THE HISTORY LESSON

A one-act Play by

Dean Barrett

 

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THE HISTORY LESSON

CAST

MAN OF FASHION
MAN OF LEISURE (also, NEW MAN OF FASHION)
HOBO (also, NEW MAN OF LEISURE)

 

The exact ages of the characters are not terribly important but they are most likely between the ages of 30 and 50

 

The time is the present

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As the stage gradually lights up, a down-and-out, unshaven, homeless person with a very dirty face and in tattered clothes (MAN OF LEISURE) is rummaging through a garbage can. Beside the garbage can are two crude wooden stools with fairly high legs, one piled on top of the other.

The man is picking out objects, looking them over, even smelling them - then tossing them back again. He might try on a squished hat or place a wilted flower in his buttonhole or attempt to balance an object on his nose, etc. At some point the man finds a section of a newspaper, looks it over, and stuffs it into his back pocket. When he finds an empty wine bottle he acts out the role of a sommelier by pouring a bit into an imaginary glass of an imaginary customer and awaiting the customer's reaction. He then smiles and nods and pours more into the glass.

This rummaging action continues for another ten seconds after which a man (MAN OF FASHION) walks from upstage directly to downstage center. HE is an elegantly dressed man in a tuxedo and scarf and is holding a cigarette in a fancy holder. HE might also have a walking stick. HE glances (without expression) at the MAN OF LEISURE, then takes a puff on his cigarette. HE then faces the audience, bows formally, and begins speaking in a refined, upper-class (but not pretentious) voice.

 

MAN OF FASHION

In the 17th century, Archbishop James Ussher-

 

(Suddenly, the MAN OF LEISURE drops the trash can lid and it clangs noisily on the stage)

 

(The MAN OF FASHION is somewhat annoyed at the interruption. HE turns to glance briefly at the MAN OF LEISURE who continues to take no notice of him. The MAN OF FASHION then turns again to the audience and begins speaking)

 

MAN OF FASHION

(cont)

In the 17th century, Archbishop James Ussher, at Trinity College in Dublin, calculated that God had created heaven and earth in four thousand and four B.C. On the 22nd of October. Now-

 

(The MAN OF LEISURE, still peering into the trash bin, has mumbled something. The MAN OF FASHION turns to him)

 

MAN OF FASHION

(cont)

I beg your pardon?

 

MAN OF LEISURE

On Saturday!

 

MAN OF FASHION

Oh...Quite right. Thank you kindly.

 

(The MAN OF FASHION again turns to the audience)

 

MAN OF FASHION

(cont)

Four thousand and four B.C., the 22nd of October, on a Saturday. Now-

 

(Again, the MAN OF LEISURE mumbles something, interrupting the MAN OF FASHION. Again the MAN OF FASHION turns toward him)

 

MAN OF FASHION

(cont) (more annoyed)

Excuse me. Did you say something?

 

MAN OF LEISURE

In the evening!

 

MAN OF FASHION

Oh! Yes, quite right. Thank you so much.

 

(HE turns again to the audience)

 

MAN OF FASHION

(cont)

God created heaven and earth, according to Archbishop Ussher, in four thousand and four B.C., the 22nd of October; a Saturday; in the evening.

 

(HE turns warily to the MAN OF LEISURE to see if he has again left anything out. But the MAN OF LEISURE, still busily searching the trash can, holds up one fingerless-gloved hand high, thumb extended in an A-OK signal.)

 

(The MAN OF FASHION, somewhat relieved, turns back to the audience)

 

MAN OF FASHION

(cont)

Of course, not everyone agreed. An Englishman named Lightfoot thought they had been created a hundred years or so after that, but it was, in fact, Archbishop Ussher's view which was accepted until quite recently by scholars and, of course,

(gestures toward the MAN OF LEISURE)

by the masses.

 

(HE takes a long, thoughtful puff on his cigarette. As HE gives the following speech, the MAN OF LEISURE mimics him. At one point HE finds a balloon in the can and blows it up a bit then allows the air to escape - noisily. At another point HE finds a paper bag and places it over his head and thrusts his hands out dramatically, etc.)

 

MAN OF FASHION

(cont)

What I found most of interest, however, was that although the scholars agreed with Archbishop Ussher about the year, they were sharply divided in their opinions over the season in which God had created heaven and earth. Half of the learned men of the time insisted it had been in the spring; and half insisted it had been in the fall. I thought that it might be a bit of a giggle (as the British are wont to say), if we, a far more enlightened and scientifically advanced generation, were to listen to some of the arguments of the time and to decide for ourselves if it was more likely that the earth and the heavens were created in the fall or in the spring.

 

 

(The MAN OF LEISURE suddenly pulls two packages out of the trash barrel and straightens up)

 

MAN OF LEISURE

Found 'em!

