Operation Ares — a short play

Characters:

Adolf Hitler
Wernher von Braun

The scene is Adolf Hitler’s vast office in the New Reich Chancellery in Berlin, December 1944. The night sky can be seen through the windows. Hitler is seated at the desk. Wearing an SS uniform, Wernher von Braun enters and salutes.

Peenemünde, Start einer V2

V-2 launch in 1943.

VON BRAUN. Sieg Heil.

(HITLER rises from his chair. He will spend much of the play stalking around VON BRAUN, who will continue standing at attention.)

HITLER. Where are my rockets?

VON BRAUN. Mein Führer?

HITLER. My Vengeance Weapons. Where are they?

VON BRAUN. Mein Führer, I don’t understand.

HITLER. It is a simple question, Major von Braun.

VON BRAUN. You have your V-2 rockets, Mein Führer. Several thousands of them.

HITLER. Several thousands.

VON BRAUN. Yes, Mein Führer. They’re being launched daily from mobile sites in western Holland.

HITLER. Several thousands.

1024px-Damage_Caused_by_V2_Rocket_Attacks_in_Britain,_1945_HU88803

Damage caused by a V-2 rocket attack in Whitechapel, London.

VON BRAUN. Raining death upon London, sir.

HITLER. Why have you disobeyed my orders?

VON BRAUN. Mein Führer?

HITLER. Some three years ago, when you showed me plans for the V-2, I ordered the production of hundreds of thousands. Enough to turn all of London into a lake of flame, fire and fury like the world has never seen. You promised exactly that. Raining death, you say? Your rain is but a puny drizzle. Where are my rockets?

VON BRAUN. Sir, we couldn’t reckon on …

HITLER. On what?

VON BRAUN. Sir, the laborers can’t —

HITLER. You have all the forced labor you could possibly need from Mittelbau-Dora.

Hitler_portrait_cropVON BRAUN. Yes, but slave laborers have an unfortunate way of …

HITLER. Of what?

VON BRAUN. Dying.

HITLER. How?

VON BRAUN. Overwork. Starvation. Disease. What have you. Sir.

HITLER. So I hear. More laborers die making the rockets than Londoners die from their warheads! Take more slaves from Mittelbau-Dora. Empty the camp if need be. Then take more from Buchenwald. The supply will be endless, I promise you. You’ll have millions to choose from.

VON BRAUN. Yes, sir. But there is also the matter of raw materials, sir.

HITLER. Materials! Always materials! Are you telling me that hundreds of thousands of rockets are an impossible task?

VON BRAUN. So it would seem, sir.

HITLER. Why did you not reckon this three years ago?

VON BRAUN. A terrible miscalculation, sir.

(Pause)

HITLER. You were jailed in Stettin last March, were you not?

VON BRAUN. Regretfully, yes, Mein Führer.

HITLER. Do you know why?

VON BRAUN. I was never entirely clear about that, Mein Führer.

HITLER. You were suspected of sabotaging your own rocket program. You were also suspected of planning an escape from the Reich. A truly astonishing escape. Not to England, or America, or Russia—but to the planet Mars!

VON BRAUN. Sir, I assure you that I never planned any such —

HITLER. Do know why I’ve summoned you?

VON BRAUN. I received your memo, Mein Führer.

HITLER. And what did you glean from my memo?

VON BRAUN. You want to speak to me about Operation Ares.

HITLER. And what are your thoughts on Operation Ares?

VON BRAUN. Regretfully, I have no thoughts on Operation Ares.

HITLER. And why not?

VON BRAUN. Because, Mein Führer, I have never heard of Operation Ares.

(Pause)

HITLER. You’ve also been overheard making defeatist remarks about the war.

VON BRAUN. If so, my words have been terribly misunderstood.

HITLER. No? You haven’t been repeating vicious lies? That the Reich is crumbling? That the war effort is failing? That the Allies have taken back France? That the Russians are advancing upon us from the east?

VON BRAUN. I’ve said no such things, Mein Führer.

HITLER. But you’ve heard such lies?

VON BRAUN. I give them no credence, Mein Führer.

HITLER. Before you leave this office, I demand a list of every voice you’ve heard spreading such lies.

VON BRAUN. Yes, Mein Führer.

HITLER. The Allies in France are marching into a trap. I am about to spring that trap in the forest of the Ardennes, crushing their armies to death. The Russians, too, will live to regret their encroachment upon our realms. The Reich has never been so close to victory, believe me.

VON BRAUN. I have complete faith in the destiny of Reich, Mein Führer.

(Pause)

marsproject_0000-570x865HITLER. Do you deny that you want to go to Mars?

