisles—while I insisted to my wife and daughter that we keep in place.
Patience, I said. Knowing quite well that we'd be crammed in with everyone else from the house, pushed and prodded along like cattle. Knowing quite well that there'd be very little chance of the three of us staying together, battling the corralling crowd. Knowing quite well that when we entered the stream of people forcing their way through the aisles, there'd be no hope of me keeping my grip on my wife's hand and her holding onto our daughter.
Patience, I said. Sit here and wait.
We did, watching the fire spread, suddenly surrounding us—as if this were the show I paid for. As if this was what we'd come to watch.
If I had taken the time to realize why, why I insisted so heartily that we stay in our seats, while everyone else raced for the exit, yelling and screaming as they went. To recognize my intentions for what they were, what part of me had been so stubborn—I might have been able to admit to myself that it was for the view. The intimacy of it all. Front and center. Just a few rows back from the orchestra.
Don't you see? These were the best seats in the house.
The curtain had been dropped in hopes of warding off the flames. Through the thick partition, I could see a very large bright light mounting in its intensity. Glowing.
And then the flames ate through.
PARENT #1: Whatever you do, honey—don't let go of my hand.
PARENT #2: Keep your grip. Hold on tight.
PARENT #3: I want you to follow the fresh air, wherever you can find it.
PARENT #1: Let your lungs lead the way.
PARENT #2: Have you seen your sister?
PARENT #3: Have you seen your little brother?
PARENT #1: Your father?
PARENT #2: Have you seen where your mother went?
PARENT #3: Stay right here.
PARENT #1: Don't move.
PARENT #2: Wait until I come back for you.
PARENT #3: I'll be returning right away.
PARENT #1: Keep your head low, honey.
PARENT #2: Don't look down. Don't look at the floor.
PARENT #3: Keep up with me. Stop falling behind.
PARENT #1: Pick up your feet, sweetie. We don't have much time.
PARENT #2: If your eyes keep stinging, close them.
PARENT #3: The smoke's just getting in your eyes.
PARENT #1: I'd give you a piggy-back if the smoke wasn't rising.
PARENT #2: You'd have your head in the clouds all the way out.
PARENT #3: Can you hear me, honey?
PARENT #1: Can you see?
PARENT #2: Can you breathe?
PARENT #3: Whatever you do, honey—don't let go of my hand.
My mother had stood behind me at the mirror for hours, preparing my hair for our evening out. She had taken a cup full of sugar that afternoon, boiling it in barley—so that she could then dip my curls into the substance, soaking my hair in it, combing its thick consistency through and through. When the sugar solidified, so would my hair—keeping its curls perfectly intact throughout the entire night.
That's why when the fire spread over my body, devouring my head in flames—my curls crispened, even crackled, the slightest scent of sweetness spreading with the cinders of my scalp.
I was bored. Kept kicking the seat in front of me, until the man sitting there turned around and glared. Couldn't help but snicker a bit.
My mother took me by the hand. Nearly yanked my arm out of its socket—pulling me up from my seat, dragging me down the aisle.
Got my whipping in the lobby. Bent me right over her knee, spanking me in front of the ushers. Never felt more embarrassed in all of my life.
The doors parted open, the audience charging through. Looked like a dam had broken, the water rushing right over my mother and I. Nobody stopped long enough to realize we were right there in front of them. Nobody leaned over to try and pick us up from the floor.
What it must've felt like to step on some little boy's bony frame, the snap of his ribs resonating through their shoe. What that softness must've felt like from under their foot, realizing they'd just trampled over me. If they even realized it at all.
I only let go of your hand for a moment, long enough to fix my dress. It had gotten all ruffled, bunching up at my feet. I kept stepping on the hem. The crowd behind me continued to trod on the back end, throwing me backwards with every step forward.
I figured, if I could just grip the fringe with my hand, lifting the hem up to my knee—I'd be able to run faster. Keep up with you.
You made this dress for me, taking my measurements. You asked me to stand still, hold my arms out at my shoulders—while I imagined myself to be a bird, flapping its wings. You asked me to stop shifting, keep my knees together—while I imagined myself to be a pony, whinnying up onto its hind legs.
You finally gave up, throwing your own hands into the air.
Well, if this dress ends up being too big for you, you'll simply have to grow into it.
Never had the chance.
