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A Woman on Fire

Play Three of the Adventures of Fiona MacQuillin

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Atlanta, 1864.  A young woman finds herself trapped in a house where two men love her and then a third man shows up.  4 men, 3 women, simple sets.

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Scene One

(Rosenbloom parlor; morning; a well-dressed but uncomfortable FIONA is seated; UNCLE MAX is showing her dresses from a pile of dresses on the couch; NATHAN is in a wheelchair, leg still bandaged; behind him stands SELMA, the maid/slave of the house)

UNCLE MAX: (with dress)  Do you like this one?  Or…(second dress)…maybe this one.

FIONA: They’re both…nice.

UNCLE MAX: I have decided I can give you one of these dresses, Fiona.  Or…maybe two.  Depending.

FIONA: I’m fine in the dress I have now.  Thank you.

UNCLE MAX: Now when I saw this one I just knew it would fit you.  And I knew I wanted to see you in it.  Why don’t you go upstairs and change into this one?  Let me see how this looks on you.

FIONA: I don’t feel like changing my clothes right now. 

UNCLE MAX: Oh, but my dear…

FIONA: The dress I am wearing is fine. 

UNCLE MAX: But don’t you want another? 

FIONA: I don’t need another dress, Mister Max.

UNCLE MAX: Oh, never in my life have I heard a woman say she doesn’t need another dress.

SELMA: The woman say she don’t need another dress.

NATHAN: I heard her, too.

UNCLE MAX: No kibitzing from over there.  And what are you two doing in this room? 

FIONA: I asked them to be in here. 

UNCLE MAX: Why?

NATHAN: She knew you were coming home from the store with more dresses.

SELMA: Again.

UNCLE MAX: (pauses, overcomes his embarrassment)  If you must be in the room then you both can just mind your own business.  (with scarf)  Now…this is a very fine scarf.  Here, feel this material. 

FIONA: I’m warm enough already, sir.  In this dress and with this collar.

NATHAN: And with all this attention. 

UNCLE MAX: This scarf has an Irish lace pattern.  Women in this town would stab each other with knitting needles to have such a scarf. 

FIONA: Nine out of ten women in this town are dressed in black, sir.  I can see them out the windows.

UNCLE MAX: Now you shouldn’t be looking out any windows, Fiona.  You’ve got to keep the curtains closed. 

FIONA: I can’t stare at the walls all day.

UNCLE MAX: Nathan has given you books.

FIONA: And I thank you, Nathan.  I do.  I thank you very much for those.

NATHAN: You’re welcome.

UNCLE MAX: And I have given you…

FIONA: I know everything that you have given me. 

SELMA: And I know what he wants in return.

UNCLE MAX: Selma, shut up!

SELMA: Maybe I shuts up and maybe I won’t.

UNCLE MAX: Leave the room.

SELMA: I can’t be sold again.  Not since them blue soldiers is here.  Ain’t gonna be no more selling of black people round here.  Now ain’t that so? 

UNCLE MAX: I did not buy you, Selma. 

SELMA: No, you traded for me.  You sent Mister Beasley a bunch of things from your store.  Including dresses that looked just like those. 

NATHAN: I remember that.

SELMA: And the girl is right.  Every woman in this town is wearing black.  She goes out in one of those ball room dresses you got there the whole town is gonna stop and look.

UNCLE MAX: No one asked for your opinion.

SELMA: No one ever does.

UNCLE MAX: Get her out of here, Nathan.

NATHAN: I’m not the help.

UNCLE MAX: Both of you are forgetting your place.

SELMA: Ain’t a day of my life anyone has ever let me forget my place.

UNCLE MAX: (to Nathan)  She’s like this because of you.  There is not a colored woman in this town, in this whole state, in the entire Confederacy I would wager, who can get away with saying the things she says in this house.  And I blame you.

NATHAN: She does have a streak of unremitting belligerence, which is often followed by an impenetrable sullenness.

SELMA: I love it when ya-all use them big words. 

UNCLE MAX: Oh my God…

SELMA: I’m the most educated black woman in this town because I’m living in this house.

UNCLE MAX: Take these dresses upstairs to Miss Fiona’s room.

FIONA: Oh, Mister Max…

SELMA: Ain’t no more room in that bedroom.

FIONA: I’m smothered in that room.

MISTER MAX: So put them in the other bedroom.

FIONA: No please, just take them back to your store.  I don’t want them.

MISTER MAX: But I want you to have them, my dear.

FIONA: Oh, Mister Max, please.  Stop.  (rises)  Just…stop. 

UNCLE MAX: Fiona…what’s wrong? 

(FIONA crosses into library, closes door, sighs, exits L; pause)

NATHAN: I believe the lady wants to be left alone.