 

MAN OF FASHION

Thank God! I was beginning to run out of things to say! That's all the dialogue they gave me; up to where you find the packages.

 

(As the MAN OF FASHION speaks the above lines HE is turned toward the MAN OF LEISURE so that HE can catch the package which the MAN OF LEISURE throws to him.)

 

(The MAN OF LEISURE is slightly ahead of him in opening his own package and unwrapping and placing a dunce's cap and tattered cloak on himself, but the MAN OF FASHION is just a few seconds behind in withdrawing a scholar's cap and gown from his own package and placing them on)

 

(The MAN OF FASHION notices a bulge in an inside pocket of his gown. It is a script. HE skims it quickly. As HE does so, the MAN OF LEISURE also notices a bulge in his pocket. HE pulls out a revolver. Deflated balloons are attached to it. HE stretches the balloons a bit and then snaps open the cylinder, looks inside, then snaps it shut)

 

(At the sound of the cylinder snapping shut, the two men, concealing what each has found, give each other quick, suspicious glances but then turn away again. The MAN OF LEISURE puts the revolver back inside the pocket of his cloak. The MAN OF FASHION finishes reading and places the script back into the pocket of his gown. Suddenly, the two men stare at each other in alarm)

 

TOGETHER

Did you find something?

 

(They both laugh in embarrassment)

 

MAN OF LEISURE

You first.

 

MAN OF FASHION

No, no. You. I insist.

 

MAN OF LEISURE

Very well. Did you find something?

 

MAN OF FASHION

In the pocket?

 

MAN OF LEISURE

Yes.

 

MAN OF FASHION

No...I mean, nothing important.

 

MAN OF LEISURE

Very well. Your turn.

 

MAN OF FASHION

Very well. Did you find something?

 

MAN OF LEISURE

No. Well, nothing important.

 

MAN OF FASHION

Oh. That's a relief. So let us proceed.

 

(The MAN OF FASHION walks to the stools. As he removes one and begins to move it to stage left, the MAN OF LEISURE hurries to help him)

 

MAN OF FASHION

I can manage.

 

MAN OF LEISURE

No trouble.

 

MAN OF FASHION

Look, it's less trouble for one than it is for two!

 

MAN OF LEISURE

Then what would the other one do?

 

MAN OF FASHION

Oh, all right. Grab a leg.

 

(Together THEY awkwardly move a stool to stage left. They then return to the second stool. The MAN OF FASHION pauses to rub the garbage can lid affectionately.)

 

MAN OF FASHION

(cont)

The dustbin of history.

 

MAN OF LEISURE

What was that?

 

MAN OF FASHION

The dustbin of history.

 

MAN OF LEISURE

If you say so.

 

(The two of them then move the second stool to stage right. The MAN OF FASHION walks back to the stool at stage left and sits on it with legs crossed, hands in his lap, completely relaxed. The MAN OF LEISURE pauses and looks toward the garbage can remaining at the center of the stage)

 

MAN OF LEISURE

What about that?

 

MAN OF FASHION

That stays where it is.

 

MAN OF LEISURE

How do you know?

 

MAN OF FASHION

Trust me.

 

MAN OF LEISURE

Trust you?

 

MAN OF FASHION

Trust me.

 

(The MAN OF LEISURE walks toward the MAN OF FASHION)

 

MAN OF LEISURE

Well, you've read the script, right? I mean, that was what you found in-

 

MAN OF FASHION

Trust me.

 

(The MAN OF LEISURE stares at him then shrugs and walks across the stage to sit on the stool at stage right. HE sits with legs crossed, adjusts his dunce cap and cloak, then also places his hands in his lap, completely relaxes for about five seconds, then begins fidgeting again)

 

(The MAN OF FASHION makes himself as comfortable as he can, reaches inside his tuxedo, takes out his cigarette, puffs on it, and then faces the audience)

 

MAN OF FASHION

(cont)

Now, ours is a cynical age, but let me assure you that Archbishop Ussher's conclusions were arrived at only after a long and painstaking investigation and following a completely unbiased inquiry. HE naturally tabulated the ages of Biblical figures such as patriarchs, kings and priests, examined astronomical tables, studied the autumnal equinox, and turned back the pages of our Gregorian calendar to work with the Julian calendar, that is, the system of calculating time introduced by Julius Caesar.

 

(Almost as soon as the MAN OF FASHION began to speak, the MAN OF LEISURE became bored and began reading the newspaper he earlier picked out from the trash can. HE speaks without looking up)

 

MAN OF LEISURE

In Rome.

 

MAN OF FASHION

(withholding his irritation)

...in Rome.

 

MAN OF LEISURE

In 46 B.C.

 

MAN OF FASHION

...In 46 B.C!

