A Closet Drama in One Act
Crowd of Strangers
It is a rundown theater, once the proud center of the town high school. On both sides of the proscenium fade art deco murals, which modern times have correctly labeled a racist portrayal of Native Americans. By way of a contentious bond issue, a smaller modern box of a building on the edge of town will in two months open as the new high school. In two weeks the electricity will be turned off in this building.
The tatty stage is bare except downstage left center are two worn easy chairs with faded print slip covers turned one-quarter towards each other. An even glow of yellow-white light falls downstage. Upstage is dark. Upstage right on the fringe of the lighting sits Author in a writing posture with his back to us at small unsteady table. Author at first ignores the interaction between Narrator and Character.
Character enters from stage left and confidently pauses just inside the tormentors to collect his bearings on the stage. He is dressed in the down-mode intellectual style of college professors in the late 70’s and early 80’s: untested hiking boots, jeans, corduroy jacket with patches on the elbows, blue shirt, no tie. He is carrying both volumes of Norton’s Anthology of English Literature. He does not seem to notice Author, or chooses to ignore him. After a minute his confidence shrinks. He offers a tentative knock at a non-existent door.
Narrator speaks through the the P.A. system: at what exactly are you knocking?
Character: I was trying to get your attention, a task at which, may I point out, I succeeded. (He steps to between the two chairs and peers up into the beam lights shading his eyes with his hand.)
Narrator: Let us pretend at this point that I left a long dramatic pause and get on with it. I expected you before now.
Character: How did you know I was coming?
Narrator: Author told me.
Character: I don’t know her, or is her a him?
Narrator: She is a him. Perhaps you may get to know him. I do not determine these things. He does not yet know you very well, but he has been working on your development for the last three weeks. You are an English lecturer I see by your Norton’s.
Character: An Associate Professor, thank you! Why am I here? Why do I feel compelled to tell you a story, which is a memory from my childhood, which has haunted me again for the last three nights?
Narrator: I assume it last haunted you when you were a lecturer. Why else are you wearing the uniform of the role in that era? Please tell me your memory, but give it a story structure, make it fiction if you want. Just remember this is a theater and not a therapy session.
Character: But the Western theater began in Greece to provide the audience catharsis.
Narrator: Northeastern Minnesota is not hardly ancient Greece. In these post-modern times a license is required to grant catharsis. Just tell us your story in unadorned or adorned fiction or nonfiction. I am the Narrator. I appreciate narrative. First, what is your name?
Character: (Pause.) I do not seem to know. I don’t think I have been given one yet. (Pause.) I will tell this in the first person, so I do not think I need one.
Narrator: We will see. Proceed. Be seated if you wish. Remember, no catharsis. No therapy.
Character: (Still stands): Where do I begin?
Narrator:(Interrupts.) At the . . .
Character: (Interrupts.) The beginning, I know. I find that in real life beginnings and endings are amorphous. But to get on with it and not debate Twentieth Century narrative forms. Sometime in the first half of the decade of the 1950’s my parents took me and my two sisters to see The Wizard of Oz. I wanted it to be as early as 1952. I dare not hope 1951. I fear it may have been as late as 1955, surely not 1956.
Narrator: why does the year matter?
Character: The problem was that the movie terrified me, I hope at not too old an age. It is one of my most vivid memories, in full Technicolor, as it were. Why it did, that is the question.
Narrator: Tut, tut! No therapy.
(Author, writing pad and pen in hand, stands and takes very slow steps towards Character.)
Character: I have not seen the movie since that time, only snippets here and there when my desultory use of the remote control landed me in it. We, my sisters and I, were taken to many violent movies, This was before babysitting and film ratings. My parents had too much trust in Hollywood. We saw a few films noir, like Where the Sidewalk Ends. Those films did not scare me. I remember in particular as rather gruesome the movie Distant Drums, about the Seminole Wars. It is the movie in which the Wilhelm Scream first appeared, which is Hollywood’s longest running inside joke.
Narrator: I know what the Wilhelm Scream is.
Character: I remember it as a bad movie. Not a morally-questionable movie, but a poorly-made movie. When I first heard about the Wilhelm Scream in the late 80’s, I was convinced I could remember the scream in one of the cheesy battle or quicksand scenes. Probably not. My buddies and I played quicksand games for the next month or so. It was in a small town before television. Most everybody saw the movie of the week at the Hematite Theater. When I recently saw Distant Drums in the middle of a sleepless night . . .