UNCLE MAX: Selma, take those dresses upstairs.

SELMA: (gathering dresses)  Some folks got more than they need, some folks got nothing, and some folks don’t like what they’re being offered.

MISTER MAX: And no muttering today. 

SELMA: Mutter, mutter, mutter.

UNCLE MAX: There isn’t another house in Atlanta where you could get away with talking to me like that!

SELMA: That don’t mean I like here.  That don’t mean I like it here one bit.

UNCLE MAX: Take all the dresses.

SELMA: If you don’t want them wrinkled I gots to make at least two trips.  (exits upstairs with dresses)

UNCLE MAX: It’s your fault she’s like this.  (begins to pace, stops now and then to stare at library door)

NATHAN: Like what?

UNCLE MAX: Oh, don’t give me that.  You know exactly what. 

NATHAN: Talking back to “massa”?

UNCLE MAX: I have never liked the word “master.” 

NATHAN: It does have an ugly tone.  Would you prefer “boss?”

UNCLE MAX: I would prefer to be obeyed when I give an order. 

NATHAN: Have you tried ordering Fiona to just visit your bedroom?

UNCLE MAX: I’m not that kind of man.

NATHAN: Not yet.

UNCLE MAX: She’ll come to her senses.

NATHAN: You have given her half the store and she still hasn’t come to her senses.

UNCLE MAX: Oh, I can’t sell those.  Had them from before the war. 

NATHAN: She’s right.  Women only buy black these days. 

UNCLE MAX: If they buy anything at all.  Which they don’t.  How could they? 

NATHAN: And everyone wants credit. 

UNCLE MAX: If everyone paid their bills I’d be the richest man in town.

NATHAN: Is the store closed today?  You’re home.

UNCLE MAX: Cousin Leo is behind the counter.  Did you want to go down and help him?

NATHAN: With this leg?

UNCLE MAX: Ah yes.  Your perfect excuse for doing no work.

NATHAN: It keeps me from going upstairs.

UNCLE MAX: That’s your problem.  A shame our guest cannot receive you in her quarters. 

NATHAN: Does she receive you?  In her bedroom? 

UNCLE MAX: If she did……would half the store be here in the house? 

NATHAN: (laughs)  You’re embarrassing yourself.  Do you know you’re embarrassing yourself?

UNCLE MAX: Yes, yes, yes I know.  I’m a fool.  And I can’t help myself and I don’t care. 

NATHAN: Well that is at least…refreshingly honest.  And deeply disturbing.

UNCLE MAX: You had your chance with this woman.  And you abandoned her.

NATHAN: No, I saved her.  I saved her twice.   

UNCLE MAX: You saved her at least once, yes.  She even said those words to me herself. 

NATHAN: She did?  When?

UNCLE MAX: She and I have had certain conversations.  And she is well aware that I am the one saving her now, hiding her in this house. 

NATHAN: How long are you going to hide her?  Until you get what you want? 

UNCLE MAX: Don’t be crude.  I’m still young enough to start a new family.  Fifty years old and fit as a fiddle. 

NATHAN: You’re going to propose?  I had no idea you had become this…what would be the word? Affected?  Deranged?

UNCLE MAX: Why?  Why is that so hard to believe?  Her and me.

NATHAN: Well for one…age.

UNCLE MAX: Stability and prosperity are great attractions, my boy.  They are two things you will probably never know.

NATHAN: Our community will frown.

UNCLE MAX: Oh, tell me something I don’t know “Mister Smart as Hell.”   

NATHAN: Would you keep a kosher home?

UNCLE MAX: Well…if I got her to convert.

NATHAN: Oy vei.

UNCLE MAX: I have never been more on fire with love for a woman.  Never.

NATHAN: At your age?

UNCLE MAX: At any age.  A man my age knows life becomes more precious.  He knows the things he’s missed.  Why should I be denied a little joy in the middle of all this…pain!  Agony!  Chaos!  The whole world falling apart. 

NATHAN: And you chose now to fall in love?

UNCLE MAX: You don’t stop living in the middle of a war.  Quite the opposite.  The days become more precious.  The hours.  The minutes.  Everything intensifies. 

NATHAN: (pauses; quietly)  I know what it is like to be in love with Fiona MacQuillin. 

UNCLE MAX: Yes, Boy Chick.  And you blew your chance.

NATHAN: Maybe.

UNCLE MAX: No maybe about it.  Most certainly you did.  Without a doubt.

NATHAN: Has she said something to you? 

UNCLE MAX: Well…

NATHAN: In one of your private conversations?  Upstairs or anywhere else?

UNCLE MAX: A gentleman would not say what a lady has told him in confidence.

NATHAN: What did she say? 

