Kay Thorpe's Curtain Call
In Thorpe's traditional Harlequin novel, the naive heroine, Kerry West is an actress trying out for the part of Charmian in Antony and Cleopatra. The hero, Ryan Maxwell, is of course the lead actor and established star who plays Antony. Rather predictably, Kerry is critical of the lead actress's interpretation:
There was something in her interpretation of Cleopatra, even now emerging, which Kerry herself did not care for. Unless she was very much mistaken, the lovely and temperamental actress saw her role as that of twin protagonist. And that, temptation though it undoubtedly was, was entirely wrong because Shakespeare himself had intended only one--Antony. (37-38)
Kerry's complete faith that the play belongs to Antony does, however, jar with her assertions in several places that it is the ultimate love story -- "a vision of perfect love between two people who have experienced almost all that life has to offer" (20). And of course her investment in Antony is ultimately personal because of her feelings for Ryan.
His take on the play is rather more interesting because he deflates the romanticism in it by pointing out that both are "totally unscrupulous in their ambitions"(20). His later elaboration of his interpretation of the play and Cleopatra suggests that, despite his presence in a Harlequin novel, Maxwell espouses the more opportunistic view of that relationship that Linda Charnes actually opposes to the Harlequin-style ideology of romantic love:
Cynicism touched his mouth. 'I mean for what she is and never ceases to be: wanton, possessive, and totally ruthless.'
'Oh, no, that's not true!' Kerry's voice was impassioned, the identity of her advisor forgotten for the moment. 'At first, yes, she is all those things. But not after Antony dies. She kills herself for love!'
'She kills herself,' Ryan returned evenly, 'because her pride and vanity cannot accept the degradation planned for her by Caesar. Certainly she's toyed with the idea before, but it isn't until Dolabella confirms what her instincts have told her that her resolve finally hardens ... Shakespeare conceived her as a woman of shallow nature, and that's how she should be played. It wouldn't be a popular interpretation but it would be a true one.' (70-71)
These observations, not surprisingly, daunt both young actresses to whom he speaks. His niece then worries whether he can play opposite an interpretation that he does not believe, but Maxwell acknowledges that "Cleopatra has been idealized for so long in the theatre, it would take a very brave actress indeed to try putting her across in any other manner but the accepted one' (71). In his own way, Maxwell is making precisely Charnes's point that the ideology of sacrifice for love obscures the actual decisions made in the play. Of course, he does so within the very genre that Charnes identifies as promoting that pernicious ideology.
Just as important, the novel enacts the theatrical problems of interpretation identified by the two principal lovers. Paula Vincent, the beautiful, experienced actress playing Cleopatra and trying to play Ryan, does well in the first two acts but cannot achieve the necessary transformation into great love required in the third section of the play (as staged by this director). Her reviews praise the first part of her performance but not the last. Just as important, when she tries to scuttle the performance by conveniently claiming a migraine and refusing to go on, Kerry is drafted into playing Cleopatra. Initially terrified of the task and hesitant in her performance, she "grows" into the role as play progresses (with Ryan's support, of course). Her final act is spectacular because she has decided to play her love for Ryan.
In effect, the novel solves the problem expressed in the conflicting readings of Cleopatra's nature by splitting her role between the two actresses. Although the book ultimately does espouse the "romantic" reading of Cleopatra that Ryan asserts is inescapable convention, Thorpe also encodes the opposing reading within the classic Harlequin plot.
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