Send No More Angels

Giotto—The Angel Gabriel Sent by God 

Father god we pray to you

please send us no more angels.

Lend us neither son nor daughter.

We turn the words

of every avatar

into cause for murder.

For now our only holy path

is to suffer life without you

so we never speak your name again

to justify atrocity.

But please check back in a thousand years or so

to see if we’re ready

to learn to love.

Amen … amen … amen.

—Pat Perrin


The Cleansing — a short play


Mary and Martha
Judah Ben-Hur

The scene is the Mount of Olives; Jesus sits on a stone bench staring forward; Mary enters, followed by Martha.

I’ve found him.


Sitting right here like nothing happened.

What do you think you’re doing?


For what?


Temple of Herod, Holyland Model of Jerusalem.

JESUS (pointing).
The Temple is about to fall; soon
not one stone will be left upon another.
Watch here and see for yourself.


Let’s run.
Your disciples have fled already.

Why run? What’s the danger?

After what you did just now?

You’re joking!

The Temple guards—
they’ll find you here and take you!

No. Not today. My betrayal is still
four days away—I’m safe till then.
Do you know how my Father makes figs?

No parables, please!

Not right now!
Let’s hurry home to Bethany
where we will all be safe
and you can tell your stories
and I can make you dinner
while she sits at your feet
doing nothing as usual.


Tintoretto: Jesus at the Home of Martha and Mary.

Since you’re curious, I’ll tell you.
My Father sinks his mighty hand
into a soft shaft of sunlight
as if it were riverbank clay—
like this, you see? And he seizes
a warm, pliant fistful of it
and squeezes it tight—like this.
See how the yellow light
oozes out between my fingers?
He holds the sunlight fast
a little while—just like this—
then slowly loosens his grip
to reveal a ripe and luscious fig
that tastes just like the sun.

(JESUS opens his hand to reveal a coin)

But I don’t see a fig.

I see a coin with Caesar’s face on it.

(JUDAH BEN-HUR enters.)


Denarius of Tiberius, known as the tribute penny.

Go away!

He’s innocent!

You’ve got the wrong man!

Foolish women—what do I look like?
A priest, a Temple guard, a stooge
of Herod or Pilate, either one?

Who are you, then?

I’ll tell you.
His name is Judah, a son of Hur—
an angry soul, filled with hate.
The friend he most loved in his youth
betrayed him into Roman slavery;
he was chained for three years
to a galley’s oar; but he won freedom
and became a Roman citizen;
yet still he remains a Jew—
the most bitter Jew in Israel.

You’re bitter yourself today.


Byzantine icon of Jesus cursing the fig tree.

So I am. I wish I knew why.
(to JUDAH)
I killed a tree this morning
an innocent fig tree just outside
the city gates. A strange thing to do.

It bore no figs.

It’s not the season.

You’re a carpenter, and a carpenter’s son;
that wasn’t the first tree you’ve killed.
Learn to kill men, my Lord.
It’s the one thing I have to teach you.

Can you teach me to kill men without rage,
the way a carpenter kills a tree?

What you did just now at the Temple—


El Greco: Christ Driving the Money-Changers from the Temple.

JESUS (interrupting).
A mistake. The Temple now
belongs to Caesar, not my Father.
I had no business there at all.
Its time is over—in moments now
a breath of icy love will send it
crashing under its own weight,
the weight of this world’s greed.

The Temple won’t fall—not till
you bring it down yourself.
The moment is now—you mustn’t wait!
The money changers’ backs are stinging
from the whippings you gave them,
and they scuttle about like scorpions,
grubbing up the coins you spilt
when you overturned their tables—
denarii, drachmas, darics, shekels,
the currencies of all the world
jumbled in gibbering heaps,
worth nothing until they’re sorted
and weighed anew. All commerce
is suspended—and all authority,
the power of priests and Rome alike.
The time is here—this very moment—
to cast off the yoke of Rome,
to lift up the poor and crush the rich,
and make of Israel the Kingdom
that you yourself have promised.

And you’ve raised three legions
to bring me victory. Right now
they mingle like cutpurses among
these millions who have come
to Jerusalem to celebrate
the Passover.

How did you know?

ramon novarro-1

Ramon Novarro as Ben-Hur, 1925.

Three years you followed me
with thousands of men with knives
in their belts. I wasn’t supposed
to notice? While I sought farmers
and fishermen and tax collectors
and mothers, wives, and harlots,
you gathered soldiers. You trained them
in the lava beds—to guard and strike
with their fists, to cut and thrust
with javelins and swords,
an army of Galileans styled
like Romans to destroy the Romans.

Your army—the Kingdom’s army.

Are you sure they are enough?
Do they have spears that hurl themselves
from tunnels forged from iron
and tear men’s bodies to pieces?
Do they ride winged chariots
that drop fire from the sky,
consuming cities faster than thought?
Can you make the winds themselves
breathe writhing and devouring death
into your enemies’ bones?
Can you unleash the power of the sun?
Do you have an arm like God?