UNCLE MAX: What am I?  Your go between?  A gossip?  Some messenger?

NATHAN: Has she said anything about me?

UNCLE MAX: Actually, when I think about it…I don’t think she’s said a single word about you.

NATHAN: Really?

UNCLE MAX: Has never mentioned your name even once.  Go figure.

NATHAN: Oh God, listen to us.  Two school boys.

UNCLE MAX: Yes.  Ridiculous, I know.  (sits)  But what is a beautiful woman for anyway?  To make you dream of something you never had?  Perfect happiness?  Ha.  (pauses)  Still…

NATHAN: We are all drawn on by the unattainable.  And disappointed when it is beyond our reach. 

UNCLE MAX: Some even have it for a while.  Then let it slip through their fingers.

NATHAN: We are both fools.  But you are the older fool. 

UNCLE MAX: No doubt.  I don’t even want to leave the house anymore.  It means being away from her.  And putting up with what the world has turned into.  Out there.  Misery and grief.  In here.  Barely enough to feed ourselves.

NATHAN: Much less our guest.

UNCLE MAX: And for that she should be grateful.  When I first saw her she was in rags.  Out on the street in rags.  I gave her dresses.  And jewelry. 

NATHAN: You gave her colored glass.

UNCLE MAX: That one piece is not glass.  That one piece is three carats.

NATHAN: Maybe I should tell her about the other two.

UNCLE MAX: No, no, no, please don’t do that. 

NATHAN: (laughing)  Oh, Uncle Max.  I’ve never seen you like this.

UNCLE MAX: Am I a bad man?  Because my appetite is worn on my sleeve?  You want her, too.  I know you still do.  (pauses)  Have you been sneaking into her bedroom in the middle of the night?

NATHAN: In this wheelchair?  Up the stairs?

UNCLE MAX: Oh my God.  I can hardly think straight these days.

NATHAN: I’m in the servants’ quarters.  In the room next to Selma.

UNCLE MAX: Where you belong.  With your equals.  Because neither of you wants to work. 

NATHAN: Maybe neither of us likes the wages.

UNCLE MAX: I pay you a salary.  At least I did.  Do you know what it cost me to get you that wheelchair?

NATHAN: I know exactly.  It was a lot.  Thank you.

UNCLE MAX: There’s probably not six of them in the whole town.  And right now they could use about a thousand of them. 

NATHAN: So you’re telling me I’m lucky? 

UNCLE MAX: I’m telling you…you best be careful when it comes to this girl. (loud knock on front door; pause) Selma.  Selma!  (no response)  Were you expecting anyone?

NATHAN: Me?  No.

UNCLE MAX: If we just sit here we can pretend that no one’s home.

NATHAN: You just called out for Selma.

UNCLE MAX: Do’h!  (pauses; fierce whisper)  Selma!  Selma!!

(second loud knock on front door; pause)

NATHAN: What if it’s someone from the Union Army?

UNCLE MAX: Why do you say that?

NATHAN: You know the rumors.

UNCLE MAX: Of course I do.  Do you think they’ve come to tell us something?

NATHAN: I don’t know.  Maybe we should answer the door.

(a third knock at front door)

UNCLE MAX: Where’s Selma?  Why do I have a maid if she won’t even answer the door?  Selma! (another knock at front door) Ohhh…. (rises, crosses, opens front door)

MISS SALLY: Hello, Mister Max. 

UNCLE MAX: (taken aback, pauses; regains himself)  What can I do for you, Miss Sally?

MISS SALLY: You can invite me in.  We have business to talk over.

UNCLE MAX: What business would you and I have?

MISS SALLY: Invite me in and I’ll tell you all about it.

UNCLE MAX: Why don’t you come by the store tomorrow? 

MISS SALLY: I was by your store yesterday and today.  Never known you not to be in your store, Mister Max.  And with all these new customers in town? 

UNCLE MAX: Another time would be best.

MISS SALLY: (pushes her way in)  I think you want to see me now, sir.  (looks around)  Oh my, very nice.  I don’t think I’ve ever been on this particular block.  (to Nathan)  Hello there.  And your name is ah…

NATHAN: Nathan.

MISS SALLY: That’s right.  How is your leg?

NATHAN: Still attached.

UNCLE MAX: They might still cut his leg off.

MISS SALLY: I’m sorry to hear that.  If I remember correctly you’ve been down to my place…or what used to my place…only two times.  The first time was some months ago.

Atlanta Is Burning

Play Two of The Adventures of Fiona MacQuillin

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1864.  A young woman strikes a bargain to be a card dealer in a bordello.  As long as she wins at cards she does not have to do the other kind of work in the house.  4 women, 3 men, simple sets.

