After completing his play Manfred, Byron arranged for an Italian promoter to perform a benefit staging of the final draft, in order to pay off the mounting debts of his European exile. Ticket sales were sluggish until Byron announced that he himself would perform the title role, and within two days, the performance had sold out.
Shelley, who had seen Byron act before and had also read the manuscript in draft form, sat near the exit. During the first act, his wandering attention was drawn to a woman in blue who was seated on the aisle near the stage and who appeared to be in a state of nervous anticipation, for as the act progressed, she was constantly checking her program. The act had barely ended when she rose from her seat and rushed through a side door near the front of the theatre that led to the backstage area.
When the second act began, she had not returned to her seat, and Shelley decided that she had left because she had been bored by the play. It was an opinion that went unchallenged until halfway through the first scene, which took place in a cottage in the Bernese Alps. Byron, as Manfred, was talking to a character called the Chamois Hunter, when suddenly a local baker, famed for the sweetness and lightness of his pastries, entered the scene from stage right carrying a tray of his choicest and most expensive creations. Byron and the actor playing the Chamois Hunter broke off their dialogue to praise the baker’s wares, and Shelley deduced that this was some clever theatrical version of a program advertisement, when, to his astonishment, the lady in blue entered from stage left. Byron kissed her cheek, introduced her to the Chamois Hunter, and presented her to the local baker with the clearly audible words: “Your choice, my dear.”
“My thanks, my dear,” the woman replied, and after examining the baker’s pastries, pointed to a large chocolate croissant, whereupon Byron plucked it out and handed it to her. Byron then shook the baker’s hand, waved him offstage, and escorted the woman in blue to an upstage seat where, for the rest of the scene, she ate her croissant.
Absolutely bewildered by these events, Shelley went back to Byron’s dressing room during the second-act intermission to confess his befuddlement.
“And how are you liking the performance?” Byron asked when he saw his friend.
“I like it immensely,” Shelley lied, and then asked, “But what was that Business with the baker and the woman in blue during the cottage scene?”
“Ah, that,” said Byron with a hint of regret in his voice. “The local promoter who agreed to finance the entire cost of tonight’s performance did so with one condition. His mistress, it seems, has set her heart upon a career as an actress; she is the woman in blue who appeared during the cottage scene. The promoter introduced me to her a week ago. ‘I will finance your production,’ said he, ‘if you will promise to do one thing for me.’”
“You mean?” asked Shelley.
“Yes,” Byron said ruefully. “I had to promise that I would give his mistress a roll in the play.”
Copyright 2014 Matthew J Wells