steepholm (steepholm) wrote,

The Equity of the Grave

I went to bed last night with a head full of identity politics, and awoke at three with this story more or less fully formed...

Sometimes, developing a specialization may be the best way to develop a career. Ask any humming bee and it will tell you, the way to get on is to choose something no one else can do, and do it well. Ask an anteater, and it will say the same. And so, with some small caveats, would David Montgomery. Finding and claiming your niche is the key to success.

At Drama School, Montgomery had consistently hovered near the foot of the class. He was an uncharismatic actor, clumsy on stage, with a tendency to forget his lines. It seemed that he was destined to be permanently "resting", while his more talented contemporaries went on to successful careers. As it turned out, though, David had got more regular acting work than almost any of them, and ironically it was by resting that he did it.

Unable to make his way in mainstream parts, Montgomery developed a niche, and specialized in playing corpses. This sounds easy, but it is a skill most actors never master. Many dramas have been spoiled for the audience by watching the chest of a supposedly dead person gently rise and fall on stage. David worked on circular breathing to get around this. He studied meditation and yoga, so that he would never be moved by cramp or a persistent itch however long he was required to be dead. He took a special diet of antihistamines and cold remedies to prevent sneezing. Even wasp stings left him unmoved. Moreover, he could portray a variety of degrees of decomposition, from "just-shot floppy", through the various stages of rigor mortis, right through to the "I smelt the corpse long before I saw it" look so popular with the new wave of Scandinavian noirists. When required by the laws of farce he would allow himself to be hastily bundled into a wardrobe just as the bishop was entering stage right, or arranged in an armchair with a copy of The Times, to give that "only dozing" look. Needless to say, he never corpsed.

With these talents, Montgomery was much in demand from directors in every genre. He stole the show as Henry VI in the opening scene of Richard III (much to Richard's annoyance). His ominous presence decomposing in a corner portended the imminent collapse of Western capitalism in several 1960s one-act minimalist dramas. And most recently, he played the title role in The Body in the Library to great acclaim in a West End production of Agatha Christie's celebrated novel. Now, at the age of forty, he was acknoweldged as the go-to man for any role of a cadaverous persuasion.

It was after the end-of-run party for the Christie show that Montgomery had the experience that was to change this happy state of affairs for ever. He had taken a taxi back to his pleasant maisonette in Primrose Hill, and climbed into bed with scant attention to the niceties of dental hygiene. In less than ten minutes he was snoring in a most un-corpse-like fashion.

He did not know what time it was that he awoke, except that it was still dark outside. He needed no sunlight to see the grim deputation at his bedside, however, for they possessed an eerie glow of their own. At least a dozen ghosts were gathered there in poses variously of admonishment, dejection, outrage and umbrage. More, he immediately recognized some of them from photographs and engravings. Wasn't that Henry Irving, looming over his nightstand? And behind him, little Davy Garrick? The shade of John Gielgud was unmistakably upstaging both, over by the dresser. These and other luminaries thronged about him, and their aspect was far from friendly.

"What means this midnight visitation?" Montgomery began.

"It's quite simple, old man," began Noel Coward. "You've been infringing Equity guidelines. No one minds you playing a corpse now and then, as the situation demands it, but you've taken it beyond a joke."

"Living actors making a career from 'stiffing up' - it's simply disgraceful," agreed Edith Evans. "After all, what do you know about being dead? For you it's just a pretence - a game!"

Montgomery was terrified and starstruck in equal measure, but he did not lose his self-control entirely. He protested gamely: "But pretending to be something they're not is what actors do! How can you blame me for that?"

"It's not just that," explained Edmund Kean. "But you're pushing all the actors who really are dead out of the market. Do you really consider yourself better qualified to play a corpse than I am, or Sir Larry over there? There are thousands of dead out-of-work actors who'd kill for one of the parts you get, but do they ever get a call from their agents?"

"It's even worse for women," complained Mrs Bracegirdle. "Once you hit three hundred and twenty, no one considers you even for character roles."

"But what do you want me to do about it?" asked Montgomery - although he already knew the answer.

"Cease and desist!" cried the spectral chorus through their reedy throats.

"Play living creatures only, and leave the haunts of the dead to those who have paid the ferryman their dues!" urged Herbert Beerbohm Tree.

"But I can't - I mean, I'm only good at playing dead people!" spluttered Montgomery. "I'd never get work playing anyone else."

"If you will not comply, we will be forced to wail and gibber at your bedside on a nightly basis," said Garrick. "And believe me, we know how to do it."

Montgomery knew he had met his match. But he knew too that he could not forego his life of theatrical success. The tug of the greasepaint was too strong. He sighed: there was only one thing to do. Leaning over to his bedside table, he picked up his phone and speed-dialled his agent. "Hello, Nikki? Yes - yes, I know what time it is. Sorry, it's an emergency. Listen, I need you to get over here now, with a bottle of my special pills. Oh, and you'd better bring some whisky while you're at it. I'll explain when you arrive."

* * *

Thus began the second stage of David Montgomery's career as an player of corpses. According to the terms of the will he wrote hastily that night, his embalmed body (when not actually working) is kept lightly refrigerated in a coffin in his living room. A sheet of toughened glass across the top turns it into a very unusual coffee table, which is much used during the parties he holds at the end of each theatrical run - for since Montgomery made his famous "dash for authenticity" demand for his services has never been so high. He is the toast of the method actors, and in New York several promising young thespians have already taken their own lives in a bid to boost their careers. True, some unkind reviewers have judged his recent performances as a corpse to be somewhat leaden and unconvincing, but the public disagrees, and there is already talk of interest from Hollywood. His income from acting is more than sufficient to maintain the theatrical lifestyle he so loved.

And so, like the humming bird, David Montgomery has found a niche and made it his. He has survived by dying - an irony not lost on him. Interviewed by one of the Sunday supplements, Montgomery recently suggested (speaking through a medium) that playing the part of a corpse was not really a specialized skill at all. "After all, we will all be corpses one day. The dead are the silent majority." Such morbid sentiments were, however, considered unsuitable to the paper's family readership, and the interview was spiked.
Tags: my writing
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