*******

SCENE ONE

(morning; street, Atlanta; lights rise on exhausted FIONA; a well-dressed middle aged woman, MISS SALLY enters, stops, regards her)

MISS SALLY; You tired, honey?

FIONA; Between you and me…I am down to my last bone.

MISS SALLY: Looks like you could use a bath and a good meal.

FIONA: You got one?

MISS SALLY: You want a job?

FIONA: Doing what?

MISS SALLY: Being nice to men.

FIONA: I got a record of being not so nice to men.

MISS SALLY: That’d be a something my house don’t handle. 

FIONA: Pardon?

MISS SALLY: You got to go all the way to New Orleans to get into that whipping business.  That’s a specialty item my house don’t provide.

FIONA: Huh?

MISS SALLY: Honey, at my house we’re just old fashioned kind of girls.  We’re nice to men.  Real nice. Nice as a woman can be.

FIONA: So I have to sleep with them? 

MISS SALLY: Tell you the truth there ain’t much sleep involved.  But there is money.

FIONA: How much?

MISS SALLY: As much money as a woman like you could ever make in this town.   

FIONA: How much?

MISS SALLY: Depends on how much you wanna work.  Woman really wants to set her mind to it she could make a dollar a night.  Maybe even two dollars a night.

FIONA: How many men would I have to be…”nice to”…to make that kind of money?

MISS SALLY: At my house it’s a dollar a throw.  And you get ten percent.

FIONA: A dime?

MISS SALLY: Now how about that.  You are the first girl I ever met actually knew what ten percent of a dollar was.  Here I thought you was green as grass, come down out of them hills.  You did come down from out of them hills, didn’t ya honey?

FIONA: I did.  Got an education on that road, too. 

MISS SALLY: How far you walk to get to Atlanta?

FIONA: Hundred miles if you walk straight line.  But I ain’t walked no straight line getting here.

MISS SALLY: None of us do, honey.  Now me, I’m in the only business they let a woman be in.  Called the oldest business for a reason.  Not a bad business.  Look at it this way:  you got it, you sell it, but you still got it.

FIONA: Maybe.  But you got all those strangers who come and go.

MISS SALLY: (laughs)  Why don’t you stand up turn around for me?

FIONA: Why?

MISS SALLY: I need to take a better look at you.

FIONA: I ain’t some cow at a fair.

MISS SALLY: Okay.  I got no doubt we can work with what you got.  I reckon after a nice hot bath and some new clothes, a girl like you could clear seven dollars a week easy.

FIONA: Would that be gold or Confederate folding money?

MISS SALLY: Ain’t much gold left in this town.  But what little there is does tend to visit my house. 

FIONA: You pay your girls in gold?

MISS SALLY: I pay my girls three things.  Room, board, and good Confederate folding money.

FIONA: If I ever went into your line of work…I would only take gold.

MISS SALLY: My, my, and listen to you.  I bet you ain’t got one friend in this whole town, Missy.  Else you wouldn’t be sitting our here like you’re doing.  Now ain’t that so?

FIONA: Just about. 

MISS SALLY: You already look like a woman in my line of work.  Except I’m dressed a lot better than you.  Would you like a dress like this?

FIONA: Yes. 

MISS SALLY: I got a whole room full of dresses.  That’s part of the deal, too.  Forgot to mention that.

FIONA: (pauses)  And shoes?

MISS SALLY: Sure.  Right after you take a good long hot bath.  Wouldn’t you like to be clean again?

FIONA: (pauses)  Yes.

MISS SALLY: Way you’re dressed now you be lucky to get a penny a throw.  Be lucky they don’t throw you in jail.  Think you’re gonna get paid in gold out here?  I bet you never even seen gold.

FIONA: Yes, I have.

MISS SALLY: Well, that may be.  But right about now a good stiff breeze blow you half way across town.  But if you come with me…by tonight you’ll have a bath, a meal, a dress, a place to sleep, and you won’t get yourself arrested being a common woman of the town.    

FIONA: I’m don’t want to be in your line of work.

MISS SALLY: Oh, ain’t so bad.  Some girls even learn to like it.

FIONA: That ain’t gonna be me. A whore ain’t gonna be my identity.

MISS SALLY: What the hell does that word even mean?  Identity. You oughta listen to your stomach, girl.  I bet you’re hungry.

FIONA: Ain’t that hungry.

MISS SALLY: Ever slept with a man?  Is that it?  Never done it?  Saving yourself?  For marriage?  Like a good girl? You a virgin?

FIONA: Why should I tell you?

MISS SALLY: We do a special thing when a virgin comes to my place.  Or any new girl.  Any new girl is a virgin.  Men set such stock in that.  I have made a damn good living from the foolishness of men for the last ten years.  And there ain’t nothing makes a man more foolish than to think he’s going to bed with a virgin.  So we do a special thing when we get a new girl at my house.  We hold an auction. 

