Cliff and Susan

Between productions at a theatre company, it can be slow. Paused Ingmar Bergman movie slow. During these periods, Cliff, the Office Manager, spent most of his time trying to do tasks that couldn’t be done yet, trying to create tasks, or trying to do other people’s tasks without offending them. He was a taskhole. If it was a how-slow-can-you-go day, he would read plays that the Artistic Director was considering for the upcoming season. Sometimes he would just read random plays from the theatre’s library. That’s how he found Quality Street by J.M. Barrie, also known as the boy who wouldn’t grow up.

Quality Street is kind of Napoleonic-era hybrid of Taming of The Shrew and Cinderella, only it doesn’t feature a shrew, or a fairy godmother, just a Phoebe, who feels her potential has expired, her looks have faded and life is a memory. Cliff liked her immediately. Plot had never been a priority to him, but for the reader, we will chart some of Phoebe’s course. As a young woman, she loved a certain Valentine Brown, a man who, typical of men, didn’t realize his love until enlisted in the army and serving in another country. Increasing the tally of cruel incompetence, Valentine had recommended an investment, to which Phoebe and her sister, Susan, devoted all their savings, only to see them evaporate.

Upon Valentine’s return, years later, they are operating a school “for genteel children,” though such a phrase flatters itself more than its subject. Valentine is shocked at the sight of the once sprightly “Phoebe of the ringlets” – older, tired and overworked – which she interprets as rejection. Through a comical series of misunderstandings and opportunities, she finds herself impersonating a younger and invented relative, Livvy, with the intent of reviving Valentine’s interest, or perhaps, having her revenge.

Cliff simply static clinged to this play. Was it his desire to be desired? His terror of being discovered? His fascination with the stage directions, which felt like a novel and read like a diary? Whatever the reason(s), Cliff wanted the company to produce Quality Street. He wanted a Barrie fan to direct it. He even wanted to play a character. Not Valentine – not any of the men, actually. He wanted to play Susan, the sister of Phoebe. He wanted to play Susan as a brother.

Here, perhaps, it is important to note that Quality Street is in the public domain. It was now in Cliff’s domain. He was going to remodel. No, not remodel, just redecorate. The Artistic Director believed the script was overrun with characters, needing some reigning, some discipline, some editing. Cliff agreed, although he would clarify it was simply the long distance relationship between one era and another; in person, in performance, it would be perfectly relatable, as is.

But he agreed; he didn’t want to jeopardize the Artistic Director’s approval or anyone else futzing up the script, although he was going to futz it up. While that was a crime, it was still legal, so there wouldn’t be consequences. Admittedly, Cliff wondered if, as a writer, he was violating some literary equivalent of a Hippocratic Oath? Maybe, and to justify it, he repeated to himself that the editing would be a minimally invasive procedure. Not long after beginning, however, he found some tumors:

MISS SUSAN. Phoebe, I have a wedding gift for you.

PHOEBE. Not yet?

MISS SUSAN. It has been ready for a long time. I began it when you were not ten years old and I was a young woman. I meant it for myself, Phoebe. I had hoped that he – his name was William – but I think I must have been too unattractive, my love.

PHOEBE. Sweetest – dearest –

MISS SUSAN. I always associate it with a sprigged poplin I was wearing that summer, with a breadth of coloured silk in it, being a naval officer; but something happened, a Miss Cicely Emberton, and they are quite big boys now. So long ago, Phoebe – he was very tall, with brown hair – it was foolish of me, but I was always so fond of sewing – with long straight legs and such a pleasant expression.

PHOEBE. Susan, what was it?

MISS SUSAN. It was a wedding-gown, my dear. Even plain women, Phoebe, we can’t help it; when we are young we have romantic ideas just as if we were pretty. And so the wedding-gown was never used. Long before it was finished I knew he would not offer, but I finished it, and then I put it away. I have always hidden it from you, Phoebe, but of late I have brought it out again, and altered it.

PHOEBE. Susan, I could not wear it. (MISS SUSAN brings the wedding-gown.) Oh! How sweet, how beautiful!

MISS SUSAN. You will wear it, my love, won’t you? And the tears it was sewn with long ago will all turn into smiles on my Phoebe’s wedding-day.

It was a scene Cliff couldn’t play, not at this company. But he could play it so well. Like Susan, he had been to many weddings, had given away the same gown, again and again, fully involved in someone else’s courtship and marriage, but feeling everything from the periphery, always out of sight, and yet, never overlooked by the author, right up until the end.

Surely by now the reader is a little disoriented, however Cliff has sworn me to secrecy about the ending of Quality Street, but might I remind everyone that the script is available online, to which, alright, I will not link here, but it’s easily found and Cliff is furious with me now. I would only exacerbate his fury with some theories on how dominant culture had not done any favors for him, just the refusal to truly represent people, instead pressuring them to plead guilty of their most unusual trait. Yet, in Quality Street, here Cliff was, represented and accounted for.

How could he cut the scene? How could he rewrite it? He didn’t need to make Susan in his image, she was already in it, she was a reflection, and you can’t change a reflection without changing the reflected. Naturally, he would still edit the play, he would still lobby for its selection and delight in its production, if that were to be. But he would not be written in to the story. He would have to write another.

One thought on “Cliff and Susan

  1. “He would not be written in to the story. He would have to write another.” D-a-a-a-a-amn, Friend. Killer line. And it’s something we’re all struggling to do, isn’t it? We’re desperate to find the happy story willing to fit us in because to create something from scratch is so fucking terrifying.

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