Estimated reading time — 13 minutes
My training in Comparative Literature — my miserable graduate school experience in particular — taught me that there is much productive work to be done outside of one’s own academic department. You learn new things by diving into other disciplines. In turn, you come away with fresh ideas; and in turn, those can be synthesized into worthwhile discourses that can open exciting, untraveled pathways for your field. There is good reason why some of the most influential thinkers in the study of literature — Freud, Marx, Foucault, Derrida, to name a few — all came from fields seemingly unrelated to it.
Therefore, when I found that half of my department’s faculty — the half that apparently had no hand in my hire — despised me for reasons of varying merit, I began to look to other departments; if not for friendship, then at least for a less hostile work environment. I settled upon the Theatre Department. Although I had never formally studied drama, I had been involved in my high school’s theatre troupe long ago, and felt that my cursory knowledge and the innumerable plays I had read over the years would serve me well in any conversation among the professors. And indeed they did. I became fast friends with much of the Theatre faculty. When I was not teaching, and not trapped in my building by my bi-weekly office hours, I whiled away the time in the Q— Fine Arts Center, chatting up my colleagues, watching rehearsals, or even guest lecturing on Spanish and Russian tragedians.
Among my closest companions was one Professor B—, a gifted teacher and a playwright of some small renown. She had been granted tenure several years before my arrival at the university on the strength of a trio of semi-historical plays she had written. After that, she had, by all appearances, run out of ideas. Although she numbered among the university’s finest educators, and despite her many successful stagings of classic dramatic works, her output of original plays had clearly stalled. A persistent rumor — albeit one of considerable gravity — claimed she would not earn promotion to full professor as a consequence of her years-long dry spell.
I could only think of what a tremendous shame it would be not to raise Professor B— ‘s rank. Certainly I was prejudiced in her favor, but my favor came less from the caprices of human attraction, and more from what I had seen of her as a teacher. In addition to her unparalleled skill in the classroom, she handled student crises with the greatest expertise, where a lesser mortal would have failed or been driven to wit’s end.
One such instance I remember in particular. A graduating student, bedraggled and in tears, sought her counsel while the two of us enjoyed our lunches beneath the Q— Center’s proscenium arch. I wished I had not been there to intrude on the conversation, but he began to spill out his story before I could make myself scarce. The student claimed that one of the other drama professors, after granting him top marks on a final project, had proceeded to steal the script he had submitted, turning it into a soon-to-open Broadway production whose writing credits were in the professor’s name. The poor student only found out from an actor friend of his in New York City, whose familiarity with the student’s project caused her to mention it during a phone conversation. What could be done? Who would believe him if he brought forth the accusation of plagiarism?
Professor B— thought long and hard about the question. Then, to my utter astonishment, she advised the student not to raise a ruckus. I prepared to interject, but before I could, Professor B— said something that I have kept with me ever since:
“It is less discouraging to be stolen from,” she said, “than to need to steal.”
Indeed, she went on, this student was clearly a talented writer; the professor’s theft constituted his proof. Let him write more. Meanwhile, the professor’s inevitable failure to produce quality plays in the future — coupled with knowing his accolades came from a work not his own — would be a vengeance more emotionally devastating than any the student could inflict.
Her recommendation succeeded. The professor, tormented by a string of flops and critical pans, quit the trade a broken man. The student, taking up his pen with renewed fervor, went on to write several extremely successful plays that continue to run in theatres across the country. In the meantime, Professor B— had spared the offending professor further ignominy, and protected the student from a protracted legal battle he may not have won. The more I thought about her sage advice, the more I wished that I, too, could be so far-sighted and effective. I would have modeled my own advisement after hers, if only I knew how to practice it.
Thus it was with great distress that I watched Professor B—‘s chances for promotion slip away as no new writings materialized with the passing months; and my concerns grew all the more acute when she disappeared a couple of days after the semester’s end. She would answer neither phone calls nor emails, and her house remained empty each time I tried to pay a visit. I told myself that, in all likelihood, she had retreated to some secluded haven, devoid of cellular reception and Internet connections, where she could work on a play without distraction. Even so, a dark inkling led me to wonder whether she might have suffered a mental breakdown from the mounting pressure to compose another worthy drama. Her absence and silence did little to dispel my fears.