VON BRAUN. I never intended to escape —

HITLER. Do you want to go to Mars?

VON BRAUN. Yes, sir, I do. Very much, sir.

HITLER. Is it possible to go to Mars?

VON BRAUN. I believe it is entirely possible, sir.

HITLER. Explain.

VON BRAUN. I have in mind a fleet of ten spaceships carrying a total of seventy men. The voyage, if optimally timed, should take thirteen months and six days.

HITLER. Why aren’t we building such spaceships right now?

VON BRAUN. We will if you command it, Mein Führer.

HITLER. And how do you suppose we shall be greeted by the Martians?

VON BRAUN. Sir?

HITLER. The natives. The inhabitants. Will they greet us as friends, liberators, enemies?

VON BRAUN. Mein Führer, it is by no means certain that there is any life at all —

HITLER. There is intelligent life on Mars. My people tell me so.

VON BRAUN. There might be, sir, but —

HITLER. It is a certainty. I have it on good authority.

(HITLER goes to his desk and unrolls a large map.)

800px-Mars_Atlas_by_Giovanni_Schiaparelli_1888

1888 map of Mars by Giovanni Schiaparelli.

HITLER. I have here a detailed map of Mars and its canals—a vast and sophisticated network, a miracle of engineering that could only have been built by an extremely advanced civilization.

VON BRAUN. Sir, I am familiar with that theory, and I must regretfully say —

HITLER. That all this is impossible?

VON BRAUN. Not impossible at all, but —

HITLER. Surely you will not tell me that this map is in any way false or inaccurate.

VON BRAUN. It is a very old notion, sir, and more recent observations —

HITLER. I received it from the Reich’s most brilliant astronomers.

VON BRAUN. Very well, sir.

HITLER. So let me ask again—how will we be greeted by the Martians?

VON BRAUN. I haven’t the slightest idea, Mein Führer.

(HITLER rolls up the map.)

HITLER. Major von Braun, I can’t say I’m at all pleased by what I’m hearing. Surely the world’s other great powers have advanced space programs, while the Reich seems to have none at all. What about the Americans?

VON BRAUN. They’ve scarcely given it any thought, sir.

HITLER. The British?

VON BRAUN. Even less, sir.

HITLER. The Russians?

VON BRAUN. The Soviets have far-reaching hopes for space travel.

HITLER. How so?

VON BRAUN. It isn’t easy to … articulate, Mein Führer.

HITLER. What is its guiding spirit?

VON BRAUN. Sir?

HITLER. The fundamental principle, the single thought, the solitary word that sums up the aspirations and the philosophy of the Soviet space program. What is it, Major von Braun?

VON BRAUN. I cannot say.

HITLER. Cannot or will not? Come, come, Major. I’m not squeamish. I’m prepared to hear any notion, however vile or repugnant or obscene, any sort of sick and depraved Judeo-Bolshevist perversion —

VON BRAUN (interrupting). It’s love, Mein Führer.

(Pause)

HITLER. Love?

VON BRAUN. Yes, Mein Führer. Love and …

HITLER. Well?

VON BRAUN. Altruism.

HITLER. Explain.

VON BRAUN. The Russians’ greatest rocket engineer was also a philosopher.

HITLER. His name?

Tsiolkovsky

Konstantin Tsiolkovsky

VON BRAUN. Konstantin Tsiolkovsky.

HITLER. His beliefs?

VON BRAUN. That Earth is the cradle of humanity, but one cannot live in the cradle forever. That the Cosmos is perfect, and its cause and purpose is nothing else but love. That the universe is inhabited by untold billions of perfect races, and it is the destiny of humankind to join in their perfection; to resurrect the dead and grant them happiness and immortality; to selflessly spread love among the stars, throughout the infinite and the eternal.

HITLER. A loving Cosmos.

VON BRAUN. Yes, Mein Führer.

HITLER (shuddering). Yes, I have sensed this truth myself.

VON BRAUN. Sir?

(HITLER holds out his hand to VON BRAUN.)

HITLER. Come. Let us look into the night together. Let us talk of Operation Ares.

(VON BRAUN takes his hand; they go to the window and gaze outside.)

HITLER. With every passing night, I believe I see fewer and fewer stars. Some grow dim, some disappear altogether. (pointing) Look, right now, at that one, flickering with its last gasp of light. Last night it was large and blazing. Tomorrow I’ll look for it and it will be gone, just an empty pocket in the sable velvet void. The universe is dying, trudging in the funereal footsteps of its lame and senile God of Love, doomed to share in his wretched extinction. It’s pitiable! The sin of pity creeps up inside of me. But what need has the universe of my pity? It needs rather my fist, my rage, my volcanic cruelty. It begs for conquest, whimpers for a master to teach it strife and destruction, to breathe a fresh conflagration of hatred into its waning orbs. For struggle, not love, is the father of all things—and the more brutal the struggle and the more fierce the hatred, the greater life becomes, and the brighter the heavens.

