The Playhouse Called Remarkable by Muriel Spark

Muriel Spark

The Playhouse Called Remarkable


I was telling my friend Moon Biglow the other day that I was going to Hampstead to see some literary people.

‘Oh, littery people,’ said Moon – because that’s how he talks.

‘Oh, Hampstead!’ said Moon.

‘Yes,’ I said, ‘I’m going to read a story to illustrate the Uprise of my Downfall.’

Moon turned a little jerky. It’s strange how you think you know people, and then they do something odd, and you have to start on virgin ground again.

‘What’s the matter, Moon?’ l asked him. We were sitting in a milk-bar drinking coffee, or whatever it really was.

‘Have another coffee,’ I suggested.

The Uprise,’ said Moon, ‘of your Downfall? Did you say…?’

‘Oh,’ l said hastily, ‘it’s got nothing to do with the Fall of Man, you know. This is just a way of expressing my venture into that bourne from which no traveller returns. l mean…’

‘Then you know the secret!’ Moon exclaimed. ‘Secret?’ I said. ‘There’s no secret about it. It comes to me naturally.

‘A mere gift,’ I added modestly.

I was thinking of some means of extracting myself from Moon’s company. I didn’t like the look of him in the least, desperately afraid of me for some reason.

Suddenly Moon’s will seemed to slump. I said I must go.

‘Don’t go until you’ve told me how you came to know,’ Moon was quite mild now, quite blank. ‘Know what?’ l said impatiently. ‘What have you been drinking?’

‘Either tea or coffee,’ Moon replied, gazing into his cup, for he was extremely truthful. One thing about Moon, he is always very fond of the truth.

‘The uprise of your downfall,’ said Moon. ‘I must say when you came out with it just now, I was fit to bust, but I’ll get over it in a day or two. Only tell me how…’

‘That phrase,’ I said, ‘refers to my downward progress up to the dizzy heights, as they concern the art of letters.’

‘I know,’ said Moon.’ I mean,’ he added, having conceived a new thought, ‘I think I know.’

I said, ‘What are you talking about and why are you talking in italics?’

‘You say first,’ said Moon suspiciously, ‘what you’re talking about.’

‘Nothing doing,’ I said mysteriously – because I’d begun to get interested in the thing in Moon’s mind.

‘Well,’ said Moon, ‘it’s the Moon, isn’t it?’ ‘Yes,’ I said, because I never have scruples about artistic lies.

Moon breathed a long draught of invisible nourishment from the air, then sighed it out again.

‘Anything else?’ Moon enquired.

‘Hampstead,’ I ventured, remembering that this word had started him off.

‘Ah,’ said Moon, ‘Well, now, I’ll tell you the true story, because whoever told you the secret has ten to one told you the wrong thing. You’ll get the truth from me.’

Before I tell you Moon Biglow’s story, I must tell you something about him. He’s the sort of friend whose family and background you know nothing about. I always felt he came from Ireland or Chicago or somewhere like that – because of the name, rather strange, of Moon Biglow. Moon must be about forty, and he describes himself as a freelance, which I suppose means journalism once a month. The strange thing is, I can’ t remember where I first met Moon. It was probably at a party. I must have known him for ten years. I would often see him in Kensington High Street in the late morning, short and fair and dressed in brown. His face is small, but his features are big, a pleasant face. I doubt if I shall see it again for some time, for Moon has left London now.

Well, to get back to the story that Moon Biglow told me when I was downcast about my downfall rising up.

‘I used to live at Hampstead,’ said Moon. ‘That was just after the Flood.’

‘Did they have a flood?’ I said. ‘When would that be?’

‘The Flood,’ said Moon. ‘I mean Noah’s Flood – the big one. You just listen to me. I’m telling no lies.

‘I lived at Hampstead just after the Flood. Of course, it was very different then, but there was a pleasant little society of people – long before the palaeolithic savages appeared, of course. The son of Noah called Ham begat this particular crowd – hence the name Hampstead. There were six of us,’ said Moon, ‘six to begin with – later seven. Of course, we were total strangers to the place, but everyone made us welcome.’

