Play #81—Fuseli Paints The Nightmare

The play is set in the London studio of painter Henry Fuseli.  It is March of 1781, and he is preparing to paint what will come to be seen as his masterpiece—The Nightmare.
As the curtain rises, Fuseli is interviewing a young woman who may well serve as the model for what will eventually be the bedevilled, dreaming woman in the painting.  The prospective model’s name is Ivy Underling.

Fuseli: How old are you, Miss Underling?

Ivy: Seventeen, sir.

Fuseli (surprised): Is that all?  I took you for more.

Ivy (smiling wanly):  It’s the deprivation, sir.

Fuseli (Uncertain he heard properly): The deprivation?

Ivy (a bit flustered):  Oh you know, sir.  Doing without and all that.  It makes you old pretty quick.

Fuseli:  Oh.  Yes, I suppose it could.

Ivy (her voice tremulous):  What would I have to do if I model for you, sir?

Fuseli (expansive):  My dear young woman, it is simplicity itself!  First, you’ll be stretched out full-length on a divan—on your back.

Ivy (alarmed):  I won’t be in me altogether, will I sir?  I couldn’t do that!

Fuseli (momentarily confused):  Your altogether?  Oh, you mean naked!  No, no, of course not.

Ivy (smiling): That’s a relief then!

Fuseli (abstractly):  Yes.  Yes.  But you will have to put up with a rather large monkey sitting on your chest!

Ivy (horrified):  A monkey?  A real one?

Fuseli (irritated):  Yes of course a real one. Where am I going to get a stuffed monkey that big?

Ivy (tremulous): Will it be a tame one?

Fuseli (patiently):  Oh yes, it has to be.  Because I have to tie a twisted, grinning mask to its face.

Ivy (suspicious): Just what kind of a painting is this going to be anyhow?

Fuseli (offhand): A work of considerable genius, I imagine.

Ivy (shaken but curious): Does it have a title?

Fuseli (cheerfully):  I’m calling it The Nightmare.

Ivy (getting interested):  Because of the monkey with the evil face??

Fuseli (casually):  That, and because of the screaming horse with big popping white, sightless eyes that has thrust its hideous head through the curtains to stare at you while you are sleeping!!

Ivy (finally getting used to this):  A real horse?

Fuseli (annoyed): A real horse with white eyes as big as croquet balls??!!  Where would I find such an animal?  No, I expect I shall have to make him up!!  The monkey too, perhaps.

Ivy (picking up her cloak and slipping it on):  In that case, Mr. Fuseli, I think you’ll have very little difficulty making me up too!!  Now I’ll take my leave.

Fuseli (incredulous):  And miss your chance at immortality??

Ivy (putting on her bonnet):  If need be, sir, yes.  I suspect immortality just isn’t for me.  Good day to you, Sir!
[she leaves the studio]

Fuseli (watching her leave):  Young people today!  Who can understand them?


Play #80: Cow in the Road

The play is set in a courtroom.   There is a closed hearing in progress.  The venerable judge, one Milton Pepperleigh, sits up at his lofty seat of judgement.  Before the bench stand two vigorous lawyers: Timothy Millstone, who represents the plaintive, a farmer named Abner Apple, and Harry Wanderlust, who represents the defendant, a used car salesman named Shark Sturgeon.

The case, in a nutshell, is this: Abner Apple, the farmer, was driving his cow, Evelina, along a short length of highway, making sure that the cow—which was untethered —was all the while keeping to the gulley along the side of the road, where both cow and farmer were walking (with the cow in front).  Salesman Shark Sturgeon was driving south on the highway at the same time as Abner was escorting his cow (presumably to a nearby pasture).
For reasons we shall now never discover, Evelina—who knew this terrain well—suddenly decided to cross the highway to the field on the other side.  Abner was unable to restrain her.  In the midst of crossing the road, the cow was struck by Stark Sturgeon’s car and killed. 

Abner Apple is suing Stark Sturgeon for damages.  He says Evelina was worth $400, and he wants $400.00 to compensate him for his loss.  Stark Sturgeon’s counter- argument accuses farmer Apple of negligence in allowing Evelina to walk along untethered and to be, therefore, out of his control.  He insists that the cow strode so suddenly into the middle of the road there was no way he could bring his speeding car to a stop before running into the animal.  He adds, moreover, that the damage to his car was even more than the $400 demanded by Farmer Apple.

Timothy Millstone (acting for Abner Apple):  …and we say that Mr. Sturgeon was driving his car far too fast and was therefore unable to stop for….uh…

Abner:  Evelina.

Millstone:  Yes, Evelina.  

Harry Wanderlust (acting for Shark Sturgeon):  It has been already established that my client, Mr. Sturgeon, was driving at exactly the proscribed speed limit.  The trouble arose because Evelina’s owner, Abner Apple, had allowed the cow to walk beside the highway untethered.

Abner (chuckling):  Evelina was a free-range cow!

Judge Pepperleigh (sternly): Let me remind you, Mr. Apple, that I am the only one allowed to make jokes here.

Abner (contrite):  Sorry, your honour.

Millstone:  It was Mr. Sturgeon’s responsibility to bring his vehicle to a safe stop.

Wanderlust:  Nonsense!  The cow bolted out in front of him—l like a deer!

Abner (sadly): Evelina couldn’t bolt.  She was too old to bolt! 