(Pause)

HITLER. I’ll soon crush Russia with the Reich’s great hatred, and Britain, and America. I’ll teach hatred even to my enemies, those who most profess their love. I’ll make our planet great again. And then … Major von Braun, together we must conquer Mars.

VON BRAUN. Yes, Mein Führer.

(HITLER goes to his desk and spreads the map again; VON BRAUN joins him.)

HITLER. Let us prepare for Operation Ares.

END OF PLAY.

800px-Walt_Disney_and_Dr._Wernher_von_Braun_-_GPN-2000-000060

Walt Disney and Wernher von Braun, 1954.

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As Independence Approached …

Way back in 1997, I compiled, edited, and introduced a small collection of source materials about the Declaration of Independence. Earlier I posted the epilogue. Here’s the introduction:

Washington Irving’s immortal character Rip Van Winkle slept right through the arrival of American Independence. As generations of school children have learned, Rip fell into a deep, twenty-year sleep in the wilds of the Catskills after drinking from a mysterious flagon. When he returned to his village, he found that everything had changed—including the political situation, as the following selection shows:

Joseph_Jefferson_as_Ripvanwinkle_by_Napoleon_SArony_(1821-1896)

Actor Joseph Jefferson as Rip Van Winkle (1896)

He now hurried forth, and hastened to his old resort, the village inn …. The appearance of Rip, with his long grizzled beard, his rusty fowling-piece, his uncouth dress, and an army of women and children at his heels, soon attracted the attention of the tavern politicians. They crowded round him, eyeing him from head to foot with great curiosity. The orator bustled up to him, and, drawing him partly aside, inquired “on which side he voted?” Rip stared in vacant stupidity. Another short but busy little fellow pulled him by the arm, and, rising on tiptoe, inquired in his ear, “Whether he was Federal or Democrat?” Rip was equally at a loss to comprehend the question; when a knowing, self-important old gentleman, in a sharp cocked hat, made his way through the crowd, putting them to the right and left with his elbows as he passed, and planting himself before Van Winkle, with one arm akimbo, the other resting on his cane, his keen eyes and sharp hat penetrating, as it were, into his very soul, demanded in an austere tone, “what brought him to the election with a gun on his shoulder, and a mob at his heels, and whether he meant to breed a riot in the village?”—“Alas! gentlemen,” cried Rip, somewhat dismayed, “I am a poor quiet man, a native of the place, and a loyal subject of the king, God bless him!”

Here a general shout burst from the by-standers—“A tory! a tory! a spy! a refugee! hustle him! away with him!”

Perhaps we find it too easy to laugh at the confusion of a simple underachiever like Rip Van Winkle. Would any of his more accomplished contemporaries have been less confused in his situation? What about the men who voted for the adoption of the Declaration of Independence? What if any of them had fallen asleep before the outbreak of the Revolutionary War, not to awaken for twenty years?

Many of them would have been just as perplexed upon awakening as Rip himself—and many would have uttered a similar plea of loyalty to the king. But in July of 1776, the British colonies declared themselves a new, sovereign nation. What happened to change the course of American history so abruptly and so fatefully?

Jamestown, the first permanent English settlement in America, was founded in 1607, and for about a century and a half after that, British Americans considered themselves loyal subjects of the mother country. By various charters and agreements, thirteen British colonies were founded along the Atlantic seaboard. In theory, the British could exploit these colonies much as they pleased. But in practice, the British essentially left the colonies alone. True, they imposed a few modest taxes to regulate trade. But these were easily evaded by the colonists, for whom the practice of smuggling was considered an honorable profession, praised by as distinguished a citizen as John Adams of Massachusetts. Great Britain was an indulgent parent; she and her North American colonies coexisted in mutual affection and respect.

Arguably, the high point in this relationship was the French and Indian War (1754-1763). When France tried to take control of North America, Britons and colonists fought side by side against a common foe. Unfortunately, after the British-Colonial victory, Great Britain found herself deeply in debt. To pay off this debt, the British at last saw fit to exploit the colonies in earnest. And the colonists were not happy about it.

