The show must go on. Rose hadn’t learned the sentiment from Irna Phillips, but it was Irna who’d turned it into an edict to live by. Personal problems, physical obstacles, philosophical concerns, political conundrums, nothing was more important than the show. And Rose was in Moscow to put on a show. Once the curtain went up, nothing else mattered.
She watched from the wings, standing where she wasn’t in the way of the sets being carried on and off. Or the actors rushing back and forth to change costumes. She stood where Jonas couldn’t see her. She didn’t want to distract him. And Rose just watched what had lived in her mind for years now and had taken weeks to pull into something resembling the perfection she’d imagined.
Of course, it wasn’t perfect. No real-life show could ever be as perfect as that initial dream. But it came close. So, so close.
Jonas was magnificent. As Rose had known he would be. His glorious voice, his slick movements. The way he made each member of the audience feel like he was talking directly to them. Rose doubted every spectator understood English, especially not Shakespeare’s archaic variety, but that didn’t matter. The language was beside the point — no matter what Rose had said to the reporters. Jonas’s visceral performance was about feeling. It was about love, it was about passion, it was about brotherhood as much as it was about jealousy, and it was about rage. Rage at the class system, as promised, but also rage at being marginalized for the sin of living in a dark skin.
When the curtain came down, before its edge had even reached the stage, the patrons erupted. Rose had never experienced anything like it. She’d been to plenty of theater, to opening nights of Broadway shows that went on to become record-breaking hits. But, even there, the spectators’ reaction hadn’t come close to the reception she and Jonas’s Othello engendered. Rising to their feet was the least of it. Clapping was just the prelude. They shouted — no, they screamed, “Bravo! Bravissimo!” They’d brought buckets of flowers which they now rushed the stage to deliver, flinging the roses, the carnations, the multicolored lilies at Jonas’s feet.
After five curtain calls, the final one for which Jonas stepped into the wings, seized Rose’s hand, and pulled her out with him, bowing deeply at the knees in her direction, palm pressed to his chest while the cheers continued, somehow growing louder instead of dying down, the raucous enthusiasm followed Rose and Jonas backstage.
A party had been set up just outside the dressing room area, with champagne, wine, and vodka Rose hadn’t previously seen anywhere emerging alongside crystal serving dishes of black and red caviar, enamel black trays painted with bright red and white floral designs filled with rolls of pork and beef cold cuts, pickled tomatoes, pickled beets, sauerkraut and pickled, well, pickles, as Rose and Jonas were urged to try the local zakuski.
They barely had time to process what they were being offered, though, as the hallway filled up with well-wishers. Not just the rest of the cast and crew and their friends and families, but seemingly the entire audience, ranging from young people speaking a smorgasbord of accented English — Rose thought she heard everything from Eastern Europe to Africa to Latin America — to elderly people leaning on canes, stumbling to remain upright in the jostling throng.
Rose saw military uniforms and dashingly tailored suits, women in evening gowns, and Arabic men in thobes. There were visitors even darker than Jonas and ones who could have been the relatives of those Rose had worked with at WEVD. Everyone wanted to talk to her. Everyone wanted to congratulate her. They said they loved the show. They said it was the best production of Othello they’d ever seen. They handed her the as-promised glowing review in Pravda — Rose, wondering how their critic had managed to write and publish it so quickly; they’d only wrapped less than an hour ago!
Between undiluted shots of vodka, the perennially expanding multitude of well-wishers wanted to talk to Rose about America, and how awful everything was in America, and how awful it was that Rose couldn’t have put on her version of Othello in America, and how she couldn’t marry Jonas in America, but that wasn’t a problem in the Soviet Union and to cement the spirit of the Youth Festival and international brotherhood and true love and freedom and brotherhood — wait, did they already say that? — wouldn’t it make perfect sense for Rose and Jonas to tie the knot right now, right here, in front of everyone who’d just witnessed their great artistic triumph and now would bear witness to the triumph of their love over any and all capitalist obstacles?
Rose’s head spun from the vodka. Her breath quickened from the stuffy heat of so many people packed into so small and windowless a space. Her heart swelled from the attention and compliments. But she still liked to think that she was fully in control of her faculties, mental and physical, when she glanced across the room, caught Jonas’s eye, thought how unbearably handsome he looked now, mostly out of his costume, wearing only the slacks of Othello, but his own, skin-tight white T-shirt, which emphasized the width of his shoulders, the smoothness of his chest, and the chiseled definition of his arms, when Rose said, “Why not?”