‘Where had you come from?’ I asked. ‘The Moon,’ said Moon. ‘You know that very well. Don’t interrupt me with insincere questions. We came of our own free will on the Downfall of our Uprise, and we settled at Hampstead; seeing it was the most civilised place on the globe in the post-Flood years. It was almost like the Moon – of course, the Moon has changed since then, but I remember the Moon in her prime. She was a beauty to live on. Still, we left her and came to settle in Hampstead.

‘The nice thing about the people,’ said Moon, ‘was their discretion. They never enquired why we came, they simply accepted us.

‘After the first eighteen months, when the ice was broken, we told them why we had come to the earth. We got the Mayor of Hampstead and his wife to call a meeting at the Town Hall. That was where Keats’s house is now. I wrote out my speech and learnt it by heart. Of course, I was more eloquent in those days than l am now. I still remember every word.

‘ “Friends, brothers and sisters,” I said, “The Six Brothers of the Moon give you greeting, and beg the privilege, nay the honour, of addressing your inmost hearts. There will, brothers and sisters, sisters and brothers, –there will come a time when these words will no longer reverberate new and thrilling to the ear. And why? Will your progeny, generation upon generation, remain unmoved by a brotherly appeal to the heart of man? No. Why then, will they shun and mock at such a speech as I deliver to you this evening? – For upon my prophetic honour, they will do so. They will call it, my friends, empty rhetoric. They will term it by the names of blah, drip, ham, and bloody awful.

‘ “That things should not be otherwise than thus, my brothers and my sisters, is in the nature of this earth, your home. I need not dwell on the cycles of birth, growth, decay and death, which you sum up in your profound philosophy, ‘Nothing lasts long.’ It is the same, my dear children, with all expressions of life, and if l may say so without offence to that tenderness, that ineffable refinement of spirit which I perceive within you, your language is in a shocking condition. As for your art, it does not exist.

‘ “Sisters, we are come from the Moon to teach you the language of poetry. Brothers, we are here on what you might term an art mission. ” ‘

At this point Moon Biglow stopped talking and took a large bite from a Chelsea bun. As you can imagine, I was somewhat puzzled by his story. If you had to meet Moon Biglow, you would never doubt the sincerity of the man. There was something very honest, also, about the way he was eating the bun; it seemed as undebatable as the story he was telling.

Of course, I wanted to question him, but decided this might put him off. As a provisional measure, I worked it out that either he was mad or that he was not mad.

‘What happened next?’ I said.

‘Well,’ said Moon, ‘I finished my speech, shook hands with the gentlemen, kissed all the ladies, and went home to bed.’

I could see that somehow I had hurt Moon’s feelings.

Do tell me what transpired,’ I said urgently.

‘I am not mad,’ said Moon; then he continued his story.

‘To tell you the truth,’ said Moon, ‘the whole race of Hampstead was dying out from the sheer lack of something to do in its spare time. They had only one recreation. In the evenings they would get together at the local Welfare Centre. All they did was to sit on the floor and chant. The chant went like this: Tum tum ya, tum tum ya – the same thing over and over again. Nothing else. Just tum tum ya the whole evening until they were tired. And it was the same every night. Naturally, at this rate, the race was beginning to die out.

‘Well, we put it to them that what we had to offer was a very good thing. We proposed to set up a play house at Hampstead, and give nightly performances for a small fee. We proposed to bring them the Changing Drama of the Moon. I told them,’ said Moon. ‘ “Once you have seen and heard the Changing Drama of the Moon,” I said, “you will never more be content, my friends, with your· own national classic, the Unchanging Tum tum ya. It is not,” I added, “that we of the Moon do not hold the classical tradition in the greatest possible reverence. But you will have observed amongst yourselves that the time-honoured tum tum ya no longer possesses the power to keep you interested in life. Many of your youth have died from the disease of boredom. No babies have been born for the past two years.