They had, after all, become used to self-rule, which they considered their right as British subjects. The colonies elected their own assemblies, passed their own laws, issued their own money, and collected their own taxes. Not surprisingly, they resented it when Britain decided to maintain a standing army in America. Moreover, the British demanded that the colonies contribute to this army’s support; colonists were even forced to quarter soldiers in their own homes. Colonial resentment grew when Britain forbade settlement anywhere west of the Allegheny Mountains. The British also denied colonial assembles the right to issue their own money and imposed tougher import duties on such goods as molasses. A greater shock came when the British imposed the Stamp Act upon the colonies in 1765.

This act was intended to impose a tax on such items as newspapers, playing cards, dice, and legal documents. The colonists would have none of it. They convened the Stamp Act Congress, which established an effective boycott against the act, causing it to be repealed in 1766. But the bitterness created by this measure never really disappeared, and Great Britain continued trying to impose her will upon the colonists. The Townshend Acts created further import duties, and the New York Assembly was suspended for its refusal to agree to the quartering of troops. Toward the end of the 1760s, the British began to send more and more troops to America in hopes of bringing her unruly colonists back into line.

800px-Boston_Massacre_high-res

Engraving of the Boston Massacre by Paul Revere

Boston, Massachusetts, became a hotbed of resistance against the British. In 1770, five colonists were shot and killed by British soldiers when a mob attacked the Boston Customs House; this became known as the Boston Massacre.

In 1773, the British tried to coerce the colonists into purchasing tea from the British East India Company and paying a stiff duty for it. On December 16 of that year, a mysterious gang of Bostonians disguised themselves as Indians and committed one of the most ambitious and destructive acts of vandalism in human history, dumping tons of unsold British tea into the Boston Harbor. This became known as the Boston Tea Party.

The British responded to the Boston Tea Party by blockading Boston. This stringent punishment aroused the sympathy of the American colonies, who convened the Continental Congress in 1774. Congress organized an effective boycott and sent petitions to Great Britain. Its members were determined to restore what they believed to be their natural rights as British subjects; they had no intention of declaring independence from the mother country. The First Continental Congress adjourned on October 26, 1774, with plans to reconvene on May 10, 1775.

Then, early in 1775, King George III and the British Parliament decided to use military force to subdue the colonists. Troops were sent to Concord, Massachusetts, to destroy military supplies there. On April 19, those troops were met in Lexington by a band of armed colonists. Shots were fired and lives were list, first in Lexington and then at Concord.

The Revolutionary War had begun. While Rip Van Winkle lay asleep in the Catskills, his America was changing forever. A little less than a year after the battles of Lexington and Concord, the unimaginable would happen. Independence from Britain would become a reality. And Congress’s Declaration of Independence would justify that decision in memorable and powerful language which resounds to the present day.

The Cave of Euripides on Salamis Island (poem)

13445749_1306285609400802_7739306498793524193_n

written for the dedication
of the William S. E. Coleman Studio Theatre,
June 18, 2016

But were you ever really here?
Did you sit here brooding upon this cave’s sullen lip
gazing over the bay of doves,
a shrouded exile from lies and war and treachery,
holding your worlds within?
Did you come away from Athens to this dead heart,
its throbbing chambers long since stilled and petrified,
its arteries and veins drained of their wine?
And were you ever really here?

This clay shard with letters of your name proves nothing.
Your acolytes came here seeking you;
finding nothing but an empty cave,
they wrote your name upon a bowl
and drank from it in prayer
and sang your verses to these deaf damp walls.
Your acolytes were fools;
these walls are nothing more than fog;
joy is deeper than woe, time deeper than thought;
there is no firmament above our heads;
the starry void goes on forever;
our lives do not.

We can’t stage a play in this cave.
Let’s go away, it doesn’t matter where,
and carry our riches to an empty room
that bears your name upon its door,
a space that’s rough, immediate, and holy,
where dreamers walk and dance
and sing their dreams awake to one another,
where sacred lies and probabilities abound,
where stories are told and worlds transfigured,
where stone chambers of the heart turn flesh again
pulsing with the sweet wine of eternity,
most terrible and gentle to us all.

13465997_1306285162734180_8460560184180675164_n

The Throne and the Mirror: Elizabeth and Shakespeare after Essex’s Rebellion — a short play

Characters:

Queen Elizabeth I
William Shakespeare

The scene is the queen’s privy chamber in the Palace of Whitehall, February 1601. A table is scattered with books and papers; a crown is on the table, and a scepter leans against it. Queen Elizabeth sits at the table reading. Across the table from her is an empty chair. William Shakespeare enters.

Elizabeth1England

Elizabeth I, the Ermine Portrait; attributed to William Segar

ELIZABETH. Master Shakespeare.

