Here’s our radio version of the little sketch, Gun Shy, as broadcast yesterday on WBAI, during the Arts Express radio program. Many thanks to The Mighty Arts Express Players, composed of Pearl Shifer and Mary Murphy, and thanks again to Prairie Miller for all the encouragement.
Click on the triangle to listen.
My friend Alan who is a prolific playwright asked me if I’d like to write a very short three-minute curtain raiser for his new play reading. I said yes, having no idea at all what I would write. As it happened, the Parkland school shootings and the government response were still on my mind, so out came this merry little sketch.
Mother in the breakfast room; two children ages seven and eight (should be played by adults) offstage.
Mother: Justin, c’mon you’re going to be late to school.
Justin: (off) I’m coming.
Mother: You, too, Mercy, the school bus is going to be here any moment.
Mercy: (off) I’m coming. Give me a chance. (Justin enters with backpack on hand)
Mother: Look at you. Your hair’s a mess. And what about your sweater?
Justin: Yes, Mom. I have it.
Mother: And did you remember about your homework?
Justin: Really, Mom, you don’t have to remind us about every little thing. (Mercy comes down with her backpack in hand)
Mother: Can’t you get yourself together a little earlier so you don’t have to rush each morning?
Mercy: I’m sorry I was just packing up my backpack. We have a lot of equipment for our new class. And it’s so lame, they make us drag everything back and forth.
Mother: What class is that?
Mercy: Oh, the target class.
Mother: Target class?
Justin: It’s a new required class we have to take in school. We have to be able to kill 65% of potential intruders in order to pass the class, graduate, and go on to middle school.
Mother: How do they know if you’ve done that?
Justin: Well, a wound in one limb counts as a score of 30%, an eye counts for a score of 25%, for a kill you obviously get a 100.
Mercy: Well, unless someone else hits the guy first, in which case you only get 50% for an assist. It’s so unfair. So the thing to do is, if you can’t get a clean kill, try to mix and match so that it adds up to over 65%.
Justin: So two eyes and you pass.
Mercy: No you idiot, that doesn’t add up. That’s only 50—25 and 25.
Justin: I’m not good in math. It’s not my fault. My math teacher only has one eye. She was mistaken for an intruder.
Mother: Well all right, put on your backpacks. Wait a second. What’s that you got in there?
Mercy: Just a gun.
Mother: Oh. Okay. And what’s that?
Mercy: That’s another gun. Hi-powered, semi-automatic.
Mother: All right. (to Justin) You’re looking very guilty young man. And what’s that ?
Justin (ashamed looking down at the floor) Gum.
Mother: Gum? Gun or Gum?
Justin: Uh, Gum.
Mother: Oh my gosh. What is wrong with you? Hand that over young man. You should know by now you’re not allowed to chew gum in school. It’s not allowed. It’s really disrespectful to the teachers and staff. Didn’t I bring you up right?
Justin: I’m sorry. I just couldn’t…
Mercy: Ooh I’m telling.
Justin: Be quiet, you.
Mother: I am really, really so disappointed in you, Justin. Wrigley’s Spearmint. The most deadly flavor. In my day, you know what we did with students who brought gum to school? (pause) We shot them. Of course we were only allowed to graze them in my days. Old-fashioned I suppose, but the world has moved on. I guess you can’t stop progress. I don’t know what we’re going to do with you, Justin.
Mercy: (reluctantly) Ohhh…I guess you can have one of mine. But not the AR-15. Just one of the handguns.
Mother: That’s really kind and unselfish of you, Mercy. Maybe I did bring you kids up right after all. (Sound of bus horn honking) Okay here’s the bus. (kids run off) Don’t forget your lunches. Love ya. And children—No chewing in class! Knock ‘em dead!
In this radio interview broadcast yesterday on WBAI 99.5 FM, I talk with playwright Karen Malpede about her new cli-fi drama, Extreme Whether, a theatrical exploration of the climate change wars. It opens in March at LaMama in New York City. For more information about the play and tickets, go to http://theaterthreecollaborative.org/extreme-whether
Click on the grey triangle above to hear the interview.
