In Kathryn Simmonds short story Letter from the Understudy a slightly anonymous actor tries to make something of himself to the best of his abilities. He experiences himself “living in the shadows”, as he describes it, but resolutely tries to burst out from backstage and soak up the spotlight shining down on the platform. But not everything comes so easy. The main character Gavin struggles to cement himself as the starting actor for the role of Romeo until he, blinded by fever, jumps the gun and takes matters into his own hands which results in quite dramatic consequences.
The story is composed in the form of a letter written by the protagonist, Gavin, to his former theatrical director Malcolm. In the letter Gavin is explaining a certain event that shaped his career for a long time and still until the date the letter was written.
Gavin comes from an underclass family resulting in him never really having any kind of connection to the world of theatre. Never the less he feels that all he ever wanted was to be an actor beginning with his first part as a Tin Man in a primary school production of The Wizard of Oz. Since then he has pursued his dream despite his parents eyeing a different career path for him. They wanted him to secure a nice and safe job with a pension plan and presumably also a fixed salary. Still they helped Gavin through drama school and seem to be supporting their son in his career. This is presumably because of their lack of complaints on his chosen occupation. The main character feels he owes his elders to succeed in his profession so they have something to be proud of about their son. He describes the way he imagines his parents talking to their friends about him whereafter he says that he at the very least he has to be able to show them a picture or a press cutting. This all signifies that to date Gavin hasn’t accomplished anything and that he feels quite embarrassed about it.
The story also touches sibling rivalry through the fact that Gavin’s sister Dianne “works in risk management and drives a convertible Golf GTI”1 and we are told that “Mum’s always impressed” of Dianne. She has the resources, due to her job, to purchase exotic goods that her elders never had. E.g. it is mentioned in the text that Gavin’s mother “had never tasted an olive until Di[anne] introduced her to one”. It could be argued that this fact pushes Gavin even more towards striving for his goal of showing the world how talented he is. Anyhow he does not.
All together Gavin should be characterized as the stereotypical loser who never lives up to his potential due to a rather lazy work attitude and no healthy dose of self-pity. And all this shows in the narrative technique utilized in the letter. Rather than apologizing for his actions he tries to rationalize and explain them to the reader. He is portraying himself as a victim of various circumstances and using pathos (which is visible as soon as he makes his family enter the picture consequently portraying himself as a poor man who simply tries to make his parents proud – but struggles with this) as means to make the reader feel sorry for himself. Rather than stepping up as a man and acknowledging his own mistake he almost spends the entire letter getting the reader to feel sorry for him and his situation. His choice of words and phrases also captures this setting very well. He writes in a very colloquial style which contrary to a formal and objective way to write could signify him only seeing his current situation from his perspective and lacking a more reflected view on his career and life which could probably solve many of his issues.
At the end of the story Gavin is poisoning the lead actor, Alex, with herbs from a Chinese herbalist that make the actor too drowsy to perform so he, as the substitute for Alex, would get the chance of performing in front of the audience. Gavin describes the drug he uses as possessing “short term effects with no lasting damage”.
The main character feels how he is moving the entire audience with his performance but realizes that he needs to be seen by critics. Unfortunately one evening, when the critics show up Gavin is in a fever and Alex is fit. So Gavin abruptly decides to take a baseball bat, and wearing a mask, neutralize Alex for that nights performance. He draws parallels to the famous play Macbeth, written by William Shakespeare, when he says that he “felt a bit guilty .. like a benign Macbeth”. In Macbeth a General is forced to kill the ruling King by his wife so that he can claim the throne for himself. This short plot line is quite reminiscent of what Gavin is doing. He feels he is forced to take action against Alex for his own gains. But actually nobody is forcing Gavin to do anything. He is acting all by himself. This shows Gavin is pretty alone in the big outside world and definitely making the wrong career choices that won’t benefit him in the long run. As he describes his acquired drug: “Short term effects with no lasting damage”.
This last quote from the text sums Gavins live up pretty well together with the last phrase of the text: “I’m used to anonymity”. Gavin never gets on with his life and he should probably take some well thought action as opposed to swinging somebody in the head with a baseballbat when he should be lying in bed sick.
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