It’s no secret. The trick to good conversation is to let everybody have a turn and pretend to listen when you aren’t talking. This is the rule I have (mostly) lived by – until recently, that is, when a friend – I think she’s still a friend – joined me for dinner.
It began as an ordinary evening, with just your ordinary old dinner conversation. Pleasant, you know? Everybody getting a turn. A little politics here, a little book club there. Then things changed. Suddenly I heard myself in the middle of explaining the War of the Roses! The War of the Roses, for goodness sake! Nobody understands the War of the Roses, much less talks about it. It is history’s single most incomprehensible mess.
It was like being trapped in a nightmare. I heard myself going on and on, just like Juno with her squeaky toy, and I couldn’t stop. Squeak, squeak, squeak. Like that poor little girl in the red dancing shoes, I was in the grip of compulsion. I saw the eyes of my dinner companion glaze over, but still I couldn’t stop. I am not entirely bereft of social conscience. I did pause a few times in full flight, when I feared she was wilting, to ask anxiously if she was really interested. But she kept saying, “Yes, of course. I’m fascinated!” What can you do with a woman like that? Made of iron. Anyway, on I dashed. And on. And on. I tell you, I was possessed. If I had tried this in Salem, they would have burned me at the stake.
Do you know about the War of the Roses? No? Well, I think the defining quality was bad temper. It was the family fight to end all family fights, and it lasted for most of a century – and so, my friend would say, did dinner. Believe me, I covered that century like wallpaper. I was all over it. I started with Richard II and did not stop till I arrived panting at the feet of Henry VII.
I tell a lie. When I got to Henry VII – who in my view was a Bad Man – my dinner companion made a mistake. Up to this point, you might say she was an innocent victim. Like someone getting hit by a train through no fault of her own. The sort of thing that could happen to anyone. But then she said: “How is the present Queen related to Richard III?” After that, her fate was sealed. There was nothing anyone could do to save her, and it was all her own fault. You must never, never throw liquid fuel on a raging bore.
The War of the Roses occupied a single century – a long century, I admit, jam-packed with action and crowded with human beings demonstrating why dogs are superior in almost every way. But still, just one little century. Hardly worth the trouble, really, for a dedicated bore. The challenge of connecting the Windsors to the Plantagenets, however, now that is a challenge to inspire. It opened up another five centuries for exposition and gave me new scope for boring at Olympic levels.
A few hours later, the poor woman – her head was bloodied but unbowed – made another mistake, and this one was fatal. I think I was beginning to slow down, because she actually got a word in edgewise. Of course, you and I know what she should have done. She should have seized her chance and said: “Will you excuse me for a moment? I’ll be right back.” Then headed for the door at brisk trot. Instead, the mad fool asked a second question. “How did the Royal family come to be German?” After that, she was doomed.
As I recall, I backed right up to James V of Scotland in order to get a really good run at my subject, then bounded forward, tongue flapping with excitement. I wanted to make sure she had all the facts, so I touched lightly on the Reformation, Mary Queen of Scots, the English Civil War, the Bloodless Revolution of 1688 and Elizabeth of Bohemia before landing triumphantly on George I, one-time Elector of Hanover. My companion asked for the bill.
I am a social failure, and I know it. You would think I had learned my lesson. But no, here I am blogging away again and arriving, shamelessly, at the tenth paragraph without ever having got to the point. Actually, I’m wondering what the point is? It may, of course, be Juno the Dog. Those of you who are still conscious will be happy to know that Juno is sitting up and taking nourishment now despite the fact that, on May 22, she was operated on to remove a rope from her stomach. A rope! Proof positive that no good act goes unpunished: I had bought a basket of dog toys (including this rope) at a charity auction. When the rope disappeared shortly afterwards, I didn’t panic. I thought that Juno had buried it. She has been helping me with landscaping lately, and her particular project is my tiny lawn where she has buried a variety of bones, toys and – I assumed – a rope. The garden looks a little like Belgium 1917 but not as lively.
What I like to think of as my mind has been elsewhere lately, but I finally noticed that Juno was unwell. It was the middle of the night and, as I recall, she was standing on my bed vomiting at the time. That got my attention. Over the next few days – such is the life of a dog-owner – I noticed that, whereas lots of stuff was coming out the front end, the back door had gone out of commission.
