That evening, before taking to the stage for the last time, the old trouper went into the theatre bar, as was his wont, for a chat with the younger members of the company. The discussion was about whether there was any point in the arts, whether there was any point in anything at all and, in particular, why audiences were so reluctant to engage with the new kinds of theatre, and why the price of seeded pretzels had gone up yet again. It was the old trouper who brought up that last topic, but the others preferred to discuss the new forms.
It’s not the form that counts, said the old trouper dismissively, and not even the content. What matters is doing something better than most people. That’s art.
And it doesn’t matter what that something is? asked a young actor.
Not a bit, the old trouper replied, draining his glass with an elegant gesture. Just do it better than anyone else.
And that’s all there is to it?
No, replied the old trouper, you also need attention. The attention of others. But only one in a thousand, the old trouper explained, only one person in a thousand is capable of really paying attention. But anyone who really does, will see. Will see and understand. And from that moment on, he will cease to be as he was, because he will become detached from the earth, unmoored from everything, unhitched even from time itself. But that’s something you youngsters don’t understand. So could you just tell me, instead: why did they have to raise the price of seeded pretzels?
They smiled. They did not really dare laugh in his face, because he was once an acting colossus, many said the greatest actor ever.
And what about you? What can you do better today than anyone else? the barman asked him.
Me? I can drink like there’s no tomorrow, replied the old trouper. And, leaving a tip on the bar, ambled off, a little unsteadily, towards his dressing room. You’re laughing, eh? he said, turning round by the doorway. But, you know, I can drink far better than any of you can act.
That evening the old trouper trod the boards for the last time, playing guest number eight in a supper scene. He had no lines and remained in the background throughout. At the front of the stage the protagonists were arguing about a wedding. All he had to do at the back was lift a glass of red wine off the white tablecloth, take a sip, and replace the glass on the table. And to repeat that sequence of actions a few more times until the end of the scene. He carried out his task impeccably.
Most of those in the audience failed to notice that the old trouper even had a part in the play. Nor did the reviews the next day mention his name. But there was one member of the audience, just one, who after the performance walked out into the rain and, without opening his umbrella, spread his arms wide, closed his eyes and, for a few seconds, rose up into the air.
English translation © Peter Sherwood 2019