Scotland Street Volume 17, Chapter 54: The Defining Moment

That conversation was helpful to Miss Campbell, as it gave her the chance to express her growing frustration over the series of contretemps that had followed Galactica’s enrolment in the class. The old order had had the merit of predictability: it was always possible to work out how Olive would behave, but now all that had been replaced by uncertainty, as Galactica MacFee established her ascendancy. What she was witnessing, Miss Campbell told herself, was a form of regime change – and regime change, at whatever level it occurred, was always unsettling. But recent incidents, Miss Campbell decided, were just the first salvos in a campaign that was to fail as quickly and precipitately as it initially succeeded. And the play, as it happened, was the thing, as it so often is …
44 Scotland Street44 Scotland Street
44 Scotland Street

One of Miss Campbell’s responsibilities at the school was drama, and she usually produced a play for each class to perform in the summer term. Over the years, the offerings had varied, but one thing united them all – and that was a bold vision unusual in school dramatic productions. There had recently been a production of Waiting for Godot – to which the response of the audience had been mixed – and an adapted version of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? which had caused undisguised mirth in the audience of parents and other relatives. The intention behind that production had not been comic, and yet people had clearly enjoyed themselves – and that was something. “There is nothing funny about Virginia Woolf,” Miss Campbell had muttered to her friend Sheila, as the house lights went up. And Sheila had said, “No, there isn’t,” but had immediately been consumed by an attack of giggles.

Now she had decided to go for something a bit more conventional, and had alighted upon A Midsummer Night’s Dream. There was enough comedy in that play, Miss Campbell had decided, to appeal to the children – and of course the names of some of the characters would be sure to appeal to the immature instincts of the age group.

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“Now, children,” she announced to the class. “This term we are going to do something from William Shakespeare. Do we all know who Shakespeare was? I’m sure we do. Can anybody tell me something about William Shakespeare?”

Galactica’s hand shot up, and for a few moments Miss Campbell pretended not to see it. But in case there should be any failure in communication, Galactica now said, “Me, Miss Campbell. I know all about William Shakespeare. Me. I do.”

From the back of the class, Tofu called out, “He’s dead, you know. He died a long time ago. At least fifty years.”

Galactica looked at Tofu with scorn. “Of course he’s dead,” she said. “Writers are usually dead – not that I suppose you know that sort of thing, Tofu.”

Miss Campbell sighed. “There’s no need to be rude to Tofu, Galactica,” she said. “He’s doing his best, you know. Let’s think about this particular play. Does anybody know the names of any of the characters?”

There was the shortest of silences, and then Galactica once again called out, “Me, me, Miss Campbell.”

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There was no time for permission to be given before Galactica reeled off a list of names. “There’s Puck,” she said. “He’s a sort of fairy. And Titania, who is queen of the fairies. And Oberon. And an actor called Bottom.”

This brought a whoop of delight from Socrates Dunbar. “Bottom,” he shouted out. “Bottom.”

General mirth swept round the classroom.

“You are so immature,” said Galactica.

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Socrates was not deterred. “You could be called that,” he said. “You can be Bottom.”

Miss Campbell decided to intervene. “It’s not very clever to laugh at somebody’s name,” she said. “And we mustn’t lose sight of the fact that this is one of Shakespeare’s most popular plays.”

Bertie thought of something. “If William Shakespeare wrote them,” he said.

Miss Campbell gave Bertie an astonished look. “What was that, Bertie?” she asked.

“A lot of people think somebody else wrote Shakespeare’s plays,” he said. “There was a man called Mr Bacon, and some people said he wrote them.”

“So Shakespeare copied,” said Pansy.

“We can’t be sure of that,” said Miss Campbell. “But that shouldn’t really concern us, boys and girls. What we need to do now is choose a director and decide who’s going to take which part. That, of course, is usually the director’s decision.”

“I’ll do that,” said Galactica.

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Olive glowered. She conferred sotto voce with Pansy, and as a result did not hear Miss Campbell ask – in a rather hopeful tone – whether there was anybody else who might wish to be considered for the job of director. Had anybody else offered to do it, then he or she would have been chosen immediately, but nobody did.

“In that case,” said Miss Campbell wearily, “you can be director, Galactica, dear.”

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Galactica nodded, as if this were simply her due. “May I ask, though, Miss Campbell: can the director also be an actor?”

Miss Campbell’s heart sank. She could see what was coming. “I suppose so,” she said. “Although it’s very unusual.”

“No worries,” said Galactica. “I don’t mind. So, I’m going to be Titania – queen of the fairies. And Olive, you can be Bottom. In Shakespeare, boys can be played by girls – and girls by boys. You probably don’t know that, Olive, but I assure you it’s true. I know quite a lot of things, as it happens – and that’s one of them.” She paused. “Bertie, you can be Oberon, and Tofu, you can be the Wall. That’s a good role for somebody who’s a bit stupid – no offence.”

Miss Campbell listened to all this. It was, she sensed, a defining moment in the power struggle between Olive and Galactica, and there was no doubt in her mind that Galactica would emerge the victor. But as things transpired, she was wrong. The vagaries of power can surprise even the most seasoned observer, and now, in this first rehearsal, as the children were presented with the simplified script that she had prepared for them, she realised that the authority that any director needs was simply vanishing from Galactica’s grasp. The cast of any play must believe that director has power to make things happen in the way envisaged by the script. That belief had evaporated, and nothing was left. Disorder broke out; there were tears of rage, resentment, and embarrassment. The papier mâché ass’s head lay abandoned on the floor. The Wall collapsed. Oberon’s love had leaked from the water bottle, into which a small quantity of orange juice had been poured.

“This is a stupid play,” announced Olive, to be immediately, and vocally, seconded by Pansy.

Only Bertie made a conscientious effort, but he was unable to do much to save the production.

Miss Campbell closed her eyes and sighed.

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“Miss Campbell,” asked Olive, “couldn’t we do Waiting for Godot again? I could be the director, if you like.”

It was the defining moment of the revolution.

© Alexander McCall Smith, 2023. The Stellar Debut of Galactica MacFee, published by Polygon, price £17.99, is on sale now. The author welcomes comments from readers and can be contacted on [email protected]