SHAKESPEARE (kneeling). How may I please Your Majesty?

ELIZABETH. Arise.

(SHAKESPEARE does so.)

ELIZABETH. Who am I?

SHAKESPEARE. A lowly scribbler dares not to answer such a question.

ELIZABETH. I am Richard II, know you not that?

SHAKESPEARE. With due humility, I know no such thing.

ELIZABETH. No lies—not here alone with your queen.

(SHAKESPEARE looks around with surprise.)

ELIZABETH. My councilors were against it—Sir Robert especially. “Alone!” he cried. “With a man who aided a rebellion against you!” “Do not fear for my person,” I told him. “There’s such divinity hedging a queen, treason may only peep at what it wishes to do. We’ll have Will’s head soon enough.”

SHAKESPEARE. I did not aid a rebellion.

ELIZABETH (perusing some papers). The day before Essex tried to seize my court, did you not put on a show at his command?

SHAKESPEARE. A trifling play, Your Majesty, so old and out of use, I don’t know why he wanted it. A solid mass of turgid verse; too many end-stops, rhymes, and lockstep iambs; not a scrap of prose for relief, no comedy at all, nothing to please the groundlings but gardeners spouting homilies from some old morality play. Indeed, that’s all it is, a musty and intolerable morality play that—

ELIZABETH (interrupting him as she pores over the papers). Hush. (Pause) The Tragedy of Richard II. (Pause) The tragedy of me.

SHAKESPEARE. I don’t understand.

ELIZABETH. No lies, I said—not when you’re about to meet your maker. I have a transcript here.
(Reading)
Landlord of England art thou now, not king:
Thy state of law is bondslave to the law.

SHAKESPEARE. Exquisitely read. But what have these lines to do with Your Majesty?

ELIZABETH. The story of the righteous deposition of one vulgar landlord by another, of one usurper by another—the story of Essex deposing me, the bastard daughter of King Henry. Surely you knew what your employer wanted with it.

SHAKESPEARE. Who were we humble players to refuse?

ELIZABETH. Especially when he paid you forty shillings for it. Ten more silver pieces than even Judas got for betraying our Good Lord!

SHAKESPEARE. The play is only a play.

ELIZABETH. A monarch is God’s anointed substitute on earth, else he—or she—is nothing. If one monarch was ever a vulgar landlord, then so are all the rest, and so am I. Was Richard a vulgar landlord?

SHAKESPEARE. I cannot say.

ELIZABETH (pointing to the page). You say right here —

SHAKESPEARE. Not I, the dying John of Gaunt.

ELIZABETH. You wrote his words.

SHAKESPEARE. I merely held the pen for him.

ELIZABETH. False.

SHAKESPEARE. Mayn’t I put treason on the stage without standing accused of it?

ELIZABETH. Only if you take care to call it treason.

SHAKESPEARE. And hang signs around my actors’ necks? “Anointed King,” “Treacherous Usurper,” “Vulgar Landlord”?

ELIZABETH. Instructive.

SHAKESPEARE. It’s not my trade to judge—rather to hold a mirror up to nature.

ELIZABETH. Do you suppose nature wishes to look upon her own twisted carcass, her countenance wrinkled and pockmarked, a mangy wig upon her scabby scalp? Paint a flattering portrait—fair, blooming, and buxom. Show it to her. Tell her it’s a perfect likeness.

First_Folio,_Shakespeare_-_0003

First Folio, 1623

SHAKESPEARE. I’d be a shoddy playwright then.

ELIZABETH. You’d be a live one.

SHAKESPEARE. I implore Your Majesty —

ELIZABETH. No.

SHAKESPEARE. If I have offended —

ELIZABETH. Betrayed.

SHAKESPEARE. I sincerely repent that I —

ELIZABETH. Fear, not love, begets your penitence.

SHAKESPEARE. May I not save myself?

ELIZABETH. Not if you must be yourself.

SHAKESPEARE. I may be no one else.

ELIZABETH. Then we’re done.

(Pause)

SHAKESPEARE. Well. I owe my God a death. If it be not to come, it will be now. I don’t feel especially well. (Indicating a chair by the table) May I?

(SHAKESPEARE sits.)

ELIZABETH. Impudence!

SHAKESPEARE. Your Majesty, if your executioner is half as good at his trade as I’m at mine, I’ll see my cut-out heart bloody and beating before my still-living eyes. Forgive that I’m no longer daunted by your sovereign rage. And now, won’t you indulge a dead man’s whimsy? Let’s chat away these precious moments.

(ELIZABETH glares at him.)

