Art for Art’s Sake

There is doubtless much to be said for amateur theatre, some of it probably printable in a respectable publication. Certainly it is not a medium that a reputable poet would wish to become entangled in. I lay the blame firmly at the door of my oldest friend, Calina Salin. She is a fine dancer, but more than that she is a fine teacher of dance. Any young woman who graduates from her school will not merely have a complete grasp of all forms of dance, but will know, to the last dreg, the cost and value of everything.

But still, there was to be an amateur theatrical performance given for charity. As usual in these matters, the whole thing got out of hand. Whilst I would not go so far as to claim that respectable matrons were fighting with knives to land the best roles, this was in two cases solely because their husbands had disarmed them first. (One by the simple expedient of having two burly footmen pick his wife up, hold her upside down, and shake her gently as assorted metalware clattered to the floor around their feet.)

The performance was to be of ‘The Princess Shanarri and the Gross Girfec.’ The organiser, impresario and person at least theoretically in charge was Tarrance Twirlbeck. I confess to having had no strong opinions about him, as an individual he has no more faults than anybody else, and in his favour it must be admitted that he has a love of good verse. During our ‘collaboration’ I did come to like him better and indeed respect him more.

Now The Princess Shanarri and the Gross Girfec is rarely performed in its proper form. The tale was originally written as the first of a cycle of three grand operas. It recounts the adventures of Princess Shanarri, a lady who was beautiful, wise, and so accomplished that saving for the final months of pregnancy she was perfectly capable of slaying those fell beasts and vile individuals who might menace a kingdom. Thus she was much sought after by neighbouring princelings who could see the advantages that would fall to the husband of such a paladin and paragon of all the virtues. The joy of sitting on the terrace, sipping fine wine and reading great literature whilst the kingdom ran itself was merely the most obvious.

Yet Shannarri decided to marry the prince of a neighbouring realm who had never even asked for her hand. Whilst he doubtless wouldn’t object, the project was opposed by his vizier, the Gross Girfec. This depraved and duplicitous individual worked long and hard to block the marriage. Obviously Shanarri triumphed in the end and married her prince.

Traditionally, instead of the grand opera, performers now prefer what might be described as the ‘musical’ version. This I can understand. The opera is massive, needs two orchestras, one of which plays mainly obsolete instruments, and the chorus alone is one hundred and fifty strong. The words, exquisite though they are, have to be sung in a heavy Partannese accent or they will not fit the music (which is also genuinely inspired.) Instead the musical offers two truly great rolls. Girfec is a villain’s villain. People will discuss in an animated manner the great Girfecs they have seen strut their hour upon the stage. And Shanarri, what young woman would not wish to play her? Not only has she all the best lines, she gets the best tunes as well. As for the prince, it is an unusual part. He does not get a single line, and has no songs. Indeed I’ve seen him played by a dressmaker’s dummy, pushed around the stage by one of the finest Girfecs I’ve known.

But, and this is the point, it isn’t anywhere near as overwhelming as the grand opera. Like myself, Tarrance Twirlbeck knew it and had seen all three operas which make up the Princess Shanarri cycle. Personally I think the second, ‘The Next Wife’ has some fine dramatic moments, as the various ladies at the court scheme and plot (in silence, miming to a truly amazing instrumental accompaniment) to become the next wife of the soon to be widowed prince, whilst Shanarri schemes and plots to forestall them. In the course of one act, beautifully written, the prince marries five different women, two of them simultaneously.

In the final opera, ’Women and Children First,’ we start with the news that the prince has died. The rest of the opera is a bloodbath, until in the final act the last surviving heir, and Shanarri as the last surviving wife, slay each other. The final scene is when the prince, who had circulated the rumours of his death, appears once more, carrying a fishing rod. He sings his only song, a delightful little number about the joys of fishing and a quiet life. With this he leaves for a pleasant spot on the banks of the river and the curtain falls for the final time.

Tarrance Twirlbeck wanted somehow to imbue the musical with the spirit of the opera. The first thing he needed was a more disciplined cast. In the musical, all must dance, so he wisely hired Calina Salin. She listened to his wishes and immediate set about whipping the various dancers into shape. But when he talked to her about transferring more of the opera into the musical, she told him to talk to me.

Thus and so I was wheedled into assisting with the performance. I have to repeatedly ask myself why I succumbed. After all, I wasn’t, in point of fact, going to be paid for the work. It was all, ‘for charity.’ It would not win me any patrons. Given that I was going to be telling ladies that they hadn’t grasped what they were singing and didn’t understand the character they were depicting, I was more likely to lose friends than make them. 