After that, Rose felt like when she needed to look over a piece of film and, in order to get to the section she was searching for, she asked the projectionist to speed through everything that came before. As soon as Rose agreed to the impromptu civil wedding, as soon as Jonas was appraised of the situation, and she suspected equally as affected by the vodka and the heat and the flattery, but, like Rose, still enough in control of his faculties to give informed consent, also acquiesced, “Why not, indeed!” the world lurched into fast-forward mode.
A space was somehow miraculously cleared for Rose and Jonas to stand in. A bouquet of flowers was hastily assembled from multiple earlier offerings and thrust into Rose’s hands. His dresser ran to get a dinner jacket for Jonas, the stylist attempted to make something of Rose’s damp, frizzled fair. They were introduced to Lubov, who worked at The ZAGS Aktov Grazhdanskogo Sostoianiia, the citizens’ marriage office, and was absolutely qualified to perform the ceremony. “Everyone will be witness, not just two!” she pronounced.
Words were said. Vows, Rose supposed, though, in the din, she had trouble following both the Russian and the translation whispered to them by the same woman who’d been hired to help facilitate communication between Rose and her crew. Official papers were signed, Rose wondering how they’d managed to acquire some so quickly; the suggestion for her and Jonas to wed had only been proffered that evening!
Rings! They needed rings!
Those, unlike the Pravda review and the marriage license, weren’t instantly available. It took the clever improvisation of a stagehand to yank on the cloth they’d used to fashion curtains and remove the two metal loops holding them up, handing one to Jonas and one to Rose with a grin and a courtly bow.
Rose slipped the facsimile onto Jonas’s finger. He did the same for her. The pit musicians struck up Mendelssohn’s Wedding March, and their horde of witnesses broke into thunderous cries of “Gorka! Gorka!”
Rose knew this one! Gorka meant bitter. Friends and families shouted it at weddings so that the couple would kiss in order to chase the bitterness away.
She turned to Jonas, her heart beating madly for the first time, not due to over-excitement or heat or even mild intoxication. Her heart was beating hard enough to knock both of them over because Rose was terrified of looking into Jonas’s eyes and seeing…what? Amusement at her folly? Anger at being coerced into putting on a minstrel show for strangers? Exasperation with Rose and her romantic, irresponsible, impractical need to concoct a narrative that fit what she wanted to be true, not what actually was true? Would Jonas be judging her? Condemning her? Worst of all, humoring her?
Rose saw none of those things.
When Rose looked into Jonas’ eyes, what she saw was complete and utter acceptance. Sure, there was adoration, there was bemusement, and there was even, as always, love. But the acceptance was what moved her the most. Jonas knew who Rose was. Not who she pretended to be for others but who she really was. The idealist, the dreamer, the world builder. And he didn’t just tolerate those parts of her. He actively embraced them. Jonas loved all the things about Rose that she disliked about herself. No vodka shots could be more intoxicating than that. She obeyed the orders of “Gorka!” and kissed her new husband.
How was it possible that, in this instance, Rose felt as if they were both the only people in the world and a part of every human being who’d come before them, not to mention who’d come after? Children that she needn’t worry about sharing a fate with Emmett Till. Fellow citizens who didn’t resort to violence or, at best, turn away when they spied Rose and Jonas coming, nor did they patronizingly trip over themselves to exemplify how brave they found Rose and Jonas to be for simply existing. Everyone who’d witnessed their vows accepted Rose and Jonas’s marriage the way Jonas accepted Rose, wholeheartedly and without conditions. Not only that, but they’d also cheered for them as artists, as intellectuals, as comrades.
It wasn’t the vodka, it wasn’t the heat, it wasn’t even the flattery, Rose felt certain of that, which, as they stood in the center of a cheering, laughing, loving audience moved Rose to pull back from their kiss, grab Jonas’s hands the same way he’d earlier seized hers to pull Rose on stage with him and, needing to yell to be heard over the din, though it felt like the most intimate of whispers, ask the man she’d just vowed to spend the rest of her life with, “Why don’t we stay?”
This is the conclusion to Part One of “Go On Pretending.” If you would like to see the story of the early days of soap operas expanded into a full-length novel featuring more about Irna Phillips, Agnes Nixon, As the World Turns, Guiding Light, etc…leave a comment on this or any other chapter. We’d love to hear from you!
To start Go On Pretending at the beginning, click here.
Alina Adams is the New York Times best-selling author of the As the World Turns tie-ins, Oakdale Confidential and The Man From Oakdale, and Guiding Light’s Jonathan’s Story. Check out her new historical fiction, My Mother’s Secret: A Novel of the Jewish Autonomous Region, out now!