Terry Pratchett Book Club

Terry Pratchett Book Club: Wyrd Sisters, Part IV

The play’s the thing, or that’s what the Bard says anyhow. (Or it might be the pay, apparently.) So we should probably get back to it in our read of Wyrd Sisters.

Summary

Hwel is trying to write his new play, which is meant to be shown in The Dysk, a brand new theatre that Tomjon convinced Vitoller to build in Ankh-Morpork. Tomjon wakes from a nightmare, having seen the three witches and heard them talk about him, and decides he’s going out for a drink and that Hwel can come and keep him company. They head to the Mended Drum, where one of the patrons immediately starts on Hwel for being a dwarf, insisting that he won’t be back if they were going to let monkeys and dwarves drinks here. The Librarian of the Unseen University happens to be in the tavern too, and isn’t having any of that. A brawl breaks out, and Tomjon is thrilled, getting onto a chair and demanding silence so he can give a speech from one of Hwel’s plays. It entrances the crowd well enough for them to make an escape, and as they’re walking, they come upon professional thieves stealing from the Fool. They’re not expecting him to have so much money on him (they’ve got specific quotas according to their guild), and are mortified at the suit they’ve stolen, which Tomjon settles by having them return most of the money.

The Fool insists on buying them a drink for helping him, and they head to a dwarf bar, where the Fool finally learns that they’re theatre people. He gives them a ridiculous sum of money to write Felmet’s play, which would help them build the Dysk properly. Hwel agrees to it and Tomjon decides he’ll go to the Fool’s kingdom with a few of the younger actors for the occasion, recalling that he was born in the area. Tomjon dreams of the witches again that night, and wakes to head over to Hwel’s room and look through his discarded play pages. The next day Hwel talks to Vitoller about leaving with Tomjon for the summer—Vitoller is uneasy because he’s certain he’ll never see his son again if he goes back to the place where he was born. Hwel also notes that Tomjon and the Fool look a bit alike, and assures Vitoller that destiny doesn’t always work out as people expect…

The witches are glad to see that Tomjon is on his way, but Magrat finds herself confused over how willing Nanny and Granny are to break their “no meddling” rule in these circumstances. Nanny insists they’re all just people, and it’s not so bad a thing. As the company makes its way slowly toward Lancre, Hwel observes Tomjon in a variety of roles and the absorbing nature of his performances. His only problem is that the play written for Felmet doesn’t seem to be working—the audience aren’t responding to it. Hwel keeps rewriting the script to fix the problem, to no avail. As they near the Ramtops, they’re set upon by thieves. Tomjon goes to give a speech, but it doesn’t work on the chief of the group. Thankfully, the witches send a flying milk jug their way and knock that fellow unconscious. Hwel hears the witches talking before it happens, but he insists it’s a freak whirlwind. One of their company collects the fragments of the milk jug and shoves them in the prop box, and they continue on their way.

The company is getting lost on their way to Lancre, and Granny decides to get the measure of the incoming king (she’s acting a little wicked) by appearing nearby and pretending to be a poor old woman. She lets them know where they went wrong in their directions, and one of the company mentions they must share their lunch with her for good luck. Granny doesn’t like salt pork, though, so they continue on and get lost again. Magrat shows up next, and she gives directions and also forgoes the salt pork. They get lost again, but Hwel sits down, knowing what’s coming, and Nanny Ogg shows up to give directions—but she eats the salt pork and hitches a ride with them. She tries to talk up Lancre to them as they enter, though the company is less than impressed. Then she’s on her way, and tells Granny that the company is there to do theatre, which Granny assumes is a ruse to take back the kingdom. Hwel brings the play to the duke and duchess and they’re very impressed and pay him the rest of his fee. Magrat meets the Fool in the field and he tells her when the play is happening, and that the duke is expecting the witches to show up—Granny doesn’t like that he knows, but they show up anyway. The Fool suggests Magrat watch the play with him in one of the gate towers where he’s set aside some wine for them.

Commentary

Hwel’s thoughts about the speech he wrote that Tomjon gives in the Mended Drum speaks to a specific issue that comes up often in art and creativity: The thing you want people to pay attention to is very rarely what you will be known for. Actors gets stuck in roles they hate, a painter’s best known work might be done in a style they rarely attempt, authors are beloved for characters they’d rather kill off (I’m looking at you Arthur Conan Doyle). This happens in music all the time in particular, the poppy, catchy hit completely overwriting an altogether different discography. The Who’s “Pinball Wizard”, Harvey Danger’s “Flagpole Sitta”, Paolo Nutini’s “New Shoes”, just a few examples of songs that were intended to be snappy filler tunes that filled space on albums that leaned in another direction. Songs like that often become one of the most important the band has ever done, and they are required to play it every time they take the stage. Some groups hate it, some are just glad to have a hit out there. But it’s a startlingly common phenomenon.

