Supernumerary: 1) an extra person or thing 2) Theater a person with a small nonspeaking role
I encountered this word in a Flash Fiction challenge from Terrible Minds. The challenge was to choose a word from a list of ten words and then write a story with that word as the title. I started to pull together a story, but then I put it aside. I was not enjoying it; it felt forced.
However, the word supernumerary reminded me of a few things so I will write about them and shall enjoy doing so.
The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock by T. S. Eliot
No! I am not Prince hamlet, nor was meant to be;
Am an attendant lord, one that will do
To swell a progress start a scene or two.
(A person with a small, nonspeaking role.)
This is one of my favorite poems so it takes very little to bring it to mind–even the word supernumerary.
Note to self: One of the marks of great writing is how many ideas come to mind when one reads it. It has layers of meaning because it connects to so many things.
But Kurt Vonnegut (another connection) stated that there is no meaning in a story–it’s all a Cat’s Cradle. (“See the cat? See the cradle?”)
Political Rallies and Signing Ceremonies
Whenever a politician makes an appearance doing whatever it is politicians do, there is always a group of people in the background. Supernumeraries!
These are people who function as stage props to enhance the role of the politician. They are like furniture, only better, because they have faces. They are like the enchanted objects in Beauty and the Beast (both animated and live action). They are the clocks, the teapots, the candelabras, the wardrobes, and the footstools with facial expressions.
Their small, nonspeaking role is to gaze adoringly at the head of the speaker, although their eyes might wander to his shoulders and perhaps his waist. But butt gazing is strictly prohibited. (This could be somewhat of a challenge, especially if the politician is talking out of his…never mind.)
No, their job is reflect on their faces whatever the politician is saying, to amplify his emotions, to model the appropriate response from the audience–like human Applause signs.
Here is an example of Carl, the supernumerary, reacting to a speech:
“Public education!” (Concern)
“The environment!” (Scorn)
“The economy!” (Fear followed by hope)
“Energy!” (Amusement with a touch of head shaking)
“My opponent!” (Horror, disgust, contempt, dismay, nausea, with emphatic head nodding/shaking)
Note to self: Avoid being cast as a supernumerary if at all possible; I am not that great at role-playing.
Vice-President Al Gore
When he was vice-president, Al Gore visited Roosevelt High School in Fresno, California. I was teaching there at the time and was invited to sit in the audience, to listen to him speak. I was not a supernumerary; no one was. It was just a group of teachers, students, administrators, and mayors (by the truckload) listening to Mr. Gore speak about education. He came at the invitation of a student, which I thought was a very decent thing to do.
I remember thinking that Mr. Gore was very nice and respectful and sympathetic to the challenges we teachers face in the classroom. One thing that stands out is his comment on overcrowded classrooms. He was shocked to learn that “in some classes, there are…thirty-five students!” A titter swept through the room; at the time, a class of only thirty-five students was considered a blessing. My smallest class was forty-two students. No one paid us to titter–after all, we were not supernumeraries–we merely reacted honestly to what Mr. Gore said.
Note to self: If a stage prop reacts honestly, then he or she is really not a supernumerary. As I learn to live the truth, I will shed my supernumerary costume and bow my way off the stage.