The Place of Shakespeare in a House of Pain

By  Eric Ormsby |  June 12, 2014

Ours was a semaphoric family. Words fluttered like pennants over our heads and were often encoded, sometimes indecipherably. The messages wetransmitted through oblique verbal gestures were intended as much to rebuff as to allure. Language itself had turned sharp-edged on us; to negotiatea conversation—that to an outsider might have sounded innocuous but that to us was laden with dangerous secrets—was like picking your waybarefoot through a field of broken bottle glass.

If my uncle Howard, resplendent in Panama hat and poplin suit, had sworn under his breath over some "goddamn fool" trifle, or even if he had only indulged an explosive sneeze, my grandmother might at once have exclaimed, "'What lusty trumpet thus doth summon us?'" She'd look hard at him, and he wouldn't know how to reply—was she mocking him or applauding? But Aunt Dee, his wife, despite her habitual hangover, could chime in just as fast with, "'Come not between the dragon and his wrath!'" Or she could lazily drawl out, "'His tongue is now a stringless instrument'" and then, in imperfect iambs, crescendo up to, '"Our ears are cudgell'd,' and that's no joke!" At this juncture my mother, made nervous by such exchanges, might scramble for some dampening comment—anything but Shakespeare!—that would avert the impending duel between her sister and their mother.

I grew up in the 1950s in Coral Gables, near Miami, in my grandmother's house, where, with her heavy furniture, her drapes that obstructed the fierce light of the sun, her antimacassars, and her bone china, she had created a late-Victorian oasis in a subtropical climate. Shut against the sun and heat,the house festered in a faint but insinuating mildew. Inside that time-warped place the many collected curios and figurines were worn but venerable.From dust-lidded eyes or through the glass of the china cabinet they followed us with their gazes. There was the alabaster Cupid, whose wings had been misplaced and who instead bore on his back two oblong gouges like an incision from a chisel. Wounded Cupid stooped over Psyche to bestow a kiss, but Psyche's lips were covered with a fine sheen of grime, giving her a rakish and mustachioed smile. And there were the amulets Great-uncleAlbert had brought home from his restless peregrinations all over the world for General Electric: potbellied figures of ivory reminiscent of the Buddhaand llamas carved out of coral, vicunas of jade, each poised on its own pedestal of teak.

The dominating force in the living room, though, was an oak bookcase, the central object of which was a massive one-volume edition of Shakespeare's works. The book's foxed pages and double columns of text intrigued me even before I could read them. Of all the tutelary presences surrounding me, Shakespeare seemed to loom largest, perhaps because he was not represented by any figural embodiment, a bust or engraving, or asampler calligraphed in needlepoint. My grandmother had been reared on Shakespeare, first in London and later in Rugby, Tennessee—that curious Victorian utopia founded by Thomas Hughes (of Tom Brown fame)—where my great-grandfather had transplanted his entire family in 1881. There, inthe middle of the woods of the Cumberland Plateau, Hughes built a replica of an English village, complete with Anglican chapel and belfry and well-stocked library. And there—"in that howling wilderness,'' as my grandmother later said—she and her several sisters read and learned Shakespeare by heart, not only to become cultured and well-read but also to learn how to live. Shakespeare taught them thrift as well as eloquence; what they knewof love they had gleaned from his pages, and what they already knew of hatred they found confirmed and given utterance in his verses. He taughtthem to be circumspect, honorable, and dignified. He tutored them in the protocols of mourning and courtship. He was their master in all the nicetiesof melodious speech.

When I was seven my grandmother began paying me to memorize some of Shakespeare's more celebrated passages. By reciting soliloquies I barely understood—"'Is this a dagger which I see before me?'" I would thunder while brandishing a butter knife—I earned my weekly pocket money. For the "quality of mercy" speech—it was one I particularly disliked because Grandmother, though often notably lacking in mercy, doted on it so—I earned aquarter. A sonnet, on the other hand, brought me only fifteen cents. For any of Polonius's remarks I discovered I could reap a bonus, and "Neither aborrower nor a lender be" netted me a half-dollar. (She adored Polonius, whose thrifty sagacity made him the hero of Hamlet in her eyes.)

Some evenings, with scrubbed face and combed hair, wearing a fresh shirt, my shoes properly knotted, I would stand upright before my grandmother,who liked to ensconce herself in the great wing chair in the living room. Upon her solemn nod I would begin. On special afternoons, when there werecallers, I would be obliged, like Dickens's "infant phenomenon," to offer a recitation while the ladies sipped their tea and smiled approvingly.

