Road Taken: Echo Chamber
Hamlet takes his coffee black. Claudius stalks the salad bar. Polonius can rarely resist dessert. One day, while serving Ophelia her soup, I watch with horror as a few drops of roasted tomato land on the table in front of her, like gobs of blood. She smiles; she doesn’t seem to mind.
At the Vermont campus of the Bread Loaf School of English, everyone—students, faculty and staff, their families, and professional actors in the summer’s annual production—sits down for a meal, three times a day, at long tables in the Inn. I, as a member of the waitstaff, serve them. Most of us are students (some are children of faculty), and only a few in our ranks have any real restaurant experience. The rest of us learn to take orders, carry trays, and pour coffee on the fly. We fake it—we act. Fortunately, we don’t work for tips.
When dinner is over, and we waiters have performed our nightly lines—“All set with that? Coffee or tea for anyone?”—the actors in Hamlet rehearse their own parts in the Burgess Meredith Little Theater. I read in the library nearby and make my nightly pilgrimage to a coffee machine in the Barn. And every night, it seems, Hamlet is roaming around outside the theater, calling, “Mother! Mother!” And Ophelia is bursting out of the double-screen doors, singing and cackling and spinning in circles, mad and loose with grief. Even when I’ve returned to the library, the players’ raucous theatrics and motley instrumentation come through the air like the mist that has already soaked the grass. I learn the pattern of their chants, their hollers and shrieks.
It occurs to me that this is always happening: Hamlet is always happening; all our stories happen over and over, forever. These actors make a temporary echo chamber, bring each scene to life again and again—but isn’t this what is going on in each of our editions, on our very own bookshelves? Crack a spine and all of the characters will come tumbling out, tangled in desperate embraces and grunting, poisonous combat. Or maybe they’re already among us, drinking tea, standing in line. Not just Hamlet and company—everyone. I like to imagine that one night I’ll brush shoulders with a muttering Stephen Dedalus, or hold the door for Clarissa Dalloway, lost in thought.
But something else happens, too: I read my very own life in the pages of a book. “Several of the waiters,” writes Marcel Proust in Within a Budding Grove, “let loose among the tables, were flying along at full speed, each carrying on his outstretched palm a dish which it seemed to be the object of this kind of race not to let fall.” Too true! “Their perpetual course among the round tables yielded, after a time, to the observer the law of its dizzy but ordered circulation.” Am I dizzy on mountain air, or have these worlds converged? Laertes, dead just last night, ordering the chicken; me, rushing the order, flying across the pages of Proust; gunshots and clashing rapiers and the clamor of three hundred clean forks, all sounding somewhere in between fiction, theater and reality.
At the end of the summer, Hamlet runs for five nights. On one of them, I sit with two companions in the middle of a field, where our Adirondack chairs put down sharp moon shadows. Later, I’ll read a closing passage from Virginia Woolf’s The Waves with satisfied melancholy: “But now the head waiter, who has finished his own meal, appears and frowns […] They must go; must put up the shutters, must fold the tablecloths, and give one brush with a wet mop under the tables.” But tonight is for basking in moonlight and drinking wine chilled in wet grass, and listening to the sounds from the theater that come rolling across the darkness: chants, hollers, shrieks. Silence—and then applause.