Darfsteller, The by Miller, Walter Jr., 1955

Darfsteller, The by Miller, Walter Jr.

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The Darfsteller, 1955, by Walter M. Miller, Jr., originally published in Astounding Science Fiction: Taking its title probably from the German word "darsteller," which means "actor," Walter M. Miller's novelette The Darfsteller is about a failed actor's return to the stage. Miller's story is about the effect of technological innovation on the psychology of professionals, and it is a winner.

Ryan "Thorny" Thornier was at one point in the past one of those actors who you see all the time on the cover of People and Us Magazines. He and his lady-friend, Mela seemed to be more image that substance, but during their run they held the world as their oyster. Then along came a company called Smithfield and everything changed. Smithfield had invented a way to animate "dolls" and project lines and emotional reactions into them through a machine called the Maestro. The dolls effect was a little flat, but they were realistic enough to convince theater owners to fire their actors and invest in Smithfield's product. Thorny's fortunes fell virtually overnight, while Mela embraced the technology and licensed her image to Smithfield. Mela retired as a young woman to a life of luxury and Thorny became a janitor at a seedy theater so he could stay close to his art. As the years passed Thorny became bitter, until he eventually decided to commit suicide. To do it he sabotaged the theater's production of a play called The Anarch by ruining the tape that controlled one of the characters. Thorny planned to wait until the last minute after the producers realized their problem, then offer his services reluctantly to step into the role, which was one of the last ones he had before his career ended, and which he was best known for. At the end of the play was a scene where his character shot one of the other characters, then a third came in and shot him. Thorny switched the prop gun for a real one with two bullets in it. He wanted to go out in a bloody spectacle that would be talked about for years. But once Thorny enters the stage he begins to feel like his younger self again. The Maestro was a very complex machine that monitored audience reaction and in the true spirit of pandering was capable of changing the play mid-stream to suit the audience's desires. Once Thorny came onto the stage the Maestro read the audience's displeasure with him and tried to write him out of the last two acts. But Thorny outwitted the machine and in the latter parts of the play realized that he did not really want to die. His old flame Mela showed up also as a special appearance, because her image was being used on one of the dolls. Once she saw what Thorny was up to she decided that she wanted to act again also.

The story here is pretty interesting, but I think the real power of this piece is that Miller's obvious love for the theater really shines through. He revels in the meticulous details here and treats the theater like a sensuous old friend.

Thorny retreated into misty old corridors and unused dressing rooms, now heaped with junk remnants of other days. He had to get a grip on himself, had to quit shaking inside. He wandered alone in the deserted sections of the building, opening old doors to peer into dark cubicles where great stars had preened in other days, other nights. Now full of trunks and cracked mirrors and tarpaulins and junked mannequins. Faint odors lingered - nervous smells - perspiration, make-up, dim perfume that pervaded the walls. Mildew and dust - the aroma of time.

And although the story's theme is the displacement of people by machines, Miller does acknowledge that sometimes technology is not all it's cracked up to be:

"Sorry, Jade. I slipped a cog, I guess."

"Never mind! Just get the new pickup mechanism over here for Thomas. And the Peltier tape. And don't have a wreck. It's two o'clock, and tonight's the opening, and we're still short our leading man. And there's no time to get anything else flown in from Smithfield."

"In some ways, nothing's changed, has it, Jade?" He grunted, thinking of the eternal backstage hysteria that lasted until the lights went low and beauty and calm order somehow emerged miraculously out of the prevailing chaos.

I never really was much of a theater-goer. I used to like movies a lot more than I do now, and I do watch a few television shows religiously, but honestly, I could give it all up without much change in my life. Miller struck me with one of his observations in this story that is a very honest incrimination of the drama industry. I was somewhat surprised to see it in a story from the 1950's, as I always considered dramatic presentations from that era to have more respectability.

She opened her eyes, make a sick mouth. "Like always, Thorny, like always. Nauseating, overplayed, perfectly directed for a gum-chewing bag-rattling crowd. A crowd that wants it overplayed so that it won't have to think about what's going on. A crowd that doesn't want to reach out for a feeling or a meaning. It wants to be clubbed in the head with the meaning, so it doesn't have to reach. I'm sick of it."

Of course Thorny survives the end of the play by out thinking the doll with the gun. And even though he is a washed-up has been and the play was panned, Thorny finds a little success and reason to live in the end. This one won a Hugo in 1995 for best novelette, and probably deservedly so. The SF is in the background, and Miller's passion really shines brightly here.

Copyright 2008, Gregory Tidwell

Reviewed by GTT · Rating Rating of 3.5 star(s)


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