“Oh. My. God. Oh my God, E—Dame Maggie Smith is here.”
Here we stand in a spare bedroom turned coat cupboard (that’s British for closet) on the second floor of our host’s home. The space makes a beautiful wardrobe with plenty of room for a small family and possibly their pet to cohabitate amongst the coats quite comfortably. I’m looking for my particular coat. When I surrendered it to a lovely young woman playing coat check at this marvellous Christmas party, I left my lipgloss in the pocket.
“She just walked in,” my friend hisses, “come downstairs! She’s at the bottom of the stairs.”
On principle, I don’t bother celebrities. Once, I casually pushed my son in his pram (that’s British for stroller) through New York City and walked right past Collin Firth. I had only watched the BBC miniseries of Pride and Prejudice for the very first time just weeks prior (see photo above), so that might have been why I literally u-turned the stroller and followed the man. Plus, he was wearing silver trousers (that’s British for pants) in broad daylight. Also, they were leather, so it could have been that–I can’t say for sure. Whatever the reason, I followed him for a good block or two until a group of women suddenly broke our stride to have their photograph taken with him–I snapped to.
What am I doing? I thought, First of all, we don’t follow people–that’s creepy–and secondly, we certainly don’t follow famous people. Now jog on.
The fundamentals of this commandment should also apply to Dame Maggie Smith, but I begin to argue with myself.
Leave her be, says the sensible voice inside my head, you don’t know her. Go find your lipgloss.
Yes, I appeal to my sensible voice, but I am a guest at this party and so is she.
Ah, interesting point. You do have the host in common.
See? So I COULD say hello to her because at this party we’re on equal footing.
Well, I wouldn’t say EQUAL footing, sensible voice interjects, she’s a living icon and you’re not—but at least you’re not following her with a stroller.
This is all it takes to quickly give myself permission to forget what I came into this gorgeous coat cupboard for and follow my excited friend out the door, down the stairs, and there she is. Dame Maggie Smith sits by herself on a chair, ankles crossed, a glass of white wine in her hand. She’s surrounded by people like me who know who she is, but do not personally KNOW her so therefore are kind enough to leave her be. She stares solemnly at the floor and I feel the familiar pull of silver, leather pants.
“Come on,” I whisper to my friend, “let’s just say hello. We’re Americans, after all, English etiquette doesn’t apply to us.”
“Are you sure?” my friend asks.
“Yes! Let’s go!”
“Hello,” my friend introduces herself. Ms Smith smiles graciously, shakes hands and introduces herself by her first name as if we don’t already know who she is. My friend explains her position in the theatrical world as a Company Manager. She can chat legitimately about what it takes to transfer productions like Angels in America from the West End to Broadway. This helps to establish some stable ground before I introduce myself as more of a theatrical groupie who chases English actors down the streets of New York. It was my husband, after all, who was directed by our host in a show at Lincoln Center a very long time ago.
“Oh yes,” Ms Smith concurs, “everything that has ever happened, happened such a long time ago.”
We proceed to tell her what fans we are of her work and by her reaction, decide to change the subject. Some actors love to hear about how much you love them, others are quite sick of themselves. I swiftly steer the conversation towards the most recent play to grace the stage at our host’s relatively new theatre. It’s written by Martin McDongah, an Irish playwright with a brilliantly twisted wit. He’s responsible for macabre, but critically acclaimed plays like The Beauty Queen of Leenane, The Pillowman and The Lieutenant of Inishmore. The latter, a play about a missing cat, is set in Northern Ireland during The Troubles. Everyone who’s a possible suspect in the cat’s disappearance is killed in revenge until the stage is drenched in blood and piled with body parts. It’s also hysterically funny.
His latest work, entitled, A Very, Very Dark Matter is helmed by Jim Broadbent at our host’s theatre. My husband and a friend spontaneously bought tickets.
“I don’t know how to explain to you what I just saw,” my husband exhaled when he returned home from the theatre that evening, “I’ll put it this way—it was either the most brilliant thing I’ve ever seen or the worst thing ever written.”
“Do you think I should still take a friend to go see it?” I asked.
“I don’t know,” he dropped his coat on the chair for effect, then turned to me and asked, “Are you sentimental about Hans Christian Anderson?”
“Hans Christian Anderson?” I patted for him to come sit by me on the sofa, “Remember when our five year old burst into tears because Thumbelina had to marry some old frog against her will? I don’t have a soft spot for Hans Christian Anderson.”
“You’ll be fine then,” he smiled as he sat down next to me, “Just make sure whoever you take with you feels the same way, because basically the play explains how Hans Christian Anderson didn’t write his own stories.”
“A one legged Pygmy* he kept locked in a box in his attic.”
“You’re making that up” I said wryly.
“Only Martin McDongah could make that up.”
“Did people like it?”
“I think so. A few left—especially when Anderson visits Charles Dickens to find out his Pygmy’s sister, also a Pygmy, wrote all of Dickens’s work.”
Having seen the play myself at this point I ask Maggie Smith quite sincerely, “Have you seen the new Martin McDongah play at our host’s theatre?”
“No!” she scoffs with just a hint of the revulsion that’s made her Downton Abbey Dowager Countess such a global phenomenon, “It’s not really me.”
“No, I should think not,” I laugh, “but Jim Broadbent is a really big draw.”
“Oh yes,” she smiles, “he’s wonderful, isn’t he?”
“He is, but I have to confess it was shocking to watch him play a man who tortured a Pygmy in order to get her to write The Little Mermaid.”
“From what I understand,” she interjects as if to soothe me, “the only part of the play that’s accurate is when Hans Christian Anderson stays with Dickens’s family for quite a long time, but I think that’s about it.”
“Yes, I did look that up. In fact, the whole play was so convincing we actually googled Hans Christian Anderson to see if he’d had an actual Pygmy–”
“WELL OF COURSE HE DIDN’T!” she shouts indignantly.
Now, Dear Reader, in this moment I choose NOT to tell Dame Maggie Smith I didn’t finish my sentence. I choose NOT to tell her what I meant to say is we googled Hans Christian Anderson to see if he had an actual Pygmy SKELETON in his attic. His was an era of explorers who brought exotica back to Europe from their travels around the globe: unusual butterflies, taxidermy elephants–maybe even a Pygmy skeleton. I choose NOT to tell her a Pygmy skeleton wouldn’t be proof of one having written Anderson’s stories, but perhaps might have sparked Martin McDongah to write this particular play.
Instead, I choose to let Dame Maggie Smith believe the American woman she met at a Christmas party thinks Hans Christian Anderson may have had a Pygmy write his stories for him.
Back to the coat cupboard.
*according to the ‘Pygmies’ Survival International website, the term ‘Pygmy’ has gained negative connotations, but has been reclaimed by some indigenous groups as a term of identity. This post refers to the verbiage used by the playwright Martin McDongah
E. G. Wolf
Kick back for some monthly armchair travel–or maybe just a laugh–with an expat’s story of life around the Commonwealth and beyond.