It might have seemed from all the fine words that rang through the rooms of our house that we were all keenly attuned to one another's moods and needs, but that was not the case. Open communication would have horrified our family. To have communicated what we really felt would have been the struck match in the arsenal's powder room. Our house was so thick with secrets, some of which I already knew, others I wasn't to learn until much later, that I could almost smell them. Whenever we came close to communicating our true feelings, the result was a terrifying brawl, invariably in the middle of the night, at which no vestige of dignity or pity or affection was left untattered.

Not that my grandmother or my mother didn't occasionally try to ease the situation. Once, my grandmother even enlisted the services of a psychiatrist and paid him extra to make a house call. This was for the purpose of interviewing Aunt Dee, whose alcoholism and resultant malnourishment had suddenly intensified but who refused to seek aid even from the elderly Doc

Preston, a drinking buddy of my uncle's. When the psychiatrist walked into her darkened bedroom, my aunt rose, whipped a pistol out of the dresser drawer, and chased him out of the house. This pleased Aunt Dee immeasurably, and she celebrated her rout of medical science with a monumental weeklong bender, punctuated by hoots of triumph and snarls of retribution. "'I have scorch'd that snake, not kill'd it!'" she would chant, or "'I have drunk and seen the spider,' goddamn right I have!"

It seemed to me at times as though Shakespeare had preimagined our travails and had, rather officiously, provided the very wisdom by which we were expected to surmount them. I think there was almost no occasion on which my grandmother, abetted by her two daughters, could not furnishsome apothegm excised from the Bard.

I think that we relished words as much for the darkness in which they were swaddled as for any communicatory light they might have thrown. AndShakespeare, I sensed early, was a virtuoso of the darkness in words. From him I learned that there were leaden words, words blunt-edged and numbing that could be wielded like clubs, or sly stiletto words—so satisfying to insert between the ribs of a raging relative. Words were more useful for camouflage, for diversionary action, and for misleading others than for any doomed effort at communication. I suspected that language, or at least our language, had an innate propensity for falsehood; that left to its own devices, as it were, a word preferred to deceive, or perhaps better, to misdirect, rather than to enlighten. I had experienced the perfidy of words more than once: As my grandmother lost her sight I was more and more often asked to read aloud to her; to my discomfort she had an unappeasable fondness for Wordsworth's "The Solitary Reaper," a poem I was alwaysafraid to read aloud to her because I knew that at the fateful moment I would mistakenly say "raper" instead of "reaper"—I wasn't sure what either meant, but I knew that one was bad—and, of course, no matter how I schooled myself, that is just what infallibly occurred.

My grandmother's use of Shakespeare had a way of coming between me and my own musings, and I resented this. If we were driving home from Miami Beach and there was a particularly splendid full moon in sight, Grandmother would weigh in with, "'Sit, Jessica. Look how the floor of heaven is thick inlaid with patens of bright gold.' " It irked me to hear this because it distracted me from whatever reverie I was in the middle of. Who on earthwas Jessica? A dumb name, like Juliet, my grandmother's given name; the sort of name that foreigners, and especially the English, gave their kids. Still, that unusual word patens caught my ear. I liked it though I had no idea what it meant. I thought of it then as denoting ingots or bars of gold; the light of the moon did fall through the clouds in long bars and lambent slabs. The description was right, I couldn't deny, but it had the effect of wedging words between me and the world outside. Undisciplined as any child that age, I did not want to see my sentiments marshalled into language. But beyond that, I disliked and mistrusted the way my grandmother reduced everything she saw to some sort of poetic form—disliked and mistrusted it even while I myself possessed and nourished the same instincts as she.

If there was one thing my grandmother could not reduce to form, poetic or otherwise, it was her elder daughter, the great sorrow of her long life. My Aunt Dee ("Dee" for Dorothy) was thin and brown; you might have mistaken her, in the gloom of the dining room, where she frequently installed herself, for a female version of Mahatma Gandhi. Her skinny legs and bare feet protruded from beneath her nightgown, which she often wore day andnight. Aunt Dee's shins and calves and thighs were mottled with running sores, as were her forearms, her shoulders, and her neck. At nightfall, as precisely as if by a struck signal, great swollen welts broke out all over her body. "I've got my hives again!" she would wail. All night long, try as shemight, she would not be able to resist scratching the hives, and by morning her fingernails were often stained with her own blood. Her nightgown was permanently spattered with brownish-red flecks.

