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  • Writer's pictureAlan Bray

Overcoming Stage Fright

‘Kay. A long post today, so let’s begin. No interruptions, please, we can take questions at the end.

Last week, we considered the concept of willy wonty and how this structure in a story poses the question: will a protagonist do something or will she/he not. We suggested that other structures may be more successful. “…the most obvious way to create it (tension), is by simply saying something is going to happen, and then putting it off.” “We wonder how and when and why,” (something will happen) instead of if.

(Whiny voice—Excuse me, excuse me, Mr. Big Shot, aren’t you making stuff up again?).

Pause…Well, you haven’t been around lately.

(I was on vacation).

At one time, it may have been legitimate to call willy wonty a neologism, yes. Did you read last week’s post?

(I was on vacation).

I see.

(…Mr. Big Shot, since you’re writing this blog, aren’t I a part of you?)

Long pause……I wasn’t on vacation last week. Perhaps we could talk about this after today’s post is done.

(‘Kay. Wake me when it’s over).

Let’s move on and consider another story in Olive, the third, I believe:

“The Piano Player” begins, “Four nights a week Angela O’Meara played the piano in the cocktail lounge at the Warehouse Bar and Grill.” This begs the question, how and why does Angie play four nights a week at the Warehouse? What does it mean that she does? Also, who the heck is Angie? It does not raise a willy wonty question like: will Angie play at the Warehouse or not? The story (and the narrator) states resolutely that she does play there. Not what will happen, but what is happening. As the story develops, we find that it is very much about answering the question why she is playing there. The story also says a lot about who Angie is and what it means for her that she’s playing four nights a week at the Warehouse.

If willy wonty is used effectively, tension and interest are created. But this story doesn’t use willy wonty—is there tension in “The Piano Player?” And is its resolution foreshadowed?

There’s tension created by that first sentence—she plays the piano four times a week at the Warehouse—something’s going to happen. What is it? The fact that the story is part of Olive creates some foreshadowing itself. The reader expects that this is a story set in Crosby, Maine and that Olive Kitteridge will appear in it (she does, a walk on). By this point in the book the reader expects that the story will be about the drama of a “small life,” as Pierre Michon would say. It will not be about a heroic or idealized character but an average person leading a “life of quiet desperation.” (who said that?).

“If anything, her face revealed itself too clearly in a kind of simple expectancy no longer appropriate for a woman of her age.” So at the start of the story, she’s still expecting something in life, still open, still acting young. The structure is that there is that first line that establishes the story and poses questions. First paragraph does this too. Then a description of Angie, a long paragraph. Then, “On this particular Friday night, Christmas was a week away…” A description of the heavily decorated Xmas tree, rather like Angie. A shift to the thoughts of Joe the bartender, who has realized Angie has stage fright and drinks, the narrator says. “…she had years ago learned to begin swallowing vodka at five fifteen.” First several pages are a lot of exposition about who Angie is, set in the context of her playing piano “on this particular Friday night.” Not much happens till later, but the reader has a sense of tension, that something will happen, because you expect that in a story. There’s the walk-on for Olive and Henry. Walter Dalton is sitting at the bar, a fan, a gay man and a drunk. The reader gets the sense of an audience watching and listening to Angie and her piano. A lot of imperfect tense stuff. “He never bought her gifts and she wouldn’t have wanted him to.”

Then, Simon comes in, an old lover. This is the precipitating incident for the story. “…there was something in the way he ducked, or moved, that ever so slightly fogged her mind. But she was shaky tonight.”

So at this point we know much more about Angie. She lives alone, has carried on a long-term affair with Malcolm, a married man. She has always cultivated an attractive appearance. Her mother is in a nursing home. She has worked for years as a performer but has stage fright that she manages by drinking. And a man from her past has come in to the bar “on this particular night.” That’s why the night is important and there’s a story about it.

She asks for another drink. She imagines talking later to Joe and Walter, “…and she would tell them about visiting her mother in the nursing home today; she might or might not mention the bruises on her mother’s arm.” This is why she’s shaky, although the reason isn’t revealed till the end.

The man—Simon—asks her to play “Bridge Over Troubled Water,” surely a meaning-laden song, but she doesn’t. “But it was like she had fallen overboard and had to swim through seaweed. The darkness of the man’s coat seemed to press against her head, and there was a watery terror that had to do with her mother; get inside, she thought.” Foreshadowing, if you please.

She takes a break—an unheard of event. She phones Malcom and tells him she can’t do this anymore (their affair). She returns to piano and plays the song Simon wanted.

She regards the Xmas tree. “…for a moment felt baffled that people did this to trees—decorated them with all that glitter…in a few weeks the tree would be stripped, taken down, hauled out onto the sidewalk with tinsel still sticking to it…” This may be a mise en abyme sighting—she is like the tree, all dressed up and then discarded by people who only care about her for a time.

She thinks about her affair with Simon. He broke it off. “It’s like I have to date both you and your mother. It gives me the creeps.” He was the only man she’d ever told that her mother was a prostitute.

She told Simon everything, including that her mother had prevented her from taking a scholarship at a music school. In the bar, he seems unfriendly. Finally he steps up to the piano. “You couldn’t make yourself stop feeling a certain way, no matter what the other person did. You just had to wait. Eventually the feeling went away because others came along. Or sometimes it didn’t go away but got squeezed into something tiny, and hung like a piece of tinsel in the back of your mind.” This is fine writing, free indirect speech? A combination of the narrator’s voice and Angie’s inner voice. She’s thinking about her feelings for Simon, maybe her mother, too. Simon clumsily tells her that her mother seduced him. “And I’ve been feeling pretty sorry for you, Angie, all these years.” He leaves—apparently he came up from Boston to tell her about her mother. Why now? Angie muses that it was to make himself feel better by hurting her—schadenfreude? (pleasure derived by another person's misfortune).

Walking home, she encounters Malcolm. He’s abusive, tells her never to call him at home again, only at work. She realizes she’ll never call him again anywhere.

She returns to her room, actually to the liminal space of her stairs. We have more free indirect speech—difficult to distinguish Angie’s inner voice from the narrator’s. “A face like an angel. A drunk. Her mother sold herself to men. Never married, Angela?”

She decides she’s no less pathetic than any of them. Tomorrow at the bar, she’ll get there early and tell Joe about her mother. “Imagine someone pinching an old paralyzed woman like that.” She had figured something out too late. She would, “… stop thinking about the bruises on her mother’s upper arm, that thin arm with its slack soft skin, so loose from the bone that when you squeezed it in your fingers, it was hard to imagine it could feel anything.”

She’s trying to figure out what she feels, she gets drunk to not feel afraid, but it’s diminished her ability to feel anything. The beginning, why does she play four nights a week at the Warehouse? So she won’t feel. She’s abusing her mother but is pretending to herself she’s not.

The main event in the story, Simon’s appearance and revelation, breaks through Angie’s denial and causes an epiphany—although not a pleasant one. Four nights a week, Angie has been playing romantic and sentimental songs to please people, and this is a sort of mise en abyme of her life spent trying to please others. This story is about how she can’t do it any longer. She can’t dress up like a Christmas tree and ignore herself and she can’t continue to please Malcom either. He doesn’t please her. Neither does her mother.



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