To cut a long story short, we went to see the vet, and many x-rays later found ourselves in Alta Visa Animal Hospital – where bank accounts go to die – and Juno was committed for surgery. I insisted on saying goodbye before leaving her in the surgery; it was a mistake. She was chained up in what looked like a tiled cell. I patted her and said comforting words, but her English is not on the level that takes in messages such as: “It serves you right, you little brat!” All I could hear as I went down the hall was Juno the Stoic screaming with woe. I felt like six cents worth of candy.
When it was all over, Juno and I were reunited, and the vet asked me if I wanted to take the rope – which had been discovered lodged in the valve between the stomach and the gut – home with me as a souvenir. I stared at her in cold astonishment. I mean to say, where do these vets get their ideas? Furthermore, if that is the kind of souvenir that interests you, dear reader, all I can say is that you’re reading the wrong blog!
Anyway, Juno now has a scar running right down the middle of her belly. It looks like a zipper, and I am hopeful that the next time she eats something indigestible, they can just run it open and have a look, no muss, no fuss. The other result of this medical catastrophe is that Juno and I now live in a rope-free zone. If you need a rope in a hurry, do not come here. We cannot help you.
I asked Juno if she wanted to add anything to the story, tell her side of it, you know. She stopped snoring for a moment. (You know the old saying, don’t you? “Laugh and the world laughs with you, snore and you sleep all alone!”) Anyway, she stopped snoring for long enough to say that the whole subject made her sick, then went back to sleep. Nice life. Are you still there? I have other news. Linden House has chosen a play for the October show. It is You Never Can Tell by George Bernard Shaw. This is the story of a romantic dentist who falls in love with the original Ice Maiden. It is an early play of Shaw’s before he got really wordy. Critics call it his “funniest and sunniest” work. The subject is the struggle between advanced woman and old-fashioned man. Guess who wins? I get to play another old woman. Sigh.
Still with me? Keep going, we’re nearly there. Linden House has gone mad with ambition this year, and we are actually doing two shows. On Saturday, September 8 – on one night only – George Stonyk and I will be presenting Dear Liar, a two-person dramatic reading of a truly brilliant cascade of love letters exchanged by Shaw and the actress, Mrs. Patrick Campbell. And after the show, you are invited to join us for wine and cheese and chat in The Atrium at Elmwood Theatre.
George Bernard Shaw was a drama critic and social reformer in London in the 1890s when he first saw Mrs. Patrick Campbell on the stage and fell deeply, tempestuously and verbosely in love. She was later the inspiration for many of his most famous theatrical characters – such as Cleopatra and Eliza Doolittle. Both Shaw and Campbell were married when they met, and Shaw lived out his love affair with the actress mainly through a series of dancing, trumpeting, madcap letters, which Stella answered with a combination of playful charm, exasperation and fury.
The letters are now part of the Shaw legacy. An aging, cash-strapped Stella Campbell published them (much to Shaw’s dismay), but she kept the originals with her till the day of her death in a rooming house in southern France at the dawn of the Second World War. The letters were rescued and brought back to England, where they remain today as a memorial to one of the great love affairs of the English stage.
As a collection, the letters are rollicking good fun. “Come to tea at 4 o’clock,” Stella would command, “and make me laugh.” The letters speak of more than laughter, however, when Shaw writes of witnessing the cremation of his oddly extraordinary mother. And again, when the widowed Stella resolves to remarry, and Shaw rages at her. “Your pen makes you drunk,” she protests wearily. “When you were quite a little boy somebody ought to have said “hush” just once.” But, of course, Shaw has the last word. “Don’t let’s quarrel until we are dead,” he pleads.
The letters – the first of which dates to 1899 – form the basis of a play, Dear Liar, by American actor and playwright Jerome Kilty (1922-2007), first presented on Broadway in 1960 and about to be resurrected as a dramatic reading by George and moi.
Well, that’s about it. Are you still there? Still conscious? If so, you may be interested (or not) to know that there are only 132 tickets on sale for Dear Liar, and only one performance. Given that there will be thousands clamouring to get in, order now to avoid disappointment. Also, if you feel like ordering tickets for both shows at the same time – Dear Liar at $20 and You Never Can Tell at $25 – we will offer you a MINISCULE discount at $40 for the two! If you write, complaining that the blog was just too damned short, who knows, you may get a free ticket!
Oh, by the way: I went out to lunch yesterday and mentioned the War of the Roses to another friend. Just testing the water, to see what would happen. I asked my companion what she would do if somebody tried to tell her at length about this major historical screw-up. “I would change the subject,” she said firmly. And did so.