Rabbi, why all these riddles?
Why do you brood and wait?
Rome’s power is puny beside yours.
Rise up now, work miracles
to liberate Israel—the kind
I’ve seen you work a hundred times.

Miracles? What miracles? Tell me.

You’ve healed the sick and lame,
the palsied and the paralyzed,
cast out devils, made blind men see;
you cured and cleansed my own
dear mother and sister of leprosy;
and Lazarus, these women’s brother—
he died, you gave him life again;
and when a multitude was hungry
you fed them, all of them.


Bernardo Strozzi: Feeding the Multitudes.

Wait—I fed a multitude, you say?

Of course you did.

You know you did.

Were you there?

Right near you, yes.

So tell me—how did I do it?

My Lord, everyone knows—

No—not what you’ve heard,
but what you saw and felt and did.
I want to hear it.

Five thousand gathered by the sea
to hear you speak—but where
was food enough for them to eat?
Two hundred denarii would not buy
enough bread for that multitude.

And you—did you lack food as well?

No. I’d brought bread of my own,
and so had others, but not most;
thousands more were waiting, hungry.
Then Andrew found a boy who’d brought
five loaves of barley and two fishes.
You told the multitude to sit
and gave thanks to your Father;
you broke the bread and gave it to some,
and you gave away the fishes,
and then … Oh, Lord, I am ashamed.

Tell me.

I’d had no wine, and yet
I became drunk—drunk and hungry.
I tore my own bread, stuffed my mouth,
and then …

Tell me.

The old man next to me—
his hunger became mine,
his wrinkled lips, his aching belly,
I felt his craving as my own.
And on my other side, a mother
unfed, her baby at her breast—
I became her too, I felt the grip
of her baby’s gums pulling her dug,
felt the dryness inside her.
And then … Oh, Lord …

Tell me.

I rose stark mad to my feet, reeling
with bounty and munificence,
and tore my bread and crammed
some in the old man’s hand, then
in the mother’s too, and staggered
giving amid the multitude
while others, as drunk with love as I,
reeled all around me, giving
and receiving much, much more
than all their fill. And then—
and then when it was all done …

Twelve baskets were left brimming
with bread and fishes …

… the leavings after
the five thousand were sated.

But I … Oh, Lord …

Tell me.

Such horror of great brightness!
I was sick to my soul, lost to myself—
lost, all lost, the son of Hur,
his lonely desire, the solitary
warrior thirsty for vengeance,
all gone, my precious life was gone.
I ran down to the Galilean shore
and retched up all I’d eaten until
I was alone in my own skin
and not filled with a multitude
made drunk with lovingkindness.

(JUDAH is weeping.)

Leave me now, Judah—go.
You have chosen another way.

How can you be so indifferent?

What do you think I am?

You are my King, Israel’s King,
much mightier than Caesar,
more splendid even than Solomon—
a king to rule the world forever.

I am a door. A door is indifferent;
it makes way to everyone.

(MARY and MARTHA begin to reel about, as if drunken.)

What’s this?

What’s happening?

The ground—it rolls and shakes.

I can’t stay on my feet.

I can’t either.

(JESUS and JUDAH seem undisturbed by the forces felt by MARY and MARTHA.)

Dance, then.


If we can’t stand, we’ll dance!

(MARTHA and MARY dance wildly to silent music.)


Original edition of Ben-Hur by Lew Wallace

All love is cold and open.
I am the open door of love;
to pass through, open yourself,
go naked through the cold,
or else consign yourself forever
to the Kingdom of Caesar.


Each moment is forever;
the Temple is always standing;
the Temple is always falling.

MARY (pointing).

MARTHA (pointing).
Look there!

The Temple!

It’s dancing too!

No, it’s falling!

Its white stone frowning faces,
its porticoes, pinnacles, ramparts …

… all breaking, breaking
like twigs in children’s hands!

The sacred veil tears clean in two …

… the Holy of Holies now
stands revealed …

… now disappears
into the vaults below …

… and dust clouds billow skyward!

The air rings with falling stone …

… the thunder and music of love!

Let’s go there—before the dust settles!

Yes, we’ll dance among the clouds!

(MARY and MARTHA hurry away.)

Hatred is soft and sweet;
love is hard and bitter.
My time in this place is done.
The friend I love most of all
will soon betray me out of love—
cold and indifferent love,
strong and unyielding love,
the biting kiss of love.

(JESUS leaves; JUDAH stands alone, facing forward.)

But the Temple—it still stands!



Q&A — about Wim’s new play “The Shackles of Liberty”

18300908_1593515600660928_3404351905728072049_nQ: What is The Shackles of Liberty about?
Set during the Thomas Jefferson’s last day in Paris, the play portrays the beginning of his lifelong relationship with Sally Hemings. It also deals with his involvement with the nascent French Revolution, his liaison with the brilliant portrait painter Maria Cosway, and an irony-charged confrontation with his rebellious teenaged daughter, Patsy.

Q: Why does this story matter? Why now?
In the wake of the tragic events in Charlottesville in August 2017, the Jefferson scholar Annette Gordon-Reed wrote a piece for The New York Review of Books entitled “Charlottesville: Why Jefferson Matters.” In it she wrote …

“Perhaps coming fully to grips with the paradoxes that Jefferson’s life presents is what being an American is about.”