‘ “Friends.” I concluded, ” the tum tum ya is not enough.”

‘We had only one opponent – young Johnnie Heath, assistant editor of the Tum Tum Times. Johnnie set up the slogan: “Hampstead for the sons of Ham,” and pasted up bills all over the town with headlines like “Down with the Moon” and ” Protect Our Women from the Arty Crafties”. But no one took any notice of Johnnie Heath – there was terrific excitement over the new scheme. We took over the Welfare Centre and got it reconstructed into a large theatre. First we called it the Moon Playhouse, but Johnnie Heath started agitating about this name, so to keep him quiet we changed it simply to the Playhouse.

‘The opening night was a tremendous triumph. I must tell you something about the Changing Drama of the Moon.

‘The artists of the Moon had only one principal theme, and this was the story on which our show was based. It happens to be a true story. On top of a high mountain on the Moon there was at that time a singing voice. It did not sing in words, only pure notes. There had always been much speculation on the Moon as to whether this was a man’s voice or a woman’s voice; it was very difficult to tell. From time to time an expedition set out to the singing mountain to try to locate the singer. The approach to the singing mountain was pitted with deep concealed craters. No one had ever returned from an expedition. But there was once a young girl, an acrobat and singer by profession, who taught herself to mimic the voice. She decided to fit its music to words, and set off for the mountain, intending to find out what inspired the singer. If she knew the source of the melody, she would know what words to fit in.

‘By her acrobatic skill, this Moon girl managed to reach the mountain, swinging from rock to tree to rock. All the people in that territory of the Moon could hear her singing to cheer herself up as she climbed the mountain, because it was night. She sang a song about her journey, the warm, strange-smelling forests and the lakes of phosphorus. As she approached the top, the song combined with the voice of the singing mountain like a duct. She reached the summit at dawn. Suddenly the Moon girl was silent. Only the mountain notes could be heard. The people waited anxiously all that day for some sign from the Moon girl, but no sound came. Towards everting they gave her up as lost. She had been murdered, they concluded, by the jealous voice of the mountain.

‘But just as the sun had set, they heard a cry from the mountain-top. The Moon girl began to sing again, her voice beating against the mountain melody in a kind of desperate dialogue. It made a strange harmony. The Moon girl sang a narrative song which told how she was imprisoned by the voice of the mountain. The voice, she sang, had no body attached to it, but it surrounded her and held her fast on the mountain peak in a whirling spiral of sound. She could not move to left or right, neither forward nor backward, but was compelled to spin round and round with the voice of the mountain spirit. Every day at sunrise she stops singing, and her whirling body comes to a standstill. On clear days the Moon people can make out her small figure standing motionless on the mountain peak while the voice of the mountain mocks her with its high wordless music. Eventually the Moon girl told us in her song how it is that she can’t make any sound or movement during the day. Every morning there is a certain ray of the sun which stabs her through the throat more sharply than a fine steel blade. She is pinioned against the sky throughout the day, unable to cry or move until the terrible blade of the sun withdraws itself from her throat at nightfall. The Moon girl’s song tells us that this hard ray of the sun is what inspires the musical mountain. And the Moon girl sings of other things too. She tells us in her nightly song all she has seen on the landscape of the moon. It was the Moon girl who told us in her song to bring her drama to the earth.’

Moon Biglow was beginning to look dreary. He was obviously much taken up with this Moon girl, and seemed likely to discourse upon the wonder of the lady all morning.

‘What about your Playhouse?’ I said, ‘ – at Hampstead, you know.’

‘Yes,’ said Moon. ‘I was just coming down to earth.

‘Well,’ he continued, ‘we put on the Changing Drama of the Moon, based on this history of the Moon girl – that’s the active part of it, the drama. The Changing part comes in the words and music; because; you see, the Moon girl sings a different song every night. She saves up everything she sees by day, and hurls it in her song against the walls of the voice which imprisons her.

