Play #99: Swingin’ on the Stars

There are two characters in the play: a headstrong girl of about fourteen named Annette Cockeyne, and a certain rather starchy Miss Walpole, who is the headmistress of Ringenhall, the girls’ school Annette has been attending and which she is now in the act of leaving forever.  Both characters and their first lines of dialogue are taken from the first chapter of Iris Murdoch’s second novel, The Flight from the Enchanter, published in 1956.  The illustration used here is by English illustrator Edward Rawden

As the play opens, we see Annette who, having clambered up onto a massive library table and then stood on a chair she put there in order to get even higher, is now joyously swinging on a massive, cut-glass chandelier hanging from the ornate ceiling above the table.  She has had two or three exhilarating swings (the cut-glass pendants in the chandelier jingling and tinkling like bells on a sleigh) when Miss Walpole ethers the room.

MISS WALPOLE (sternly):  What are you doing?

ANNETTE (gleefully): Swinging from the chandelier!

MISS WALPOLE (puzzled):  Why?

ANNETTE (wonder in her voice): Because the chandelier is The Milky Way.  I’m out under a cold midnight sky!

MISS WALPOLE (irritably, watching Annette swing to and fro over the table)): It is just a chandelier.

ANNETTE (chagrined): Yes, of course it is.  But it is also a fountain of glass upside down, showering me with its droplets. [swinging wildly] And it is the right earring of a giant, light-year princess! 

MISS WALPOLE (as calmly as possible): Nonsense!

ANNETTE (with annoyingly elaborate patience): You may call it nonsense, but I call it a star-cluster, bending near the earth.  It is made of my breath, now turned to shards of ice in the hard, black air!

MISS WALPOLE (terminally exasperated):  You are a hateful girl!  And a dangerous one!

ANNETTE (making another pass): And you are an old earthbound woman, dusty as a cobweb!

MISS WALPOLE (hurt):  Annette!! You mustn’t say such things.

ANNETTE (coming slowly to a stop and carefully returning to the table below her):  It’s just that you’ve never been aloft the way I was.

MISS WALPOLE: (plaintively):  How could I have been? I’m headmistress!!

ANNETTE:  Well do you want to trade places for a few moments?

MISS WALPOLE (tempted): I could never climb away up to the chandelier!

ANNETTE (cheerfully):  I’ll help you.

[Annette helps Miss Walpole up onto the table, steadies the chair for her and shows her how to hold onto two of the chandelier’s glass pendants]

ANNETTE: Are you all set?

MISS WALPOLE (unsteadily):  I guess so.  Give me a push.

[Annette pushes her.  Miss Walpole sweeps out over the table and, quickly cutting her fingers on the glass pendants, releases her grip on the chandelier with a shriek and falls like a sandbag against the far wall of the room.  Annette rushes to her aid]

MISS WALPOLE (tearful):  I couldn’t do it.

ANNETTE (sizing things up):  Apparently not.

MISS WALPOLE (wrapping one of her cut hands in her handkerchief):  What do you think went wrong?

ANNETTE:  I think that at the very last moment, your imagination seized up.  

MISS WALPOLE (tearfully):  But I wanted so much to swing on your glass stars!

ANNETTE (tenderly):  Perhaps you did.  But not nearly enough!