 

(The MAN OF FASHION waits briefly for anything further. When it does not come, HE continues. However, as HE speaks, the MAN OF LEISURE rustles the newspaper while looking it over until, at the end of the next speech, the MAN OF FASHION can stand it no longer)

 

MAN OF FASHION

(cont)

Furthermore, solar cycles had to be multiplied by lunar cycles, Chalddean historical dates had to be collated and, well, when all was said and done,

(with pride)

Archbishop Ussher had worked out an exact astronomical table of time, from the first point of the creation: Four thousand and four B.C. The 22nd of October. Saturday. Evening.

 

(The MAN OF FASHION glances in disgust at the noisy MAN OF LEISURE, then continues speaking to the audience)

 

MAN OF FASHION

(cont)

Now, regarding equinoxes, there are two times each year when day and night are of equal length, that is, when the sun crosses the equator. The important one for our purposes is the autumnal equinox which occurs in September. Archbishop-

 

 

(HE turns suddenly to the MAN OF LEISURE)

 

MAN OF FASHION

(cont)

Will you please cease that infernal rustling of that filthy newspaper!

 

MAN OF LEISURE

(looking intently at newspaper)

According to this article, astronomers have discovered a 90-trillion-mile-long stream of gas flowing toward the center of the Milky Way. Niiinety triiillion!

 

MAN OF FASHION

And?

 

(The MAN OF LEISURE looks at the ceiling as HE speaks the next line, his eyes moving from one side to the other)

 

MAN OF LEISURE

A thin river of gas is being...suuucked across the heavens.

 

MAN OF FASHION

How interesting.

 

(The MAN OF FASHION prepares to resume his discourse to the audience)

 

MAN OF LEISURE

Yah think God farted?

 

(The MAN OF LEISURE makes an obscene noise and begins laughing. The MAN OF FASHION sighs heavily and turns angrily on the MAN OF LEISURE)

 

MAN OF FASHION

Now, see here! You said if I let you come you'd help me out if and when I needed it. You promised this time you'd actually assist me instead of trying to embarrass me. All you've done so far is to make a bloody fool of yourself!

 

(The MAN OF LEISURE throws the paper down, stands up, and walks toward the MAN OF FASHION)

 

MAN OF LEISURE

Me?! I'm not the one making a fool of myself here, mate. You are. Do you really think they (gestures to audience) care a tinker's damn about your Archbishop Ussher and his poppycock theories on how or when or why the universe started?

 

(BOTH stand and face each other)

 

MAN OF FASHION

Poppycock theories?!

 

MAN OF LEISURE

Yes, poppycock theories! They threw you out of your doctoral program precisely because you insisted Ussher's half-baked ideas were correct and now, even now, when everyone knows that a big bang started it all billions of years ago, you're still insisting Ussher's calculations are correct.

 

(The MAN OF FASHION starts to shout, then speaks quietly)

 

MAN OF FASHION

I happen to believe they are correct; big bang theory be damned.

 

(The MAN OF LEISURE quickly rips off his cap and cloak as HE speaks.)

 

MAN OF LEISURE

Well, you believe what you like, mate, but I for one am more than fed up with your nonsense! Every night the same thing. Up on a stage, a crowd of people - modern people - staring at us while you embarrass us with your asinine assumptions, dunderheaded doctrines, chuckleheaded claptrap and your insidious attempts to get them to believe in this gobbledygook.

 

(The MAN OF LEISURE walks to stage center, about where the garbage can is and throws his dunce cap and cloak at it; then walks back to his stool and sits back down on it, picks up the newspaper and begins reading)

 

MAN OF FASHION

Put those on!

 

MAN OF LEISURE

No.

 

MAN OF FASHION

Put...your...cap...and...cloak...back...on. Now!

 

MAN OF LEISURE

No! That silly garb belongs in the garbage. I have put it on for the last time.

 

MAN OF FASHION

That's what you say every night.

 

MAN OF LEISURE

This time I mean it.

 

MAN OF FASHION

That too.

 

(THEY stare at one another)

 

MAN OF LEISURE

Look, let's try something new.

 

MAN OF FASHION

We can't.

 

(The MAN OF LEISURE rises and walks toward the MAN OF FASHION)

 

MAN OF LEISURE

Well, all right, not new, exactly; just something a little different. Something-

 

MAN OF FASHION

We can't!

 

MAN OF LEISURE

Hunh! You mean you won't.

 

MAN OF FASHION

I mean the script is written for us.

(rising) (HE pats his pocket)

It can't be changed.

 

MAN OF LEISURE

Right. Just so long as it's to your advantage, I'm to go along believing it's all been written and there's no changing it.

 

MAN OF FASHION

I don't have any more to say about it than you do. Can't you understand that?

 

MAN OF LEISURE

Maybe you don't, but I don't like being the only one here without a script! Can't you understand that?

 

MAN OF FASHION

Look! If you were in my place you'd understand.