The floor had gone soft. The smoke had grown so thick inside the hallway, I couldn't see six inches in front of me—let alone where I was stepping. I acted upon the blind faith of one-foot-in-front-of-the-other. Over and over again, just like that. Praying I'd find the hard floor again.
It took all of my energy to force my way through the crowd, just to reach the street outside. I stepped over the people in front of me, climbing over their heads. I pushed so hard, forgetting that these were people—trampling over their bodies without even considering helping them get back up.
The smoke made it easy enough. There was nothing to see. There was only their physical presence, the touch and not much else.
One-foot-in-front-of-the-other. As simple as that.
There was smoke in my lungs. Everyone around me was sinking, falling to the floor—while I kept climbing higher, reaching for anything that would advance me ahead of the rest. Everyone was extending their hands for me to grab and pull them back up to their feet. I discovered that the persons blockading the exits were principally ladies, crying for relief. They entreated the crowd not to hurt them. Beseeching so loudly, it became a chorus. It sounded like a song.
Those who escaped, myself included, did so at the expense of others. I found freedom on the bodies of others too weak to find it first.
You must understand. I had to find my daughter.
We had been separated in the lobby.
Once I had made my way outdoors, it struck me that Candice was still trapped somewhere inside. I had to turn around and force my way through the burning doors, past all the people piling up around the exit. It was like turning the tides, like some salmon working its way upstream.
I wasn't nearly as fortunate the second time around.
Who'd miss the musicians? If the fire had scorched the orchestra, burning every member of the band—I'm curious: Who'd mourn the loss of them?
Every night, it's the same thing. Somebody's always waiting backstage, hoping for an autograph from one of the actors. But us musicians—we can move freely amongst the audience after the show, like ghosts walking amongst the living.
It's because we're buried down here, in this pit. Where no one can see us. Save for those folks sitting in the balcony, we're invisible. I've had little children spit on me from the box seats just above my head, this drizzle of saliva getting my sheet music all wet in the middle of the show. The pages will stick together, making it nearly impossible for me to turn them in time to keep up with the music.
Thank God smoke rises. If I'd been up there, in the house—I would've choked to death with the rest of them.
The stage became a funeral pyre.
My sheet music was burning, curling up into ash. Sitting in the pit by myself, I just watched the fire eat through the paper, spreading through the measures —as if the flames were reading the music, note by note. The rest of the orchestra had run, dropping their instruments to the floor. Leaving their music behind. The fire took to their instruments instantly. Seized them in a second. Flames snaked inside each woodwind, tunneling through the flue—a flash of fire flaring out from the finger holes. When it came upon the string section, the fire reached for the harp first—a wave of flames wrapping around the wires, plucking each string until they snapped. One after another, pling, pling, pling.
The brass held its own. Each horn heated up like a frying pan on the stove. I had reached for my horn, only to burn my hand. Singed the skin right off my palm. See?
I tell you, it seems so strange—but it sounded as if the fire itself were playing the music now.
That's why I stayed. I wanted to listen. Hear how the flames played.
The third floorboard from the rear of stage right creaks whenever you step on it. The pressure of an actor's foot makes the wood warp, sending this squeal into the air.
You think about how it happened. How many steps it took to wear down the wood. How many actors it's taken to stand in that one particular spot. Over and over again.
How I prepare for an evening's performance is to make my way on stage before the house opens, simply walk about the theater—acquainting myself with every creak, every weak spot within the wood. I want to know where to step and where not to. I want to hear the stage, the two of us communicating amongst ourselves—until I'm well aware of every weakness, every fragile gap, every loose floorboard.
You imagine every actor that's come before you. You imagine the roles that they've played, the very lines they delivered. You imagine them as ghosts now, come and gone.
I come here before the house opens so that I can hear them. I prepare for my part by listening to the ghosts of those roles performed before me. They're in the wood. They're in the stage. In the proscenium. They are everywhere.
They'll be here long after we're all gone, I can tell you that.
Take the most succulent dessert you've ever tasted. Conjure it up in your memory if you can.
A decadently dark chocolate mousse, topped off with a white fudge flower. A bittersweet coffee pudding, sprinkled in chocolate dust. A pecan tart, caramelized in brown sugar. Apple dumplings covered in a white peach puree.
I tell you this now: None of them compare to the taste of that first breath of delicious air I took into my lungs upon escaping that building.