Her face was small and delicately heart-shaped, and she had the most exquisite brown eyes. Her mouth was beautiful, too, but she developed a habit of thrusting her lower lip out when she smoked, and this gesture created the impression that she was imitating an ape. Her hair was dark and wavy,and she kept it bobbed, somewhat reminiscent of a 1920s style. (When I later saw pictures of Norma Shearer, I realized whom my aunt had modeledherself after.) We were all frequently reminded, especially by her but also by others, that Aunt Dee had been a great beauty when she was young.

My aunt was no longer a beauty, and this was a source for her of both endless sorrow and sarcastic self-deprecation. Sometimes I would wake in themiddle of the night to the pounding of the upright piano, where Aunt Dee, blind drunk, was delivering her rendition of "Sweetheart of Sigma Chi"—"Famous throughout Atlanta, you hear?" Or she would recite nursery rhymes that I supposed had been addressed to her in her girlhood:

Little Tucky-Too
Your eyes are china blue
But you're a senorita through and through.... 

Not quite Shakespeare, though he was never far behind. Her favored verses in these late-night sessions began with, "'Who steals my purse steals trash,"' to which she would emphatically add, "You got that right! My goddamned purse is trash, not even one stinking nickel in it," while from her darkened bedroom my grandmother would roar back, "'But he that filches from me my good name robs me of that which not enriches him and makes me poor indeed.'"

"Goddamn my good name, and yours, too!" my aunt would bellow, and I knew from the provisional safety of my upstairs bed that we were in for amuch longer session of shouted Shakespeare and belligerent commentary, for Aunt Dee positively basked in her own rage. Anger radiated from herthe way the peacock's tail shakes out from its hindquarters. Her diction cleared, her memory came back, her repartee was sharp, and she stamped and pawed the floor in a fury. "'Out, vile jelly!'" she would shout or, rather incongruously, '"My kingdom for a horse!"' This in turn would lead to along, bitter soliloquy on just why she didn't have a horse, and why should she not have a horse? Hadn't all of Atlanta turned its head when shepassed? Weren't the suitors thicker than ticks on a coon dog after her debut? And those lovely beaux—or booowz, as she dragged it out—weren't theythe handsomest young men anyone had ever seen? How could it be that so-and-so—"Who was she anyway?"—should have had a chestnut gelding to ride while she, prettier by far than Dolores Del Rio, hadn't had "'a pot to piss in,' quoth the Bard! 

Listening to these rants frightened me; she could go on for what seemed like hours. What was scary was not her anger but the awful feeling of pity that swept over me. Her hurt was too palpable to ignore. Behind the imprecations she hurled against her mother or her husband or the neighbors, or against Life and Time and Fate, there was an inconsolable sorrow.

To my grandmother, Aunt Dee and her husband, Howard—"the living image of shiftlessness," she'd say—were pitiful failures, and she held them up before me as cautionary models not to imitate. Her penchant for moralizing was ungovernable, and she routinely drew maxims from their wastrelshenanigans. Predictably enough, this had the opposite effect on me: because I loved them, I came to see failure as preferable to success and to believe that only through failure could I demonstrate my solidarity with them.

Uncle Howard was small, and since my grandmother had a pronounced dislike for short people—"little short dogs," she called them, and routinelybarred undersized children from playing with me—Uncle Howard already had one strike against him. He also had never held a paying job in his life. This didn't prevent him from being continually "busy." He arose each morning at dawn and undertook a careful toilette. He bathed, and then heshaved, using a freshly stropped razor and gobs of shaving cream, which he whipped up expertly in a little china dish. He took time to dress, choosinga crisply ironed shirt, well-creased trousers, an understated tie, and a freshly dry-cleaned jacket, often of cord or poplin, the front pocket of which hesprigged with a jaunty pochette. He had his hair cut every week and his shoes shined daily. Thus attired, he would head for the kitchen, where he toasted a slice of bread and brewed a pot of coffee, always making enough for my grandmother. He read the morning newspaper while he sipped from his cup and smoked his first cigar of the day. After this he began pacing from the kitchen to the front door, all the while jingling the change in his pockets in an anxious rhythm.

