Whom Does The Grail Serve?
By Margaret Zacharias
Didn’t I see this coming? Didn’t I wonder if I ought to intervene?
I’m perched on my stool in the backstage wings, where I manage the props and the costumes. This spot allows me to keep a careful eye on the play and the players. I know them all, though not to the same degree.
On stage, King Mark, Isolde, and Tristan comprise a striking tableau. The king rules the scene from his carved and gilded throne. Isolde kneels on the floor, stage left. Tristan, Mark’s nephew and once-loyal knight, kneels at the monarch’s right hand.
King Mark has begun a censorious monologue, close to the end of the last act. In this production, his long speech leaves the other actors stranded in the same position, for almost twelve minutes, while King Mark lays down the law.
Our two young stars, fresh from the Lir Academy at Trinity College, have perfected an unconscious rhythm that offers dramatic counterpoint. Smoldering glances flicker back and forth. Their yearning surges before the royal seat like an alternating electrical current.
Something more profound than theater craft is arcing across that stage. If those urges ever escalate, they could demolish more than this theater.
A stocky man, with thick white hair and beard, Dillon McLaughlin plays all the ancient kings we need–from Cornwall’s Mark through Normandy’s Arthur–to produce a full Grail legend cycle, in sequence. Dillon is a retired barrister whose baritone voice once echoed to the rafters of Dublin’s Blackhall Palace when he lectured the student lawyers.
Ashley Walsh, who portrays Isolde, has been my daughter’s best friend since before they both started school. Her shoulders tremble in a royal blue kirtle while she gazes with passionate longing at Tristan across the stage. Even her glossy, abundant auburn curls seem to quiver as they fall to the floor from beneath her woven white veil.
Cormac O’Connor plays Tristan. He’s a professional actor, and new to this amateur troupe. His alert, attentive posture, in a red cloak and fine black braies, reminds me of a stallion straining to enter the jousting field.
Scanning for audience reactions, I notice for the first time that another legal scholar has joined the audience for our final performance of Tristan and Isolde tonight. Judge Declan McCarthy has arrived at last, just in time to witness the disaster we’ve created.
I scold myself for a meddlesome widow, but I don’t feel ashamed. I care about these people, all of them my parish neighbors, and each with their own human challenges in everyday real life.
This dive into a cycle of ancient Celtic myths about a bottomless cauldron that serves up whatever each banquet guest secretly most desires, has proven problematic from the outset.
It was the brainchild of our new parish music director, Ivan Zelinski, who is also a recent Trinity graduate. Ivan is a Polish immigrant who feels much enamored with Celtic legends; but he lacks the experience to either comprehend the stories, or guard against their potentiating powers.
Ivan pitched his design to produce a Round Table Theater Season into the ears of our local pastor. The neighborhood troupe uses a stage in his parish hall to mount our performances.
Father O’Neill believes in “encouraging the young, to keep them engaged in parish life.” Knowing only the later Christian overlays and interpolations that introduced a chalice used to collect the blood of Christ, and added the term Holy to the Grail, he approved the entire scheme.
I warned Father O’Neill about the dangers of toying with such ancient magic.
The peril was already apparent in the first performance when Cormac, playing Percival, first laid eyes on Ashley as a luminous Maiden who floats with the Grail through the Fisher King’s castle. Our Percival, too, forgot the critical question that was essential for him to ask.
Three months ago, Kate and I organized a party to celebrate Ashley’s engagement with a charming older man, a widower I knew well during my own years at Trinity College.
Throughout the party, Declan’s handsome face shone with honest affection for his winsome young fiancée. I thought Ashley looked troubled and uncertain. I felt at the time that she suffered from nerves. She’s an actress, of course, and no stranger to the stage. But Declan is a prominent and intimidating man. She met all of his associates and supporters there, for the first time.
I remember wondering why she chose to marry someone who was so much older than she? Had she not endured enough with her father? I wondered, too, if a wiser man might have sought his comfort with someone better able to cope with his situation.
My daughter Kate seemed unconcerned when I asked for her impressions. “You know Ashley hates crowds,” Kate said. “She’s always felt safer on the stage, where she has a clear separation from the mass of other people, and a familiar structure she can move in.”