 

MAN OF LEISURE

(thoughtfully)

If I were...where?

 

MAN OF FASHION

In my place. If you were in my place, you'd do as I do and you'd believe as I believe.

 

MAN OF LEISURE

...But I'm not in your place.

 

MAN OF FASHION

That's right.

 

MAN OF LEISURE

Because you've got the (throwing his arms out) scriiipt!

 

MAN OF FASHION

That's riiight.

 

MAN OF LEISURE

And I'm supposed to trust you.

 

MAN OF FASHION

That's right!

 

(When the MAN OF LEISURE stares at him, the MAN OF FASHION puts his arm about his shoulders and attempts to reason with him)

 

MAN OF FASHION

(cont)

Look. Remember the man in the swamp?

 

MAN OF LEISURE

The man in the swamp?

 

MAN OF FASHION

Yes. Every night I tell you the story about the man in the swamp. Do you remember?

 

MAN OF LEISURE

If I remembered, you wouldn't have to tell me the story every night.

 

MAN OF FASHION

That's right. Which means you don't remember. So, I'll tell you again.

 

MAN OF LEISURE

Why?

 

MAN OF FASHION

Why? Why what?

 

MAN OF LEISURE

Why tell me the story every night?

 

MAN OF FASHION

To illustrate my point.

 

MAN OF LEISURE

Just so there is a point. Otherwise, it's pointless.

 

(The MAN OF FASHION points to the garbage can)

 

MAN OF FASHION

Here. Make yourself comfortable.

 

MAN OF LEISURE

Here?

 

MAN OF FASHION

Yes, here. It won't bite you.

 

MAN OF LEISURE

I wish I could believe that.

 

(The MAN OF FASHION sits the MAN OF LEISURE down on the garbage can at stage center and stands to his side slightly behind him as THEY both face the audience)

 

MAN OF FASHION

A man took his own life by standing in a small boat in a swamp.

 

MAN OF LEISURE

How did he take his own life?

 

MAN OF FASHION

He shot himself.

 

MAN OF LEISURE

Where?

 

MAN OF FASHION

In the bow; in the stern. What's the difference?

 

MAN OF LEISURE

No, I ask "where" so as to learn into what part of his body did the man in the swamp fire the fatal bullet?

 

MAN OF FASHION

Oh. In the chest.

 

(The MAN OF LEISURE attempts to imagine the scene by placing the tip of his index finger against his own chest and letting his thumb fall in the manner of a gun hammer)

 

MAN OF FASHION

(cont)

That's right. But here's the thing. The man had tied balloons to the gun.

 

(The MAN OF LEISURE's hand automatically touches his cloak where the gun is then lets his hand drop again)

 

MAN OF FASHION

(cont)

What's the matter?

 

MAN OF LEISURE

Nothing's the matter.

 

MAN OF FASHION

You look like you've seen a ghost.

 

MAN OF LEISURE

Nothing's the matter...so the man in the swamp had tied balloons to the gun.

 

MAN OF FASHION

That's right.

 

MAN OF LEISURE

Because he'd been to a party?

 

MAN OF FASHION

No. Because he wanted the balloons to carry the gun off. Far, far away. Where no one would ever find it.

 

MAN OF LEISURE

May I ask why?

 

MAN OF FASHION

You must ask why.

 

MAN OF LEISURE

Why?

 

MAN OF FASHION

Because it's in the script.

 

MAN OF LEISURE

No, I mean, why did he want the gun never to be found?

 

MAN OF FASHION

Because he wanted everyone to think he'd been murdered. Now you must ask me why again.

 

MAN OF LEISURE

Why again.

 

MAN OF FASHION

We don't know that part. Perhaps to place suspicion on an enemy and have him arrested for the crime. Or perhaps it was an attempt to collect insurance for his loved ones. Or perhaps he simply wanted to leave a mystery for his family and friends. But my point is that his plan didn't work.

 

(The MAN OF FASHION waits. The MAN OF LEISURE is not quite certain what is expected of him. His "why" is tentative)

 

MAN OF LEISURE

Why??

 

MAN OF FASHION

Because, within yards of the boat, the balloons rose up and snagged the branches of a tree. So the plan was discovered. So whatever he was attempting to do, no one was arrested, no insurance was paid, no mystery remained.

 

MAN OF LEISURE

That's it?

 

MAN OF FASHION

That's it.

 

MAN OF LEISURE

May I ask some questions?

 

MAN OF FASHION

Certainly.

 

MAN OF LEISURE

Why did he shoot himself in the chest?

 

MAN OF FASHION

Excuse me?

 

MAN OF LEISURE

You said he shot himself in the chest. Most suicides using a gun place the muzzle of the gun to their heads.

 

MAN OF FASHION

I don't know. Perhaps by aiming at his heart he was making it as personal as possible.