By 7 a.m., when I was getting ready for school, Uncle Howard's day had already passed its apogee. Occasionally one of his pals—they all had names like Wiley and Little Joe—telephoned, and Uncle Howard tore out of the house with vast relief for a "business meeting." He claimed to be engaged innumerous surefire ventures that would one day astound us all; one project, for example, involved a malodorous spring deep in the Everglades that was said to have powerful medicinal properties. But usually he observed this strict, early morning ritual only to spend the day pacing and rattling his change.

My grandmother was fond of Uncle Howard, even though she considered him a monument to sloth. "Look at that man," she would say, pointing him out to me, "He is the picture of idleness. He never lifts a finger to any useful occupation. 'He toils not, neither does he spin.'" (She enjoyed quoting from the King James Bible but often misapplied Gospel sentences in accordance with her own interpretations.)

While she held him responsible for turning her favorite daughter into an alcoholic, my grandmother liked her son-in-law because he came from "oneof the best families in Atlanta." She hinted that she had in fact personally selected him for Aunt Dee. As idle in his youth as he was in middle and oldage, Howard had been considered a good catch principally because of his family connections. It never failed to impress Grandmother when Howard received his weekly check from Atlanta, from the family that in effect paid him to stay away. The very idea that anyone would pay a person for notworking filled her with wonder, for she had always been hardworking and frugal. I think that to her British mind this smacked of remittance men andaristocratic manners, such as she had read about in Thackeray, and because she was an awful snob, she could not help but be dazzled by suchlargesse.

Uncle Howard was a man of few words. I cannot ever remember him quoting Shakespeare. "'Th'expense of spirit in a waste of shame,'" which Grandmother seemed to think was about sloth, always made him twitch with guilt. Or, when he got his check, she might speak of Uncle Howard's "'golden uncontroll' d enfranchisement.'"

Uncle Howard was a sporadic alcoholic. Sober for months, he would go on a binge without warning. I recall one such episode when I tried uselessly tocalm him down. We were standing by the living room windows, and for a moment I turned my head away. When I looked back, he had disappeared. It turned out that he had toppled backward out of the living room window and had landed on his back on the lawn, where he lay in a daze until wehoisted him back up again, with Aunt Dee drunkenly chanting, "'What light through yonder window breaks?' Damn if it ain't Howard breaking through, ha-ha!"

What was Shakespeare in those moments? If Grandmother muttered during one of Uncle Howard or Aunt Dee's binges, "They are both 'red-hot withdrinking,"' and Aunt Dee fired back in sarcastic self-abasement with, "'And I, thy Caliban, for aye thy footlicker!'" what did that avail us? And yet, forall their manifest power, the words had none to protect us—from each other or from ourselves.

For instance, when my aunt was absent from the dinner table I would have premonitions of disaster. The absence almost always meant she was asleep and that several hours later she would wake and begin one of her nocturnal prowls just as we were going to bed. I had always been afraid ofthe dark. Try as I might I could not venture into the shadowy upper reaches of the stairs without a terrific pounding of my heart and a prickling fear that almost paralyzed me. Step by step I ascended into that murk. Once there, my senses, sharpened by panic, grew acute. In my nerves I understood the lines, "Good things of day begin to droop and drowse, / Whiles night's black agents to their preys do rouse." The house was full of uncommon noises that by day could not be heard. Under the red tile roof there were rats, and I could hear them scuttling back and forth all nightlong; sometimes they climbed out on the telephone lines and, tightrope walkers, crept along to and from the roof while I peered at their dark, teetering silhouettes. Worse still were the cockroaches. Big tropical varieties, they came awake in the dark and flew about the room.

But the dark held worse terrors than rats or roaches. Often I fell asleep only to be awakened by the blaze of the ceiling light and my aunt's drunkencaresses. Her kisses, her slobbered endearments—"You 're my sugar, my only sweetheart"—alarmed me with their intensity, and I was frightened aswell of the pity that I could not help suffering for her. When she left, she would say something maudlin and ridiculous: "'Goodnight, sweet prince, and flights of angels ... ' something something something—whatever it is those goddamn angels do!"