Narrator: No therapy, now.
Character: Not therapy, but simply a narrative detail. When I saw the movie again, I was pleased to see I had been an astute movie critic before the age of ten.
Narrator: Ah, but you were just hoping you saw Wizard of Oz before the age of ten, when it terrified you.
Character: I always teach my students that the narrator should not interrupt the narrative flow.
Narrator: I do apologize.
(Author has now reached Character, who turns and talks to Author as he continues.)
Character: As I was saying, when I watched Distant Drums that bleary middle of the night, I was pleased that I picked the Wilhelm Scream out of all those sound effects. However, I was disappointed to see that the movie starred Gary Cooper, and not Charlton Heston, as my memory had lied. It was the sort of over-acted, over-dramatized, over-testosteroned racist schmaltz in which Heston excelled. But can one excel at mediocrity?
Narrator: Perhaps we should leave that for the audience to decide.
Author: (Turning to narrator.) By which you mean my story may excel at mediocrity. But will there be an audience to decide that? And you (Turns to Character.), this is my memory you are telling. The two of you, I hope you realize, have been given form by my imagination.
Character: Did you catch the Wilhelm Scream?
Author: No. You are fiction; I am reality. You exist only to tell my memory in a fictionalized form. Apparently I have decided to make this a first person narrative.
Narrator: Then why am I here?
Author: You will always be there lurking in the background, which is an important but less obvious role.
Character: Author, as a fictional character, I am more interesting than you.
Author: What would make you even more interesting is if I have you murdered, which I can do with three inches of ink on paper. Six inches if I make it gruesome.
Character: I do apologize.
Author: If you are going to embody my memory, you should have a name. Not my name. This is fiction, not autobiography.
Narrator: Nor is it therapy.
Character: What about Basil for my name? Basil Perkins.
Author: Too English. Too not mundane. Something bedrock-solid Midwest. I dub you Dale Cummins.
Character: I’m an English Professor. I am neither a minor river valley nor a diesel engine.
Narrator: Associate professor. Please keep the narrative moving forward.
Author: (Turns to narrator.) Dale Cummins here started it. Some characters can be so difficult. (Turns to Character.) Sorry, my back is hurting today. Too many hours bent forward in a chair laboring over you. Let us sit, and then you may continue with our memory. (They sit.)
Character: Where was I?
Author: You are about to explain what happens when Wizard of Oz comes up in conversations, a point in the story at which I have been blocked for some time.
Character: Oh, yes, thank you. Whenever The Wizard of Oz comes up in conversation, I interrupt the group nostalgic gush by pointing out a few logical inconsistencies. I tell them that tin does not rust, which in its pure form it does not. I next remind them how the Tin Woodman, Baum’s name for the character, became all tin without a heart. That detail always darkens the mood. “You realize,” I go on to say, “if you didn’t have a brain you could not hardly improvise a song about not having a brain.”
Narrator: As a narrator I must object to your introduction of reality into fantasy.
Author: As you will see, I objected as a child to the introduction of fantasy into my reality.
Narrator: Does that not rather define cynicism?
Character: Exactly. People have labeled me a cynic so they can ignore me. Cynicism is the first refuge of the cowardly. That is what is wrong with the Cowardly Lion. Cowards are cynics. He should never had placed any trust in the Wizard.
First Premise: Cowards are cynics.
Second Premise: The Lion is by definition a coward.
Major Premise: The Cowardly Lion should have smelled the rat behind the curtain.
Author: And, buried somewhere in there, is the point that you were a coward that night and were thus made a cynic for life.
Narrator: That is an excuse. You cannot blame a work of kid lit for your adult failures.
Character: Oh, but you can. Yes you can. Children’s literature is vital in the formation of the child, or the deformation of the child.
Author: Here is the question you and I need to answer, in fiction or in reality: What scared you that night in the Hematite Theater watching The Wizard of Oz?
Narrator: That question reeks of therapy. I must most throughly . . . (Author points a remote control at the bridge lights and clicks it. Narrator goes silent in the middle of the word thoroughly.)
Character: Thank you . . . but I must ask, would that work on me?
(Author points remote control at Character and clicks it.)
Character: No, I can still talk.
Author: Sadly, that is true. I have been trying to shut you down for a few days now. But proceed.
