The Untimely Death of Whatsisname
a Chamber Opera in 1-act
music by Allan Gilliland, libretto by Val Brandt
ANDY McNABB, 50: Baritone
ANDY McNABB, 22+: Tenor
CLARE, 17+ Soprano
JANE, 27: Soprano
DANIEL, 25: Tenor
PATSY, 20: Mezzo
PERSIMMON 25+: Mezzo
ROXANNE, 24+: Mezzo
RING ANNOUNCER; DRUG SUPPLIER, ANDY’S MANAGER; PROMOTER;
BARON OF BRAWN; WRESTLER; VARIOUS ROLES: Non-singing
SETTINGS: A WRESTLING ARENA, A WRESTLING GYM, SEVERAL APARTMENTS AND CITY INTERIORS
TIME: THE PRESENT AND A NIGHT IN 1983
Composition Date: 2011
We flash forward to Old Andy, the 50-year-old, who has just been told that he has advanced heart disease, and only a few weeks to live. The doctor has suggested that he get his affairs in order and gather his loved ones. “My loved ones…?”
Flashback: Andy and Clare are living together. Still in her teens, Clare is determined to study acting; but Andy feels sure he’s “this close” to making big bucks as a wrestler – then it will be Clare’s turn to fulfill her dreams. It’s the mid-80s – the golden era of TV wrestling, when bigger is better – so Andy uses steroids to bulk up. When Clare becomes pregnant, Andy is too busy building his career to participate in the birth and support of their daughter Jane. Clare leaves him, taking the baby with her.
Flashforward: Old Andy reads in the paper that Clare, a not very well-known actress, has died and is survived only by her daughter Jane. Where is Jane? What has she become? Does she know anything about her dad? And what of his other children, Danny and Patsy? He abandoned them, too, in moments of crisis – but now they need to know about him, however sad or shameful the story. They need to know about one another. And Andy…he needs not to die alone.
Through further flashbacks, we find out about Linda, Danny’s mother, who loved Andy and stuck by him, even though he couldn’t seem to emerge from “B Circuit” wrestling. Eventually, though, she grew tired of paying all the bills – including those for Andy’s steroids, painkillers, uppers and downers. Not long after the birth of their son, she fled the squalor of Andy’s life, but was killed in a car accident that same night. Young Danny survived the crash, but Andy, unable to face the huge responsibilities of a single parent, disappeared, leaving his son to be raised in foster homes.
A few years later, Andy made another attempt at a relationship and a family. He and his wife Tammy had a 6-year-old daughter, Patsy, her father’s “little Princess”. Things went well for them, at first, but then Tammy started sampling Andy’s painkillers, to fight the loneliness she felt when Andy was on the road. She quickly moved on to harder drugs, and, when Andy discovered that she had been turning tricks to feed her habit, he left her and the Princess behind, too.
In time present, the terminally ill Andy manages to track down his three children, and invites them to a reading of their father’s will – which will take place at the gym, because that’s where their father, the wrestler, got his start. Jane, Danny, and Patsy are stunned. Jane has always believed the fiction that her father – a famous married actor who could never acknowledge her paternity – died many years ago; Danny and Patsy have never come to terms with the father who abandoned them, and they want no part of his legacy. And, of course, not one of them has known that she or he had siblings.
At first, Andy pretends to be their recently deceased father’s manager and friend; but he soon abandons this ruse and admits that he is their father. They then take turns – much like a tag team in the wrestling ring – questioning, accusing, attacking, forcing Andy to hear the details of their difficult lives. (He also discovers that he has two grandchildren, Danny’s kids, whom he will not live to know.)
Andy fights the fight of his life – defending his misdeeds, attempting to shift the blame, pleading ignorance, trying to suppress his overwhelming shame and guilt – but ultimately acknowledging the pain he caused, his lifelong cowardice and selfishness, his failure to build a life for himself or his “loved ones”.
Andy, in anguish, moves to the centre of the wrestling ring in the gym. “Blind and selfish,” he cries out, “I have sacrificed everyone I ever loved. I failed you as a father. I know you can never forgive me. What’s done is done and can’t be undone…” He admits his guilt and collapses. His children gather around. Seeing Jane, Andy thinks she is Clare and reaches out to her, his first great love. Jane recoils, but then, encouraged by Patsy and Danny, she takes Andy’s hand. Andy dies, having failed at life – but having at least succeeded, moments before his death, in gathering his loved ones together for an acknowledgement of their kinship. They need not be alone now, in their search for closure – for redemption.