Often Aunt Dee went on too long or too loudly, and then my grandmother and mother would wake and join the fray. These were the worst encounters, worst because the family system of semaphores broke down or was abandoned. Words burst forth in all their nakedness. No more subterfuge, no more veiled allusions, but in their place a clamor of fiercely contending emotions, in which it was no longer possible to say what was love and what hate, what was despair and what triumph. Grandmother denounced her eldest daughter and disinherited her; she said Aunt Dee was worse than the Prodigal Son, who at least changed his ways in the end. She was Goneril, she was Regan, she was Iago, she was Caliban. For Aunt Dee, however, her mother was no mother at all but a kind of Lady Macbeth, a hard-hearted torturer and skinflint, a woman without understanding, a destroyer of lives. At the sidelines my mother fretted and wrung her hands or tried with an appalling lack of timing to make little jokes in order to turn fury into laughter.

From such scenes I learned the paradox that it was night that laid bare what day with merciful hypocrisy covered over. The awareness of this wouldnot leave me on the mornings following such outbursts. At daybreak Grandmother liked to recite the line of Romeo: "'And jocund day stands tiptoe on the misty mountain tops.'" By repeating this line, she wanted to draw the curtain over the previous night. I understood that if night brought despair and bafflement, day prompted hope, and the fact that hope is routinely disappointed did not make that truth invalid. It roused my uncle and impelledhim to his elaborate toilette, even though Grandmother might look at him and quote Milton's "They also serve who only stand and wait." It moved my aunt to promise to amend her ways, to give up drinking forever. It made my mother think that life in that painful place might after all be borne. And it moved Grandmother anew to ransack Red-Letter Poems for edifying snippets of verse. But to me hope was as baffling as it was irresistible.

One evening grandmother took me with her to see a performance of Hamlet at the University of Miami's Ring Theatre. I was ten or eleven then, andthat night was perhaps the most magical of my childhood. For the first time I witnessed with my own eyes and heard with my own ears the full andaugust witchery of language. 

As its name implies, the Ring Theatre was a theater-in-the-round. We sat in the first row, slightly off to one side. Inches from my toes, the platformof the stage gleamed with fresh paint. But nothing prepared me for the revelation that was to come. To hear unknown men and women speaking thelines that to me, even then, had seemed to constitute an almost private, secret family language was dumbfounding. I could not take my eyes off the actors. Everything about them fascinated me: their gestures at once so courtly and yet so satisfying, their gait and posture, with knuckles percheddefiantly on hips or with tosses of the head, the way they moved so that the verb strode, so beloved of my grandmother, became immediatelycomprehensible, their costumes all of velvet and satin, with ballooning sleeves and exaggerated buckles, with boots and feathered hats and gauntlets of reddish leather, their leotards, which let their muscles show through as they strode, the loud but melodious voices modulating to convey every shading of the words. What on the page had seemed one way to me now showed itself differently; what I had taken as straightforward revealed itselfas sardonic or comical. I began to have an inkling that, contrary to my grandmother's settled view, Polonius was not in fact the hero of the play, and when Hamlet pierced him through the arras—another fascinating word to me then—and my grandmother flinched, as though she herself had been run through, I saw that his death was not the denouement of the play but merely a passing incident, and I felt disappointed.

The asides, especially those of Hamlet himself, intrigued me. When he delivered his soliloquies, the actor came to the edge of the ring and stoodbefore us, inches away. He wore mustard-colored tights and a black doublet with slashed sleeves. It astonished me to see how profusely he sweated;his curly blond hair was damply matted, and sweat streamed down his cheeks as he spoke. Coming as I did from a house dominated by women, I hada frank curiosity about men, the way they spoke and carried themselves; even their musculature, as revealed by the actors' costumes, struck me as strange and wonderful. I wanted more than anything else that evening to be Hamlet, to dress that way, to stride and speak as he did, to havecommand of both inner and outer speech. I saw that the words hidden in his head could be made audible; it was like hearing somebody else think, a telepathic eavesdropping. Even then, I think, I realized that there is a profound chasm between our innermost words and those we articulate forothers.

Beyond the language of the play, the huge clashes of personalities felt familiar to me. My grandmother and my aunt, locked together in their titanic midnight rages, struck me as quintessentially Shakespearean. The poet confirmed what I had sensed without ever admitting it to myself: At the closeof the play everyone dies; for certain conflicts there are no happy endings. Like all children, I was intuitively persuaded by the tragical. I had too littleexperience in life to be able to imagine any other outcome but one that was irreconcilable.

