“Playing The Swan” (season 1, episode 6; originally aired 12/8/2003)
In which the show must go on…
“What did happen? Exactly?”—Geoffrey Tennant
The thing about theatre is that it’s a ghost. It’s over even as you experience it, and even if the show you’re watching is filmed for later broadcast somewhere, the experience of watching a stage show on television or a movie screen just isn’t the same. That monologue or joke or musical number you really loved disappears even as you’re watching it, a mirage that evaporates with every word spoken. When I was a college theatre student, one of my favorite directors, a middle-aged woman who had the kind of world-weary voice you want in all middle-aged female professors, would give this sly grin in our Intro to Theatre classes and say that the thing that set theatre apart was that it was ephemeral. Other art endures; performances—in the theatre, in concerts, in other fine arts—have to die in the instant by their very natures. This professor would offer a rueful chuckle when she said that word, ephemeral, and she always sounded a little sad about the whole thing. And after another decade of life, I think I get it: To be involved in the theatre is to be constantly haunted.
“Playing The Swan” is about the construction of a triumph out of pieces that shouldn’t fit together. It’s an episode where everything goes wrong, but Geoffrey Tennant pulls himself together just long enough to make sure that just enough things go right. But in the end, it doesn’t matter. Basil won’t like the show because it stars an American movie star. The feeling of elation the actors are holding right now won’t last. The show itself is already starting to fade for the audience, and though they give a standing ovation now, in a few days, that feeling will slowly burn down into something smaller and purer, something deep in their bones but something they can’t really articulate. The moment when Maria says the show’s done is a triumph, because nobody thought they’d get there. But the next day, it will start all over again.
Slings And Arrows is phenomenal at ending each season on a high note, with an episode that reveals how the show comes together. What’s fascinating is that the show does the same basic story arc every time—everything seems to be going wrong until Geoffrey pulls an unlikely solution out of his ass—but all three seasons find subtly different ways through this basic story arc. In season one, the greatest enemy has always been Geoffrey’s past, so the finale necessarily has to work its way through that. But it also has to work through Jack’s fears, through Kate’s inexperience, and through Ellen’s bitterness at the man she once loved. For the most part, it sidelines Oliver, who gets out of the way while Geoffrey fights for his version of Hamlet. It also brings the Richard and Holly arc to an end, in less satisfying fashion, but we’ll get to that in a moment.
When Slings And Arrows gets to the on-stage sequences, it excels at capturing that ephemerality my professor spoke of. “Playing The Swan” gives almost all of its running time over to the opening night of Hamlet, and it’s not shy about drawing parallels between the younger Geoffrey—who had a breakdown on stage, leapt into a fake grave, then ran through New Burbage to drink at Chinese restaurants and lurk outside Ellen’s house, watching as Oliver comforted her—and Jack, who’s doing roughly the same, with only Kate having any idea how she might find him. Once Jack is found and wrangled back to the theatre, it’s up to Geoffrey to channel all of his directing talent into making sure he performs as well as he can, even as Oliver—who, let’s remember, is at least on one level an externalization of Geoffrey’s creative process—doubts that anything can come of this. Geoffrey breaks Hamlet down to six soliloquies, six famous speeches that Jack needs to nail if he wants people to think he played the part well. Everything else? It’s just filler. It’s those six speeches that matter.
What’s fascinating is just how steeped in regret all of this is. Geoffrey and Ellen, who’ve been at odds all season long, find a mild thaw in their frigid relationship as Geoffrey talks through what he did after bolting from the stage, but there’s also this deep sense of sadness at all of the wasted years the two didn’t spend together. A couple of weeks ago, we talked about how love is a force of nature on this show, and this is the flip side of that idea. To avoid the forces tugging you toward a person isn’t just something that will make you feel like you’re missing out on something. It will quite literally make you heartsick and depressed. It might even drive you a little mad. By putting Ellen back in his life—even if the two are never again a couple—Geoffrey has started the process of getting better. And by putting Geoffrey back in her life, Ellen can begin the process of dealing with her own aging, with the conflict that’s driven her all season (even if it hasn’t been as well-articulated in other episodes as it is here and in the premiére). Geoffrey telling Ellen he’d love to see her play Cleopatra and Ellen offering Geoffrey a quick kiss act as a kind of bridge between the past and a more productive future. Sometimes, the ghosts evaporating can be a good thing.