FIONA: An auction?

MISS SALLY: Never heard of one?

FIONA: I seen a slave sold at auction once.

MISS SALLY: So there you go. 

FIONA: And now it’s my turn? 

MISS SALLY: It’s kind of an honor.

FIONA: No thank you.  I have seen an auction. 

(a well-dressed middle aged Jewish man, UNCLE MAX ROSENBLOOM, enters, crosses, touches his hat but does not take it off)

UNCLE MAX: Ladies.

MISS SALLY: Mister Max.  How are you this morning?

(in distance cannon fire; he stops; all cock an ear to the sound; pause)

UNCLE MAX: Well…I guess I have seen better mornings.

MISS SALLY: Haven’t we all.  First time I heard that, gave me the willies.  Few weeks later, almost sounds like a rooster.

UNCLE MAX: (closer look at Fiona, now takes off hat)  Is this a new girl of yours?

MISS SALLY: We don’t know that yet. 

(a second distant roll of cannon)

UNCLE MAX: Have to hurry.  Good morning to you both.  (exits)

MISS SALLY: Regular of mine.  One of the richest men in town.  What you need right now is a good safe place to wait out this hell.  Why don’t you come work for me, girlie?

FIONA: How much of that auction money would be mine?

MISS SALLY: Well, let’s do a little figuring.  After I deduct a meal, a bath, a good dress, maybe a splash of perfume…

FIONA: And some sleep.  I need some sleep before I do anything else.

MISS SALLY: And the cost of a bed, well, add all that up and…remember…we don’t know what you’d bring at auction.

FIONA: Plenty.

MISS SALLY: Okay, that’s true.  (winks)  You’ll bring plenty. 

FIONA: Goddam right.

MISS SALLY: Don’t be cussing. There ain’t no cussing in my house.  I don’t run that kind of place.

FIONA: How much of that blood money would be mine?  And it’s my blood.

MISS SALLY: That all depends on who shows up.  Most men are out there fighting Yankees.  But there’s still a few prospects around.  And tonight is Saturday night.  Always my best night.  I’ll send the word out.  Got a new one at Miss Sally’s.  Right nice, too. 

FIONA: I want twenty percent of that auction money.

MISS SALLY: Now just who do you think you are?

FIONA: I Am Not Stupid.  That is who I am.  How much would be my cut?

MISS SALLY: (considers)  I’ll give you five dollars you let me auction you off at my place tonight.

FIONA: Gold or Confederate? 

MISS SALLY: Rule Number One at my house.  Miss Sally, that’s me, gets all the gold.  I told you what I pay my working ladies. 

FIONA: No thank you.

MISS SALLY: Okay.  Suit yourself.  But I got an eye for these kind of things, honey.  Sooner or later I think you are cut out for my line of work.  (turns to leave)

FIONA: Wait!  You got a card table at your house?

MISS SALLY: Course I do.

FIONA: Then I could do more for your house than just lie down and spread my legs. 

MISS SALLY: Oh yeah?  What’s that?

FIONA: I can deal cards.

MISS SALLY: Now where in the hell did you learn to deal cards? 

END OF SCENE



ACT I
Scene Two

(bright sunshine; a country road in Georgia; birds sing; from cart FIONA takes a bucket, a rag, a book and a pair of boots; sits on stump; cleans her face; when finished cleaning her face she opens book; pause)

(NATHAN ROSENBLOOM enters, turns poles of the cart from US to DS, as if just arriving; he is a young, handsome, and brilliant Jewish man)

NATHAN: Yes!  My God!  (sets down poles of cart)  It must be in the bloodlines.

FIONA: You sold something?

NATHAN: One dollar and twenty cents worth. 

FIONA: Woo-hoo.     

NATHAN: They had a certain kind of laundry on the line, and I said to myself, “Nathan, they will buy from you.  They are good clean living people and they want better things.”

FIONA: Good. 

NATHAN: On the road three weeks and this is the first day I got off my tuchis[1] and knocked on doors. Necessity is the mother of invention and convention.  Today I am a salesman.  And look.  I traded that mold to make bullets for a little side of…(pulls it from cart)…bacon.

FIONA: Oh, Nathan!

NATHAN: There’s a verse in the Talmud about a Jew eating bacon.  And one of these days…I will find that verse.

FIONA: Let’s eat now.  I’m so hungry.

NATHAN: Oh my dear.  For the first time ever I’m on fire with drive and ambition, to sell. There’s still time for one more house.  Maybe even two. And the next half mile of road looks to be downhill.

FIONA: Oh, Nathan…(kisses his cheek)…can’t we eat early tonight?

