(a reading of the role by a Youth Theatre actor
for Spotlites Theatre Company)
By Thomas Larque.
(Performed in 1991. Director: Rachel King.
This account written in 1997)
My own view of Toby Belch is that his personal development somehow managed to get stuck during adolescence, and that he has become a roistering teenager trapped in the bloated body of an aging man.
I played Toby once, and – looking at him from the inside, so to speak – really grew to love the old rogue.
As we rehearsed the production, I was very surprised to find that the defining moment for my Sir Toby was in the middle of Act 2, Scene 3 when Toby and Andrew’s midnight revels are interrupted by Feste’s song.
Toby Belch does seem to think very much like Falstaff , and I think – like Falstaff – he thinks of himself as a young man, and has no awareness of his aging and moving ever closer to death. Because of this (again, for my Toby) the last verse of Feste’s song hits home very hard indeed.
FESTE – What is love? ‘Tis not hereafter,
Present mirth hath present laughter :
What’s to come is still unsure.
In delay there lies no plenty,
Then come kiss me, sweet and twenty :
Youth’s a stuff will not endure.
“Youth’s a stuff will not endure”. For my Toby this was a sudden revelation. Something he had never really thought about before. He has spent his whole life behaving like a teenager, acting like there was no tomorrow, thinking that everything should be lived for the moment.
He has spent most of his time in a drunken stupor, but what has he actually achieved? And suddenly the weight of that huge pot belly, and the aching muscles bring home to him the fact that he isn’t young any more. And if he doesn’t make something of his life soon … soon … very soon … he will be lying in the ground having wasted his life completely. And you only get one chance.
“Present mirth hath present laughter” – and Toby has laughed. He keeps laughing on and off throughout the play, but what about tomorrow? What about when he is a very old man? When he can’t stay up drinking all night? When he needs help to eat his food or remember where he is?
“What’s to come is still unsure” – and everything that Toby thinks he has can vanish in an instant. His strength, his health, his “friends” – and his best friend, Sir Andrew, is not even a real friend – just a man for Toby to fool money out of, and mock mercilessly.
Of course in this scene Toby chokes back these emotions – and after (in our production) a few moments of meditative silence, and some very sincere appreciation, Toby takes the bull by the horns – crushes down his doubt and swelling melancholy and organises the others into a rowdy drunken chorus with no emotional depth at all. He uses humour to escape. Climbs into a protective suit of pleasure, and then when Malvolio arrives takes the chance to let off some of his pent up anger in Malvolio’s direction.
But really, behind the bluff cheerful display, Toby is feeling the skeletal grip of time – and an increasing sense of his own drunken uselessness. Feste has held up a mirror, and for the first time Toby has seen what he is like, and he doesn’t like it at all. From this point on Toby’s world-weariness grows. He enjoys baiting Malvolio, but is forced to admit that he no longer has the power to carry through his vicious practical jokes. Overtly it is Olivia who has stopped him, but there is just a hint that he has run out of energy, that he hasn’t been able to keep up the pace this time, and that – spurred on by Feste’s song and Olivia’s anger (“Ungracious wretch, / Fit for the mountains, and the barbarous caves / Where manners ne’er were preached!” – 4.1.46-48) – he may even have started to feel a little shame or self-hatred for his own anti-social behaviour.
Perhaps Toby is starting to grow up, at last.
TOBY – … I would we were well rid of this knavery. If he may be conveniently delivered, I would he were, for I am now so far in offence with my niece that I cannot pursue with any safety this sport to the upshot.
And then in the last scene we see Toby at the very bottom of this cycle. A defeated man, in more ways than one. Having gone back to finish his interrupted battle with Sebastian, he has lost and is morally defeated and physically wounded.
If he won his Knighthood on the Battlefield (and it seems quite probable that he did) then no doubt he prided himself on his skill with his weapon. Now he is old, he is drunken, he is slowing down – and this young pup has beaten him.
He accepts his defeat with a good grace, but there is a tone of terrible melancholy in his admission.
“That’s all one, ‘has hurt me, and there’s th’ end on’t” – (5.1.194).