If there’s a flaw in this nearly perfect episode—and, honestly, this season is pretty close to TV perfection as a whole—it’s that I still find the character of Holly to be an over-the-top stereotype who tends to drag down everything she’s in. It’s as if the shrieking harridan archetype and some sort of ugly American type got together and melded into one annoying person, and while Jennifer Irwin is funny enough to salvage most of this, the final half-hour of the season just pushes her too far into unforgivable territory. Slings works best when it seems to have an affection for all of its characters—even the awful ones—but it very clearly thinks that Holly is someone the audience should have no affection for, outside of being glad that Richard came to his senses about her. Holly may be the single biggest flaw in the whole series, actually, and it’s too bad that the show couldn’t give her more of a personality beyond this one-dimensional villain. Yeah, there are plenty of one-dimensional villains in the theatre, but Shakespeare gave us the likes of Iago. It would have been nice for the series to come up with a more compelling figure in this role.
On the other hand, it’s hard to quibble, because the rest of the episode brings almost every first-season storyline to a rousing conclusion. We get to see Kate as Ophelia for a little bit, and she’s so good she brings the woman she replaced to grudging tears. We get to see Richard realize just how enthralling Shakespeare can be when performed well. We get glimpses of the show Geoffrey seemingly threw together on the fly last week. We get to see that Jack is pretty damn great as Hamlet, far better than you’d expect an “American movie actor” to be in the part. We get to see that little chameleon hanging out next to the skull below stage. We get perfect little moments from Cyril and Frank and Nahum and Maria and Anna. A great play is broken down into six speeches and some filler, and Geoffrey is always there to talk Jack through what’s coming next, to exorcise his own demons as surely as he helps the younger man find his way. And we get a lovely button on the Geoffrey and Oliver relationship, a final moment when the still-living friend upholds a promise to his dead friend and a kind of forgiveness is found.
That’s the thing, though. All of this will have to fade in time. There will be other shows, and there will be other performers. Jack will go back to Hollywood, and the people of New Burbage will push onward. Sooner or later, this will all just be a half-held memory, for the people involved and the people who saw it once. Richard asks Geoffrey how the critics could possibly give that a bad review, how they could possibly ignore what happened out on that stage, and Geoffrey says the quote that opens this piece. What happened up there isn’t definitive in any real way. It’s a thing that happened, that was filtered through everybody sitting out in that audience and everyone up on that stage. It’s a thing that can’t be captured or contained. It’s a shared illusion for a moment, and just as quickly, it’s gone. It feels real, sure, and it happened, but it’s a ghost, too, as surely as Oliver is.
- The biggest laugh in an episode full of them: Sloane buys himself an inflatable figure of the man from Munch’s The Scream, then sits with it in his lap during the show. When he gets up for the standing ovation, he has to maneuver around it.
- I love how certain everybody involved with the show is that it’s going to be a disaster. That more or less mirrors my own theatrical experiences as well.
- Geoffrey and Ellen come to their tentative peace while floating around on a swan boat, which is also where they spot Jack and Kate on the shore. Here’s another short, brief moment that can never last, as the two discuss drifting off to open water and doing something else, only to be told that they need to turn back in the swan. Nothing lasts.
- Seeing Rachel McAdams performing as Ophelia is an excellent reminder of how little Hollywood—including really good directors like Woody Allen—has known what to do with her talents. She’s had a solid career, but she hasn’t really had a career worthy of her talents, and I hope somebody figures out how to use her sooner, rather than later.
- I like the sense of playfulness in Geoffrey’s flashbacks, like the way that all of the imagined actors on stage with him peer down into the grave he escaped into. It enhances the staginess of the conceit.
- Series co-creator Bob Martin turns up again as the corporate dude Geoffrey bonded with several episodes ago. Geoffrey apparently stuck him in the play, though he didn’t give him a line. (As a side note, as someone who’s directed a few plays, I love how Geoffrey urges his actors to use their nerves to feed their performances. That works more than you’d expect it to.)
- Richard’s excitement at seeing the show is so genuine that it makes me feel almost a kind of pity for him. My disappointment over the handling of Holly is doubled because the show handles Richard so very well.
- “I wanted to throttle a swan. Seemed sensible at the time.” Well, it makes sense to me, Geoffrey.
- It’s too bad the episode doesn’t end with “Call The Understudy,” but, hey, that’s why we’re moving on immediately to season two.
Next week: Those poor suckers in the past had to wait 18 months for more episodes of this show, but we’re plunging forward next week, as we learn just why the New Burbage gang won’t do Mackers in “Season’s End.”