Phantoms of the opera
I don't believe in ghosts, but I do believe in ghost stories. They are hopes and fears flickering in shadow form - a culture's anxieties can probably be identified by the spectres it wants to believe in. Theatres - where so many phantom lives are lived out, night after night, should be perfect ghost-spotting material.
When I worked at English National Opera in the London Coliseum, a friend who had come in to do some work one Sunday had heard a singer practising in a distant room. Nothing new there: at times, every cranny of the old building seemed to house a piano and someone polishing their scales (it's now been refurbished, but then was dusty, plush, swagged in former glories). When my friend left, she told the guy at stage door not to lock up, as the singer was still practising. He looked at her oddly (they always look at you oddly in a good ghostly yarn) and said that no-one else was in the building. My friend insisted, and described what she'd heard. And the stage-door guy said, 'Ah, so you've heard the ghost...'
There are disappointingly few theatre spooks in The Penguin Book of Ghosts, a satisfyingly compact new volume of supernatural sightings in England. It's an old country, and a superstitious one, but most ghosts prefer the outdoors. Perhaps the curiosities which hover round the country are already so gamey (I give you the Worcestershire village haunted by a one-eyed bulldog, or the spectral coach drawn by pigs in County Durham) that no stage setting is necessary: this is the collective unconscious giving site-specific performances before its time.
Nonetheless, there are a couple of goodies fit for Halloween. No-one seems to have caught Shakespeare's shade stalking around Stratford-upon-Avon (he's too busy turning in his nearby grave at some of the production choices), but the church is setting to a ghoulish legend of a young woman who, in time of plague, was mistakenly buried alive. When discovered - too late, too late! - the despairing girl had taken a bite from her own 'white round shoulder.' The story of Herne the Hunter, a dead keeper who haunts an oak in Windsor Forest, invoked at the climax of The Merry Wives of Windsor, was probably Shakespeare's own invention. Nonetheless, several trees in Windsor Park have been credited with being the true oak (and in a fine spirit of hucksterism, if one tree dies or is blown down in a storm, others are immediately planted. Print the legend, or at least find it a good tree-surgeon...).
Anyone out there got a good theatre ghost story? Let me know, I'm in the mood for goosebumps...
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