800px-Portrait_of_Niccolò_Machiavelli_by_Santi_di_Tito

Niccolò Machiavelli by Santi di Tito

SHAKESPEARE. What are you reading? (Picking up a book) Ah—Niccolò Machiavelli, The Prince.

(ELIZABETH snatches the book away from him.)

SHAKESPEARE. “Hatred is acquired as much by good works as by bad ones,” he says. And, “A prince wishing to keep his state is very often forced to do evil.” And, “A prince ought not to mind the reproach of cruelty.” How shocking to find you reading such stuff.

ELIZABETH. You seem to know it by heart.

SHAKESPEARE. It’s my trade. What do you think of our Italian friend?

ELIZABETH. The wickedest of men.

SHAKESPEARE. No lies—not to a man about to meet his maker. We both know what we’re supposed to say. I’ve done my own dutiful best to make his name the same as Satan’s, to render him a man of plots, drunken prophecies, libels, and dreams, murdering men and then wooing their widows, his hands dripping with the blood of babes. I even gave him a frightful shape:
His mother felt more than a mother’s pain,
And yet brought forth less than a mother’s hope,
To wit, an indigested and deformèd lump;
Teeth had he in his head when he was born,
To signify he cam’st to bite the world.
But all that’s stale and false. So just between the two of us—the truth. What do you think of him?

(Silence)

SHAKESPEARE. When I was apprenticed into the players’ art and mystery, I learned to sing, fight, fence, tumble, dance, and—oh, yes, to conjure: make flowers bloom from the palm of my hand, send sleeping maids floating upon the air, snatch a man’s head off his shoulders and put it back again. How I feared that some rival conjuror would go among the crowd, telling the secrets of all my illusions! And that’s what Machiavelli did to you, isn’t it? Exposed your trade, the art and mystery of princehood, revealed your trapdoors, wires, and mirrors.

ELIZABETH. Revealed that God had nothing to do with what we are.

SHAKESPEARE. Your words, Your Majesty.

ELIZABETH. Clever fellow.

SHAKESPEARE. Me or him?

ELIZABETH. When I was apprenticed, my tutor made me learn much of him by memory. Tell me—is it better to be loved or feared?

SHAKESPEARE. To be feared, of course.

ELIZABETH. Ay, “for love is preserved by the link of obligation which, owing to the baseness of men, is broken at every opportunity for their advantage — ”

SHAKESPEARE. “ — but fear preserves you by a dread of punishment which never fails.”

ELIZABETH. And yet—whether he is feared or loved, a prince must always avoid being hated. “Learn this lesson well,” my tutor said, “for it shall be your doing or undoing.”

SHAKESPEARE. He would be well-pleased.

ELIZABETH. Oh, no—for as I near my grave, hatred grows against me, and also justly-earned contempt. This late rebellion proves it. I failed to follow Machiavelli’s advice. I made myself loved rather than feared.

SHAKESPEARE. All of your subjects fear you.

ELIZABETH. Why so? My tyranny touches but a handful of them. I am a lone woman, and old. How many commands are mine to give? But put Machiavelli’s book into the hands of every Englishman who can read, and each of them becomes a tyrant. Then blossom too many commands for all the generations of Adam to obey, and bloody oppression waxes infinite. The tyranny of the one is not worth fearing; the tyranny of the many, of the all—now that’s a tyranny to terrify any sane soul. (Pause) I summoned you to take off your head. Instead, I’ll put something on it. Approach.

(SHAKESPEARE rises and steps toward her, then kneels. As she speaks, ELIZABETH picks up the crown and the scepter.)

Richard_II_King_of_England

Richard II

ELIZABETH. Now mark me, how I will undo myself:
I give this heavy weight from off my head
And this unwieldy scepter from my hand,
The pride of queenly sway from out my heart;
With mine own tears I wash away my balm,
With mine own hands I give away my crown,
With mine own tongue deny my sacred state,
With mine own breath release all duteous oaths:
All pomp and majesty I do forswear.
Make me, that nothing have, with nothing griev’d,
And thou with all pleas’d, that hast all achiev’d!

(She places the crown on SHAKESPEARE’s head, the scepter in his hand.)

ELIZABETH. Hail, William Rex—Stratford Glover’s Son, Student of Machiavelli, Tyrant Among Untold Multitudes of Tyrants. I, humble Elizabeth, the sole remaining subject in all the realm, do kneel before you.

(ELIZABETH kneels.)

