In the new novel How Beautiful They Were, author Boston Teran - the anonymous writer behind twelve acclaimed books - continues a tradition of looking at contemporary themes through the lens of historical fiction with this story, set in the bustling New York theater scene of the 1850s. There, we're plunged into the midst of the American Theatre Company, which revolutionizes the theatre of the times by bringing daily life to the stage, in often uncomfortable ways. And thus, Teran uses the actor's profession as a lens for the social corruption and racism of the era.
We're pleased to present this excerpt from How Beautiful They Were, out this week from High-top Publishing.
FROM "HOW BEAUTIFUL THEY WERE":
It appears that I, Jeremiah Fields, have been cast to portray the character who steps from the shadows of the stage and into the footlights to talk directly to the audience.
A simple youth rising quietly from my work desk and stacks of ledgers to introduce the play.
I am not an actor. I have neither the talent nor the vanity. I am what is called in the theatre — the stage manager. My job is to keep the machinery of a play running smoothly. I work behind the scenes. I am unsung and unnoticed, but essential. And I might say, that in my era, there was not another like me.
Colonel Tearwood’s American Theatre Company was my youth, my home, my family. And I was part of the company from its volatile beginnings in 1848 to its much written about final act.
Of course, I am here because of Nathaniel Luck. He was my mentor, my teacher, a reluctant father figure, a man driven, joyous. He was the reason newspaper reporters dogged me for his story. Why publishers tried to seduce me with their promises if I could sell the truth of him. Was he the violent murderer from London known as John James Beaufort as was alleged, or a tragic actor that life conspired against? Was he something else altogether?
If you are familiar with the theatre of those times, you might well recognize the term la piece bien faite. Translated, it reads — the well-made play.
La piece bien faite was a popular genre and offered to entertain its audience with a tight plot and pacing, reversals of fortune that created suspense, while constantly building to a climactic resolution. And… most importantly, a central part of the action takes place before the story begins and is not known to all the characters…but is to the audience. Such is what follows.
The scene is London, the theatre district, the taverns and boarding houses where the beggarly of entertainment repose. The year is 1836. It is the era before birth of the greatest theatres and the rise of spectacles. An actor not quite twenty by the name of John James Beaufort is garnering heady reviews as a talent to be reckoned with. Be it drama or comedy, he performs either with equal dexterity. He can be dashing and handsome, or unassuming and inward. He slips from playing the fool to a dangerous adversary in the space of a throwaway line.
For him being on stage was the ultimate act of freedom. Freedom from the constraints of the present as well as one’s past. A chance to escape inner demons and torments by channeling their fury and creating a complete masterpiece of the self, when that self is someone else, and that self can be shed when the lights draw down.
There is a kind of freedom in the unreal world. There are no actual ghosts in that world, no all too human adversaries, no loneliness, no despair. In life man is disconnected, a fragment here, a fragment there, a lost feeling, an isolated thought, like disparate needs far flung on a map. On stage, man is a landscape, a mural with the sunrise in one hand and sunset in the other. He is darkness and light and all shadows in between. He is what no human can achieve in life.
John James sat on the brick ledge of the roof to the rooming house where he lived, looking down upon the night street and its dark ranks of social insecurity. This is where it would all rise and fall, where the blackness of life becomes a grave cancer or the genesis of creation.
Inside of him he knew, as well as he knew the lines of a play, that wealth and success were within his reach. But in and of themselves, these meant nothing, except for the freedom they would give him to act upon the world, creating performances out of his willful soul that would match the great characters of literature. Foolish, maybe…but as necessary as air to distinguish the me from them.
It was while having this private dialogue with himself that the stairwell door opened. Light spilled out upon the darkness and a lantern rose and there was a girl near about his own age, caught off guard at picking up a presence there in the shadows, a slip of air rushing out of her, her free hand suddenly flat and open against her chest.
“I’m sorry, sir. I didn’t know anyone was up here.”
“Why should you?” he said.
“I came up here…” She pointed back toward the stairwell doorway. “It’s so unbearably hot downstairs. I thought to escape it.”
She came forward holding the lantern high up.
That kind of light can deceive you about someone’s looks, it can cheat you with its shadows, just as it does on stage. But there was no denying the girl had singular features, a high forehead where the light glistened, and a long straight nose that seemed befitting European royalty, with black rich hair and eyes to match. She was neatly dressed and appointed, surely a step up in class from the likes of this rooming house.
“Is it all right, my being here?” she said. “Or would you prefer to be alone?”
“There’s room for both of us at the ledge.”
“I’m not partial to ledges,” she said, handing him the lantern. “Although I’ve had my share of them on rooftops…and off.” There was a touch of amusement in her expression and she turned away and he wasn’t sure if she were being shy or coy.
He heard shouting now coming up through the well of the stairway. Two men arguing, their voices growing louder, angrier, their tone crass and vulgar.
“I wanted to escape that also.” She pointed to the stairway with a look of embarrassment, if not outright shame.
“The louder and more antagonistic of the two voices is my father. He’s having it out with one of the actors in his troupe.”
John James recognized one of the voices as belonging to an arrogant half talent by the name of Taversham.
“Your father is no Falstaff, I gather,” said John James.
“On stage…absolutely, yes. But as for the rest…” She whispered, “He’s closer in kind to a Cassius.”
“Might you give me your name?” he said. “Lucretia McCarthy,” she said.
“The Dyer McCarthy Troupe.” He looked toward the stairwell. “Is that your father?”
“He’s not the whole troupe. He only believes he is. Some of us are foot soldiers, or other interesting background.”
John James began to introduce himself when Lucretia softly interrupted, “I saw you in Liverpool. In A Tale of Mystery.”
“Talk about a showpiece of tired passions.”
“The audience didn’t feel that way. I found them wildly animated.”
The shouting got worse. Her father sounded like a man who could easily turn violent. She walked to the ledge, the lantern guiding her steps. She took to studying the street, watching the strangers below. It was the same comings and goings as yesterday, and probably the same as tomorrow, but she watched nonetheless, as if seeking to escape somewhere in all that foot traffic and be freed of a father’s intolerable voice that echoed up that funnel of a stairwell.
“Did you ever just feel like running away?” she said. Her voice spoke with such unhappiness.
“I have run away,” he said.
“Really?” How alive her eyes suddenly were. “Was it a wise decision? No…don’t answer. If you say it was, I will be distraught that I have not run away. And if you say it wasn’t wise, I will be dismayed I have devoted so much emotion to the idea.”
Her father’s voice now could be heard up through the rough dark. “Lucretia…where are you girl?”
“I could quote the lines from many plays here, but I will not.” She started back toward the doorway. “Come meet my father. He will want to know you. Fine actors are his life.”
Excerpted from 'How Beautiful They Were' by Boston Teran, out now from High-top Publishing. All rights reserved.