Thursday, December 31, 2020

"The Demon King" (1931)

This story by J.B. Priestley is theatrical, funny, and hugely entertaining. With the setting of a traditional holiday performance in a remote shire of England—I kept thinking of community theater in the US—it is thoroughly steeped in backstage friction and show-must-go-on bravura. Bickering and long-simmering feuds mark relations among the players and crew as well as a spirit of camaraderie. For this Boxing Day evening performance, the man playing the Demon King in the supernatural bits cannot be found. He is a journeyman professional hired for the occasion, with a reputation for "lifting the elbow" and thought to be likely drunk somewhere again. But he cannot be found. An impromptu understudy, woefully unprepared, is pressed into service, but at the last minute the actor shows up, in full costume and makeup. "He looked superb.... The face had a greenish phosphorescent glow, and its eyes flashed between glittering lids." During the show, he struts around scaring everybody and gives a great performance. Other players perform better than they ever have—for one it is a lifetime's dream come true. My favorite detail might be that the village audience, typically taciturn and withdrawn, suspicious of paying money for entertainment, erupts in ovations that go on and on. "The stage manager looked at his watch, 'It's holding up the show, that's certain.... If they're going to behave like this every night, we'll have to cut an hour out of it.'" My other favorite detail might be that this is all a production of the Jack & Jill nursery rhyme, with a Fairy Queen and Demon King and supernatural bits. Apparently it's how they did things. For his part, Priestley is cryptic: "[T]hose people who are puzzled to know what demons have to do with Jack and Jill, those innocent water-fetchers, should pay a visit to the nearest pantomime, which will teach them a lot they did not know about fairy tales." The only explanation for the night is when the troupe gets word that the actor hired to play the Demon King, the one they worried about "lifting the elbow," had been detained "knocked down in Boar Lane by a car, but he'll be all right tomorrow." The rest is for us and those in the story to decide, with the help of clonking details such as a smell of sulfur in the theater. It's all a big show, of course, but it works. I like the humor of it, with this evident demon waylaying the other actor and then showing up to goad a big performance and ovation out of the small village for his own entertainment. I love how it just sticks Jack & Jill into the middle of it. It's a Christmas show—shouldn't there be more holiday theme to it? No explanation. Priestley, more of a mainstream novelist and playwright, didn't do much horror and this one feels like he's just having fun. It's infectious.

Realms of Darkness, ed. Mary Danby (out of print)
Story not available online.

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