‘And so we followed her story; we showed her journey to the mountain – dancing and singing. We reproduced her changing dialogue with the mountain, reproaching the invisible voice with everything under the sun – we put the glittering blue salt-banks on the shores of the Moon lakes into human language; we satirised the incoming tides of the earth, and the landmarks of Hampstead Heath from season to season; we even put our enemy Johnnie Heath to music, to try and placate him, praising his intelligence. But he didn’t care for it much. Our decor was magnificent. Since we took it from the shapes and colours of the Moon, no one had seen anything like it.

‘No one, in fact, had seen anything like our Playhouse show before. It was a tremendous success. We had to extend the premises, for the Playhouse had become a sort of communal centre.

‘ “A remarkable performance,” everyone said. “Quite remarkable.”

‘In fact the Playhouse came to be known as the Remarkable. People would arrange to meet each other at the Remarkable, and we six Moon Brothers were known as the Young Remarkables. A new spirit had entered the people of Hampstead. Not only were they wildly in love with the Moon girl whose history and whose changing song we depicted nightly, but they were more in love with each other. The youth of the community stopped dying young; the maternity wards opened again; the Remarkable was packed to the doors each evening.

‘For my part, I was in love with Dolores, the daughter of the Mayor of Hampstead. We had not brought any girls from the moon, as the earth doesn’t agree with the Moonish female. So we got Dolores to play the part of the Moon girl, which she did in a most lifelike manner. Of course, we were all six very fond of Dolores, but eventually she became attached to me.

‘This was about five years after we opened the Remarkable. Then Dolores’ father, the Mayor, died, and we were all very irritated when Johnnie Heath took his place.

The Tum Tum Times was, of course, no longer functioning, but Johnnie had worked himself up on some of the new civic welfare plans occasioned by the revitalised life of the community. He was becoming very influential.

‘We had planned to branch off into a new field and set up a sort of academy of art. Perhaps it was just as well we never got the chance, but our reasons were quite reasonable. Although the Remarkable show continued to flourish, we somehow couldn’t induce the people to practise any form of our art themselves. No Hampstead poets, no painters, no musicians. The general feeling was that the art was a Moon affair; and only the Young Remarkables could really handle it. When we pointed out how well Dolores expressed the Moon girl, they replied that she was a bit of a born Moon girl herself. Perhaps they were right. We never got very far with our academic project, and some months after Johnnie Heath became the Mayor, we began to have difficulties with the Playhouse called Remarkable. Johnnie had somehow introduced an acid note into the life of Hampstead. (It was a descendant of Johnnie’s, by the way, who founded the London School of Economics.)

‘He started a campaign of enquiry against us. We had to fill in forms about our origin. We had to fill in an enormous questionnaire for our licence to run the Playhouse.

‘On the grounds that we were not born on earth , and because there was no evidence of life on the Moon, Johnnie tried to prove that we did not exist at all. He sent us an official note objecting to our description of the Playhouse. He could not accept the phrase “known as the Remarkable”, he wrote, and begged to point out that whereas ” Playhouse” was a noun, “Remarkable” was an adjective. The two could not be reconciled as signifying one and the same object.

‘As the year wore on, so did Johnnie’s nuisance-campaign. His tone became more and more peremptory. He tightened up on the vigilance of the police, and we were frequently fined for small infringements.

‘Johnnie defeated us, in fact. We gave our last performance one evening in February. It was seven years since our first performance. The people were very upset, but Johnnie had so worked on them that they were afraid to express their grief.

‘We had decided to take Dolores back to the Moon with us, in the usual way, you know.’ ‘What way?’ I asked, eagerly.

‘Don’t interrupt,’ said Moon. ‘And anyhow you know the way to the Moon. You go on the Uprise of your Downfall, you told me yourself.’