What an odd and thought-provoking play.
The play as advertised on the title page of its First Quarto publication declares its putative genre: a Pleasant Conceited Comedy. And so it is for four and a half acts. Not only is it based on a simple comedy plot conceit—four royal gents, including the King of Navarre, try to forswear thoughts of women, but give up as soon as four women visitors, including the Princess of France, arrive—but the copious wordplay, wealth of literary allusions, and satirical sallies aimed at the pretensions of the educated classes, indicate the young “upstart crow” of a playwright calling attention to his easy gifts, leaving his calling card with not a little hubris. The play is drunk with puns and verbal sparring, and with parodies of those who would spend so much time twisting words into what they’re not. Shakespeare juggles the words, plot, and characters with due ostentation, like a strolling player with four balls in the air at once. There is no hiding art with art here: his art is all out there on display.
The play at first seems to share a theme that most of Shakespeare’s comedies embody: love makes us all mad and makes us do silly, out of character things. And like many of the other comedies, Love’s Labour’s Lost employs many of the same comic plot devices with its verbal sparring between lovers, disguises, mistaken identities, and maskings and unmaskings.
And this is how the play goes for four and a half acts. The men woo the ladies, the ladies demur, the men disguise themselves and try to trick the ladies, but the women get their own back by swapping identities among themselves during a masked entertainment. Finally the duplicities are uncovered and the women triumph, embarrassing the men, getting the men to admit their faults and their love. It’s just at this juncture in the other comedies where there would be a laughing, a forgiving, and the men and women would conclude by dancing a merry jig, with weddings in the air. That’s what the theatrical clock anyway says should happen here, given the stage time left to wrap up.
But here instead in Love’s Labour’s Lost, Shakespeare does an extraordinary thing. A messenger delivers the news from France that the Princess’s father has died. The news casts a terrible pall on the proceedings and causes the women to withdraw completely. Even though the men earnestly declare their love for the women as honestly as they can, the women will have none of it; they are too perturbed by sorrow and get ready to go back home to France. It’s a remarkable moment; it’s as if someone had come out and said to the audience, sorry folks, there’s no comedy tonight, one of the actors has died. . .we tried to keep your sorrows at bay for the last few hours, but unhappy reality always creeps in, and so it has again. The women must go home to mourn; they say that they will be back in twelve months, but only if the men can prove they have become better people, and have done genuine social penance in that time. And we are left hanging.
In construction, Love’s Labour’s Lost is unique in the Shakespeare canon. Although other Shakespeare plays shift gears in the final moments as Love’s Labour’s Lost does, those other so-called “problem plays” —Measure for Measure, Cymbeline, and All’s Well that Ends Well, for example—do so in a decidedly different way. Those plays start off as apparent tragedies, and then suddenly by a happy turn of events, often due to an act of bold and generous forgiveness, lovers are reconciled, friendships are repaired, and the world is righted once again. But not so in Love’s Labour’s Lost. Its construction is the very opposite of the problem plays. It seems to have every intention of being a comedy, but in the last moments the play morphs into sadness, snatched from the jaws of happiness. As far as I know, Shakespeare doesn’t do that anywhere else.
In another play, the unhappy turn of events at the end might serve as a plot twist in the middle of the play, only to be merrily overcome by the end. But no such luck in Love’s Labour’s Lost. The time is out of joint. One of the men announces quite openly to the other players (and the audience):
Our wooing doth not end like an old play:
Jack hath not Gill. These ladies’ courtesy
Might well have made our sport a comedy.
Come, sir, it wants a twelvemonth an’ a day,
And then ’twill end.
That’s too long for a play.
The play ends with a song, not by the assembled would-be lovers, but by players representing Spring and Winter, introduced by Armado, a foolish visiting nobleman. The song about spring warns married couples that they are subject to being cuckolded, while the song about winter reminds the assembled of all the chores and drudgery that the cold weather brings, albeit bringing perhaps a kind of small domestic satisfaction. When the songs are over Armado says in a bittersweet curtain speech, “The words of Mercury are harsh after the songs of Apollo.” Mercury traditionally was the deliverer of messages, while Apollo was the God of art, music and poetry. It was as if Shakespeare were saying, as an artist he could ease you with the comforts of art, but he couldn’t close his eyes to what life could bring at any moment. One unfortunate message is enough to turn any happiness upside down. It is an odd, odd ending for a comedy. The curtain comes down as Armado says, “You that way, we this way.”