END OF PLAY

Panorama_of_London_by_Claes_Van_Visscher,_1616

Panorama of London by Claes Van Visscher, 1616

From “The Shackles of Liberty” … Four Ideas about God

Question with boldness even the existence of a God; because, if there be one, he must more approve the homage of reason, than that of blindfolded fear.

Thomas Jefferson wrote this in a famous letter to his nephew, Peter Carr. So how did this unorthodox Christian react when his daughter Patsy decided that she wanted to become a nun? Nobody really knows, except that he quickly snatched Patsy and her sister Polly out of Pentemont Abbey, the Parisian convent school where they’d been studying.

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Pentemont Abbey, 1898

I play with this episode in my in my award-winning new play The Shackles of Liberty. When Patsy first broaches the subject with her father, he quizzes her about the nature of God …

THOMAS: Tell me—where is God? Where does he live?
PATSY: He is everywhere.
THOMAS: So I can reach out and touch him?
PATSY: No.
THOMAS: Why not? Of what stuff is he made?
PATSY: No stuff at all, Father.
THOMAS: So he is everywhere and yet comprised of nothing. He has infinite height, width, and depth, and yet none at all—a dimensionless geometrical point.

It’s an absurd proposition as far as Thomas is concerned. And yet he is no atheist. He agrees with the teaching of Jesus, that God is a spirit

He knew that spirit is material and real. Thin and light, an ethereal gas perhaps, subtler than our gross bodies, but material nonetheless. I don’t know where to look for such spirit, but that’s of small concern. God’s existence is manifest in the infinite beauty of natural design—from the growth of the flower to the precession of the equinoxes. He is Cause Perpetual, Cause Everlasting.

As Patsy confides to Sally Hemings later in the play, she pretty much agrees with her father. In the convent, Patsy can feel God’s palpable presence …

Father’s right, God is made out of matter, and there you can feel him. You can touch him. You can touch his face. And his face is so gentle. And he’s so full of love. Everybody there feels it. And everybody wants to do his will. They want to love him back. It’s all they ever do. I’ve never been any place like it.

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Yoruba Veranda Post, Brooklyn Museum

What does God mean to Sally, a third-generation slave? Much of the profound theology of Sally’s Yoruba ancestors has been lost to her. But she’s still deeply aware of ashe, the life force underlying all of creation, the spiritual power to make things happen …

I was really little when my nephew Andy was born. Still I had to take care of him best I could whenever my sister was working somewhere else, which was lots of the time, sometimes far away, stitching, cooking, stirring the lye pot boiling, but whenever little Andy began to whimpering, not even really crying, she’d be back on the spot, ready to feed him. Now how’d she always know he was hungry? She said it was ’cause she’d feel ashe moving inside of her, and ashe was what he was hungering for.… Ashe—it’s something everybody’s got moving inside, but you’ve got to keep giving it everywhere to everybody, sharing it always.

As a devout Catholic, Thomas’s European lover Maria Cosway fully accepts the message of John the Evangelist that God is love. But her belief is not as comfortable (or comforting) as one might expect. When Thomas begins to raise an age-old question, she fiercely interrupts him …

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John the Evangelist, El Greco

THOMAS: How can a loving God—?

MARIA: Oh, the old, old question always, and so foolish! Permit of evil? Allow there should be pain, and cruelty, and sickness, the death of your Martha? Listen to what I say, Thomas. He is not a loving God. He is Love. And if you do not understand God, it is for that you do not understand Love. There is nothing—nothing—in the world, or the heaven, or the hell—more—implacabile, more—more terrible or—cruel than Love. There is not justice, there is nothing kind or gentle in Love, none. Love kills all dream of perfection, every hope we have. It is the hardest, coldest thing of all there is.

(The Shackles of Liberty is the winner this year’s Southern Playwrights Competitionsponsored by Jacksonville State University.)

Listening to the stones

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In September I called this piece Stone Songs. It hung around our house, sounding more like a guttural chant than a song. It was really about patterns, debris, water-polished stones in a stream. Now it’s renamed Streambed and described this way for my entry in the 2017 North Carolina Artists Exhibition sponsored by the Raleigh Fine Arts Society:

Streambed expresses a world full of life
even when it may seem most silent,
mysterious even when it might seem most ordinary.

It was accepted in the show, opening in March. They informed me that “a total of 607 artworks by 353 artists from 105 cities and towns in North Carolina were submitted for consideration this year.  After much deliberation, 72 pieces were selected by our juror, Michael Rooks, Wieland Family Curator of Modern and Contemporary Art at the High Museum in Atlanta.” Maybe it pays to listen. —Pat

The Song of the Hole in the Sky

written for the inauguration of President Donald J. Trump
January 20, 2017

Ask me no questions, I’ll tell you no truths:
That’s a motto I’ve tried to live by.
But up yonder there’s a hole in the sky;
And you want to hear how it got there.

