Short Story: “The Mechanical Theater”

For the inaugural work of fiction here on HH, I’ve chosen a piece that I wrote a few years ago, during my first or second year of college. I remember being inspired by 1930s-style dieselpunk and especially the little robot on the webpage of Clarkesworld Magazine. I think of it as a “worldbuilding piece,” something that’s more about a setting than plot or characters: in this case, it’s something of an alternate history.

What do you mean you’ve never heard of the Mechanical Theater? Everyone in New York has been to it. Surely you’ve walked past it a few times. No? Well, we’ve got to fix that right now! Come on, they’ve programmed a Shakespeare show this afternoon. Richard the Third or something. We can make it if we hurry. Yes, silly, of course you heard me right. I said “programmed.” You know the theater doesn’t put on regular shows, don’t you?

It’s in the middle of 45th Street, squeezed between the John Golden and the Bernard B. Jacobs. You can’t miss it even if you tried: the front is all red brick and bronze trim with pillars covered in zigzags and a sunburst over the marquee. “THE MECHANICAL THEATER!” its sign proudly trumpets in blinking lights. “The latest evolution in entertainment!” I can’t imagine what kind of evolution they could need after this.

Tickets are fifty cents – oh, don’t look so surprised! It’s part of the Federal Theater Project. Every sale helps some poor fellow who’s down on his luck keep food on the table and a hat on his head. You know that musty old speech the government likes to send out. It helps that you get what you pay for. You pay at the booth up front, and then it’s into the lobby to wait for showtime. There’s more red and bronze on the ceiling and floor, a carpet covered in hexagons, brass sconces lining the cream-colored walls. The staff’s turned it into an exhibit of sorts: you see that roped-off platform in the center of the room? They’ve set up some of the original acting models, the roundish ones with lights for eyes and fins on their heads. The government used them for recruitment pieces back during the Great War. They’ve been retired now. Since then we’ve gotten specialized bots, like ones modeled on Clark Gable and Mae West. You’ll see them when the show starts. There are some photos from backstage all over the walls, too: workers setting up the bots, stagehands running them through the programming, a body being made for a new costume and the actors recording their lines. That’s all they need to do these days.

Look, they’re opening the doors! Seems they’re ready for us. About time. It’s only ten minutes to curtain. You’ve got to hurry if you don’t want to be trampled by the crowd!

The auditorium’s not the largest on Broadway, but everyone who comes says it’s one of the finest. There are gilded stars on the ceiling and a big brass chandelier dripping with diamonds, and the coverings on each of the two thousand seats are genuine leather. The curtain is down when everyone flies in, rushing to track down their spots. Only a few moments after everyone’s settled down, the lights flicker a few times and then go out. The whole audience goes silent, like they’ve all had the air sucked out of their lungs at the same time. Bit by bit, up the curtain goes.

A dozen spotlights shine down on the empty boards – they’re always trying to save money, so all they use for sets are painted backdrops. Here’s a castle and a courtyard. You can hear a clicking and whirring from the wings, and then out he marches: the star of the evening. It’s the spitting image of Olivier, can’t you tell? Why, from this distance you can’t even see the bolts holding his head and body together. He stops at center stage and strikes a regal pose, spreading his arms and sticking out his chin. They’ve made these new models twice as dexterous. Then he opens up his mouth. The voice of the man he’s made to look like spills out of the speaker in his throat, and out of the speakers on the walls. “Now is the winter of our discontent made glorious by this summer son of York…”

The words don’t really matter, of course. I couldn’t tell you the first thing about what’s going on. But just look at that craftsmanship! This is as close to the stars as some people will ever get. It’s really quite amazing what can be done with robots today: these fellows can walk, dance, fence…even spill fake blood! All the violence you could possibly imagine and hardly any of the mess. That’s the most remarkable thing about this place, when you think about it – no room for error. If you have real actors, there’s always the chance of them trying to put themselves in charge and running the whole thing into the ground. But here, the workers program everything ahead of time: the lines, the movements, when these fellows can blink or flex their fingers. A bot can’t get a swelled head and go off script just because they think they know better. They get fixed up every morning so they can start each show in peak condition. If one ever malfunctions, the staff’s got dozens of spares. It’s real clockwork, you know?

Oh, sure, the critics will say bad things about it in the papers tomorrow. Garish, they’ll call it. Soulless. Taking important work away from good people. The truth is they’re just angry about getting left behind, that’s all. Look at all the people who came to visit today! Everyone loves this place. I hear the government’s even planning to build two more locations next year. The demand’s that high. Pretty soon we won’t need regular theaters, or even the movies. This is the future. If you ask me, shows are much more interesting this way. Don’t you agree?

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