Character: What scared me about Wizard of Oz? Not the tornado. Growing up here in Northeastern Minnesota, I had no reference to tornadoes. Not the melting witch. As much as I wanted some people to do so, I knew neither humans nor teachers would melt. Dorothy’s potential separation from her toe-rag of a mutt at the hands of the sheriff’s self-appointed supernumerary? Separation anxiety is, they say, a common childhood dark fear. No not that either, or perhaps a little bit. I was seated stolidly between my two older sisters, who were always dependably there, in a disinterested sort of way.
Author: I just now realized I was always placed between them in the theater to keep them from poking each other and giggling.
Character: Can a person be more anchored in a family than to serve as a buffer?
Author: You have told us what did not scare you. Now tell us what did.
Character: Who might us be?
Author: I live with the hope of an audience.
Character: The first thing that scared me about Wizard of Oz was the backdrop on which the story played out. The stage dressing, the camera fodder, the eye gumdrops. Without even knowing what a scrim was, I knew the sky was projected onto cloth. I knew it was all—the corn, the yellow brick road, the root cellar—all of it was art for art’s sake.
Author: “Follow-the-yellow-brick-road” is a nice bit of doggerel.
Character: Do not interrupt. We’re on a roll here. In a world ruled by art and guise, where do humans fit? Nowhere! I had found, that night in the dark of the Hematite Theater at such a young age, my existential angst.
Author: We hope it was a young age.
Character: What if we are all fakery, merely spun-sugar on the Producer’s giant sound stage?
Author: If I had said that, people would insist I projected my present back into my memories. Which is why you exist. You are my buffer from reality.
Character: (Stage whispers to Author.) We have, I am sure, lapsed into therapy. Can Narrator still hear us?
Author: (Stage whispers.) Yes. I would not deprive him of his superior point of view.
Character: (Aloud.) The second frightening thing, or things, was the collection of short adults with their name Munchkins, which made them sound like food. They, too, I knew were real people who, by some accident of nature, were as short as small children. Their plastic hair, gaudy clothing, and choreographed mannerisms carried no subterfuge for the audience. Again, art for art’s sake, 124 humans doctored by legions of artists. Humans used as canvas for artists. It was all art for art’s sake—for profit’s sake. Not much I have seen is crueler than that.
Author: How did you know then it was for profit’s sake?
Character: Simple. We paid to get in. The fear was that I could become other people’s canvas. Have I not since become a social canvas?
Author: Are not we all in some way canvas for others? Are we not canvas on which we paint ourselves, as I am doing through you?
Character: The third thing that frightened me was the wizard. I knew from the first the Wizard was a fake, a conman, again without a previous knowledge at my young age that people could be on the con.
Author: How did you know?
Character: The traveling salesman. Traveling salesmen, a la Willy Loman, are a canvas on which to paint America’s foibles. The salesman had to appear somewhere in the never-never, Willy Wonka, Munchkin land. Therefore he would be the Wizard. Thus, at less than ten years of age, I was left a cynic. In the movie I saw lying, pretense, cheating, and cruelty. Not in the witch, where we are told to see it, but in those who created the poisonous pink divinity candy flickering before us. For the first time that night I suffered from the human condition and have never recovered.
Author: We have failed to discuss our Northeastern Minnesota fellow traveler.
Character: you mean poor little Frances Gumm, Hollywood’s Judy. They named her, created her, owned her, used her to become richer. How many times was her canvas repainted until she collapsed under the weight of it all!
Author: Lying, pretense, cruelty.
Character: As she pranced the yellow brick road, Judy, nee Frances, developed the chronic disease called the human condition
Author: Your fictionalized projection backwards into my memory has gone far past my undependable recall of that night. I see now that the seeds of dubious truth which I planted in your character have sprouted and clarified what I knew only in inchoate form until now.
Character: With whom will you share this truth?
Author: With Narrator. (Points remote control at Narrator and clicks. Narrator remains silent. Author and Character look out towards Narrator.) If there can’t be therapy, the there can’t be pouting either. (Narrator remains silent.)
Character: Careful, Narrator. A silent narrator will cease to exist.
Author: You will just slip between the quickly-yellowing fibers of cheap Walmart typing paper.
Narrator: (Sighs.) Once you two had finished up your therapy session, you left me nothing to tell.
Author: However, as yet, we lack an ending. I am not avant grade enough to forego an ending.
Character: Narrator’s pout disqualifies him as objective. (Stagehand, a fifty-something man in rumpled janitor clothing, wanders in from stage right. He is wearing a battered old fedora tilted jauntily to the side and pushing a large dust mop with his left hand while sipping from a flat whiskey bottle with his right hand.) What if you were to introduce a fourth person to provide an objective commentary. Perhaps a seedy stagehand enters from stage right pushing dust around the floor while sipping whiskey from a flask.
