Paula Vogel has started a play reading series, called Bard at the Gate that is focused on highlighting works that, for whatever reason, aren’t getting programmed at major theaters, despite being excellent. This past week, the selection was Meg Miroshnik‘s The Droll. The play was originally written in 2009, but some of the lines landed with more weight now than they possibly could have then.

The cast was excellent; many of them were returning to roles they had played in a workshop production at Yale nearly a decade ago. Even though remote readings are a limited medium, they managed to do some interesting things through arranging the actors’ videos within the screen. At one point, an actor spit in another actor’s face, and the timing of that moment was just perfect.

The production is only available on YouTube until Sunday, July 19, at 7 pm, so if you want to see it, get on that. But I want to talk about the script because I can’t stop thinking about that. This part contains spoilers, so if you’re planning to watch or read the play, do that and then come back.

How we “go to the theater” now

The Droll is set in the Interregnum, a year after “the end of theatre.” It’s about a company of players trying to figure out what to do with themselves, how to get by on illegal inn yard entertainments. They are joined by a young boy, Nim, who has just fallen in love with the theater—at a moment when it has become nearly impossible.

The play is lovely (it’s a pity that the stage directions, in a real play, would not be read out, because even these are written with care and style), and has some excellent roles. I would love to direct it, because I think I could watch it over and over and continue to make discoveries. Some of the lines struck me hard in this time: “A small Publick is the necessary companion of our current Troubles.” It’s laugh-out-loud funny, in places, and moved me nearly to tears in others. Very much my kind of play, one that embraces the wholeness of our emotional experiences, without putting them into a “comedy” or “tragedy” box. At one point, Nim starts making little wooden models of the actors. Another actor scorns his “dolls,” and he loudly protests: “They are figures of the ACT-I-ON.” I laughed so hard at that part, I could barely breathe.

This play unsettled me a bit, because I could feel a happy ending coming and then it was obviously not possible. There’s a great Judy Garland/Mickey Rooney, “My uncle has a barn; let’s do a show!” vibe to the end of the first act and beginning of the second (but it’s not that kind of world).

William: Twenty-five years I’ve lived the life of Action,
And I have felt the Theatre bend,
But now it feels like to break.

James: Mark me well, William.
There is no END to Theatre.
You must have FAITH.

Nim: In what, Sir?

James looks round and then shares the Secret:
A Marvel.
Witnessed within the Cittie Walls:
A THEATRE seen standing.
And not jump any Theatre, but the RED BULL

So the plan is to produce a one-time underground performance of Hamlet at the Red Bull before it is torn down. There are hijinx, complications, reversals of fate, but finally, we are about to see Hamlet—and the whole thing gets shut down violently, disastrously, inevitably, shockingly, not five lines in. Because of course it does. This is history, not fantasy.

But, as the line goes earlier in the play: “The Ends always end.” The play has an epilogue, ambiguous and haunting. Nim, 15 years later, hears a knocking at the door. He hears a voice calling to him. Friend? Enemy? Hard to say. He responds:

Fifteen Long Year, but Silence and Grieff
Naught but Silence and Grieff.
O, the Theatre is closed.
And our Revelle’s now are ENDED.

And he opens the door. To what? Unclear. I choose to believe it is to the End of Ends.

The emotional valence of this story is somehow both grieving and hopeful; It suits how I feel most days now. Hope is indefatigable. Hope also feel stupid and pointless. What is theater for? Am I wrong to mourn trifles, when people are dying? But what are we living for? Survival is insufficient.

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