Although a recent issue of The New York Times Magazine features “The Greats” in music, theater, art, and fashion, Nancy Haught’s Sacred Strangers prompted me to consider the vital role played by secondary characters.
When Prokofiev composed Peter and the Wolf, he chose the prestigious violin to represent Peter and the powerful horn for the wolf. It is the oboe that the composer uses for the supporting role of the duck. As the story progresses, Peter remains a primary character, the wolf captures the duck and swallows it whole. The humble oboe might disappear from view, but the narrator tells us that “If you listen very carefully, you’ll hear the duck quacking inside the wolf’s belly.” And so it goes. That clear, unassuming sound will oboe its way into the ear of the listener.
The pampered main character in Jane Austen’s Emma did not capture my sympathy, but Miss Bates, Emma’s unequal, did. Miss Bates spills words without punctuation until one day Emma annihilates her publically with one sentence. Emma, regal heroine, shrinks into a petty doll. Miss Bates expands into a forgiving friend. Austen must have loved placing her talkative creation in the back seat where she could glow and chatter to her heart’s delight.
In Fredrik Backman’s Beartown, the main characters fascinate me as they struggle with hockey and love. However, the scene that caught me by complete surprise came, not from the conflicts of star athletes, but from Zacharias, supportive friend and outsider, who carried a bucket. I will not give away any more (no one likes a spoiler), but he is just one of Beartown’s citizens, just one of Backman’s marvelous cast of supporting players.
So what about these secondary characters? They fill essential, small spaces of a best seller, like the duck in the lower right hand side of the painting, the figure in blue that stays close to Emma’s elbow, and the invisible character who lives in a house not drawn on the cover. They play lesser roles. Since they take first bows, the applause has not gained momentum, but is saved for “The Greats.” Yet principal roles have no meaning unless linked with secondary ones. A front seat is defined by the seats behind. That’s why the world needs supporting players or even a cameo appearance of the versatile oboe, tender chatterer, and empathetic loner.