The members of the audience sitting in the box seats couldn't escape through the stairwell anymore, the fire having overwhelmed the hallway. I watched a man take his wife's hand into his own and leap off from the balcony. (The actors knock over two chairs.) Landed right in the percussion section, their fall cushioned by the kettle drum. They made the most resounding impact I've ever heard.
Another couple followed them down, hurdling themselves off the balcony and into the pit. (The actors knock over two more chairs.) Before long, there was a heap of people in the orchestra—none of them able to get up, their legs broken or backs snapped. (The third pair of chairs falls.)
Buried below those bodies, at the very bottom of this heap—you'll find our instruments underneath the rest.
You'll find a French horn, its funnel crushed under the weight of some woman's fall. Its valves collapsed, its brass covered in soot.
This is my instrument.
This is how the fire had a harmony of its own.
Somewhere within the rafters of the stage, a pigeon had built its nest. Lord knows how long ago. Long enough to raise a family. Could've been there for years.
Wasn't until I was outside, watching the fire devour the theatre—when I noticed, higher up, just above the building, a pair of flaming wings taking to the sky. Then another. And another. That family of pigeons had been trapped inside—escaping through the receding roof, their bodies now burning. They flew through the air as far as their wings could carry them, only to give out suddenly, falling to the ground.
One landed right at my feet, smoke spiriting up from its chest. The feathers had been burned off completely. What was left behind was nothing but the bony frame, like a umbrella without its webbing.
There's this ghost story my ma always told us kids before we'd slip off to sleep. She'd come over on a slave ship when she was just a little thing. No older than sixteen. Just her and her older sister, crammed in those quarters with over a hundred others. Said there wasn't enough room to sit down, even to sleep. The two of them would have to take turns. One sister would sleep for a few hours, resting her head on the other's shoulder—only to wake up and trade places. Just back and forth like that, growing weak in the knees from standing all the time.
Ma's sister was pregnant, see? Had been for months. Her belly swelled on board that boat, ready to let her baby go. Wasn't until one night, when things were stormy outside, the water all rocky, pitching that ship up and down, rain leaking in from above, the ocean spitting in through the portholes—when, all of a sudden, ma's sister just heads right into labor. She's giving birth on her feet, surrounded by all those slaves. Started screaming and shouting, blood running down her legs. Quivering in the knees.
There wasn't any room for her. Nobody budged. She's begging for help, but there wasn't enough space for people to even breathe—let alone give birth to some baby. Not in the middle of the ocean. Not in the middle of some storm.
Ma's says her sister was pushed toward the ship's side. Everybody just started grabbing her, dragging her away from ma. Says she watched her older sister get lifted up from floor, passed over the heads of everyone else, holding onto her belly the entire time—only to get pushed through a porthole. Heard her scream as far as the ocean, the sea swallowing her right up.
Suddenly, there was just that much more room to breathe.
The way my ma tells it, though—that's where her story starts. Watching her older sister slip through that porthole. Dreaming about her giving birth out there in that ocean. Holding onto her baby in the cold water. Two of them drifting for an eternity. Out there.
I couldn't help but start dreaming about her, myself. Always saw auntie in my sleep, slipping through my window. Cradling her baby, as blue as that sea.
She'd never leave me alone.
When word got out that there was a fire down at the theatre, I went. Didn't need to look where I was going. Simply followed the flames. You could see them from all the way cross town, lifting up into the sky.
First thing I find are these women standing at the windows. Glass comes showering down. Shatters across the street. I'm standing down below, only to watch these women leap. One after another. Just jumping out from the windows. They're getting pushed by the people behind them, forced to fall.
I see this one woman with her clothes on fire. She hits the ground, the ribs of her dress just about the only thing left of her—the rest in flames.
Never seen anything like that before. Not in my life.
Only in my dreams.
For every woman that come jumping out from that window, I'd stand right beneath them—holding my arms out, like this. Just catching them, one by one.
They say I saved thirty six lives that night. Just catching those folks getting shoved out the window.
But I'll tell you this: Seems like I only saved one. For every lady that came falling into my arms, all I saw was my ma's sister. Over and over again.
My family came to this country with ghosts shackling our backs already. I don't need your ghosts haunting me, to boot. Keep your own ghosts, why don't you?
Five hundred and ninety eight people had to funnel their way through those doors, there. Nearly all of Richmond had come to the theatre that night.
Five hundred and eighteen of them were adults. Eighty tickets were sold at a reduced rate to children.
Five hundred and ninety eight.