 

MAN OF LEISURE

Was it night or day?

 

MAN OF FASHION

What does it matter?

 

MAN OF LEISURE

I just thought it would be nice to know if silvery moonlight was reflecting on the cool, dark water or if the afternoon's bright sun was making the swamp all steamy. And if herons, and egrets and ospreys and spoonbills were watching him from the banks of the swamp. And if-

 

MAN OF FASHION

Why would you want to know all those details?

 

MAN OF LEISURE

Then I might be able to remember the story. So you wouldn't have to tell it tomorrow night.

 

MAN OF FASHION

I don't believe it works like that. I don't think any amount of details tonight would change anything tomorrow night.

 

MAN OF LEISURE

Yet God and good story-telling are both in the details; or so I've been told.

 

MAN OF FASHION

Are they? Actually, I thought it was the devil in the details.

 

MAN OF LEISURE

No. You've got it wrong.

 

MAN OF FASHION

Well, thank you for that. I will try to remember.

 

MAN OF LEISURE

If you can. Now what about the tree?

 

MAN OF FASHION

The tree?

 

MAN OF LEISURE

The tree that snagged the balloons.

 

MAN OF FASHION

What about it?

 

MAN OF LEISURE

Well, it would be nice to know if it was a sprawling banyan tree or a twisted cypress or something exotic with long, graceful strands of Spanish moss hanging from each branch or at least exactly what type of tree snagged the balloons.

 

MAN OF FASHION

(a bit heated)

Well, I for one fail to see why it is so nice to know such things as you insist on asking. The important point-

 

MAN OF LEISURE

And, above all, did he know it?

 

MAN OF FASHION

Did who know what?!

 

MAN OF LEISURE

As he lay dying, did the man in the swamp see that his plan had failed and was he horrified that he was dying for nothing or did he see the cosmic joke in it and laugh his way into eternity?

 

MAN OF FASHION

You have completely missed my point.

 

MAN OF LEISURE

No. I got it. You're saying-

 

MAN OF FASHION

I'm saying the man in the swamp tried to change the script that was written for him.

 

MAN OF LEISURE

But it didn't work.

 

MAN OF FASHION

It never does.

 

MAN OF LEISURE

But he did take his own life. Ah, but that act you'd say was part of the script.

 

MAN OF FASHION

Exactly.

 

MAN OF LEISURE

And you're saying I'm acting like the man in the swamp.

 

MAN OF FASHION

That is my point exactly. Now kindly put your dunce cap and cloak back on and we'll get on with it. Whatever the situation, we can at least avoid unpleasantness!

 

(The MAN OF LEISURE stares at the MAN OF FASHION, pats his cheek irreverently, then gets up and picks up the cap and cloak and, with exaggerated gestures, puts them on. HE then returns to sit on his stool. The MAN OF FASHION also returns to sit on his stool)

 

(Satisfied, the MAN OF FASHION takes the script from his gown pocket and begins reading it to himself aloud.)

 

(While HE does so, the MAN OF LEISURE takes out the revolver from the pocket of his cloak. HE opens it, spins the cylinder, and snaps it shut)

 

MAN OF FASHION

(to himself while reading the script)

Now, where was I? Ah, yes. Four thousand and four B.C. In the fall.

 

MAN OF LEISURE

(to himself while examining the revolver)

Charter Arms Pit Bull. Nine millimeter Federal.

 

MAN OF FASHION

The twenty-second of October.

 

MAN OF LEISURE

Three-and-a-half-inch barrel. Fixed sights.

 

MAN OF FASHION

A Saturday.

 

MAN OF LEISURE

Double action. Stainless.

 

MAN OF FASHION

In the evening. A very special Saturday evening.

 

MAN OF LEISURE

Five shots. A Saturday night special.

 

(The MAN OF FASHION rises and looks up toward the heavens - in awe and wonder)

 

MAN OF FASHION

The beginning of heaven and earth. A divinely inspired plan designed solely for the proper evolution of the human race.

 

(The MAN OF LEISURE opens the cylinder of the revolver, presses the ejector rod, releases the bullet and examines it)

 

MAN OF LEISURE

A heavy, semi-wadcutter bullet designed solely to produce maximum damage to vital organs.

 

MAN OF FASHION

Human evolution!

 

(The MAN OF LEISURE points the gun sideways at the MAN OF FASHION while speaking to the audience)

 

MAN OF LEISURE

Target...incapacitation!

 

(The MAN OF LEISURE reloads the bullet and snaps the cylinder closed, rises and walks jauntily toward the MAN OF FASHION)

 

(The MAN OF FASHION doesn't notice him at first. The MAN OF LEISURE waits, holding the gun at his side, arm lowered. Just as the MAN OF FASHION turns to him, the MAN OF LEISURE raises the gun)

 

MAN OF FASHION

Perhaps most important of all, Archbishop Ussher was a man who understood the dramatic unfolding of history and, while not repudiating free will, he saw clearly how events often interact in such a way that it would be futile to oppose them.