NATHAN: Well…come to think of it…early is not a bad idea.

FIONA: Thank you.

(take skillet and plates from cart to “make dinner” [no real food, all mimed]

FIONA: How far are we from Atlanta?

NATHAN: Twelve miles is my best guess.   

FIONA: Can’t we go straight there?

NATHAN: Let’s take it in stages, my dear.  A mile or two a day.

FIONA: I almost think you don’t want to get back.

NATHAN: Only because I’m having too much fun here.

FIONA: Do you have more books in Atlanta?  Because I finished everything you brought along.

NATHAN: Everything?

FIONA: (shows book)  I started this one a second time.

NATHAN: You are some sort of genius. 


[1] Pronounced “took-us”

Close Encounters of the Pulitzer Kind

One
1975

The year I turned 23 I was in San Francisco.  That day I went to Baker’s Beach to stare out at the ocean and bathe myself in failure and regret that I had not written a masterpiece by such a late date in my life. It would take a few years before I knew why this made me a perfect fool.

That night I went to a bar in North Beach on Broadway just over the hill toward the bay.  It wasn’t a big room but it did have a dance floor, about a dozen long haired hippies hanging around, and one unique looking older man sitting at a table by himself.

He wore a blue serge suit with a snap brim fedora, sported a walrus mustache, held a pearl handled cane between his knees and had a full mug of beer on the table in front of him.  There was a passing thought I should speak to him, but I didn’t.  I did wind up sitting at the very next table.

That night I danced with woman who was probably in her thirties.  When I told her it was my birthday she asked which one and laughed when I gave the answer.  “Oh,” she said, “you’re just a baby.” This made me feel vaguely insulted and after the dance I went back to sit my table next to the man who, if only in passing, had to be watching me, for there were maybe three couples on the dance floor that night.

Twelve years go by.  One day at work at a law firm in Manhattan I opened that day’s copy of the New York Times and saw a picture of that man in the same hat, the same mustache, maybe even the same suit.  There was no mistake.  It made me leap out of my chair and exclaim, “Oh my God, that was him. That was him!”

That’s how long it took me to find out that William Saroyan sat on the edge of a dance floor in a bar in San Francisco and watched me have the time of my life on the night of my 23rd birthday.

Two
1977

Tennessee Williams paused beneath my shoulder one night in a theater lobby.  This happened on Melrose Place in Los Angeles.  The real Melrose Place should not be confused with the fictional one. The real street is only two blocks long and full of warehouses except for a small theater on its north side.  The lobby is about as large as your average bathroom.

I was on a waiting list to see Scott Wilson in Outcry and the lobby was full of buzz that Tennessee Williams was going to attend.  Eight o’clock came, then eight oh five, then eight ten, then the door opened and he entered.

That night he was high as a kite drunk with a beautiful blonde boy in tow.  Right in front of me he stopped, turned with one hand across his chest, the other hand near his eyes, striking the melodramatic pose of an aging coquette, and said to someone behind us, “Who, me?” and then giggled in a drunken, demented and delighted way.

Then they hustled him into the theater because they had been holding the curtain for his arrival.  The man who was the producer or director, the man who had done the most to spread the delicious rumor that Tennessee Williams was going to show up that night, rolled his eyes, which was his remark upon the scene.

The show was sold out and I did not get a seat.  The more personal show happened in the lobby.  All these years later I realized the one thing I might have said when he stopped in front of me:

“Mister Williams…thanks.”

Three
1986

In the lobby of Manhattan Theater Club I saw David Mamet and Gregory Mosher enter and thought, gee, that’s interesting.  When I took my seat there were two empty seats beside me and sure enough a few minutes later in they walk, Mamet to sit next to me and Mosher on the other side of him. The play that night was “It’s Only a Play” completely appropriate, as it is a show about show business.

On such an occasion one should be witty but of course I was tongue tied.  No sparkling words leaped out of me and over the years the things I have thought to say would have been wholly inappropriate.

“Mamet, I saw Glengarry Glen Ross. The curtain went up at 8:15, at 8:45 there was a twenty minute intermission, and at 9:20 the curtain was down. You call that a meal? That was more like a shot of booze and an appetizer.”

“Fuck you,” he might have said.

“And how do you feel about your contribution to the coarsening of the American language?”

“Fuck you,” he might have said.

Maybe it’s best we didn’t have much of an interchange.  But if one is sitting next to the man one should say something, right?  It happened to be the week before the Super Bowl the year Da Bears went, and my too simple conversational gambit became a bet on the game.

That’s how I wound up owing David Mamet ten bucks.