The human body holds about three hundred and fifty bones at birth, only for a few of them to fuse together the farther into adulthood you go. Once you've reached your majority, your skeleton's solidified itself into a slim two hundred and six bones. So the older you get, the less of skeleton you have. You actually lose around . . . one hundred and forty four bones.
So let's estimate that those eighty tickets went to children with all three hundred and fifty bones. Three hundred and fifty times eighty equals . . . twenty eight thousand bones, from the children alone.
Take the five hundred and eighteen tickets bought at general admission and multiply them by two hundred and six and you come out to somewhere around . . . one hundred six thousand seven hundred and eight bones, from the adults alone.
That's what, then . . . ? One hundred thirty four thousand seven hundred eight bones, all under one roof.
Seventy of those five hundred and ninety eight perished in the fire. Of those seventy, fifty were women. Twenty were men. Men have one rib missing from the equation, pending on your religious affiliations. The lord God took one of Adam's ribs and closed up the place with flesh. The lord God made a woman from the rib He had taken out of the man. Carry the one rib over and add that to the women and it balances itself out at somewhere around . . . seventy thousand ribs. Give or take.
Consider that twenty of those that perished were children at three hundred fifty and that tallies up to . . . seven thousand bones.
Tally up the remaining fifty at two hundred six and that amounts to . . . ten thousand three hundred bones.
Altogether . . . seventeen thousand three hundred bones.
All piled up in neat heaps. In the orchestra pit. In the aisle. At the exit. Near the windows along the second floor.
Now you try telling me whose are whose.
Right here, piled upright, around a dozen high, there lay a mass of burned bodies. Bodies of all classes and conditions of people. Young and old, men and women, Bond and free, rich and poor. Some of them were burned so badly, it was practically impossible to discern who exactly they were. Others looked nearly uninjured—and yet, life had left their bodies. All cold and stiff.
This was the aisle. Where it used to be. I can remember it, as if it were still there—leading up to the exit. The aisle was narrow enough that two people could scarcely pass one another at a time, funneling the audience through. We always had to hold the curtain by five minutes, simply to seat everyone.
The roof hadn't been plastered. It had a sheathing of pine planks, layered with these flimsy shingles. When the flames were high enough to reach the roof, it all went up in seconds. Burned right through. Those who survived said they looked up and could see the stars in the sky—the entire ceiling completely missing, exposing the night, the evening in clear view. Framed in flames.
The staircase was just back there, leading to the lobby. The weight of the audience crowding onto the steps made it collapse, over a dozen people falling into a heap of stairs.
I built this theatre. I headed the committee that constructed this building, setting the stage for the fire.
People ask me if I ever felt guilty. If I felt responsible for those that died.
The only answer I've ever given was in my actions. Shortly thereafter, I headed the committee that built the Monumental Church—constructing it right on top of where the theatre had been.
What more do you want from me?
They buried all those unknown bones in the orchestra pit. Instead of some cemetery, the city's making a grave out of the area where the walls of this theatre once were.
Our houses have all become hospitals now.
You wouldn't believe the number of people I've seen this week, wheezing their way into my office. Half of the city has come to me, complaining about smoke inhalation. Peering down as many throats as I have, I swear—I should be in the chimney sweeping business. I could just as well have been staring down these people's stove-pipes.
The singed nasal hairs. The burns around the mouth. And all that ash, lining up along the trachea.
Everything's phlegmy this week. I've pulled out a spittoon, setting it next to my desk. Before I even ask for my patient to open up and say aah, I insist that they spit for me. If their saliva's gone gray, then I know for a fact that their lungs are full of fluid—which means I have to operate, right away.
If it's black, then God help them. They'll be drowning in their sleep within the week.
There are certain ironies to fire. I can think of two, just off the top of my head.
First one being, as babies—a fresh set of lungs are meant to sound crepitant. Before that first breath of air, the tissues crackle. Sounds like a fire inside your chest.
Your first breath is a blaze of oxygen, opening up your lungs.
Second, this being the heart of the tobacco industry—we of the medical profession are privately aware of the dangers of inhaling cigar smoke. Smoking causes the exact amount of damage to the lungs as a fire would, simply extended over a considerably lengthy amount of time. Our bodies are their own little playhouses that we've set ablaze—burning our insides out, one cigar at a time.
Hmm . . .