Yet my favorite thing about this explanation is that Hwel wrote the speech because Vitoller needed something to take up time during a set change. There is nothing more real than that, creating something exceptional because you’re crunched for an entirely different reason. The history of art is full of incredible things that only exist because someone had to fix a problem or cover an error or make up for a scene change. Story goes that the most famous song from A Little Night Music (“Send in the Clowns”) only exists because it was pointed out to Stephen Sondheim that he hadn’t written a solo for the leading lady of the show. Sometimes the best work is born of very pedestrian problems, and that is part of what makes art a wondrous thing to do with your life. (And it applies to probably all other disciplines as well, in their own way—the point being that sometimes the odd parameter or need ends up creating the greatest solution.)

I also find myself thinking about Tomjon calling Hwel “lawn ornament” and Hwel understandably upset by it, and explaining to the kid that his father may speak to or about him that way because they’ve known each other for years, and some people earn that right. And while it’s still wrong—don’t call your marginalized friends slurs when you don’t belong to that same group because those words are not yours to reclaim; there’s a difference between a queer person teasing their queer friend for being “gay” and a straight person doing that to their queer friend—it’s a very real thing that plenty of people do. They give certain people in their lives permission to speak to them and about them in ways that they don’t want strangers to. This exchange points out the issue in giving that permission, though—allowing Vitoller to speak to him that way meant that Tomjon thought the same permission extended to him, resulting in this painful moment.

We’re getting the set up for Tomjon, and Pratchett is sneakily showing his hand here in the conversation between Hwel and Vitoller; Vitoller is convinced he’ll never see his son again now that he’s heading back toward his birthplace, that destiny has a plan in all this. But Hwel knows that’s not how destiny really works, even if he deals in it often enough as a playwright. It’s fun in a technical sense because Pratchett is also playing with story convention by setting us up this way, bringing destiny and birthrights into a story that’s ultimately about making your own path. In the sections where he makes his speeches, the narrative is simultaneously showing us that Tomjon has the makings of a king and the makings of a superb actor, but we’re meant to believe that only one of these things is relevant. That simply isn’t the case. Both of those things can be true at once—we’re none of us made to be only one thing in our lives.

This is the part where I go “I decided to separate this reread into five parts because it’s a bit longer than all the previous books” and then during this section had a thought where I was like “huh, it’s interesting that this book actually does split fairly well into five pieces, though” and then was like “you dip, Shakespeare’s play were usually five acts, he’s done it on purpose.” Ugh. That’s just… aggravatingly clever and I don’t like it one bit. That’s uncalled for. I’m feeling very Granny Weatherwax about this.

Magrat’s confusion over the witches breaking their oath not to meddle is also a key factor in this, though the moment sort of breezes by—Nanny explains that sure, they may have that rule around witchcraft, but also they’re just people, you know? The implied suggestion here being that people are flawed and might break their own rules, but the other implied suggestion being that people can’t not interfere in things. You’re alive and you are in the world, and by being in it, you’re contributing to something. Hopefully that contribution will be toward something good, and to that end, yeah. You might have to meddle.

Asides and little thoughts:

  • There are a lot of little odes to well known comedians and shows and other entertainment winks in Hwel’s work, but I reserve my softest spot for the Marx Brothers send up (the bit with the three clowns) because I went through a Marx Brothers phase as a small kid and definitely dressed as Groucho for Halloween when I was nine years old. *shrug*
  • Tomjon uses some version of Henry V’s St. Crispin’s Day speech to get all the folk at the Mended Drum to stop and listen, and that’s not at all surprising because it’s always that speech if you’re trying to move a large crowd to side with you. I remember it being used in the film Renaissance Man to similar effect.
  • The guy who makes the wave machine for the Dysk is Leonard of Quirm, who Vitoller says is a painter normally, who just does things like this for a hobby. Vitoller nabbed the wave machine when Leonard “couldn’t get it to fly.” So that’s the Disc’s version of Leonardo da Vinci, obviously.
  • There are again countless Shakespeare references here, along with Oscar Wilde and Phantom of the Opera and Laurel and Hardy—the list goes on, and trying to cite them all is a bit silly. It’s not necessary anyhow; Pratchett is using them more as a narrative ear-catch than anything. Something that makes your brain do a little side-glance at the text while you’re enjoying the story.

Pratchettisms:

Something with bite, something with edge, something like a drink of brandy to a dying man; no logic, no explanation, just words that would reach right down through a tired man’s brain and pull him to his feet by his testicles.

It was, as Hwel would have noted in his stage directions, Later the Same Day.

Only in our dreams are we free. The rest of the time we need wages.

“I like ghosts.”

“I mean it. Look at me. I wasn’t supposed to be writing plays. Dwarfs aren’t even supposed to be able to read. I shouldn’t worry too much about destiny, if I was you. I was destined to be a miner. Destiny gets it wrong half the time.”

“You’re absolutely sure about the ghost, are you?” said Tomjon. The way he threw the line away made it clear that he wasn’t.

The Fool had the terrified, ingratiating rictus of young men everywhere when confronted by importunate elderly women commenting on their intimately personal lives.

We’re gonna take a break for the rest of the year! I’ll be back with the end of the book in January—have a good year’s end, in whatever manner you like best!

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