Toby is holding nothing against Sebastian, and is not going to continue the dispute now that it has been settled. But despite this, there is a terrible underswell of pain, humiliation, shame and anger .. at himself. And in the last few lines of the play this all comes spilling out, although again he directs his self-hatred at others.
TOBY – Didst see Dick Surgeon, sot?
FESTE – He’s drunk, Sir Toby, an hour agone …
TOBY – Then he’s a rogue, and a passy measures pavin :
I hate a drunken rogue.
But there is only one drunken rogue on stage … Sir Toby Belch … and whether he realises it or not, he has just denounced himself. And then his friend, Sir Andrew – and, however much he despises the man, Toby seems to have spent all of his time with him over months and hungrily accepts his adulation – comes forward to offer some ineffectual comfort.
ANDREW – I’ll help you, Sir Toby, because we’ll be dressed together.
And Toby rounds on him in a blaze of absolutely furious anger: far more than Andrew’s own behaviour seems likely to have provoked. For my Toby it was a way of letting out – once again – the terrible self-hatred that had built up inside himself, the world-weariness, the fear of death, the sense of failure, the humiliation of defeat, the feeling of physical decline, the shame at the rotten, drunken, dissolute, lonely man that he has become. And he fires it all at Sir Andrew in a spitting torrent of hatred.
TOBY – Will you help? An Ass-Head, and a Coxcomb, and a Knave, a Thin-Faced Knave, a Gull?
Whether Toby likes it or not, Sir Andrew and himself – just like himself and the surgeon – have a great deal in common. The insults that he is throwing reflect back directly on himself … because this sad pathetic man is the closest thing that he has to a friend. He may like Feste and Fabian, but he has spent his time with Andrew. Again, the anger and hatred that he is letting loose seems all too likely to be directed against himself.
Because of the way we had rehearsed our production, I actually got to see exactly how Sir Andrew would have reacted to this sudden assault in real life. We rehearsed a scene at a time, and once we had fixed and memorised one scene, we went onto the next. At the beginning of every rehearsal we ran through all the scenes we had already done, and then we picked up our books and ran through the latest new scene.
We were supposed to have read the play through at the beginning, and then to have read each new scene again just before the rehearsal in which we ran it through for the first time, but I was aware that some of my fellow actors (most very new to Shakespeare) were reading the scene for the first time as we ran through it.
The actor playing Sir Andrew rushed towards me in a protective manner, whining fussily – “I’ll help you Sir Toby, for we’ll be dressed together” – and then stood looking amiable and unsuspecting. There was a moment’s silence.
“Will you help …?” I said softly. He nodded eagerly.
And then I let off the stream of insults, roaring them at him … leaving a gap between each one to let it sink in before unleashing the next. Andrew’s face folded in horror and disbelief, and then the actor (half in Sir Andrew character, half-out) appealed to the Director.
“Does he really say that?”
Pause. Horrified silence.
“Oh! … Can we cut it?”
For my fellow actor this denunciation from his friend Sir Toby, who he had revelled with for weeks, was just too cruel – and his instinctive reaction was to beg for it to be removed.
Of course things aren’t all bad for Sir Toby at the end of Twelfth Night. He has married Maria – another sign, in my interpretation, that he has suddenly realised that it is time to grow up and settle down.
To descend into complete speculation. In future life I imagine my Sir Toby, sadder – but wiser, fathering a family and moderating his habits … without entirely giving them up … and then when he is an old man, having his family to help him carry the burden of age, and to ward off the terrible fear of a decline into loneliness and neglect.
I imagine him too, drinking on his own … his alcoholism not destroyed by his decision to stop roistering publicly … looking sadly into his cups and trying to decide whether life has all been worth it, and whether he has actually achieved anything after all.
Sadly, I cannot imagine him ever being entirely happy.
But perhaps Maria and his children will be enough to distract him from melancholy thoughts and that new sense of self-doubt most of the time.
Which is, perhaps, as much as he can hope for.
Obviously this is a discussion of a very specific performance interpretation – and in no way suggests that this is the only way to view Sir Toby within the play.