Who is Armado addressing that line to? Who is the “you” and the “we”? The men and the women of the play? The audience and the actors? Or Shakespeare and everybody else? For community and the very act of storytelling seem to be at root the very essence of comedy, yet Shakespeare insists on ending with a separation.
It was an audacious jump. Shakespeare wanted to go “that way,” differently from the “this way” of others. He could set a plot in motion as well as any other trifling theatrical, he could parry and thrust his wit as sharply as any of his peers. But in the end he wanted something different. By this time, he had already thrown Aristotle out the window—no precious Unities of time and place for him, the world was too encompassing for that—but he now also wanted to do away with false endings that spoke of finality, when the truth was that everything one knows can change in an instant, and happiness can turn into sadness in a heartbeat.
What could have prompted such a desire in the playwright at this time? The Quarto title page may provide a clue. It was printed in 1598, but the notice on the page declares that it had been performed for the Queen the previous Christmas in 1597. So it’s not unlikely that the play was composed around 1596-1597. But in 1596, the successful London playwright got a visit from Mercury himself with the news from Stratford-On-Avon: Shakespeare’s only son, eleven-year-old Hamnet, had died. Was it this awful blow that turned a sunny comedy into a darker meditation on the ephemeral nature of life? I think it must be so.
What must Will’s audiences have thought of the play? It was thought well enough of, that it was published in several Quarto and Folio editions. But perhaps that was for the more literary-minded, because actual productions of the play after its initial performances were few and far between until the 20th century. I think, ultimately, that the play was not a crowd-pleaser. In short order, the practical-minded impresario Shakespeare eventually came to his senses, and never wrote such a bitter comedy again. In truth, the very comedic form which Love’s Labour’s Lost subverts is exactly the kind of comedy that Shakespeare then goes ahead and writes for the next decade. He never seeks to end a comedy in such a melancholy way again. So figuratively he writes with one hand behind his back, and the titles give his contempt away: As You Like It, Much Ado About Nothing, Twelfth Night or What You Will— that’s what you want from Will, that’s what you will get.
He never did write a comedy like Love’s Labour’s Lost again, although certainly he expressed the darker side of his nature in the tragedies and the histories. He retired after 37 plays, a wealthy man, with a newly minted coat-of-arms, to his house in Stratford-on-Avon. But Love’s Labour’s Lost stands as a bold experiment in form by a young playwright near the peak of his powers who once allowed Mercury’s harsh words to interrupt Apollo’s song.
A group of friends and I have been recently reading Shakespeare’s delightful comedy, Love’s Labours Lost. My antenna immediately pricked up at the following lines:
Villain, thou shalt fast for thy offenses ere thou be pardoned.
Well, sir, I hope when I do it I shall do it on a full stomach.
Thou shalt be heavily punished.
I am more bound to you than your fellows, for they are but lightly rewarded.
Take away this villain, shut him up.
Come, you transgressing slave, away.
Let me not be pent up, sir; I will fast, being loose.
No, sir, that were fast and loose; thou shalt to prison.
Shakespeare cleverly packs in multiple puns here. First Armando declares that the clown Costard shall have to fast in prison. But Costard replies that, “I will fast, being loose”—that is, he’ll be able to run more quickly, if only he were free. And Moth tops both of them, saying that Costard’s scheme is “fast and loose”: that is, a scam, akin to a contemporaneous con game, commonly called “Fast and Loose.” He’s saying Costard’s proposal is a scam. But with even more complexity, simultaneously, there’s an additional pun on the phrase “fast and loose,” because it also means “in an irresponsible manner,” as in the phrase, “playing fast and loose with the truth.” And indeed, Costard plays fast and loose with the truth.
