A Thousand Ships

With an entire country full of cities and towns to choose from, I managed to land in a very convenient French town during my eighteen month stay. Fontainebleau, nestled in a 50,000 acre forest, stands only 60 kilometers from downtown Paris, a trip of only 45 minutes train by comfortable, reliable commuter train. This base of operations served as a handy launch point for my frequent expeditions to explore and enjoy Paris. From my arrival point at Paris’s Gare de Lyon, I would pick a Metro stop, ride there, and then come forth from the underground transit to roam the neighborhood, ready to absorb the character of the place and uncover hidden cultural treasures.

On one such occasion, the neighborhood surrounding the Paris Opéra became the target of my explorations. The buildings in that area emerged from the same 19th century construction that produced the Opéra itself. I prowled narrow, slanting streets whose covered arcades provided comfy hideaways for trendy boutiques and travel offices. Passing under one archway, I emerged in front of an old theatre, one of the more majestic in Paris. Driven by my longtime interest in all things theatrical, I drifted toward a large show poster, my mind slowly deciphering the French title at the bottom. I looked up at the actors pictured above and froze in my tracks, my jaw agape. A decade and a half had passed since I had last seen the face that gazed down at me, but her unmistakable appearance remained sharply etched in my mind...

* * *

If one must study a foreign culture during an American junior high education, one could ask for no better region than the New York Metropolitan area. Home of the United Nations, New York City boasts more clearly recognizable ethnic and national groups, and more diverse cultural events than any city I've ever encountered. Because of this rich combination, my suburban school took frequent advantage of field trips into the City to augment our book-bound curriculum. In particular, my French class patronized the events hosted by L'Alliance Française in midtown Manhattan. Mostly, these events consisted of screenings of old French movies which my class would impatiently endure, understanding nearly nothing. Once, however, we attended a live performance of La Guerre de Troy N'Aura Pas Lieu, a tragedy depicting the events leading up to the Trojan War.

The curtain opened to reveal a very modern set, with only semi-abstract set pieces and an ornate archway to depict Homer's ancient Troy. Paris and Priam strutted the stage, delivering flowery speeches in soaring French. With the clouds of war looming inevitably closer, the characters in the play struggled to head off the holocaust, an effort doomed to failure by the unchangeable facts of history. Having not yet developed my passion for live theatre, I paid only moderate interest to the events on-stage, content to fiddle with the earpiece whose simultaneous translation afforded me my only measure of comprehension.

Midway through the first act, a whispered gasp abruptly swept through the audience. I focused on the stage, caught my own breath, and gazed upon the fabulous visage of Helen of Troy. The show's producers had not hired some actress to merely portray Helen of Troy; they had engaged Helen herself. The woman who stood before us had a visual impact beyond measure. Long brown hair framed a face which could launch countless ships without a blink of effort. And she wore a dress whose sheer translucence left precious little to the imagination, not that mere imagination could conjure such a vision. Everything about her seemed designed to leave any man both stunned and speechless. She moved with gliding grace and spoke with that marvelous blend of speech and song that gives French its reputation as a language of beauty.

While clear that the striking appearance of this woman had an effect on every male member of the audience, and some of the female ones, her impact on my hormone-soaked adolescent brain was staggering. For the rest of the first act and throughout the second, actors came and went, recited lines and moved about the stage. Near the end, a messenger from Olympus descended and made some pronouncement which launched everyone into war. But none of these irrelevant details mattered in the least. Helen glowed on-stage, eclipsing all others. My eyes never tired of watching her every move, my ears dwelling on her every word.

Weeks, months, even years later, I would open my program from the show to her full-page-photo and stare at those features which I had long ago memorized in detail. I watched the New York movie and theatre listings hoping to find another opportunity to see her perform, but my efforts met with no success. By the time I reached college, I concluded that our lives, having crossed on that one occasion, would never intersect again...

* * *

I managed to scrape my jaw off the ground sufficiently to shake my head in amazement. Fifteen years showed clearly on her photograph, but her beauty remained undiminished. Turning again to the information inscribed in French at the bottom of the poster, I noted the show's performance dates. But not until I sat on the train on my way back to Fontainebleau did it slowly occur to me that I could purchase a ticket and see her live on-stage once again. As the thought of once again spending time that close to her solidified, another thought crowded in behind it. Could I muster the boldness to wait after the show and actually speak to her face-to-face, to get her autograph?

This staggering notion went far beyond the most fantastic possibilities I'd imagined throughout the past decade and a half. And yet, why not? Why not seize this unexpected opportunity and see where it led? Didn't I know exactly where I'd left the old program from L'Alliance Française when I departed my parents' house for college? I could call them, tell them to retrieve it from the lower shelf of the bookcase in my old room where I was sure that it still nestled among the taller books. Sent via first class mail, I could have that program in my hands within a week. And then, well, and then...

The scene sprang into my mind as if it had already happened. Behind the theatre, standing under a covered arcade, I await her, along with a dozen or so fans who stand in small groups, conversing in hushed French. From my own theatrical experience, I know how long it takes to get arranged after a performance, but impatience has no place within me tonight. I know that I must speak to her in French despite the fact that I would likely find myself speechless even if I could use English. I know that I have one brief chance to say my piece, so I have memorized the words, reviewing them repeatedly for proper verb tenses and appropriate article genders. I think of this impending meeting as a performance before the most important critic I have ever faced. I wait, idly perusing the night's playbill.

Suddenly, the door swings open and my heart rate doubles. Two actors emerge into the night, but she is not among them. As my heart slows back to something above normal, the door swings open again. It's her. It's her. It's time.

I let the others approach first, not wanting to rush into this fateful encounter. She smiles graciously and starts to sign programs. Her face shows the detached friendliness of a person accustomed to public recognition. I edge closer, my old program open to her portrait, ready. The person in front of me says something to her about the night's performance, thanks her, and walks away. Her eyes meet mine and the rest of the world falls away. I revel in this moment for a subjective eternity, while in reality, her outstretched hand remains empty for only a moment. As she looks down, pen poised, she pauses, realizing that she holds something unexpected. "Quand j'étais un jeune étudiant de Français à New York," I venture, launching into my prepared speech and applying my best accent. I have passed the point of no return, so I press onward. "When I was a young student of French in New York, I saw a play about the Trojan War at L'Alliance Française. I have never forgotten Helen of Troy. Am I too late to get her autograph?"

Seconds feel like weeks. I have no idea how she will react, what she will say. Her face, at first unreadable, shows the memory washing over her of a long ago performance in a far away city. She looks from me to the photo of her younger self, and back at me. Then, like dawn spreading over the horizon, her face melts into the most genuine smile I've seen from her. She asks my name, and I tell her. She writes something on my program, a message longer than I've seen her place on any of the others, and signs her name with a flourish. While she writes, she chats a bit and I respond, but I've placed the French speaking part of my mind on autopilot as I mentally dance up and down the Parisian cobblestones. I will read her message later, many times. For now, the moment is ours.

No, my parents never found the program and I never made it to that theatre. The program, long since packed in a box with my other childhood belongings, awaits me in a New York attic. As for Helen, another time and another place await us. I now know the possibilities. Next time, I'll be ready.

Copyright © 1994 by M. Carrington Adolph. All rights reserved.

Related sites

L'Alliance Française
Helen of Troy
Helen of France

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Last updated: November 30, 1999


Saved from the URL http://home1.gte.net/thespian/Tales/helen.html, 2000-08-02. [I beg your pardon Mark for the copy - just too good to be forgotten!]
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