(turning to the MAN OF LEISURE)

Did you know that Archbishop Ussher was the first-

 

(HE sees the gun. THEY stare at each other. The MAN OF LEISURE looks at his own dunce cap then motions for the MAN OF FASHION to hand him his cap. After just a moment, the MAN OF FASHION takes off his cap and hands it to him. The MAN OF LEISURE accepts it and tosses it onto the garbage can)

 

(HE now looks at his own tattered cloak, then gestures for him to hand over the gown. The MAN OF FASHION now slips out of the gown and hands it over. The MAN OF LEISURE accepts it and tosses it onto the garbage can but HE now gestures for the script. This time, the MAN OF FASHION shakes his head indicating "no" and throws out his arms as if to say, 'Shoot if you must.')

 

(The MAN OF LEISURE hesitates. HE lowers the gun; the MAN OF FASHION lowers his arms. The MAN OF LEISURE raises the gun and points it at him again; the MAN OF FASHION again throws out his arms. This action occurs again. The MAN OF LEISURE then pulls thoughtfully at the balloons, then fires one shot. The MAN OF FASHION slumps to the floor - dead)

 

(The MAN OF LEISURE slips the gun into his belt. HE then walks forward and checks the pulse (neck and wrist) of the MAN OF FASHION then picks up the script)

 

(HE strolls about happily while reading it for ten seconds or so, then stops moving and becomes very serious as HE reads. HE then looks down at the corpse)

 

MAN OF LEISURE

It's all here...even this...every bit of it...and you knew...

 

(The MAN OF LEISURE kneels beside the body, staring intently at the late MAN OF FASHION. HE is almost overcome with emotion. HE is torn between hitting the MAN OF FASHION and embracing him. HE seems about to strangle the corpse but then embraces it and whispers)

 

MAN OF LEISURE

You knew.

 

(Suddenly, a HOBO dressed exactly like the MAN OF LEISURE - but in a completely different color and with a clean face - walks quickly on stage and stands near the garbage can. And waits. HE clears his throat. Startled, the MAN OF LEISURE looks up. The HOBO raises his right hand inside his fingerless glove and waves a playful hello.)

 

MAN OF LEISURE

You!

 

HOBO

Yes. You!

 

(The HOBO smiles and pounds on the lid of the garbage can as if it were a drum summoning them to action. HE motions for the MAN OF LEISURE to help him move the stools back to their places at center stage)

 

(The MAN OF LEISURE stares at the corpse. HE is almost unable to function but HE does get up and move his stool to center stage beside the garbage can. The HOBO simultaneously moves his stool back and piles them one on top of the other as before. The HOBO takes the lead in packing everything back the way it was)

 

(The MAN OF LEISURE aids him as directed. The following dialogue is spoken while things are being repacked into bags and placed in the garbage can as before)

 

MAN OF LEISURE

He's dead.

 

HOBO

Yes, I know.

 

MAN OF LEISURE

I...killed him.

 

HOBO

You don't say.

 

MAN OF LEISURE

He wouldn't give me the script.

 

HOBO

Well, then.

 

MAN OF LEISURE

But it was in the script.

 

HOBO

What was?

 

MAN OF LEISURE

That he wouldn't give me the script.

 

HOBO

Was it...

 

MAN OF LEISURE

And that I would...point the gun and pull the trigger.

 

HOBO

(glancing at the body)

Nice shot.

 

MAN OF LEISURE

And he knew.

 

HOBO

If you say so.

 

MAN OF LEISURE

Didn't you hear me? I said I killed him!

 

HOBO

So you say.

 

MAN OF LEISURE

So shouldn't there be...

 

HOBO

Yes?

 

MAN OF LEISURE

I mean, won't there be any...

 

HOBO

Repercussions?

 

MAN OF LEISURE

Exactly.

 

HOBO

A reaction?

 

MAN OF LEISURE

Yes!

 

HOBO

An action set in motion by your action?

 

MAN OF LEISURE

Yes!

 

HOBO

Something happening in response to the event?

 

MAN OF LEISURE

Yes!

 

HOBO

Something that might define, interpret, explain or at least clarify the event?

 

MAN OF LEISURE

Yes!

 

(The HOBO grabs the hand of the MAN OF LEISURE and bites it ferociously)

 

MAN OF LEISURE

Ow!

 

HOBO

Something to sink your teeth into?

 

MAN OF LEISURE

Yes!

 

HOBO

Should there be?

 

MAN OF LEISURE

I don't know what you mean.

 

(The HOBO stops all action and stares at the corpse)

 

HOBO

I mean that if your killing him was part of the script then how could it lead to anything repercussive? How could anything in a script repercuss to anything else in a script? If an action was not repercussive to begin with how could it possibly lead to a repercussion?