But what is of interest right now to this blog is the con game. Fast and Loose is a scam that’s been around for a very long time in one form or another. I had the strange pleasure a few weeks ago of seeing one of my immigrant high school students trying to extract money from his classmates using this ruse. I had to intervene and warn the student that I knew exactly what he was up to.
It’s always best to learn from an expert cheat, so you can click on the video above and watch the expert magician and historian of confidence games, Ricky Jay, demonstrate just what the scam looks like to its pigeons.
Thanks to YouTuber trancehi
Yesterday, radio station WBAI’s Arts Express program played my interview with Karl Marx. Well, not Karl Marx exactly, but with actor Jerry Levy who plays Marx in a new one-man play that Levy wrote called The Third Coming.
Click on the grey triangle above to hear Levy talk about Marx, anarchism, Howard Zinn, and how he prepared to act the role of a lifetime.
My friend, Alan, has a monthly theater group at the local library which hosts an event he likes to call “Instant Theater.” One of the games he plays is this: given two phrases, you must write a play using the first phrase as the opening line, and the last phrase as the closing line of the play. You have until the next meeting to write it, and then the actors perform it with no rehearsal, instantly.
Here is the modest contribution to the genre I wrote some time ago. The opening phrase I was given was, “It’s very humid out,” and my closing phrase was, “The annual spring luncheon.”
(PAT and ED are sitting in separate chairs, side by side facing front.)
PAT: (Turning away from ED, peering at something) It’s very humid out.
PAT: Yes, humid.
ED: How can you tell?
PAT: I’m looking out the window.
ED: I know you’re looking out the window, but how can you tell?
PAT: Because it’s wet.
ED: You see water?
PAT: I think so.
ED: You don’t see water.
PAT: I think I see water.
ED: Believe me, you don’t see water.
PAT: It could be water.
ED: Believe me, you don’t see water.
PAT: I thought I saw a drop.
ED: That would be impossible. That would be physically impossible, Isaac Newton impossible.
PAT: So what is it?
ED: I don’t know. A reflection. An artifact. I don’t know.
PAT: Dark out there.
ED: What’s it like?
PAT: The dark?
PAT: It’s pretty chilling. It’s like a blanket covering you, but the dark goes on forever.
ED: No light?
PAT: You can’t see?
PAT: Very far away. Very far away. A pinpoint. You can’t see from there?
PAT: It’s strange how things work out. How are you holding up?
ED: Easier than I thought it would be. I guess that’s the point of the training. When the time comes, it’s relatively easy.
ED: Who was the fourth President?
PAT: Why do you care?
ED: I was arguing with Sharon and I couldn’t remember who it was. It was either Monroe or Madison.
PAT: Monroe, no, I think Madison. No Monroe. Could be Madison. Federalist Papers. Monroe was the short one. I think Madison.
ED: You sure it wasn’t Monroe?
PAT: I don’t know, I get them mixed up. That’s what you talk about with your wife?
ED: Yes. That’s what passes for foreplay.
PAT: Sounds exciting.
ED: You never know what’s going to turn on some women.
PAT: Something to look forward to.
ED: Harder for you when you’re busy or just like this?
PAT: What do you mean?
ED: Well two months is a long time. Do you like to be busy? Or better when we’re on these half hour breaks?
PAT: I don’t know. I suppose busy is good. Although I like the breaks too. I like having the time to just be still and contemplate, thinking about the universe, thinking about how amazing this all is, how lucky we are. I was wondering if there would be a shift in my model of the world being up here for so long. And I think there has been. I think my perspective has changed. Neil said that was the big thing for him, that was the amazing thing for him, more than even the walk, just seeing just how small the Earth really was, how much it was really just one more little infinitesimal speck of the vast overall structure.
ED: How has it changed for you?
PAT: After a month and a half? It’s not so much, for me, about what’s out there, it’s about what’s inside me. Inside my brain. Like Shakespeare. The whole world inside that globe of my head. Even in the vast emptiness of just the two of us, the worlds I imagine, the universes I create. In this strange sort of solitude, I am the god of empires, the ruler of landscapes green, rocky, ocean-lapped. Look there, there’s a shepherd, barefoot in the break of a jagged mountain range calling to his sheep. Now look, armies clashing in the jungle, snipers ducking as bullets try to end their lives. Look, a lover with a rose she no longer knows what to do with, and See! a railroad car heading to the unplanned funeral of the family in the third seat.