‘Listen,’ I said desperately, ‘I know nothing about how to get to the Moon. There’s a lot of talk about space-ships, but what have they got to do with the Uprise…?’

‘Quite,’ said Moon. ‘Quite.’

I had better say straight away that so far as getting to the Moon is concerned, that was all the information I extracted from Moon Biglow. It has something to do with uprising and downfalling, we may be sure. But the end of his story is still to be told.

‘On what I thought was my last night on earth,’ Moon continued, ‘I took a walk over Hampstead Heath. We had closed the doors of the Remarkable for the last time and were all prepared for the last Uprise of our Downfall. Dolores was to come with us. We were both sorry and glad to go. We felt sad about leaving Hampstead, but the place and people had changed under Johnnie’s influence, and also largely under our own in the last seven years.

‘I brooded on these things and was turning back to our quarters where I was to meet Dolores, when suddenly I heard a curious sound on my right.

‘As I walked towards the place, I became aware that a number of people were gathered together hidden from my sight behind a large boulder. Presently I could hear more clearly what the noise was: these people were chanting together the old refrain. Tum tum ya, tum tum ya. Silently, I peered round the boulder, and stopped short, sick and terrified and appalled by what I saw.

‘Before I describe what I saw, I must tell you that Johnnie Heath had recently revived the Tum Tum Times. One of its columns was regularly devoted to a plea for a return to what was described variously as “the native purity of our customs”, or “the purity of our native customs”, or else “the customs of our native purity”. I had not thought very much about this, for Johnnie’s ideas were always rather cranky. But one day I had chanced to read in this column a reference to an organisation which was recommended as offering “an outlet through a classical mode of expressions of our most pure and primitive passions”. On reading this, I shuddered, then thought no more about it.

‘I remembered this some time after the incident on Hampstead Heath.

‘Now,’ said Moon Biglow, ‘I will tell you what I saw there.

‘A group of young men and women, well known to me, and many o f whom had been close friends, were seated crosslegged in a circle round a stone slab. By the light of the Moon I saw them led by Johnnie Heath clapping their hands to the rhythm of tum tum ya, tum tum ya. On the slab inside the circle lay the dead body of Dolores, with a knife stuck in her throat. The blood was congealed on her neck, where it had flowed and ceased to flow.

‘Then I saw, watching from behind them, two of my Moon Brothers. They moved round silently to where I was standing. Hand in hand we fled home.

‘My five Moon Brothers left the earth secretly during the night. I could not, myself, face the Moon without Dolores. I felt it necessary to remain on earth and die here where she died.

‘Of course, I cleared out of Hampstead.

‘But the strange thing is, that our mission wasn’t a failure, after all. The revival of the tum tum ya cult did not last. It still crops up from time to time here and there, for these things spread. But the absence of the Changing Drama of the Moon began to be felt. The sense of loss led to a tremendous movement of the human spirit. The race of the artist appeared on the earth, everywhere attempting to express the lost Moon drama. Long after the people who had frequented the old Remarkable Playhouse were dead and forgotten the legend survived; and long after the legend was forgotten, the sense of loss survived.

‘So it happens,’ said Moon Biglow,’ that whenever the tum tum ya movement gets afoot, and the monotony and horror start taking hold of people, the artists rise up and proclaim the virtue of the remark able things that are missing from the earth.

‘And so,’ said Moon Biglow, ‘you owe your literature, your symphonies, your old masters and your new masters, to the Six Moon Brothers and Dolores. It was a good thing we had to go. We could never have induced you to shift for yourselves by any other means.

‘You and your littery friends,’ said Moon Biglow, ‘ought to know the true position, which is what I’ve told you. And if ever you produce a decent poem or a story, it won ‘t be on account of anything you’ve got in this world but of something remarkable which you haven’t got. There is always a call for the Remarkable from time to time, simply because we closed the doors of the Playhouse called Remarkable, and because the Young Remarkables have gone off home, and because there is nothing left Remarkable beneath the visiting Moon.’

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