Obviously whatever we did to the musical, we still needed a Shanarri. Five ladies sought the role, I will not bring disgrace upon their families by discussing the methods they used to try and sway Tarrance to give them the role. Needless to say, Tarrance went everywhere chaperoned by his wife or at least two daughters. Finally his nerve went and at one rehearsal he caused a sensation when he announced that he couldn’t cope with the pressure anymore, so had decided to sing the role of Shanarri himself.

In the storm that ensued, Calina was able to interject the name of Saxine Recalmor, claiming that I had recommended her. Saxine is a Partannese lady, who has since returned to Partann to help her father govern their small domain. She was at the time a willowy young woman with an unexpectedly excellent contralto voice, you might have heard her sing in Cazemott’s Comic Cabaret? To be fair to Calina, she was an excellent choice. If I had remembered Saxine’s existence and had been foolish enough to stick my head above the parapet, I would indeed have recommended her.

She brought with her two further advantages. One, from my point of view, was that being Partannese, she could, at need, sing with a Partannese accent. Thus we could import considerable portions of the original music and libretto from the opera into the musical. Secondly, from Tarrance’s point of view, she was Partannese and perfectly capable of looking after herself.

Given that the pressure was now off Tarrance and he could walk the streets without the need for a duenna, he could now cast around for a Girfec. Here things were slightly easier. Whilst a number of ladies in the cast were still plotting to displace Saxine (and the latter was discovering politics in Port Naain is more problematic than in Partann. One cannot just make a significant hand gesture to one’s guards and have the person taken outside and executed) other ladies were insistent at pushing their husbands forward as Girfec. Together Tarrance and I auditioned the hapless husbands. In all candour, of the seven individuals who we saw, five of them couldn’t have played Girfec. Indeed they knew they couldn’t have played Girfec, and were present solely because if they didn’t get the role, it was no longer their fault. The sixth was perhaps competent but couldn’t sing with the Partannese accent Tarrance had set his heart on. Finally with the seventh we realised he was so lacking in any sort of ability he would make an excellent prince. He was quite taken with the idea and agreed to assume the role.

At this point Calina indicated that I could perform in a fine Partannese accent and suggested that I play Girfec. I think I may have turned ostentatiously pale and pointed out that if she wanted Shena and me to have to flee the city to avoid the wrath of numerous patrons who wanted the role for their husbands, she was going entirely the right way about it. I flatly refused. But instead suggested to Tarrance that he play the part.

Calina and I auditioned him on the spot and agreed that he was the perfect Girfec. Indeed if he hadn’t been before he started organising the event, he had advanced in leaps and bounds in his understanding of duplicity and the human condition.

We had taken the last great hurdle. All that was to worry about now were the rehearsals. Everything went remarkably well. Yes I admit there was the usual issue of trapdoors which were not properly secured, especially when the Princess Shanarri was about to walk in their vicinity. Fortunately Saxine is a remarkably lish young woman who was capable of springing off a trapdoor even as it collapsed under her. There were the usual problems with sandbags falling onto the stage from great heights, but Calina and I dealt with that. Early one morning we went up where the stagehands work and fastened in place a network of planks and iron bars which we had acquired. Then on the stage we unobtrusively marked the area they shielded. Thus Saxine could stride across the stage with confidence, secure in the knowledge that as long as she remained on the line, nothing could hit her.

As for the performance, it was a sensation. Indeed so successful was it that there were calls for Tarrance to put on the entire opera cycle. Shena suggested that I sign up for a season in Partann with one of the Condottieri. She felt it would be safer and I would make fewer enemies.


It may well be that you fancy delving deeper into Port Naain’s murkier underworld.

As a reviewer commented, “Benor is a cartographer and he’s come to Port Naain to produce a handbook. He makes a home with Tallis, a professional poet and his wife Shena. She’s a mud-jobber or as we might say, a beachcomber. Some of her combings include bodies. Everything has a price and families will pay for the privilege of burying their dead and, if possible, finding who caused it. Benor is a natural. He’s a nosy person and, with the aid of the wonderful Mutt, a ten year-old wise beyond his years, he sorts out the villains from the corpses. This first short story from The Port Naain Intelligencer bodes well for the rest of the series. A really great Whodunit.”

5 thoughts on “Art for Art’s Sake

  1. I would be most grateful if you could let me know when this is due to be performed at Norwich Theatre Royal. We rarely have the chance to see such a grandiose production in the forgotten East of England.
    Best wishes, Pete.

    Liked by 1 person

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