I didn’t meet Cormac O’Connor until the day he came to audition, although I had seen a few of his performances at Dublin’s Abbey Theatre.
I came to know Cormac better because the poor lad was always hungry. He didn’t have time for a proper supper, between his Abbey matinee and our early rehearsals on the parish hall stage. I knew he was doing us a favor to appear in our amateur production. I fell into the habit of bringing him a substantial evening meal.
After we started rehearsing Tristan and Isolde, one night while I plied Cormac with fresh scones and hot tea, I asked him what he thought about Ashley.
“She’s dazzling,” he said. “But I had met her before, you know.”
“Before we began this cavalcade of knights and kings?”
“We both performed in Pirates of Penzance for the Senior Showcase, our final year at Trinity. She won the role of Edith. They cast me as a lowly orphaned pirate, in the chorus.”
“It surprised me to learn that Ashley had auditioned for such an audacious role,” I said. “She’s never been the one to put herself forward.”
“Even after four years together, most of us felt as if we barely knew her. But the actual surprise was that she didn’t audition for Mabel. With her voice, she could have claimed the lead.”
“Why didn’t you know her?”
“There were rumors of a sick father?” Cormac said. ‘She said that she lived at home, not on campus, and never could join us for evening excursions.”
I remember when the shadows came in to cloud Ashley’s shining eyes. Her mother was my lifetime friend. Aiofe died in a motor accident, just after Ashley turned fourteen.
I did my best to soften Ashley’s retreat from her own young life, and her faithful care for a selfish widower father. I helped her convince him to let her go on to Trinity; and took care of his demands on the evenings she had to be at the theater as part of her studies at the Lir. I watched her develop the tempered steel that hones her dramatic performances.
“Ashley’s an orphan herself now,” I told Cormac. “Her father passed away just before we began rehearsing Percival. She and my Kate have been friends from the cradle. I knew Ashley’s late mother well.” I gave him my gimlet eye. “Make no mistake. I guard her as my own.”
Cormac kept his eyes focused straight on mine, and nodded his understanding.
“Our only genuine encounter,” he said, “Was a rescue one night after the Showcase.”
“What happened?” I never heard about this.
He shook his head. “The London crowd was in that week, the agents and the producers. You know how some of the English behave, when they think they’re on holiday in Dublin, where their behavior doesn’t matter?”
“A few of that sort followed Ashley right off the stage. They pursued her into the actors-only area, baying like wolves, and begging for favors.”
Cormac sent me a meaningful look to make sure I understood what favors he meant.
“How did you rescue her?”
“I hadn’t removed my pirate costume. When I heard the commotion, I ran around the stage through the back, and I reached her before they arrived at the door to her dressing room. I bowed to Ashley, pulled her to me, and kissed her cheek. ‘Good evening, My Lady,’ said I, brandishing my fine cutlass until the fools moved away.”
“What did she say?”
“Ashley just smiled. She laid her hand on my arm. We stood there together, guarding her dressing room door. Thick as they were, the amadans had trouble deciphering my message. I stayed in a threatening stance with a hand on the hilt of my sword until they dispersed.”
“Did you walk Ashley home?”
“Aye. But she sent me away just before we turned the last corner, not wanting her father to glimpse me under the streetlights.”
“I’m proud of you, and thankful, Cormac,” I said. “You’re a chivalrous man.”
“Ashley telephoned me, a couple of months after we graduated.”
“To thank you?” Of course she would.
“She wanted to tell me about Ivan’s gigantic plans for your miniature theatrical troupe. She asked if I’d be interested in joining you. That’s when I scheduled my audition. I’d waited a long time for the right…moment…to take on the Knights of the Round Table.”
“But they’re all such tragic stories,” I said.
“Not for Galahad.” Cormac winked. “They’re powerful myths and challenging roles, Maeve. To your man Ivan’s credit, he’s kept them authentic. You’ve staged them as the serious period pieces they’re meant to be. No one here has felt the need to ‘modernize’ production, in the manner that’s become so common at the National Theater and the Abbey. They all do it brilliantly, of course. But this traditional production is a pleasant change for me.”
“Our altogether-lacking funds might have something to do with it,” I said. I turned out the empty pockets of my smock, and Cormac laughed.