Millstone:  The cow was walking so slowly that Mr. Sturgeon had plenty of time to see her and avoid her!  IF he was watching the road at all!!  Which we doubt.

Wanderlust (with finality):  He was indeed watching the road.

Judge Pepperleigh (judiciously):  At the basis of this case is a curious situation in which mechanism—in this instance, Mr. Sturgeon’s car—has come into curious, abrupt confrontation with the pastoral mode—in this instance, Evelina, Mr. Apple’s cow.  It is clear to me, that what lies at the heart of the matter is our reading of the concept of Responsibility.   Who—or what—is responsible for Evelina’s demise?  I’m now calling a short recession until I give some further thought to this troubling matter of “responsibility.”

[He goes to his chambers.  Four hours pass, in agonizing slowness.  Then Judge Pepperleigh returns.  He assumes the bench, cleans and adjusts his spectacles, puts them on peers down at Millstone and Wanderlust]

Judge Pepperleigh (weighing every word): Gentlemen, there are hierarchies of irresponsibility in this case.  Yes, Mr.  Sturgeon ought to have been paying closer attention to the road ahead.  Yes, Mr. Apple ought not to have allowed Evelina to trot along untethered.  And yes, Evelina—who should have known better—ought not to have bolted across the highway, making for the other side.  Clearly, of all the three parties, Evelina herself acted the most irresponsibly,  and if she were here, I would unhesitatingly tag her as the Guilty Party.  But she is not.  All I have to say to all of you gentlemen, therefore, is this:  There is no worse place to be than the Middle of the Road! 
This hearing is now dismissed.


Play # 79: Preordained

Note: The play is based on a discussion in Chapter XVIII of My Autobiography by Charles Chaplin (London: The Bodley Head, 1964) where Chaplin muses that “there are philosophers who postulate that all is matter in some form of action, and that in all existence nothing can be added or taken away.  If matter is action, it must be governed by the laws of cause and effect.  If I accept this, then every action is preordained.  If so, is not the scratching of my nose predestined as much as a shooting star?  The cat walks round the house, the leaf falls from the tree, the child stumbles.  Are these not actions traceable back into infinity?  We know the immediate cause of the fallen leaf, the child stumbling, but we cannot trace its beginning or its end” (p.313).

The curtains open to reveal a comfortable living room, in which, on a large flowered sofa, sit a middle-aged couple.  They are both in a ruminative mood, and both are carefully watching everything that takes place before them—as if they were onstage.

[The man suddenly scratches his nose]:

The Woman:  You see?

The Man:  What?

The Woman:  That’s an antique act…an ancient event!

The Man:  What is?

The Woman:  Your scratching your nose.

The Man: How do you mean?

The Woman:  Well, it’s as if you’ve really been doing it forever.  Scratching your nose forever.  To infinity— backwards and forwards.

The Man (slightly defensive):  Just like your sitting there on the couch. 

The Woman (looking down):  What?

The Man: Your sitting there on the couch—but for ever, for always!  

The Woman (determined to be rational): I’ve only been here for a few minutes!

The Man: Well, it’s no different than my scratching my nose.

[A cat walks through the room]

The Man: And now a cat walks through the room!

The Woman: Just as it always has, is that what you’re going to say?

The Man:  Well, it’s another action.

The Woman (also feeling defensive):  So is your next breath!

The Man:  Yes. Exactly!  And because these are actions, they are all preordained.

The Woman (irritated):  So the cat’s not making much progress.

The Man (with satisfaction):  Nor is anything else.

[Suddenly, a leaf falls from somewhere above them, gently landing on the carpet]

The Woman (enchanted):  The leaf!

The Man:  I saw one fall yesterday as well.

The Woman:  Oh that was the same leaf.  It falls everyday at precisely this time.  It always has.

The Man (amazed): And always will?

The Woman: Oh yes, always always always.


Play #78: The Loneliness of the Long Distance Painter

The play is set in an artist’s studio.  There is an enormous painting—a rough, wild, unfinished one—stapled to one wall.  A small wooden chair sits facing it—about fifteen feet from the work-in-progress.

This is a one character play, a monologue by the painter.
He enters the formerly dark studio, switches on the lights, lowers himself heavily into the chair, takes a vigorous pull of the drink he has brought with him and settles down to gaze upon the painting.

Painter:  My god it’s as big as the sea!  It’s bigger when you sit down and look at it than it is when you‘re up close to it with a brush.

It rears up at me…like a wild horse

It’s like an ocean liner bearing down hard upon a fishing boat in its path

Can I get out of its way, I wonder?

Only by finishing it, I suppose

That’s me [he laughs raucously] The fishing boat.  Poor fishing boat, trying to get a fish on the line.

A big fish.  A whale.  Moby Dick.
Call me Ahab, goddammit, not Ishmael!


I wish Lucinda could see it.  No, actually I don’t.  Screw it.  She’d have useful things to say about it.  Procedural things, well-considered…

[he takes another gulp of his drink]

And I don’t want that.  For me, the thing is like a Forest Fire.  I don’t wish to discuss its bloody deportment!

[There is a long silence]

Christ It’s cold

And quiet.  I could put some music on

But then I couldn’t hear the painting.
I couldn’t hear its clamour.  All those angel voices woven together

It makes a noise
like ripping cloth