In support of the bit players

These days I have my social anxiety mainly where I want it: it’s still around but I know its tricks and can deal with it. Some of this comes with age; at 40 I’m aware that a failed social exchange doesn’t equal a total failure as a person, and with a wife, kids and friends already in the bank the stakes are much lower than once they were. The less pressure you put on yourself to get a conversation ‘right’ the less time you spend inside your own head thumbing through the manual, asking yourself ‘How would a normal person answer that?’

University – that obstacle course of social exchanges – was a different matter. Though I lacked the vocabulary or the diagnosis to label it as such at the time, 19 year old me was a quietly imploding gas giant of anxiety. Chronic depression was a constant white noise behind my daily life and though I had a wonderful group of close friends and was always out in the world, I was… I suppose the word is ‘peripheral’. I remember nights out, viewed through an alco-pop haze over the shoulder of more affable, forthright friends; friends for whom the opportunity to meet new people, even to attempt to ‘pull’ them, to lasso them with devastating repartee, was a pleasure and not a chore. There were tours of duty in sticky-floored nightclubs during which a hundred introductions and meetings took place, and during which I always felt I made no imprint on those I met.

Our minds tell us these things. They construct narratives and we grab them and hold onto them to explain away who we are now. Others have told me a different story: that I was funny, that people liked me. But such comments are easy to swat aside when your self esteem is low. After all, what kind of monster would agree and say, ‘Yeah, you were a bit pathetic back then, mate’?

To be more concise, something I probably should have decided to be three paragraphs ago, in my time at university and for years afterwards I felt very much like the bit player in the scene. If my friends and I had been Biff’s gang from Back To the Future I wouldn’t even have been the one with the 3D glasses.

What famously overlooked bit players are there in literature? Well, I hadn’t really thought about it, but since you ask, and since it would make an ideal segueway, let’s have a think…

Two famous examples I’ve thought about a lot recently are Bertha Mason from Jane Eyre and the unnamed Arab from Camus’ The Stranger. They have things in common, these texts: both were thrust in front of me rather than I having sought them out, the former as a text I taught as an English teacher, the latter prescribed at the local book club. And both were reevaluated in the form of ‘follow-ups’ by other writers, their questionable politics deconstructed for the modern reader. Jean Rhys’s Wide Sargasso Sea fills in the backstory of Bronte’s attic-dweller, revealing her to be a victim of a patriarchy too willing to declare a woman ‘mad’ for non-conformity. In The Meursault Investigation, journalist Kamel Daoud gives a name and a kind of voice – that of his furious brother – to the unnamed Arab who is murdered in Camus’ most famous work, commenting on the legacy of colonialism and the dehumanising effect of reducing a human being to a stereotype.

Mahogany: Robert Bisacco’s Paris

Teaching Romeo and Juliet for the three hundredth time last year I was struck by the treatment of another bit player, that poor sod the County Paris, in most modern film interpretations of the play. He is routinely depicted in two dimensions, as a wally at best, a bastard at worst. Paul Rudd’s performance in Luhrmann’s version, all smarmy smiles and cringe-worthy dance moves, is entertaining enough but it always struck me as doing the character a disservice. Meanwhile, Robert Bisacco, who plays the role in the 1968 Franco Zefirelli version, redefines wooden to the point where one wonders whether the director watched any of the actor’s rushes or if his dismissal of the character was so complete that he didn’t even bother.

In Shakespeare’s text Paris is paying his respects at Juliet’s tomb when Romeo arrives packing poison and his self-important little deathwish. Critics have debated the sincerity (indeed the woodenness) of Paris’s vow to strew Juliet’s grave with ‘tears distilled by moans’ but at least the man’s making the effort. Presumably any mercenary motive to butter up the Capulets has died with Juliet so why else would he bother to make the journey through the Verona night unless he felt some sorrow for her death?

And importantly (at least it must have been for the Bard or he wouldn’t have written it) after Romeo slays Paris he grants the County’s request and places his body in the tomb beside Juliet. It is always omitted from modern film versions, this strangely touching moment, as it muddies the emotional waters. Much better that we can neatly place Paris in the category of obstacle to the star cross’d lovers than have to deal with the fact that he might be, as Romeo realises, as much ‘writ…in sour misfortune’s book’ as anyone else.

So I started to imagine what Paris makes of all this. Is he a villain? Merely an oaf? Why is he there in the Capulet house, pushing his suit? What so preoccupies him that he is unable to read the suicidal despair on his wife-to-be’s face when they run into each other at the Friar’s? Yes, I know, I know, he’s a character serving a function in a play, but even for Shakespeare he seems to be more than just a collection of characteristics designed to thwart and confound the central characters. This is our Will’s genius – there is more to even the most peripheral of characters in his verse and repeated readings or viewings keep revealing this richness.

It would be interesting, I thought, to tell the story from Paris’s point of view, to flesh him out and make him more than just a good-looking berk. He is under pressure from his father, perhaps, a man who ran up debts with the wrong people and needs a marriage that will secure him ‘the chinks’ to get him out of a tight spot. As usual I started in a fit of inspiration then abruptly left these beginnings to gather metaphorical dust.

I’ll share them in the next post and maybe return to the idea at a later time. Writing this blog is doing a lot to exercise old muscles and I find myself again wanting to make excuses for poor old Paris.

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