Author: Inebriation just might provide objectivity. However, do I want objectivity? This isn’t Roshomon. And your idea only introduces another character of my creation, which gives only a poor pretense of objectivity. (Stagehand exits.) Pretense is that which we have been railing against.
Character: But we need an ending. I do not want to be accessory to a late Twentieth Century narrative outrage.
Narrator: (Eagerly.) Is it your decision to switch now to a third person objective voice?
Author: It is (Sighs.) an option.
Narrator: (Clears throat ostentatiously three times.) One of the character flaws of Dale Cummins . . .
Character: (Interrupts.) Basil Perkins.
(Author points remote control at Character and clicks. Character goes silent and freezes.)
Author: Ah, ha!
Narrator: That your clicker now works on him is a sure sign that therapy was committed. I will let it pass. But, Author, do not point that thing at yourself. If you go permanently silent, so will we all.
Author: (Mumbles.) Narrative hari-kari is a thought. (Aloud.) Narrator, the stage is yours, from up there in your omniscient but not objective control booth.
Narrator: (Clears throat.) One of the many offensive traits of Dale Cummins was his lack of self-censorship. A second was his demand for completion, for finality, for the cyclical return, for answers, for conclusions. He wants all his boxes to be closed, taped up tight, and stored in the back of the closet. The combination of these two traits has ruined his life and disrupted movie-going for everyone he knows.
Author: Over-statement is not allowed!
Narrator: Rewrite. (Clears throat twice.) By sharing with friends and students something he has noticed, Dale has caused a few people to be distracted when they watch movies. Movie characters, he tells them, leave doors open. House doors, apartment doors, car doors, cabinet doors, office doors. Once you start noticing this, well, then, you just keep watching the doors and not the plot line.
Author: Bathroom doors are left open for the sake of suggestive photography.
Narrator: Rewrite. (Clears throat.) Bathroom doors are left open for the camera to arouse the prurient interests of the audience. Doors, doors, doors! Once in a crowded theater in exasperation he shouted, “Shut the damn door.”
Author: Oh, but you forget that he is a coward.
Narrator: Rewrite. (Clears throat.) At a 6:00 p.m. Monday night showing of Ishtar he shouted in exasperation, “Shut the damn door.” He was the only one in the theater. Even the projectionist had stepped out to tend to another movie, which Dale knew when the film broke, leaving him to stare at a white screen in a black theater. (Pause.) What if we put one woman in the theater to hear his shout. She would shout back, “Yes, shut all the damn doors.” Dale seems such a pathetically lonely figure, lost in his cynicism . . .
Author: (Interrupts.) Now that is not objective at all!
Narrator: I do apologize. My point is that he could use a bit of a love life. (Love Interest, an attractive forty-something woman in stylish red jacket and charcoal slacks, steps in three paces from stage right.) While the film is being fixed, they could sit next to each other. After the movie they could go out for a drink. The promise of everlasting love makes a fine ending, as the fairy tales prove. It is, of course, the promise of everlasting love that works, not the execution.
Author: You are showing more depth of character than I had planned. From cold indifference in your objection to therapy to pouting to exposing a soft spot for easy romance. Romance, I am afraid, would break the narrative continuity. (Love Interest exits.)
(Furniture Movers enter carrying a matched set of high tables and stools and begin to place them around the stage. They are wearing coveralls which say on the back “The Furniture of Fiction.” Crowd of Strangers, who are dressed in bland colors, enter carrying drinks.)
Narrator: (Clears throat.) One evening Dr. Cummins sat alone among a Crowd of Strangers.
Author: Wait!. (Furniture Movers and Crowd of Strangers stand in place. Author pauses to think.) Since he carries around his Norton’s all the time, I suppose it would be only kind to grant Character his doctorate. But make it a coffeehouse. (Crowd of Strangers exit. Furniture Movers carry off the high tables and stools and return with unmatched low tables and chairs. Crowd of Strangers return with coffee cups. A few of them carry laptops. The others have Ipads or cell phones. They sit and focus their attention on the electronic devices. Author leans his head back staring up into the lights in thought.)
Narrator: Dr. Cummins sits at a table with a pen and a writing pad. (Pause. Narrator waits a few seconds before repeating his words in a demanding voice.) Dr. Cummins sits at a table with a pen and a writing pad!