Four
1989

One morning I walked out of the law firm where I worked and went up Fifth Avenue. This was about a month before I was to exit New York and return for a second bout with Los Angeles.  At that time my wife and I were breaking up, which added to my usual gloom how the world did not know my plays, though in truth at that point I had only five one acts worth knowing.

It was nine short blocks to Central Park and once there I took the sidewalk that led to the zoo.  There in a line of benches sitting alone on a bench was one of America’s most famous playwrights.  He was reading the New York Times and as I walked by I thought, (a) “that’s Arthur Miller” and (b) “what could I say to him?”

Nothing came to mind except all my troubles and I kept walking up the sidewalk to the zoo.  A little time was spent seeing the animals in their cages, which is always depressing, and before long I was walking back down the same sidewalk.

Arthur Miller was still there, still reading the Times but was now on its last section, the Business Section, the other sections folded neatly against his leg.  Except for him the bench was still empty so I sat down on the other end.

I was tongue tied, not an unusual condition when one is so tied down with troubles. What could I say to this man? “What advice would you give a young playwright?” That might have been good. That might have got him talking. That might have given us a real encounter.  But my intensity was turned inward and I could not utter a word.

After a bit Arthur Miller stood up.  I was struck by his broad shoulders and his height. Someone once told me Biff was really Miller.  In that moment I thought of that statement and thought, “Of course, this guy went after Marilyn.”  He would have been seventy-two that year but he was still fit, trim, and holding his shoulders erect walked away without a word from me.

A few years later in Los Angeles an actress in a play of mine told me she was on the reading committee of some theater. They were doing a one act festival and had just turned down a submission by Arthur Miller. “Oh my God, you are kidding me,” I said. “You turned down Arthur Miller?  For a one act?”

They had. This black box theater in L.A., whose name I can no longer remember, had turned down one of the country’s best playwrights for a one act play, one he had probably personally printed out, bound up, wrote a transmittal letter, addressed an envelope and made a trip to the post office to put in the mail.

Think on that awhile, and think about the life of a playwright.  A few more years went by before it occurred to me that Saroyan was sitting in that bar that night dressed the way he was waiting, and hoping, to be recognized.

Five, Six
1994

The best five weeks of my life were spent at the O’Neill and August Wilson being there was part of it being special.

“Your computer arrived, man. It’s up at the big house.”

Those were the first words he spoke to me. It was good it was him who broke the ice because you know how I can be around famous playwrights. August was easy to be around for his nature was genial and so completely unassuming, modest and humble, it was hard to believe the man had won two Pulitzers.   At the breakfast table he would be in the middle of us, gabbing away, but never really gossiping.

“One year the food was so bad here the cook served spaghetti with sauerkraut,” he told us.

After Ma Rainey had been done on Broadway he went home to Minneapolis and there, at least for a time, worked as a short order cook again.  He did this because this was the rhythm he had known when his work first got good.  The man didn’t drive, didn’t own a car, didn’t have a license and cared not a whit about any of these things.

One night a bunch of people dragged him to an Arnold Schwarzenegger movie.  After fifteen minutes August walked out and sat in lobby for an hour and a half, telling us later, “I couldn’t stand it.  It was too stupid.  What a waste of time.”

One dusk at that beautiful place on the Connecticut shore he stood in front of a small crowd talking as I strolled up to his left.  He was talking about the Emile Griffith–Benny Parret fight.  It is a story I know well, how Parret had called Griffith a “maricón” at the weigh in, how Griffin caught Parret in the corner and hit him with twelve straight unanswered shots to the head, how Parret died in the ring.

I knew this story but didn’t walk into the man’s space as he told it, but oh, over the years how I wish I had.  Because to my left in the group of people listening was Vinnie, the longtime photographer of O’Neill summers.  Among my regrets is that I don’t have a picture of me and August from that night discussing this story.

A week later it was the 30th anniversary of the O’Neill.  A big white party tent was put on the great lawn.  How jealous I was a friend’s play was going up that night instead of mine, for VIPs were coming for a barbecue and then the show; Edith Oliver, John Lahr, Jane Alexander, Derek Walcott, and a U.S. Senator, a man I would see sneaking out at intermission to be driven away in his limousine.

At the edge of the tent where the playwrights had gathered I met the dapper John Guare, who was among the inaugural class who first came to the great wooden mansion on the ocean. “This is where it all began for me,” he said. “There is no better place.”  Any playwright who has been to the O’Neill would agree there is no greater paradise on earth. The only problem is the O’Neill National Playwrights Conference is not reality.  It is paradise but it is not reality.

Clouds had been building through the day and as soon as we were seated and the speeches began an enormous summer thunderstorm erupted with a violence that was close to scary.  For a few moments the wind threatened to lift the big party tent right off the ground.  Amid crashes of thunder and cracks of lightning Lloyd Richards was introduced.  In our corner the playwrights pounded the table and yelled as loud as we could at the height of the storm, “Lloyd, Lloyd, Lloyd!”

