My acquaintance with Bryher‘s work is, I must say, limited to one book – but what a book!
The Player’s Boy tells the story of an apprentice who doesn’t become an actor in the early reign of James VI and I. Bryher had both a researcher’s interest and a passionate fondness for the golden era of Elizabethan theatre, and this novel tells it decline with a kind of haunting intenseness.
Her hero, young James Sands – an orphan, a dreamer, and a very minor historical character – is not equipped to be happy while the world he cherishes crumbles all around him, and his trajectory of missed chances and trampled aspirations, while a tad episodic, is heartbreaking.
James has little direct experience of Elizabeth’s times, and this is precisely what makes it all the more golden to him. Apprenticed to Austen Phillips, Shakespeare’s fellow actor and friend, he begins what he thinks will be a great career in a world gilded with a reverberation of fading magnificence. He will have his illusions shattered as that world declines inexorably – with the deaths of beloved Master Austen first, and later of Sir Walter Raleigh.
In fact, the reader is led to doubt whether James would have done any better for himself, had he been born, say, twenty years earlier… He thinks so, of course – but he is one of those thin-skinned dreamers who will truly fit nowhere and no-when, and are doomed to come to harm. Perhaps, what the poor lad is not prepared for is just reality. The fact that he is trapped between the dream of an idealised world and that world’s actual undoing makes him a gently tragic figure, and his story an elegy of Elizabethan theatre and the Elizabethan era at large. That Bryher wrote James’s story just after WWII, with England and war in mind, makes the whole even more poignant.
In the end this is a deeply sad book, coloured with a feeling of loss and twilight, beautifully written and historically accurate, and narrated in a rather unforgettable voice. An unusual perspective on Elizabethan theatre – and quite a gem of a novel.