I’ll tell you now—but don’t expect
The truth to put you easy.
It’s a tale with neither reason nor rhyme,
And never a moral worth learning.

Up on that cliff—see that rubble and glass?
It used to be a lighthouse.
We villagers built her to keep ships safe,
And we took our turns as her keepers.

Don’t take me wrong—we weren’t good souls,
Nor generous nor kindly.
But we took our turns and shared her light,
And her beam shone bright and ample.

Walking one morning where we walk now,
I saw a gang of sailors
Crowding high by the lighthouse rail,
Smashing her windows to pieces.

I stood on this beach and gaped and stared,
Not thinking how to stop them.
I called out loud to ask them why,
And this is what they told me:

“This house is a whore who pays no mind
To what kind of man gets her favors.
This house is a whore who shines her beam
Alike on the good and the wicked.”

“This house is no whore—just a thing,” I said.
“She’s made of rocks and mortar
And means no love, and means no hate.”
That put them in a fury:

“You’ve been to school and read your books
And think you’re better and wiser;
But you’ve not spent your life at sea
So hold your tongue, old lubber.

“Unless you’ve spent your life at sea,
You’ve never had to suffer;
You’ve never been jilted or hurt or wronged,
So hold your tongue, old lubber.

“You owe us your all—your food and your drink,
Your every joy and pleasure,
The love by your side, your child, your abode,
Your every breath and heartbeat.

“We freeze and roast and puke and drown
So you can sleep in satin;
Our arms grow hard and hands burn raw
To keep yours soft and wanton.”

The sailors pulled her lantern loose
And threw it over the railing.
It hit the ground right where you stand,
And smashed into pitiless splinters.

“But the rocks on this cape are sharp,” I said,
“And hidden away at nighttime.
Or don’t you believe in rocks at all?
Don’t you believe in darkness?”

“We believe whatever we choose,” they said.
“And you’d best believe what we do.
We’ve a right to whatever truth we like,
And you’ve got no right to say different.

“The polestar’s got nothing to do with north;
Just choose some gull to follow.
Poxes and scabs don’t come from whores,
But from your books and learning.

“To calm a squall, just whistle a tune;
For a waterspout, snap your fingers.
An iceberg melts with the wink of an eye;
Stir up a fair wind by dancing.

“We’ve been to the edge of this flat world;
Believe it because we say so.
We’ve seen where the ocean drops into space;
Don’t dare to call us liars.”

By then the sailors were smashing the walls
To rubble with their sledgehammers.
As they climbed down the spiraling way,
They ripped up the steps behind them.

“But how will you fare without the light?”
I asked them all. “You’ll surely
Lose your way, steering wild and blind;
You’ll break on these rocks and perish.”

“The light’s no good, it hurts our eyes,
It softens us, makes us feeble.
When we’re not cursed by that blinding glare,
The dark will surely guide us.

“The dark will be true, the dark will stand fast;
The dark never sleeps on duty;
Sailing this way, we’ll look out for the dark;
The dark will lead and we’ll follow.”

They finished their work and left this place
A pile of glass and rubble.
There’s a hole in the sky where the light once shone;
Sailors now use it to steer by.

Is the darkness true? Who am I to say?
The sailors said to believe them.
I’ve never sailed, don’t know what they know;
I’m just a foolish old lubber.

And yet I’ve slaved hard for my food and my drink,
My every joy and pleasure,
The love by my side, my child, my abode,
My every breath and heartbeat.

My heart has been broke and trod underfoot;
I’ve starved, and I’ve been cheated.
Through rotting teeth in its naked skull,
This world tells its lies forever.

And I’m sick of it all, my heart clenches with rage
At legions of apes and hyenas.
But how could I know what those sailors knew?
I’m only a foolish old lubber.

For the dark is strong, the dark stands fast,
And sailors faithfully follow;
And the hulls pile up on these sharp rocks,
And the salt air stinks to heaven.

The hulls pile up on these sharp rocks,
Chewed at by gulls and vermin;
The teeth of the surf bite fast and hard,
And the salt air stinks to heaven.

You and me, we’ve been to school,
We’re deep in books and learning.
The better, I guess, for the work we do now.
But why do you stand there staring?

There’s dead on the beach, more washing in,
And not a corpse fit to bury,
Nor sand enough in this whole wide world;
Keep stacking them high for burning.

© 2016, PlaysOnIdeas

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Cape St. George Lighthouse, Jervis Bay Village, Australia