THE TIMING was mystically apt. I saw the write-up for a raffish new production of Shakespeare’s Cymbeline by a group of young players called the Fiasco Theater, and I got a ticket for October 1, the day after what would have been the ninety-ninth birthday of my father, Russell. I wasn’t tearful about it—quite the contrary. For decades I had dealt with his abandonment of our family with a defensive combination of pain, anger, and sardonic humor. None of these stances acknowledged even a whiff of lingering affection.
A few sweet memories linger, most having to do with his connection to literature: He wrote his doctoral thesis on More’s Utopia and taught Shakespeare at Queens College in the 1950s. Of course that’s why I am so entranced with the Tudors. Sir Thomas and Henry VIII and Elizabeth I were practically members of the family.
I suppose I cooked up this theatrical outing as a lark, a put-on, a symbolic attempt to summon up emotions other than contempt and indifference. But when the morning of the performance arrived, I found myself unaccountably nervous and weepy and slightly sick at my stomach. It was as though something were fighting to get out, something that had been trapped so long that, like a life prisoner suddenly released, it doesn’t know what to do with freedom or even whether it wants to be liberated.
I HAD NEVER READ Cymbeline, so I assigned myself the task of finishing it before the performance. It’s far from the Bard’s best known or most admired play (Keats loved it; George Bernard Shaw really, really hated it), but it has some beautiful songs (“Hark, hark, the lark”) and a stupendous heroine, Imogen. That name! It sounds strong and dark and inimitable. I remember it from childhood, when I was given a book called Tales From Shakespeare by Charles and Mary Lamb. Written in 1807, this small, comely volume—the nineteenth century’s answer to CliffsNotes—sorted out the convoluted plots in clear but literate fashion, often using Shakespeare’s own language.
Later I graduated to the edition I now hold in my hands: a battered red book with fading gold type on the cover, very thin paper, and Russell’s small, neat penciled notations all over certain plays: Henry IV, Part I; Measure for Measure; Romeo and Juliet. Those must have been the ones he taught, or studied in graduate school. The latter, I think, since in some cases he is merely “translating” an archaic word or identifying a character.
There are no notes on Cymbeline. Maybe Russell didn’t know the play or care to read it. In Mary Lamb’s lucid summary (www.gutenberg.org/files/20657/20657-h/20657-h.htm#Page_102, which also has a couple of gorgeous Arthur Rackham illustrations from a 1909 version), what stuck out in my memory is that Imogen dresses for a while in boys’ clothes (foreshadowing Viola in Twelfth Night—or Leonora in Beethoven’s opera, Fidelio) and gives evil or impertinent men what for. But reading it now, as an adult, I noticed not only the obvious stuff about married love and fidelity (my father was an adulterer; Imogen is wrongly branded an unfaithful wife) but the many subplots involving parentage.
Imogen is the daughter of Cymbeline, King of Britain, in the days of the Roman occupation, and she has an enemy close at hand: her stepmother, who plots to wed Imogen to her own villainous son. (And so in real life did I have a wicked stepmother, my father’s second wife, who had no children of her own but who positioned herself in life between Russell and his kids—a possessive, watchful sentry.) Cymbeline himself once had two sons, the tale relates, but they were kidnapped; he is reunited with them at the end. Imogen thus loses her prime spot as heir(ess) to the throne, but she regains her beloved husband, who had been banished.
By then the queen is already dead, her ambitions thwarted. My stepmother died as well, but it was too late, some 50 years after she and my father had married and fled the country. Although I managed to forgive him, eventually, there was no happy ending for us. My love for him endured, underground—frightened, lightless—but gradually languished. The few meetings we had were not enough to refresh or update it. We didn’t know one another anymore. He missed my entire adolescence and adulthood; I missed his whole later life.
HE DIDN’T MISS my first dozen years, though, and I have pretty much slid over that. Partly this was out of loyalty to my mother; partly it was a kindness to myself, for if I’d allowed myself to remember, the loss would have been too much to bear. Better to pretend that he had been a fake and a betrayer all along.
There is no way to discover the truth other than my own memory, which self-protectively played dead. I have never recovered that time, except in selective glimpses: my father watering the garden, typing in his study, going to the city wearing a striped seersucker suit from Brooks Brothers. And I see my mother, calling out to him after we’d bought something for me to wear to my first-ever junior-high-school social event: “Russell? Would you dance with a girl in a flame-colored dress?”
I’m sure he said yes. He had a gallantry that made him attractive to women. By then he must already have been deep in his affair and plotting to run. Still, my mother’s question, which implied the importance of having parents of both genders—one to shop with, one to approve and choose—suggested another: How would I have been different if he had stayed? Would that plump, uneasy preadolescent have bloomed under his doting gaze? Would I have been more or less in need of male approval if I’d had his? It’s easy to fantasize, difficult to be sure.
BEING A WRITER, as he was, complicates the matter. I suppose that when we follow the profession of our parents there is always gratification in joining the family “business” as well as distrust: a fear of having been programmed, of becoming mere imitators. In my case, the ambivalence is even stronger: To be a writer means that I am acknowledging the power of a father who had behaved without conscience.
No wonder I am blocked.
Not so blocked that I am unable to write this. But my self-conviction falters when I sit down at the computer. I balk at longer projects and give up too soon. I wonder if that is another casualty of my father’s departure. I fantasize about a literary Russell-and-Kathy act. I imagine that he would have mentored me brilliantly, tutored me in Shakespeare, praised my school papers, and given me the motivation to write my brains out, partly to please or impress him. As it is, I have to write—to live—to please myself. And that is a great deal harder.
I SEE MYSELF NOW in the flame-colored dress, a string of crystal beads around my neck, unknowingly on the verge of being deserted. My cheeks are flushed. I probably look pretty. I am being steered awkwardly around the floor—I didn’t know how to slow-dance—by a kind boy named Peter. I was shocked that he picked me.
As a feminist, I resist the idea of being “picked” for the dance of life. Theoretically I think we need to choose our own destinies, irrespective of our desirability as partners or spouses. And yet, it is striking that I have married twice and spent very little of my adult life without a husband. Evidently I believe in the safety of sheltering masculine arms, the status of “Mrs.,” the reassurance of a ring—all this despite my parents’ divorce and my own failed first marriage.
No wonder I have a soft spot for Cymbeline, which is a paean to nuptial bliss and especially to Imogen, the proud, faithful wife. It would be an oversimplification to say that marriage is my quest for a father figure. It would be more accurate to suggest that it is a form of cross-gender twinning that evokes—joyfully, in my second marriage—the father-daughter closeness I missed out on.
A piquant footnote: The actors who played Imogen and her husband in the production I saw just got married in real life. Watching them and the rest of the cast join hands, all smiles, and bow, I realize that what frightens me even more than my own death is widowhood. It is the great unknown, the terrain where I will stand alone. It threatens to recapitulate the sad, stunned moment when Russell left, and I lost the guy who was supposed to be my first gentleman admirer.