At the beginning of my final year of high school I was chosen to spend a weekend at the University of Western Ontario with students from all over the province. It must have been a recruiting effort on the part of the University, because it cost us nothing. We stayed in residence, and there were lectures and chat sessions, but mostly I remember a short, broad-shouldered blond guy from some northern town—maybe Timmins, maybe Thunder Bay or Kenora—who went everywhere in a brand new sports jacket that was too long in the arms, and wore a thin little dark-colored tie and a crumpled white shirt and shiny black shoes. I also wore a sports jacket (its arms were too short) and my shoes were also black, but I was too cool to wear a tie. I don’t recall his name, but we hung out together, and I must have awed him by my sophistication, since I lived in London and I’d read The Alexandria Quartet by Lawrence Durrell.
On the second night we all boarded a chartered bus with our chaperones to see The Tempest at the Stratford Festival. I knew the route and its landmarks: Calamity Corners on the edge of London, the churchyard at Lucan where the Black Donnellys were buried, the quarry at St. Mary’s where I’d swim with my friends on summer afternoons, the lush green softly rolling pastures and woodlots and fields of corn and soybean. I’d visited the festival a couple of times before with Mum and Dad, occasions chiefly memorable for the brass band that moved through the lobbies playing a few chords to signal the start of the show.
We had shitty seats at the back of the gallery, but the place was half empty that weekday night. At my urging, we rushed down to the front row the moment the lights went out. We thought ourselves daring and we giggled as we hung over the railing and my new friend kept punching my shoulder in his excitement. That was enough to give me a hard-on.
And then the lights came up and some archaic machine roared thunder while players spun and swirled across the wide apron stage below us, trailing lengths of blue fabric to represent a storm at sea. A harried ship captain yelled commands as royal courtiers, furious in their finery, protested the immanent disaster—all useless. Order itself was overturned as the bos’un talked back to the King of Naples. I’d been to plays before, but never witnessed a true theatrical spectacle.
I remember the storm and my virginal erection, but don’t remember Caliban at all, or big daddy Prospero, or the Miranda-Ferdinand love interest or Ariel in no doubt ridiculous tights, or the drunken menials, or the masque—nothing. And while I read and re-read The Tempest many times over subsequent decades (did I get a doctorate in Renaissance Lit because of that one night?), I don’t recall ever seeing it performed again. It seemed to contain every comedy that has ever been written, as Shakespeare himself, thinly disguised as Prospero, created and conducted the action from inside the story—author of his own drama, but also a character. That play hung in my imagination, as one of those rare, perfect works, like—to use one of his own images— “a rich jewel in an Ethiope’s ear.” It lived as the beautiful bare Stratford stage, and the sexual camaraderie of a temporary friend punching my arm, and the dazzling dance of swirling, twisting blue fabric.
Maybe that’s why I identified with Caliban in later years, having no visual preconceptions of a misshapen monster, and knowing only his poetry and his unjust plight. I was a lonely gay teenager imprisoned in a locked-down Southwestern Ontario shithole with only dreams for company. Caliban was no monster. Caliban was me.
And it’s in the guise of Caliban that Erina’s puppet began speaking to me.