In honor of the Indianapolis Theatre Fringe Festival's 10th anniversary, I submit to my blog readers this perhaps unrealizable "closet drama" in the Fringe spirit. Its appeal is also limited by its focus on the "boutique religion" of Unitarian Universalism, whose General Assembly in Providence this summer included my being accosted by a panhandler, on whom I've modeled my Panhandler. The encounter struck me as Beckettian, so "Chocolate and Cauliflower" also salutes Samuel Beckett, whose perpetually youthful "Waiting for Godot" attained senior citizenship this year. The action of my play is continuous, but out of respect for blog etiquette, I have divided the script, like all Gaul ("gall"?), into three parts, one daily through Wednesday.
Channing: Hey, welcome. No food or money, though. We have nothing to share except
our ideas, which you may or may not find nourishing.
Parker (looking them over carefully): Huh. You must be Unitarian Universalists, too.
Ellery: How did you know that?
Parker (gesturing toward Channing): What he said. A hint. Plus, UUs are all I’ve seen
today. Not many people about, for some reason, but they all seem to be our co-
religionists, when I ask.
Channing: That clinches it! What did I tell you, Ellery? Every time you start with a
question, then go through the numbers and the data, it usually ends with more questions.
Parker: A real hog wallow for UUs, though, isn’t it? Love it, we sure do. (Pause.) I’m
Channing (nodding): Channing.
Ellery (pointing to himself): Ellery. Have a seat. Take a load off.
(Parker looks around, sees the tire, rolls it over to a position stage left, sits down on it,
pulls a cigarette butt out of a shirt pocket, scrutinizes it, smooths it a little.)
Parker (looking up at both men, who are regarding him steadily): Light?
Channing: Can’t help you there.
Ellery: Not me.
Parker (He feels the tobacco end of the butt frowning, then flicks it away.): Tobacco
was too damp anyway. (Silence.)
Channing: All this is resembling less and less the real world, don’t you think, Ellery.
Just look around. An urban desert, nothing familiar. Hardly anyone about, except UUs. And
that tape-loop panhandler who just left. I’ve been wondering lately where we really are.
Parker: So you want to doubt this is real just because the improbabilities are starting to
stack up, do you? Interesting. (Pause.) The unlikely does not equal the unreal, you know.
A thousand UUs coming at random past this very spot — barring the General Assembly
being down the block — might be improbable, but it would not necessarily run counter to
Channing (with mild disdain): Sure, I suppose the pendulum would be about to swing in
the next ten minutes and might well bring a flood of Baptists — or Rastafarians — or Branch
Davidians — swaggering by.
Parker: Possible. Possible. But we all want to cling to what we believe to be true, don’t we? What we claim to know as truth can hardly be tested adequately. In this case, you want
|Walt Whitman, "a tramp, nearly"|
Channing: It could be just the diversity I expected and I still wouldn’t know if it was real. And neither would you.
Parker: True enough. Epistemology is the most sentimental branch of philosophy. Weepy stuff! Gray areas, saturated with feelings, as far as the eye can see.
Channing: I should have thought ethics.
Parker: Ethics? Rubbish! Ethics is cold-blooded, chilled to the bone, compared to theories of knowledge. Deep inside us lies (In a quoting voice.) “the sense of what is real, the thought if after all it should prove unreal.”
Ellery (makes Bronx cheer): Equivocation! Out of whose boots was that muck shaken?
Parker: Walt Whitman’s.
Channing: Poet fellow, yes. A tramp, nearly. Unlike us, though, at home everywhere. "I
was here, too!” he keeps shouting. Threw words on the page to prove it. Didn’t scatter
his campfire ashes very well. Smoldering farewells. Vagabondage a poetic technique.
Parker (ignoring Channing’s disdain): Those words come late in a poem called “There
Was a Child Went Forth.” He’s rattled off one of his great catalogs of things and
people in action. Suddenly he lifts his eyes from specifics, and a meditation on what is
real and unreal comes out.
Channing: Lost his train of thought, probably. Happens all the time when you’re tramping about. Or when you’re writing poetry like his.
Parker: And consider: How does that line with “the sense of what is real” start? (Pause.)
“Affection that will not be gainsay’d.” So: Love is the culprit. We want to be sure of what is real, and we can’t help needing to know as best we can, but we can’t avoid love, either. Love can’t be denied, gainsaid.
Channing: Talk about testing something. We ought to test that down some of these streets we've been looking into.
Parker: As far as we know, this world we’re sitting in now, even with its so-far constant trickle of Unitarian Universalists, is as real as any you might be thinking of. That makes it all it should be. Maybe even perfect, because it’s shot through with love.
Ellery: Before you got here, I suggested that the beggar who just left us was calling us to perfection, and my companion here bristled. He bristles like a porcupine.
(He takes his stocking cap off and whacks it against his other hand a few times.)
Let me tell you something about perfection. I had a teacher in school who announced to
the class the first day that everyone would be starting out with the same perfect score — a
thousand points, it was. And our grades at the end of the term would be set by where we
finished after all the tests had been marked, with our mistakes deducted from the total.
Channing: Wonderful. So he was assuming the best of everybody. Everybody felt
splendid. Level playing field and all that. It is written: “The disciple is not above his
master; but every one that is perfect shall be as his master.”
Ellery: That’s just how everyone felt for about the first week. Then came the first test: no
one had a thousand points after the first test. (Pause.) He was a math teacher, not a very good one,
actually. And mean, but fair in his own way. And who felt the worst about the
arrangement after that first test, do you suppose?