“It delighted me that Ashley planned to audition. As you say, she can be reticent, especially for an actor. But I’d always imagined that we’d complement each other well, in just about any classic roles.”
“So, it seems, you do.”
Why didn’t I tell Cormac then that Ashley was engaged to be married? He was sounding like a son, as a young man will when a woman feeds him often enough. I did not want to see him hurt, especially after revealing so much to me.
Father O’Neill had made his position clear. “’Tis Ashley’s place to tell him, when she wants him to know.” After several debates with my conscience, I said nothing.
Ashley has been circumspect, as usual, about what she confides. But I can read her heart just as easily as I can read Kate’s.
“Maeve Murphy,” she said, two days ago. “May I speak with you after tonight’s rehearsal?”
She only calls me that when she’s missing her mother. “Effie Wah” and “Mave Muffie” were once the young mothers of two toddler girls who were learning about separation.
I knew Cormac had plans for the pub that night, with his friends from the Abbey. I felt confident that Ashley and I could be alone; and I wanted to hear what she had to say.
So, we sat down together to enjoy my coddle and blended tea.
“Do you think Cormac is fond of me?” she asked.
“Of course. You’re a talented young woman. I’ve heard him describe you as thoughtful and kind. I think he seems satisfied with your work in this production, don’t you?”
“That’s not what I meant,” she said. “Do you think he likes me, as--well, as an ordinary person?”
“I do,” I said. “He liked you from the first, when he came to defend you at your dressing room while you were both still students at the Lir.”
“Oh, he told you about that, did he?” Ashley’s face bloomed in the blush she hates so much.
“He did. And from my point of view, you were most fortunate that he was there.”
“I agree,” Ashley said. “But now, Maeve, I’m worried. When we’re up there together onstage, doing that–that staring scene–we’re plunging fathoms deep. I sense our hearts, and our souls, connecting. Do you understand what I mean?”
“I think so,” I said. “Are you afraid for Cormac to know you deeply?”
“Maybe not.” She blushed again. “But a couple of people I’m acquainted with at the Abbey have warned me. They say that Cormac’s relationships all begin onstage. They’ve told me he always seems to fall in love with his lady in the play. But then he breaks it off with her, right at the end of the run. His interest just seems to wane, they say, when the illusion fades and the production comes to a close.”
“That’s a real concern,” I said.
“I don’t want to delude myself that what I see and feel on this stage is anything more than skillful acting. I’m finding it difficult, though, not to be swept away.”
“I understand. His desire for you, and yours for him, feel authentic. You’re enchanted. That’s the magic of the theater.” I smiled.
But it was time to turn serious.
“Still, you’re right. This attraction might evaporate as soon as the show is over. I can only suggest that you must be patient. We’ll see what he does. And you, you guard your heart. You’re engaged to be married to a wonderful man. You’re too precious to waste on a man full of Blarney, if that’s who Cormac turns out to be.”
Yesterday, Cormac came early to the parish hall. He poked around on the stage for a while before anyone else arrived. I waited in the green room until he came in and sat down with me. He ran a restless hand through his hair.
“I’m in love with Ashley,” he said. “I fell in love with her haunting, hypnotic voice the first time I ever heard her sing. She’s been calling my name in my dreams.”
“Are you requesting my opinion?”
“Let’s just say that I’m giving you fair notice. I refuse to let her go, Maeve. Not this time. I’ve a wee talisman, and I’m going to tell her how I feel tonight. If she’s willing, I want us to live out our futures together, on stage, and off.”
“Fair play to you, Cormac,” I said. “Remember that she’s had more than her share of troubles, from such a young age. She might need more time than you think for reflection, to make such an important decision.”
That was all the warning I could give him.
I did not mention the sweet garden herbs I’ve been adding to steep with the evening tea. Surely, there could have been no harm in serving them chamomile?
During the Intermission tonight, Cormac came into Ashley’s dressing room carrying a single red rose. He placed it in her hands, keeping his own palms cupped around them, and whispered into her ear. Then he wrapped his arms around her.
My steel-spined Ashley relaxed into his powerful arms as he held her.
“We’ll have to check with the stage director,” she murmured, glancing over at me.