After the performance I applauded until my palms hurt. Then Grandmother took me backstage, and I met the real Hamlet. He was sprawled in a chair in front of a dressing table with a mirror framed by little light bulbs. There was an odor of powder and dust and smoke. Sweat-drenched and worn outas he was, my Hamlet appeared to me as a wizard on a coffee break—fabulous but endearingly disengaged. His name was Keith. That name came toembody all the manly virtues that I imagined him possessed of; ever after, the Keiths I met would seem incarnations of nobility and a kind of tacitsplendor. Keith signed my playbill with a dramatic flourish of his hand, all the while conversing with me about the play and questioning me about what I had understood. I answered with confusion. To me he was still Hamlet underneath his everyday Keith-mask.

A boy without a father is supremely vulnerable. He has inexhaustible resources of love and loyalty and devotion. And he aches to bestow these onsome man who shows him what he might, if he is lucky, become. The heart of such a boy hangs on the smallest of tokens and is to be had for theslightest expression of regard; is to be had, I mean, passionately, irrevocably, and for life. And for what? For a glance of interest, a question, an autograph on a program. That is how I looked on Keith the actor in his dressing room. His physical presence, his masculine vitality, had given the words that came out of his mouth onstage such immediacy that I regarded him as almost superhuman.

The very next day I began to write a five-act verse drama loosely modeled on Hamlet. I can still remember how pleasing the lines looked, parceled out on the page according to character, and so different from the compositions I was forced to do in school. I cannot now remember the title of the play (Eric, Prince of Florida?) or a single scrap of my clumsy blank verse, though I had memorized it all. I know that I made much of such lines as "O what a rogue and peasant slave am I!" and that there were many daring uses of "whoreson dog" and "arrant knave!" That evening, in the dim and overstuffed living room, with the blinds drawn, I acted out my drama, taking every role, and concluding, of course, with a bloody finale in which I expired from a treacherous sword-thrust, all to the startled clapping of my grandmother, my mother, and my aunt.

Still, the claustrophobia of Hamlet bore down on me, the sense of a family as a cage from which no escape is possible, either for Hamlet or for myself; but this desperate confinement was also strangely reassuring. You could say in a way that Shakespeare had become our jailor, though this had a double sense: he confined us, but he alone held the key to the outside.

For my grandmother, my aunt, and my uncle the only way out was through death. In the fall of 1958 Grandmother, nearing ninety, slipped on the terrazzo floor of the front porch and broke her hip. I did not know that this was a virtual death sentence in those days. In the hospital she contracted pleurisy, and six weeks later she was gone. She died with her "eagle-wind pride of sky-aspiring and ambitious thoughts" intact and valorous to the end. A few years later Aunt Dee followed, dying also from the effects of a fall; her malnourished bones were so brittle that she all but shattered when she fell. Uncle Howard lived to be ninety but became witless and enfeebled. There should have been Shakespearean flourishes for them all, there should have been doleful but majestic epitaphs. Only my mother lived on, and lived on happily, until in her early eighties she died of a hole in her heart, a congenital impairment she had never known she had.

From my mother, not long before she died, I learned the secret tragedy of Aunt Dee's life. She had eloped and married an Atlanta man she worshiped, but of whom her mother disapproved. When Grandmother found out and tracked them down, she had Dee forcibly brought home and the marriage annulled. Now when I remember how Aunt Dee assailed Grandmother for her envy, for her jealousy, of all things, I understand that to her her mother had intervened not because she disapproved but because she wanted to deprive her daughter of a possible happiness she herself had never known. When I think of those midnight tirades, they take on the dimensions of an agony, monuments to baffled hatred and love, to anger and shame and mortal injury, indissolubly joined. Like the kings and queens, the tortured bastards, and the buffoons of Shakespeare's plays, these kin of minewere at once transparent in their passions but opaque in their self-disclosures.

Often in recent years, when watching a Shakespeare play, I have caught a glimpse of my mother or my aunt, my grandmother or my uncle, in the personages before me on the stage, especially in amateur productions where a sudden clumsiness or a stumble in diction betrays the breathing person behind the actor's mask. I have felt then as if the play—whether Romeo and Juliet or Hamlet or Measure for Measure (a particular favorite because of its very ambiguity about language and life)—was in some secret way about conflicts I knew intimately from the time I was old enough to remember. This doesn't inspire any complacency in me, however, since the characters continue to elude me, for all their apparent kinship. At those times, the stage itself echoes with voices I have not heard for years but which I recognize at once. Despite the high-flown diction and studied accents of the actors, the voices come through to me with all the intonations of home.