Parker: The math whizzes, for sure. (Ellery nods.)
Channing: But they could still hold the line better than the rest of you. They could minimize the damage.
Ellery: The damage had been done. It got worse from there, from that first test. So what
did starting out perfect accomplish? The master made everyone feel terrible long before
the end. There’s your level playing field.
Channing (puts both his boots on, laces them up, and ties them. He stands up.) Game
rigged from the get-go. The master’s perfection couldn’t possibly be shared, could it? His
mastery had to remain absolute. Your whole class was screwed. Just like Jesus was always keeping his disciples off-balance. One minute they’re the elect, the next they’re disloyal, they’re dunces.
Ellery (puts socks and boots on quickly,
stands up, moves to where Panhandler had been): Parker, you should have heard what
this panhandler said and the way he said it. Always the same speech, always sounding the
same. Like this (imitates Panhandler’s voice and stance): Good evening. I’m hungry and
homeless, and through no fault of my own. I am the favorite child of misfortune. Please
help me. Your generosity is greatly appreciated. Thank you and God bless you.
Channing: (a bit unnerved): Yeah, that was it. (Pause.) Not sure we needed to hear that
again, Ellery. (Moves toward Parker, who stands up politely, all ears.) Now and again he
would stop, then he and I had a little tussle, which I lost, but it seemed to sideline him for a
while. I keep trying to figure out what triggered it. (Pause.) Here’s my theory. He wasn't comfortable with talk about the past. It was that simple. He may not have been a robot, but he was some kind of past-tense-voice-activated beggar, all right.
Ellery: He started talking as we approached, before we had said a word. How do you
Channing: And where did we come from, simpleton? Our past. Back there. (Gesture
toward stage right.)
Ellery: We’re always coming from our past, aren’t we? Isn’t everybody, at every
moment? Into here, into the present.
Channing: Well then, I’d say that fellow’s prospects are good. He’ll never lack for
business. The past gets him going, and everybody has one. (Pause.) Didn’t get a penny out
of us, though.
(He and Parker start to walk slowly stage left. Ellery stays by the lamppost.)
Parker: I hope you won’t mind listening to my past. What brought me here, what I have had to
overcome. I’ve got plenty to say. What I said on the way here never helped me much, frankly.
Ellery: Good evening. I’m hungry and homeless, and through no fault of my own. I am
the favorite child of misfortune. Please help me. Your generosity is greatly appreciated.
Thank you and God bless you.
Channing: Ellery! That’s enough, Ellery. (To Parker, stage-whispered.) He’s in the mood
to play games, I think. I hardly know the man. Let’s move on. You can tell me all about
yourself while we walk along. (Looks back at Ellery uneasily, who seems to have entered
a trancelike state. Hoarsely, to Parker.) Just for the sake of the game, tell us about
yourself while avoiding the past tense, will you?
Parker: That’s not going to be easy.
Channing: Just go along with it, OK? Games help to pass the time, and we have scads of
that, and not much else. No savior for us, no way to redeem our mistakes. We’ll do our
own saving, work it out just for us. (Pause, to see how Parker is taking this instruction;
it’s hard to tell.) The first step is just to play the game. Follow the rules. Just say to
yourself before you speak: “What’s now, and what’s to be… Never then.”
Parker: What’s now, and what’s to be … never then.
Channing: Perfect. (Reaches into his bag and brings out a handful of pebbles.) You have
to let me put a stone in your shoe every time you slip, OK? (Puts them back in.) You'll
learn fast, and we won’t have to hear Ellery give that little speech the Panhandler unloaded on the two of us a while back.
(Parker nods, moves ahead a few steps toward stage left.)
Ellery (stock still): Good evening. (The other men stop in their tracks, but don’t look
back.) I’m hungry and homeless, and through no fault of my own. I am the favorite child
of misfortune. Please help me. Your generosity is greatly appreciated. Thank you and
God bless you.
Channing (groans, realizing what he’s done, reaches into his bag, puts a pebble in his
own shoe, hobbles up behind Parker). I am meaning to say, Parker (Deliberately
emphasizing present and future tense indicators.), we are having this trouble with a
Panhandler, and then you come along, and you will share your company with us and tell
us what you are doing, what you are doing as a child and what you are doing as a man.
We will all get home. We will sing on the way. (Pause) Do you know a song called
“Body and Soul”? Will you sing it?
Parker: Sure (looks down at Channing, noticing his limp). But you seem to need to rest again. You’re walking funny.
Channing: I’m dealing with some discomfort, yes.
Parker: Let’s go just to that next lamppost over there (Pointing offstage.) and sit down,
get a load off. Then I’ll sing it for you. (Pause.) It can be a song about what’s now, and
what’s to be… never then.
(Parker leads the way off toward stage left, Channing hobbling a step behind him. Ellery
has started to follow, but has stopped during Parker’s last speech, looking back and forth
between the slowly departing figures of Channing and Parker and the onstage lamppost.
He soon elects to stand before the lamppost and extend his hands the way the Panhandler
did, elbows at his sides. The other two are now offstage.)
Ellery: “Good evening. I’m….” (Stammers the next few words, then stops. His lips
quiver a bit, his forearms shake, then he drops them to his sides and lowers his head.
In the next few seconds, with lights reduced to a spotlight on Ellery, Coleman Hawkins'
1939 recording of “Body and Soul” starts playing, continuing 3 minutes to the end.)
SLOW FADE TO BLACK