For Students Of 'Freddie,' Drama Onstage And Off

At Freddie's

Penelope Fitzgerald's nine novels are thin enough that if you were so inclined, you could take her entire literary output down from the shelf with a single stretched hand. You'd be holding an eclectic bunch. There's the murder mystery set in a museum of ancient artifacts. There's the one about an 18th-century German poet and his love for a not-very-bright 15-year-old. And then there's the one I find myself going back to again and again, the one that taught me that it's possible to get sadness and humor into the same book and even the same sentence: At Freddie's.

At Freddie's takes place in 1960s London, at the Temple Stage School for child actors. It has a plot that makes you feel sorry for the people who have to write summaries on the backs of books. Reading it feels like wandering through an actual school: now into the back office where the headmistress, Freddie, is wheedling a caller into donating a set of old carpets; now into a classroom where Pierce Carroll, a first-year teacher, is failing spectacularly at managing his room of precocious preadolescents.

At Freddie's
By Penelope Fitzgerald
Paperback, 160 pages
Mariner Books
List Price: $13.95
Read An Excerpt

The tour is so lively — the characters you encounter so vivid and funny — that it can take almost half the book for you to notice that your pleasure contains the germ of another feeling: heartbreak. Because remember Pierce Carroll? It turns out that he's only sticking around, despite knowing he's no good as a teacher, because he's fallen in love with the other new hire, Hannah Graves. And those histrionic brats trading impersonations in the back row? One of them, Gianni, is too poor to stay at the school; another, Mattie, is so jealous of his more talented friend that he may be losing his mind. And as for Freddie herself, whose every speech is such hilarious, bullying fun: It turns out that the Temple School is in serious danger of being shut.

Ben Dolnick is the author of You Know Who You Are and Zoology. His work has also appeared in The New York Times and at FiveChapters.com.

Ben Dolnick is the author of You Know Who You Are and Zoology. His work has also appeared in The New York Times and at FiveChapters.com. Bryan Sykora hide caption

itoggle caption Bryan Sykora

Love, fear, class, ambition, even death — it's all in here, but so elegantly presented that you've finished your plate before you even think to ask about the ingredients.

When I first read At Freddie's, I was struggling with my own writing, particularly with how to write about a sad subject — the death of a parent — without writing an entirely sad book.

At Freddie's gave me hope that such a maneuver was possible. "Yes, terrible things do happen," her book seemed to say. "Hearts break, people die, happiness withers. But since there's nothing you can do about it, you may as well laugh at the Grim Reaper's dress in the meantime."

The events in her books are enough to make you weep, but the manner in which she presents them — the warm brilliance of her descriptions, the fond exactitude of her dialogue — sends you out of the Temple School feeling oddly hopeful. I closed the book thinking I might have found a solution to a problem in my writing. In the months and years since, I've continued to pick it up, and I've become convinced that its wisdom — its method for both facing and resisting despair — could be applied to a great deal more.

You Must Read This is produced and edited by Ellen Silva with production assistance from Rose Friedman and Lacey Mason.

Excerpt: 'At Freddie's'

At Freddie's
At Freddie's
By Penelope Fitzgerald
Paperback, 160 pages
Mariner Books
List Price: $13.95

Chapter One

It must have been 1963, because the musical of Dombey & Son was running at the Alexandra, and it must have been the autumn, because it was surely some time in October that a performance was seriously delayed because two of the cast had slipped and hurt themselves in B dressing-room corridor, and the reason for that was that the floor appeared to be flooded with something sticky and glutinous. The flood had been initiated by one of the younger boys in the chorus. He had discovered a way to interfere with the mechanism of the B corridor coffee-machine so that it failed to respond to the next fifty sixpences put into it. The defect was reported, but the responsibility for it was argued between the safety manager and Catering. When the next coin was put in the machine produced, with a terrible pang, fifty-one plastic cups, and then heaved and outpoured its load of milk liquid.

At eleven years old, Mattie could not have hoped for a better result. The production manager said that he must go. The quaint tricks were for leading players only, and even then only at the end of a long run.

'This is the third bit of trouble we've had with him, we shall have to send him back.'

The casting director thought there were three weeks of his contract to run. The GLC, mercifully perhaps, only allowed children to appear in commercial productions for three months on end.

'No, not in three weeks, we're returning him at once good as new, they'll have to send us another one. Where did you get him from?'

'Freddie's.'

Both wavered. The casting director told his assistant to notify the Temple Stage School. The assistant spoke to his deputy.

'Perhaps you'd better go and see her.'

The assistant was surprised, having studied a casual style.

'Won't it do if I phone her?'

'Perhaps, if you're good at it.'

'Where will she be then?'

'Freddie? At Freddie's.'

'I'm afraid you'll have to speak a little more clearly, dear. It comes with training...you can't have rung me up to complain about a joke, an actor's joke, nothing like them to bring a little good luck, why do you think Mr O'Toole put ice in the dressing-room showers at the Vic? That was for his Hamlet, dear, to bring good luck for his Hamlet. I'm not sure how old O'Toole would be, Mattie will be twelve at the end of November, if you want to record his voice, by the way, you'd better do it at once, I can detect just a little roughening, just the kind of thing that frightens choir-masters, scares them out of the organ-lofts, you know. I expect the child thought it would be fun to see someone fall over...two of them detained in Casualties, which of them would that be, John Wilkinson and Ronald Tate, yes, they were both of them here, dear, I'll send Miss Blewett round to see then if they're laid up, she can take them a few sweets, they're fond of those...I suppose they'd be getting on for thirty now...well, dear, I've enjoyed our chat within its limits, but you must get the casting director for me now, or wait, I'll speak to the senior house manager first...tell him that Freddie wants a word with him.'

The senior house manager came almost at once. Having intended to say, and for some reason not said, that all this had absolutely nothing to do with him, he summoned indignation in place of self-respect and spoke of what had come to his ears and not knowing what might happen next, also of possible damage to the recovered seats, and the new carpeting which had recently been laid down in every part of the house.

Excerpted from At Freddie's by Penelope Fitzgerald. Copyright 1982 by Penelope Fitzgerald. Excerpted by permission of Mariner Books. All rights reserved.

Books Featured In This Story

At Freddie's

by Penelope Fitzgerald

Paperback, 160 pages | purchase

Purchase Featured Book

Title
At Freddie's
Author
Penelope Fitzgerald

Your purchase helps support NPR Programming. How?

Comments

 

Please keep your community civil. All comments must follow the NPR.org Community rules and Terms of Use. NPR reserves the right to use the comments we receive, in whole or in part, and to use the commenter's name and location, in any medium. See also the Terms of Use, Privacy Policy and Community FAQ.