I think that’s true. And I think that those paradoxes come most vividly into focus in the story of Thomas and Sally. It’s the story of an “apostle of liberty” who owned slaves, and of an oppressed young woman who dictated to him the terms of her own destiny. I think this pairing somehow captures what we are as a nation and a people. We need to understand them in order to understand the America that we inherited—an America of tragic failures as well as noble ideals, achievements, and aspirations. We need to understand Thomas and Sally in order to better understand ourselves.

Q: What are some of your aesthetic influences and techniques?
To borrow a phrase from Bertolt Brecht, my goal is to “make the familiar strange”—to portray iconic figures of American history in a way that provokes the audience to fresh thought, insight, and evaluation. Tactics used to achieve this include having Thomas Jefferson portrayed by a woman, non-realistic staging that splits Jefferson into his “public” and “private” personae, and a range of songs and music that metaphorically enlarges a single setting to suggest the three continents from which the play’s issues arise: Europe, Africa, and America.

Q: What kind of impact—artistic, intellectual, communal, civic, social, etc.—do you hope the play will have?
The Shackles of Liberty is rich in ideas about race, feminism, family, religion, politics, power, and historical change. In the same spirit as Broadway’s Hamilton, it delivers a healing message about the meaning of America. To me, the story of Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings is a kind of American creation myth. By delving into the heart of their story, I hope to encourage American audiences of all backgrounds to think of themselves as their descendants. Perhaps, by “making the familiar strange,” I can also make the strange familiar—to help release us from the otherizing that now rends American culture and society.

Q: What is the history of this play?
I have been working on this project off and on since 1978, when I first read Fawn Brodie’s groundbreaking biography Jefferson: An Intimate History. During these 40 years, I have honed my skills as a storyteller, educator, and historian by writing plays, poems, novels, and nonfiction books—many of them dealing with American history, including the writing of the Declaration of Independence. All the while I have been following developments in Jeffersonian scholarship, especially the work of Annette Gordon-Reed. The Shackles of Liberty is the culmination of an adult lifetime of thought, study, and creative effort.

Q: What awards and honors has the play received so far?
The Shackles of Liberty was performed by the University of Jacksonville Department of Drama in May, 2017. This workshop production and a $1,000 prize were awards for winning the Southern Playwrights Competition, which was open to writers in thirteen states. The play was also a semifinalist for the Eugene O’Neill Theatre Center’s 2017 New Playwrights Conference; one of two finalists of 2015 Maxim Mazumdar New Play Competition; a semifinalist for the 2016 Ashland New Plays Festival; a semifinalist for Road Theatre’s Summer Playwrights Festival 8, 2017; reached the second round for The Phoenix Theatre Festival of New American Theatre, 2017; and was one of the top 10 finalists for the Centre Stage Theatre’s 2018 New Play Festival.

The text of The Shackles of Liberty is available on the New Play Exchange or by contacting Wim personally.


Operation Ares — a short play


Adolf Hitler
Wernher von Braun

The scene is Adolf Hitler’s vast office in the New Reich Chancellery in Berlin, December 1944. Downstage, an imaginary window in the “fourth wall” looks out into the night. Hitler is seated at his desk. Wearing an SS uniform, Wernher von Braun enters and salutes.

Peenemünde, Start einer V2

V-2 launch in 1943.

VON BRAUN. Sieg Heil, Mein Führer!

(HITLER rises from his chair and begins stalking around VON BRAUN, who stands at attention.)

HITLER. Where are my rockets?


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.


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. 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.


HITLER. You may relax, Major von Braun.

(VON BRAUN stands at ease, but anything but relaxed; there is no place for him to sit.)

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.


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.


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?


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.)


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?


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.



VON BRAUN. Yes, Mein Führer. Love and …


VON BRAUN. Altruism.

HITLER. Explain.

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

HITLER. His name?


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.


(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 downstage and gaze through the imaginary “fourth wall” window into the night.)

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. (clenching his fist) 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.



Walt Disney and Wernher von Braun, 1954.

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:


Actor Joseph Jefferson as Rip Van Winkle (1896)

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.


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 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 lost, 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 more 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 that resounds to the present day.

The Cave of Euripides on Salamis Island (poem)


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.


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


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. Queen Elizabeth sits at the table reading. Across the table from her is an empty chair. William Shakespeare enters.


Elizabeth I, the Ermine Portrait; attributed to William Segar

ELIZABETH. Master Shakespeare.

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


(SHAKESPEARE does so.)


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.
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.


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, 1623

SHAKESPEARE. I’d be a shoddy playwright then.

ELIZABETH. You’d be a live one.

SHAKESPEARE. I implore Your Majesty —


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.


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?


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.)


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?


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.


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 lifts an imaginary crown from her head and holds an imaginary scepter.)


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 imaginary crown on SHAKESPEARE’s head, the imaginary 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.)



Panorama of London by Claes Van Visscher, 1616