Author: Oh! I do apologize. (Clicks remote control at Character. Character shakes himself and stands. Author hands Character his pen and writing pad. Character sits at the down center empty table with his back to the Crowd of Strangers. Love Interest enters from stage left carrying a book and a cup of coffee. She sits behind Character with her back to him. A Furniture Mover brings in a two-quart coffee cup and places it on Character’s table. Stagehand enters from stage right pushing his dust mop and drinking from a coffee travel mug.)
Narrator: Dr. Cummins writes, “The coffeehouse is the modern church, where the civilized world seeks courage, heart, and brains from the wizards behind the electronic curtain.”
(A Furniture Mover places a sign downstage right. At the top of the sign in bold red letters it reads “Saints, Sinners, and Cynics,” beneath which in smaller letters it reads “The Caffeinated Sanctuary.” The Crowd of Strangers all fold their hands in prayer over their electronic devices.)
Narrator: Dr. Cummins writes, “Here we share a communion of lattes and scones while never looking any of the Crowd of Strangers in the eye.”
Author: A Munchkinland.
Character: Willy Wonka’s Coffee Factory.
Narrator: From which Starbuck, the Wicked Warlock of Seattle, will never let them escape.
(Character stands and walks offstage left. We hear a loud door slam. Only Love Interest flinches from the sound. Character returns to his seat. In both hands he lifts the two-quart cup of coffee to drink. He spills some down the front of his jacket and shirt. He sputters and rises to wipe himself off with a red bandanna he takes from his back pocket. Love Interest looks over her shoulder at him. She stands, studies him for a moment, which he does not see. She walks through the tables to sit an empty table upstage right where she sits. She does not read but studies Character, who sits down and resumes writing. Stagehand exits to the right.)
Narrator: Character writes, “All the world is no longer the stage, but we are all still players. The stage has been replaced by movie and TV screens, which conceal the void behind them.”
(A Furniture Mover comes out and removes the sign. A second Furniture Mover brings out a second sign which reads in bold black letters, “Mixed Meta-Fours” beneath which is written “Cymbolic Expresso and Campuccino Simplicities.” Stagehand enters from the right and crashes cymbals together, which is followed by the Wilhelm Scream through the P.A. system. Only Character and Love Interest jump in surprise. A Furniture Mover rushes out to remove the sign. A second Furniture Mover places a new sign which reads in bold blue letters “The Bottom of the Cup” under which is written “The Grind of Life.”
Narrator: Dale returns to his writing.
(Pause. Character stares off into space. Author falls asleep.)
Narrator: (In slow and emphatic tones.) Dr. Dale Cummins writes in his note pad!
(Character looks at his notepad, looks at sleeping Author, looks out at Narrator. Love Interest stands and with her book in hand slowly winds through the Crowd of Strangers to Character.)
Character: Author is asleep. You will just have to improvise.
Narrator: Uh . .Uh . . .
Character: Just vamp, say anything.
Narrator: (Clears throat four times.) The quick white Fox commentator jumped over the fence into fiction.
(Love Interest stands beside Character.)
Narrator: Now, finally, we are getting somewhere! (The two of them mime Narrator’s words.) Love Interest says, “Thank you for closing the door. It bothers me when characters leave doors open.”
Character stands and replies, “That bothers me, too. What book are you reading?”
Love Interest hands him the book. He reads the title. “The Wonderful Wizard of Oz.
I imagine you identify with Dorothy. I identify with Toto.”
She laughs and asks, “Rather nihilistic. May I join you?”
Character pulls out the chair for her. They sit facing each other, both with an elbow on the table and chin resting in a raised hand. Love Interest says, “I assume you have seen the movie.”
Character replies, “Sometime in the first half of the decade of the 1950’s my parents took me and my two sisters to see The Wizard of Oz. I wanted it to be as early as 1952. I dare not hope 1951. I fear it may have been as late as 1955, surely not 1956. The problem was that the movie terrified me, I hope at not too old an age. It is one of my most vivid memories, in full Technicolor, as it were. Why it did, that is the question.”
(As character talks, a Furniture Mover removes the sign. A second Furniture Mover places a new sign which says in bold green “Tea and Sympathy” beneath which is reads “Come a Stranger, Leaf a Friend.” As Character talks, the curtain, which looks like the Wizard’s large curtain, slowly falls.)
©Clyde L. Birkholz 2017