Professor B— returned several weeks later, offering no explanations. She did not need any. For when I next saw her, during a chance encounter in the university library, she held in her hands a sheaf of papers bound with brass fasteners — a completed manuscript! Leaden pouches sagged beneath her eyes, and her hair looked disheveled as if by a sudden wind, but I imagined her frantic efforts at writing were to blame for her haggard appearance. After all, I, too, had endured many a binge-writing session in my time; I knew what kind of toll it exacted. Furthermore, when Professor B— gave me a comely, victorious smile, and thrust her manuscript into my hands, any worries I had for her well-being evaporated. She would be fine, I thought; any energy she spent on her play would be returned to her tenfold.
She said I could keep the manuscript to read at my leisure, for she already had several hard copies in her possession, in addition to myriad digital backups. At the same time, she swore me to secrecy regarding its contents. A production was already in the works, she said; with the aid of some of her most promising graduate students, she would stage it before the next semester’s end. Of course, I was welcome to watch their rehearsals — provided I remained equally as reticent as I did concerning the script. I gave her my word that I would keep the door of my lips, and looked forward to reading her latest masterpiece.
That night, instead of pursuing my own research, I sat at my desk with the manuscript, as I knew I could accomplish nothing else until I read Professor B—‘s latest work. What an opportunity I enjoyed! Was this what it felt like to read a play by Ibsen or Miller before it appeared on stage? My excitement darted through me like an electric current as I glimpsed the first page, where the play’s title, “THE THIEF IN THE YELLOW ROBE,” seemed as freighted with meaning as the epitaph on an ancient grave.
I must admit that I could make little sense of Professor B—‘s title. It alluded to no literary work or figure that I knew of, and as I read more, its referent became still more opaque — for no character approximating a thief, much less one clad in yellow, appeared in the play! The action, from what I could determine, consisted of the nonsensical banter of a group of courtiers at a lavish banquet. Their exchanges appeared coherent at first, but devolved long before the end of the first act. They barely seemed to converse with one another, each spoken line a virtual non sequitur to whatever dialogue preceded it. It was as if Professor B— had written a complete draft of the play that included an additional character — whom she removed upon its completion, leaving the rest of the script intact. The resultant text was not without humor, but I felt more bafflement than levity upon finishing it.
What was I to make of such a work? At first, I imagined that poor Professor B— truly had cracked under her creative stagnation, and that I beheld the product of a damaged mind. I soon scolded myself for the thought, however. It was perhaps more plausible that Professor B—‘s play tackled the theatre of the absurd with a nuance beyond my powers of analysis. After all, Beckett — rather notoriously — had brought forth plays that eroded language and meaning. In a similar vein, the promised antagonist in Ionesco’s The Bald Soprano never materializes, except for a single mention in the largely incoherent exchanges between the play’s characters. The point behind such plays might initially seem inscrutable, but inscrutability and nonexistence are different things entirely. My responsibility as a reader was to find the point, not to pronounce it absent. Moreover, the work I read was merely the embryo of a finished play. The script furnishes a mere fraction of the actual performance; the lighting, sounds, set design, costumes, makeup, and acting all lend something to the play’s meaning. Having only the text to consult, then, left me at a disadvantage. Therefore, I placed my trust in Professor B—‘s abilities, telling myself that The Thief in the Yellow Robe would prove far more understandable — if not downright illuminating — once she brought it to the stage, and joined it to the other trappings of the theatre.
Although rehearsals began within the week, I chose not to drop in on Professor B— and her students until their early dress runs. By then, I reasoned, the play would carry some semblance of its true form, but nonetheless remain distinct from its final version. As such, without spoiling all I would behold on the play’s opening night, I could see something markedly different from the text I read, and perhaps come closer to fathoming Professor B—‘s peculiar genius.
I sat in on their second dress rehearsal, taking advantage of the auditorium’s unoccupied front row. Professor B— welcomed me, but sat a short distance away in order to take notes on the performance. The house lights went out, and the curtain rose, revealing a set designed like a grand medieval hall. The student actors, all in period clothing, managed to inject quite a bit of character into their bizarre lines.
“Such bounty,” said the queen, a young actress made old by some makeup wizardry.
“Let him feast!” replied a noble lady, portrayed by the knockout blonde that every theatre troupe seems to have.
“I’ll bring the wick,” a portly nobleman put in, as if it were a witticism.
As the play progressed, I noted that each ingredient in the production seemed of the highest quality, but added little to my understanding of the script. Everything onstage thrummed with life, yet remained incomprehensible. With some imagination, the play I watched could have passed for something by David Lynch, if ever he tried his hand at live theatre. Alas, unlike a work of Lynch, I could not determine what part of my brain I needed to deactivate in order to appreciate Professor B—‘s play. I began to worry that The Thief in the Yellow Robe would flop — an unprecedented occurrence in Professor B—‘s career — and wondered whether such a blemish would fatally stain her record.