We write these words to be eternal. Ever read a dead play? There's nothing more dismal than a script that hasn't been performed for years. There's something . . . musty to it. The words sound gummy to the tongue. Congealed, even. You can hear the cobwebs connecting the sentences together.
Playwrights never die. Wish they would. Ghoulish, yes. But definitely not dead. Their hopes at eternity come at a price. Acting as if they've got a chance at immortality. For every playwright I've ever come into contact with, it's the same old argument—Here's my chance at leaving my mark. My work will live beyond me. My words will be uttered well passed my life.
You'd think they'd made a deal with the Devil. That's what the Protestants would have you believe, anyway.
Ghouls, all of them. Every playwright I ever met was one of the undead, wandering around aimlessly backstage. Shuffling their heals to find the next scrap of life to sink their mossy teeth in to.
You don't believe me? Try talking to one. See how well your conversation goes.
Where yon proud turrets crown the rock,
It strikes, and now his lady fair,
"Ah! Woe is me, my love," she cried,
"Not so, my Agnes!" Raymond cried,
Oft have you heard old Ellinore,
And each fifth year, at dead of night,
Soon as to some far distant land,
Now you shall play the Bleeding Nun,
"For I am thine," fair Agnes cried.
Fair Agnes sat within her bower,
And Raymond, as the clock struck one,
He bore her in his arm away,
"Oh Agnes! Agnes! thou art mine,
"Oh Raymond! Raymond, I am thine,
A whirling blast from off the stream
Then down his limbs, in strange affright,
A form of more than mortal size,
"Oh Raymond! Raymond! I am thine,
On stage, I was the Bleeding Nun.
To the people of Richmond, I am the Bleeding Nun.
My daughter had sat in one of the boxes along the balcony, with the rest of the acting company's children and family—watching me perform on stage, only a few feet away. She knew the role just as well as I did. If not better. I'd raised her playing that part. The other members of the company always teased her—or was it me? Insisting that she should be my understudy.
When the theatre began to burn, I escaped through the backstage door—hoping I'd find my daughter on the other side of the building, waiting amongst all the other family members. It completely slipped my mind that I was still in costume, the entire front-side of my dress drenched in stage blood. For every man and woman I ran up to in the street, they would only stare—shocked at the sight of me standing there, covered in gore. Begging them to help me find my daughter. Had they seen my daughter? Running up and down the block, frantically calling out her name. Sifting through the growing crowd of onlookers. Charlotte? Charlotte?
You didn't need to perish in that theatre to have died in the fire.
I'm a ghost to these people. My occupation is gone. I dress in weeds. When it came time for the company to leave Richmond, I couldn't bring myself to abandon my only child. And now, when I walk down the streets, I can hear the children whispering behind my back—That's her. That's the Bleeding Nun.
I can say this within private company. Heaven forbid if it were to be uttered elsewhere.
The theatre fire offered us an opportunity.
Quite frankly, it kick-started the Second Great Awakening. It was . . . mobilizing. Inspiring, how about that?
By all means, feel sympathy towards those who perished. But may I remind you, as good Christians—we need to be an enemy of the theatre. Look upon this fire as an act of God. If there will ever be a finer example of hell on earth, I pray it never befall us.
The people of Richmond had become neglectors of God, plain and simple. The sins of the theatre had taken grip. God simply made his presence known.
Look upon Job. By punishing him, God warned the rest. Job was the example set for everyone else. The hand of God can fall upon you or I at any given moment, just as it had with Job.
What separated those who survived from those who
died in the fire is simple:
We held a contest. A commission of influential Richmonders organized a cordial competition between the Episcopalians and the Presbyterians to see who could raise the most money to build a new church on the scorched property. A subscription drive, if you will. What people of what faith would pledge the most money? The land would be given over to whichever faith reached the bid the quickest.
The Episcopalians won.
How very little the theatre and the church agree with each other. We are not unconscious of such occurrences happening in the church. A similar fate has befallen the righteous, as it did with those wicked theatre-goers. Roofs have collapsed onto congregations, floors have fallen away.
But what has the righteous man to fear? He has devoted his services to God.
Though the earth, and the works that are therein, be burned up—he stands on the ashes of a universe and exclaims, I have lost nothing.
His soul has nothing to fear but the prospect of eternity in heaven.
Can the theatre offer the same for its casualties?
Listen to these ministers, mosquitoing scripture. They've sunk their tongue into the bible and sucked up enough testament to drain the gospels dry. There isn't any holiness left.
