by Caroline H. Dworin
On summer evenings in the 1980s, in the garden of our home in London, my little brother and I would scale the stern of the H.M.S. Bounty. We would hoist ourselves up her sides and climb her invisible rigging. From high in the crow’s nest we could see Tahiti on the horizon. I would be Fletcher Christian; my little brother, William Bligh. Armed with a half-dozen wooden spears, he fought valiantly against the mutinous children and the natives from down the street and across the gardens, until the sun cast the sky red-violet and we were avenged, or called in for dinner, battle-weary.
This was make-believe, of course, except that it really was the Bounty. My father worked in the theater, and when a 1985 production called “Mutiny!” ended, he brought home a great chunk of ship the size of a Mini Cooper, part of an impressive replica that was built for the Piccadilly Theater. He settled it in the garden against the back of the house, built a platform on top of it and a cabin underneath, and it was ours.
Below the cabin windows, the vessel declared its name in grand gold letters: “nty.” My father had not managed to secure the piece that had the “Bou.”
Both our parents worked in the theater, and my father, a stage or company manager in the West End, could never leave his work behind. He returned to our home like a magpie, with the strangest objects in his beak. Backstage remnants became part of our lives. When a show ended its run, scattering its cast and crew onto the street, and occasionally leaving him jobless, he would be cheered by the recovery of leftovers, any props or trinkets he could snare. My mother indulged this.
We had a black feather boa, and a cane and some opera glasses that both once belonged to Hermione Gingold, and a replica bottle of Moët & Chandon, which opened from its middle to become part cigarette holder and part music box. The piano I played was once used in a Gershwin review. There was a .32-caliber starting pistol that fired blanks offstage in Act II of “A Little Night Music,” and in our mother’s wardrobe, buried out of sight, hung a fox fur stole with the face still on it. When bored or in search of danger, I would hunt it down, take it in my hands and look it dead in the eye. It looked right back at me with its dreadful, flattened scowl.
Our friends’ parents had jobs, too. But we saw no evidence to support this when we visited their houses, and we couldn’t even imagine what lawyers would bring home for their kids. (That lawyers might bring home money did not occur to me for at least another decade.)
Most of my father’s recoveries made their way to the playroom. A fireplace, a bookshelf and a set of French doors that opened to the garden were the only reminders that this spot had once been a back room in a four-bedroom Victorian house, before it became the backstage of all backstages.
In the middle of this clutter stood an item of particular appeal: a sound-effects door. This was a free-standing, miniature door leading to nowhere, used offstage to create a natural slamming or rattling, or maybe the sound of fumbling keys in a lock. Child-size and painted black, and with the number 10 on it as a nod to Downing Street, it allowed my little brother and me to elevate our fort-making to heights of unusual realism. We could ring the doorbell and let each other in, or let each other out and slide the deadbolt home. The door allowed for an extensive study of lock-picking, in which my brother excelled, and we especially enjoyed slamming it shut in each other’s face.
In the event we needed to settle a score, as we very often did, between ourselves or with the neighborhood children, we could find an épée, foil or saber in the attic or in the cupboard under the stairs, along with a dagger used in “Treasure Island”; two lambskin Beowulf-style shields; and some spears from “Mutiny!”
There was also a huge wooden chest brimming with treasure — once the property of “Robinson Crusoe” at the Piccadilly, now the property of the playroom. Filled with gold-colored metal coins, it shimmered in the light from the windows. You could lift the coins up with both hands full and let them fall like treacle between your fingers, thousands of them, glistening, jingling.
Our family marked time by the staging of shows. My parents met at the Mermaid Theater when my mother was the stage manager for a Noël Coward production. When I was born, my father was working on “Chicago.” I was 4 when “Starlight Express” opened, and 9 when “42nd Street” closed. At 11, I put this entry in my diary: “Yesterday, Lord Bernard Miles and Dame Peggy Ashcroft both died!!”
Each night, after waiting up past midnight for my father to return, I slept beside Otto, a soft green frog with a belly stuffed with beans. My mother brought him home one day before I was born, after he had starred with a British teenage heartthrob named Tommy Steele in a production called “Hans Christian Andersen.” Otto, she told me, received a kiss each night from a maiden fair and then, in a puff of smoke, was dropped promptly through a trapdoor, to be replaced by a handsome prince.
Our way of life not only felt different from other children’s; it also felt, somehow, dangerous. London theaters are ancient places, inhabited for centuries by unusual human specimens and, my father and his colleagues told us, by their ghosts.
For instance, I loved the Theater Royal Drury Lane the way I loved my house. I knew the roughness of the seats on the backs of my legs and how eerie-quiet it could be when the audience had gone home. The theater, founded in the 1600s, was also the most haunted of all the theaters in which we spent our days, we were told. The Lavender Ghost was a “pantomime dame” — a male actor playing female roles — who went mad and died young. Legend said he would trail about the theater, frightening actors with the scent of perfume on his clothes. Then there was the Man in Gray, who stalked around the upper circle dressed in powdered wig and tricorn hat. Sometimes, we heard, he would walk right through a wall.
With all the Broadway, Shakespeare, Sondheim, Cole Porter and Olivier, we often went to bed late and overslept for school. Ours was a nighttime life. I used to plunge my face into the dozens of coats that hung in the hallway downstairs, breathing in the perfume and cigarettes of the West End evenings that lingered on my parents’ clothes.
My brother and I relished it all, and it also helped us obscure certain truths: We had very little money, our clothes were old, and our mother was dying of cancer.
Many nights during the worst of it, the theater was our baby sitter. We sat front and center at a sold-out show, swaddled in the light and the music for a few blessed hours, while our mother lay in a hospital ward and no one else was home. We knew every line and every cue and the difference in any understudy’s performance. When the house lights dimmed, and the orchestra in the pit stood ready in crackling silence, I remember hearing my father’s voice address the darkness from above: “Good evening, ladies and gentlemen, and welcome to Her Majesty’s Theater.”
At home, it was not until the last year or so that the artifacts of illness overshadowed our toys and props. At the very end, our playroom became a hospital. My father put a bed in there and a high-back orthopedic chair. He built a second handrail up the staircase; our clutter gave way to bottles of pills.
After it ended, it all seemed quite unreal. Our mother died young, her children 10 and 12. My father remarried within three months, and we found ourselves suddenly heartsick in Los Angeles, the land of movies and television. It was as if someone had dropped the curtain on that house, shut off the lights and struck the set. And the whole production of childhood was gone in a moment.
[Dworin’s charming memoir of a theater childhood ran in the “Domestic Lives” column in the “Home” section (sec. D) of the New York Times on 1 December 2011. Caroline Hannah Eve Dworin was born in London and moved to the U.S. at 13. She received a B.A. in cultural anthropology at Bard College in upstate New York, and an M.A. in arts and culture from Columbia University's Graduate School of Journalism. For several years, she wrote for “The City” section of the New York Times and she’s written about culture for Newsweek.com, the Huffington Post, the Columbia Journalism Review, and the New Yorker's “Book Bench” blog. Currently living in Manhattan, Dworin’s working on a book.
The musical Mutiny!, from which the prop ship’s stern came, was an original play composed by David Essex with book and lyrics by Richard Crane, based on the story of the historic mutiny on the H.M.S. Bounty, the same source for the novel and several films. It opened at London’s Piccadilly Theatre in July 1985 and ran for 500 performances.]