Despite my misgivings, I made sure to attend the play’s opening night. If Professor B— were doomed to failure, the least I could do was to stand by her side, and offer my solidarity. I must confess that, before I reached this conclusion, I battled some serious indecision, and my delay cost me. In the time it had taken me not to act, the show had almost sold out, and the best ticket I could buy would grant me a seat on the upper mezzanine. When I arrived at the theatre and claimed my spot, I was so high above the action that I felt like a bird lost in the rafters. A sea of people murmured and shifted in the packed auditorium below, while the proscenium arch’s heavy curtain undulated with a rhythm like breathing.
Somebody tapped me on my shoulder, and when I turned to look, who did I find but Professor B—! Waving, she gave me an impish grin. I asked her what in the world she was doing up here, when surely she ought to be down in the front rows. She laughed.
“What good could I do down there?” she asked. “It’s out of my hands now. Besides, I prefer to watch all of my plays from the mezzanine. It’s a vantage I seldom have the chance to enjoy during rehearsals.”
We persuaded the man to my right to switch seats with her. The two of us sat shoulder-to-shoulder as the house music faded, and the light slowly retreated into the dimming lamps. A spotlight activated with a sound of pounded metal, beaming a harsh circle onto the rippling curtain. The audience applauded as the curtain lifted, exposing the detailed banquet hall. A noble strutted into view, delivering a familiar monologue. More actors joined him as the drama unfolded, but as each one spoke their lines, I counted down the moments left until the script fell apart. How would the audience respond? My nervousness was palpable, but Professor B— seemed unfazed. I could not imagine the source of her confidence.
The queen’s second monologue wound to its close. It marked the point of no return. Once the prince began to speak, Professor B—‘s career would be over…
Before the prince could make his nonsensical interjection, a figure wearing a yellow hooded robe that completely obscured the face and body beneath glided onto the stage from the left wing. A fine mist billowed from under the robe’s folds, coating the ground the figure trod. What a marvelous effect — and undoubtedly a challenge to mount. In a haunting voice that sounded at once female and male — as if a man and woman spoke the same words simultaneously — the figure serenely recited a monologue whose words were pure poetry. The beauty of it all threatened to overwhelm me. Was this the character from whom the play derived its name? It must have taken nothing short of brilliance to conceive of and create such a being. Here, at last, was the saving grace of Professor B—‘s drama.
I placed my hand on her arm, and congratulated her for such a masterstroke. When she faced me, however, she wore a stricken expression. She staggered to her feet, and began to wind her way through the occupied rows toward the exit. The players onstage continued their performance, seamlessly incorporating the figure in yellow.
Had the months of intense stress finally broken Professor B—, now that she was out of danger and loosened her guard? I followed in her wake, catching up with her in the hallway outside. She shook violently, and steadied herself against a wall. I helped her to stay upright, and asked her what was the matter. There was no cause for despair in this moment of triumph.
She turned to me, intense fear smoldering in her eyes. “That person,” she said, “wasn’t in my rehearsals.”
How clever of her! I remembered that the script seemed to allude to an unexpected guest. What better way to emphasize that feeling than by forcing a surprise on her cast? I had heard of directors using unorthodox means to coax memorable performances from their actors, albeit never in a theatrical context — only the antics of Tarkovsky or Kubrick sprang to mind. I congratulated her on joining their elite ranks, if not surpassing them.
“You don’t understand,” Professor B— said, her strained voice scarcely louder than a whisper. “I’ve never seen that figure before, either. I have no idea who might be under that robe.”
“Whoever it is,” I said, “he or she seems quite familiar with your play.”
Professor B—‘s jaw began to tremble. She bit her lip. Her body threatened to convulse.
“It’s… It’s not my play.”
My face must have betrayed my shock, although I fought to suppress it, lest I cause her any further distress.
“I translated it,” she stammered, “but… I didn’t write it. I… I found it. A typed Latin manuscript, buried in the periodicals section of the university library. No binding. No call number. Nor was it on file in our database. It was as if someone had left it there and forgotten…”
Or left it there deliberately, I didn’t add.
“And I was so desperate,” she continued. “You know I wouldn’t have done it, unless…”
I had no words to offer her.
“My students all know how to improvise,” said Professor B—, “so they’ll carry the show if I let them. But I have the worst feeling about this. I… I have to stop the performance.”