ED: They haven’t called.
ED: It’s six thirty eight. They haven’t called.
PAT: It’s not six thirty eight.
ED: It’s six thirty eight, look in front of your nose. It’s been thirty eight minutes. They’re eight minutes late. What is that supposed to mean?
PAT: Look at the clock by the left panel. What does it say, you should be able to read it.
ED: Six thirty nine.
PAT: That’s strange. Maybe it doesn’t mean anything.
ED: Call them. Call them. Call them.
PAT: Right. Ground control, Pat, come in please. Ground control, this is Pat, come in please, over.
PAT: Ground control, this is Pat, come in please, over. Ground control, this is Pat, come in please, over.
ED: Check the mike.
PAT: Ground control, Houston, this is Pat and Ed. Ground Control. Money makes money and the money that money makes, makes more money. Ground control. (Pause) The mike is fine.
ED: We’re off the flight path.
ED: We’re off the flight path.
PAT: Well correct it for heaven’s sake.
ED: There are no position parameters.
PAT: How can there be no—
ED: I don’t know! There are no position parameters!
PAT: What are you nuts, read the freakin’ parameters.
ED: Do you see anything, do you see anything? If I could read the freakin–
PAT: There’s got to be—
ED: There isn’t!
(Pause. They stare at the empty screen)
ED: It’s completely blank.
PAT: It’s completely blank.
ED: Try the mike again.
PAT: Ground control this is Pat, Pat and Ed. Ground control this is Pat and Ed, come in please.
What time is it?
ED: Six forty-four.
PAT: Fourteen minutes.
ED: They should have contacted us.
PAT: Maybe they’re trying to and can’t get through. Maybe that’s what happened. We have–
ED: Nothing happened, nothing happened! It’s six forty-four and they’re supposed to have contacted us. We have epic equipment failure, that’s what we have.
PAT: What do we do? There’s a procedure. There’s a procedure for everything.
ED: There’s no procedure—
PAT: There’s a procedure for everything. The next–
ED: You just did the procedure, I just did the procedure, there’s no more procedure–
PAT: You can’t not–
ED: What’s next, nothing’s next! Nothing, nothing, nothing, nothing, nothing.
PAT: You can’t just—
ED: Can you see anything?
ED: Out there.
PAT: I told you—dark.
PAT: I remember when I was a kid I used to spend the whole car ride to the country with my face against the window, watching the scenery change, trees, telephone poles, cars, farmland, motorcycle with a girl on the back–red hair, holding on to the leather jacket of the guy in front. I used to pretend that we weren’t going anywhere. We were at the drive-in movies and everything outside the window was a movie where I had to guess the story.
ED: We only had two more weeks.
ED: It would’ve been Joanie’s birthday. Three years. (Pause) I think I need to go to the bathroom.
PAT: I love: My mother. I love: My sisters. My brother. Camille, God help me. God.
The beach. Plums.
ED: Joanie. Sharon. Poplar Avenue. Softball. Flying. Space.
PAT: Music. The Beatles. Lucy in the Sky. Patton. Johnny Depp. Sam Shepard. Gus Grissom.
ED: Yuri Gagarin. Neil Armstrong. William Shakespeare. Nikolai Lobachevsky. Albert Einstein. Ella Fitzgerald. John Glenn.
PAT: Charlie Parker. Salt Peanuts. Django Reinhardt.
ED: “All the Things You Are.”
PAT: Newport Jazz Festival. The 1969 World Series Mets.
ED: New Year’s Eve, 2003. Hiking every year in the mountains. Parent –Teacher Day.
PAT: One more.
ED: One more?
PAT One more.
ED: Last one. Last one. (PAT and ED clasp hands)
(Pause. Quietly) Fireworks on the river. The annual spring luncheon.