Because he was one of those actors who live with the misfortune throughout their careers of playing only supporting roles, he became known as The Supporting Actor. In time, this vile title, revealing the man’s failure throughout his life, became his only name. Later, after a couple of years, when he got used to it, somebody might call by his real name, and only after a long pause would he realize they were addressing him. He would be confused, and he would blush, not knowing whether they were mocking him, or if somebody remembered him, the real him, who once, many years ago, young and promising, stepped onto the stage with the internal cry known only to him. He trained his voice, took endless care of his physique, and flawlessly governed his movements, both in life and on stage. He dedicated his body and soul to the theater.
However, as usually happens with the talented, he remained unseen and misunderstood. But he did not despair. On the contrary. He tried to affirm his talent, to shine brightly in the middle of the dark stage, once and for all putting an end to the great injustice inflicted on him every day, with every role.
After ten small, negligible roles, after he became concerned about why they had not yet allowed him to demonstrate his real worth, they gave him his humiliating sobriquet.
It happened after a heated but otherwise insignificant argument in the theater café, when he tried to point out the shortcomings of a young actor and teach him the secrets of an actor’s craft. Instead of accepting this good will with gratitude, the young actor became insulted, infuriated, and among the many insults he angrily blurted out, he mentioned the term supporting actor.
The seed sprouted immediately.
Spontaneously, as if it were the most normal thing, they started calling him The Supporting Actor. Not just his friends, but both those who loved him and those who hated him. Maybe he made a mistake in not objecting immediately, in not saying right away that he would not accept such unjust, humiliating attitudes. But he thought it would quickly forgotten, especially since he expected his first big role at any time. He imagined the sudden turn things would take after the fall of the curtains and that long applause, dedicated to him alone. Then everybody from the theater would repent. They would congratulate him and then come up with a name more worthy of his greatness.
But that role would not come.
Instead of disappointment, enthusiasm and trust grew in him. The stage, that infinite space of his future, promised him more and more success and joy, awards and glory. Deep inside, he heard the applause of the audience floating up to him from the orchestra onto the open stage, and he sensed the envious glances of the other actors, while his long-rehearsed reverence, his bow, would mean a dignified repayment that a great actor expresses to his faithful audience.
These dreams, which sent tingles down his spine, slowly started dispersing from one play to the next, like wisps of cloud in the summer sky. Not accepting his destiny of remaining only a successful supporting actor, he started creating another illusion. Every time roles were parceled out, and he scraped up the “leftovers,” a character almost too insignificant for the performance, he vowed to himself, to somebody unknown, maybe to the whole world, that he would create a brilliant role out of that nothingness. So, he would read the text ten times over, then start studying the character. He approached it from all angles. That one rejoinder, perhaps just a couple of words, or two or three sentences, he uttered endlessly in his soft baritone, and he thoroughly rehearsed all possible movements and gestures. Even to the most insignificant role he dedicated extraordinary attention, for instance when he was supposed to enter stage left carrying a tray in his hands, then walk to the center and place it on a table, saying, “Here you are, sir. Your tea,” then exiting stage right.
He remained long after rehearsals. While the other actors drank at the theater café, and some had been drunk for a long time, he rehearsed those ten steps on the stage long into the night, repeating hundreds of times, “Here you are, sir. Your tea.” Around midnight, when the night watchman made his rounds and turned off the lights, he stopped working. However, he would first make the watchman sit in the orchestra and he’d play the role in front of him several times.
“That’s enough,” the watchman would say dryly, yawning all the while. “It’s time to lock up the theater.”
Expecting a word or two of praise or encouragement, he would be startled, sighing several times, wondering how the watchman, whom he didn’t see as a watchman then but as an audience, or at least a part of it, wasn’t able to perceive the greatness of his effort. He couldn’t understand that people had such stiff hearts that nothing, not even this work of art brought to perfection, could touch them. Then he was convinced that the role should be played once again, as many times as necessary for the watchman’s latent sense of beauty to be awakened. So he would continue to rehearse in front of him, and the man would eventually be forced onto the stage, meeting him in the center, after the tray was left behind and the line uttered, and he would tap him on the shoulder and say, “Come on. That’s enough. Tomorrow’s another day. You really do exaggerate with this nonsense.”
As if startled from a beautiful dream that a person wants to continue after waking up, he once stopped and looked at the watchman for a long time with a plea in his eyes. “You should wait for the opening night,” he thought, walking slowly along the dark halls of the building cluttered with stage props, as he didn’t want to leave the theater, while he repeated the words to himself in regular intervals, “Here you are, sir. Your tea.”
So, slowly, undiscernibly, through the long years of hope, the day of his last performance arrived. The old and weary actor was supposed to retire.
It happened that the theater staged “Hamlet.” With his heart clenched, he anticipated his last role, believing that now, at the end, his dream would be realized and he’d get a role that would redeem the years of endless patience and long-suffering.
“Hamlet, the love of every actor,” he thought. “But I’m too old for the prince. Polonius? I’d make a good Polonius. If not Polonius, then Claudius, the King of Denmark…”
The roles were distributed one after another, being torn from him as though they were his limbs, especially after all the years spent in theater. The lump in his heart rose toward his throat, and it was just a matter of moments before it would turn into a pang, a real cry, weeping.
Finally, the director looked at him.
“And for our Supporting Actor,” he said. “The role to best confirm his genius once again. The role that should provide special flavor to the play according to my plan, a role that should raise the audience to its feet. It is the ghost of Hamlet’s father. Congratulations.”
All went dark before the eyes of The Supporting Actor. He expected much more. It was supposed to be his last play. He was entitled to a real role, the fulfillment of his dream to create something he’d be remembered by. The ghost? A supporting role again. A pale character-non-character, the ghost at the bottom of the stage, covered in misty darkness, a shadow that appears in the first act and then disappears, falling into oblivion. So will he. He wanted, at the last, to be an actor on the stage, and, at least once, if not completely, have part of the applause directed at him.
He glanced at those around him, his eyes pleading for mercy. He searched among those faces. His eyes stopped on the satisfied and bloated face of the actor who had just graduated from the Academy, someone lucky enough to play Hamlet immediately. His eyes and his extended lips mocked him, the old, deserving artist. “If I had your luck, boy,” he told himself, “if what has happened to you had happened to me thirty years ago, now you’d look at me differently, and not with that arrogant villainous expression.”
“Do you accept the role?” the director asked.
Something stung him. It startled him and pierced him. He rose, waited for everyone to look at him, for the noise to stop, and he started reciting:
My hour is almost come
When I to sulph’rous and tormenting flames
Must render up myself.”
He spoke the words of Hamlet’s father ghost, and he left, followed by the glances of the actors, confused because nobody had ever before witnessed such a reaction from The Supporting Actor. He was always reticent, always accepting the roles offered him with a sad smile.
He stopped at the door and continued:
“You’ll have the character as he has never been played anywhere, as he will never be played again. Because … So art thou to revenge when thou shalt hear.” In the dark halls of the old theater building there was a faint smell of dust and age, and The Supporting Actor moved slowly, lightly, as if not touching the ground, and the verses flew from inside him:
“I am thy father’s spirit,
Doom’d for a certain term to walk the night,
And for the day confin’d to fast in fires,
Till the foul crimes done in my days of nature…”