Lloyd Richards was one of the few men I ever met who I thought had greatness about him.  He too had a quiet demeanor but don’t be fooled.  His perception was precise and powerful.  To be in his presence was an honor.  August’s plays were not as good when he and Lloyd no longer worked together.  The same is true of Tennessee Williams after he no longer worked with Elia Kazan.

Anyway…

A couple of hours later, sitting in the dark on the front porch of the mansion, somebody in the group around me said, “August said your play was his favorite one done here this year.” There was a pause. Then Lori, who was sitting to my left said, “Yeah, I heard him say that, too.”

* * * * * *

At the breakfast table on the last day of the O’Neill I read August Wilson’s palm, a talent for which I once had a superficial and modest knowledge. August had the longest life line I had ever seen, running off his palm and down into his wrist.

“Yeah, I’m going to have a long life,” he told me. “When I get old I’m going to take up painting.  Death is going to be looking for me over here but I’m going to be over there doing something else.”

That long life line must have meant his work, for he would die too soon from liver cancer.  In the five weeks we spent together I never saw him take a single drink. The rest of us would hang out till closing at Blue Gene’s, the conveniently located tavern on the grounds before taking the van back to the dorm.  But August would catch the first van back and spend the nights working with words.  My sense was that he was indifferent to alcohol.  I don’t think it was liquor that gave him liver trouble.

“I am ready to go,” he announced a few weeks before his death.  “My life has been blessed.”

The last time I saw him was fifteen months after that summer at the O’Neill.  I was at a preview of Seven Guitars at the Walter Kerr Theater.  As the lights went down on Act One I ran as fast as I could to be the first in line for the men’s room.  As I reached for the door it flew open and there was August.  His face broke into a big smile, he held out his hand, and the first words out of his mouth were, “Hey man, I told them to do your play.  I acted out the whole thing for them.”

I thanked him and asked who.  He gave me the name of the artistic director of a major theater.  You would think when a two time Pulitzer winner recommends a play, is excited or charmed enough to “act out the whole thing,” you would think that play might get done.  But you don’t understand the life of a playwright.

Upon such wisps of encouragement one lives for years, and during those years every theater in the country would turn down my plays again and again.  On my bad days I am bitter and enraged.  On good days I believe Fortune will yet find reasons to smile on my luck.

One Monday a Month

One Monday a month every theater in the country…from the Shuberts and Nederlanders, to Seattle Rep to South Coast Rep, from Florida Rep to the Portland Stage Company, all the way to the second best dinner theater in Pocatello, Idaho … one Monday a month every theater in this country should give twelve minutes on their stage to any playwright who signs up.

The twelve minutes may be a rehearsed scene.  The playwright may simply sit on a chair and read from a script.  It might be possible to have a pool of actors on hand to cold read.  No sets are allowed, nothing but work lights should be used, and the twelve minutes includes any introduction or setting of scene.  There is no talk back afterwards only “thank you” and “next” or if the occasion demands, “your time is up.”

Plays are not meant to be read.  Plays are meant to be heard.  If not heard their value can never be rightly judged.  Plays are notes of music for body, voice, mind and being, and if not heard the music remains only notes on a page.  Could you judge Chopin or Saint-Saens from a sheet of paper blackened with bar notes and musical notations?   No, you could not.

Two examples from my own life:  when young I tried Waiting for Godot three times and never got beyond page 15.  “I don’t get it,” is all I could think.  “What am I missing?  Am I stupid or they stupid?”  Then I saw a production at the Los Angeles Actors’ Theater with Donald Moffat, Dana Elcar and Ralph Waite.  Ten minutes into that show I knew it was a great play, knew why it was a great play, and was utterly captivated.  But on the page I saw nothing at all, which is not the same nothing Mister Beckett intended.

I had no idea why Hamlet was a great play until one afternoon at The Public Theater Kevin Kline showed me why it is a great play.  But from the page I had no clue.  Even its greatest words were as blank to me as an ocean.  Without the resonance of a human voice plays can not be fairly judged.

There are multiple benefits to what is proposed above.  It would cost almost nothing, it brings new people and energy to your theater, and most importantly you are going to find new plays and playwrights.  All of us have sat through bad plays where two hours is an unhappy taste of eternity.  But anyone can survive twelve minutes.  The major houses might develop rules such as one time slot per five years, or after x number of appearances one has to be invited back in order to appear again.  Major houses should at least have a literary manager present for all such Mondays.

I put forth this modest proposal of One Monday a Month and hope to see it happen in my lifetime.

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