We descended to the ground floor, Professor B— several strides ahead of me. As she rounded a corner toward the dressing rooms, I approached one of the auditorium doors. Curiosity had overtaken me, and I had to know the state of the play. I gently tugged on the door so as not to distract the audience. It would not budge. I applied more force, and still it remained firmly shut. Muffled voices filtered through from the other side. What was going on?
I made my way to the dressing rooms, where Professor B— berated the stage manager.
“Who’s that out there?” she demanded. “Why did you let him onstage?”
“He — she? — didn’t come through this way,” the stage manager said. “I thought it was your idea, and it fit the play so well, I…”
Professor B— shoved the stage manager aside, taking his two-way radio. In her haste, she had knocked it off-frequency, and could not find the channel to communicate with her technicians. She threw the radio aside, and it broke into pieces on the floor.
“I’ll need to go out there,” she said. “I must give them some excuse for calling off the show…”
“The auditorium doors are locked,” I told her. “Be careful not to cause a panic.”
“They are?” she cried. “But, I didn’t… Who… Oh, god!”
As she darted off somewhere I could not see, I peered out from the wings. The figure in yellow stood in the center of the stage, while the cast had arranged themselves in various postures of submission nearby, the mist coiling around them. The dialogue proceeded as expected, except for the robed figure’s two-voiced contributions. The air around me felt chilled, but my lungs tingled and burned as I breathed it. The audience looked on, enraptured.
“I am no thief,” the yellow figure intoned, “for one can only steal what is not given.”
“I give you my eyes,” said the queen.
“These ears are yours,” said a nobleman.
“Take my heart,” said the princess.
The cast began to claw at themselves. I heard the slick sound of rending flesh, and urged myself to turn away, but I could not pull myself from the grim spectacle before me. Nobody in the audience made a sound. They seemed every bit as entranced as I was.
“Drop the curtain!”
I heard Professor B—‘s voice in the catwalk high overhead.
“Can’t you hear me? Drop the curtain!”
The cast lay in a viscid heap on the stage, the robed figure towering above their fallen bodies. Their mutilations looked so severe as to be fatal. A single cast member seemed to breathe, but her breaths were shallow and labored. The figure paid the bloodied students no heed. One yellow sleeve had risen in a peremptory gesture. It looked empty and hollow. Then it pointed toward the audience.
“Even my sovereignty hinges on the charity of my subjects,” said the figure. Though the melody remained in its voices, the poetry of its words seemed to have vanished. “Without their compliance, I am nothing.”
To my horror, the cast managed to speak.
“We will what you will,” they murmured.
Without my volition, I, too, had mouthed those words.
The eviscerated cast stood up in unison, their wounds dripping. The fat man who promised his heart held it in his hand, and a gaping hole bore through his thick chest. How could he stand? My fright was worse than any I had known, but I could not avert my eyes. The cast reached into the deep gashes they had torn into themselves, and each drew forth a pristine blade from the opening that glistened in the spotlights. They lined up beside the robed stranger in two jagged flanks, and turned toward the audience.
“Drop the curtain!” Professor B— shouted.
“I take only what my people offer me,” said the figure in yellow, “and only if they be blessed with abundance.”
“Such bounty,” said the blinded queen, her age makeup melting off her face in grotesque streams.
“If my people will me to eat,” said the yellow figure, “then I eat.”
“Let him feast!” said a noble lady, whose patchy scalp oozed where she ripped out her flowing blonde locks.
“And if my people build me a sacrificial pyre,” the figure proclaimed, as the cast advanced toward the edge of the stage with their weapons drawn, “then I light it at their command!”
“I’ll bring the wick,” said the heartless nobleman.
I heard the singing of sharp metal as the gored cast prepared to pounce on the audience. Then a crashing noise thundered in the catwalks. The heavy proscenium curtain fell unrestrained from the arch above, its anchor ropes trailing after its weighted base, and cracked against the stage floor with a noise like breaking bone. A rush of scorching air knocked me onto my back, slamming the stage door behind me. It rattled in its frame as fierce winds lashed the wood.
Roaring applause erupted on the other side.
Wincing with pain, I raised myself, and stumbled toward the door. Its knob felt warm in my palm. I pulled it open. Professor B— stood on the other side, staring at the stage.
The set remained intact. But none of the actors could be seen. Piles of ash lay inside their rumpled, bloodstained costumes.
Except for the flowing yellow robe.
It was nowhere to be found.
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