 

MAN OF LEISURE

You may have lost me.

 

(The HOBO places an arm about the shoulders of the MAN OF LEISURE. HE looks out over the heads of the audience as he enunciates)

 

HOBO

Cuss, cussive, cussion. Cussion, cussive, cuss.

 

(The HOBO gestures for the MAN OF LEISURE to try it)

 

MAN OF LEISURE

(haltingly)

Cuss, cussive, cussion...Cussion, cussive, cuss.

 

(The HOBO gestures for the MAN OF LEISURE to continue. THEY repeat it together as a chant, then as a mantra, then as pure spirituality)

 

HOBO/MAN OF LEISURE

Cuss, cussive, cussion...Cussion, cussive, cuss. Cuss, cussive, cussion...Cussion, cussive, cuuuss. Cuuuss, cuuussive, cuuussiion...Cuuussiion, cuuussive, cuuuuuss. Cuuuss, cuuussiive, cuuussiion...Cuuussiion, cuuussiive, Cuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuus.

 

HOBO

Now. Isn't that better?

 

MAN OF LEISURE

Well...I seem to feel better.

 

HOBO

Well enough to go on?

 

MAN OF LEISURE

Yes. I think so. Although I'm not sure why.

 

HOBO

Why go on?

 

MAN OF LEISURE

No. Why I feel better.

 

HOBO

(playfully mussing his hair)

Simple logic.

 

MAN OF LEISURE

Really? It seems to me neither simple nor logical.

 

HOBO

All the same, it's there whenever you need it.

 

(During all of their dialogue, the following action has occurred: (The HOBO gestures for the MAN OF LEISURE to place the script inside the pocket of the gown as before. He then holds out a bag to the MAN OF LEISURE and gestures to the cap and gown. The MAN OF LEISURE places the cap and gown inside the bag. The bag is folded closed then tossed into the garbage can)

 

MAN OF LEISURE

Lucky thing I found these in the garbage can when I did.

 

HOBO

You found these in the garbage can?

 

MAN OF LEISURE

Sure I did.

 

HOBO

A likely story. You mean you stole these.

 

MAN OF LEISURE

I did not. I found them. And not a minute too soon. He had just used up all the dialogue they gave him.

 

HOBO

Who's "they"?

 

MAN OF LEISURE

What?

 

HOBO

Who's "they"?

 

(The MAN OF LEISURE looks befuddled)

 

HOBO

(cont)

The "they" who gave him the dialogue in the first place! Who was it?

 

MAN OF LEISURE

I don't know.

 

HOBO

You didn't ask?

 

MAN OF LEISURE

No. I was just glad I found the packages when we needed them.

 

HOBO

(to himself)

Some people are easily pleased.

 

(The HOBO removes the dunce cap and cloak from the MAN OF LEISURE, then holds out his hand for the gun. The MAN OF LEISURE removes it from his belt, stares at it, then hands it over. The HOBO ejects the shell casing and tosses it into the garbage can)

 

(HE then fishes about in one of his pockets and finds a bullet. HE inserts it into the cylinder of the revolver, then places the gun in the pocket of the cloak as before. He then stuffs the cloak and cap into the other bag. The bag is also folded closed, then tossed into the garbage can)

 

MAN OF LEISURE

The dustbin of history.

 

HOBO

Did you say something?

 

MAN OF LEISURE

The dustbin of history!

 

HOBO

If you say so.

 

(The HOBO playfully starts the type of antics the MAN OF LEISURE formerly acted out)

 

MAN OF LEISURE

Stop that! This isn't something to joke about!

 

HOBO

Oh. Isn't it? I wasn't sure. Sorry.

 

(The HOBO almost reverently replaces the lid of the garbage can, brushing his hands together to dust them off and, perhaps, in satisfaction. As he starts to walk off stage, the MAN OF LEISURE speaks.)

 

MAN OF LEISURE

Aren't you forgetting something?

 

(The MAN OF LEISURE points to the body of the late MAN OF FASHION. The HOBO smiles as if he'd forgotten to attend to a minor detail and THEY then walk to the body of the MAN OF FASHION. Before bending down to grasp the wrists of the MAN OF FASHION the MAN OF LEISURE speaks)

 

MAN OF LEISURE

(looking around)

We won't remember any of this, will we?

 

HOBO

If you say so.

 

(THEY grab the MAN OF FASHION but the MAN OF LEISURE lets him go and straightens up again)

 

MAN OF LEISURE

But are we coming back?

 

HOBO

I suppose we are. In a manner of speaking. Now could we please get on with this?

 

MAN OF LEISURE

But I need to know if it's better to know or not to know.

 

HOBO

(growing impatient)

If you don't mind, I think the main thing is to attend to the business at hand.

