It was less like building a house than like colonizing an island, this freakish, lovely and marvelous atoll that rose from gray wasteland of St. Brendan’s High School like some extravagant Atlantis we’d willed into being. All of our previous alliances and identities were tossed aside—jock, freak, egghead, cheerlead and anonymous. (pg. 76)Back in the early 80s, when I was fourteen, I was in a production of Shakespeare’s The Tempest. While I did not get the part I wanted (Ariel), I remember the days leading up to the 3 day engagement as halcyon. The time spent preparing for the play is one of those perfect bubbles of euphoria that we all strive to recreate. That brief moment in time was key to crystallization of my identity. Joining a stage production is like entering a rarified world, where everyone agrees to create an alternate reality out of a spellbook -- a script. (And Shakespeare is surely the greatest of those enchanters). Elizabeth Hand’s brief novella Illyria evokes the power of theater and its effect on performers.
Set in the late seventies in upstate New York, Illyria charts the artistic destinies of Rogan and Madeleine Tierney. Madeleine is the narrator in the story. She and Rogan, in a Shakespeare-worthy conceit, are soul twins -- he is the last child in a line of boys, she is the last in a line of girls, and both were born on the same day in the same year. They are both descendants of a great stage actress from the turn of the century (modeled after Sarah Bernhardt), and their mingled families have set up a colony of sorts in a small town on the Hudson River. Both Rogan and Maddy have the theatrical gene, which has skipped the rest of the Tierney family, and they are drawn to each other. Their relationship knows no boundaries, and, indeed, has a sexual aspect to it. Maddy adores Rogan, who is a wild child with a mercurial streak. She sees herself as the moon to his brilliant sun, and often saves him from going supernova.
Rogan looked like he’d fallen from a painting... His hair was reddish-gold... He had cheekbones in a feline face -- not like a housecats; more like a cougar or a lynx, something strong and furtive and quick. (pg. 13)One day, in a secret crawlspace in Rogan’s room, they find a toy theater trapped within the drywall.
Inside the wall was a toy theater, made of folded paper and gilt cardboard and scraps of brocade and lace…Thumbnail sized masks of Comedy and Tragedy hung from the proscenium arch, and a frieze of Muses that looked as though it had been painted with a single hair. (pg. 28)This mysterious theater glows with magical lights and possesses strange power -- at one point, it even snows glitter. The theater awakens both Rogan and Maddy’s nascent talents. Their Aunt Kate (called by Rogan, ominously, Aunt Fate) recognizes their talents and begins to nurture them. Both cousins end up in a high school production of the Bard’s Twelfth Night that forever changes them, and seals their fates. If Maddy is an actress, Rogan is the wild heart of the artist. He has the same dark energy of Rimbaud or Jim Morrison. Maddy performs the role of Viola, while Rogan becomes the Fool Feste. He brings the text to life.
While some knowledge of the play adds depth to Hand's story, the Shakespearean references mostly add texture. Illyria is the setting of Twelfth Night, a surreal landscape hermetically sealed from the rest of the world, where a set of twins find love and adventure. This mirrors Maddy and Rogan’s unorthodox relationship, and fuels it. Hand's story is primarily a bildungsroman in the realistic mode, though it is infused with fantastic elements, such as the magic toy theater and a not-always-benevolent fairy godmother. It’s a uniquely American take on similarly-themed works by Angela Carter or Jeanette Winterson, a sort of "mythic reality" fiction. As usual, Hand’s prose has a feverish quality where emotions and gestures are epic, and archetypes lurk just beneath the skin. On a deeper level, Illyria shows that talent is like an amoral force of nature, with the power to create and destroy.
I remember that play I was in long ago: How the actress who played Ariel went on to become a renowned scholar of Spanish literature, while the actor who played Caliban reportedly went through a dark, self-destructive period. Maddy sips from the fountain of inspiration, while Rogan drowns in it. Illyria asks the reader if artistic obsession is a gift or a curse, and leaves the question unanswered.