Thought I heard something buzzing about my ear. Listening to their sermons, I feel as if I should now be wary of malaria. They're preaching their own personal form of yellow fever. The congregation will be dropping dead from all this religious fervor.
And look what they've done now. From the very ashes of the theatre, a Monumental Church rose up. The Episcopalians built their new house of worship directly over the spot where the theatre once stood. As a testament to their faith. As a way to strengthen their congregation. Capitalizing on this act of God.
Rushed right into building it, too. The cinders had barely cooled. Sermons were heard coming from the pulpit as early as the following spring.
One theatre made way for another. From the ashes of one playhouse, we set the stage for a new one.
Ever see someone on fire? They dance. Every limb waves through the air, as if to rid themselves of the blaze—hoping to shake the flames away.
I tell you this now: The only other time I've seen such fervor, such animation from the human body, was in church. The moment the holy spirit enters the body of a parishioner, they become agitated. Unsettled.
Personally, I never attended the theatre all too often. It was a . . . onflict of interest. But quite early on, I realized there was something to be gained from the stage. Something to reap.
To better tend to my congregation, I learned how to act.
You could say the theatre held some sway over the church, yes. Only mildly so, though. Initially. We simply took the resources of the stage and used them for our own means, to help spread our message.
And Richmond was ripe for it. Look at what the theatre had done. These people were in mourning. These people were suffering.
And preaching requires presence. A magnetic personality. The gestures, the control over the voice. Proper volume and elocution. That takes training. Talent is only the half of it. How you utilize those skills behind the pulpit is what really matters.
So I studied. I learned from the greats, watching them perform. I learned every gesture and gesticulation from the actor's bag of tricks. I learned the value of the dramatic pause. Vocal techniques. I learned that my body was my tool and that I could use it as such.
I could've been a great actor.
And for those eight years following the fire, I was. The only thespian to grace the stage here in Richmond was me. And I packed the house every Sunday.
REVEREND: That's not the case at all.
ACTRESS: You capitalized on our ashes.
REVEREND: Not true, not true. We merely made use of the raw materials. The heap that was before us all. Somebody needed to say something. Someone had to make sense of it all. So we did. The church had been running in circles, chasing its own tail for year —losing more and more people to the theatre every Sunday. And then the fire.
ACTRESS: No! Not then the fire.
REVEREND: Yes, the fire . . .
ACTRESS: Don't chalk this up to an act of God.
REVEREND: What would you call it then?
ACTRESS: An accident.
REVEREND: There are no accidents.
ACTRESS: It was an accident.
REVEREND: It was a calling.
ACTRESS: It was a candle.
REVEREND: It was God in that flame.
ACTRESS: You know what's so amazing about all this? You're on a stage, too—just as much as any actor is.
REVEREND: I don't deny it. I never did.
ACTRESS: You just built yours on the bones of those who died.
REVEREND: How can you say that?
ACTRESS: You criticize the theatre while you stand on stage, like some hypocrite!
REVEREND: Have you ever been to one of my sermons?
ACTRESS: Have you ever been to one of my shows?
REVEREND: I go to bed early on Saturdays.
ACTRESS: I sleep in on Sundays.
The Theatre of Venice was struck by lightning, 1769. Dozens were trampled to death. The Amsterdam playhouse took fire, 1772. Seven people suffocated from smoke. The theatre at Sargossa, 1772. Nearly half the audience perished. The Palais Royal burnt to the ground, 1781—during the French opera, of all things. The theatre at Montpelier, 1783. Five hundred lives were lost there. The theatre at Mentz, 1786. The London Opera House, 1789. The Royal Circus, 1805. The theatre at Altona, 1807. The theatre at Berlin, 1808. All burned down, hundreds of persons burnt with them.
And you ask me why I never go to the theatre.
People refuse to look back at their tragedies. They insist that for every current catastrophe, they were the first to experience it. But history proves otherwise. Tragedy is nothing new. To you or to the other hundreds of thousands of people who've experienced it. Try whining to the people who died in the fire at the Rickett's Circus in Philadelphia. The Pantheon. The Covent Garden.
From this fire, the people of Richmond will weep. They'll beseech for God's good will to spare them from such hardship.
But I'll tell you this: You just wait until the next generation comes. The same will happen to them, soon enough. And the next. And the next. And what none of them will ever realize is that it's happened all before. Particularly in Richmond.
This city deserves to burn down.