 

(The MAN OF LEISURE takes the MAN OF FASHION's arms and the HOBO grasps his feet. THEY both start to take the lead and then stop as the passage into the wings is not wide enough unless one goes ahead of the other)

 

MAN OF LEISURE

You first.

 

HOBO

No, no. You. I insist.

 

MAN OF LEISURE

Very well.

 

(THEY drag the MAN OF FASHION off into the wings. The lights dim)

 

(After several seconds the lights gradually brighten and we see The HOBO - now with a very dirty face - (NEW MAN OF LEISURE) rummaging through the garbage can. As before, beside the garbage can are two crude wooden stools with fairly high legs, one piled on top of the other.

 

The new MAN OF LEISURE begins rummaging through the garbage can, picking out objects, looking them over, even smelling them - then tossing them back in again. He might try on a squished hat or place a wilted flower in his buttonhole or attempt to balance an object on his nose, etc.)

 

(At some point the man finds a section of a newspaper, looks it over, and stuffs it into his back pocket. When he finds an empty wine bottle he acts out the role of a sommelier by pouring a bit into an imaginary glass of an imaginary customer and awaiting the customer's reaction. He then smiles and nods and pours more into the glass.)

 

(This rummaging action continues for another ten seconds after which a man (NEW MAN OF FASHION, formerly MAN OF LEISURE - with a perfectly clean face) crosses the downstage area from the same upstage entrance directly to downstage center)

 

(He is now wearing a tuxedo and scarf and is holding a cigarette in a fancy holder. HE might also have a walking stick. HE glances (without expression) at the HOBO (NEW MAN OF LEISURE), then takes another puff on his cigarette. HE then faces the audience, bows formally, and begins speaking in a refined, upper-class - but not pretentious - voice)

 

NEW MAN OF FASHION

In the 17th century, Archbishop James Ussher-

 

(Suddenly, the NEW MAN OF LEISURE drops the trash can lid and it clangs noisily on the stage. Immediately, there is)

BLACKOUT

THE END

*********************************************

 

NOTES

As the play opens, the MAN OF LEISURE may be lying on the stage beside the garbage can, just waking up, before his rummaging begins; or he may be already rummaging through the garbage can; or he may walk onto the stage, kneel beside it, and begin rummaging. The important thing is that, however we first see him, we must see the HOBO exactly the same way at the end of the play when he appears on stage (as NEW MAN OF LEISURE).

A lit cigarette might be too troublesome; there is no need for it to be lit.

If lighting changes are available, the mood might soften during the telling of the Man in the Swamp story and might alter dramatically during the chanting. The lighting might also be slightly dim in the beginning of each cycle, i.e., while the MAN OF LEISURE is rummaging through the trash can, and brighten to normal lighting the second the MAN OF FASHION appears.

The type of chanting might vary according to a director's taste. For example, their chant might begin by being operatic and gradually change into a meditative drone. Or it might be purely meditative all the way through. Rather than all lines sung simultaneously, one or two lines of the chant might be repeated almost as a round. The use of appropriate body movement might be explored as well.

Copyright  2014  Dean Barrett

No part of this play may be performed or published without written permission from the playwright.

***************************************

 

The History Lesson is of course a Theater of the Absurd play and I wrote it several years ago.  I have seen an early version performed in NYC and I know it has been performed in England and elsewhere. 
 
It began when I happened to read in a book that for a long period of time all scholars agreed with Archbishop Ussher's finding that the world began in 4004 BC.  What intrigued me was that although the scholars agreed on that date they were bitterly divided over whether it began in the spring or in the fall.  I decided that in itself was already Theater of the Absurd and made an effort to learn more about the Bishop and his theory.  So I called the Jesuits or some such learned religious group because the book I read did not state Ussher's name, and they knew right away, of course.  They forgot to mention there were two s's in the name so that made my catalog search in the NY Public Library a bit more difficult.  But I found it at last and the play turned out as it did at the length it has become.  
 
I would not speculate as to motivation and theme as I am one of those who believes the work must speak for itself.  There is of course a question of free will versus iron-clad fate and a few other questions being raised. 
 
Should you decide to stage the play, please note that a one time performance in which no one is paid and tickets are not sold is free.  For a commercial performance you would owe me US$50.  If you can supply me with a playbill, if any, and a CD or DVD, if any, that would be wonderful.
 
The play is very inexpensive to produce with few props, but I do not regard The History Lesson as an easy play to produce.  I suppose my characters would feel right at home in a Samuel Beckett play.   I once mentioned to Simon Albury, a very wise man, that when I was a young man I loved Cyrano de Bergerac, the great romantic, and now as an older man, I feel more akin with Pirandello, Pinter and Beckett.  He nodded and said, "Yes, well, that is the journey, isn't it?
 
Dean Barrett
Bangkok
 
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