“Let’s just surprise them all,” he said, with a tight little smile. He let her go and sprang out before she could muster any further argument.
Ashley did not start to tremble until after he had left.
“Why tonight of all nights?” she asked the ceiling. “I saw my fiancé sitting out there in the middle of the audience.”
Ashley ran from the room. I took a moment to put her rose into a vase of water.
I saw her reach Cormac, just inside the backstage drapery. Delicate hands atop his shoulders, she whispered into his ear. He said something I could not hear.
As I returned to my stool, I saw Ashley in his arms again, searching his eyes with the vulnerability of a newborn fawn deer.
They both caught my cue for places. Ashley gathered Isolde around herself like a cloak, and reentered the stage as the resolute queen she is.
King Mark is nearing the end of his speech, and I am watching Cormac. His thoughts, as he kneels there next to the throne, go roiling across his face like a stormy sea. The approaching conclusion of this medieval drama has not dimmed Cormac’s ardor for Ashley; nor hers for him.
I hope Cormac will wait for whatever he’s planning until he can talk with Ashley after the show; and indulge myself in a notion that these two are meant for each other. I’ve seldom seen a more perfect match than Cormac and Ashley together. But perhaps the myth and the magic have carried me away, myself.
King Mark finishes his interminable monologue. He leverages up onto his feet and climbs out of his throne. Isolde accepts the hand he offers as she rises into the king’s embrace.
Tristan, too, comes to his feet a respectful moment later. Mark, his liege lord, claps him hard on both shoulders. With a firm and sweeping arm, he points his nephew into exile, stage right.
Isolde and Tristan both bow low in homage to their monarch. But at the last moment, they turn back towards each other.
With a deep and audible sigh, King Mark leaves the lovers alone on stage, as he exits stage left.
Tristan captures Isolde’s hands in his. They begin to exchange their lines. Something, like the static you sense just before a lightning strike, crackles in the air all around them.
Ashley’s performance remains flawless, but I notice she is swaying back and forth, as if with a heartbeat that pulses where their hands are joined.
I see Cormac’s intention leap from his eyes at the moment a window opens in Ashley’s. I can only watch as she tumbles into Cormac’s ready arms before either of them realizes what they are doing.
When his kiss meets her lips, the circuit closes. A blinding nuclear flash sparks out and erupts into the theater. Electricity charges the stage floor until it vibrates under my feet. Shock waves surge through the audience, who gasp in unison as if they are one animal.
The curtain descends on a thundering standing ovation. Ashley and Cormac run out for their bows looking happier than I have ever seen either one of them.
The energy released by their intimate fusion has mesmerized us all. I am not the only person standing here stunned, still reeling from the moment of impact.
As I recover, though, I notice the audience departing. Many of them must clamber over an attractive older man, who sits motionless in the center of the auditorium.
Ashley stands before Judge Declan McCarthy. Cormac O’Connor hovers behind her, with his hand at the small of her back. She removes a ring from her finger and presses it into Declan’s palm.
The poor dear man. What ever will he do now?
While I pick up the props and put away costumes, the gaffer turns down all the lights. He ignores only one bright spotlight that still illuminates center stage. When we finish, I look out to see Declan still sitting there in his theater seat.
Does he even realize that we’re closing?
Just as I decide I must go down there myself to tell him, Declan finally rises. He walks to the stage, climbs up the stairs, and steps out into the spotlight.
Declan kneels to the floorboards and relaxes the fist that still holds Ashley’s engagement ring. He sets the ring to spinning on its edge, the way a small boy will spin a marble. When it falls to its rest, with a tiny chiming sound, he looks up into the backstage darkness and finds me watching.
“May I offer you a pint and some supper?” My words tumble out before thinking.
“I’d like that,” he says. “But the pints are on me.”
He scoops up the ring and places it into his suit jacket pocket.
“Flanagan’s?” I ask.
I’ve named the place where I think he’ll feel most comfortable, even after a public embarrassment. Flanagan’s has offered us sanctuary since our own days at Trinity College.
Declan nods with satisfaction, and almost manages a smile.
“None better,” he says.
We slip out through the back into a dim and fragrant lane, filled with pots of blooming lavender, as I lock the last stage door behind us.